Solo

Perfect
In every note,
Bow arm strong and supple;
Eyes closed, lost in concentration,
You own this space, command our attention;
The music and moment are yours.
Wild applause. My heart swells.
Everything is
Perfect.

 
 

This is my first crack at rictameter, which I’d never heard of until today. Nine lines; start with two syllables, then four, then six, eight and finally 10, before counting down again to the same two syllables you first thought of. My subject, once again, is my wonderful daughter, who played a magical violin solo at her school concert last night. N.

Joik

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He sings for the land.
Not his by title deed
But by ancient rights
Long denied, hard-won.
And he loves it
With a depth and strength
Only centuries
Of labour, lives and deaths can breed.
The song rises in him
Like sap in springtime;
And he feels every word
Like his own heartbeat.
The land, the man and his strange words
Become one,
Like the grey fjord and the ocean
The forest and the mountain
The reindeer and the snow.
And as he sings
There is no ownership
Only belonging.

 

During our trip to Norway, we visited a Sami reindeer herder, Johan Isak Oskal, who is one of the most genuine, inspiring and quietly determined people I have ever met. As well as introducing us to his beautiful animals, he told us about the Sami way of life, showed us artefacts, and treated us to a joik – the traditional Sami song whose sounds and origins have much in common with the Native American chants. I can’t share it with you since he (quite rightly) asked us not to record it, explaining that the song belongs to the land; but it was extraordinarily moving and powerfuly atavistic. Do have a look at his website Tromso Arctic Reindeer – the videos have joiks as their soundtracks. N.

Java & Jazz

Kinda early in the day
For noodling sax
And rippling piano;
Scattered motes of hazy night
Drifting into sharp, bright morning
Like smoke under the door;
The lingering tang of scotch on the tongue.

But right on time
For the double shot
Lined up to hit me
Right between the eyes;
A jolt to the brain, still half in bed,
To shock myself
Into my best pretence of life.

And when it comes
The first clear through is not
Of what I’m here to do,
But of you, and later,
When we’re together
Long miles down the road
And all of this might finally make sense.

 
 

Pre-meeting ruminations in the eponymous cafe. N.

One shot

Life
Is not a rehearsal.

It’s an audition

From the moment heaven gives us
The nod to begin
We’re out there, unaccompanied,
With no chance to start again.

Our first notes
Shrill, unformed
Born of ancient dread, defiance
And bewilderment.

If they do not stop us
We go on
Interpreting the score
The best we can

Our performance measured
Judged, observed
Endlessly picked over
Until our very bones are all laid bare.

And all the while
The threat, unsaid,
Of what befalls if we are not
Note-perfect.

We play our hearts out
Wringing every drop from every line
Hoping, pleading
It’s what they want to hear

Always striving
To please the panel
Land the part
Make the grade.

Until the last cadenza
And the long diminuendo
That ends in breathless silence
Standing alone on stage
Wondering if we did enough
And being told

We’ll let you know.

 

 

Shadorma: Over the Rainbow

She walks on.
Sits. Adjusts the stool.
The old grand
Piano
Gleaming like a limousine
Huge as a moored barge.

She’s alone
Under that spotlight
With it all
On the line.
Now I know why they call it
Facing the music.

It’s a risk:
Playing an old song
They’ll all know.
In their heads
They already hear Judy.
Hard act to follow.

She begins
And with the first note
She has them.
Skies are blue.
And suddenly I’m not in
Kansas any more.

 
 

My daughter played a lovely arrangement of ‘Over the Rainbow’ (actually a Grade VI exam piece) on the enormous Bechstein grand piano in front of 200 people at a school concert last night. If that ain’t worth a poem, I don’t know what is. N.

Sestina: The Fiddler’s Dream

He sits in silence, rosining his bow.
Another night, another town to play.
His whole world held together by those strings –
Four lifelines, or four hangman’s ropes. The time
Ticks on. Not long now. In his mind, the tunes
Wait patiently in line, as actors stand

Behind the curtain for their cue. He’ll stand
On stage, exposed, with nothing but his bow
His father’s fiddle and his store of tunes
To offer them. They’ve come to hear him play
Tonight; paid money, given up their time
To witness wonders woven out of strings

Old wood and horsehair. Hardened by the strings
His fingers flex and fidget. Who can stand
This waiting to go on? He feels the time
Run slow as syrup from a spoon. The bow
Lies on a table, tightened up to play.
He shuts his eyes, leans back, and lets the tunes

Run loose around his head. He’s known these tunes
Forever. Since his fingers felt the strings
That first time, age of six, he’s learned to play
Them in his sleep. No metronome, no stand,
No printed sheet: they handed him the bow
And fiddle, then stepped back. A little time

Was all it took. He breathes, drifts out of time
And that green room, and dreams. He’s playing tunes
Unheard, unwritten. Now the ragged bow
Become a lightning bolt, and from the strings
It strikes sparks and blue fire – and there they stand:
A thousand bright musicians, set to play

Along with him. They nod. He does not play
Alone: with every note he’s keeping time
With everyone who every dared to stand
And entertain the rest. He exhales, tunes
The fiddle one last time, and in the strings
Feels magic stir. He smiles. Picks up the bow.

Each one must play his part, give out his tunes
Till comes the time when we must cut all strings
And, silent, stand to take our final bow.

 
 

Decided it was high time to have another crack at the sestina – and what fun it was (no, really). This was inspired by the beautiful tune of the same name by the American genius Mark O’Connor: you’ll find it on his album ‘America On Strings’. I was also thinking about my daughter, who’s playing the ‘Meditation’ from Thais by Massanet as a solo at her school concert tomorrow night. She’s completely relaxed about the whole thing, but I’m nervous as all hell! N.

Shadorma: Blue Fire

Look back on
That first rehearsal:
Slow, halting,
Hesitant;
Bows like boats’ masts in a storm,
Brows and lips drawn tight.

A long term’s
Project, building up
Note by note
Bar by bar,
Finding their way in, feeling it
In fingers, feet, heart.

One week left
And decision time:
Fast or slow?
Yes or no?
Play the notes, or the music?
Be safe or sorry?

Concert night.
Packed to the rafters.
They walk in,
Take their seats.
Silence. Bows rise as one. Hold.
One two three breathe in

A shiver
Down my back. Throat tight.
Fiddles soar
Cellos growl
Breathless semiquaver runs.
A blue fire blazes.

Three and off.
Stand, bows held aloft.
The room roars
And my heart
Sings like Appalachia
On a bright spring day.

 
 

On Saturday evening, my daughter played violin in a concert with the String Orchestra run by our magnificent County Music Service. The highlight was the Appalachian-style Blue Fire Fiddler by the American composer and conductor Soon Hee Newbold. They’ve been working on it since Christmas, but even just a week ago, the teachers weren’t sure it would be ready. It was. Two days later, it still makes me hot and cold all over just thinking about it. Magical, glorious, wonderful stuff. N.

Country music

Everything I had to know
I learned from country music:

‘bout Love and Life, man-and-wife.
Foolish hearts, brand-new starts;
Bitter fights, lonely nights,
Smoke-filled bars, steel guitars;
Untamed broncs, honky-tonks,
Pickup trucks, last few bucks;
Missing you, dreams come true,
Endless highways, long hot dry days,
Tall tequilas, eighteen-wheelers,
Hot falling tears, ice-cold beers;
Cheatin’, lyin’, laughin’, cryin’,
Wantin’, choosin’ winnin’, losin’.
Long slow dances, lost romances,
Hit the track, want you back,
Please-don’t-go, the rodeo,
Hanging tough, I’ve-had-enough
Harsh words spoken, promise broken,
Slamming doors, forever yours.
Bridges burned, lessons learned.

Seemed everyone I heard was giving
Three –minute manuals for living.
And the only thing that I done wrong
Was thinking life was like a song.

 

This is a reworking of a piece I originally posted a year or so ago. Still makes me smile. Have a great weekend, everybody. N.

Culture shock

 

She can’t abide my music: ‘It’s so sad,”
She groans, “embarrassing, old stuff.”
I start a disc, she stops her ears: “NO, Dad!”
A single bar of some tracks is enough
To send her running from the room. So now
I guess it will be years before we see
Things quite the same way, and I wonder how
And where we’ll differ (not just musically)
These songs sit at the heart of who I am:
I won’t forsake my country, rock or folk.
There’s nothing in the charts now worth a damn:
Those ‘talent contest’ winners – what a joke.
But give it time: I know that she’ll come round
And recognise my tastes as truly sound.

 

I wanted to end the week on a bit of a lighter note, and my beloved daughter gave me all the material I needed en route to her piano lesson this afternoon.

Sonnet: Folk memory

“Summer is a-coming in,” they sang,
“Groweth mead and bloweth seed, and spring
The woods anew.” How sweet their voices rang;
The ancient round still with the power to bring
The scent of flowers and new-mown hay to mind,
And conjure skylarks in a sapphire sky,
While for a moment, Winter’s wicked wind
Was turned aside. Long centuries roll by
But cannot touch the melodies and rhymes
Our fathers made to lighten scythe or plough.
What music of our own impatient times
Will children sing eight hundred years from now?
What legacy will we be handing on
For them to marvel at when we are gone?

 

At my daughter’s violin class yesterday, teachers Miss B and Miss Y had them playing, then singing, ‘Summer is a-Coming In’, a round dating from the 13th Century. Slightly incongruous in February, and with snow imminent, but a wonderful treat for us parents – and for the children too, I think. They certainly seemed to enjoy it, especially when they divided into six different parts, with the melodies and harmonies repeating and interweaving in a single swell of sound. Glorious. I believe it’s really important that these old songs are handed on, generation to generation, as reminders of who we are (or were) and where we come from. As a nation, we’ve been very careless with our folk history and memories; other countries seem to do these things much better.
I’ve said it many times before, I know, but Miss B, Miss Y and the other East Sussex Music Service staff are beyond praise, and do brilliant work with literally thousands of kids all over the county. Which is why I’m so incensed that the Service faces a 10% cut in its budget this year, and will eventually lose HALF its funding to government cuts. I fail to see what possible impact these savings could have on the overall deficit – meanwhile, we risk losing some thing truly worthwhile and inspirational that our kids will remember (and possibly even thank us for!) all their lives. Some legacy, huh?