Archive for the Music Category

Swinging on the Säckpipa

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on November 27, 2020 by telescoper

And now for something completely different.

This is Swedish musician Gunhild Carling out front of a swinging big band on the open-air stage at Central Park, New York, tearing it up on the bagpipes*.

You’re welcome.



(*to  be precise these are a kind of traditional Swedish bagpipes known as the säckpipa).


A Prima Ballerina

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , on November 10, 2020 by telescoper

It’s just over a year since my Mam passed away after several years of struggle with dementia. It seems like a century since I flew back to Newcastle to attend her funeral, so much has happened in the world since then. I got through the sad anniversary reasonably well until this morning I came across this video, which had me in pieces. It’s of a lady by the name of Marta C Gonzalez, a former ballet dancer, who passed away last year; the film was made at her care home in Valencia. A care worker plays her music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and briefly she is a prima ballerina once more; the film is intercut with footage of herself dancing on stage in New York in the 1960s. It’s unbearably moving, bringing together the awful tragedy of dementia with the power of music if not to heal but at least to provide some measure of respite. Even when almost all is gone, music seems to remain in the deepest part of our being alongside our most cherished memories which it can bring back to life, if only briefly, before the darkness comes.

How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, by Glenn Gould

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 26, 2020 by telescoper

I’m not sure how many readers will agree with Glenn Gould’s analysis of Mozart’s piano compositions, especially his later ones, but I think it’s well worth watching and listening to, not least because the presenter is obviously relishing the opportunity to say what he really thinks in the full knowledge that in the process he is winding up a great many of his audience! It’s also interesting how he delivers his pieces to camera: it doesn’t look like he’s using an autocue but he’s a very precise and coherent speaker.

Culture Night 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music on September 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening was Culture Night 2020. I’m afraid the only event I was able to enjoy was the concert from the National Concert Hall by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gavin Maloney that consisted of:

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto K.622 in A Major
John Finucane (clarinet)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 Op.90 in A Major (Italian)

Here is the concert as it appeared on the live stream.

The bright and breezy Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn was a welcome tonic at the end of yet another exhausting and stressful week.

On Culture Night last year I was actually in the National Concert Hall after spending a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around Dublin. Yesterday however it was announced that after a surge in Covid-19 cases in the capital additional restrictions would be imposed there. What a difference a year makes! On Culture Night 2019 nobody had even heard of Covid-19.

Because many of our students come from the West Dublin area it has been decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘ at Maynooth University. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures is 30. That means we have to revise our teaching plans yet again with just a week to go before the students arrive on campus, though I think for Theoretical Physics it really only changes the second-year modules. That is unless there are further restrictions, which is not unlikely.

Another exhausting and stressful week beckons!

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

R.I.P. Gary Peacock (1935-2020)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on September 8, 2020 by telescoper

I heard on Saturday via social media that the great bass player Gary Peacock had passed away on 4th September, only to see other posts claiming that the rumours of his death were a hoax. I was relieved about that but then it turns out that the hoax reports were themselves a hoax and Gary Peacock had indeed died. He was 85 years old.

Gary Peacock is probably best known for his work with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Jack DeJohnette but as a tribute I thought I would post an example of his earlier work with Albert Ayler. I think the album Spiritual Unity with Gary Peacock on bass and Sonny Murray on drums is one of the highlights of 1960s free jazz.

This tune, the shorter of two versions on Spiritual Unity of an original composition by Albert Ayler called Ghosts, is a great example how he could make coherent what at first hearing sounds like disassociated bursts of sound. It involves remarkable improvised melodies based on short thematic lines designed to evoke unsophisticated  folk music or nursery tunes. It may sound primitive on the surface, but it’s very complex underneath and creating this extraordinary sound world clearly required great technical mastery from Ayler and his supporting musicians, especially Gary Peacock, who plays wonderfully on this track.

Rest in peace, Gary Peacock (1935-2020)


Bird 100: Kim

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

Still going with posts to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Charlie Parker, aka Bird, a musical genius on the saxophone whose influence not only on jazz but on twentieth century music is incalculable. I’ve posted quite a few tracks by Bird over the years and one thing I’ve learned from doing that is that he’s by no means everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t do anything about that, of course, but I can at least point out the existence of his wonderful legacy to those (regrettably many) people who’ve never heard of him or his music I still remember the mixture of astonishment and exhilaration I felt when I first heard him on record and if I can give that sense of joy to just one person via the blogosphere then it’s worth a hundred posts.

Here’s Kim, another one of Bird’s tunes based on the rhythm changes, with an alto sax solo improvised at breakneck speed and with incredible virtuosity. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who only has a passing interest in jazz and he asked me whether Charlie Parker really was that good. Well, if you’re asking that question to yourself, listen to this and then you’ll have the answer. As far as I’m concerned this is three minutes of pure awesome….

Bird 100: Now’s The Time

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

The next item in my homage to Charlie Parker on the occasion of the centenary of his birth is one of his variations on the blues in F, called Now’s the Time. It’s definitely one of the bluesiest of Bird’s blues, and indeed it’s quite close to the usual 12-bar chord progression:

| F7| F7| F7 |F7 | B♭7| B♭7| F7| F 7|C7| B♭7| F7| F7|

In fact this goes something like

F7|B♭7|F7|Cm7 F7|B♭7|B♭7|

F7 D7#9| Gm7|C7|F7 D7|Gm7 F7|

Bird 100: Bloomdido

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

Here is another bit of music to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”) on 29th August 1920.


I’ve written quite a few posts relating to Charlie Parker over the years but today has provided a good excuse to spend my lunchtime writing another one, this time featuring one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums. First released in 1952 but in fact recorded in two separate sessions in 1949 and 1950, the album Bird and Diz was actually the last studio album made under the joint leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two main architects of the bebop revolution; the track I’ve picked has the added advantage of featuring another great musical genius on piano, Thelonious Monk.

The Charlie Parker composition Bloomdido is yet another of his variations on the blues, though this one is a bit less intricate than some of the others he wrote. Here are the chords for Bloomdido:


You can see that the progression is based around the standard three chords of a blues in B♭. The foundation is a “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, in this case B♭. This sometimes a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or, as in this example, including the dominant 7th so it’s B♭7. The next chord is the subdominant chord (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, in this case an E♭7 and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note, in this case F7.

The basic blues sequence in B♭ would be four bars of B♭7 (T), two of E♭7 (S), back to B♭7 (T) for two, then the characteristic bluesy cadence returning to two bars of B♭7 (T) via one bar each of F7 (D) and E♭7 (S). The sequence for Bloomdido has a few alterations, including a characteristic turnaround at the end, but is otherwise fairly recognizable. I guess the first part of the title is a play on the blues origin too, though I wonder if the second part suggests that some of the alterations are inspired by the A-section of the Juan Tizol standard Perdido?

Some people tell me they find Charlie Parker’s music “too technical” and that somehow if music “needs to be explained” it’s not good music. I don’t understand that attitude at all. I find this music so fascinating and exciting to listen to that I want to try to dig a little bit into it and find out what’s going underneath the surface. It’s particularly striking what a difference a few substitutions and passing chords can make to the overall harmonic “feel” of a piece like this compared to a standard blues sequence, for example. But you don’t need to study the chords to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music that Charlie Parker built on these harmonic foundations; his solo on this track, as on so many others he recorded in his short life, is just sublime even if you don’t realise how hard it is to play! I guess it all depends whether your way of enjoying a thing is to sit back and let it wash over you, or for it to inspire you to find out more. Many of the physicists I know are deeply interested in music. Perhaps that’s because they’re the sort of people who don’t just think “wow that’s beautiful”, they tend to think “wow that’s beautiful – how does it work?”.

Charlie Parker and Albert Einstein died in the same year, just over a month apart, the former in March 1955 and the latter in April. They were two very different geniuses but it’s as difficult to imagine physics without Einstein as jazz without Bird.

Bird 100: Bird’s Nest

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by telescoper

Here’s another track to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the great Charlie Parker.

When I was at school most of my friends seemed to be into heavy metal, which I found completely tedious, so while they were out buying LPs by Hawkwind or Iron Maiden I was acquiring a secret collection of classic jazz records. Among my most prized purchases was a boxed set of six vinyl discs entitled The Legendary Dial Masters; they’re now available on CD, of course. I listened to these records over and over again and can easily understand why they’re regarded as some of the greatest musical performances of the twentieth century, not only in Jazz but in all music.

There’s a curious story about the Dial sessions, in that they took place in Hollywood California as part of an “exclusive” one-year contract (signed in 1946) between Dial records and Charlie Parker, who just happened to have signed another exclusive contract with the Savoy label based in New York. By this time in his life, Parker was already seriously addicted to heroin and this example of duplicity is consistent with other aspects of his behaviour: he regularly cheated and scrounged off friends and strangers in order to feed his habit and probably gave relatively little thought to the consequences of being found out. In this case, the clear breach of contract was pretty quickly rumbled, which could have led to a lawsuit, but it seems to have been settled amicably by the record labels, who agreed that both sets of recordings could be made commercially available.

It would take scores of blog posts to do justice to these great tracks, so I’ll just make a few comments now. First thing to mention is that the LPs forming the boxed set don’t just include the final versions as released, but usually a number of incomplete or discarded takes. At the session in question, recorded on February 19th 1947, there are 13 takes in all for just four tunes. It’s fascinating listening to these alternative versions (which are often, in my view, just as good if not better than the “final” version), not least because they demonstrate the wonderful spontaneity of Charlie Parker’s playing. They also have an experimental feel to them. The track I heard last night, Bird’s Nest, is, on one level, yet another bebop composition based on the chord changes of the George Gershwin standard “I got rhythm”, but what’s very special about it is just how free his improvisation is, both rhythmically and harmonically. It is, of course, well known that Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Bird” (originally Yardbird), and this track in particularly demonstrates that his playing really was very like birdsong – agile, quirky and above all intensely beautiful. The main difference is that most birdsong is actually atonal, which Bird’s music was not.

Another thing worth mentioning about this track is the identity of the piano player. When I heard it last night it triggered a vague memory that Errol Garner made some records with Charlie Parker. Was this one of them? I honestly couldn’t remember, but became increasingly convinced when I heard the piano solo. Later on, a quick search through my discography revealed that I was right. It is indeed a young Errol Garner. Although he doesn’t play badly, he doesn’t sound to me either comfortable or convincing playing bebop. Nevertheless, this session gives an important glimpse into the musical development of a major artist. You could say the same thing about the other tracks made around the same time by Bird and the young Miles Davis.

But that’s enough words. The whole point about music is that it says something that can’t be said with words. Birds manage perfectly well without them too.