Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wet Afternoons

My wife has been ill since yesterday, so I have been busily washing-up, cleaning the house and entertaining children. I wish I could pretend that my motives were entirely altruistic, but if it's a virus I may be a day or two behind and need to ensure that I receive the appropriate level of care when my wife recovers.

I was going to take my sons out, but the weather has been terrible. Instead, I'm ashamed to say that that are both playing computer games while I've been comparing different performances of a piano composition by Bartok called, ironically, 'Out of Doors'.

When I first became interested in music (which curiously coincided with the onset of puberty), it was very difficult to listen to a recording before I bought it. I suppose I could have asked the man in Richmond Records to give me a quick blast, but he had mastered the art of condescension to the point where I was too scared to even ask for a bag. As a result, I was completely dependent on the wonderful Penguin Stereo Record Guide, written by Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton and Ivan March.

At an age when I should have been snogging or drinking 'snakebite', I was more likely to be found checking which version of Tapiloa was Robert Layton's recommended recording. My youth was not so much mispent, as unspent (at least, until university).

The Penguin guide was usually spot-on, but occasionally I'd be disappointed to discover that so-and-so's performance was much slower or faster than expected and I was unable to listen to the music without a nagging sense of regret. If only I'd had access to YouTube, perhaps I might have learned to realise that every approach has its merits.

For example, here are four performances of Bartok's 'Out of Doors' suite. If you try the first 40 seconds of each, you'll hear some very different approaches to the music.

In the first extract, once the pianist has made himself comfortable and checked that he hasn't lost his bus ticket, he delivers plays with an almost machine-like tempi, but at least you can hear all of the notes:

It's a solid, rather unexciting performance, but he's a dab hand (or foot) with the pedals. However, I prefer the next version, where the faster tempi produce a greater sense of urgency:

Much better, although he's a little to free and easy with the sudden, brief changes of tempo. I really like the next version too:

Fast and very percussive, with a real sense of momentum. However, the faster speed results in a loss of detail in the passage around 25 seconds - he could take a few tips on pedal use from the Clive James lookalike in the first clip.

Finally, this performance takes a very different approach. It probably doesn't help that the pianist left his glasses at home and has to lean very close to the keyboard:

This is one of the ways in which I waste my time on wet weekend afternoons when everyone else is occupied. I've also been reading Angelica Bell's autobiography (thanks to the person who recommended it in one of the comments).

I was enjoying a guilt-free afternoon. I'd built up credits this morning by going shopping in Lewes, emptying the dishwasher twice, playing Monopoly with my son and doing domestic chores, but daring to write this blog post has tipped me back into the guilt zone. There are still unwashed plates and two children who need to be dragged away from cyberspace.

How long is it until their bedtime?


Canadian Chickadee said...

What a wonderful post. I loved your comment about your youth not being misspent so much as unspent. I think that applies to a lot of us out here. Say, whose idea was it that I should become a responsible adult anyway?? When do I get to be the childish carefree one?? :o)

About the Bartok, can't say which I like best. As you say, all the different approaches have their merits (as well as, I'm sure, their supporters and their detractors.)

Anonymous said...

Glenn Gould said that if you could find a performance of a piece of music that didn't have something wrong with it, there must be something wrong withthe music.

zmkc said...

Is playing computer games - especially when it's raining - such a terrible mind-rotting activity? In a world increasingly full of fun things to do, it would be quite nice just to do them without worrying. What exactly would we all be achieving, were we not distracted happily by frivolous rubbish? Maybe the point of life is actually to fritter time away. It might be the entire reason we were put on earth (I certainly hope so, as it would mean I'm fulfilling my potential marvellously)

sustainablemum said...

Ahhh snakebite, never tried it but had fun trying to buy it when not quite the right age. Like the idea of unspent youth, that sums my youth up to a tee. I thought wet afternoons were designed for frivolous activity, although with all the wet we are having of late perhaps my time and should be put to better use, like emptying the dishwasher, mine too is still full and has been all day.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I think the quote "Youth is wasted on the young" is so true. I wouldn't want to turn the clock back. I've also noticed that the people who easily found partners when they were very young ended up falling into a succession of unhappy relationships.

Anonymous - I'd almost agree, but I do think that there are a few performances where the interpreter really has the measure of the music and the idiosyncrasies feel completely right.

Glenn Gould's performances were near=perfect, apart from his incessant humming!

zmck - My main concern about computer games is that they are so addictive - both for the children who play them and the parents who realise that they have an electronic childminder.

I think a certain amount of boredom is good for children because it stimulates imaginative play. Without the gaping void of wet weekend afternoons, children will live in a world of constant external stimulation, unable to develop their own resources.

My other bugbear about children today is that they expect grown-ups to play with them. When did that start? Why do children struggle to entertain themsleves? As an only child, I suppose that I can't understand people's dependence on others.

Steerforth said...

sustainablemum - Does anyone drink snakebite any more? My favourite tipple was a pint of bitter topped with Southern Comfort.

When I lot back at the rubbish I put into my body - burgers, beer, crisps, cigarettes and biscuits - it's a wonder that I survived university.

Roget said...

I have forwarded paragraph 2 to Pseuds' Corner. Your quadruple selection of "Bartok clips" is clearly a ruse to divert the more trusting among your readers from the awful truth. You were introducing your children to the great Captain Pugwash/Seaman Staines debate weren't you, Steerforth?

Steerforth said...

God, it does look like something out of 'Pseud's Corner' now I've read it again. However, if I said I was reading anything other than Proust or Joyce, it wouldn't seem pseudish. I think classical music is just perceived as poncey.

It's a shame. Frankly, I'd burn all of my books to save my Vaughan Williams and Sibelius recordings (Pseud's Corner entry No.3).

AS far as the Pugwash debate goes, I'm dealing with Master Bates first before worrying about Seaman Staines.

Steerforth said...

Sorry, it should be Pseuds' not Pseud's. I was just thinking about myself.


The third clip stands out a mile for me. I know nothing about classical music, but feel there's a freestyle element to his interpretation of the piece - I can imagine it sounding slightly different every time he played.
The first two were engaging, but seemed ultra rehearsed, to the point where even the 'dramatic' changes were planned with precision.
Didn't enjoy the last one at all, but what do I know?

I do know all about that ridiculous guilt you feel when you allow your children to do what they want to do, instead of what you think they should be doing. I find that whatever their age, children like just having you there, in the background - it''s comforting. Who cares if you're 'wasting time'? Try 3 years of it!

I'll go off on a tangent, as I often do, in an attempt to defend electronic music. One link is to an electronic track I love. I find it uplifting, sad, complex and beautiful. the other link is to a steel band version. Horribly cold (but,then again, who does like steel drums? Poor argument Iguess!)


Steerforth said...

Yes, the fourth clip was the worst. For me, it's a toss-up between two and three.

Thanks for the link to the two versions of the Aphex Twin piece. I can't stand steel bands either, but quite enjoyed this clip - perhaps because I could see the people playing and liked the way they worked together. But it didn't have the air of mystery (and menace, I thought) of the original version.

zmkc said...

This is interesting in the context:

MikeP said...

The Penguin Guide was my bible too...I remember my pleasure when I found a good second-hand copy of a recommended recording.

Talking of condescension, there were two unspeakably intimidating classical record stores I went to occasionally, one in Wardour Street and one in Gt Marlborough St. On Saturday mornings both were heaving with scruffy bores (always men) droning on at each other about matrix numbers, whether Studio A at Abbey Road had a more resonant acoustic than Studio B and so on. If you bought a record of the Four Seasons you felt like someone in a Bateman cartoon.

Haven't tried out the Bartoks yet - Sunday morning and I'm supposed not to be making a noise!

zmkc said...

Re them wanting to play with you, I used to play with the other children who were more or less my age in my street and the ones around it. I wouldn't have let my own children roam far and wide like that though and I don't know many other people who would - if my children were going to play with someone, it was all organised beforehand. Were we right to be more scared? I suppose there were far fewer cars around when I was small so that's one reason parents in my age group didn't let their children roam about. Anyway, without the neighbourhood gang, I suppose I would have fallen back on trying to get my parents to play with me. The trouble is, a) I would have been overwhelmed by their cigarette smoke (my mother, a reformed smoker for years, would be horrified by that revelation but back then she was always puffing away) and b) they wouldn't have done it anyway. We are certainly nicer to our children - and possibly too nice:

Steerforth said...

zmkc - Thanks for the links - I shall show the articles to my wife, as she's even further down that path than I am (BTW - my youngest son lovesMoshi Monsters).

Re: parents playing with children, I suppose I used to play board games with my parents, but I would never have expected them to join in my imaginative play. That seems to have changed, with parents lowering themselves to the child's level rather than the child trying to be like the grown-ups (so reading about the Peruvian tribe really struck home).

I used to play in the streets until it was dark, but only during the warmer months and there were fewer cars then. I think children are really missing out today, which is why they're recreating 'gangs' and outdoor adventure with multiplayer games.

MikeP - 'Scruffy bores' - yes, I remember a lot of 'funny men' in those shops, who probably lived with their 92-year-old mothers in dreary suburbs. I was passionate about music, but they just seemed to collect recordings like train numbers. You see men like that in the front row in the arena at the Proms - do you remember the chap who 'conducted' at every Last Night of the Proms? His name was Ken, and he operated the lifts at Bentalls in Kingston (according to a friend who worked there).

Universal Acknowledgement said...

If your children haven't discovered Civilisation yet, splash out 1p on A__z_n for Civ 3 (not 4 or 5). Schools and parents try to teach/talkj about history and geography, but inevitably each focuses on discrete elements - "today we're doing Volcanoes"; "let me tell you about Alfred and the Cakes". Civilisation draws it all together by letting players experience the effects of limited technology on exploration, say, or why different forms of government developed - AND gives you the chance to beat up enemy forces. A myriad positive reviews will spell out the enchantment (and addiction) of the game better than me. It's not better than being out of doors, or reading Rosemary Sutcliff, but it beats zapping fluorescent pixels making stupid noises.

Steerforth said...

Universal - I'd also add Sim City to the list - a brilliant 'God game' that teaches economic geography to its unsuspecting players.

My oldest son is obsessed with 'Minecraft', which contains elements of Civilisation. I'm not sure if I can coax him into playing the real thing, but I'll have a go.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I think you have a good point about children amusing themselves. Or perhaps it is different for only children. I too was an only child.

Someone once said, "Poor you, weren't you terrible lonely?" But I don't remember ever being lonely.

I started reading books so early that I can't remember when I couldn't read.

I also played with paper dolls for hours -- designing and colouring my own clothes, since using the ones that came in the set wasn't nearly as much fun as designing my own.

And I played school with my dolls and bears. Plus we had a dog, and I could always go talk to Lady if my mum was busy.

No, I don't remember ever being lonely, even though we lived on a farm and the only time I saw other children was in school.

Perhaps that's why I'm still an introvert. Is it nature or nurture? I honestly don't know.

Anonymous said...

"Glenn Gould's performances were near=perfect, apart from his incessant humming!" and his creaking piano-stool. He made a recording of a Beethoven piano concerto, though, which demonstrates his claim. It's much longer than any other version and concentrates entirely on some aspects and excludes others.

As well as Seaman Staines and Master Bates, was Bos'n Higgs part of the Black Pig's crew?

Richmonde said...

"I do know all about that ridiculous guilt you feel when you allow your children to do what they want to do, instead of what you think they should be doing."

When I was a child I used to get told off for READING too much.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Nature or nurture? It depends whether being introverted manifests itself as a social phobia or a simple self-reliance. It sounds as if you had a contented childhood and learned to live in the world of the imagination.

Anonymous - I tried to think of a suitable physics/Pugwash-related comeback but I can't top Bos'n Higgs.

Richmonde - Quite right. You should heed the advice of Mrs Valentine: "But novel reading, like intoxication, bought misery on her and on two following generations".

The rest of her advice is here:

Canadian Chickadee said...

RE: Contented childhood

Yes, I did have one actually. With the result that I could never understand my sister-in-law's constant carping that I was "cheating" my daughter by not filling my house with siblings.

My daughter also seems to be pretty well adjusted and a very productive member of society (teacher, married to an architect, tons of friends, with, yes, only one daughter plus a foster daughter she took in about four years ago).

So I don't know that birth numbers (or order) are as significant as a lot of the psychiatrists seem to think they are.

zmkc said...

The only thing is I was scared of quite a lot of the children I played with in the street, which I suppose was character building. All the same, one of the reasons I remain devoted to my father, despite his not being altogether ideal, was because I remember the relief when he came to tell me to come home because it was getting dark.