A Night at the Proms

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Ligeti: Poème symphonique
Berio Sequenza V
Xenakis: Phlegra
Jonathan Harvey: Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Louis Andriessen: De snelheid
John Cage: 4’33

I went to the Royal Albert Hall the other night for the late night Prom. May have got there a little too early and despite having to dash over to the park to find the toilet I was still third in the queue for an arena promming ticket! At one point a lady from the venue came out and gave us all a raffle ticket to mark our place in the queue but no one ever asked to see them so I wasn’t sure what the point was. Shortly afterwards a load of people who were at the earlier Prom came out for the interval and started having picnics on the wall next to me!

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After the first prom finished there were more people joining the queue and to my surprise people who were at the first prom were given preference over those of us who had waited in the queue. Either way I still got ticket number 26 and when we were allowed into the arena found it quite easy to get very near the front.

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While we waited I noticed that behind the orchestra position on the choir seats sat 100 metronomes stretched across the whole width of the stage. As we sat several members of the orchestra sat on the stage near the metronomes and suddenly without warning they started them going and left the stage. People around me continued to talk as the metronomes clicked frenetically away. It was only after a while that the house lights dimmed and the audience began to focus on what was happening (apart from one woman whose voice could be heard loudly from the area of the circle). Slowly the metronomes started to run out of steam and one by one they dropped out until only two next to each other remained clicking in a melancholic duet slighly out of time with each other . You could have heard a pin drop as the last metronome ticked slowly to a stop, the silence in the room held for an eternity until the audience broke into applause.

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Afterwards there was an example of Proms humour as the applause died away someone clapped mimicking the metronomes. This was then imitated by others but was suddenly halted by the first blare of a trombone as Byron Fulcher appeared at the top of the steps to the left of the stage dressed in a clown outfit complete with white face and red nose! He played Berio’s Sequenza V very theatrically before collapsing on the floor at the end. Afterwards was my favourite piece of the night which Xenakis’ Phlegra – I first heard Xenakis on Radio 3 from the Proms a few years ago and fell in love with his music straight away so it was good to see a performance at such close quarters.

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We were told that when the Xenakis piece finished we would be plunged into darkness for the next piece but sadly the RAH doesn’t do dark very well. It was a shame really as I would have liked to have heard Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco in complete darkness with the way the 8 track recording spun around the room. Following an interview with composer Louis Andriessen there was a performance of his piece De Snelheid which I found the hardest of all the performances this evening – all of which, I later noted, that my wife would have asked “what the hell is that…” if she heard them!

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The final billed performance was John Cage’s infamous silent piece 4’33” which I’d been looking forward to. I liked the ironic way the orchestra tuned up for it before sitting silent through each of the 3 movements, turning the pages at the end of each bit. The idea is that the performance space creates it’s own sounds and throughout you became aware of the small sounds that go on around you all the time but are usually drowned out. The shuffling of feet, people coughing, seats creaking and even the sound of your own movements all become the focus as the orchestra sits there in silence. I did wonder if Radio 3 had to turn off the system that would normally shut down the transmitters after such a lengthy period of dead air.

The final piece which wasn’t on the original bill was by Matthew Herbert and was called Encore Intervention – Small, smaller, smallest. A team of people had roamed around the hall during the performances recording bits on mobile phones to create a soundscape. The audience was meant to join in at a given point by sending themselves a text message but this sort of went wrong as I don’t think we all got the instructions so mobiles were going off left right and centre but to my mind this added to the whole composition.

Mayday Mayday

May Day Morning

Twenty years ago today I had been working all night at Stationer’s Hall up in London setting up an event for the following day. Driving back to Rochester in the early hours my plan was to go to the Jack in the Green awakening Ceremony on Bluebell Hill which started at dawn or 5:32am. I’d been living in Rochester for about 5 months at this point and although I’d been to most of the festivals in the city I had never been to the Sweeps festival. It seemed to make sense that I go to the opening ceremony in preparation for the weekend ahead.

The only thing was it was absolutely pouring down with rain as I drove back down the A2. I um’d and ah’d  all the way back but as I came off at the Rochester exit I decided to go even though, I reasoned, I’d probably be the only one there! I drove into Bluebell village and found the turn off to the picnic site and to my surprise the lane was jam packed with cars. I eventually found a space and parked before grabbing my camera and getting out to walk down the lane to the picnic site.

The first thing I saw as I looked round, through the half light and the mist, was a man wearing antlers on his head silhouetted by the headlights of another car coming up the lane. I raised my camera but by the time I got it to my eye the scene had gone – I’ve regretted not getting that shot ever since! I followed antler man down the road to the carpark and if I recall correctly we had to climb over the gate to get in. The were lots of people standing around a circle of flaming pots and in the centre stood the Jack in the Green.

Jack in the Green

The ceremony was just starting as I arrived and I saw a group of Morris Dancers in brightly coloured ragged clothes standing around the Jack and they were singing….

Now winter is over, I’m happy to say,
That we’ll all meet again on the first day of May.
And we’ll all meet again on the first day of Spring,
And go about dancing with Jack in the Green.
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green,
And we’ll dance every spring time with Jack in the Green.

At the end of the song music started and they danced around the jack banging their sticks against the shovels they were carrying. Over the next hour or so a number of Morris sides took turns to dance and I took photographs and enjoyed the entertainment. After a while people started to drift away and I headed home, arriving soggy but happy on my doorstep at the same time as the milkman!

Over the next 16 years I went every year first as a spectator and then after I joined Wolf’s Head, as a participant. I even turned down the chance to dance with the side a week before Sweeps because I wanted my first public dance to be atop Bluebell Hill on May Day morning. In a similar fashion I danced the Wolf’s Head signature dance The Four Seasons for the first time on May Day 2003.

My first Four Seasons

Since 1992 I’d only missed 2 May Day mornings – 2006 when I’d been up all night with one of my cluster headaches and 2009 when I’d worked 13 days straight without a day off and decided to stay in bed! That was until this morning…..

I got up at 4:15 and got dressed, went down stairs and made myself a cup of tea. I sat in the living room and drank my tea before putting my boots on ready to go. It was at this point as I sat back in the early morning silence that I heard the rain lashing against the windows (or Beltane down as my friend put it on Facebook!). I looked out of the window and just like the last couple of weeks which accounted for the wettest April in 100 years it was pouring. It looked cold and wet and I decided that no matter how much I enjoy the Jack in the Green awakening ceremony I just couldn’t be bothered to go out there and get soaked to the skin. So I got undressed and went back to bed.

No sooner had I got into bed than I heard a bird singing outside the window and instantly regretted my decision! Happy Beltane everyone!

Beltane Fire

Plagiarism?

I was listening to the radio in the car and it was the top 4o countdown and I couldn’t help noticing a familiar line in the new Britney Spears song “Hold it against me”

The chorus goes
“So if I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?”

Which to my mind is very similar to the Bellamy Brothers song from 1979 which goes
“If I said you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me”

Apparently this similarity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Bellamy Brothers either and their lawyers are on the case!

Oh what a night!

We had been saying for a while that we desperately needed a good night out and last night we got it! And the best thing was it was a night out that money just can’t buy (well not yet anyway!). It all started with a posting I spotted on Facebook and quickly responded to  with a good story and ended up with us seeing Priscilla – The Musical again for the 3rd time! We first saw the show in Sydney when we went there for our Honeymoon and we saw it again when it opened in London with Jason Donovan in the role of Mitzi.

We had been saying for a while that we wanted to see it again so when I saw the posting which said that they were holding a registration evening for “Mates of Priscilla” (MOP) and asked people to tell them why they should be there I e-mailed them the story about flying from Melbourne to Sydney just to see the show and before I knew it I had an e-mail back saying that I was in! I thought that we had just won some tickets to see the show but two days before we were to go I saw some pictures on facebook of a previous event. So we knew that we were in for an interesting evening!

Priscilla Shoe small

The evening didn’t get off to a good start as my train up to London was cancelled and this meant that our plan to get something to eat before we got there almost went out the window. In the end though Sarah went ahead and ordered so the day was saved! At 6pm we crossed over the road and as we arrived a load of people were being ushered into the foyer. We were all given MOP registration forms to fill in which asked us some stupid questions like describe yourself in 3 words or tell us something about yourself as well as questions like who’s your favourite Priscilla character (Felicia) and why do you love Priscilla. When we handed the forms in we were given a ticket for the show and a goody bag. In the bag was a program, a t-shirt, a blue feather boa and a ping pong ball (hopefully unused!).

We were told to put our t-shirts and boas on, which we did, while the Best Mop told us the idea behind the scheme. The idea is great we will be informed of upcoming special offers for Priscilla and we have to publice them. In return when people book the offer using our special MOP code we get points – and what do points mean? Well if we collect enough points we could be eligible for special trips such as a trip to the opening in New York or a trip to Oz. So if you fancy going to see the show check with me first – ok?

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We were then told that there was a special surprise that we were the first to try out but it was, like all good queens, running a little late – in the meantime they produced one of the costumes worn by Oliver Thronton when the show first opened that we could try on. Then a drag queen appeared and we all had our photos taken with her. We were just having a group photo taken when we were told the special surprise was ready and would we all come outside. Outside there was a pink double decker bus which we were all invited to get onto.

The bus had been decked out Priscilla style with flashing lights and typical decor. We went upstairs and sat at the back of the bus. The bus took us down to Trafalgar Square, back up Haymarket to Piccadilly Circus before heading up Shaftsbury Avenue and finally taking a detour through Soho to Old Compton Street and back to outside the theatre. All the time there was music from Priscilla playing and we were served glasses of fizz and special Priscilla cupcakes with a shoe on top! All the way people were laughing and waving out the windows to poor unsuspecting passers by. The drag queen entertained us with suitable comments and dashed up and down the stairs. Our glasses were regularly topped up and we all had a great time!

Priscilla BusOn the bus small

Sorry about the photos I only had my cameraphone!

After all that the show could have almost been anticlimax but of course it wasn’t. We had seats in the Grand Circle which is the first time we haven’t been in the stalls. We had said last time that we should sit up high so we could get a different perspective on the show and see the shoe scene from above as some of the detail can be lost from below! As almost everyone around us were our fellow MOP’s our section was probably the most enthusiastic part of the crowd with whoops and cheers at all of the best lines. The part of Bob is now being played by Ray Meagher who is famous for being Alf in Home & Away, a fact recognised by our t-shirts.

So not just a good night out, a fantastic night out. A huge thanks to everyone who made it a fantastic evening and as Sarah asked me as the curtain came down at the end – when can we go and see it again?

Sarah and Drag Queen small

Back Home

ne of my favourite Radio programs has got to be Desert Island Discs which I listen to every Friday morning with a regularity bordering on Obsession! I should start work at 9:30 but I’m invariably late and this bothers me every day except Friday – in fact it used to be so annoying to arrive at work on time and miss the last fifteen minutes – this is less of a problem now that the show is finally available on iplayer but it’s still annoying!

As well as the music I find the life stories of people, some of whom I’ve never heard of until they appear on the show, quite fascinating. There are stories to which I cannot directly relate and can only image what that person must have been going through, for example violinist Gyorgy Pauk telling of his life in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest during the second world war and how he was brought up by his Grandmother who he eventually had to leave behind in order to live freely in the west. Then there was Dame Stephanie Shirley who escaped Nazi Germany when she was sent to the UK by her parents to be brought up by complete strangers. Things that happened before I was born and which, as I said,  I can only imagine what it was like.

More and more frequently now  there are guests who are the same age as me and although they may have been brought up in a different place with different experiences I can still still relate to their memories and musical choices because they are from a time and mindset that is recognisable to me. One such person was Morrissey who I blogged about on a previous occasion and today it was Frank Skinner who although he is a few years older then me I recognise the world he grew up in and some of his musical choices hit the target and fired off memories of my youth.

This was probably helped by the fact that I had spent some time the previous evening looking through some carrier bags of stuff that I had brought back from the garage where we have some of our stuff in storage. A lot of stuff has been in storage in one place or another since  Sarah and I moved in together and has been too painful to sort through due to the memories of a acrimonious divorce. However I’m starting to be able to move on and in the bags I found some interesting things such as almost all my school reports – junior and secondary, my Chipper club membership card from the Sunderland Echo,  even my Baptism Certificate.

Frank Skinner’s fourth track, amongst a very eclectic choice of music, was the 1970 England World Cup song Back Home, possibly one of the first (and best – alongside Frank’s own effort Three lions)  World Cup songs ever and one which reminds me of my first World Cup. As far as I know I did watch the 1966 final but was too young to remember it. In fact my only memory of 1966 was World Cup Willie the mascot who I missed in 1970 and wanted to know where he had gone!

There were huge expectations as the Mexico finals approached, as England were the champions, but as we all know they crashed out in the second round to eventual winners West Germany, who we had beaten to win the cup 4 years earlier. We had been winning 2-0 but eventually lost 3-2 after extra time when Gerd Muller put the winning goal past Peter Bonetti who was playing as Gordon Banks had come down with food poisoning a few days before the game.  This experience seems to have been repeated every couple of years in either the World Cup or European Championships by the English football team. The constant expectations of success in the build up, the inevitably disappointing first game, followed by a scrabble to qualify for the knock-out stage only to lose on penalties or after extra time in either the quarter or semi finals!

Frank commented that football was different in those days and I think he is right. His memories of watching West Bromwich Albion were summed up by saying that football grounds smelt of Woodbines and Meat Pies struck a chord but I would have also added Bovril to that list! Watching Sunderland in the early 70’s at Roker Park would on occasion lead me to buy a cup of the meaty drink. The drink had such a wonderful smell but to me tasted bloody awful, a fact i would remember after a few sips!! He also mentioned the terraces and how small boys would take crates to stand on so they could see.

Well I never did that but have fond memories of standing in the Fulwell end on the terraces….there was a section in the middle at the back we used to call “the Chanters” which was where the most noisy fanatical fans used to stand and from where the most enthusiastic chanting used to come. It was always rough and fluid in that section and you had to be brave (or big) to stand a chance. The most wonderful thing about the terraces was the movement of the crowd. The Fulwell end was almost always full and when the team came running with the ball came towards the goal in front of us about 10,000 people would all stand on their toes to see what was happening before inevitably loosing their balance and falling forward causing the crowd to surge forward to be stopped only by the crash barriers that were spaced at intervals down the stand.

At the back of the stand where the steps opened onto the terraces there was a shop, selling amongst other things, the aforementioned Bovril, running along the back of the stand was a fence, but ducking behind the shop you could get up behind the fence and this would afford you the most wonderful view. You were right behind the most ardent supporters and could see the whole ground. The experience of seeing the fans react when a goal was scored from up there was incredible and worth the risk of occasionally getting told to get down by a Policeman or steward.

The other thing I miss is the event that used to be the FA Cup final – watching it on TV was an event that used to start at about 11 in the morning and slowly build up, following the teams on their coaches to the ground, covering their paths to Wembley and then finally the game itself and then the interviews and celebrations afterwards. I think the first FA cup final I watched was the 1969/70 final which Chelsea won after a replay. A few years later Sunderland made it to the final and although only a second division team beat first division Leeds Utd 1-0 in an historic win. Sadly I wasn’t there but watched it in colour for the first time!

Anyway my flirtation with football was short lived, I seem to recall the last time I went to see Sunderland play I was queuing up to get out when the doors opened! My first love was and still is music and bringing this back to that topic I will move onto Frank Skinner’s 7th choice namely George Formby’s Why don’t women like me? When I was growing up my earliest musical likes were Military brass bands and George Formby – a diversity of taste which has stood me in good stead for the following years! It was good to see someone else my age still has a soft spot for the ukulele wielding comedian other than me (although I understand that the late George Harrison turned Bob Dylan onto him as well) but unlike Frank I have no desire to take up playing the thing!

I loved the stories about his father, how he would not go to the pub or betting shop without putting his suit on first! he even used to say to his wife – nip down the bookies for me because if I put my suit on I’ll have to go to the pub as well. It’s strange now to think that men used to be like that. I remember my dad, who it must be said must have been quite modern and with it, expressing surprise when we bumped into a neighbour in Belgium while  we were on holiday and found he was wearing a suit even on holiday. I watched a wonderful old film on youtube the other week from 1927 which, surprisingly was in colour and in one scene there is a shot of Petticoat Lane on a Sunday and in it all the men are dressed in suits. (I was also amused by the fact that the crowd was almost exclusively men – strange given that my father used to hate the idea of going shopping).

So that’s it for my trip down memory lane for now but in the near future I will scan some of the things I found and no doubt pour forth on a variety of subjects triggered by memories.

The Story behind the Picture #1

This picture was in the Croydon Advertiser in about 2003 – it was taken outside Witchfest at the Fairfield Halls during my Morris Dancing days with Wolf’s Head & Vixen. We were performing at the festival and were asked by a photographer to pose for a picture outside. Keith and John still dance for the side and in fact feature in the video in this post.

Sweeps Festival

Beltaine

It’s been the annual Sweeps Festival in Rochester this weekend and as usual the street have been filled with the sounds of Morris men, the jingle of bells, the clashing of sticks and a myriad of folk tunes played on accordions, whistles, guitars fiddles and mandolins. From the white shirts and hankies of the Cotswold sides, through the clog dancers to the black faces and tattered jackets of the Border Morris men, there are traditional dances and dances with a modern twist every where you look.

Musical Interlude

As well as the music in the street music spills from almost every pub and street corner, folk singers, folk bands, hurdy gurdy players, traditional folk, folk rock even folk punk! There’s a marquee in the castle grounds and an open air stage in a car park or you can just catch impromptu performances under a tree or in a beer garden.

This year, because of the way the dates fell, the festival opened with the traditional Jack in the Green awakening ceremony at the top of Bluebell Hill. The ceremony starts at sunrise which is at 5:32 am, in a ring of fire sits the jack in the green who has been slumbering through the winter. At the appointed time the members of Motley Morris carrying sticks shovels form a circle around the Jack and sing the Jack in the Green song to awaken him. Once the jack is awoken they dance around him before making way for other Morris sides to dance in their own particular way. The Loose Women, Wolf’s Head and Vixen, The Gong Scourers, Beltane Morris and Bishop Gundulf and others dance in their own particular styles.

Jack in the Green

I’ve been going to the May Day ceremony since 1992, first as a member of the audience and then as a member of Wolf’s Head and now as a member of the audience again. I danced the Wolf’s Head signature dance, The Four Seasons, for the first time here in 2003 and I was glad to see them dancing it again this year. Over the years I’ve taken my camera and this year was no exception. I also took my video camera this year and hopefully will put together a short video of the morning soon.

Ragged Crow

In the meantime you can see my photographs taken with my Fuji S9600 or my HTC Magic cameraphone using FxCamera here

Sometimes even I think I’m weird!

Yesterday I ended up staying late at work and while I was working I was listening to music. Some of the stuff I was listening to was quite weird by most peoples standards! I started listening to a download from the Avant Garde Project of some music by pioneering composer of electronic music Morton Subotnik.

In the middle of the cacophony of sound that was pouring forth from the speakers I suddenly looked at the clock and realised the time. I paused the music and switched on the radio just in time for the Archers!