Sunday, 12 April 2015

From whence he fell.

My brother and I have a strange sense of humour. Often, we get a little over excited and we let ourselves get carried away with silliness and things that are irrelevant and inconsequential. I was asked yesterday by a friend what my brother's job was. My reply was, "I don't know. We don't talk about those things much." We have, however, discussed in length our fantasy to join the Amish or start a farmstead in rural eastern Europe.

We find it hard to talk seriously, but we can do silly very well. This is often coupled with a sense of the macabre and morbid. This is a text message exchange which highlights it perfectly. My brother text me with this:
I've decided that if I die in a cliff accident I want a bench put at the top with the words, "from whence he fell".
From there, it descended into chaos (see what I did there- descended... oh, never mind). We sent each other a series of epitaphs appropriate for such a situation. Here were the results.

  1. His favourite view- and his last.
  2. Here's a bench, for your repose, where I was dashed on rocks below.
  3. May this seat support your weight, unlike the cliff did on that day.
  4. From this bench a view to see: where I fell into the sea. And as you look and catch your breath, consider how I gasped to death.
  5. And here is planted a small bush, to mark the place where he was pushed.
  6. This bench is a reminder showing, one should watch where they are going.
  7. Here's where I came to watch the tide; down below is where I died.
Have you got any of your own contributions? Which is your favourite?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Music Mondays: Western Film Tunes

Welcome to another sporadic and unfinished series: Music Mondays! This is where, on the odd Monday, I share some things about music I like and why I like them. It's going to be eclectic and it's going to be bizarre.

Western Film Tunes
The Western Film genre probably has some of the most exciting or memorable theme tunes. They often capture so much about the genre itself: the sweeping landscapes, the palpable tension or the beat of hooves on the dusty terrain. There are some particular traits of film music that run through it like a thread of spaghetti (see what I did there).

1. Sweeping melodies
Often, the melodies are broad, with long, sustained notes on strings. It seems to me that sometimes the shorter notes are just incidental: a way to get from one long note to another. Often, the notes are augmented to emphasises this. One of the most iconic examples of the sweeping string melody is The John Dunbar Theme from Dances With Wolves.

If it's not the string section then it's probably the resonating brass timbres that carry the tune. Sometimes, it's shared between the two. Either way, they're going to be heavily underscored with the brass and strings. Sometimes, they will forego the strings or brass for a more interesting solo instrument, such as Man with the Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West. I like this version, because you can see what instruments are being used. And yes, there is an electric guitar (which crops up more often than you think in Western music). Notice how the brass and the strings underscore the flowing harmonica melody.

2. Percussion
It's not just the strings and brass that get the action in this genre, the percussion is pretty busy too. The tunes often have a strong beat and a driving rhythm made by whacking a few instruments with sticks. Sometimes, the beats are almost militaristic in nature. I think there is not a percussion instrument missing from Western scores; you'll find timpani, cymbals, xylophones and glockenspiels, woodblocks and even a few rain-sticks and vibraslaps. See how many percussion instruments you notice from The Magnificent Seven Theme. And don't forget to listen for those strings and brass.

3. Antiphony (call and response)
The melodies often have a sort of question and answer quality to them. There'll be a short rising phrase (probably comprising of sustained notes, played on strings), followed by a short falling phrase (or vice versa). This helps create the sweeping, undulating melodies. Often, one of these phrases is repeated throughout, often as a leitmotif that not only reoccurs throughout the piece, but throughout the film.

One brilliant and fun example of this call and response is in the overture for The Hallelujah Trail. Most of the melodies are made of up of short, repeating themes that are interspersed by a response. This is emphasised in sections when the call is made by one instrument, and it is responded to by another (which are, you've guessed it, brass and strings). But this structure becomes really evident just after half-way in. First, it is marked by a really interesting choice in percussion: clapping. Then the vocals kick in, with a call and response song, switching between male and female voices, and the whole choir together. It definitely has a marching-song quality to it. It's nigh impossible not enjoy the rousing tunes of this theme.

Now, I've put off including this tune for long enough. It has a bit of everything. The sweeping tunes, the percussion and the really, really famous leitmotif. It perfectly exemplifies the Western film tune. Oh, and it even has an electric guitar for good measure.

The famous two note leitmotif reoccurs throughout the piece and the film. It is used for the three main characters, but played on different instruments: flute, arghilophono (a type of ocarina) and vocals. These are shared throughout, it a call and response manner. It has a driving beat that begins on the timpani and goes through the whole percussion section. It even has brass and strings. You can't really get much better than this. This is why Sergio Leone is considered the quintessential Western film composer.

What's your favourite film music?
What do you think makes the perfect Western film?
Which examples have I forgotten?

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Another sneak peak into my notebooks...

Sometimes, I'm a bit of a bumbling idiot. I get myself into ridiculous problems or get anxious about the silliest things. As a result, I have learnt a few things that can help get you through the crazy world we live in.

So, as I often find myself with an inexplicable feeling of deja vu, only to realise that I have been in this situation before and I have still yet to learn from my mistakes, I decided to write some of these down. When my niece turns an appropriate age, I shall give her the little brown notebook with my life lessons in: Uncle Tom's Maxim's.

Some of them are serious lessons learnt from painful mistakes. Others are helpful practical tips. Some of them are to add a little mischief or humour into life. Here are four examples.

Lesson #8
Choose what you are for not what you are against.

Lesson #9
You can boil eggs in a coffee maker.

Lesson #11
If it won't matter in a week, it's not worth worrying over.

Lesson #17
Try to pull silly faces in public without getting caught.

As you can see, some of them are borrowed and paraphrased from far wiser people (like Martin Luther King). Currently, there's only seventeen. Hopefully, by the time my niece is of a respectable age, there'll be a few more.

What advice would you give someone?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A sneak peak into my notebooks...

I have dozens of notebooks; they each have different purposes. Some of them are filled, some of them are empty, some of them have had their role replaced by other notebooks, some are testaments to eagerly embarked on hobbies. Usually, no one ever gets to see inside them. But think yourself lucky...

I have a favourite notebook. It is woefully underused, but it brings a smile to my face when I open it and when I read what is written in it. It's just a jotting of thoughts and moments. I went through a phase of writing things down that I saw, thought of or felt. I did it sometimes on my phone; a lot of those have been lost through technical glitches (rue you, Evernote!).

I thought I'd give you a sneak preview into some of the moments captured.

"What do you have planned for the weekend?"
"Not much," I replied, concentrating on not mounting the curb, especially as I couldn't rely on him using his duel control. "Just homework and stuff."
"You need to get out more," he said with a strange earnestness. "You can't just work all your life."
I didn't need want his advice. I didn't need saving from my boring existence. And definitely not by a driving instructor who stared vacuously out of the passenger seat window while biting his nails.

In my previous job, I would often catch the train to work and would have to wait at various stations. This is where I collected most of the moments in this notebook.

The lady behind the counter greeted each customer as though they had just arrived at her birthday party.
"Hello!" she'd cry while she flung her arms into the air. "What can I get you today?"
She would tempt you with the offers as if she was showing you the buffet table: muffins, croissants and a you-know-you-want-to smile.

I'm especially fascinated by glimpses into worlds that I'm not usually a part of. It's like peeking through a keyhole in a locked and mysterious door. There were two builders at the train station one day that caught my attention.

"We'd never get a one point two in there," he said, waving his hands at the ceiling. "And what about the trunking? Fifty by fifty, you think?"
His companion mumbled an answer, gazing at wherever the louder man waved.
"It's getting the fixing for it," he said with a finality as if he solved all life's unanswered questions. "That's going to be the problem."

There are always some unusual characters at the train station (it's usually the guy with the little black notebook, writing down other people's conversations. Say hi, it's only me).

In the midst of the modern passenger and their accessories- bright pink trundle cases, high heels, canvas satchel bags and grey coats- was a man oddly out of place. He was wearing plus-fours, thigh high socks, loafers and a tweed flat-cap. If wasn't for the absence of a gun, he may have been off for a spot of grouse shooting.

This may be a New Year's resolution for 2015: fill the notebook. I hope this has given a little insight into the inside of my mind and how I see the world. Okay, one last one.

What I hate most about being thrust into a group of people I don't know is the utter drivel people talk. I am talking drivel, the person next to me is talking drivel and the excitable woman in the corner is most certainly talking drivel. At least I have an awareness of what nonsense I am speaking. Others do not. That woman is spouting it with such fluency she must have practiced it as one does a foreign language: with tedious repetition.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Pop Sonnets

Pop sonnets are one of the most ingenius things I have ever seen (closely rivalled by Mr Men reviews, which will be reviewed themselves next week). The idea is simple, but it's execution is perfect. The writer takes contemporary pop songs and turn them into Shakespearean sonnets. Complete with iambic pentameter, archaic words and pronouns, they seem to be taken out of the early 1600s.

Perhaps, before we consider what a masterpiece these witty poems are, we should consider the significance of the sonnet form itself.

A sonnet is an Italian form of poetry, that has been popular across Europe and has been used in many different contexts. There are various different types of sonnets, which have been modified through history for different purposes. The simple basics about sonnets are that they have fourteen lines (unless it's Sonnet 99 and 126 by Shakespeare) and they rhyme.

Originally, the sonnets had a problem/resolution form. Basically, there were two ideas that were linked. The first eight lines would have the first idea, and the remaining six lines stated the second idea. This change of ideas (called the volta) would be marked by a change of rhyme scheme. The first eight lines would have two sets of an a-b-b-a pattern. There were a number of ways the last six lines could go; commonly it would go c-d-e, c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c. There were other ways you could do it, but you would never end with a rhyming couplets- for some reason Italians didn't like it. These sonnets are called Italian or Petrarchian sonnets (after Petrarch, the guy that did not come up with them- that was Giacomo di Lentini).

However, English sonnets were different. The idea of the sonnet reached English shores a lot later and in the form of translation. They still had fourteen lines, they still rhymed, but were, perhaps, simpler in their execution. They generally consisted of an alternating rhyme scheme for the first twelve lines (a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f), completing on a rhyming couplet (Petrarch would be outraged!). Again, the English sonnet would have a thematic shift in the ninth line (the volta). Shakespeare, the saucy rascal, however, would usually leave the volta until the thirteen line, and the couplet would show the second idea or a summing up of the poem as a whole.

Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous sonneteer in the English language. He wrote 154 of them, as well as some making up the lines of his play. The scene where Romeo and Juliet meet consist of a perfectly balanced sonnet. Romeo holds the first quatrain (first four lines), Juliet speaks the next, complementing his religious language and metaphors with those of her own. The third quatrain is divided between them, and they each share a line of the finishing couplet (finishing with "purged").

How beautiful.

Henceforth, the sonnet form is used throughout literature until the present day (although it did fall out of fashion for a little bit before Wordsworth, à la Timberlake, decided I'm bringing sonnets back). Wilfred Owen used the form in, perhaps in a somewhat ironic fashion, his Anthem for Doomed Youth. The form is often reserved for themes of love, but this time it is used to describe the loss of thousands of young men during the fighting of World War I. It could symbolise the love he had for his fellow comrades, but the ironic reading fits in with the use of the celebratory and patriotic word 'anthem' in the poem's title.

Now, the time-honoured tradition of sonnets is being celebrated by this wonderful, wonderful person who invented the pop sonnet. It's purely Shakespearean in style (alternative rhyme, volta towards the end in the rhyming couplet, iambic pentameter), and they are so perfect they could almost be genuine. There are currently thirty two of them, but new ones are released each Thursday. Go check them out.