March 2013

Doctor Who is back! :) And I think that episode got it off to a good start for the half-season. As usual, this isn't so much a review as a collection of thoughts, hopefully coherent.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

So, a computer/hacking based TV story that I felt actually worked. OK, so if you stare too closely at the seams then you'll find the holes to drive the truck through (and I did have one moment where I felt they tried to get too specific & thus the suspension of belief wobbled). But overall I thought they managed to be vague but truthy enough to make it work. (Truthy as in not necessarily true but sufficient for the story to convey the weight and heft of truth.)

I like the way the upgraded Clara & the Doctor complemented each other - he was "old-fashioned and hacked technology" and she knew that the people are always the weak link in a security system. Of course everyone had their workplace on facebook or some other social media site ... mind you, that does constitute a bit of a plot hole - high security workplace might be expected to tell people they need to be careful about social media. But the other side of it (that you'd think the top people would be aware of what their employees were doing) is probably fair enough - they're hacked & running software based on what the Great Intelligence wants/understands so I'm not surprised they were flawed in their understanding of human nature.

And we didn't see the Great Intelligence coming across as particularly intelligent or able to deal with people in the Christmas special either. Thinking of that - I liked the way that sure the GI knows who the Doctor is and has Miss Kizlet watching out for him, but it's personal and small scale. It's because 150 or so years ago it met the Doctor, not because he's some sort of universe wide saviour figure.

On that note, who is "the woman in the shop" who gave the "best in the universe helpdesk" number to Clara? Presumably that'll turn out to be a plot point, once we get further into the who is Clara mystery. Still hoping that works out more emotionally true than previous Moffat mysteries, but still refusing to speculate (well, as much as I can help).

Seemed odd that the title of the episode turned out to be just that one early pun - the bells of Saint John being the TARDIS telephone. Incidentally, according to google and to wikipedia a longer version of Oranges & Lemons Say the Bells of St Clements than the one I know has the verse "Pokers & tongs, say the bells of St Johns". Who knows if or how that's relevant ... last verse of the nursery rhyme is "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head!", ominous? Probably not.

I didn't really buy Clara's complete cluelessness about computers & the internet, but I did think they did well at showing how the computer skills package changed her. Even if the Doctor flagged it up by pointing out her joke about twitter, it still came across in the way she changed around the computer. I do hope the complete cluelessness isn't a plot point tho (ie it has something to do with her previous Victorian incarnation), that'd feel a bit tedious I think.

I thought they did a good job of drawing out what's the same about the various Claras - quick witted (with or without computer knowledge), sure of herself, and cares about other people. I also liked how her reaction to the Doctor's invitation was "what, does that ever work??". She's not putting the Doctor up on a pedestal of "oh so special", so even tho I'd rather it went down the Donna/Doctor friends route it feels less icky than, say, Doctor/Martha.

The end for the Great Intelligence's human minions was pretty chilling. Well, for most of them it was just an awkward few years of amnesia. But for Miss Kizlet, the woman in charge it was horrific - she'll grow up now, I guess, into a middle-aged woman's body with a lot of her physical life behind her. I don't think the actress quite pulled off the reversion to early childhood though (but she did a good job during the rest of the episode of making us think of a less ethical M-as-played-by-Judi-Dench). And the Great Intelligence not only got away scot free, but the Doctor doesn't even know it was the same Big Bad as it was when he met the previous Clara.

Oh, and was I the only person who thought of the human Daleks when the sound effects for the twisting head started on the first spoonhead? So another reminder of previous Claras. The book the camouflage for the spoonhead came from was a nice shoutout to the Ponds too, understated but there for those of us who were paying attention.

Christmas Gargoyle

Maybe it's not Christmas any more, but it's still cold & wintery weather - so here's a Christmas decoration even tho it's Easter :)

Tags: Photo

"The Age of Tragedy" was the title of the fourth episode of Howard Goodall's Story of Music and it was all about music of death and destiny (and doom!). Even the more light-hearted stuff from the late 19th Century could have these sorts of themes. Goodall opened the programme with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique which can be seen as the inspiration for these themes - and we got to hear some of while being shown the sorts of paintings of hell & tormented souls & demons that inspired this type of music.

He then moved on to Italian opera, including the stuff of Verdi, which at first seemed out of place for his primary theme but let him introduce one of the secondary themes of the programme. He talked about how this was the mainstream entertainment of the day - not just expensive seats & toffs in top hats, but the middle classes also went to the opera. And the tunes and songs were written in a lively, memorable style, they were picked up by barrel organ players & played in the streets for anyone passing by. These were the songs everyone knew the words to - just like pop music or a musical of today. Classical wasn't yet something for "the serious people" - which is the theme he returned to at the end of this programme. Tying it back to the death and destiny theme he pointed out how these operas (like La Traviata) let good respectable Victorian-type people have their cake & eat it - you get to enjoy seeing the people in the story acting scandalously, and then they get their comeuppance by dying miserable, so the moral order was upheld.

We then returned to more Germanic music and the majority of the programme focussed on the music (primarily concerned with death and destiny) and innovations of Liszt - Goodall structured this section around a list of Liszt's innovations (yes, the pun was clearly intentional, like all the puns Goodall has managed to get into this series :) ). It was quite a long list, fittingly as Liszt had a long & prolific career. He was also one of the first international superstars of music - Goodall told us that women frequently became hysterical at performances (implied tho not stated was the comparison with Beatlemania).

One of Liszt's innovations was the symphonic poem - instead of a whole four movement, 40 minute symphony these were shorter one movement pieces. They were normally based on a particular non-musical artwork, so Goodall talked us through one piece that was about a particular painting (of the defeat of Attila the Hun in about the only battle where he was defeated) showing us how the musical motifs were related to the elements of the image. He then developed this further by relating it to a more modern form - this can be thought of as the origins of film scores.

Another innovation was the movement for "nationalistic" music - so for Liszt this was taking the Hungarian folk music tunes of his own country & writing music based on them. This became a important strand of classical composition, but didn't bear much resemblance to the actual folk music of the countries concerned beyond tunes that were vaguely reminiscent. This leads to concerns about appropriation in cases where the composer isn't relying on their own country's tradition - for instance Dvorák's New World Symphony uses themes that are inspired by African-American music or Native American music. Which is a debate that's been relevant ever since - coming up again with blues & with jazz & with world music.

And this list of Liszt's innovations moved onto the last section of the programme by listing Wagner. Wagner was clearly inspired by Liszt and Goodall went through many of the innovations that Wagner is credited with and pointed out how Liszt had in fact done it first. However he did point out that even if Wagner wasn't as innovative as his devotees would like to think, he had better tunes! He also spent time talking about the way that Wagner changed the format of opera from the lighter more variety performance like Italian operas. Wagner was writing operas that were one coherent piece of music, rather than a selection of songs - and he made great use of leitmotifs for each character or concept in the story to bring the music together and to enhance the visual and storytelling aspects of the opera. And he used parts of the opera Parsifal to showcase this. Again you can see the comparisons with modern films.

And as Goodall was talking about Wagner and giving him credit for the good things in the music and operas he wrote I kept thinking "he's not a Wagner fan". And just before the programme got to the point, I remembered why one doesn't like Wagner - he was appallingly anti-Semitic (and racist) and not in a "oh well, product of his time" sort of way. Even by the standards of his anti-Semitic culture he was regarded as an extremist, and he published things that suggested the best course of action to the newly unified Germany was to get rid of all the Jews. After his death his music was used by the Nazi regime as part of their national mythology and Hitler was a big fan of the music, the programme showed us footage of the surviving Wagner family welcoming Hitler to their house.

And after that sobering segment Goodall closed the programme by talking about how he feels that Liszt & Wagner's devotees have had a long-lasting impact on the perception of classical music. Their music is held up as serious music for serious people, who think about things and understand the true meaning of art. Not like that popular frothy stuff written by people like Gilbert & Sullivan, or those Italian operas, or the music of Offenbach. So a split developed between highbrow "worthwhile" music, and the rest which was looked down on by those who approved of the highbrow stuff.


Waldemar Januszczak's series about the Dark Ages finished up with an episode about the Men of the North - which in this case means not just the Vikings but also the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians. Discussion of the three cultures were woven together through the programme, but I think it's easier for me to seperate them out when I'm writing about it.

The Carolingians were really only briefly mentioned - this is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Franks at a time when the Frankish empire grew to stretch across a large part of Europe. Charlemagne is one of the most famous Carolingians, and Janusczcak showed us the throne of marble and the chapel that he had built. It was designed as an answer to the Cordoba mosque, so has some similar motifs (like the stripey arches, in this case in black & white not red & white). But as a whole it's very different - more heavy and more brutal. The more portable art of the period was very opulent with lots of gold, and encrusted with jewels. This was all a reflection of the mindset of the culture - God was on their side because they were just that special.

The segments on the Vikings showed us some of the same art work that we'd seen in the Neil Oliver series (post) - in particular a boat which had been part of a burial, and a stone that commemorates the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Unlike the Oliver series this series doesn't do the high amounts of messing about with depth of field, so we actually got a proper look at carvings on the boat which are very impressive :) The themes were also somewhat similar to the Oliver programmes - the reputation the Vikings had wasn't the whole story, they were also artisans as well as looters.

In the sections on the Anglo-Saxons Januszczak showed us the Lindisfarne Gospels, paying particular attention to the celtic influences in the art - the interweaving patterns in the borders & the illuminated capitals. He also showed us a grave-marker from this time - a cross with this interwoven patterns - and that lead to one of the giggle-out-loud moments of the programme. He said, as he was describing it, that it was his favourite because "it's not quite right, a bit wonky, and you just want to hug it"! We also got the Sutton Hoo treasure - you really can't miss it out if you're talking about spectacular Anglo-Saxon art. And Januszczak also showed us a modern craftsman (who used to be a forger, but now makes original designs) making a silver brooch of a style akin to the Alfred jewel (which we also got shown).

I've enjoyed this series, and it's a shame it's finished now. I do have my doubts about the historical accuracy (see my post about the first episode for an example) but it was entertaining and nice to see all the various objects & buildings. Januszczak was a good presenter and his quirkiness grew on me.

A couple of weeks ago we went into London for the day & in the evening we went to see Steven Wilson playing at the Festival Hall. Not a venue I'd been to before, although I suspect I've seen it on the telly as it looked familiar. It was all seated, which is a rarity for rock events & even though it means I get a better view it still doesn't have quite the same atmosphere as a "proper" gig. Due to a degree of organisational fail when booking tickets (ie no-one talked to anyone before they bought them) we ended up all sat in different places - J & I were together and Ady a few seats away in the cheaper seats & Ellen & Paul both in the further forward ones but not in the same place.

There wasn't a support band, just the main act - although this is Wilson's solo stuff he has a band to record with & tour with, it's just that he's the one that writes the music & sets the direction (unlike with Porcupine Tree which was more collaborative). The various musicians are all very good so fascinating to watch. And they had some good video visuals to go with the music. I do have one quibble about that though - the lighting for the band meant you couldn't always see the visuals & it seemed a shame to've taken the time to make the little films and then have them not always visible. There was also a return of the curtain in front of the band trick from the last tour - just for a couple of songs in the middle this time including Watchmaker, with the visuals projected onto the curtain rather than the screen at the back. Even by the standards of visuals for a Steven Wilson song those were pretty creepy!

They played most, if not all, of the new album (The Raven that Refused to Sing) plus highlights from previous Wilson solo albums. Including Postcard, which I like (J is a bit tired of it as a song). And finished up with an encore of an old Porcupine Tree song - Radioactive Toy - which I haven't heard at a PT gig in years & years (and nowadays it fits better with Wilson's solo stuff than what PT became). Wilson's solo stuff is odd for me - I rarely if ever listen to the albums, pretty much never via me actually choosing to put them on. But I do like it live, and I know startling many of the songs when they're played.

Wilson wasn't all that talkative, he rarely is, but there was one bit in the middle where he was introducing Raider II that sticks in the mind. He said he'd been looking at amazon reviews and there was one that said the person liked the new album and it had all the Wilson trademark things including Tolkein-esque lyrics ... "Tolkein-esque?!?". Wilson said his mother had brought him up to write songs about serial killers, not about hobbits! And pointed out his mother who was at the concert, in the royal box.

A good gig :) And here's the video for the title track of the new album - and it was shown on the screen behind the band while they played the song at the gig:

Comets are an astronomical event/phenomenon that have exerted quite a hold on the imagination of people in the past & it's only relatively recently that we have any understanding of what they are or why they happen. The In Our Time programme that discussed them primarily focused on the astronomy but did touch on the omens and portents side of them as well. The experts on the programme were Monica Grady (Open University), Paul Murdin (University of Cambridge) and Don Pollacco (University of Warwick).

They discussed what is known about comets and what the current theories are about where they come from etc. Comets were formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system - when the nebula that formed the sun and planets coalesced at a particular distance from the sun is what is known as the snow line, and beyond this small lumps of ice formed. These are the comets. Grady told us about the Oort cloud, which is a spherical region around the outside of the solar system where the comets orbit. When something perturbs this - gravitational changes due to the relative movements of our solar system & other parts of the galaxy, for instance - a comet might get jostled free and plunge in towards the sun. I specified that it was Grady that discussed the Oort cloud because one of the others (Pollacco, I think) was of the opinion that it wasn't so much a sphere around the solar system, but more that this is how the spaces between the gravitational wells of different stars are filled (if that makes sense).

Once a comet is jostled free it still orbits the sun, but now the orbit is an eccentric one as compared to the planets. All the planets orbit in the same plane, in the same direction, in roughly circular orbits. But comets can be in any plane, and often move very close to the sun before returning to a much further out position. Comets are split into two classes - short-period and long-period. Murdin (I think it was) said that they'd like to be able to classify them by composition or something like that, but sadly we just don't know enough about them to do that. So long-period comets take a long time to come back - this might be a few hundred years, or it might be forever. Some comets break up when they get close to the sun, due to the heat & gravitational pull. Some comets swing round the sun once and then go back to the Oort cloud (or whatever the true situation out there is). Short-period comets come back more often - Halley's Comet is an example of this sort of comet.

They were saying that we only actually know the orbits & can predict 150 comets out of the many millions that there are. And Pollacco was crediting Halley's prediction about his comet's return as being one of the factors that helped to get the Enlightenment going. Basically he was saying that it was a very good demonstration of the power of science - Halley predicted the return of the comet despite this occurring after his death via scientific observations & mathematics, and then this prediction came true.

There is a little known about the composition of comets - due to space missions that have flown past comets and through their tails. One of those missions was named Stardust and it brought back some of the particles in a comet tail. They know that comets are lumps of ice, that are pretty small by cosmic standards - up to a few hundred kilometres across. They aren't white like you expect when you say "ball of ice", they're black due to all the dust and rocky particles in them. Bragg asked what the difference was between an asteroid and a comet & the answer was partly the place you find them orbiting, and partly it's a continuum where asteroids are icy bits of rock, but comets are rocky bits of ice. As a comet gets closer to the sun (inside the orbit of Mars) it develops a coma, which is gas that has sublimated out of the ice. A comet has two tails, both created by the effects of the sun. One of these tails is lots of bits of dust - melted out of the comet by the sun's heat & left behind as the comet moves. The other tail is the coma being pushed back by the solar wind & radiation - this is the ion tail. The Stardust mission brought back bits of the first type of tail, and they found that these are little bits of rock much like rocks on earth - made up of silicon, plus some carbon, some nitrogen etc.

Bragg brought up Fred Hoyle's theory that life on Earth was seeded from outer space by comets - discredited some time ago - and was slapped down by Grady (politely, but firmly). Hoyle was postulating that bacteria were present on comets and this is where life came from, but at best comets may've brought some of the water and minerals needed for life to the Earth.

While on the subject of how astronomy is a science where you might have things you want to know but you have to live with the things you can find out, they talked about the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact on Jupiter. This comet was discovered in 1993, and it shortly afterwards became apparent that it had not just been captured by Jupiter's gravity but was going to crash into Jupiter. In 1994 this happened - sadly not quite in full view of all the telescopes, but the aftermath was clearly visible. Despite the relatively small size of the comet the marks it left were spectacular - about 80% the size of Earth! The comet broke up into about 25 pieces, and these hit in turn generating a straight line of marks. As each piece hit it ploughed through the atmosphere leaving a hole behind itself, and once it had hit the lower region of the atmosphere spurted back up the hole leaving a dark mark on the surface of Jupiter. Having seen the pattern of marks astronomers looked at craters on other planets/moons, and could see other examples of a row of craters in a straight line - presumably also from being hit by comets or asteroids that fragmented before they hit.

Thinking about comets is one of those things that makes it clear just how fragile life is on this planet ...

There's a new two-part documentary on Ancient Egypt showing on BBC2 at the moment, and despite recording it J decided to watch it as it aired on Friday & I joined him in this (I'd actually planned to watch the second half of the footy after dinner, but the ITV stream on their webpage was so lousy (constantly re-buffering & dropping out) during the half-time chat that I gave up on that idea).

In this series Joann Fletcher is telling us about the more ordinary inhabitants of Ancient Egypt - not the Pharaohs & the aristocracy but the more middle class inhabitants of the village of craftspeople that's been excavated in Deir el-Medina. 3500 years ago this village (just called the village in Egyptian times) housed the people who worked on the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, and it's situated just over the other side of the mountain on one of the sides of the Valley. In this first programme Fletcher used the grave goods of a couple called Kha and Merit, and other finds from the village, to tell us about how these more ordinary Egyptians lived.

I'll get my nit-picking out of the way first - there were a couple of (heavily used) camera tricks that irritated me. The first was them playing around with the depth of focus all the time when we were being shown small & medium sized objects - I want to see the thing in its entirety not look at tiny segments shifting up & down the object! The other was even more irritating - someone had discovered the existence of fisheye lenses and was using them everywhere. Some shots there was some justification - after all it gives the feeling of a vast sweep of land or of a temple. But inside a tomb, where all it serves to do is make the pillars look bulgy?? Or distorting more & more to focus in on a particular piece of pottery?? All it did was make me roll my eyes every time it happened. Again I want to be able to see the things you're showing me, not notice the camera-person or director's favourite trick.

However, the actual content of the programme was good & that's the real point. It was refreshing to watch something about Ancient Egypt that wasn't punctuated by ad-breaks and treated the audience like adults rather than repeated the same point over & over in a portentous voice (I don't much like Discovery channel documentaries, can you tell? ;) ).

We know so much about Kha & Merit because their tomb was discovered intact in 1906. I thought the photographs we were shown of them excavating the tomb were very reminiscent of Tutankhamun's tomb - in that there was the antechamber piled high with all the things they could need. Not as splendid as a King's tomb of course. The contents of their tomb, including their mummies, are on display in Turin and Fletcher showed us some of those before we went back to Egypt to look at how they'd lived. Among the things there were Merit's cosmetics kit, including a perfume bottle that still has traces of the original contents streaked down the sides and a beautiful kohl eyeliner bottle made out of glass, complete with wooden applicator, that still had kohl in it. The mummies hadn't ever been unwrapped, but had been X-rayed - so Fletcher could tell us that Kha stood about 5'6" and had a very prominent nose, and Merit was about 5'2". She also said that Merit was a delicate woman, I'm not sure if that was by the standards of our time or by the standards of Merit's time.

From their coffins etc we know that Kha was an architect & his title was something like "Chief of Foremen" (I forget exactly what she said), so clearly this was a high status couple - as the richness & quantity of the other items in the tomb also attest to. So not quite "the ordinary Egyptian" that the programme was trying to tell us they were, but still not part of the aristocracy. Merit's title was Lady of the House - i.e. she was a housewife.

Back in Egypt Fletcher took us round some of the archaeology & told us what it said about Kha & Merit's lives. Outside the village is a Great Pit, that was an attempt by the villagers to build a well and become self-sufficient for water (which they never did) - this ended up being used as a rubbish tip by the villagers & a lot of the stuff in there is shards of pottery that they've written notes and such on (called ostraca). These include several with love poems on, and Fletcher speculated that Kha & Merit might've written some things similar to these while they were courting. Egyptians didn't marry with a ceremony like we do, instead the man brought his bundle - all his worldly goods - to the house of the woman he wanted to live with, and she either let him in or not. Fletcher read to us from an ostracon the story of a man who brought his bundle (which he details) to the house of this woman and her family, and he talks of his outrage that they turned him away not once but twice!

Kha clearly didn't have that experience & Fletcher showed us a ring in the Turin museum that was probably given by Kha to Merit & was buried with Merit. In Egypt Fletcher showed us the layout of one of the larger houses in the village, of the sort that he & Merit and their children must've shared. Even tho it's a bigger house, it was still part of a back-to-back terrace, so they lived cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The floor plan (for the ground floor, I wasn't clear if there was likely to be a second floor) included a room where the women spent their daytime, a room with a chaise longue built in where Kha would've relaxed in the evenings or on days off, a bedroom, a store-room and at the back a built-in kitchen complete with oven & fridge equivalent! Fletcher visited a modern Egyptian family & watched the woman of the house cooking bread in a very similar oven, producing a similar loaf to the ones found in tombs (including Kha & Merit's tomb).

Fletcher also followed in the footsteps of Kha on his way to work - there's a path from the village over the mountain to the tombs. He would've walked that way with his workmen, possibly most days although he perhaps stayed over in the Valley during the working week. Once there the workers were watched over by guards - looking both for tomb robbery (mostly during the night I guess) and for people making off with the tools and materials to be used in tomb building. Fletcher had the chance to go in the tomb of Amenhotep III which is one of the ones that Kha worked on and has been closed to visitors for a long time - she was quite overwhelmed. And it was a well decorated & impressive tomb (and could've done without quite so much fisheye while they were filming it!). She also showed us an unfinished tomb thought to be intended for Akhenaten so possibly also worked on by Kha, where you could see the chisel marks & the marks made to measure out the walls. She and the archaeologist she was with showed us a cubit - the measuring tool of an egyptian monument builder (one was found in Kha's tomb). This is about 50 cm long, and folds in the middle so it can be folded up & transported easily.

One of the other things found in Kha's tomb was a golden cubit - this was a mark of royal favour & is a non-folding cubit covered in gold and engraved with Kha's name, titles & some autobiographical details. It's from this that they know that Kha wasn't just in charge of workmen building tombs, but was also involved in the design & buildings of temples - including Luxor Temple.

Merit pre-deceased Kha, and she died unexpectedly - they know this because she's buried in a coffin that was originally intended for Kha, it has his name on it and it's too big for her. The tomb chapel of their tomb is highly decorated, with scenes showing Kha and Merit & their children - one daughter in particular (also called Merit) appears in lots of the scenes & Fletcher speculated that this might be the child that looked after Kha into his old age. (Although it wasn't clear if they knew how old he was when he died.)

This was a very information dense programme, and I feel like I've missed loads out even though I've written about loads. For instance Fletcher's narration touched on the grain stores & payment of the workers in grain, she also talked about the decoration of the houses in Deir el-Medina, the gods they worshipped, the medicine they used and more. But it wasn't done in a dry way, or an overwhelming way - Fletcher & the other people who made the programme managed to tell us a lot while keeping it entertaining and easy to understand. If I have one quibble about the content it's that Fletcher kept saying it was like we knew these people - but I'd say we know a fair amount about how they lived and about how they wanted to be remembered, but we don't really know anything about their personalities. Well worth watching if you get the chance & you're even a little interested in Ancient Egypt.

Replica Lion Man Statue

I didn't manage to process this in time for my earlier post on the Ice Age Art exhibition - the only photo I could take, it's of a replica so it was exhibited outside the actual exhibition.

Tags: Photo

The third episode of Howard Goodall's Story of Music covered about a hundred years - from 1750 to 1850. This takes us from Haydn to Chopin via Mozart, Beethoven and more. Goodall's two themes for the period were the changing social status of the composer, and the turn to simplicity in musical structure after the complexity of Bach etc.

At the start of the period composers were effectively servants - you found a rich patron and wrote him the music he wished. I'd guess it wasn't that simple in reality, but that was the social status of the composer. Over this time period composers began to work freelance, and so their revenue stream also began to depend on the tastes of the paying audience. But it increased their social status, brought them above the salt so's to speak.

The complexity of Bach's fugues, and the moral uprightness of his & Handel's work gave way in this era to the simpler forms of symphonies, and an emphasis on pleasant & entertaining music (having not much to do with the turbulent political times, that included the French & American Revolutions). Goodall talked about how the music became simpler both in overall structure and in harmonic structure. Simple is not being used as a value judgement here, incidentally. So in terms of overall structure he was saying that a lot of symphonies can be summed up as - take a short theme, repeat the same note pattern starting on a different note, finish with a phrase as long as the first two put together that brings us back to a satisfying conclusion. Then do it again. Which leaves a lot of room for different sorts of phrases and themes, and satisfying conclusions, but still gives an overall simple structure that the piece is constructed around.

In terms of harmonic structure he was saying that the numbers of different chords used in a single piece of music narrowed considerably - most of a piece of music now would be constructed on the first, third and fifth chords (for the key the music was in). He demonstrated with a couple of examples that this could be the sole chords used for about three quarters of a piece of music - all the other possibilities now only took up a relatively small proportion of the music. And then they had a short segment of a string quartet & singer all dressed up in 18th Century style playing what sounded like chamber music of the time, and then you realised the words the woman was singing were the words for Rockin' All Over the World ... which lead into a joke about how these three chords are "still the status quo in much music of today" *groan* :)

Goodall also talked about how Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony inspired other composers to use their music to paint pictures in sound (Mendelssohn was his example of one of these composers). And he talked about the single voice & piano songs of composers like Schubert - and compared them with the novels of Jane Austen with which they're approximately contemporary, and pointed out that Schubert's emotional maturity etc come off rather poorly compared to Austen. This was another point where the long-lasting nature of the music of this period was pointed out - we first had a man singing a Schubert love song, which was juxtaposed with a clip of Adele singing Someone Like You. Definitely felt like they were both a part of the same tradition.


Waldemar Januszczak moved on to discuss the art of Islam in the third episode of his series about the art of the Dark Ages.

And somehow I haven't ended up with much to say about this one. I'm not sure why - I think I ended up approaching it as more "look at the pretty things" than anything else.

Januszczak visited several places where you find Islamic art (mostly but not all mosques), and discussed not just the beauty of the mosaics, buildings etc but also the religious symbolism behind some of it. (And hopefully got it right - a lot was stuff I hadn't heard before). Throughout the programme he also placed quite a strong emphasis on how modern more fundamentalist traditions of Islamic art aren't the only ones - there was figurative art from early on, not just "decadent princes" decorating palaces with things they shouldn't, but also in art that was intended to represent paradise and to have religious worth.

The British Museum's current large exhibition is about Ice Age Art, and we went to see it earlier this month (just before we went away on holiday in fact, which is why the delay in writing about it :) ).

Context

Modern humans (ie Homo sapiens) migrated out of Africa from around 70,000 years ago, and have inhabited Europe since at least 40,000 years ago. At that time the world was in a warmer phase of the Ice Age (tho still colder than today), and the ice sheets left lots of space in Europe for people to live. By around 20,000 years ago the world had cooled down more, and the ice sheets advanced down into Europe before retreating again (and the Ice Age "ended" about 10,000 years ago). The exhibition is about the art that has been found in Europe from that time period, which is the oldest art known from Europe.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is arranged chronologically - so you start with some of the oldest pieces dating from nearly 40,000 years ago, and move to things that are a mere 10-15,000 years old and date back to only a short time before agriculture & civilisation start. It is also grouped by type in many cases, so you see several small statues of abstract women together or several small animal sculptures together. There's a strong emphasis on how these things are made by people, just like us - I thought they did a good job of conveying that particularly by putting in some pieces of modern art in the same room. Like a sculpture by Henry Moore that's got a similar feel & aesthetic to the curves of the 30,000 year old small female nudes.

One thing that's very striking about the objects in the exhibition is that they are so well made - these are not "cave people banging rocks together". These are for the most part the works of artists who are skilled at creating the carvings, and as good at representational or abstract art as any artist today. Human figures seem to've been mostly represented in an abstract or generalised fashion rather than being portraits, but the animal carvings tended to be representational and look very like the thing they were representing. Which is interesting because art seems to have arrived fully fledged - even the oldest pieces (like the 35,000 year old lion man statue for instance) are well made. Maybe this is sampling bias - obviously very little actually survives from such a long ago time, but do we also discard the "banging rocks together" level of experimentation because we don't see it as art when we see it? The lion man, or the female figurines, or the horses etc etc are very obviously created and created as art so we know what we're looking at when it's found.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are small sculptures or tools - physical & three dimensional objects. Obviously we know of two dimensional art from the era, from cave paintings, but you can't pick them up and move them to a museum. They did have a room with an audiovisual display of some of the cave art, which was a good addition - although I wasn't keen on the way it was set up as you walked in from a door under the projection so you ended up facing the people watching it and it felt like to find a seat or place to stand you had to walk across people's view. There was also some indication of other forms of art - like music. One of the objects on display was a small flute made from the rib of a bird (I think it was a vulture) - again it's sophisticated, in that the holes have clearly been measured (there are faint orientation marks) and precisely placed. The exhibition suggested that the overall bias to small portable things is also probably a true reflection of the time. People during the Ice Age lived a nomadic lifestyle, so you needed to be able to pack up your belongings and move them with you. So even if some of your art is designed to stay in one place the more personal stuff needs to be small.

One striking thing through the whole exhibition was that the vast majority of the human representations were of women - I can only remember a couple that weren't. In the earlier Ice Age these are nude figures of older women who've had children or who are pregnant, with breasts, stomachs & hips/bottom emphasised. Not in a sexualised way, but fertility is clearly part of it. The more recent ones (ie ~20,000 years ago) are also of younger more obviously "sexy" women. There's an interesting video clip on the museum's page about the exhibition where the curator & an artist discuss how these figurines seem to represent more the female gaze than the male gaze we're more accustomed to think about female nudes via. Less "look at the tits & ass on that" and more about the physical experiences of being pregnant or whatever. Their conclusion is that possibly these figurines were made by women and were something to do with rites of passage (puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood etc) of women. But obviously we'll never know.

Which last sentence neatly segues into the next thing I wanted to mention - I really liked the way the labelling was so clear about "we think this may've been used for that purpose but we don't know". Because we don't, and can't. The best we can do is to remember that these people were people just like us, and to think about how we'd use such things or what we'd make such things for. Some things must've been significant - like the lion man statue which would take ~800 hours to make with the tools of the time. That's a major investment of time, so maybe it had some religious or spiritual importance. Or maybe this is one person's life's work of art that they did an hour at a time because they were an artist and that was what they felt a need to create? Other items looked less well made, some tools had pictures of animals etched into the surface by a less practiced & less artistic hand - was this someone making their spear straightener look more elegant/prettier/more their own by decorating it themself? Or was this important in a magical sense - that you drew your own bison on your own spear straightener because then you'd catch bison with the spears you made? We don't know & we can't know, we can just guess because these were people.

This was a fascinating exhibition which both managed to remind you how old these things were, and how like us these people were. These objects come from a long period - three or four times the length of civilisation itself (not just our civilisation, but everything from the agricultural revolution onwards). And that's mind-boggling. We think of a couple of hundred years ago as "history", recent maybe, but history even so - people were different then, the past is a different country etc. We think of the Greeks & Romans as a long time ago, the Ancient Egyptians as longer still. But that's all the last little bit of humankind - these pieces of Ice Age art are the representatives of the majority of human art in terms of time. And yet for all their age these people and their art are still recognisable - they just grew up in a different time and place.

The exhibition's on till 26th May, and I'd definitely recommend a visit.

Other Stuff

Retail: Bought the book already (and definitely on my list to read). They had some very cool looking stuff, in particular a mug with a painting of a deer on it that became 3D to make the handle out of its head. We didn't buy anything though.

Other Exhibits: Only a brief trot through the Egyptian rooms, with Ellen & Ady after we'd met up with them.

Other Things: As mentioned above, met Ellen in the museum by design, Ady by accident (well, we didn't know for sure he was coming to the gig let alone where he'd meet us) and then Paul after we came out. Then off to a gig (about which more another time) via dinner at a place called Pasta Brown, which was rather nice even if they did take rather a long time to bring the bill when we were done.

In the second episode of Howard Goodall's Story of Music he covered a couple of hundred years or so from just after Monteverdi's first opera (early 1600s) through to Bach & Handel (mid-1700s). He categorised this as a time of innovation, comparing the various developments in music to the advances in science at the time - which came across a little oddly to me, but then when he was talking about Bach it almost made sense.

The first half of the programme was mostly about Italian composers, like Vivaldi, and their development of the symphony & the concerto. He told us how the original symphonies, and even the start of the modern orchestra, grew out of the instrumental overtures to ballets performed at the French court at this time. The violin was a new instrument at the time (developed out of the folk violin) and instead of having just one playing there would be several of them. And this is obviously the way orchestras are set up. He also talked about how concertos are about the contrast between a large group of players and another smaller one, which I don't think I actually knew before.

He also talked about the chord changes & sequences in both the music of composers like Vivaldi & in modern pop music, and played some examples of contrasting pieces with the same chord sequence. And I was struck (again) by the realisation that this is not how I listen to music. One of the things I always found hardest about music exams (for flute) was the aural section where I had to do things like identify intervals, or later on identify chord sequences. When I listen to music I hear the melody line and lyrics & the rhythm, even after a lot of practice I still struggled to identify a particular chord sequence (it always felt like guessing, just my guesses got better with practice).

The programme then moved on to the German composers who came after those Italians - Bach & Handel being the featured examples. Goodall talked about (and demonstrated) the complexity of Bach's fugues & how they're made by taking a theme and then transforming it in strict ways (different tempo, different key, not just any different notes). And then playing these transformations at the same time as the original, or offset a bit (in some regular fashion, again). And then the whole thing weaves together into a coherent and beautiful whole. Bach could not just write these, but could improvise them as well, which is an astonishing feat. (This segment of the programme made me want to re-read "Gödel, Escher, Bach" again ... which I think is the third time I've thought that in 6 months, I must bump it up the non-fiction list :) )

In talking about Handel Goodall discussed the oratorio form - which effectively was born because the Pope disapproved of opera. I'm writing this about 2 weeks after watching the programme (I have brief notes) so I may be confused, but obviously the Pope's opinion didn't hold much sway in Protestant England nor for the Protestant Handel but I think what Goodall was saying was that Handel still saw an opportunity to occupy a niche in the music production business & so brought it to England as a music form. And it went down well with the English because it was choral/vocal music without the melodramatic acting.

Something else the programme talked about was that during this time period the notes of the scale were standardised. I knew that how we (the Western World) subdivide the scale isn't the only way to do it - after all we're arbitrarily drawing lines on a continuous spectrum & saying this is one note, and this is another. But I hadn't realised that it was so recent in terms of Western music that the scale was narrowed down to the 12 notes we use today - Goodall was saying that previously notes like C♯ and D♭ were actually different, which I suppose I'd always figured was true sometime but hadn't thought through.


The second episode of Januszczak's series about art in the Dark Ages was all about "the barbarians". As I said in passing above - I'm finishing writing this nearly 2 weeks after we watched the programmes so I've undoubtedly forgotten stuff. In this programme he basically covered the art of the various Germanic/Slavic tribes that we lump together these days as "the barbarians that toppled the Roman Empire" and his point was that actually they had art and culture of their own, they weren't just the stereotype of thuggish murderous brutes ripping down the pretty things from a better civilisation.

He started with the Huns, who actually had a fairly big empire to the north-east of the Roman Empire. They get a pretty bad press, and one of their leaders (Attila) gets even worse press, but Januszczak showed us a lot of beautiful golden objects made by these people. And also showed us the reconstruction someone is planning of the palace of Attila the Hun, which looks rather splendid (and probably highly inaccurate). And I had the somewhat belated realisation that Hun and Hungarian is likely not a coincidence. But how did the Huns get their gold to make their beautiful objects? By running protection rackets on other cultures! Effectively they'd show up with their pointy swords & arrows, and after a bit of striking fear into the hearts of the townsfolk they'd suggest sending tribute of gold & such would help peaceful relations.

And then we moved onto the Vandals - all the way through the programme Januszczak was making the points that the names of these tribes have picked up perjorative meanings that we use to this day. The Vandals were pushed out of the north east by the Huns, and moved into Spain ... then pushed out of Spain by the Visigoths into Africa. Where they conquered Carthage from the Romans. And Januszcak's point here was that from the art you can't really tell when they did this. There's mosaics of much the same styles before & after, for instance. And there are things like documentation that the Vandal rulers actually repaired the public baths after they'd fallen into disrepair under the last of the Roman rulers. So not at all the reputation that goes with the later use of the word.

And he also discussed the Goths ... which provided a lot of (possibly unintended) amusement. For starters, wtf with all the references to modern goths & satanic symbols? Personally I guess I associate that more with metal, not with goths. And what's with a man who dresses in black and wears a massive gold ring decorated with a skull doing talking dismissively of "camden town goths"? He doesn't look a million miles from some edges of that scene ;) Mind you, I wasn't quite sure if it was tongue in cheek here, or real dismissiveness - my amusement may've been the sort of reaction he was going for. He also made me giggle when he was talking about "barbarian bling" after all the artful shots of that skull ring of his, and I'm pretty sure that was intentional :)

Anyway, the point he was making with his discussion of modern goths was to compare these back to the real Goths and say that actually the real ones were Christians and were rather cheerful. The Ostrogoths (the eastern ones) are the ones that sacked Rome in the end - they made beautiful mosaic art in their churches. And from the Roman point of view the problem wasn't that they were pagan (they weren't) it was that they were heretics - Arian Christians. The Visigoths (the western ones) drove the Vandals out of Spain, and you see beautiful horseshoe arches in their church architecture. And this gave him a neat segue into the subject of the next episode - the art of Islam - as you see these horseshoe type arches in mosques in Spain.

And overall this programme reminded me I don't know much about these various "barbarians".

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