All posts by MarkD

Oh, Vicenza (pt. 1)

We spent last (extended) weekend in and around Vicenza in Northern Italy. Although I don’t live far away from that particular provincial town, it’s one I’ve never visited or had the opportunity to explore. It lies just west Venice and many will travel through or past it when travelling from the Lagoon City to visit the more famous ‘sister’ town Verona. But like many small Italian towns it’s well worth the visit, not just because it lies off the beaten tourist track but because it’s full of hidden treasures which otherwise you may not get to see and savour. Vicenza is the city of Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect who basically brought classical architecture into the present, re.inventing its symmetrical lines, sense of perspective and harmony for what we now know as the Renaissance. he Quattro Libri dell’architettura are the fundamental writings for all of modern architecture.

Just outside the town is one of his most famous buildings, the Villa La Rotonda, built on a hilltop overlooking the town on one side and the rolling hills on the other.

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Nearby is the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, another fine country ‘palace’ with a nice tidy garden and foresteria or ‘guest house’ to one side.

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Back in town there’s plenty to see of course (you may need two or even three days if you like your sightseeing to be leisurely), first and formost the Teatro Olimpico, again a Palladio design, although like most of his more magnificent work it was never completed in his own lifetime and it was up to others to work out what he had intented. The theatre itself is relatively small but inside it contains a real stone facade as a “backdrop” which must be the most incredible thing that’s ever been built inside any theatre in the world.

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Breathtaking hardly describes it well enough.

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Bowie in review: ‘Black Tie White Noise’ (1993)

Black Tie White Noise

First released: 1993 (LP, MC, Cassette)

1993 - Black Tie White Noise - Front 2

First some context: It’s been 20 years since Ziggy Stardust, 10 since Let’s Dance, and 2 or 3 since Tin Machine. Bowie has been through the career low of the mid-late 80s, lived through the ‘group’ experience (not entirely unscathed by either), redeemed his good name with the ‘Sound+Vision’ tour and has fallen in love and got married to Iman. Pop/rock music has also moved on – 80s artifice is being pushed aside for a return to ‘unplugged’ and the post-rave, grunge generation is pushing ahead. Now he’s back with a new solo album. Producer Nile Rogers is back too, and wants ‘Let’s Dance 2’. Let’s see how Bowie reacts. Continue reading Bowie in review: ‘Black Tie White Noise’ (1993)

David Bowie (1947 –

More than two weeks after the shock announcement on David Bowie  and I still can’t bring myself to write ‘2016’ as the year of his death. Don’t get me wrong, I was never the world’s biggest Bowie fan. I never rushed out to buy any of his records on the first day of release, I’ve rarely delved eagerly into his back catalogue when remasters came out. Before last year I had never bought any of his records on vinyl (I bought two second hand, and one new), and I had only been the most casual of listeners of the key installments of his life’s work. Apart from the recent Nothing Has Changed compilation, David Bowie took up very little space on my CD shelves: another “Greatest Hits”  album, which I bought because it had the DVD with the videos, plus the Low and “Heroes” 1999 remasters which I seem to remember picking up cheaply from a closing down store. That’s about it. I recently bought his next-to-last album The Next Day partly out a ‘guilty’ feeling that i didn’t have that much Bowie in my personal collection, partly because the price dropped sharply after a few months of its release. It was played once then shelved. I bought 1997’s Earthling online a couple of years ago because I needed to make up a ‘3 for the price of 1’ CD purchase, and I asked a friend for advice. I don’t think I ever played it.

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Yet I was always well aware of his presence, his influence and his importance in the British music industry and indeed in popular culture since the early 1970s. Saying “David Bowie” was like saying “The Beatles”: it was British pop and rock, it was British culture however much ‘American’ or ‘European’ he had wanted to make it at times. Neither David Robert Jones or David Bowie could have been born anywhere else, and as such he is as much a part of me as the Union Jack, the BBC and beans on toast. As I stated in my ‘gut reaction’ post on my fb profile page, Bowie wasn’t always present but he was always there, he wasn’t always good but he was always great.

So perhaps now, I really can start to appreciate his music and the great body of work he left behind. Don’t get me wrong: in the seventies I knew the words and sang along to Starman, Space Oddity and “Heroes”. After more than a passing interest in Boys Keep Swinging in ’79, I caught up with him proper from 1980 onwards – I was thrilled when Ashes to Ashes got to no. 1, I heard the other singles but never got round to hearing the Scary Monsters album. As the eighties continued, how we danced to China Girl, Blue Jean and (appropriately) Let’s Dance, and how we sneered at his demise mid-eighties onwards (although I must say that Loving the Alien is always a song and a perfomance I’ve always held in high esteem). My interest was somewhat re-kindled with the surprise The Next Day album and even more so by the 2014 ‘single’ Sue (Or In A Season of Crime) a ‘kitchen-sink’ drama set to music which saw Bowie pushing forward barriers once more with atonal almost avant-garde jazz arrangements

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Sadly, much of the press and therefore public attention after his death has focused on his work in the 70s and 80s, and it would seem that he never produced anything of worth between the Let’s Dance album (1983) and the latest album Blackstar, released days before his death. Not so: Bowie ‘came back’ as a solo artist in 1993 after getting married, ‘settling down’ and generally getting back on track. It is precisely the ensuing albums (from 1993 to 2003) which interest me the most, and now finding out about what he was getting up to, how he was making and presenting his music, his art, and his persona during that period has become my latest curiosity (nay, obsession). My ‘gut reaction’ to Bowie’s death was to buy as many of these albums as I could: I quickly and cheaply sourced 1.Outside, Hours…, and Reality to add to the special 2xCD edition I had of Heathen bought second-hand form an Italian last year, again on a recommendation. ‘Classic’ albums such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Pin-Ups have little appeal to me. There’s no doubting the quality and breadth of any of these or indeed his work from Station to Station (first released forty years ago) and throughout “the Berlin trilogy” (’77-’79), but I feel these works have been discussed and analysed enough. My tendency is often to go for the ‘underdogs’, the lesser known, the minorities, so I’d like to go through those 93-03 albums as best I can in whatever time it takes. (Who knows, I might later want to do a total rewind…)

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In my upcoming venture I am grateful to the friends who have helped me source the necessary audio and visual material and of course to the internet sites such as Discogs, Musicbrainz for their meticulous cataloging of his work. Gratitude and esteem also goes to the mighty Pushing Ahead of the Dame aka bowiesongs.wordpress.com for links to songs, resources and general background information and trivia associated with each and every track. Don’t worry: i won’t even attempt to come near to that kind of writing, either in terms of quality or quantity.

Finally, thank you David Bowie, and I really am very sorry I missed you first time round, but perhaps I was too busy paying attention to music by so many other artists, the majority of which you yourself no doubt inspired and influenced through your own art. We were always all just loving the alien.

Bowie salute

 

 

The party’s over

This may not be totally appropriate on ‘VE’ (Victory in Europe) Day, but today I came across this amazing footage of Berlin, Germany’s devastated capital, at the end of WWII, posted by the Berlin Channel on youtube. Despite the sunshine, and the occasional almost smiling faces you definitely get a ‘the party’s over’ kind of feeling. Not exactly VE Day, but it’s definitely ‘the day after’ …

I suppose the occupying allies were still partying however, and the Soviets are out in full regalia, as you will see.

The cruellest month?

Chaucer and his Tales (photos.com/ThinkStock)

Thus T. S. Eliot in the opening to his seminal poem The Waste Land. I’ve just realised that sadly I didn’t manage to get an entry to this blog in during April, the object of T. S. Eliot’s totally modernist foray into Chaucerian tradition, possibly because I’ve been so busy with other things, not least in gaining my laurea magistrale from university in Rome, which I am very pleased about and for which I shall proceed to blow my own trumpet!

It’s been the result of over two years of study in various subjects pertaining to English and German language (translation and literature), linguistics and language theory as well as the workings and history of international organisations such as the UN, the EU and so on. It hasn’t been easy ride, given my no longer tender age and other life commitments such as work, family and even moving house! To be honest the studying has been on the whole enjoyable, although I have found the exam situation to be rather stressful and extremely taxing on the nerves. Education is wasted on the young, they say and to some extent that may be true, but while memory cells are still very much alive in the young, in older folk (read over-40s) they are not. But no matter, I got through it all with generally satisfactory results, and my final dissertation in contemporary utopian/dystopian literature gave me a good sprint finish and I came out with a more than pleasing result.

At least for this year, after my own personal pilgrimage in education, appropriately ending up in Rome, I prefer Chaucer’s view of the month of April, and its lusty, fertile rebirth. In 2015 the month also appropriately began with Easter, or rather the pagan festival of fertility and abundancy, and of all things which will eventually bear fruit! Here’s hoping…

What that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed ever viene in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flowr;
What Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
the tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath the Ram his halve cour yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye
That sleepen al the night with open ye-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgramages…

Geoffrey Chaucer, General prologue to The Canterbury Tales 

Radio waves

After much deliberation, I recently purchased my first digital/internet radio. It’s the Weimar model produced by the Auna company in Germany. Appropriately it was sent all the way from Berlin. Just for the record here’s a few comments after a couple of days usage:

Radioland
First of all really nice looking .. (forgot to take pics) … if very ‘sparse’ but its beauty is also in its simplicity. I thought there was a remote control with it but I must have got it mixed up with one of the hundreds of others I looked at…but that’s not a big issue.

turn the dial with your hand ..
easy to set up, plug and play, and connect it to your home wi-fi setup and you’re away. You browse through the hundreds of channels either by location (country) or music genre or whatever and of course I went straight for the BBC and lo!..all BBC radio channels come through loud ‘n’ clear.

Intermission
You can then either memorise with pre-sets of which there are 10, which is just about enough for me.
There’s also a ‘favourites’ menu although this has to be done via the internet itself ie. laptop or home computer or whatever – a bit strange programming yer radio via the laptop but there are literally thousands of internet channels out there so it would be pretty much impossible with the tiny monochrome display, and via internet you can group channels into sub-menus and stuff which is neat.

tune in to the melody…
Another ace feature is the music streaming from your home computer, which is possible with Windows Media player (this was in the manual, I didn’t try it with i-tunes). Basically you can listen to all the music you have on yer computer through the radio set (via the home wi-fi set up of course), which for me is actually quite handy as I’m on different floors. This would be even more handier with one of those wee home-servers which you just leave on all the time. Needs more investigation.
There’s also a podcast function for listening to podcasts (oddly) and again there are thousands out there, although that is where the BBC has changed it’s methods recently which means that some you can’t listen to because they’re in ‘mp3’ format as opposed to wma or some such, although I’ve noticed that some of the more popular ones (Archers Omnibus anyone?) are in both formats.

it’s in the air for you and me…
there’s also the DAB function (digital radio) but I was unable to pick anything up on that, maybe because there is nothing out there to pick up? I must say that digital radio is rarely mentioned over here although I’d read stuff to say the there was coverage and stuff in my area. Again, needs more investigation but with the internet radio channels easily available it’s not an issue for now. FM also included but ditto.
The voice of energy..
ah yes the sound! Forgot to mention the sound quality! Actually this is very very good and it can go really loud! Of course you have the benefit of digital quality but there’s a nice bass to it . .heard some electronica stuff on Radio 1 and it even sounded interesting! There are some preset equalizer settings but haven’t investigated yet..
Distant voices sing..
bluetooth also included which I’ve already put to the test by listening to and transcribing a lecture recorded on i-phone. There’s also an aux connection for i-pod or similar (connecting wire not included), and a headphone input plug-hole. There’s also alarm and sleep function..not tried.
Ohm Sweet Ohm..
On the whole I’m really really pleased with the set and having shopped around quite a bit (it must have been years..) it’s really good value for money I reckon. My only gripe would be that it only works on mains, no batteries, so it’s not entirely ‘portable’ but thankfully if you do unplug and plug in again elsewhere the memory is intact. It’s not huge and heavy either so easily moved around. Internet radio stations often take a good 6/7 secs. to load which is a long time in radioland but that’s the internet I s’pose.

Musical accompaniment provided by Kraftwerk and their 1975 album Radio Activity

Cement

I’m currently reading The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. I wanted something short and simple and this is it, even though a tad macabre, and perhaps not as simple as it may first appear. It’s the story of a family of four children, whose parents both die in the space of a short time. The siblings create their own sort of utopia if you will, although as with most utopias it all goes a bit wrong.

Anyway I’ve discovered there’s also a film been made of it starring a young Charlotte Gainsbourg, directed by Andrew Birkin. The film/book is set in late 70s/early 80s and although made in 1993 it has some nice gritty images.

Cement Garden  Cement Garden 3 Cement Garden 4 Cement Garden 2

Winter’s Tale

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Since around this time last year I’ve been pondering on whether to look further into a work of classical music: Winterreise, a song cycle composed by Franz Schubert. I first heard extracts from it on the R3 Breakfast programme Specialist Classical Chart last January, continuing into February and perhaps even beyond. I say ‘classical music’ but don’t think big orchestras: Winterreise is actually written for and performed by voice and accompanying piano only. I’ve since discovered the 24 Lieder thaty make up the work were originally poems written by Wilhelm Mueller (1794-1827) and set to song by Franz Schubert a year after Mueller’s death, and tragically, during the year of Schubert’s very own death. The ‘journey’ is the somewhat tortured first person account of a forlorn lover, rebuked by his sweetheart, forced out of town and into the harsh winter landscape. The cycle describes his feelings, encounters and ultimate ‘point of arrival’ in a typically romantic style. All in German of course.

The whole work is a game of two halves: the 24 poems which make up Wanderlieder von Wilhelm Müller. Die Winterreise were published in two separate occasions and in two separate publications. Similarly Schubert also composed the whole piece in two successive winters, discovering the second set after already finishing the score for the first. He corrected the score for the second part on his death bed.

MI0003721576It’s not an easy work to approach yet I was determined to find a way into it, encouraged not least my Ian Bostridge’s recent fascinating Radio 4 programme on the work. The English tenor has performed, recorded, acted, filmed and now written a book about Winterreise, so he seems qualified enough to know all about it. Needless to say, recorded perfomances are plentiful and leaves one with some confusion about which would be ‘the best’ to get for a relative beginner. In the end I plumped for the 2014 recording by Kaufmann and Deutsch (pic. left), the one I’d been hearing intermittently on the Radio 3 chart, as it was the one I’d sort of got used to. Naturally, minutes after finalising my digital download I came across an enticing re-edition of a recording of Winterreise by Ian Bostridge, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, together with two other works by Schubert as well as a DVD of Bostridge’s dramatised performance of ‘Reise (as I have affectionately come to call it), with video extras. Available at a relatively low price I had to go for that too.

I’m no expert in either music or singing but there are notable differences between the two. I’ve been enjoying both versions though over the past couple of weeks, especially on cold but crisp winter mornings during my daily commute, imagining our poor lonesome ‘traveller’ making his way through the frost and snow, lamenting the refusal by his loved one as he sets off into the cold dark winter night:

Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten
Als mein Gefährte mit,
Und auf den weißen Matten
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.

                                                 “Gute Nacht

Further reading:

For a much more comprehensive and musically-orienatated account of Winterreise, see the Beyond the Notes blog written by Erica Ann Sipes, Winterreise label.

Ian Bostridge’s new book: Schubert’s Winter Journey, Anatomy of an Obsession, is published by Faber & Faber.

Ballardian New Year

A belated Happy 2015 to all my readers! I was pretty much tied up after Christmas and over the turn-of-th-year period, finishing off my dissertation with the final chapter concentrating on Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and a few selected novels of J. G. Ballard. I’m no expert on JGB, but I know what I like and I’ve concentrated on three novels The Drowned World (1962), High-Rise (1975) and Kingdom Come (2006), mostly becuase they have that kind of ‘dystopian’ theme running through them, albeit in a very ballardian way. I hope to be able to post some extracts of my labours here once the whole thing id done, dusted and ‘discussed’.

Meanwhile I can suggest this excellent South Bank Show documentary on JGB, presumably made just after Kingdom Come was published. It’s a kind of ‘Ballard for beginners’ with an interview by Melvyn Bragg, the bloke I wish I’d had as an English teacher at school.

My ballardian writings were also assisted by listening to selected musics of John Foxx, who has stated that during the recording of his seminal electronic album Metamatic he was “reading too much J.G. Ballard”. The fruits of that are adequately illustrated in this little pièce with accompanying visuals by Karborn, Foxx’s son and heir. I also took some stills off the telly which came out quite well, so I thought I’d share. (If you look hard enough you can see reflected the lights on my Christmas tree).