Archive for December, 2009

God Bless the Child

Posted in Jazz with tags , on December 29, 2009 by telescoper

I just came across this amazing performance and thought I’d share it with you. In fact I’ve been meaning to post something by the great Eric Dolphy for some time, and finding this reminded me to do so. I think Eric Dolphy was one of the true geniuses of Jazz, in that his sound and way of playing were completely unique. Like all the other great Jazz musicians you only have to hear a few notes to know that it was him. He was at home in diverse settings, and played with many of the greatest modern musicians – Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to name but a few – but he always seemed to be able to impose his own musical personality whoever he was playing with. He’s also one of those characters that Jazz historians find difficult to categorize. Although he came to the fore in the late 50s and early 60s he didn’t really sound like anyone else of that period. In particular, his music wasn’t really free jazz, although he did play on many classic records in that idiom, so he doesn’t fit comfortably in the neat evolutionary sequences that historians like to construct.

He also died very young, just after his 36th birthday. He was on tour in Germany in 1964 when he collapsed onstage and was taken to hospital. Since he was a Jazz musician, the doctors thought that he had overdosed on drugs and left him on a saline drip to recover. They had no idea that in fact he was diabetic. He had probably become confused by the concentration and dosage instructions on the insulin he acquired while in Germany with the result that his blood sugar levels had become messed up. Simple treatment would have saved his life, but he died in hospital on June 29th 1964.

Eric Dolphy’s was  a virtuoso on many instruments, including saxophones (especially alto) and flute, but I found this one of him playing the bass clarinet unaccompanied. The tune, God Bless the Child, was co-written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzong Junior and is probably best known for Billie’s version which you can find here.  The Eric Dolphy version here was recorded in Germany, possibly during his last tour. I think it’s amazing. 

A Compression of Distances

Posted in Biographical, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 28, 2009 by telescoper

I’m back in Cardiff after a few days of yuletide indulgence in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. And very nice it was too, although my mass has increased as a consequence. We didn’t do much except eat and drink, although we did manage a scenic drive on Boxing Day through the beautiful Northumberland countryside, even more beautiful than usual because of the covering of snow that fell heavily before Christmas and never got round to melting.

Last year I did the round trip from Cardiff to Newcastle by train, which is quite a lengthy ordeal, but this year the powers that be have decided to close the main railway line from South Wales into England (via Bristol) because of engineering work. Route B, via Cheltenham and Birmingham, was also closed, so the only way to do the journey by train would have been via Manchester, a trip of around 8 hours each way. It wasn’t a very difficult decision therefore to abandon the railways this year and fly, which turned out to be remarkably painless. Although we landed in snow at Newcastle the planes both ways were on time and, with a flying time of less than an hour, I had much more time for sloth and gluttony.

Just before I left for my short break a book sent from Cinnamon Press popped through my letterbox. I occasionally post bits of poetry on here, and if there’s any doubt about copyright I always check with the publisher before putting them online. I had a nice exchange of emails with this particular publisher as a result of which they sent me a collection of poems they thought I might like to feature. This one is called A Compression of Distances and it’s by a poet quite new to me, Daphne Gloag.

Poetry books are ideal for reading on short trips on train or plane. They’re usually slim so they are easy to carry and you can read them one poem at a time in between pesky interruptions, such as take-off and landing. I didn’t have time to read this one before leaving so I put it in my pocket and took it with me. Given the changed mode of travel this year, the title seemed quite appropriate for this journey!

Anyway, it’s a very interesting collection altogether but there are a few poems at the end, taken from a  much longer collection called Beginnings, which seem to me to be the most appropriate to put on here. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments  on the jacket by John Latham

Her poems are remarkable, especially in the way she has successfully taken complex concepts in modern science – particularly cosmology – and integrated them successfully and seamlessly into poems which speak of the human condition in an effective and moving manner.

I have to say that it is a difficult task to combine modern physics with poetry. Often, attempts to do this either completely trivialise the scientific content or become tiresomely didactic. I think these poems get it just right. What Daphne Gloag does is to juxtapose  ideas from comtemporary cosmology (inflation, dark matter, etc) with diverse aspects of human experience. The parallels are often very moving as well as ingeneous. The poems are also preceded by brief explanations of the physics. Here is one of the best examples.

The children’s charity concert:
matter and antimatter

Particles and antiparticles are interchangeable, but just after the big bang the process whereby they kept annihilating each other ended by producing very slightly more matter than antimatter, making the universe possible.

Arriving at the church for the children’s charity concert
we remembered the words of Richard Feynman:
Created and annihilated,
created and annihilated –
what a waste of time.

He was speaking of those particles and antiparticles
at the beginning of time
annihilated in explosions of light.

In the church the children were playing
for the refugees of Kosovo;
our granddaughter’s long hair shone
like the sheen of her violin.
She did not know
she was a child of that hair’s breadth victory
of particles over antiparticles
in the early universe: annihilation
for all but a few, a final imbalance
just enough for making galaxies and worlds
and at that end of time
those children and the making of their years.

They played Bach and Twinkle twinkle little star,
not knowing what a star is
or the violence of stars,
not knowing they were perfected children
of the violent universe,
not knowing the years piled up on the scrap heaps
of that country they’d raised money for…
the man with his ear sawn off slowly
and fed to a dog like offal, the girl
with her legs torn off, her family machine gunned,
blown into darkness.

So many annihilations of perfected years.
But also those children in their panache of light.

You can order a copy of A Compression of Distances by Daphne Gloag directly from the publisher.

Bring me Sunshine

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 24, 2009 by telescoper

If all goes to plan I’ll be in Newcastle with my folks when this  post hits the wordpress. This one comes to you courtesy of the autoschedule feature which I’ve never used before. I hope it works!

It’s been a pretty grim year for many people I know  for many reasons but, although I’m very angry about the mess being made by people in authority, I’m still determined to have a good time during this holiday. If you let them get to you then the bastards have won. That’s a lesson I learned earlier this year, in fact.

So I’m going to wish you all the merriest possible Christmas and the happiest imagineable New Year by putting up a clip that’s associated in my memory with this season even more strongly than Handel’s Messiah. The event on Christmas Day for me when I was younger was always the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, which in 1977 attracted 27 million viewers (half the UK population of the time).This is their signature tune, which I hope will bring a smile to your face along with the happy memories.

Merry Christmas!

Another kick in the teeth…

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , on December 23, 2009 by telescoper

I shall  attempt to beat the weather tomorrow and fly up to the North-East for Christmas break. This blog will therefore be offline for a few days (if I succeed in getting airborne). I wish I had a bit of good news to post before the holiday, but I’m afraid there’s even more bad news. Yesterday, Lord Mandelson (yes,  another unelected member of the government) has written to the Chairman  of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) outlining their budget for 2010-11.

The letter confirms £180 million in efficiency savings from the 2009 Budget and an £83 million deduction following last year’s grant letter. On top of those there’s another cut of £135 million ““the higher than expected costs of student support during the economic downturn”. Of this cut, £84 million will be switched from capital baselines, leaving a £51 million cut in teaching grant.  The letter says these savings should be delivered “in ways that minimise impact on teaching and students”, but doesn’t say who should bear the maximum impact. It also says “greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs will need to be combined with a commitment to protect quality and access”. In other words, all we have to do is supply a high-quality service at bargain-basement prices. Easy.

The research element of the funding is held roughly constant (at the obvious expense of teaching): “we have agreed to switch £84 million from your capital baselines, so that the reductions to the teaching grant can be held to £51 million.” Although the research funding is maintained in level, Mandelson says “securing greater economic and social impact will be important over the next year”. Not thinking in the short term, then. Next year will do.

The letter also asks HEFCE to develop proposals on:

  • Creating a more diverse higher education landscape, by increasing the range of alternatives to the full-time three year degree;
  • Maximising the impact that higher education makes to the economy by supporting the programmes with highest economic and social value;
  • Supporting research concentration to underpin our world class ranking, while continuing to support excellence in research;
  • Developing a standard set of information about higher education, so that all students can exercise informed choice about courses and institutions.

What these points really mean is:

  • Realising that slashing student support and increasing fees is going to deter many students from doing a degree, Mandy wants us to make up for it by offering more part-time degrees so students can work full-time as well as studying. Bad news for laboratory-based subjects.
  • Impact again. I’ve explained what that means already
  • In the letter, Mandelson makes clear the “Government’s presumption in favour of more, rather than less, research concentration”. Apparently they don’t care about doing the best research possible, just doing it in a smaller number of places. Idiotic. More worryingly still, Mandelson asks HEFCE to suggest how to achieve this in the 2010-11 allocations. In other words he wants HEFCE to tweak the funding  allocations arising from the 2008 RAE even further to stamp out excellence that isn’t sufficiently “concentrated”.
  • One size clearly fits all in Mandy’s Discount House of Higher Education.

Finally, Mandelson leaves us with the following message of goodwill

Over the next year, moving towards a sustainable position on pensions within the sector will be a key challenge

In other words, “I’m after your pensions too….”

Merry Christmas, Lord Mandelson. It’s a good job you’ll be out on your ear after the next election. But then I assume you’ve got a nice fat pension stashed away already.

The Miracle of Bach

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 22, 2009 by telescoper

The discussion after yesterday’s post prompted me to put this online. It’s a stunning performance that I heard a while ago but have been saving up for a special occasion. It’s the aria Erbarme dich, Mein Gott (“Have mercy, my God”) from the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a bit invidious to pick bits from this monumental work, which takes over three hours to perform but I wanted to post this particular excerpt here for the benefit of those people who find Bach’s music dry and academic. If you can find any piece of music in any idiom as emotionally expressive as this, then I’d love to hear it.

The aria is set for a countertenor playing the part of Peter, and it conveys his feelings of shame and remorse after having betrayed Jesus. Nowadays it is often sung by a female singer in the mezzo soprano or contralto range and it works pretty well done like that too. The point is that feelings such as this are universal. We all – men and women, christian and non-christian – come to know what it is to feel like this, just as we all come to know about pain and death. It’s the fact that we all know that we will die that gives the story of the Passion it’s tragic power.

The structure of the piece is quite simple, in fact, consisting of a repeating  figure of a rising minor 6th interval  followed by a descending minor 3rd. This is a hook used in a lot of tunes, especially Jazz standards. The idea is to start below the tonic and then jump above it, later relaxing down onto it. Most tunes then move on somewhere else after this motif but, Bach rests there to build tension through an unresolved expectation of movement.  In the clip below the (Hungarian) singer Julia Hamari spends a full 4 seconds on that tonic note (the sustained B at 1:10-1:15). While she holds it, you can hear the tonal centre gradually shift from the root chord (Bm) to the subdominant (Em) through the cellos’ 3-chord progression G-B7-Em, in a cadence produced by adding only a single note, each time, to the sustained B: first G (to create the major triad GB below the root), then F# (for the B7 sound, ie, the V-th of the Em), and then E for the resolution. It’s so simple, only a genius could make it work.

The rhythm is interesting too. The time signature is 12/8, which is what is used in many slow blues compositions. Bach arranges the 12 notes in each bar runs of triplets that go down the natural minor scale of B. Hamari sustains that B over 9 beats: GGG-F#F#F#-EEE. This is like the walking bass lines used in jazz, but this one is relentlessly descending adding to the atmosphere of sadness and contrition.

This aria has all the hallmarks of Bach’s great work.  A beautifully memorable melody and an interesting harmonic progression form the foundations. Add to that the tragic, weeping sound of the bowed strings in the orchestra, the plucked cello notes symbolising Peter’s tears,  and the solo obbligato that Yehudi Menuin referred to as the most beautiful music ever written for the violin. Even then you don’t get the full picture, because this is so much greater than the sum of its (admittedly great) parts. What makes it so wonderful is how Bach captures the feeling of guilt and remorse so naturally. It’s not overwrought and we don’t feel manipulated. Even the extensive repetition of the phrase Erbarme dich feels so genuine. What more can be said?

Perhaps just one more thing. I think Julia Hamari’s performance of this piece is sensational. Watching her it’s difficult not to form the impression that she is completely at one with the music and the feelings that it expresses. She looks like she’s in a trance, acting as a vehicle for music that’s coming from some other place entirely. But where? I often feel this way watching great Jazz improvisers, finding it hard to rid myself of the notion that somehow the instrument is playing them rather than the other way around. I’m not a religious man, but music like this is, to me, nothing short of miraculous.

PS. Remembering that this is meant to be an astronomy blog, I’ll add that scientist and author Lewis Thomas once suggested how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe:

I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

For unto us a child is born

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2009 by telescoper

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year you will now that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, the great composer who was born in what is now Germany but who moved to London in 1712 and became an adopted Englishman, taking up Britisch citizenship in 1727. BBC Radio 3 has been celebrating all year, and I’ve heard lots of Handel’s prolific output for the first time thanks to them. I am a bit ashamed that I have put any Handel on here so far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t like his music – far from it, in fact – he’s so good that I can even put up with the harpsichords. Sometimes. I guess it’s just that I never got around to it and wasn’t sure what to pick.

Anyway, it’s time to correct this error of omission. This is an appropriate time of year, in fact. Like many brought up in England (or Wales), one of the essential rituals of Christmas time is listening to Messiah. This is a little strange because it was originally intended to be performed at Easter. Another strange tradition is that everyone (orchestra, choir and audience) stands during the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that this is because King George II stood when he heard it and, following Royal protocol, everyone else had to stand too. For some reason, over two hundred years later it still happens. It’s just one of those things that stuck.

However, after much thought, I decided not to use the Hallelujah Chorus here, but not because I don’t like it. It’s a thrilling piece and full of nostalgia for me too. The reason is that for many people it’s all they ever hear, and there’s a lot more to Messiah than that. So I’ve gone for another piece, which suits the season especially well and also exemplifies Handel’s gift for vocal and orchestral writing. This sprightly and engaging version was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

My compliments of the season!

The Known Universe

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags on December 20, 2009 by telescoper

It’s the last Sunday before Christmas and it’s still very cold here in Cardiff, although so far at least we’ve escaped the snow. I’ve been putting my feet up, watching the football (Newcastle 2 Middlesborough 0) and doing the Christmas crosswords in the newspapers and magazines (haven’t finished Azed yet, it’s a toughie). Anyway, I don’t want to let this self-indulgence stop me from posting something so how about this marvellous little video produced by the American Museum of Natural History. It’s already been posted on a few other blogs, but hopefully a few of you won’t have seen it. Enjoy!