Jamming with Shakespeare

This week at BCU we had a visit from the Sonnet Man, aka Devon Glover, a New York based rapper who performs Shakespeare in his own unique way. Sonnet Man’s approach is to perform some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as hip hop, with backing tracks, to demonstrate how amazingly flexible the sonnets are, and how well they work in performance; he uses Shakespeare’s own words, but follows this with a ‘breakdown’, which summarises the sonnet in his own words, perhaps picking up particular relevance – to emotions, to everyday lives – which might appeal to his audience. It’s fascinating: Sonnet Man’s performance really is Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him; the brilliance of the simple iambic pentameter, the punch of the alliteration and rhyme, really comes out in this approach. The way in which music, rhythm, poetry and emotions work in the sonnets is very clear. (I have to confess, though, that I’m probably not his target audience, and probably didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of our students!)

I was interested by the way Devon Glover weaves in his life story – from Brooklyn, looking for a way to better his life through education – as a way to tell the stories of the sonnets. Initially he struggled with Shakespeare, he says, until suddenly it all came to him – through rapping. (Apparently he also teaches maths this way). The way he meshes the apparently opposing cultures of hip hop and Shakespeare is inspiring, and I can see how this would appeal to a lot of people who might not ‘get’ Shakespeare otherwise (though I’m afraid it hasn’t really worked the other way round and converted me to rap), but the performance of Sonnet 17, for example, as a spur to believing in yourself and your own abilities, is bound to inspire. From unsuccessful love affairs to death to academic achievement, Sonnet Man covers it all, and very well; it feels real, somehow, not contrived (‘updated’ performances of Shakespeare can often be rather embarrassing), and I saw its appeal even if I didn’t really feel it myself. Devon Glover makes a great case for the universality of Shakespeare, ripping it away from its middle-class, middle-aged, white British, RP-speaking enclave, and I liked that.

One of my favourite pieces was Hip Hop Hamlet – watch it here:


X-Ray Audio

IMG_2393Over the weekend I went to have a look at a very unusual exhibition, hosted by Vivid Projects in Digbeth. ‘X-Ray Audio: Forbidden Music Bootleg Technology 1946-1964′ explores the way in which bootleg music flourished in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The exhibition includes a number of different approaches to distributing music, including beautiful flexi-discs and objects which look nothing like a record. The objects displayed were collected by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield, and are, as the exhibition flyer points out, examples of the (often surprising) aesthetic of low culture. Most interesting, though, was the X-Ray discs. Bootleggers ‘repurposed used X-ray films to copy forbidden jazz, rock and roll and banned Russian music.’

The exhibition was full of images of bones: the X-ray discs have a ghostly, unexpected and rather Gothic appearance that is both disturbing and beautiful. In the context of this exhibition, the X-ray films become art, projected onto the walls, shown on slides, as well as displayed in cases. The exhibition information describes them thus:

They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the sounds of forbidden pleasure, fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens overlaid with the ghostly music that they secretly loved.

It’s a fascinating metaphor for the required secrecy of bootlegging that these discs contain images of people that are rarely seen. A broken bone here, a skull there, these are the secret interiors of people, and, though macabre, they are also strangely beautiful.

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Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!

Sunshine and music at Elgar’s Birthplace

Edward_ElgarI’ve always had a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, and living in Worcestershire where he was born there are clearly many others who share this enthusiasm. So on a sunny Saturday we decided it was time we visited the Elgar Birthplace Museum, in Broadheath not far from Worcester. In addition to the picturesque cottage where Elgar was born in 1857, there is now a visitor centre containing items belonging to Elgar, including a drum he had as a child, his violin, and several manuscripts. (An excellent audio guide accompanies this, though due to having a three-year-old with me I didn’t get to listen to all of it!)Though the Elgar family lived there for less than three years after the birth of Edward, the composer visited the village frequently, often staying on a local farm, and retained a deep affection for the place throughout his life. His family owned a music shop in Worcester, where the young Elgar learned a great deal about music, composition and playing, and became determined to follow a career in music.

It seems that Elgar felt his roots in the Worcestershire countryside were important, and elements of this are always present IMG_1761in his music, so to visit his place of birth feels significant, as if we can access a particular aspect of what made him the man – and composer – he became. When choosing a title in 1931, he chose First Baronet of Broadheath, an indication of the place’s lasting place in his mind. In a letter to a friend (quoted on the Museum’s website), he wrote:

So you have been to Broadheath. I fear you did not find the cottage – it is nearer the clump of Scotch firs – I can smell them now – in the hot sun. Oh! how cruel that I was not there – there’s nothing between that infancy & now and I want to see it.

The cottage, then, is a tranquil spot, with a beautiful cottage garden as well as the Jubilee Family Garden, where my son happily played the outdoor instruments for a while. The cottage itself is fascinating as a period piece, even aside from its illustrious IMG_1752connections; quite small, perhaps, for a growing family, but a perfect example of its time and filled with objects which both make it feel like a family home – some furniture, for example, including curtains which once hung in other houses Elgar lived in – and also a piano from the Elgar music shop, as well as Elgar’s HMV gramophone. I was interested to see the range of hobbies Elgar pursued as a man – as well as being an avid reader, he played golf, cycled, did woodwork, and pursued chemistry; his friend W H Reed said that Elgar used to ‘ease the burden of his destiny as a composer by pretending to be a chemist’!

I also found a Pre-Raphaelite connection which intrigued me: Elgar’s friend (to whom the letter quoted above was written), Alice, Lady Stuart of Wortley, was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Alice was a close friend of the composer and influenced and inspired his compositions, particularly the 1910 violin concerto, ‘Windflower’. In the house hangs an engraving of Millais’s portrait of John Henry IMG_1750Newman, whose poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was orchestrated by Elgar; the engraving was given to Elgar by Alice.

I’m always drawn to places where people whose work I love were born, or lived; this is no exception. Though many of the rooms of the cottage contain exhibition items rather than furniture, somehow there is still a lovely sense of it as a home, and from all the windows the views remind me of the beauty of the county. There is a room guide with information about each room and its exhibits on the website if you’re interested, and I recommend the Museum for a visit!

Listen to ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1’ here: 

or better still, the Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85: 

Pantomime magic

IMG_1621The pantomime is considered a great British tradition, a concept I find both fascinating and slightly mystifying. This year we took my small son to the pantomime for the first time, and in my first visit to the pantomime for about thirty years I was struck by how little has really changed. Going to the pantomime was a much-anticipated Christmas treat for me as a child: I wholeheartedly believed in the magic of the pantomime, found the jokes hilarious, the mock-pathos moving, the action thrilling, and I desperately wanted to be the fairy godmother (usually played by one of the senior girls from the ballet school). Subsequent weeks would be spent re-enacting parts of the pantomime, with focus on the ballet.

The pantomime we went to was in the same place (The Elgiva in Chesham, if you’re interested) as the pantomimes I attended in the early 1980s, which made me think even more about how things have changed over time. The pantomime tradition demands that the basic story be that of a fairytale (Jack and the Beanstalk, in this case), but which must include a hero, a princess, a fairy godmother, Widow Twanky (a man dressed up as a woman), a villain who must be boo-ed, and a set pattern of events, beginning with trials to be overcome and ending with a marriage. Along the way, the audience can sing, express loudly their delight or disapproval, and leave their usual, restrained selves at the door (this goes for adults more than children, of course). The set is always full of glitter and sparkle, the brighter the better – any ideas of restraint or taste must necessarily be replaced with a fearless drive towards a complete cheerfulness overload.IMG_1620

A new book on The Golden Age of Pantomime by Jeffrey Richards, which I’ve read several reviews of recently, explores why pantomime was so important in the nineteenth century, and one aspect of the Victorian pantomime is the way in which it constructed childhood as something innocent and ethereal, though later in the century combined with music-halls acts which attracted the crowds over Christmas. This combination is perhaps why the modern pantomime has a patchwork effect, in which songs, romantic interludes, jokes and audience participation all combine with both pathos and slapstick to create something unlike anything else you might see in the theatre. It won’t surprise you to hear that Charles Dickens was fond of a pantomime, though perhaps it is more surprising that John Ruskin also did.

In some ways, I found myself thinking how different this pantomime was from those I remembered – the music is WarnePantomine1890louder and more contemporary, the special effects more special, and the dancing more modern. Yet of course these are minor, surface differences: though the performance was well-rehearsed and performed, there was still a sense of very British amateurishness about it which is necessary in pantomime, I think. And though I was conscious of the innuendo in some of the terrible jokes, that’s because I’m older, not because panto has changed. Pantomime is by its very nature both timeless and of its time: different every year, only put on for a fleeting festive season, it reflects the trends and concerns of its time (for example, references to Strictly, Frozen and austerity abound) – but the way in which it makes contemporary references don’t really change, and the sort of awful, punning jokes which raise a groan are both rooted in contemporary ideas and in much older concepts. Making us laugh is a complex business, but one which in many ways doesn’t seem to have changed much over time. I’m no expert (though the V&A pages on the history of pantomime are very helpful) but it seems to me that at this festive time of year, a panto, full of cringe-making jokes, loud music with the occasional off-note, and clunky plots, is just what we need to raise the Christmas spirit.


Dusty at 75

photoOn a wander through Henley-on-Thames at the weekend, we visited the churchyard (I spend a lot of time in graveyards, more for the ambience than for my research on graveyard poetry!) and came across the grave of Dusty Springfield, who died in 1999. Coincidentally, today (16th April) would have been her 75th birthday, so I thought I’d post a picture of her grave, which apparently always has flowers on it, though it is quite unostentatious.

I rarely blog about music, though in fact I love music, but I don’t feel I have anything sensible to say about it. However, Dusty was one of my first musical loves: my father had an old Dusty LP, which began with ‘I only want to be with you’. The intro skipped a little on a scratch, and I listened to that record so many times that I can’t hear it without that glitch. One of the first CDs I bought was a Dusty compilation, and it’s probably one of the CDs I’ve listened to most, over the years. I like to sing, and I sing those songs all the time and am word-perfect. More than that, when I was in my teens and went through a bit of a 1960s phase (I started early with the vintage clothes) it was old pictures of Dusty that got me started on eyeliner and back-coDustymbed hair.

Her music is almost always sad; even when it has an upbeat rhythm (such as ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’, it’s still not a cheerful subject. I gather she didn’t always have  a happy life, and you can hear that in her music. But her gentle, smoky voice catches any tune and makes it irresistible. Around 1990, I could find nothing I liked so much as this, and the songs on that first CD I bought still sound to me like a soundtrack of different events of my life. Though some of the covers she did later in her career grate a little with me, the early songs influenced by the blues, Memphis and soul singers are remarkable and moving.

If you haven’t heard it, this is my favourite of her songs: Son of a Preacher Man. Fabulous Sixties styling, too (though this isn’t the best recording of it).

NB For the record, when I was sixteen (in 1992 or 93) I made a list in my diary of my favourite CDs. They included: Bon Jovi, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Nirvana, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield, Elgar, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Telemann and Tori Amos.