A memory, as Christmas approaches

I was born in Vancouver, B.C., many aeons ago in a former world, and immediately put out for adoption; which happening in due course, I found myself with the man and woman whom I remember as my parents. They had a massive RCA console black-and-white TV with built-in stereo, about four or five feet long, something very much like this: [Read more…]

André-Philippe Gagnon, a cast of thousands

I mean to say, of course, that André-Philippe Gagnon is a cast of thousands. The Beloved Other and I went last night to see him in concert. I had seen him once before, in the early nineties; for her, it was a new discovery.

And what a discovery! He began the performance with a one-man history of rock & roll, impersonating singers from Elvis Presley to CeeLo Green. His star turn was a duet between Céline Dion (herself, on video) and Frank Sinatra (André-Philippe, live).

Here, by the magic of YouTube, are some highlights of his show, as performed in a different (and rather more posh) venue:

Visit André-Philippe Gagnon’s website.

‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.

But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.

But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.

When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:

But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.
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A song for Chesterton

And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there are still songs for the harvest and for many agricultural routines. And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be quite unknown for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry. How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things? Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing’

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.

—Elbert Hubbard

Chesterton was a man of many gifts, but presence of mind was not always among them. He was, in fact, so famously absent-minded that he is remembered (among his many other achievements) for sending a telegram to his wife: ‘Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’ And this absence of presence, if I may put it so, led him occasionally to behave as a damn fool, and sometimes, I am afraid, he exceeded Hubbard’s limit. His little excursus into the musical habits of shopmen and printers stands as a fair example. [Read more…]

Mission statement

People occasionally ask exactly what Bondwine Books, as a business entity, is setting out to do. After 30 seconds of panic a long and intensive strategy session, we stole commissioned the following explanatory video. I think this perfectly summarizes what we are all about.

Zombie Opera

Another guest post by the austere and infernal H. Smiggy McStudge. Take with the usual quantity of salt; that is, if you have no salt mines in your neighbourhood that are willing to make bulk deliveries, strain half a gallon of seawater through your teeth for each sentence. —T. S.

I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.

—Charles Beaudelaire

Professional jealousy causes artists to say some terrible things; even, in extreme cases, the truth. For the purposes of the McStudge clan, Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen marked a crucial turning-point in our age-long struggle against Art. In one or two very important ways, it foreshadowed the ultimate fate of grand opera, which was once so dangerous to us and is now so useful to our cause.

If you mention ‘high culture’ to anybody in the English-speaking world, and ask them what is the first thing that comes to mind, there is an excellent chance that they will reply: ‘Opera.’ For generations past, the opera has been the playground of the wealthy elite and the social-climbing sub-elite. I do not, of course, mean that these classes of people write or perform operas: that would be absurd. Though the snobbery and self-importance of the people who do perform operas for their benefit, I am happy to say, is equally absurd and quite real.

No, I mean that rich people and senior bureaucrats gather at palatial opera houses, not to see the opera, but to be seen as opera-goers. They dress up, to this day, in passable imitations of the clothing worn by nineteenth-century aristocrats – the closest some of them ever come to being elegant. They then spend hours of agonizing tedium brought on by music that they do not like, by acting that nobody could praise, and by singing in an artificial and constipated style, all done in a language that they do not understand and for which no translation, as a matter of etiquette, is supplied. (Only a philistine, we teach them to say, would ask what an opera means.) But during the intervals, they have the ecstasy of chattering with their fellow elite in the lobby, eating awful finger sandwiches, swilling champagne, and generally carrying on as if they were the favoured guests of Le Grand Monarque for an unusually exclusive evening at Versailles. Like the Pharisee who prayed on the street corners to be seen praying by men, they have their reward.
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And now, a public-service announcement

First, an item of late news:

I have been unable to write or work at much of anything for several weeks, because (as it turns out) my thyroid gland has gone walkabout. So I spend an average of about 16 hours per day sleeping, and the rest in a waking fog, whilst my thyroid schleps about the Northern Territory, communing with kangaroos, dodging crocodiles, and pretending to be Paul Hogan with very little success. At least it hasn’t been eaten yet. Medication is forthcoming once tests have been completed and results resultivated.

In the meantime, allow me to remind you all of Unbreakable Rule #5 of Good SF, courtesy of Reginald Pikedevant:

This is old information, but apparently there are some benighted souls who have not yet received the news. Spread the word! And remember, there may be a quiz on this later in the term.

The twelfth day of Christmas: Adeste

One likes to close on a high note, and since I began this twelve days’ journey in the Baroque period, I shall end there. ‘Adeste fideles’ is one of the most familiar Christmas carols all round the world; I dare say it has been translated into every living language except possibly Pirahã.

I thought of posting one of the performances at the Vatican, either from Christmas Eve, 2011, or from Epiphany a year ago. But while every material resource has been lavished on these – the best choirs, the best orchestras, the best arrangements and conductors – I am sad to say that the results do not justify the means employed. These versions plod. They limp from note to note; the choirs are not tight, the rhythm diffuse and imprecise, with the inevitable result that the words become mushy and indistinct. I had the impression that the singers would have fallen asleep but for the sheer volume of the orchestra. Both those performances were a chore to listen to, and I suspect they were a chore to perform: an old favourite of the masses that must be trotted out for its yearly exhibition, no matter how tired of it the musicians have become.

But even at this late date, it is still possible for a choir to treat the song, not as a staid set piece from an over-familiar repertoire, but as an invitation to make a joyous noise. As an example, I offer this performance by the choir of Hendon St. Mary’s in London, directed by Richard Morrison, with soloist Jo McGahon.

Merry Christmas to all, and a joyous Epiphany tomorrow; and may God’s grace go with you in 2014.

The eleventh day of Christmas: Veni

And now, a 12th-century piece that needs no introduction: ‘Veni, veni, Emmanuel’.

The tenth day of Christmas: Nowell

Here is another fine old English carol. After the discussion in the combox about the Middle English pronunciation of yesterday’s selection, I should point out that this song is rendered in just about perfect M.E. Perhaps a little too perfect; for the early stages of the Great Vowel Shift were already underway in the 15th century, when this carol was written. At that stage, if the reconstructions are to be trusted, the long vowels were just beginning to be diphthongs, but they were diphthongal versions of the original English vowels, and had not begun their Völkerwanderung all over the phonological map. The effect would have struck our ears as a kind of drawl or twang. At any rate, all such niceties have been left out of this rendition, and the vowels have been told to stay at home as if they were still perfectly content there, and had not embarked on their secret conspiracy to swap places until the whole system of English spelling became a manifest nonsense.

About the carol itself, there is not much to say, except that it is an interesting example of what is called macaronic verse:

Nowell sing we both all and some,
Now Rex pacificus is y-come.

Ex ortum est in love and liss,
now Christ his grace he gan us giss, etc.

Compare the tongue-in-cheek elegy by John Skelton, which ended with the lines:

Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Per omnia saecula,
Saecula saeculorum.

As this example shows, macaronics were generally employed for comic effect, mixing Latin words and phrases with the vernacular in whatever silly way the metre would allow. Latin–English macaronic verse usually has a doggerel quality, partly because rhymes are so much easier to come by in Latin than in our own language with its ill-assorted collection of stolen words. But in ‘Nowell sing we’, the macaronic is employed with a perfectly serious intent, using bits of Latin that every Englishman of the times would have known from the Mass, and not at the end of the line for easy rhyming, but at the beginning of each verse to introduce a particular topic.

Each verse ends with the line ‘Both all and some’, which seems like an oxymoron, but in fact is probably the shortest possible way of putting the central paradox in the Christian doctrine of salvation. Christ died for us all, so that we might all be saved; but it remains with each one of us to accept or reject that gift, and only some of us, in the end, will do so. The blood of Christ is pro vobis et pro multis effundetur, ‘poured out for you and for many’ – a reminder that the efficacy of the gift is not extended to all, and in particular, not to those who sincerely refuse it. It is, in effect, a gift for ‘both all and some’.

Here, for all and some, is ‘Nowell sing we’.