Essay: More Than Eight Songs for a Mad Max

When I was studying for my BMus at the University of Aberdeen, I wrote this essay on Peter Maxwell Davies’s music. I quite like it; I hope you do as well.

Introduction

The compositions of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies have been very influenced by his feelings towards the musical establishment of the time. At university he went out of his way to learn about music that was not taught in lectures and as a younger composer he used modernism and the avant-garde to rail against the snobbery of the musical elite. As he got older and gained more renown as a composer, his musical style shifted into more universally accessible territory and from 1970 onwards he was greatly influenced by the culture of Orkney and the music of Sibelius.

Combining Medieval/Renaissance Music with Modernism/Serialism

Peter Maxwell Davies read music at Manchester University from 1952 to 1957[1], and while he was there he developed an interest in music that was not on the syllabus.[2] In his own time, he studied renaissance and medieval polyphony, for which he had a particular fascination,[3] and he also shared an enthusiasm for the new music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg with some his university classmates,[4] though many of his peers and lecturers were more dismissive of the new forms.[5] He wrote several pieces during his time at university that utilised his understanding of new music. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, Op. 1, followed the classical serial forms more closely than anything that Davies would write after it;[6] and the set of Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 2, contains polyphonic passages that indicate influence from the sonatas of Schoenberg and Boulez,[7] and its distinct rhythmic cells draw inspiration from Messiaen and Indian music.[8] Much of Davies’s familiarity with serial music, however, comes from his studies in mainland Europe and the influence of the compositions of Luigi Nono and, less directly, Berg and Mahler.[9]

Alma Redemptoris Mater, also written while Davies was at university, was the first of his published compositions to integrate material from a medieval source.[10] Paul Griffiths and other musicologists have conjectured that the work is based on a motet written by John Dunstable,[11] and David Roberts, although he regards that interpretation as too derivative,[12] has demonstrated how the oboe section from the third movement comes from the Sarum plainchant antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater.[13] The notes of the oboe line are a quotation of the pitch classes used for the word ‘Alma’ in the Sarum antiphon, with the first three pitch classes of the antiphon being restated at the end of the oboe line, as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2.[14]

Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 1 - 'Alma Redemptoris'
Figure 1. The opening of the Sarum plainchant ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’.[15]
Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 1 - Oboe part (third movement)
Figure 2. The oboe line in the third movement of Davies’s ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’.[16]
Although Roberts would disagree, Griffiths also cites the structure of Davies’s Alma Redemptoris Mater as following that of Dunstable’s motet 40 and argues that the form of the cantus firmus in Davies’s presto mirrors the duo in the motet.[17] But regardless of whether Alma Redemptoris Mater was based on Dunstable, the medieval influences are indisputably very much present in the work,[18] and in this regard it can be viewed as the precursor of other more substantial works of Davies’s early career, [19] such as the opera Taverner and the ‘motet for orchestra’ Worldes Blis, which is an avant-garde work based on an English song from the thirteenth century.[20] Davies continued to nurture his love of old and new music and a great deal of his compositional technique brings together and combines medieval chant-like melodies with post-tonal expressionism.[21]

The avant-garde (up to 1970)

Peter Maxwell Davies was from a northern working-class background and as a young man he was appalled by the backwards snobbery of the British music scene.[22] His avant-garde compositions of the 1960s were often used to ridicule the music establishment of the time.[23]

Eight Songs for a Mad King

The titular mad king in Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King is based on George III, who experienced raving fits in the years after the American Revolution.[24] It was said that George III would spend days on end at his organ teaching his birds to sing. In a parody of the ‘mad scene’ staple of opera, Eight Songs for a Mad King features the singer who plays the king running frenetically between the players – a flautist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist – who are performing from inside big plastic birdcages.[25] It is an uncomfortable work, placing the audience in the role of voyeurs and forcing them to confront their macabre fascination with the grotesque portrayal of the mentally ill.[26]

In Eight Songs for a Mad King, Davies used quotation, directly borrowing and reworking the music of other highly regarded composers,[27] in order to deride the primarily middle- and upper-class audiences.[28] The seventh song in the work, ‘Country Dance’, places Handel’s Messiah as the butt of the joke. The opening tenor recitative of Handel’s composition ‘Comfort Ye, My People’ has become a farce, with the lyrics being set against discordant musical lines.[29] There is even a direction in the midst of the opening passage that instructs the music to be sung ‘like a horse’.[30]

Peter Maxwell Davies - Book copy 2 - 'Like a Horse'
Figure 3. Excerpt from Eight Songs for a Mad King, Song Seven ‘Country Dance’, with the musical direction ‘like a horse’.[31]
This work was written for The Pierrot Players, a group of virtuoso performers that Davies had set up with his university friend, Harrison Birtwistle.[32] Being more familiar with the abilities of this small group of talented musicians allowed Davies to write music that was more challenging than would generally be expected. The vocal requirement for the King is particularly demanding, with complex gibbering and a range extending to over five octaves.[33] The percussionist, not placed in a cage, has a wide variety of instruments to play, including some unconventional ones: a digeridoo, an anvil, a scrubbing board, a football rattle and toys that make bird noises.[34]

Vesalii Icones

Another avant-garde work written for The Pierrot Players was Vesalii Icones.[35] This group of fourteen dances, each named after one of the fourteen stages of Jesus Christ on the Cross,[36] was composed in 1969, the same year as Eight Songs for a Mad King,[37] and like Mad King it uses parody and quotation to mock the musical styles of the elite.[38] But, more significantly, it also targets the insincere, sanctimonious religious practices of the Christian Church. This is clear from the offset, as the work features a naked dancer and a cellist dressed as a choirboy as the soloists.[39]

Davies has stated that he views the Victorian practice of sanitising hymns, and religious material in general, “almost the ultimate blasphemy,”[40] so Vesalli Icones contains irreverent imitations of the offending musical style. In the sixth dance of the work, entitled ‘The Mocking of Christ’, a mangled nineteenth-century hymn is played on an out-of-tune piano by the naked dancer,[41] and it contains clumsy doubling of harmonies and clunky, heavy fingering[42] that mimics an amateur player fudging the accompaniment. Meanwhile, the second number, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, includes a “sickly sweet”, sycophantic melody of feigned adoration.[43]

This subject of the betrayal of Christ runs throughout the work, and Davies borrows from some of his earlier compositions that deal with this theme: Missa Super l’Homme Armé and Ecce Manus Tardentis.[44] The former of these pieces was based on a fifteenth-century mass,[45] which, in turn had derived from the medieval song, l’Homme Armé.[46] This indicates that even Davies’s most experimental compositions were affected by his interest in early music. Portions of the earlier compositions occur in various forms throughout Vesalli Icones, and both can be heard in the eighth number, ‘St. Veronica Wipes His Face’.[47] The l’Homme Armé is played by the live instruments while a tape recording of Ecce Manus Tardentis is collaged over the top of it.[48] It seems likely that this crackly tape, which ends up taking over from the live performers, represents the fact that bad recordings cheapen the sublimity of religious music.

The final number of Vesalli Icones changes the original ending of the Passion story. In Davies’s version, it is not Christ who rises from the tomb, but an indistinguishable copy: the Antichrist.[49] Both the Antichrist figure and the foxtrot that he dances were typical features in Davies’s compositions around that time.[50] Playing with the foxtrot style gave Davies the opportunity to expose the “fake nostalgia” for the declining music genre, and he used it to symbolise hedonistic corruption in several of his other compositions, including a pair of arrangements of music by Purcell, and his popular modernist piece St. Thomas Wake.[51] The figure of the Antichrist occurs again in a few of his later operas, Resurrection and, the next work that will be discussed here, Taverner. [52]

Taverner

The opera Taverner is based on Edward Fellowes’s inaccurate account of Taverner’s life[53] in which the renaissance composer converts to Protestantism and becomes a religious zealot, denouncing all of his previous musical creations.[54] It was completed in 1970, having taken 14 years to write.[55]

Davies incorporates material from some of his earlier compositions into Taverner. The opening three-note motif of his trumpet sonata, op. 1, is employed as the first idea in Act 1 of the opera[56] and Davies even went so far as to compose two fantasias on Taverner, and a later chamber work named Seven In Nomine, which allowed him to ruminate on and experiment with the musical material that would be moulded for the full opera.[57]  These three compositions hold up as works in their own right, despite containing a lot of the same material as the opera.[58] For example, the precursor works all feature a chord with the notes D – F# – E – G#, which went on to be used in the leitmotif for the court jester who appears as a symbol of death in Taverner.[59] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chord became known as the Death Chord.[60]

In Taverner, Davies uses the full orchestra to resemble the titular character’s thought patterns,[61] perhaps implying that in renouncing all music Taverner is fighting against his own nature. Indeed, the difference between the orchestral writing in the two acts is striking. Where the orchestra was smooth and melodic in the opening of Act I, when Taverner is still a Catholic composer, the same musical material is sped up, simplified and more percussive for the start of Act II, which takes place after Taverner’s conversion to Protestantism.[62] The process of Taverner’s transition begins in the final scene of Act I, and the orchestra is used again to reflect the intensity of Taverner’s different thoughts. In particular, the orchestral accompaniment becomes very sparse in sections when Taverner doubts himself,[63] as if to show that his doubts are less fierce than his convictions.

The connection between the orchestra and Taverner’s inner thought pattern is emphasised in Act I, Scene 3. Taverner is not present so the orchestra falls silent leaving only a few viols and a lute to accompany the singers.[64] The use of period instruments here is just one of the ways Davies links his music to the era that the opera is set in. The music for this scene, which takes place at the Royal Court, combines Davies’s own harmonies with elements from dances that would have been common amongst the upper classes at the time, the pavane and the galliard.[65] Much of the music in the opera comes from reworking music written by Taverner himself. The renaissance composer’s In Nomine appears in various forms, building up to be revealed in a recognisable format at the end of the opera.[66] Even the libretto, written by Davies himself, primarily consists of spliced together quotations from diaries, sermons, biographies, court records of heresy trials, and other documents from Taverner’s time.[67]

The more classical composer (from 1970 onwards)

The year Taverner was completed, 1970, was a pivotal year for Davies with regards to his compositional process. Richard Taruskin has argued that the lukewarm reception of audiences towards his more outlandish pieces prompted Davies to turn away from the avant-garde in favour of a more classical music style,[68] positing that Davies completely cut himself off from the modernist movement in frustration because his compositions failed to shock audiences the way he intended.[69] While there is undoubtedly a general trend towards Davies becoming a more traditional composer, Taruskin’s narrative seems like an oversimplification. Both Vesalii Icones and Eight Songs for a Mad King had received mixed receptions, and while half of the audience were appalled, the other half was ecstatic.[70] Likewise, although Worldes Blis had been met with angry reviews,[71] St. Thomas Wake, which included several pastiches of foxtrots that made the work more accessible, was one of Davies’s most popular compositions at the time.[72]

What’s more, Davies did actually write some modernist music after 1970, and the trend towards a classical style seems to have been a gradual one. 1975 saw the completion of Ave Maris Stella, a considerably less pioneering piece than some of the works mentioned previously,[73] but which used a serial-like technique to ascribe each of the notes of a plainsong hymn to a number in a ‘magic square,’ which Davies then transformed into a nine-pitch series that was expanded into nine movements for this piece.[74] Similarly, his short avant-garde opera, Resurrection, was completed significantly later in 1987.[75] It features a child (played by a dummy) with an exploding head,[76] a cat that transforms into a dragon with rock music accompaniment,[77] the onstage removal of the child-mannequin’s brain, heart and genitals,[78] a staged shooting of members of the audience,[79] and the non-sequitur appearance of the Antichrist, who rises dramatically from a tomb at the close of the opera amidst a flashing disco light show.[80] This is hardly the type of production that would be expected from a man who had completely turned his back on modernism seventeen years previously. However, Warnaby suggests that Resurrection was, in fact, the point in Davies’s compositional progression where “the fractured manner of the 1960s had been exorcized.”[81]

Orkney Inspiration

1970 was also the year when Davies left his secluded cottage in Dorset and moved to an even more secluded home on the isle of Hoy in Orkney.[82] The rustic landscape and local legends and literature had a profound effect on his compositions.[83] He wrote several lyrical piano works inspired by places in and around Orkney, including Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground;[84] his Orkney Saga, based on a series of tapestries in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, utilises the twelfth-century Hymn to St Magnus;[85] and the narrative orchestral work Reel of Seven Fishermen was inspired by a George Mackay Brown poem about the dangers of the sea.[86] As well as being inspired by the Orcadian geography and culture, Davies became very involved in the local community. He was part of the group that formed the St Magnus Festival,[87] and wrote music, which often included local references, for school children and choirs to perform.[88]

This was also the point where his music really entered the public’s favour[89] and Davies received an increased number of commissions for his compositions.[90] This meant that he was being paid to write music that would appeal to a wide audience.

From Berg to Sibelius

Davies’s compositional style has been affected by his writing for specific performers. Having worked with Mary Thomas, her virtuosic vocals shine through in many of Davies’s compositions for solo soprano[91] and Alan Hacker’s primal sharpness on the clarinet can be heard in pieces like Hymnos (1967).[92] In the later portion of his career, the similarities between Davies’s and Berg’s compositions dwindled, but in its place Davies’s work grew to be closer in style to that of Sibelius, who Davies has acknowledged was an influence on his writing.[93]

The Symphonies

The influence of Sibelius can be seen in how Davies’s approach to classical structures in his symphonies has developed over time.[94] His earlier symphonies are much closer in form to classical symphonies than some of his later ones.[95] They contain distinct, if ghostly, movements.[96] The movements of the more recent symphonies blend together, one movement moving into the next, and the overall macrostructure of the work takes a larger role.[97] Placing a greater emphasis on the overall shape of the work allowed Davies to discretely introduce the material of the upcoming movement early on, and the piece is always preparing for the arrival of the next part before the previous part has properly departed.[98] This creates a ‘smudging’ effect as the movements flow into each other.[99]

This idea of the architecture of a piece was nothing new for Davies. The importance he placed on the overall form of a work can be traced back to his university days and the early piano works that he wrote during that time,[100] however his symphonies naturally demonstrate a more mature approach, and the blending technique was developed through the increased exposure to Sibelius.

Conclusion

Peter Maxwell Davies’s compositional style has always been affected by the attitudes of the contemporary music scene, whether that be to work with them or fight against them. In his early career he was a bit of a rebel, writing parodies and quotations that poked fun at the highbrow elitism prevalent in the music scene at the time. At university he had studied medieval polyphony and serial modernism of his own accord, even although the formal opinion of the time was that these styles were not important enough to be taught in detail. His interest in these genres has had a huge impact on his compositions throughout his musical career and he used his modernist, avant-garde compositional style to confront and explore the social, religious and ethical issues that he found important. As he matured as a composer he gained more of a public backing and his compositions gradually moved towards a more classical, lyrically pleasing style. The influence of composers like Sibelius became more apparent and after his move to Orkney his involvement with the local Orcadian culture was reflected in his compositional output.

Davies is a much more complex composer than might be ascertained if his most recent output were to be viewed in isolation; he has gone through the hot-headed rebellion stage and come out of it with a greater appreciation for the more classic aspects of music. Some of his earliest ideas about musical form, such as the importance of the overall architecture of a piece, have remained with him throughout his career while other compositional techniques, like using lewdness and sensationalism to provoke an audience into giving a reaction, have been left behind. That is not meant to undermine the music he produced as a younger man, much of which was extremely thoughtful and worthwhile, rather to define the transition from young revolutionary to respected classicist. The latter could not have existed without the former, and in both stages, Davies created interesting, important and aesthetically pleasing music.
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“Sale: Babby Shoe, Unweared, Not Trap”

A while ago, my friend, Calum, created a list of six-word advertisements in the style of Ernest Hemingway’s six-word Baby Shoes story. With his permission, I’ve created an illustration of my favourite of the ads, clearly written by a set of goblins and so blatantly conspicuous that it could only lure other equally-gullible goblins. I hope you like it.

Sale Babby Shoe Unweared Not Trap
“Sale: Babby Shoe. Unweared. Not trap –>” — Calum P. Cameron

Piano at the Skypark: the Local Network

I was recently invited to play the piano for an art exhibition at Skypark business centre in Glasgow! How did it happen? Well…Kirsty Morgan playing white grand piano at Skypark

If you remember, a wee while ago, I played keyboard for the Milngavie-based Henry Ford Band on their debut album, The Angry Young Man. That album’s available to listen to on Spotify, by the way, and to purchase on iTunes and Amazon music. At some point I believe there will be a CD released, although I’ve yet to hear further details about this.

Anyway, a couple of local artists, Carla Faulkner and Seana Doherty, were looking for a pianist to play a baby grand piano at the opening of their new exhibition and Geoff Foord, the Henry Ford bassist, suggested that I might be interested, and gave them my details.

Happily, I was available that evening, and since the artists were perfectly willing to give me free rein choosing the music, I felt that this was a feasible task and amazing opportunity. I selected a collection of twenty-or-so Pamela Wedgwood pieces: mostly New Age, smooth jazz background music with a few more upbeat jazzy numbers thrown in, for contrast. They are all pieces I already knew and regularly play for fun, so didn’t require too much preparation, the most difficult being Grade 6 level.

The day (Thursday 31st Jan) arrived, and I was excited. After university finished for the day, I walked along to the Skypark – and, thanks to Google Maps, I only got lost once! The foyer was beautifully decorated with Carla and Seana’s artwork, and the baby grand was lovely. Having had less experience playing grand pianos than uprights, I always find I need to adjust my playing for them. The keys on grand pianos tend to have more resistance and the sound comes from further away, making the instrument trickier to play fast and it is slightly harder for me, as the player, to hear the music in a noisy area. But the grand piano also gives a fuller sound and (as another less relevant point in its favour) is easier to record because you just have to set up microphones at the holes in the soundboard.

I played for almost the entire three hours of the exhibition, with a ten-minute break midway though to warm up away from the door (it was snowing outside!) and eat one of the delicious cupcakes that were provided. Even although I knew the pieces well, playing in a public setting is very different from playing at home. I tried to retain my concentration, but kept getting distracted by the action in the room – it’s probably just psychological, but I felt that any time a person came over to view the pictures behind me, I had to concentrate more to avoid making mistakes. There were also some little children at the event who were excited by the piano, which was adorable!

I did discover that my playing stamina has deteriorated slightly since I finished practicing for piano exams. Where before I was able to play non-stop for five hours, on Thursday only playing for three was pretty much my limit. A couple of songs before the end, I was finding my eyes were struggling to focus on the music and when I got home I fell asleep almost instantly.

That said, even although the playing was intense, it was an amazing opportunity that I really enjoyed. I’ve always fancied the idea of playing background music; I love it when there’s a pianist at restaurants, it makes me want to join in! Having now had the opportunity to try it out, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the endurance of those players; but I’d also like to play in a similar setting again at some point. The event coordinator at Skypark did ask for my details, so we’ll see if anything comes of that, I guess.

All in all, the experience was super fun and a really great night. Thanks to Carla and Seana for inviting me, and to Geoff for advocating for me in the first place. I’ll leave you with a Pam Wedgwood piece I recorded earlier. Enjoy!

Advent Calendar #2: Away in a Manger

I know I’m cheating with this one, since I recorded it several years ago, but I’m running out of time and, when questioned about what she wanted her carol to be, my sister Jenny immediately responded that she wanted Away in a Manger – both the American and British versions. She did offer an alternative when I told her I’d already created that, but here we are less than a week before Christmas, with nothing recorded, so, here you go Jenny! Your first choice.

[SnarkNotes] PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Resurrection

[First published on Snark [music] Notes on 5/01/2016]


PETER MAXWELL DAVIES: Resurrection

In Peter Maxwell’s Davies’s short avant-garde opera, Resurrection (1987), a mute child is indoctrinated by our evil modern society, with weird reprocussions.

[Prologue]

A mute child, played by a larger-than-life-sized mannequin, is being indoctrinated by various authority figures, including family, teachers, a vicar and a doctor.

My, what a terrible world we do live in(!)

Intermittent ‘alchemical dances’, in which a rock band accompanies a cat who transforms into a dragon, represent the omnipresent commercialism (rock bands, television, advertisements etc.) that we are constantly bombarded with in the modern world.

“but I WANT a cat that can turn itself into a dragon while awesome rock music plays in the background…”

The action passes between the indoctrinating authority figures and the rock-band accompanied dragon-cat.

Still struggling to see how a dragon-cat with its own rock band is a bad thing…

Eventually, the mannequin-child’s head explodes.

Oh. Well, okay then. Apparently, the awesomness of such a concept is just too much for one mannequin-child to process.
(Although, I expect Peter Maxwell Davies wants you to believe the mannequin-child went insane due to being stretched too thinly between all the different ideologies that it is expected to follow… or something.)

[Main scene]

The mannequin-child has been taken to an operating theatre to be cured of its ‘anti-social tendencies’.

I see what they did there – an opera set in an OPERAting theatre! Very good… please tell me this pun was the reason that this entire work even exists.

More stock characters attempt to fix the mannequin-child, including a capatilist, a trade-unionist, a rabbi, more Christian ministers, a politician and a gospel-preacher.

Tell me, Peter Maxwell Davies, is there anyone in a powerful role who you do trust? I mean, kudos for sticking it to the man and all but… evil indoctrinating trade-unionists?!

The new stock characters remove the mannequin-child’s brain, heart and genitals…

AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHH!!!! THAT-IS-EXTREMELY-NOT-OKAY!!!

…and replace each with a sanitised, ‘safer’ substitute.

I don’t think I even WANT to know what those would be… Okay, Peter Maxwell Davies, you’ve made your point. Now I’m scared and I want to go home.

The unhappy, now-indoctrinated mannequin-child, having been forcefully stripped of all of its individuality, rebels and guns down the operators and the audience using a machine gun.

Not a REAL machine gun, obviously… It isn’t a real machine gun, is it, Peter Maxwell Davies? ‘Cause, I mean, I’m seriously a little concerned about your mental stability at this point.

The mannequin-child disappears…

Oh, good… I think?

…and in its place the Antichrist rises theatrically from a tomb amidst a flashing disco light show!

WHAT?!!!!

End of opera.

[beat] …what.

Moral of the story: modern day commercialism is a BAD THING.

BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: avant-garde is weird.

…Now, where can I buy a dragon-cat?

Dragon-cat (3)
I drew a dragon-cat, which I guess is the next best thing to owning one.

[SnarkNotes] RICHARD WAGNER: Ring Cycle, Part 1 – Das Rheingold

[First published on my old music blog, Kirsty Morgan Music Blog on 19/5/2013; then on Snark [music] Notes on 2/11/2015]


RICHARD WAGNER: Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold

In the first part of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold (1852), the unthinking actions of a Dwarf, a God and some Giants spark events that will eventually lead to the apocalypse.

Overture: Fast, flowing cellos represent river Rhine.
Rhine maidens guard magic gold that grants ultimate power.

Why does that gold exist? Why has it not been destroyed? There’s not even been any singing yet, and it’s clear things are gonna go badly, badly wrong!!!

Alberich the dwarf wants the gold.

(TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY: Denounce love, get gold.)

Alberich denounces love in order to get gold:
“Thus I curse love”.

Nope, totally don’t see how this could possibly go wrong.

Fashions gold into a ring.

SAURON STYLE!!!

Wotan (Odin) has commissioned giants to build a huge castle (Valhalla).
He offers his wife’s sister as payment to the giants.

Wait, WHAT?!!!!!

Wotan’s wife intervenes.

Wotan, put Freia down. You cannot sell the Goddess of Love to some random Giants…

Giants still want to be paid, so Wotan then tricks Alberich into turning himself into a toad.

No, Alberich! Don’t turn yourself into a toad! Wotan’s gonna steal your…

Wotan steals Alberich’s ring.

[FACEPALM]

Understandably, Alberich is a bit miffed, so he placed a curse on the ring!

Evil Curse!!!

Curse: anyone who owns the ring will be blinded by its power!

[DOUBLE-FACEPALM]

Wotan gives ring to giants.

Wotan? What are you doing? WOTAN! STAHP!!!

Giants fight over ring, one dies.

Well done, Wotan. Well done.
[SPOILER WARNING: You’ve just triggered the apocalypse]

Moral of the story: greed and power-hungriness are bad.

BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: Never hang around with Norse Gods.
Or Giants.
Or Dwarves…

Never Meet Your Heroes; You’ll Only Disappoint Them

Earlier this month, I was in Edinburgh to review Company Wayne MacGregor’s production, Autobiography, for Bachtrack. This post isn’t about that. Rather, it’s about an incident that took place earlier that day, where I, by chance, got the opportunity to meet my favourite living children’s author, Theresa Breslin, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

A little backstory. I’ve loved Theresa Breslin’s books since I was in primary school. I enjoyed the Dream Master series because it reminded me of E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Edgar Eager. Her book Remembrance taught me about pacifism during the First World War. I learned about how awful dyslexia was for children in the past from Whispers In the Graveyard. And, although Marcus Sedgewick is a writer I also enjoy, I’m still slightly disappointed that the Booktrust Teenage Prize opted for his book, My Swordhand Is Singing, over Breslin’s The Medici Seal…

(although, at least the Booktrust had the decency to choose a more than halfway decent book as its winner, unlike SOME competitions I could name *cough*Carnegie*cough*…seriously, Just In Case was the actual worst.)

My point is I’ve been a Theresa Breslin fan for a while, so when, a couple of years ago, I saw that she was signing books at the Edinburgh Book Festival on a day that I happened to be there, you’d have thought I’d jump at the opportunity to meet her and get a book signed. And, I almost did, I swear… but I chickened out. It felt too weird for a 20-odd year old to be standing in line alongside a bunch of kids to get a book signed by a children’s author.

And then I forever felt bad about not having met Theresa Breslin when I had the chance. I was even lamenting about it to one of my work colleagues less than a month ago.

But then, earlier this month, I was in Edinburgh for a Bachtrack review, and I had time to burn. So my best friend Calum and I went to the book festival, where Theresa Breslin, coincidentally, was signing books again. Would you hate me if I told you I almost chickened out a second time? I am, undoubtedly, my own worst enemy.

But I didn’t chicken out, because Calum was there and he convinced me to go through with it. I was still a little nervous, but I bought a copy of Spy for the Queen of Scots and waited in a fairly short line.

And, unsurprisingly, Theresa Breslin was super nice. She asked whether I’d been at the talk that she and Holly Webb had given earlier that day… which I hadn’t. I managed to babble something about just having seen she was signing books and that I’d really liked her when I was wee. I didn’t say that she was still one of my favourite authors and that the last time I read one of her books was this year. That would have been weird.

Spy For the Queen of Scots - dedicated page2 (3)
Look at the pretty title page!

The meeting was a blur. She signed and dedicated the book to me, and then it was over. I was in a slight state of shock for about fifteen minutes after the signing and I kept asking Calum whether it had gone okay and checking I hadn’t made a fool of myself. I think it’s the most fan-girly I’ve ever been in my entire life. (Oh my gosh, what would happen if I, in some weird turn of unlikely events, were to meet Julie Andrews?! Would I faint? Or cry? Or cry and then faint?!)

All things considered, although I was nervous, it could have gone a lot worse. And now I have a book signed by Theresa Breslin, which I am extremely ecstatic about! I’ve even wrapped the book in some laminate casing to keep it nice. And it was an awesome extra add-on to a fun day out with my friend and then a not-so-fun dance show in the evening. And two out of three ain’t bad – I count that as a really good day!

Piano Day… Apparently, it’s a Thing!

So, I just learned that today is the 88th day of the year, which can only mean one thing… today is Piano Day! Celebratory glissandi all round!

In all seriousness, though, I’d never heard of the day until I saw it mentioned on the ABRSM Facebook page. Doesn’t surprise me that it exists, though. If earlier this month we observed Pi Day and in May we’ll get to celebrate Star Wars Day, then why not have a Piano Day on equally tenuous grounds? There are 88 keys on a standard piano, Piano Day falls on the 88th day of the year; it’s not like we were using the 29th of March for any OTHER purposes

Besides, it gives me a good excuse for talking about a super cool and exciting piano-related thing that is going on in my life at the moment.

I’ve been working as a Cultural Assistant in museums and libraries in East Dunbartonshire since September. It was while I was on my first shift at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie about a month ago that I met a lovely creative gentleman named Geoff Foord, who is a member of the Milngavie Art Club. More pertinently to this story, he is also a musician in a band, the Henry Ford Band, that he recently created with his friend, John Hendry.

We were small-talking at the front desk, and I mentioned that I play the piano. It was lovely to have a nice conversation on what was otherwise a fairly quiet weekday, but I didn’t expect anything grand to come of it.

Imagine my pleased surprise when, a few days ago, I received a very courteous email from Geoff, asking me whether I would like to play the piano to accompany the band on a few tracks of an album that they are recording! This isn’t like anything I have ever done before. Sure, I’ve accompanied live singing, both privately with friends for fun and more formally while at university, and I’ve recorded piano videos for YouTube using my phone, but to get the opportunity to play in a real recording studio for an established band would be a super amazing experience and, while undoubtedly will require work to make a good job of it, I expect it will also be a lot of fun.

Having talked to Geoff yesterday, it also transpires that, rather than being given sheet music to play from as I would have been used to, I will be given track demos to listen to and, with creative input from the band proper, will arrange an accompaniment around that. This will be a completely new playing adventure for me, but I think, also, it will be a very valuable experience and useful skill to learn and practise.

It’s still in the early stages, with regards to my participation, but I am really excited about this wonderful opportunity that has been offered to me. Provided everything goes well, and they like what I do, this will be great fun and really cool. I’m totally psyched!

If you like, you can have a wee listen to my current favourite song of theirs. I think it has a kind of Razorbills quality, which I really like:

The Henry Ford Band – Diet

Vikingdom Coming

Last weekend my parents and I attended Largs’s annual Viking Festival. The weather was fantastically sunny, the best they’d had all week, and I want to tell you about this really fun day.

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Arkansas Ramblers

We woke unreasonably early, about half past nine in the morning (the horror!), and drove for an hour and a half to arrive in time to see my mother’s friends from work performing on the music stage. These friends were members of the recently established, Glasgow-based band the Arkansas Ramblers, a group of ten musicians who perform Old Time Americana, Country and Bluegrass music. I really enjoyed the performance; there was a nice mixture of older music, such as the pro-unionist, Civil-War tune ‘Kingdom Coming’ to more recent compositions like ‘Ashokan Farewell’, which was written in 1982 but still fit the overall tone with its mellow traditional sound.

The stand-out section for me was the fantastic duet, ‘Tennessee Waltz’, between Bernadette Collier and Sandy Semeonoff. The harmonies during the chorus are spine-tinglingly rustic, with Collier taking the tune while Semeonoff offers a simple tenor accompaniment that hangs very close to the melody and makes heavy use of third and sixth intervals. The sound is very characteristic of the genre and the voices blend together splendidly. It was fantastic.

It wasn’t even entirely out of place to have traditional American music playing at a Viking festival. After all, the Vikings reached the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus was born – and towards the end Bill Macaulay, the founder of the group, had even donned a knitted Viking helmet!

After the performance was over, I explored the rest of the festival. There were myriad stalls selling a variety of crafts, lotions, foods, and souvenirs. There were also several fairground attractions, but more fun, for me, was the Viking Village.

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Doctor’s manual (made from vellum). Also plastic amputations, because medicine was horrible back then.

The Viking Village was like an outdoor museum, with wicker huts, old-fashioned stalls, and experts dressed in old Norse outfits who were eager to tell you about their specific roles in the village. There was a fletcher making arrows, a doctor who told us about ancient Norse medicine, a couple of metal workers using traditional Norse tools to shape souvenir coins, and a variety of traders selling furs, bracelets, candles and (harmless) weapons. The candle seller talked about how the keepers of bees were particularly well regarded in old Norse society – they would make mead from the honey, which pleased the locals, and the leftover beeswax would be donated to the churches and made into candles. Meanwhile, the book crafter was showing some children the animal-skin vellum that was used for paper and the children took turns trying (and failing) to rip the tough material.

I got my runes read by a very nice rune reader. She had a bag of tokens and I picked one blind. I drew the “prosperity” token, which looked like a wonky F. Although somewhat fitting given I start my new job tomorrow, I imagine all of the other tokens would have been equally vaguely relevant, too. It was still fun and interesting to experience the ancient Norse superstition, although at the same time it did feel a little uncomfortably New Age-y. That said, I did receive a pretty card and got to keep the token, which was a nice souvenir.

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My favourite hut was the one with the Norse musical instruments. It was really great to see so many ancient instruments; there was an ancient Norse lyre, some ancient panpipes, a type of drum called a bodhrán (which is technically Irish, but oh well), and a bukkehorn made from an animal horn. The man in the hut was playing a tiny harp called a clarsach, which is mainly associated with Celtic origins, but was also played by the Norse people. It was a pretty tune – I didn’t recognise it, but it was soft and atmospheric. I liked it.
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After the Viking Village, my parents and I went to an ice-cream parlour on the beach and had gigantic sundaes. I could only eat about a quarter of my Marshmallow Heaven – vanilla and raspberry ice-cream, with a mountain of cream, and marshmallows, and several wafers, and marshmallow sauce! It was amazing, but it was also huge.

Later that evening, we also got a traditional fish and chip supper (although mine was a smoked sausage, because fish in batter is gross). We were staying out late in order to attend the Festival of Fire, but the restaurant was so understaffed, it took forty minutes for the food to come. It was a bit nerve-wracking – I was worried we’d miss the parade! Luckily, crisis was averted and we arrived just as the parade was starting.

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There were all sorts of characters wandering around, but by far the best costume goes to this guy, who had a clockpunk metal dragon draped around his neck!

The Festival of Fire, was pretty rad; the parade gave everyone who had dressed up the opportunity to show off their amazing costumes. I particularly enjoyed the burly man who, trying to get past a huge crowd of bystanders, called out, “I have an axe, and I’m not afraid to use it!”

I was sceptical that it would get dark in time for the fire in the Festival of Fire to really make an impact, but pleasingly I was proved wrong. As we followed the burning torches through the stalls, and anachronistically through the funfair, the evening light dimmed into nighttime darkness.

We reached the sea, where a Viking longboat was set aflame. It was spectacular, but there were so many people it was difficult to get a good view. Even harder to see, though, was the short re-enactment battle. I didn’t especially mind; there were a lot of children, and it made sense to let them get the better view. My parents and I (along with a lot of other people) were up on a nearby hill where it was a bit dark to see the fighting, but the fantastic fire dancer who followed was very visible. He spun the flames around him in loops and juggled burning torches to the accompanying theatrical Norse music.

The evening ended with a pretty impressive fireworks display. I’ve never been so close to fireworks – it was like they were exploding directly above me! It was very loud, and I had to cover my ears for most of it, but the cost/benefit of the proximity still ultimately landed on the good side!

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day, and driving home listening to the CD of Icelandic singer, Hafdís Huld, was an appropriate end to a lovely Nordic-inspired experience.

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Burn, boaty, burn (Viking Inferno!)