Sunday, 11 February 2018

Charles Ives at Bridgewater Hall

A few years ago, I came across a piece by the American composer Charles Ives and I fell in love with it. It is titled The Unanswered Question and starts off with a faint melodious section played by the strings. Whilst the piece initially flirts with romanticism, within a few bars a dissonant call from the brass overlays the strings. As the strings continue, a signal trumpet call gains strength and is undercut by a wood wind theme, subversive to both strings and its brass brothers in arms. (there is a NYPhil version on youtube here)

Charles Ives (1878-1954)
The piece is only less than 5 mins long but it is impressive and leaves one with a fully painted mental picture. Ives' music, it seemed to me back then, was like a painting by Edward Hopper, only that Ives was painting outside urban scences where Hopper wanted to look into the inside of people's places from outside.

That Ives composed radically metropolitan scences shows even more clearly in his piece Central Park in the Dark. If you did not know the title, the ever increasing noise of urban sounds swelling to a mighty explosion in the piece would leave you in no doubt that you are in the middle of a city.

What Ives manages however is to portray the fragile contrast between a city's harmonic background bordering on silence and the discordant hubbub that surrounds us on a daily basis. The piece starts off in near silence with the strings once again setting the scene, this time less melodious, giving off a whiff of a metalic sound. As the wood winds intermittently intersect with the strings, the scene still remains distant in sound and impact on the listener.

Next, the flute takes up a theme and hovers above strings and wood winds. None of them even attempt to merge or meld into one coherent whole. Finally a singular violin and a piano furnish additional moments of urban sounds, until all climaxes in pandemonium as we know it from the streets of New York.

Ives added a beautiful note of contrast as the musical tumult cuts out suddenly and the strings are heard to continue to the very end of the piece. It creates a moment of surprise as you realise they have been there all along, no matter how loud the city was.

The piece's crescendo is difficult to play (there is a Bernstein/NYPhil version here). In particular, what appears like an unwanted disturbances of the strings by random noise actually requires careful calibration of the sound levels. The BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgards gave their all but at times it was not quite enough. In particular, as the flute and piano starts to overlay the string theme, the string section needs to be low enough, almost whispering, so that flute and piano are recognised as distinct voices. The Bridgewater Hall has a decent acoustic but the orchestra did not quite pull it off. From where I sat in the centre of the stalls the flute was not quite audible and the single violin, played sensitively by the concertmaster, did not quite emerge as different from the main body of sound.

It was more a confluence of music rather than a caleidoscope of discrete notes from different players. Still, it was amazing to hear this piece live for the first time.

The evening also contained a muscular rendition of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, delivered with gusto by Peter Donohoe. I prefer the version for Jazz orchestra over the full orchestral arrangement (by Ferde Grofe) but both Donohoe and the BBC Orchestra gave a spirited performance which made me tap along with my foot.

The evening ended with George Antheil's Symphony No. 6, a pleasing piece of work sitting comfortably somewhere between Stravinsky and Shostakovich and a composition by George Walker called Lilacs. Walker set his music to Walt Whitman's 'When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd'. Joshua Ellicott gave it a rounded sound, perhaps at times struggling against an overwhelming orchestra, and it made me wish to hear more from this song cycle.

The evening concert was recorded for broadcast on Wednesday 14th Feb as part of the BBC Radio 3 in Concert Series. So you can tune into BBC Radio 3 next Wednesday at 7.30pm to hear it or catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

What poetry can do

I always struggled with poetry. Somehow the metaphors never seemed to connect with me. I suppose I don't have that imaginative mind that is required to read and understand it.

Since this is a blog charting a personal journey, you can probably guess what's coming next. I had an epiphany... well, not quite. But something like it.

Recently, the German poet Jan Wagner was awarded the prestigious Georg-Buechner-Preis, one of the highest accolades for writers in Germany. In one of the reviews of his work, someone quoted a line from his poem 'Hamburg-Berlin' (Jan Wagner, Selbsportrait mit Bienenschwarm. Ausgewaehlte Gedichte. Hanser: Berlin 2017):

'... in der ferne nahmen zwei windraeder 
eine probebohrung im himmel vor:
gott hielt den atem an.' (p.20)

That's funny on the surface but also intensely moving once you visualise the scene. Well observed and mischieviously subversive, undermining our sense of reality and how the world is supposed to work.

Wagner's poems are radical in their metaphorical tranformative power. He is playful and his words reveal new vistas on the world; his poems have what a good poem needs to have: it forces us to re-think reality and to discover what is there but was hidden until we read it.

The power of the metaphor - it never is what it seems.  Flamish 17th cent painting .

Although I struggle to find the right words to appreciate his poetry I did also notice something fascinatingly limiting in his poetry. Wagner's poetry is strongly metaphorical, yet in its playfulness it lacks the human dimension. His poems are observational, almost resembling the still lifes of Dutch painters, such as a table with decaying fruits. There is beauty in them, but something is missing.

Enter a poem by an American writer who lived in Britain in the 1960s.

The Hanging Man

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. 
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid:
A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket. 

A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree.
If he were I, he would do what I did. 

This poem is equally densely packed with metaphors that evoke feelings and have tranformative power. But at every line, the words also force us to take position to the story, the story of Christ and Christianity. It is full of mockery as well as respect, it is literal at times yet also figuratively untrue. Yet most of all, it is about us as human beings. It does not shrink from plunging head on into human affairs. The poem was written by Sylvia Plath (from Sylvia Plath:Ariel. Faber and Faber: London 2015 [1968].)

I may have misunderstood her words, I may miscontrue the meaning of the poem, but I do clearly recognise the differences between Wagner's and Plath's poetic thrust. Wagner's is observational and subversive in a gentle way, reordering our relationship with nature and the things around us. Plath however places herself squarely within the human domain, metaphorically interfering with the social and historical encounters that we have every day. And Plath is nothing short of radical, forcing us to take position on, what she thinks, is a constantly shifting ground.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Why no one should be 'gay'

Isaac Newton allegedly once remarked that 'If I have seen further than other men then only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.'

Whilst the sociologist Robert Merton once investigated this as a tenet of scientific progress, nowhere else is it more true than in sexual politics where men and women of the past found the courage to challenge the status quo to allow those that come after them to see further. For me as a gay man the main point of reference are those men who stood up to police repression during the Stonewall riots in 1969. Their spirited refusal to accept the dominant social and cultural standards inspire awe and gratitude in me as it allowed me to say openly who I am. Vaclav Havel (in a different context) called this with living within the truth. And this fight for equality and rights is not over yet as recent headlines about gay people being persecuted in Cheniya and other places demonstrate. Rights to express yourself and live within the truth are still being denied to gay people all over the world, be it in Uganda, where homosexuality is still a criminal offence, or Germany, where discrimination in marriage on grounds of sexuality continues.

Gay pride or gay ghetto?
Yet, we have come a long way and it is perhaps appropriate to look at where we are and where we want to go in those societies that have largely accepted homosexuality.

Partially the fight against discrimination drew strength from a sense of community amongst gay people which furnished them with a conceptual framework of belonging and collective power. It allowed them to articulate a version of society that was based on inclusiveness of marginalised groups and hence latched on to notions of equality before the law, civil rights as well as group rights.

In the process of this fight, this sense of community took on a life of its own and we are now quite comfortable with the notion that there is something like a gay community with a specific gay culture. Challenges to this notion of a comprehensive and coherent gay culture have come from unexpected quarters recently. Transgender campaign groups have pointed at the exclusive nature of such a concept of group culture based on a single sexual identity. This has led to an awkward compromise, reflected in an ever growing string of letters in the acronym of cultural politics of recognition (I lost track after LGBT).

What is less articulated yet probably more fundamental, is to question whether there is indeed something like a gay community based on a gay culture in the first place, or, irreverently, whether or not there should be one.

The question turns on the role of community in promoting and fostering change through mutual support. But its tentacles reach wider, well into the realm of identity politics and group rights. There can be no doubt that conceptualising and formulating a version of gay collective consciousness has been instrumental in pushing for change on the societal level whilst it has also had tranformative power for individuals. Making a choice to belong to a specific community does not only grant you access to support networks, it also liberates you from the idea that you are alone. Collectives undoubtedly have transformative capacity. Yet they can also be oppressive as they set standards of behaviour and define borders of identity with which any group member has to conform if he wants to belong. This is reinforced whenever notions of sub-cultures and group identities become hegemonic not just within the group of members but more widely by the rest of society.

Gay critics of the 'gay culture concept' have pointed this out as soon as mainstream culture started to adopt stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies and TV. Whilst early portrayals of openly gay men were often welcome, a feeling of discomfort with their narrow stereotypical appearances soon mounted. The argument essentially was that cartoonish depictions of gay characters in the media allowed straight audiences to accept homosexuality only because it was considerably different from being straight/normal. Acceptance was grounded in the recognition of, and insistence on, difference.

Empirically this media image of course never had any facts to call upon. Gay men are as diverse as any men in the straight part of society. The critics' point, however, audaciously extended to the collective strategies of culture making within the gay community. Where gays feel the need to go out in their own clubs and segregate themselves from wider society by constructing their own community and marks of belonging, signs of difference are emphasised rather than diminished. Ultimately, groups with sub-cultures to cultivate may spin themselves into a cocoon of collective behaviours that provide comfort but stop challenging society's preconceptions of the group. In other words, what is rebellious becomes orthodox. It's revolutionary potential dissipates and a stale taste of conformism remains.

So we may want to ask ourselves: do we still need to be 'gay' to be gay? Do we still need to declare ourselves as part of an imaginary community with its rules and cultural standards (policed by prominent members of the group's elite) to be able to say that those of us, who do not live a 'gay life style', can stand on the shoulders of the giants who fought for gay rights? I would hope that whatever somebody says about me in twenty years time, it will not be that I was that 'gay' bloke writing a blog. I would not feel empowered but diminished by such an epitaph.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The chore of sightseeing

I am fortunate to be able to travel within Europe from time to time and I particularly enjoy my city trips. Milan and Florence were the latest destinations. As much as I love my time away, I am dreading the questions from friends and family whether or not I have seen this or that landmark, went to this museum and looked at that painting. Those questions used to always give me a pang of inadequacy, of having missed something out. The fact is that whenever I am abroad, I rarely see anything that would make it into the 'must see' list of any guidebook.

It's not that I have not tried. I trudged through the Forum Romanum with hundreds of other heavily persperating tourists on a hot Italian summer day. And I have stood at the back of a sizeable group of Japanese tourists staring at a small rectangular painting hung about 40 meters ahead of me on a Louvre wall. I didn't see much but I was told it was the Mona Lisa.

Have you seen me? 
And yet, if you asked me which way Michelangelo's David turns his oversized head on the famous Florentine Piazza, I couldn't tell you (I did take a lot of pictures though, inexplicably mostly of his backside).

So why does sightseeing mean so little to me? I think it has something to do with the fact that I do not connect with the artifacts I look at. It does not mean anything to me when I am told that while Boticelli painted his famous picture La Primavera he was deeply in love with the daughter of his neighbour. Quite frankly, who cares? And why should it matter? Sightseeing, it strikes me whenever I have to endure it, is not much than a playground for all stories tangential to the artifact in question. And most of the time, the plots of those stories go off the object just as cheap Aldi fireworks dye out on Hogmanay. 

On a recent trip to Florence, I have had enough of tourists hooked up to earpieces trudging mindlessly through narrow alleys following their guide like lemmings. I packed my bag with a towel and flip flops and left the city centre to go to a nearby open air swimming pool. As soon as I hit the outskirts of the city, everything changed. The tourist shops with the naff souvenirs disappeared. People started to look normal, going or coming from work, others resting in front of their houses after the day and chatting with their neighbours. The swimming pool itself was full of locals and I must have been the only foreign soul there. Total bliss!

I will never forget those moments I walked down the street in the neighbourhoods of outer Florence or lying next to an Italian couple trying desperately to keep their two small children in check on the green next to the pool. Yet ask me what I saw in the Duomo, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you a single thing. So please, next time we talk about our trips to foreign lands, don't ask me whether I have seen that famous church with that incredible triptychon. I couldn't care less.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The charity conundrum

I puzzled for a while now about how differently I react to requests for charity. Money that is to you and me. It's probably fair to say that I have always given generously and on a regular basis to organisations such as Unicef and others. In fact, about 15 years ago I promised to myself always to give about 2 percent of my after tax income to charitable causes. So far, I kept that promise, with Unicef the most prominent benificiary over the years. One of the most satisfying instances of giving for me was with the Guardian scheme in Katine, Uganda, where every pound was matched by Barclays Bank for five years (check it out HERE, it was an amazing project!). The money was spent on training programmes for schools, midwives and health visitors in several villages in and around Katine and the Guardian and the charity reported annually about progress and difficulties. I enjoyed giving to it since I felt it could make a difference and I had a sense that there are real people at the end of this programme. Also, I thought the money would not be spent on temporary disaster relief but on permenantly building up the community resilience to problems. Sadly the programme ended after five years, perhaps a sign of how effective it has been in improving people's lives there.

This mix of motifs and incentives also lies at the heart of what puzzles me about charitable giving. What attracted me to the Katine programme was clearly the ability to see firsthand that there were actual people at the receiving end, that the money was used to provide them with help to help themselves, and that there was significant oversight and reporting on progress made.

Cut to a street in Liverpool or London in 2017 where I am being approached by someone who asks for a pound. No matter how desperate, homeless or not, I simply would not get my wallet out (before you set off in indignation let me add, I used to give on the street as well). Worse, when being confronted by images of poverty in the UK, homelessness and the like, I feel no pull on the heart strings.

Copyright: Peter Shelomovskiy

Which one would you give to? Copyright: Telegraph

So why is this? There is nothing more concrete and immediate than a person standing in front of you asking for money. I know where the money would go and how it would be used if I was to give any. Why don't I feel the same generosity when I am confronted by the signs of UK poverty as it is when I see it in far away countries?

I think it has something to do with the differentials in opportunities between both contexts. I recognise that people can get into all sorts of difficult situations where they need help, either from their own family and friends or from the local community. However, there is a crucial difference between the two environments. In the UK, whatever you think about injustices built into the system there are enormous opportunities for education, training and work with a basic safety net that includes homeless shelters. This highlights, rightly or wrongly, the role of personal responsibility in creating your own destiny. It emphasises how much we are all in the driving seat when it comes to forging our own future.

This heightened role of personal responsibility carries risks of failure for those who struggle to reconcile personal obligations with individual behaviour. In those cases, we are all called upon to help. But the help should be provided, in my mind, by (local) government, not by individual charity.

The situation of a child (or adult for that matter) in a village in Uganda is considerably different. It's position vis-a-vis opportunities is hampered by ineffective or non-existent government services in the first place, due to state failure or corruption. Here it does not matter whether or not anybody accepts responsibility for their own future. The barriers are simply too great to overcome. Charity in this context is mitigating state failures to ensure that they do not translate into personal tragedies.

I acknowledge that there are structural injustices in both contexts which conspire to hold people back. Yet, the fundamental difference remains: where states function well, opportunities, however small, exist. None of this means that we should be heartless or cold towards personal suffering wherever it occurs. It does however tell us something about our own agency and how we behave in the face of need. In the UK, as largely in the Western world, we mitigate need through government and its myriad organisations, stressing the sense of personal responsibility. In the developing world we recognise that the failure of government itself is the main cause of poverty and the lack of opportunities. Personal responsibility does not take you far where state institutions have broken down and do not provide the basic infrastructure to allow you to thrive as a human being. It's there that we are all called upon to help.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

What welfare really means

The General Election has brought some of the welfare issues back into the spotlight. This may be because the Labour Party now has a leader who believes in the good of welfare.

I have often struggled to find good arguments why welfare should not be a universal entitlement. The argument for universal welfare (all the up to basic income) are very compelling. What's wrong with helping people who cannot help themselves? It surely must be their right to be supported in times of need.

Sometimes, it's worthwhile to go back to what others have written on the subject since nothing is new under the sun, least of all the debate about welfare. So I came across this passage in Michael Lipsky's seminal study of 'Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in public services'.

'The ways in which street-level bureaucrats deliver benefits and sanctions structure and delimit people's lives and opportunities. These ways orient and provide the social (and political) context in which people act. Thus every extension of service benefits is accompanied by an extension of state influence and control over their lives.' (p.4)

Lipsky is no dyed in the wool Tory, he was an American political scientist who investigated the effects of public services on those who delivered them (the local staff) and those who received them.

The passage is so insightful because he does not opt for the usual perspective on welfare that we commonly adopt when debating public services, focusing on the support function of welfare payments to individual. Instead, he tries to see it as a form of control that is being exercised over people. This resonates with the messages that are often articulated from the extreme left about the injustices of the welfare system such as Ken Loach's recent film 'I, Daniel Blake' and his critique of the welfare sanction regime. Lipsky's conclusions are different to those of Loach. Whilst Loach wants every one to have unlimited welfare payments, Lipsky articulates the malign effect of welfare on welfare recipients themselves, as welfare payments start to structure their lives and determine the way the behave.

The answer, Lipsky makes clear, is not to grant street-level bureaucrats more or total control (i.e. universal benefit) but to reduce their influence over our lives. Welfare is not innocuous, he argues, it restricts us and exerts power and control over us. Providing less welfare to all of us in the end liberates us, it allows us to shape our own lives.

The Airbnb experience

A couple of years ago, I decided that I had enough of hotel rooms. No more sagging beds despite four stars and unbearable attitude at reception desks, no more plastic kettles precariously placed on a side table with no socket in side, and interior design that would have made my mother cringe. I was fed up with the anonymous feel whilst paying a high price to get a vacuous yet contemptous fake smile at the reception. So I went Airbnb.

For those of you who do not live in the shared economy, Airbnb is an internet platform that allows you to advertise your own four walls to other people. Airbnb manages all the money transfers between your guest and yourself, takes a fee for this service and guarantees you in turn a potential customer base of several million people across the world who want to stretch out their tired legs in your living room. Over the years, I have found Airbnb nothing but an impeccable service, rapidly responding to my emails or calls when things go wrong.

Stepping into someone else's flat. The Airbnb promise.

The beef I have (and I do have a beef) is with those who embark on the Airbnb path without the necessary skills or readiness to be a host.

Essentially, Airbnb has two types of 'hosts'. The first type is the private citizen who happens to have a spare room and does not mind a complete stranger putting their feet up in the living room. Making some pocket money at the same time helps. This type of host may be attentive or not, considerate or not, clean or filthy, absent or present...whatever he or she is. You know what you get since you know you will enter someone's private abode.

More recently, however, Airbnb has attracted a lot of business clients as hosts. These are basically companies (single self-employed investors or large scale investors) who buy up property to rent it out via Airbnb. I doubt that the profit margins are very high, given that those apartments are usually fully serviced but whatever the gain, the problem I have is not with the professional companies playing host (they are not much else but hotels offering apartments instead of single rooms) but the self-employed, self-taught wanna-be host. You know who I mean. The one who has two or three mobile phones, a fake Rolex watch, and drives an Audio A8 (on credit).

Whilst looking all 'proper business like' (so they think) what they fail to grasp is that running a business like renting out an apartment (or many!) takes good organisational skills and a sense of how to manage your time and resources. That's where they fall down. How often have I stood in front of a locked door at the agreed time, desperately ringing the sole phone number given to me by Airbnb without a host anywhere in sight. If you are lucky, you might get an email saying that, at the present time, your host cannot be at the apartment as arranged but will be there soon. 'Soon' is usually not specified and can mean anything from a couple of minutes to several hours.

Most of these hosts are in fact nowhere close to the specific apartment you would like to stay in. In fact, it always struck me as extraordinary how many of my 'hosts' where living in Florida or Paris whilst the flats they rented out were some thousands of miles away in the Costa del Sol or Munich. For these 'absent' hosts, luckily there is always the helpful neighbour close by... well, not quite. Since the hosts probably never lived in the flat themselves, they have no relationship with any of the neighbours who lived there for years. In fact, at times, the neighbours often don't even know that the flat is rented out through Airbnb.

Worse, because these hosts rarely know the flat they are renting out themselves, they rely on the cleaning service to tell them details and sort out problems. Most recently, I arrived at an apartment in a house that was completely scaffolded from floor to rooftop with some builders cheerily hacking off the outside plaster with sledgehammers whilst I was anxiously trying to phone my host to see if any alternative flat would be available. When I got through to the host, he had no idea the house was actually being regenerated and had been gutted from top to bottom. Needless to say I was slightly miffed about this teeny weeny bit of ignorance.

But that's nothing compared to the 'host' who rents out a flat that isn't even his. This happened to me a couple of years back where, in the second night, someone else came into the apartment who was quite surprised to find me there. It turned out that somebody had rented out a flat that wasn't even his, but which he had shared previously. Having held on to the key of the flat, the fellow thought it would be cool to advertise the flat on Airbnb to make a buck on the side.

In all this, I have to stress, Airbnb itself has been absolutely without fault. Whenever the hosts messed up, Airbnb bent over backwards to make it right. But I think I am just growing a bit tired of poor organisation, hiccups and absent landlords. I might just have to go back to tiny rooms with kettles on the floor and windows I can't open whilst the aircondition is rattling away.