Wild Man Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 16, 2018 by telescoper

Time, I think, for some vintage jazz. This one doesn’t really need many words of introduction. It was recorded on May 7th 1927 in the Okeh Studios in Chicago by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven: Louis Armstrong (cornet), John Thomas (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Armstrong (piano), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Pete Briggs (tuba), and Warren `Baby’ Dodds (drums). Two things are worth saying, though. One is that this piece is very modern-sounding for its time, in that there’s very little of the ensemble work that one associates with New Orleans jazz, just two extended solos by Louis and Johnny Dodds, and that those solos are both very free. The other is that Armstrong’s solo is so good that there were only a few soloists who could have taken over from him without creating an anti-climax. Fortunately, one of those men (Johnny Dodds) was in the studio and did just that, matching Satchmo in power and invention. Enjoy!


Windows Horror

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 16, 2018 by telescoper

This week was going reasonably well, I thought. The class test for my Computational Physics students yesterday went reasonably well; they even managed to upload their code and output to Moodle at the end.

However, when I came into work this morning and started up my laptop, which belongs to Cardiff University, it announced that it was doing a BIOS update. I sighed and then went to make a cup of tea while it did the job. When I got back I found I was locked out by BitLocker, the Windows 10 disk encryption feature that Cardiff University insist is used on its laptops.

There isn’t/wasn’t any USB disk attached to the machine, by the way, and I did try restarting the machine but that didn’t help. I can only infer that BitLocker can’t cope with a change at the BIOS level which, if true, is really pathetic.

Not having the required `recovery key’ (which I have never been given) and being informed by the FAQ that I would need a system administrator to supply it, I got in panicky touch with Cardiff’s IT services, but three hours later I still can’t get in. I do have my desktop (which runs Unix) so am not completely stymied, but I don’t have the files on my laptop. I was planning to work on some things on there today, but it looks like I won’t be able to. It even looks possible that all the data on this laptop is lost for good.

The thing I can’t help thinking about is how terrible this would be if I had been just about to give a talk at a conference….

WINDOWS UPDATE: I’m back into my laptop and have not lost any data (as far as I can tell). The problem is indeed a known conflict between BIOS and BitLocker, which I think is atrocious.

The Greatest Scarpia

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are always busy so today I’ll just put this here. It’s the great operatic baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang almost a thousand times in his career. This is the Te Deum scene, at the end of Act I, in which Scarpia after sending his men to follow Tosca to her lover Cavaradossi, he sings of his lustful desire as worshippers gather fora service at the Church in which the action takes place.

There have been many excellent interpreters of the role of Tosca (in which role I think Renata Tebaldi was every bit as good as Maria Callas) but Tito Gobbi (who sang the role with both Callas and Tebaldi) was the Scarpia of his age, and perhaps of any…

The de Valera connection

Posted in History, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , on February 14, 2018 by telescoper

This morning I took the early flight to Dublin, which was on time, and thence via the Airport Hopper to Maynooth. There were only two passengers on the bus, both going to the terminus, so it made good time, travelling all the way along the motorway.

Walking into the Maynooth campus I remembered an interesting little historical fact that I stumbled across last week, concerning Éamon de Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil (one of the two largest political parties in Ireland) and architect of the Irish constitution. De Valera (nickname `Dev’) is an enigmatic figure, who was a Commandant in the Irish Republican Army during the 1916 Easter Rising, but despite being captured he somehow evaded execution by the British. He subsequently became Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and then President (Head of State) of the Irish Republic.

Eamon de Valera, photographed sometime during the 1920s.

The point of connection with Maynooth, however, is less about Dev’s political career than his educational background: he was a mathematics graduate, and for a short time (1912-13) he was Head of the Department of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, which was then a recognised college of the National University of Ireland. The Department became incorporated in Maynooth University, when it was created in 1997. It is said that one of the spare gowns available to be borrowed by staff for graduation ceremonies belonged to de Valera. Mathematical Physics is no longer a part of the Mathematics Department at Maynooth, having become a Department in its own right and it recently changed its name to the Department of Theoretical Physics.

De Valera missed out on a Professorship in Mathematical Physics at University College Cork in 1913. He joined the the Irish Volunteers, when it was established the same year. And the rest is history. I wonder how differently things would have turned out had he got the job in Cork?

That’s one connection, but when I arrived in the office this morning I found another. An email had arrived announcing a conference later this year in honour of Erwin Schrödinger.  It was de Valera – a notable advocate for science – who in 1940 set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS); Schrödinger became the first Director of the School of Theoretical Physics, one of the three Schools in DIAS.

LGBT+ Physical Sciences Climate Survey

Posted in LGBT with tags , on February 13, 2018 by telescoper

Very busy day today so I only have time to post a quick notice about an event coming up in a couple of weeks (on 1st March 2018) at the Institute of Physics in London:

This event celebrates the launch of the LGBT+ physical sciences survey, the first UK and Ireland survey of the working, teaching and studying climate for LGBT+ physicists, astronomers and chemists and those in related sciences.

Speakers from the community will be sharing their perspectives on the successes and challenges of creating a climate that enables everyone to be fully themselves in the workplace and place of study. The event is also an opportunity to find out more about the survey and meet other members of the network at an informal reception with drinks and snacks.

I am greatly honoured to have been asked to give a talk to introduce the event and chair the session, which ends in a panel discussion.The event is open to all, but space is limited at the venue so you will have to sign up if you want to go. You can sign up here.

See you there!

WNO Tosca

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on February 12, 2018 by telescoper

My current schedule takes me back and forth across the Irish Sea, making it a bit of challenge to take in as many musical events as I’d like to, but I did manage to get to see yesterday’s performance of Tosca at Welsh National Opera. I don’t usually go for afternoon performances, but this was basically my option. Not surprisingly there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre for a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals wine breaks…). It’s a melodrama, and is set in Rome in 1800. Each act takes place in a very specific location within the Eternal City. Act I is in the Church of  Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and the final denouement of Act III takes place among the battlements at the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo overlooking the Tiber. The setting is so specific to time and place that it resists being monkeyed about with, done in modern dress, staged in a chip shop or whatever. Thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s production (of which this is a revival) is very firmly of the period and location required. As a longstanding opera bore, I have to admit that I have been on a Tosca pilgrimage and have visited all three locations in Rome. The scenery used in last night’s performance isn’t exactly as the real locations but it definitely evokes them very well.

Floria Tosca (Claire Rutter) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Hector Sandoval), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Mark Doss), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch Tosca and Cavaradossi too. He lusts after Tosca and hates Cavaradossi. In Act II, we find Scarpia at home eating dinner for one while Cavaradossi is being tortured in order to find out the location of the escapee. Tosca turns up to plead for his life, but she hasn’t bargained with the true depths of Scarpia’s depravity. He wants to have his way with her, and to put pressure on he lets her listen to the sound of her lover being tortured. She finally consents, in return for Scarpia’s promise to let Cavaradossi go and grant free passage to the two of them. This he seems to do, but while she is waiting for him to write the letter of conduct she sees a knife. Instead of letting Scarpia defile her, she grabs it and stabs him to death. Act III begins with Cavaradossi facing execution, sure he is about to die. Tosca is convinced that this is just a charade and that Scarpia ordered them to pretend to shoot Cavaradossi so he wouldn’t look like he was being merciful, which would be out of character. The firing squad fire and Cavaradossi falls. But it was no fake. He is dead. Tosca is distraught and bewildered. Shouts offstage reveal that the police have found Scarpia’s body and that Tosca must have murdered him. To avoid capture she hurls herself from the battlements. Her last words are “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – “I’ll meet you before God, Scarpia”.

Hector Sandoval (Cavaradossi) and Claire Rutter (Tosca). Picture credit: WNO.

The opera wasn’t particularly well received when it was first performed in 1900, being famously described by one critic as “a shabby little shocker”, but it has become a firm favourite with audiences around the world and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of music drama. So how did Puccini manage to transform a penny-dreadful plot into a great work of art? I don’t think it’s hard to see why it works so well.

First and foremost, there’s the music, which  is wonderful throughout, but it is always plays an essential part in keeping everything moving. Of course there are the great arias: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore sung by Tosca in Act II and E Lucevan le Stelle from Act III, sung by Cavaradossi; but even apart from those tremendous set-pieces, Puccini uses the music to draw out the psychology of the characters and underline the drama. Although not usually associated with the use of leitmotifs, Puccini deploys them throughout: Scarpia’s arrival is announced with a suitably menacing theme that recurs whenever he is present or even just referred to.  This theme is actually the first thing we hear as the Opera starts. It also plays Scarpia out at the end of Act 1 when he sings his magnificently chilling Va Tosca over a setting of the Te Deum. Time does stand still for Tosca’s great Act II aria, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, but that just emphasises the pace of the rest of the piece. This is a work with no spare flesh or padding anywhere, and a perfect interplay between music and action. The moment when Tosca sees the knife with which she will kill Scarpia is signalled by the orchestra.

And that leads to the second point. Each of the three principals could have been very two-dimensional: Cavaradossi the good guy.; Scarpia the bad guy; Tosca the love interest. But all the characters have real credibility and depth. Cavaradossi is brave and generous, but he succumbs to despair before his death. No superhero this, just a man. Scarpia is a nasty piece of work all right, but at times he is pathetic and vulnerable. He is monstrous, but one is left with the impression that something made him monstrous. And then there’s Tosca, proud and jealous, loving but at the same time capable of violence and spite. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. In this production, she doesn’t just stab him once: she chases him around the room repeatedly plunging the knife into him, then stands over him  as he begs for help. There’s no attempt to sanitise the violence of his death. It’s all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

Top marks for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, who did full justice to Puccini’s magnificent score. Claire Rutter has a fine voice for the role, and I thought Hector Sandoval sang and acted wonderfully. The big numbers in Tosca are quite familiar, but they still sounded fresh and were performed with great feeling. Best of all, Mark Doss has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger. He even got a few pantomime boos at the end.



A Good Day

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Football with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2018 by telescoper

It’s been a good day. First of all I was officially presented with the Beard of Winter 2018 Award by the inestimable Keith Flett (right):

The picture was taken (by Megan Davies) outside The Small Bar in Cardiff after a celebratory tipple.

After that it was down to Cardiff Bay, where the Wales Millennium Centre was resplendent in the winter sunshine for an excellent afternoon performance of Tosca (which I’ll review more fully tomorrow):

And if that wasn’t enough, I emerged from the Opera to find that Newcastle Utd had beaten Manchester Utd in the Premiership, a game I had expected them to lose…

So yes, it’s been a good day..