Dancing About Architecture

This is well worth a read.

The Quiet Return

dancing trio

I’ve always resisted writing about music. Someone famously said (whether it was Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or Martin Mull depends on who you ask) that it’s a bit like ‘dancing about architecture’. Which, actually, sounds rather fun: to try and compose a dance that says something about a building, to try and express the Burj Khalifa in a ballet, Falling Water in a foxtrot. I mean, why not?

Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’, which means, by implication, that music is ‘unfrozen architecture’. And maybe there is something architectural about dancing and music? The way a ballet dancer’s arm describes a certain arc, traces an invisible line; the shapes her body makes on the stage. Fiona Sampson writes of how music forms similar shapes through time, ‘almost as if the air passing down the long, skinny bassoon is drawing a diagram of what we hear’.

Writing, too, shapes itself through…

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A family food rant

And so to Bournemouth. Because the youngest Miss Oblique wants to go away to a hotel. And life is not always fair to her. So there are four sentences starting with connectives!
We often just buy sandwiches, then camp out in our room, usually with those tempting cans of G&T. Having had a sandwich lunch, we decided to go out instead.
This was a mistake. Firstly, to be fair, because we were not feeling adventurous. Secondly, to be fair, because the youngest Miss Oblique is usually only satisfied with chips. However this is where my rant (sorry) begins.
Central Bournemouth is well equipped with those rather interesting takeaways selling kebabs, 50 different versions of fried chicken, burgers and other rather obscure items. It is not equipped with many places you can take a ‘difficult’ child at 5.45 p.m. I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but we couldn’t find them. We did go in a ‘sports’ pub, but left… Not really child-friendly.
Guess where we ended up? No prizes. Those golden arches beckoned and we gave in.
This is not a rant at Bournemouth only. Many other towns, in my experience, are the same. In fact, even on Saturday lunchtimes there are very limited, boring and predictable choices. The chains have driven out all the friendly small family places and are anyway mostly closed in the evenings.
Yes, we could have eaten at Portuguese, Lebanese and Vietnamese restaurants. Yes, we did find the Mad Cucumber vegan cafe as we returned to our hotel full of burger and chips. Something is lacking in Bournemouth, though. And it’s not unique.
Don’t you hate sentences beginning with ‘and’?
Written quickly on my tablet, with apologies.

In praise of libraries and librarians

As I have mentioned before, I cannot remember learning to read. But libraries played an early part in my life and continued to be hugely important.

I can remember the huge pleasure of being allowed to go to the library van when it visited school (one of my children once called it the motabile library) and being able to choose books for the school library.

Our local library was more important to me. It was housed in a non-conformist (probably United Reform) church hall. The children’s section consisted of a folding bookcase; in my memory it measured about 2m by 1m. I was a quick reader, and I devoured what seems now like everything in the bookcase, kneeling (appropriately for the location) in front of it every Friday afternoon. I even read a book on judo, I was so desperate for material.

Then, one amazing day, a librarian made a suggestion. “You can use the adult shelves if you want to, you know.”

I turned to the opposite wall. It was just that: a long wall of books. I have a tear in my eye as I write this. It was just wonderful. It was a world opening up, which somehow I hadn’t realised existed. I can still feel the excitement as I remember it.

I don’t know who the librarian was, but I wish she could know how she literally changed my life.

Giddy with the new vistas opening up, at one point I even started to work through authors from A to Z. The library moved to a new building in the car park behind the Post Office. My Friday night pilgrimage continued, often being repeated on a week day. I got to know one of the librarians quite well through my regular visits. I discovered science fiction. I ordered the collected works of ee cummings, inspired by my English teacher. And so on.

I went away to college (returning to the local library in the holidays.) The college library was rambling: it had grown rather organically, adding on rooms. Here I spent rather too much time just browsing, now increasingly non-fiction: poetry, drama, mathematics, education, film, photography, art and more. Again the library moved to a new block and I discovered obscure pamphlets and books in the stack. I also was able to use the Southampton University library and discovered fresh wonders. Thirty years later I was using it again, finding it completely modernised.

I enjoyed the labyrinthine nature of some of the old libraries I used to frequent. Terry Pratchett describes this as L-space; how in large quantities books warp time and space around them.

It all gets a bit more vague through my working life. Certainly I used libraries. I just can’t remember anything noteworthy. That changed with my children. Regular visits happened again. I used to wear a pair of brown brogues; apparently these were known as Dad’s ‘library shoes’.

Now libraries are under threat. To my shame, I haven’t visited one, except for academic purposes, for some time. One of my three grown-up children is an avid reader. My fourth and youngest was, the last time we went, distracted by the toys. I could have a rant here: do libraries need to be ‘information hubs’ or ‘discovery centres’? Couldn’t they just be collections of books to borrow? I suspect, however, I’m way off the pace with this one.

School libraries vary enormously in size, importance and quality. Hovering over all this of course is the shadow of the internet. I am sure that somebody has researched the differences in learning between the web and books. I have a gut feeling that books give a more concentrated experience, but perhaps this is just an old-fashioned view.

So I finish with praise for libraries and librarians; especially for that lady who, all those years ago, opened up my world.


Beeps, Swishes and Bleeps: In praise of the VCS3

I appreciate the small (in number) but select (in quality) group of cognoscenti who read this blog. I know that they will forgive me, or humour me, for yet another self-indulgent post. Either that or they’ll not bother to read it, which is, alas, an all too common reaction. (Are you still with me? I’m having fun writing this, whether you like it or not.)

Way back in the 70s, before Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, WhatsApp, Twitter, Auto-Tune, or even mobile phones (yes, children, there were such times) I read more science fiction than probably was good for me. Naturally, when rock music began to impact on my adolescent brain, I discovered Hawkwind. They could be best described at the time as being a space-rock band. They had it all, including Lemmy as bassist (and a very good one.) Their art work, by Barney Bubbles, was tremendous. Their light show was mind-blowing, even without drugs, which apparently they consumed in large quantities. They had Stacia, a statuesque, often naked dancer. I have probably listened to their ‘Space Ritual Live’ album more than any other piece of music.

EMS_The_Putney_(VCS3)One of the best things about them was the spacey sounds which pervaded all their work of this period. The beeps, swishes and bleeps came from audio generators (very simple technical equipment) and a synthesiser, named the VCS3. The initials stand for Voltage Controlled Synthesiser. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it worked, but it could produce a wide range of exciting sounds- well, exciting to a 17 year old boy (and a 59 year old man.)

The VCS3 was popular for a time. Gong, a band about which I have waxed lyrical here (Musical Bodies) and about which I intend to enthuse again- sorry- used a VCS3, often to create trancey, spiritual, dream-like moods, rather than Hawkwind’s outer/ inner space soundscapes. A VCS3 was at the heart of the ‘creative tension’ that made Roxy Music so exciting for the first two albums. Operated by Brian Eno, it added an avant-garde element to their mixture of rock, rock and roll and nostalgia. Eventually it was clear that there could only be one non-musician in the band, and Eno left. (It appears that his use on stage of tape delays, so that what was played by other musicians was not what was coming out of the speakers, didn’t help.)

Curved Air and Pink Floyd also used the VCS3, though more as added colour than as an integral part of the sound. There were certainly others. I have seen all the above bands (though not Gong in the heyday of the VCS3.) Most exciting at the time was the visceral wall of sound generated by Hawkwind; best appreciated from the balcony (second time) rather than with your head nearly inside one of the double bass drums (first time).

The VCS3 produced sounds which were not universally admired: “a flock of deranged psychedelic chaffinches” was how one-time Gong drummer Pip Pyle described them. Nevertheless, they were part of the soundtrack to my life, and thanks to Del Dettmar (Hawkwind), Tim Blake (Gong) and others, who pushed the musical boundaries.

There are numerous websites which explain how synthesisers work, and give much more detail on the VCS3. I have added two links to my Websites page. The intro to Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ single is a classic example of the sounds of the VCS3, as is the instrumental on Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’.

Photo by Alexander Baxevanis (Flickr: The Putney (VCS3) synthesizer) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Updates for the Cognoscenti

Any brief notes which I feel compelled to add will now be found on the Updates page. Apart from this one, which actually got a comment!

I Have Drunk Beer

There won’t, I feel, be a lot of poetry on here. Sorry if that has misled anybody. (But there might be some…. if the White Goddess chooses me. Reference anybody?)

(Sorry…. JQ has won the prize for knowing that this refers to Robert Graves. Respect.)