Girls Dancing with Lilies

 

Romeo and Juliet, the ballet, was written by Prokofiev in 1936, first as three suites for orchestra and as a piano work. The piano work was later reduced to ‘ten pieces for piano -opus 75’. ‘Girls Dancing with Lilies’ comes in Act III, scene III. It is not one of the better known parts of the ballet. The young girls bring flowers to the window and perform an elegant dance to try and awaken Juliet on the morning of her proposed wedding to Paris..

An elegant melody, it was ripe for butchering by Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra. In this live version, the grace of the Prokofiev original is rendered by Astral Gonad playing an old 1970s organ which was found on the streets of Amsterdam. Ably assisted by Odd Banner and Gaelic Punkt on clarinets, Idea Van Verdi on violin, Mai Que on accordion, Milu Ling on cymbals, Makmed the Miller on blowing things and Bor Berzerka on passive movement.

Some Interesting facts about Prokofiev…

His first composition (aged five) called ‘Indian Gallop’ was in F major but the melody excluded the B flat, since he did not like to touch the black keys.

The premier of his opera ‘The Gambler’, based on Dostoevsky’s novel, had to be cancelled because of the February revolution and the abdication of the Tsar.

In America, the premier of his opera ‘The Love for Three Oranges’ had to be cancelled because of the death of the director.

On 5th March 1953, Prokofiev and Josef Stalin both died as a result of cerebral haemorrhage. The crowds gathered around Red Square mourning Stalin’s death were so dense that Prokofiev’s body could not be carried to his funeral. The funeral was of course held eventually, but only paper flowers were allowed since all the real flowers available had been reserved for Stalin’s funeral.

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‘The Swan’ as a piece of music for the Theremin

‘The Swan’, written by Camille Saint-Saens for cello with piano accompaniment, is the thirteenth movement of a larger piece called ‘Carnival of the Animals’. The Carnival is in fourteen sections. It includes tortoise, elephant, kangaroo, an aviary, pianists(?), fossils and ‘characters with long ears’.

Saint-Saens wrote the piece in 1886, however it was not published until after his death in 1921. He suppressed performances of The Carnival, thinking it was too frivolous and would damage his reputation as a serious composer. In fact only ‘The Swan’ did he permit to be published in his lifetime.

The composer also studied geology, mathematics, botany, archaeology, as well as collecting butterflies. He believed that art and science should replace religion. He may seem to us like a progressive, forward thinking man, but he was far from that. Deep down he was a conservative. In 1913, he was among those who stormed out of the infamous premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ because ‘the bassoon had been misused in the opening bars’. He even hated Debussy. He probably would not have looked kindly on Forgotten Fish Memory’s version of his Swan for theremin and keyboard.

The theremin is an enchanting sounding instrument, difficult to play well. Many musicians who previously played violin were drawn to this strange etheric instrument because the skill set needed is similar. Clara Rockmore, the most famous thereminist, for example, had been a violin prodigy. But even in the hands of a virtuoso only certain tunes are suitable for this most demanding of machines. Tunes which are not too quick, not staccato, and don’t involve great sudden leaps of melody. You won’t see many (any?) players attempting ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ or Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’. ‘The Swan’ is one of the most well known and popular tunes in the theremin canon, but it is not an easy piece to play. The second and fourth lines ascend with quick short notes, the melody then becomes slower and more voluptuous, more theremin friendly, but even here there are tricky shifts of key and harmony, before reaching the end where the challenging ascending line returns.

This version of ‘The Swan’ by Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra is for theremin and DX7 keyboard. The keyboard plays the basic chord accompaniment but all other sounds are produced by the theremin, showing its great diversity of sound and ability to create an other worldly ambience.

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Tomatoes, Apples and Bananas.

Tomatoes, Apples and Bananas.

In a little side street near Jemal’f’na square in Marrakesh, I was doing a little street busking with the Fish accordionist MaiQue. Our repertoire of Scottish/Arabic tunes had attracted the usual small crowd of enthusiastic locals. At a certain moment a young man walked up to me and said that he was a rapper in the Arabic language and would I like to do some recording with him. He lived on the coast and we agreed we would meet up there later on in our musical itinerary through the beautiful land of Morocco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We eventually did arrive in the town of Essaouira, immortalised in film by Orson Welles (Othello) and in song by Jimi Hendrix (Castles Made of Sand). This is where our rapper acquaintance lived. His name Ajoub, but his hip hop name was Saouiri Fugitive. Away from the tourist beaches and tea houses we went deep into the suburbs, to a low rise block where he lived with his parents and his little sister. We sat on the double bed in his parent’s bed room while he and his friend rapped acapella into my mini disc recorder …… ‘Matesha, Tefeheh, Benana’ a refrain about tomatoes, apples and bananas and all manner of things in the market place of Essaouira, some of which were beyond the means of the local population but sold to strange visitors and foreigners.

I came away with two recordings and on returning to the Fish Tank in Europe I added a drum track and several Fish Memory instruments, mostly strings and reeds. The result I find charming and unlike the vast majority of the hip hop you will hear on the radio. If Forgotten Fish are a bit strange then Ajoub himself is also a very quirky rap artist, inhabiting all manner of voices and characters, one minute sounding like a child, the next like an old woman.

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The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phonofiddle

The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phono Fiddle

The phonofiddle is not to be confused with the Stroh Violin. It is a relative in the same family, but has not got a violin fingerboard, rather a long flat fingerboard, and most notably, it only has one string.

At the beginning of the 20th Century these instruments were a bit of a fad. They were novelty instruments, they sounded strange and looked stranger. You would typically find them being played in the music halls of the day. The majority of them were produced by A.T. Howson in London at the end of the 19th Century. Few of them survive in a playable condition.

Initially the most striking thing is that they have no resonating body. How do they even project the sound? They use a sound producing diaphragm as found in an old phonograph. The sound is then projected through an attached metal horn, this gives it quite an evocative and interesting tone. Depending on the talent of the player it can sound like anything from a ‘thin’ violin, to an old 78 record, to a mosquito with a sore throat. The instrument can be played with any horse hair bow, a cello bow is possible, but a bit unwieldy for such a fragile instrument. A violin bow works fine. The fiddle sits between the knees and is played vertically, actually in a similar way to many bowed instruments from India, China and other parts of Asia.

You will not find many of these instruments left in the world. You may see old and damaged ones in museums around the globe, but it is a disappearing artifact. Since it was little more than a novelty instrument to begin with, there is also obviously no traditional repertoire for it. It is a tricky instrument to play, having only one string and a very small musical range of just over one octave. This severely limits the types of music it can produce.

‘The Mysterious Voice of the One String Phonofiddle’ is an album of music which aims to not only introduce the instrument to the curious quidnuncs of the public, but also to address some of the questions raised about musical styles and idioms. The album, by Makmed the Miller, contains fifteen tracks. Most of them are original pieces of work, some more or less improvisations, others ‘real’ tunes. The styles move between tunes of ‘the old world’ and the blips and bleeps of the post-situationist musical landscape in which we find ourselves today.

If you would like the opportunity to hear this album, you can purchase a CD from this blog. Please send an email to Makmed at livewithoutdeadtime@yahoo.com

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The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast

Every night the entire nation of Britain fall into the envelope of sleep serenaded by the softly spoken cadences of The Shipping Forecast….a tiny transistor radio on their bedside table transmits the comforting voice of the BBC, telling them that worse things happen at sea, and otherwise everything is alright with the world.

This statement is somewhere between a truth and a lie.

It is true however that what is basically a weather forecast has become a cultural icon beloved of people all over the British Isles. In the midnight hour as the nation goes to bed it gently permeates the airwaves, warning the ships at sea, from ocean liners to tiny boats, just what the elements are going to throw at them during the night. But in a voice calm, steady and reassuring, regardless of the oncoming possibility of a storm. And the people of Britain, as they slip into a slumber, are reminded that they are an island nation, surrounded by the sea in all its capricious rage, beauty or even calm.

The different areas of the body of water which surrounds the island (indeed islands) of Britain have magical names, conjuring images of faraway places…Viking, Fair Isle, Biscay, Dogger, German Bight. One imagines a lonely yacht bobbing quietly on an empty horizon, with only seagulls for company, or a fishing boat struggling in the north sea against a squall, in torrential rain and wind.

The Shipping Forecast is always presented in a measured, formal and restful, almost serene, manner. This is the key as to why the locals love it so. Even the landlubbers are seduced by the gentle intonation.

The Shipping Forecast was a response to the terrible and regular loss of life at sea during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was initially the brainchild of one Captain Robert Fitzroy. He instigated the issuing of ship’s captains with instruments to collect data on wind, temperature and atmospheric pressure. He invented a ‘Fishery Barometer’ and had a hundred of them installed in harbours and lifeboat stations around Britain. He even went so far as to write rhyming couplets to help sailors understand the information they were getting…’When rise begins after low, squalls expect and clear blow.’ In 1925 the BBC began broadcasting it with their powerful transmitters, and has done ever since, (with the exception of during the second world war).

Because of the specific rhythms of the forecast, and for the way it inspires the imagination, despite being in essence very prosaic, it has often been compared to a performance of poetry. Literary scholars have made comparisons with Pinter! As spoken word it dovetails nicely with music.

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Frida Kahlo

An extraordinary life and an extraordinary woman. Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. Her instantly recognisable paintings, many of them self portraits of almost hallucinogenic intensity, have defied definition or categorisation. Sometimes called ‘naive style’ and Andre Breton included her among those painters who he considered to be surrealist. She rejected the label saying that her work did not reflect dreams, the subconscious or ‘sur’realism but simply her reality.

As a child she suffered health problems, polio in particular. But she overcame these weaknesses and by her teenage years was vigorously active and took up many sports including cycling, skating and even boxing and wrestling. Her father, a photographer, encouraged her in these extreme activities but also educated her in the finer aspects of photography, etching, painting and poetry. Her ambition was to study medicine and become a doctor. All those ambitions were dashed when she had a near-death and life changing accident at the age of eighteen. The bus she was travelling in had a collision with a streetcar. It was a serious crash. There were several fatalities and Frida herself suffered tremendous injuries. An iron rail impaled her pelvis, smashing the bone, fracturing also ribs, legs and collarbone. She was confined to bed . Unable to pursue her desire to attend medical college she constructed an easel which allowed her to sit in bed and paint. Her paintings became the vehicle for those things which her physical condition prevented her from doing, her journeys and exploration into the world and into herself. And although in time she was able, with difficulty, to leave her bed and slowly rebuild some sort of normal life, fate had set before her a path as an artist, a path which she walked with her usual customary intensity.

The self portraits continued but the paintings developed in new areas, taking on aspects of Mexican folk art and in fact Frida herself began wearing traditional Mexican dress, long skirts, an abundance of indigenous jewellery and unusual headdresses. Her work was also influenced by the celebrated mural painter Diego Rivera who she married in 1929. It was a curious and unlikely marriage, he was significantly older than her, verging on obese. She was small and light. Her parents called the match ‘a marriage between an elephant and a dove’. But there must have been a meeting of minds in some way. The marriage was a tempestuous one, both partners indulged in affairs, Frida with both men and women.

The 1930s saw her star in the ascendant. She was recognised internationally, her visit to New York was a sensation and she was considered to be like an exotic bird of paradise.

In the 1940s she produced much larger canvases and some of her most well known paintings, like ‘The Two Fridas’ and the ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming bird’. Eventually her health difficulties caught up with her. She spent ten years encased in the most uncomfortable corsets, having bone grafts to her spine and enduring other related physical hardships. Eventually she was again confined to bed, or was dependent on a wheelchair. She had her right leg amputated at the knee. In a life that was full of torment her last years were particularly tough. She anticipated her own imminent demise and took to drawing angels and skeletons in her diary. Her last drawing was of a black angel with the additional text ‘I joyfully await the exit’. Throughout her life the paintings were honest mirrors of her own world. There is darkness in there of course but a fantastic vibrant life full of colour, an intoxicating paradise abundant with creative force.

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Gagaku

Imagine if there was music that had been created in the 7th Century which still sounds harmonically avant garde today. As early as the 6th Century, Chinese court music came to Japan. The Japanese introduced the koto and the biwa (a kind of lute) and this music became Gagaku. This now very Japanese court music has remained unchanged in its eerie and mesmerising form ever since. It is considered to be the oldest and most highly sophisticated and artistic music of Japan, (just don’t remind them that in its roots it was originally Chinese.)

gagaku-kitanodai

Someone once said ‘beauty walks a razor’s edge’. Our concept of beauty in art or in life is subjective of course but surely we recognise it in that moment when there is a fresh never before seen juxtaposition between the traditional and the razor’s edge of the unexpected, the danger and freshness of the new.

The music of Gagaku is positively haunting. It sounds ancient, as it of course is, but also simply confounds all the received wisdom of how beautiful music should be put together. It is the earliest polyphonic music in the world and seems to obey harmonic laws all of its own. For example a form called Kyojo..it is at first appearance in the key of D. But the drone which underpins it is in E and A. Then the main emphasis of the melody line is E and F. This sets up a kind of implacable tension that just continues throughout the whole piece. This music would often be accompanied by a classical dance (bugaku).

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Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra decided to attempt to recreate something in the Gagaku style but typically approached it using all the wrong instruments.

The traditional court instruments have been supplanted as follows…

Traditional                                               Fish

Sho (wooden mouth organ)                  Accordion

Hichiriki                                                    Chinese oboe (suona)

Ryuteki (transverse flute)                       Block flute

Wagon (Japanese zither)                        Box harp

Taiko (large standing drum)                   African Bass Drum

Shiko (small gong)                                   Tibetan hand cymbals

The Forgotten Fish version was also decorated with percussion which plundered the vast kitchen of orchestra member Milu Ling. The result was a piece of music called ‘Radio Gagaku’. Utterly unauthentic but nonetheless having a distinctive unique ‘gagaku’ quality.

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