Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Karma Chameleon

THIS MORNING I witnessed a death. I was driving home, out of town and into the country. As a novelist I naturally notice things and ahead of me on the road, moving slowly--very slowly--swivel-eyed and hesitating step-by-step, was a young chameleon. I took care to avoid him and drove up to my gate. Whilst I waited for the gardener to open the gate I looked back at the chameleon, still on its hazardous journey across the road. I thought, My heart's with you guy, but I don't think you'll make it. Immediately, a kombi hurtled down that stretch of road, its driver oblivious to the tiny creature; amazingly it missed the chameleon. But the car following quickly behind didn't and the creature was spun into the air and landed, inert, on the road. And then a truck rushed along and squashed it flat. And I was thinking, that's a life lesson right there, isn't it? One moment you're here; the next moment you're gone. For that chameleon, the struggle is over; for us the daily struggles go on: but also the joys, the triumphs and ephemeral achievements of what all of us call life.

c Kenneth Rowley 2015

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Classical Sunday 1: JS Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

JS Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are amongst the gems of the entire classical repertoire, not only the Baroque period. Composed throughout his career then selected, assembled and reorganised, Bach presented these works to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. Bach may not have heard these pieces performed as a complete work; the Margrave certainly didn't. He didn't have enough musicians in his Berlin orchestra to have them performed and so the manuscripts went straight into his library and were only discovered over a hundred years later, in 1849! How fortunate for us that they were! The manuscripts were first published the following year, in 1850, and have since then become regularly performed, frequently recorded, and very popular works.

The youtube performance given here is of the 5th concerto, performed by one of the best period performance ensembles, the Freiburger Barockorchester, and filmed at Cothen, where Bach worked as a court musician.

This is the concerto that includes an amazing section written to spotlight the harpsichord. I hope you enjoy it.

c Kenneth Rowley 2015

The Christian Rats

The Christian Rats

Here’s an interesting example of how language and its idioms change through the passing of years and movement between different cultures.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) there was a common expression, “to be as hungry as a church mouse”. This expression came about because in those days churches had neither kitchens nor storerooms, unlike eating places and homes, so a mouse that tried to live in a church could literally starve to death.
During the next few hundred years, however, the saying became “to be as poor as a church mouse”. This change is easy to explain, for the poor of every nation have always struggled to get enough food to eat well.
Then, in the nineteenth century, when Christian missions began to spread throughout the world, establishing churches and the English language, this revised expression naturally travelled with them.
Fast-forward to our era, and the expression has changed again. I came across this interesting passage recently in the introduction to a book discussing the proper Christian approach to wealth:

‘Once upon a time, an extremely poor person used to be likened to a church rat. The expression was ‘as poor as a church rat’. This meant that the Church/believers were so poor that they barely managed to survive and so could not have anything left over for the rat in the Church to feed upon.’

Here, not only has the mouse become a rat but through personification the rat itself has become a Christian!

This is yet another fascinating example of language change. I hope you found it as interesting as I did.

© Kenneth Rowley 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

Spirit(ual) Music!

Spirit(ual) Music

I WOKE UP with Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite in my head, so I listened to Savall's recording of it, and it seemed to me that it was like the Creation of the World as described in the book of Genesis. Like the biggest of big bangs, it begins with a bubble of energy, effervescent, from which a few themes emerge. It's turbulent and pregnant with possibilities. Then there's a movement of transcendent beauty (the famous Air)--this is 'the Spirit of God hovering over the waters'. It's impossible not to be charmed by the serenity and pace of this music. This movement is the spiritual heart of this suite and it really does take you to another place, a place of movement in repose. The rest of the Suite introduces different forms, some rhythmic in purpose and others with soft beauty. These are the forms that emerge from the primal emptiness at the beginning of the work. The Heart Sutra is relevant here, 'form is emptiness, emptiness is form'. It might be fanciful to think of Bach having such thoughts in mind as he composed the work, but who knows? We know that he wrote everything to the glory of God. It's a fancy I enjoy.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG0CnCZXbUE

c Kenneth Rowley 2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's Smooth!

THE CRITICS HATED the Carpenters, saying that Karen's voice was invariably bland and that Richard's arrangements were almost always MOR. But then, they've never forgiven Bob James for creating 'Smooth' jazz either. The Carpenters and Bob James have similar characteristics: both musical acts are highly professional, polished, and extremely popular. And, natch, they're both smooth on the ear.

That of course is the point. We don't always look for something demanding or challenging or adrenalin-boosting; sometimes we want to just go to a party and unwind, smooch a little, cuddle a little, and maybe enjoy a slow dance or two. And that, exactly, is why we bought the Carpenters Singles album by the millions.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfixkzWT6qw

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Perfect Abbey Road

The Perfect Abbey Road



ONE THING THAT Steve Jobs understood that music industry executives didn't is that we love our music. In initiating digital downloads from iTunes he allowed us to create and burn our own playlists and our own versions of classic albums.

This is something I've been doing myself for many years. You see, on almost every album there are either a few fillers -- songs included to pad out the album -- or just songs that we personally don't like. Then there are also the songs not included but we wish they had been. On the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's, for example, there is the one I don't like, Paul's 'When I'm Sixty-Four' (what John Lennon caustically referred to as 'one of Paul's granny songs') and the one I like but think doesn't belong there, George's 'Within You, Without You'. On the other hand, there are the two songs that even George Martin wishes had been included but weren't: 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane'. Whenever I listen to the album these days, those two left-offs replace the two I don't want there.

I have done this kind of thing with many albums: Eagles' Hotel California and The Long Run, Bowie's Heroes/Helden, The Who's Sell Out, and so on.

Likewise, I have my own classic Abbey Road: I've replaced the Paul granny song that the other Beatles hated, 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' (Lennon even refused to play on it), with the raw-but-powerful version of John's "Don't Let Me Down" that was released on "Let It Be (Naked)". The rest of the album remains unchanged. It is, for me in this personalised version, not only the perfect Abbey Road, but also the perfect rock album.

c Kenneth Rowley 2015

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Heat and Storm

I love African summers, when a heat-haze rises from the roofs of cars and shimmers from the tin roofs of lean-to shacks and precarious mud-brick buildings. On such days the heat is at first invigorating; only later do you notice how it has sapped your strength and left you feeling as wilted as the grass and avocado trees in your garden. On such days the sky is a deep blue that stretches out seemingly forever, a blue you can get lost in, a blue that is reflected in the bright shallowness of the water in your family’s swimming-pool. On such days the ladies walk slowly beneath umbrellas, shading themselves from the heat; matrons lounge on straw-coloured grass mats placed on smooth rocks beside water-berry trees that offer respite from the sun; and slowly, stealthily, snakes slither out unseen from beneath these same rocks to glide into the cool river nearby.

The Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi described this weather musically in his Four Seasons concertos: the flies buzzing, the peasants drinking and dancing, the slumber of all during the time of siesta.

But just when the stupor and drowsiness is at its peak, a strong wind appears out of seemingly nowhere, rattling the windows and slamming the doors. The water in the previously placid pool begins to dance. The trees sway, the birds clack-clack in warning. You feel the cold air sucking in; in a moment the sky is dark, then a terror of power is unleashed from the heavens as the storm hits with a sudden onrush. Quick, quick, unplug everything! Quick, quick, bring in the washing from the line! Quick, quick, make sure the car is inside the garage, for there might be hail. You remember last summer, when the hailstones were as big as your fist, punching dents in your car roof as if they were the hands of a giant boxer going for a knockout in round one. They were like the hands of a giant drummer, pounding on the tin roofs of the fragile shacks now shaking in the wind.

There is nothing you can do during such a storm except pray. O Lord, keep us safe, protect our windows, protect our crops, keep safe anyone outside in this storm. The wind whistles, the thunder groans and roars, the rain-hail beats a tattoo on the glass panes and you realise just how small and weak a thing it is to be human. But our delicate fragile human lives, that pass like an African summer’s day, are also things of wonder and exhilarating beauty.

© Kenneth Rowley 2015