Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Und Gott sprach...

Her way in her may jour-
-nal quiff or a bear
The  litter large ease us
Ladle hiss wheated
Thirst Tarzan herb right Skye
Lurk dowry lay
Early tiller cheeses
As lee ponder hey

The cat all a Lerwick
Herb a beer wake
Spud Lidl orgies us
Oak Ryan emails
I’ll have veal or cheeses
Look doubt Prommers guide
Anne stay buy my cider
Till more ninnies nej*

*That's 'no' in Danish, for non-viewers of Forbrydelsen and Borgen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The view from the (organ) bench

One zen Roy or Davy’s settee
Stood alone leak at a shed
Wear another later bay be
Inner major forest bed
Mare he was some other mile
Gee sirs cry stir litter chai

And a rise alas chassis him
Who whisk gotten law doff ore
Handy shell to wash a stay bull
And degrade all rozzers door
Andy leads is chill dremmon
Tudor play swear he a scone

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Solent Way: Part Three

Portsmouth to Emsworth (16 miles)

It's some time since we last visited the Solent Way, the footpath that traverses a fairly diverse stretch of the coastline of southern England, so a two-post special dealing with two sections of the trail seems in order. This time, we're going to finish off the eastern end, from Portsmouth to Emsworth. I've put together a map of the route here.

It was not a particularly bright sort of day when I set out, the kind that suggests rain is moderately likely but may hold off long enough to avoid serious drenching, and presents the dilemma of whether to take the light raincoat or the serious monsoon-proof ski one that will end up being needless extra weight for most of the day.  Happily, the journey by rail from nearby Bitterne station is one I was looking forward to, not so much for the landscape (brief glimpse of the river, bland suburbia, trees, River Hamble, some fields, nearly a coastal view, dirty suburbia, city) but because I used to make this journey on several memorable occasions in order to get to the Isle of Wight.  This was for the Boys' Brigade Solent region summer jamboree-outing-thing (it wasn't called that really), a fun-filled day on the Isle of Wight involving building sandcastles and games such as trying to knock down piles of tin cans with a sandbag. The railway has changed a bit since then, not least with the withdrawal of the old slam-door rolling stock (and 'Please - shut the door!' notices) but also because it's no longer possible to go direct from Bitterne to Portsmouth Harbour on the hourly train without a change at Portsmouth and Southsea, a good-looking but strange split-level construction with the raised through tracks under a canopy, looking rather like the older elevated stations in Berlin.  Trundling out of the other end along the viaduct takes us past the Guildhall and two parks, a shopping centre and into the harbour station.  Portsmouth Harbour is a curious construction, for upon exiting the building one realises that it is actually a pier held up by wooden piles, with the sea lapping underneath the trains. There's HMS Warrior and the entrance to the historic dockyard, the masts of HMS Victory and the grey turrets of modern warships further inside, and the Gosport ferry still trundling across the harbour as when I came over last time.

The route of the Solent Way is a little vague (for which read  'completely and mercilessly unwaymarked') through the city, as paths often are in large conurbations, so I adopt the general principle of keeping as close to the shoreline as possible. This involves going under the railway and being carried along in a crowd to Gunwharf Quays, the shopping mall which was visible from the train. It's unusual in being open rather than a monolithic chamber like Southampton's effort, with shops arranged in 'streets' on the site and a large expanse of waterfront beyond. Here was at the base of the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth's landmark sail-like white pillar, observation levels glazed between the upper ribs. I'd been up it some years ago on a better day than today (there's a glass floor to titillate the nervous) and, as on the last outing, intended to use it as a yardstick to see how far I'd come.  Setting off past what was surely an 'if you need to ask the price, you can't afford it' category of ocean-going motor yacht (and we mean it, the thing was bigger than most ships sailing to America in the fifteenth century) I passed by a sunken pond which was being used as a boating lake for children. If your little ones have ever dreamed of piloting a somewhat unconvincing six-foot replica of a Type 42 destroyer, this is the place to come.

Immediately to the side of the shopping centre were some modern apartments in a parallel avenue, with an equally contemporary glazed tower a short distance away, attempting to be a skyscraper. I spotted what seemed like a likely route onwards to the right, which took me between blocks and past the entrance to the Isle of Wight ferry terminal. Portsmouth's service, operated by WightLink, is shorter than Southampton's and more frequent, but is compromised by limited space both here and at Fishbourne on the island, where a river estuary in a village is the only water deep enough to land a car ferry. The Portsmouth berth is tucked between two promontories and necessitates a sharp turn to access the landing ramp, both factors which limit the size of the vessels. Still, traffic seemed to be healthy - at least judging by the length of time it took me to cross the access road. Next door is the home of a maritime activity one does not most readily associate with Portsmouth: fishing.  Yes, the town has a modest fishing fleet, almost all decorated blue with unique rust areas and mostly concerned with the Solent's oyster and clam stocks.  The boats are moored in an inlet to the side of the ferry port (using the same harbour entrance) which I walked along the edge of to reach the spit known as Portsmouth Point. Classical music aficionados (that's most of my readership, then) will most readily associate this place with the jaunty overture composed by William Walton in 1925,  which is quite appropriate given the history of the area. Also known as Spice Island, it was the oldest port area in the town and handled a swift trade in imported goods, sailors on leave and all the paraphernalia necessary for these articles to flourish.  Although it's today an estate-agent's Christmas list, the character of the promontory has been pretty well preserved as the eighteenth-century, and the pubs are the same as the two depicted in the famous cartoon of the town.  (It's also the very start/end of the A3, should you ever need to know that for a pub quiz).

View Larger Map

Doubling back past all the pubs and finally pointing eastwards brought me to another notable feature of Portsmouth's history - the town walls. They're not quite as unique as Southampton's but just as extensive, enclosing public parks that were once the site of gun emplacements and parade grounds, and you can climb over most of the towers and promenades on top. There are various other points of interest along the way including a half-ruined church as a memorial to the armed forces and a view back across the harbour mouth to Gosport, as well as all the marine traffic steaming in and out. The Isle of Wight ferries mentioned earlier were the most numerous in this respect, but there was also a huge cross-channel ferry bound for Spain (I know this because it was the exact vessel my family sailed on a year ago) and a multitude of yachts. A little further along is Clarence Pier, which is a somewhat creative use of the term given that the 'pier' is little more than a funfair on some decking, reaching only a few yards out over the water.

Trade didn't seem particularly brisk despite this being a public holiday, with only the minority of the cars on the Sky Ways coaster containing any screaming patrons and most of the carousels at standstill, owners stood around looking bored.  Next to the funfair is another 'ride' of sorts - the Southsea hoverport. This is one end of the only commercial hovercraft service in the UK, which in combination with a bus service to the station manages to maintain a trade in zipping across to the island every half-hour on an 'air-cushion vehicle'.  I stood on the shingle next to the ramp eating a sandwich but couldn't yet see the craft promised on the arrivals board.  My patience was eventually rewarded when I spotted a small area of spray several hundred yards out, closer observation picking out the flashing beacon light and then the blue and red superstructure.

Another clear indication a hovercraft is approaching is the considerable noise of the twin engines as the thing flies at you across the waves, not really braking at all until the last moment when the thing theatrically drives up the beach, flinging spray everywhere, and rolls to a halt by pointing the jet thrusters in the opposite direction. The skirts then deflate as the fans power down and staff push a set of aircraft steps up to the doors.  I must get round to travelling on this thing...

Moving along the shoreline opposite Southsea Common come more attractions: the D-Day Museum complete with 360" cinema and the Overlord Embroidery, which is intended to compliment to Bayeux Tapestry; the Pyramids swimming pool (you guessed it, it's in the shape of said cuboid, 80's plastic looking just a bit in need of refurbishment) and Southsea Castle, which dates back to Tudor times, although not the black-and-white lighthouse.  I happened to look back here and see that steaming out of port was a huge grey warship, which I was later able to identify by its markings as HMS Daring, a new destroyer. I presumed it was off to the Indian Ocean, either as support for the war in Afghanistan or else fighting Somali pirates, but the reality may have been more mundane, just a training exercise or official visit. It swept past, as much as several thousand tonnes of vessel can sweep past, and headed down the side of the Island.

Once Southsea Pier has been passed (more plasticky sideshows, but at least a proper pier) the shore becomes less interesting, shingle and hardy grasses on one side and apartments on the other, and presently the path has to turn off altogether to avoid a fort at the mouth of the bay. We now have to start heading north up the other side of the peninsula (technically an island, but only by virtue of the small channel cutting across the top) to get round Langstone Harbour, which is the tidal area cutting Hayling Island off from Portsea and the mainland.

The ten minutes it takes to walk between one shore and the other do not sufficiently convey the contrast between them. The broad shingle beach is left behind to traverse a park (nice tree-lined path, not-so-nice blocks of flats) and suburban residential streets before the Way rejoins the shore just next to a pub. Now the sea is in a shallow natural harbour between Portsea and Hayling Island, full of sandbanks and mud and all sorts of submarine features that the Coastguard would prefer you didn't get stuck in. The boating culture has changed from car ferries and warships to moored yachts and small fishing vessels, including further down the road the small passenger ferry across the harbour mouth to Hayling Island. I now have to walk all the way back up the side of Portsea Island, cross a road bridge at the top and briefly traverse a narrow waterside path by the A27 and A3M, which is not particularly interesting territory, the mud flats of Langstone Harbour to one side and marsh beds to the other with a skyline of flats, industrial units and scrubby plants.  At one point I have to backtrack and divert along a parallel driveway to avoid mud pools on a grassy path, such is the proximity to the water.  The road bridge, one of only two fully accessible entry points to the island (the others are a motorway and a railway) is windy indeed, being positioned over an open channel of water. It's then half a mile walking along the precariously narrow harbour wall, sans railings, until one reaches Farlington Marshes.

On the map, this area looks like an annoyance, two miles going round the edge of a peninsula to end up only slightly further down the path from where you started. It actually provides a fairly diverting change of scenery, an open landscape more like the flats of Norfolk or the Netherlands, with a sunken wetland at the centre and a path going round the edge on the sea dyke. Wading birds dip at the pools and reeds, or flock overhead, and even the noise of the motorway is lost to the fresh sea breezes.  The area was also used a decoy for German bombing raids in WWII, by blacking out Portsmouth and putting lights on the peninsula in order to fool pilots they were aiming at the city.  All this must offer some great photo opportunities given great patience, a good lens and a sunset, but none of these were forthcoming at the current moment. It is at about this point on a long walk - ten, eleven miles - when things start to get a bit achy and one has to force oneself to have a break and drink more, especially given my pace and the wind around here.  I could just make out in the distance the arch of the Hayling Island bridge, and tried to estimate the distance to it, reckoning if I could get there in 1 hour that would be achievable and would be sufficient motivation to get to the end and not cop out at one of the nearby stations. Looking the other way, Spinnaker Tower was a distant needle, appearing as far away as it had been at Lee-on Solent on the last leg.

The path now reaches the edge of Havant and takes on a rhombus-shaped detour that actually is genuinely annoying; up a dirty creek, over a road bridge and along the road past various industrial yards, through some woods and past a cement works to arrive twenty minutes later only a short way across the creek where this sentence started. Thankfully, from this point onwards it's a pretty straight line to the Hayling Island bridge road across some more shingle and marshes. The next signpost, stating that Emsworth is a mere two miles away (which I don't believe) happens to sit on the path of a long-gone railway to the island, now a cycle track  Actually, there still remain the stumps of the bridge that carried the 'Hayling Billy' across the strait parallel to the road bridge, which is not too unpleasing a construction either. At the other side of the Hayling road are some old-looking buildings including what was obviously once a windmill, and a duckpond.  Fairly desirable area, this. A little further on is a curious section of footpath so far unique on my travels - one which is only accessible at low tide. It traverses the shingle in front of a sea wall and as a result the ground cover is an expanse of damp pebbles rather than real footpath, although I had been fortunate to have arrived here when the tide was ages away. Hopping back onto terra firma takes one through a graveyard and some fields before a last bit of expensive real-estate seafront.

View Larger Map

By the time I arrived in Emsworth the sun was out - isn't that nice?  The town has a curved harbour wall around an area known as the mill pond which is wide enough to serve as a promenade, with little information panels about the history of the town (mostly relating to fishing and boats). The exact end point of the Solent Way is a little vague as the waymarking finishes before the promenade, so I chose the little information hut (a pleasant Victorian civic construction with a tiled roof, I should add, not some plastic horror) as the very eastern terminus, only a few yards inside Hampshire . One could easily continue walking from this point, for the Wayfarer's Walk and Staunton Way to the north and the Sussex Border Path to the east join here, and the E9 coastal path continues on to Dover via the South Downs.  I, however, had done seventeen miles already and headed for the station with the eastern half of the trail completed. Next time, the forest.

Langstone harbour and Portsdown
Ryde, on the Isle of Wight
Portsmouth Point
The Isle of Wight ferries

Portsmouth fishing fleet

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Regina coeli

Regina coeli is complete (that's the new choral work I was harping on about last month, remember?) and as such I feel it might be a useful exercise to provide some kind of walkthrough for the work.  I've never done any kind of formal analysis of my music, and don't intend to start now, but a few references to the more comprehensible aspects of motivic development will play a part in the following piece.

So, some basic information to begin with: the piece is in four movements running to approximately thirteen minutes of music in total (maintaining the healthy tradition of slightly overrunning the briefed length), with the third and fourth played attacca. Scoring is on the light side: chamber choir barely dividing beyond four voices, solo soprano and string orchestra with no divisi in order to enable a solo quintet to perform the work. The piece can be categorised as 'tonal' by virtue of the fact it uses key signatures (although pays scant attention to the idea of a tonic-dominant hierarchy), beginning and ending in A major via F major/D minor, E major and C minor.

The formal plan for the work, as explained in an earlier post, was to follow Mozart's example in K.108. To this extent the text is divided between the four movements at exactly the same segments as Mozart (with one important caveat, which we will come to later), and the piece as a whole corresponds (somewhat) to the proportions of a classical symphony, particularly the first movement, which is in a sonata form. Obviously it is not a classical symphony, tentatively a neo-classical cantata, however such a model provides a stimulating point of departure for the composition process.

Although the orchestration for this version exists as keyboard reduction in the vocal score and string quintet in the full, I ought to point out that at some point in the future I intend to produce an 'expanded orchestration' version of this work; not for a full symphony orchestra but for a decent-sized chamber orchestra with winds and percussion, excluding perhaps heavy brass and timps.  It only remains to say that the first performance of the work will take place in Andover, Hampshire on December 8th 2012, given by Andover Choral Society.

In the following analysis the musical examples referred to can be found at the foot of the page.

Mvt 1. Regina coeli; A major; 202 bars; crotchet = 120

I couldn't decide whether to mark this movement 'Allegro', Vivace' 'Presto' or 'Maestoso' so decided to leave just the metronome mark. I trust the appropriate character should make itself apparent when performed. The chorus does the majority of the work in this movement, with the soprano making a few interjections and providing more florid versions of choral material (including a couple of top C#s).  As mentioned, the movement is cast in a sonata form, with a first subject area consisting of a rising motif which we will call (A), very close to that with which Mozart opens K.108, and a dotted-rhythm idea (B), both very short but ripe for development into longer phrases.  Without really being conscious of it, I have ended up structuring this section as a series of different ways to proceed from this motif, with quite a lot of shuffling the order of phrases taking place to make this sequence convincing.  I have also ended up obscuring the tonality a little by introducing F# minor to the first chord of all these ideas in A major. The second subject (C), by contrast, is a more drawn-out and tonally stable melody, one which was originally going to open the work. Later I considered it better to deploy this more stable idea as a contrast to the more changeable character of the opening, which once settled upon made the movement considerably easier to structure around it.  The choir make a few antiphonal exchanges before entering the development.  This is opened by the soprano with a falling motif (D) and features a more extensive passage of counterpoint for the chorus to lead back the recapitulation.  I'm particularly pleased with two things in my string writing here, firstly a passage of rich parallel chords, and secondly a somewhat Sibelian series of rising lines in quavers during the climax. The recap itself revisits most of the opening material with a few new passages and ends up neatly in the home key. It took a few drafts to work out how to end the movement at the right point without either 'closing' the tonality too soon (and so spending bars circling around the same notes) or moving to a key area that would have necessitated an over-long transition back to finish.

Mvt 2. Quia quem meruisti; F major/D minor and E major; 133 bars; Con moto (crotchet = 110)

The 'minuet and trio' movement of the work is in ternary form, but again eschews a traditional pairing of keys.  The material consists initially of falling fourths (E) and another dotted rhythm (F). (E) is then taken up by the choir in unison and then drawn out into a longer melody with a certain plainchant quality, before moving towards the 'trio'. I went through several aborted drafts for a middle Alleluia section (G) before hitting upon a solution to this problem that delighted me - female chorus in close harmony at a pacy 195 beats per minute (effectively one-in-a-bar) with antiphonal exchanges and increasing counterpoint before reaching a firm E major climax.  The transition into this also took a little working, but I am satisfied it links the two parts of the movement convincingly utilising as it does the previously heard rhythms.  As tradition dictates, there is a shortened da capo repeat and an a capella coda.

One aspect of this movement which might need explaining is the omission of the third line 'Resurexit, sicut dixit, alleluia' - 'He was resurrected as promised, alleluia'.  There are several reasons for this, chiefly that the piece is intended as a concert Christmas work and not for liturgical use.  More pertinent to this purpose was the previous line 'Quia quem meruisti portare' - 'He whom you deserved to bear in the womb'. Dramatically, to include the third stanza would have required a contrasting sub-section of the movement which would been highly problematic to the entire piece - even Mozart relegates the line to a relatively brief sequence of melismas by the solo soprano.  I have no qualms about leaving sections out of secular poetry should they not assist the composition (A Child of the Snows misses out an entire verse of the Field poem) and feel the same can be applied to a religious text in this situation. In any case, the word 'resurrexit; appears encoded in as the falling fourths which spell 'Re(D)-So(A)' twice, musically including the phrase through this motif. 

Mvt 3. Ora pro nobis; C minor; 49 bars; Andante (crotchet = 66)

The chorus hardly sing a note in this movement in order to give them some rest, for instead the whole construction is an extended soprano aria.  Again in roughly ternary form with coda, this is the most expressive movement of the cantata and makes use of a falling motif (D) first heard in the development of the first movement.  The strings provide an accompaniment consisting of flowing quavers (again reminiscent of the first movement development) and off-beat chord tones. After the recapitulation, the climax of the movement is followed by a cadenza for the soprano.  The chorus are used for only four bars towards the end and are doubled by the orchestra meaning that the movement could be used as a stand-alone work for soprano - albeit with an alternative ending, for the line dissolves into fourth-based chords in the strings that facilitate an attacca into the next movement.

Mvt 4. Alleluia; A major; 63 bars; Allegro marziale (crotchet = 128)

A comparatively brief summing-up of previously heard material, barely two minutes in length. The basic tempo remains the same throughout the work, but as the opening section features much longer note values the effect is of two different speeds. Initially, the chorus and orchestra use chords based around different inversions of the tonic but introducing a few other harmonies in similar character to the first movement. This then gives way to rapid string figuration and in succession, melody (C), the falling motif (D) for the soprano and (C) again at full volume, followed by (A) and a brief return to the chords for the coda.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Museum

Back in April, the centennial anniversary of the ill-fated voyage of S.S. Titanic put Southampton, if temporarily, at the centre of the world's attention. Unsurprisingly, myself and other friends and family members were most readily involved in musical contributions to the commemorations, not least the massive performance of A Sea Symphony in the docks on the actual anniversary of the sailing.  A more lasting result of all this was that the much-awaited SeaCity Museum opened its doors to visitors, finally furnishing the city with a maritime museum of suitable dimensions for it's historical significance. And today, I finally got around to making a visit - with the intention of publishing a review here, of course.

As much as anything else, the creation of such an attraction represents the city council finally getting off their backsides and actually making something happen with regards to getting some tourist footfall (and income) into the town, although it's a pity that, as has happened before, the (now defunct) Tory administration were claiming credit for it all when in fact the project was initiated during the years of a hung council.  There was a debacle on a national scale during the planning stage when the council tried to sell paintings and a sculpture from the city art gallery to fund the project, and only backed down when the Tate found some legal clause forbidding them from doing so (massive public opposition is much easier to ignore these days). An added contrivance is that all Southampton addresses are generously being sent a free ticket, except that to use it you have to visit together as a household, can only visit outside school holidays in 2012 and not during the first six days of opening. In other words, if you want to take your whole family, you have to have a free Saturday or Sunday or else an inset day which you take off work, and you won't be the first to get in. Typically for the ID Era, they'll also want proof of residence, so if you have a family of three and were hoping to sneak in Aunty Mabel from Whitstable when she came to visit, sorry, forget it; she'll have to pay.

Still, it's a huge leap forward from the little maritime museum that preceded it, housed in a medieval wool house opposite the ferry terminal.  It was interesting, filled with models of ships and bits of anchors and compasses and other delightful nautical clutter, but hopelessly outdated and greatly under-representing the port. Although the inside of the new museum is bespoke, only a little actual new building needed to take place.  The building housing the galleries was built in the 1930s as part of the Civic Centre, and used to contain the law courts and the police station as well as an elegantly thin tower with a four-face clock at the top.  In a wonderful gesture towards the city's heritage, the clock bells chime the first phrase of Southampton resident Isaac Watts' hymn O God, Our Help In Ages Past on the hour. The coppers moved out into a rather Orwellian monolith overlooking the docks in 2010 and since then the entire East Wing has been refreshed and refitted to contain the exhibition halls. The only bit of construction needed was a rather more angular gallery at the north end, replacing some flowerbeds with a series of triangular sections concertinaed into one another, presumably to suggest waves, sails or the bow of an ocean liner. This also forms the shape of the museum's logo, which looks like an upside-down factory with a chimney. They've at least tried a little to blend it into the existing structure with a nice fa├žade of Portland Stone and some smoked glass.

Let's go inside...

The entrance lobby sets out the tone of the museum.  It's not huge, with today just a single attendant behind the ticket desk and a single staircase and lift to the first floor.  The wing is listed, and a lot of interest is in seeing how they've managed to change the building's function whilst maintaining the heritage features, something which has been done rather well. Other than the contemporary block-colour and sans serif style of inserted walls, the original Portland stone and marble is the main interior texture of the building.  The ceiling vaults of the upstairs atrium have a pleasing decorative pattern to them, and the signs directing entrances to the courtrooms have been retained.  One side of the floor, formerly Court Three, is on the general history of Southampton, and seems like a sensible place to begin. The false roof has been left open in places to show the ornate painted wood panelling of the original court, and one can see the coat of arms at the far end too. Space does not permit a full description of every exhibit in the room, suffice to say there were sections on most periods of history from neolithic to modern, and appropriate artifacts.  Beyond this room was a smaller one containing a huge model of the Queen Mary (from the old museum) and a series of displays on various immigrations to and through the city - more artistic than informative, it has to be said, preferring representative objects over things like statistics.

Unsurprisingly, the other half of the exhibition space is given over to the Titanic.  There was an immediate focus on the actual people on the ship rather than the vessel itself - it wasn't built or registered here, after all - and especially the crew, who were mostly Southamptoners.  This was done through following the situation of five individuals on the ship, from Captain Smith to a fireman, through the various stages of the voyage and sinking.  Notable were the wall listing all the items taken on board the ship at Southampton (did you know they carried horse hair and opium?) and the wireless operator's room.  The main part of local interest was the room dealing with the survivors. The floor was the now-famous map of 1912 Southampton with every residence that lost a crew member marked in red.  I also liked that the other courtroom had been used as a space explaining the Titanic disaster enquiry, still left as a court with jury benches, dock and judge's seat. Downstairs, in the new pointy-roofed bit was a special exhibition (presumably the first of many) on the legacy of the Titanic and the public's lasting fascination with it.  There was an interesting wall comparing five films from the 20th century about the ship, and another with a huge variety of objects essentially cashing in on the name, from beer to dolls.  Other areas dealt with the unanswered questions about the voyage - was the ship going too fast, could the lookouts see enough, and the morality of exploring the wreck. One wonders what future exhibitions might occupy this space.

Things to like:


The interactive stuff 

This was all very well-done, chiefly because all the touchscreens and videos were generally used for the most appropriate purpose, showing and explaining things that couldn't be done so well using static displays and information panels.  Some were more child-orientated than others (drive sail the Titanic using a real wheel and telegraph! Rub the screen to 'dig' for buried Saxon treasure!) but all were educational.  There were some other nice touches too, like the 'stained glass window' that was actually a subtly moving projection (watch long enough and you could see the bird dislodge an apple from the tree which fell on the medieval trader's foot) and the Roman video. I personally liked the circular table with an overview map, which cycled round every period of the city's history every ten minutes and allowed several different people at a time to zoom into the relevant areas and read little hotspots of information.

Size and content


I ended up spending about as much time in there as I wanted to spend (in fact I could have stayed longer but it was closing), which I count as a success bearing in mind I'm the sort of visitor who sets out intending  to read all the information and look at all the objects.  Everything in there was also interesting, relevant and objectively presented (although interestingly, a companion on this visit noted perhaps a slight left-of-centre tone, particularly the focus on ordinary working people and several mentions of trade union involvement, both of which accurately reflect the town's political direction for most of its modern history).  That said, see criticisms below.



The conversion from law courts to museum has been carried out with great sensitivity to the building and as a result the whole place looks great.  One of the interesting features, which the architects may or may not have been aware of is the feeling, of being in a transient space, as if one is able to observe the different stages of history just by being there, and there is certainly no sense of having hidden or thrown out the previous function of the building - indeed, it is purposely left on show in places.  Full marks to the builders.

And a few things for improvement:


A bit perfunctory in places.


Although the exhibits manage to cover a fair chunk of Southampton's history, there are some significant omissions. At no point was it actually explained why the area became a port in the first place, nothing on the actual operation of the docks or the liner trade, nothing on other aspects of transport (the railway, the airport and flying boats), and nothing on important periods such as the Georgian spa industry or the Blitz. One appreciates that space was a little limited, and that the conservators had to pick and choose, but with the potential of interactive features physical room need not have been a hindrance in this respect. In particular, the business of the port operations would surely have been a publicity opportunity that an organisation such as ABP would have seized upon, yet there was no mention of the modern container port.  In a similar vein, several things that were featured were inadequately explained. Had I not some knowledge of early modern history I feel I would have been mystified as to who the Huguenots were and why they were fleeing from France - and even then it would have been nice to read more than a single excerpt from the digitised account book belonging to the businesswoman named Judith. Why the Romans and Saxons actually settled in this area was also barely explained.  Some of the Titanic section also felt a bit padded-out - display cases spaced just a bit further apart than they might have been, not quite enough detail. The only exception was the economic background to the era and its crew, which I didn't know about previously.

It's tempting to say that this was solely due to budget constraints: this is all we could afford; is a museum worth it when we have to cut front-line services, that sort of thing; but it is also perhaps symptomatic of a more general modern tendency to assume that people have short attention spans and won't appreciate detailed descriptions or masses of stuff to look at.  I don't think that's a good way of setting out on an entity like this - surely a good museum is one which caters for many people with different levels of interest about different things, each one of whom who will want to see some things in great detail but skip over others?  A museum should also be a starting-point for further private research into areas of particular interest, and as such ought to at least introduce as much as possible to the visitor.

English only


Given the international nature of the city - and the fact that this is a key feature of all the bits about immigration - it seems surprising that there was not a single sign, map, or other piece of information in anything other than English.  The city council publish documents in nearly every tongue under the sun, and rightly so when there are so many languages being spoken here, but not at the museum. One would at least have expected French and Polish. 

Would I recommend a visit? I would say yes, but not to expect the experience to be on same scale as the maritime museums in Liverpool or Belfast. It is more of an afternoon visit than a whole day's attraction. One thing I can't really judge is how interesting a non-Southampton visitor would find it  - I was not particularly impressed by Bristol's municipal museum recently due to finding it too 'localist' - and in fact also thought many of the same other criticisms about that as I have with SeaCity. The general impression of the place was that it was more concerned with people than systems or physical things, which might be less appealing to the outside visitor. However, the widespread appeal of the Titanic should at least provide a good level of familiarity.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


I'm fully aware I've not been doing much blogging recently. And I've also left in limbo how A Child of the Snows turned out. The two are related:

Well, it is at least finished. Why was this not announced in a blaze of fireworks and publicity? Because it's also sort-of not finished. It's probably going to need re-orchestrating or arranging for a smaller chorus and the baritone part possibly to become a tenor one.  To cut a long story short, it's not the piece that's going to be performed this Christmas. There are various reasons for this, chief amongst which it's turned out rather difficult for an amateur choral society, even a good one, and it's also a bit on the long side, nudging twenty-seven minutes when the brief was for around twenty. Happily, I have had guarantees that it will be performed next year, but only when a group of experienced singers and an ensemble that can rehearse in advance (that was the other thing: the instrumental parts just weren't something you could put together in an afternoon) are recruited. 

This left the Andover choir in a bit of a fix - they suddenly didn't have half their concert programme. Obviously the entirely sensible thing for me to do was to write something else in less than a month, which, considering it would have to be as long as ACOTS should have been, and I have a day job, is a perfectly reasonable undertaking and not at all a ridiculously short timescale to do this in.

So I cheated. Five minutes could be taken up with a Christmas carol I'd written last year for a competition. Conductor likes it, few minor revisions, sorted.  It's also unaccompanied, so no messing around arranging an organ or orchestra part either.  The rest of the time would involve an entirely new piece, a setting of the Regina coeli, which is what I'm working on now. Again here I cheat a little. The model for the work is Mozart's noted setting (made at the precocious age of sixteen...), using his division of the text into four movements, similar length and forces (sop solo and chorus) and imitating several of the melodic shapes he uses. With the mantra 'amateur choir, not much orchestral rehearsal' impressed on me, I decided to model the four sections broadly on the structure of a classical symphony. It's a little more complicated than that in practice, as the first movement is a sonatina form but which does not use the usual 18th-century key plan; the second a 'Beethoven scherzo' with alternating fast and slow sections, the third most like a Handel aria for solo soprano and the finale short and frenetic, like the end of the Ravel piano concerto.  Added to the mix is my 'public style' of harmonic writing which is completely unlike most of ACOTS - tonal with some fourths-based stuff, short sections rather than long wandering evolutions, and sounding somewhere between Poulenc, Prokofiev and contemporary post-minimalist composers (Jonathan Dove, John Adams, possibly MacMillan).  My aim, as usual, is to reinvent old forms into something a little more inventive and contemporary whilst not being particularly difficult to sing. The choral writing sets out to be tonal and traditional in the use of voice-leading and harmony most of the time, with a few more interesting twists remaining, I hope, within the bounds of practicality. The result is a work that I hope can be described as 'likeable' - it is certainly very conservative for my output and is designed to appeal to those it is being written for, as well as fitting into the other works in the concert.

At the time of writing I've completed seven minutes in three weeks (all of the first and third movements, including string orchestra parts) and have the other two fairly well thought out. To be honest, I quite like the pressure of having to get something done in a short space of time, and one can hardly protest at the effort required given the historical precedents. Handel and Mozart could write whole operas and oratorios in a few weeks, and even a more individual piece such as Shostakovich's Fifth was completed in less than two months.  Ten minutes for choir and strings shouldn't actually be a lengthy process, given sufficient motivation and experience.

As a closing thought, I often think about trying to record precisely how long it takes to compose a piece. When I set a benchmark (generally seven minutes a month for a full orchestral score: this is based on The Sun Rising taking 3-4 months and ACOTS 5-6) this doesn't really represent working flat out, but rather the amount of spare time set aside from doing other jobs. Of course, thinking about a piece away from the piano and the computer is part of the process and, as Stravinsky claimed, 'the real composer thinks about work the whole time; he is not always conscious of it, but he is aware of it later when he knows what to do'; time which is hard to record.  A stopwatch kept on the desk for weeks and set going whenever a musical thought presents itself would be a difficult thing to maintain, so I have to estimate.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A plea

Please don't bother to practice.

That envelope that you were handed the other day, you know, the brown one with your name and instrument written on the outside? Or perhaps it was posted and you found it on the doormat? It must be the music for that concert you were asked to play in next month.  Beethoven - or perhaps it was Brahms? Anyway, it was only sent because the librarian needed to clear some space on his table and didn't want to have to carry all the parts with him on the day. You're just looking after it for him, no need to open it until you get there.  It's an easy fifty quid gig; just roll up, play a bit and get home in time for last orders. You'll able to sight-read it on the day, you're good at that.

Please don't bother to practice. You've played this particular piece before, even if it was a couple of years ago when you were one of the older ones in the youth orchestra, and, well, there wasn't much that seemed hard in it then.  Saturday after Saturday you would play through it, slowly at first to give the new players a chance to learn the notes, stopping and starting. It was a bit boring really, but it went alright in the concert, you all got to the end without stopping and your grandparents said how good you all were. Anyway, you've heard this since on the radio (well, that famous slow movement), so you know how it goes.

Please don't bother to practice. You're far too busy - working or writing essays or whatever else you need time to do. You literally don't have a minute of free time, especially with orchestra taking up a whole evening every week. Obviously you've got to catch Jeremy Kyle and Eastenders on iPlayer once in a while, and 'go out' on Friday, but nobody likes a Johnny-no-mates who locks himself in a practice room every evening instead of having fun. You certainly haven't got time to go all the way through this symphony, that's what rehearsals are for.

Please don't bother to practice.  It's only a contemporary piece by some bloke you've never heard of and probably never will again, and it sounds awful. This guy - oh no, wait, it's actually by a woman composer - doesn't deserve any time spent getting his work right (that's if what clearly are random bashings on the piano actually count as work), she only writes like this because she can't think of any nice tunes.  Besides, how could anyone expect you to count all those weird rhythms and funny bars? Not like Beethoven and Mozart, now they're proper composers, they wouldn't change time signature every three seconds or write all those high notes, would they? The audience won't notice whether it's right or wrong anyway, it's just a load of noise. Honestly, just not worth wasting your time on.

Please don't bother to practice. You're stuck at the back of the section, nobody cares what you do really, it's just a bit of a laugh this orchestra thing. And if there's any hard bits, well, just make it up or miss it out. Everyone else seems to be able to do it, they can cover for you when it gets high up or there's lots of fast notes.  Admittedly, it sometimes feels like the conductor's looking at you when he shouts 'Don't rush!' or 'I can't hear the solo!' but, well, he's got to look like he's taking this seriously, hasn't he?' Sometimes you wish you could play all the twiddly bits perfectly like the leader can, but if you'd wanted to be as good as him you'd have got there by now, wouldn't you?