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John Abbott (San Francisco, CA)
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The Rings Of Saturn
The Rings Of Saturn
by Winfried Georg Sebald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars History is "but a long account of calamities", 30 Sep 2014
This review is from: The Rings Of Saturn (Paperback)
Sebald (1944-2001) was a German philosopher and novelist living in the UK and clearly haunted by the past. (He calls history “but a long account of calamities”). His travels around the empty and isolated marshes and coastline of East Anglia in the 1990s, as well as towns in decline such as Lowestoft, seem factual enough, but often verge on the surreal. His description of a black hearse decked out with wreaths passing Lowestoft station, for instance, appears to be symbolic rather than factual, but on the next page there’s a grainy black and white photograph showing the exact scene, with hearse. But despite the photographic evidence dispersed throughout, those that have tried to follow the geographic details of the walk have found that the physical landscape doesn’t always tally with the text.

Each place visited leads to far-flung associations and long historical digressions, on subjects ranging from the skull of Thomas Browne to the natural history of the herring, ancient sea battles, concentration camps, Conrad and the Heart of Darkness, China, the lost port of Dunwich, silkworms, and a very moving description of the tree damage caused by Dutch elm disease and the UK hurricane of 16 October 1987. Themes echo each other and return unexpectedly. The book is structured as intricately as a piece of music. One common technique Sebald uses is to quote his sources in the first person, so that it’s sometimes hard to work out if it is the author himself or one of his sources engaged in the narration.

Chapter 8 considers the patronage of the arts and of lavish country estates in East Anglia by the sugar trade, bolstered by the practices of slavery. This is illustrated by the life of the poet, who grew up in a “heavily-carpeted family home stuffed with gilded furniture, works of art, and trophies of travel” that he later rejected and refused to set foot in again. Sebald traces his gradual withdrawal from society and lonely death. Then there’s a of scene to Ireland, vividly describing the horrific decline and eventual poverty of large country estates, many of them raised to the ground by rebel Republican arsonists. Back on his walk, Sebald finds similar fading palaces on the North Sea coast, evidence of an old prosperity that attracted holidaying Germans in the Victorian age. These were often re-purposed for military ends during the First World War – radar was invented in one of them. The chapter ends on a visit to the mysterious costal area of Orfordness, only recently vacated by the MOD and full of relics and ruins signifying secret activities that can no longer be fathomed. Many of these themes recur in different guises throughout the rest of the book.

There’s a key passage towards the end that I’d like to quote in full, coming after a description of silk weavers in East Anglia, who “spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights, and reminiscent of instruments of torture or cages.” The author clearly empathises with this, and continues: “That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” This is surely a self-description of the author.

If this all makes The Rings of Saturn sound gloomy and depressing, then I’ve given the wrong impression. It’s immensely unsettling, but the constant curiosity and joy in life’s details provides a strong counterbalance. This book is highly recommended.


Tamar by Peet, Mal Published by Walker Books Ltd (2006)
Tamar by Peet, Mal Published by Walker Books Ltd (2006)
by Mal Peet
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Expertly told tale of the resistance in Holland, but the counter story doesn't quite add up, 30 Sep 2014
A compelling and quick read, very enjoyable, though not, in the end, entirely successful I thought. The core war story is a real page-turner and expertly presented, exciting but not falsely heroic, simply and straightforwardly written for its young adult audience but with adult themes – sex, violence, death and ageing – without pulling any punches. It’s also historically informative about that period in Holland just before the end of the war, and evocative of the area. That’s not a period that we read much about, and it seemed to ring very true. I was, however, a little dubious about the central betrayal of the book – would someone initially prepared to risk his life for his mission really act in such an extreme way for reasons of jealousy?

But the main problems came in the modern day story thread, which really seemed to have been added for the purposes of attracting a young readership. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the portrayal of the teenage girl, or by the extremely odd and unconvincing character of Yoyo. The theme of shifting identities (which applies to both stories) was very good and handled really well, but the plot seemed to peter out, starting promisingly with the box of clues but then changing into a seemingly pointless trip down the river Tamar in Cornwall that didn’t make use of any of the clues. The journey ends with a seemingly coincidental meeting in order to resolve the story lines. Despite all this, very enjoyable and well worth reading


The Carter of 'La Providence': Inspector Maigret #4
The Carter of 'La Providence': Inspector Maigret #4
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Atmosphere over plot, 10 Sep 2014
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A “carter” (French “le charretier”, used here in the sense of “cart driver”) looks after the horses and leads them as part of the team running a horse drawn barge. The title directs our attention immediately to Jean the Carter, who duly turns out to be the central figure. (This may have been the reason why this book has previously been published in its English editions under titles such as The Crime at Lock 14 or (oddly) Maigret Meets a Milord, directing us towards the other prime suspects, the English Sir Walter Lampson and his servant Vladimir. The body of Lampson’s wife is found near a lock near Epernay, near Reims. Once again, however, it is not the detection or puzzle that’s of the greatest interest, but the beautifully evoked, rain-soaked atmosphere of working boats on the canal in the 1930s. It is a real location – Simenon spent six months in 1928 exploring the French waterways, and wrote this book on board his boat The Ostrogoth. Because of this, I feel this is the strongest book in the series so far.


Shakespeare's Mistress
Shakespeare's Mistress
by Karen Harper
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Plot twisted to fit a questionable theory, 4 Sep 2014
This review is from: Shakespeare's Mistress (Paperback)
Although this book is easy to read with a plot that rattles along, the author is too keen to push her theories and demonstrate her knowledge of Shakespeare at every opportunity. It’s based on the idea that Shakespeare was married twice – to Anne Whateley a day before a forced marriage to the pregnant Anne Hathaway – because in the Stratford archives there are two marriages recorded, one using the Whateley name. (Most scholars think this comes from a clerical error). Harper builds the novel using Anne Whateley as her candidate for The Dark Lady of the sonnets.

That’s fine as a fictional conceit, but it becomes something of a crusade for the author to convince us that the idea is valid. Harper feels compelled to put in as many quotations and allusions as possible, and work the few concrete facts about Shakespeare’s life into the plot, no matter how convoluted the result becomes. It often reads like undigested research, or the allusions are too heavy and overpowering, or just so obvious that I felt patronized. For instance, when Anne’s close friend Kat drowns herself in a stream, Anne relates the scene using the words “There is a willow grows aslant a brook”. It’s not credited, just mixed into the dialogue. It glares out from the surrounding predominantly modern speech idiom. And I think the author is trying to imply that “Anne” wrote parts of Hamlet. I almost threw the book away at that point – this is a crass use of quotation in the extreme.

It’s much the same with the many quotations from the sonnets, there to “prove” that Anne was in fact The Dark Lady. This is far too literal a way to read the sonnets. And she treats her readers like idiots when she tells us that Anne is upset by the sonnet “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” – only to reveal the “punch line” 100 pages on (ie “beauty is skin deep”) as if we can’t read or understand ourselves. It is possible to do this kind of thing successfully and with humour – as Stoppard shows in Shakespeare in Love for instance, where Shakespeare’s girlfriend is a blonde. But here it’s just too obvious, reductive and po-faced. At the very end she has Shakespeare say to Anne – “I couldn’t have done it without you.” How lame is that….?


The Duke (From "Brubeck Plays Brubeck")
The Duke (From "Brubeck Plays Brubeck")
Price: £0.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Best version of a classic, 28 Aug 2014
“The Duke”, dedicated to Duke Ellington, was first recorded on Brubeck’s 1955 LP Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool, but probably the best version is this one for solo piano from Brubeck Plays Brubeck, issued by Columbia Records a year later. This is the version that Miles Davis heard and gave to Gil Evans to orchestrate for a 19 piece band on the Miles Ahead album of 1957 – an arrangement which Brubeck loved. It’s a beautifully relaxed piece with an inventive bass line combined with a melody that often moves in block, parallel triads, almost as if the spread of the right hand just remains in a single position as it moves up and down the keyboard. The effect is a blurring of the harmonies and a feeling of laziness – the chords fit the convenience of the hand rather than the strict laws of harmony.

All the more surprising then, that this piece has come to be known as a relatively rare example of jazz that uses a 12-tone row (here in the opening section’s bass line). Brubeck has related how, when playing it a college concert, the head of the jazz department came up and pointed it out to him, so it seems that it was done unconsciously. But if it can be regarded as a tone row at all, it’s certainly not used in the manner of Schoenberg. The strict rules are that no notes should be repeated before the full row has been used (the underlying idea being that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal weight). Brubeck does use all 12 notes but takes 21 notes to do so, with nine repeated. And one of the reasons that all the 12 notes are used up so quickly is that the predominant motion is in chromatic, semitone steps. Most importantly of all, the line is harmonized diatonically – despite the blurring effect mentioned above the underlying chord sequence itself is relatively conventional.

“The Duke” is an early Brubeck composition and it wasn’t until his later work that some of the “classical” techniques he learnt from Milhaud’s composition classes at Mills College in the 1940s started showing up. But it was clearly on his mind even then – the original title of this piece was “The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud.” In one interview, Brubeck recalled that his first group (an octet) was started in 1946 when Milhaud asked “How many of you can play jazz?” When eight raised their hands he assigned them all to write a jazz piece. They called the group Les Eight in tribute to Milhaud (who was, of course, a member of Les Six. But Milhaud wasn’t a serialist, and neither, at least at this stage in his career, was Brubeck.


Beamish; Beethoven - String Quartets
Beamish; Beethoven - String Quartets
Price: £15.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Classical influences with a West Coast sensibility, 13 Aug 2014
Sally Beamish, a British composer living in Scotland, has built up an intriguing catalogue of work. Examples include the Bach-inspired Chamber Concerto for saxophone quartet and strings (2008), and the somewhat harrowing, but still life-affirming Spinal Chords, written for the paralympics in 2012 – both works have been recorded. And there are many others, including a Symphony and a number of concertos.

One of the best entry points to explore her music is the re-invention of a Beethoven string quartet (specifically Opus 18 No 4, also on this CD) in her String Quartet No 2 “Opus California”, which uses four themes from the first movement of the Beethoven as the basis for the four short movements, combining the classical influences with a West Coast sensibility. The source material for the second movement includes Beethoven’s first bridge passage, used (appropriately enough) for the portrait of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist.

But it’s the first movement (“Boardwalk”) that is most immediately striking. The sound world of the Beethoven is recognizably still there, but the music unveils in tiny fragments, very lightly put together and occasionally coming together into a sequence of sprung rhythms that approaches jazz. The title refers back to a visit the composer made to the boardwarkat Santa Cruz, teaming with life. The music is accessible but at the same time slightly edgy, and I can hear it being used as the opening music to a modern play – something understated, like Art by Yasmina Reza, for instance.


Nemea. Song with pianoforte accompaniment ... Poem by Lawrence Durrell
Nemea. Song with pianoforte accompaniment ... Poem by Lawrence Durrell
by T. Wallace Southam
Edition: Unknown Binding

5.0 out of 5 stars Forgotton composer of "Jazz Leider", 15 Jun 2014
In Colin Wilson’s 1964 book on music Brandy of the Damned when this list of English songwriters stopped me in my tracks. “…such fine minor composers as Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells and T W Southam.” Who? The only other clue is in the footnote, which cites a Jupiter recording by the classical tenor Wilfred Brown as containing “Southam’s lovely setting of a Durrell poem, Nemea.” The composer in question was a friend of Laurence Durrell called Wallace Southam, who composed a handful of settings of poems by Durrell, Auden, Charles Causley, Michael Baldwin, Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hood. He was a businessman whjo was alos an amateur composer. Little other biographical information is available. However, there are a few recordings on YouTube, most of them jazz settings sung by Belle Gonzalez. Born in the 1930s in Italy she initially made her name as an opera singer in the Philippines. Later in life she seems to have moved into cabaret singing, accompanying herself on piano and guitar.

Belle Gonzalez put out two seven-inch EPs in the 1960s on the Jupiter label involving settings by Southam: Poets Set in Jazz (1965) and its follow up Contemporary Poets Set in Jazz (1966). Gonzalez herself claims that they were the first examples of what has since been termed “Jazz Lieder”.


Poetry set in jazz: Musical settings by Wallace Southam
Poetry set in jazz: Musical settings by Wallace Southam
by Wallace Southam
Edition: Unknown Binding

5.0 out of 5 stars Actually, it's "Poets Set in Jazz", sung by Belle Gonzalez, 15 Jun 2014
The singer Belle Gonzalez put out two seven-inch EPs in the 1960s on the Jupiter label involving settings by the now almost forgotten composer Wallace Southam: Poets Set in Jazz (1965) and its follow up Contemporary Poets Set in Jazz (1966). Gonzalez herself claims that they were the first examples of what has since been termed “Jazz Lieder”.

I recently came across a review of Poets Set in Jazz in The Musical Times, August 1965 by Wilfrid Mellers (1914-2008), the composer and author. Mellers took a lot of interest in jazz and popular music, and among his many books is Angels of the Night: Popular Female Singers of Our Time (1986) – so he was a good choice of reviewer. It seems that the composer Leonard Salzedo was also involved in the project, contribting his own original songs (the Philip Sydney and Thomas Hood settings), but also arranging Southam’s two songs. Information about Southam in sparce nowadays, but he was essentially an amateur composer, as the title of a later record, Songs of a Sunday Composer (1969) suggests I reproduce the review here in full.

POETS SET IN JAZZ Belle Gonzalez with sextet (tunes by Wallace Southam and Leonard Salzedo, arrangements by Leonard Salzedo): Time of Roses (Thomas Hood); We’ll go no more a’ roving (Byron); When I am dead, my dearest (Christina Rosetti); My true love hath my heart (Philip Sidney) JUPITER jep OC 37 (13s 6d)

This delightful record looks improbable, in that one wouldn’t suspect there could be an affinity between jazz and English romantic poetry, or even the Elizabethan lyric. The liaison works, however, because the jazz turns out to be not rock-bottom urban blues but cabaret music, whether witty or sentimental; and the themes of commercial ballads have perennially been the same – if with more dubious authenticity – as those of these well-known verses. Southam’s Byron tune is, in particular, a winner, a quintessence of nostalgia, wherein Belle Gonzalez’s rhythmic elisions and bluesy pitch-distortions manage to combine sentimental involvement with near-ironic detachment in a manner comparable with Byron’s slightly rackish, insidiously lilting stanza. Salzedo’s quick numbers strike home less effectively, though the dead-pan insouciance of My true love makes a point that Sidney – a highly sophisticated as well as a chivalric poet – might have appreciated. WILFRID MELLERS


Havergal Brian Symphonies Nos 6 & 16, Arnold Cooke Symphony No.3
Havergal Brian Symphonies Nos 6 & 16, Arnold Cooke Symphony No.3
Price: £11.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Two single movement symphonies from Brian, 13 Jun 2014
After the famously huge No 1 "Gothic" Brian's next three were also expansive, large works. But numbers 5 (1937) and 6 (1948) are smaller, the first of Brian's many single movement symphonies, and more conventionally thematic. No 6 has the title "Sinfonia tragica" and lasts about 25 minutes. It was originally intended as the prelude to an opera based on J M Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows. It had to wait until 1966 for its first performance.

Symphonies 13-to 17 form another consecutive series of highly compressed single movement works, but these five were written in quick succession, between 1959 and 1961, The set was begun after the 83 year-old Brian had moved to a council flat in Shoreham-on-Sea, overlooking the beach. No 16 dates from 1960, but it disn't receive its first performance until 1973. Unusually for Brian it's in pastoral mood, though with this composer nothing is that straightforward - this work has been described as "troubled Delius". It uses a building block, contrast and relief form, and has been orchestrated with plentiful percussion.

Arnold Cooke (1906- 2005) wrote six symphonies over his long life. No 3 in D dates from 1967, a more conventional three movement work that fits somewhere in between Hindemith and William Walton. Cooke hasn't been served well by the recording industry, so this recording is valuable. I'd love to see a re-issued recording of his once highly regarded song cycle with chamber ensemble, The Seamew (1980).


John Ireland: London Pieces, Three Pastels, Preludes
John Ireland: London Pieces, Three Pastels, Preludes
Offered by Giant Entertainment
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chelsea Reach, 13 Jun 2014
Ireland loved London. “Chelsea Reach” from Three London Pieces (the title refers to the Thames embankment near Battersea Bridge and Cheyne Walk, well known for its colourful houseboats) was written at his studio in 14 Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where he lived from 1915 until the traffic noise finally drove him out in 1953. Ireland himself played the first public performance at the Aeolean Hall in London on 7 June, 1918.

"Chelsea Reach” is a gentle ramble in lilting six eight time that moves mostly in rich block chords. The level of dissonance ebbs and flows in a carefully controlled way: for instance the first three bars have no accidentals, but they are introduced in the next three bars and intensify in the following three. The intensity peaks at bar nine (where the melody also reaches its highest point) and from there it returns to straightforward harmony and a return to the home key of Ab (at bar 10). The rhythm is equally controlled, mostly sticking to regular quavers, but breaking out just occasionally into more dance-like dotted rhythms.


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