Sunday, 28 June 2009

On Expanding Horizons

I’m back on the word clouds again. Here is the cloud for this post:
Ever since I was born, I’ve been learning new music. Most of the time I’ve gently absorbed whatever was around me, not especially seeking out lots and lots of new sounds, just gradually and organically growing a CD collection and generally sticking to types of music that I already knew.

However, there have been two distinct times in my life when I have quite consciously and deliberately expanded my musical horizons and ventured into sound worlds that were, initially, quite unfamiliar to me.

The first of these occurred when I was at college. Until I went to college to study music, I hardly ever listened to anything written after 1900. However, it soon became clear to me that there was no way I could get a decent mark for my degree if I didn’t embrace the musical developments of the twentieth century. So, I began to learn.

My most intense and concentrated experience involved Britten’s opera, Death In Venice. I learned that I was to study this work as part of my analysis portfolio for finals, and I was determined to make the very best of the experience.

Initially I didn’t even go near the music. First I read Thomas Mann’s novella, upon which the libretto is based. Then I read the libretto (several times). Then I got hold of the score and browsed it a bit. Then, finally, one day I sat with headphones and listened to the entire work at one sitting. It was quite an experience, not only because the music is SO splendid, but also because, by that time, my mind was almost completely transported to Venice!

And then, as I sometimes do, I went a bit mad. I studied Britten’s Third String Quartet as well. I read everything about Britten I could get my hands on, and I even went as far as reading Nietsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Plato’s Phaedrus. At the time I was living in Finsbury Park and commuting via Piccadilly line into central London each day. I read 4 pages of Plato on each journey, usually with my head jammed into the corner of a tube carriage and my viola balancing precariously on my shoulder.

The result of all this work and study was a passion for the work so deep and enduring that it has never since left my list of “music to be taken to the desert island”. When I was awarded the finals prize at the end of my degree, I spent the money not on new shoes (despite the fact that mine had holes in), but on the full score of Death In Venice and I can still lay my hands instantly on most of my Death In Venice stuff:

The second time in my life when I consciously and deliberately expanded my musical horizons was a very different experience and will be discussed in my next blog post. Here is the word cloud for that post:

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

On Why I Play The Viola

Whenever I tell anyone I’m a musician, the first question they usually ask me is “What instrument do you play?” When I give the answer “Viola” I get a mixed bunch of reactions. Many people just look puzzled when I don’t instantly say “Piano” or “Guitar”; some, showing their immense knowledge of orchestral instruments, say “Ah, is that the small violin thing?” and I gently correct them; non-viola-playing musicians often tell their favourite viola joke; amateur conductors ask for my telephone number; and viola players usually greet me as though I am their long-lost friend!

So why do I play the viola? What circumstances led me to become a first-study violist and consequently sit pretty much in the middle of the orchestra, become an honorary tenor from time to time, develop strong muscles on one side of my neck, shamelessly steal transcribed repertoire from other instruments, read alto clef fluently, hear endless viola jokes, and generally confuse all the non-musical people who can’t quite comprehend the differences between a viola and a violin?

At this point I’d like to tell you a beautiful and romantic story, about how I, as a small child, heard somebody playing viola and instantly fell in love with its wonderful and entrancing sound. I’d like to say that I begged my parents to let me play the viola until they were so impressed by my passion and commitment that they eventually relented and I was able to fulfill my dream.

But it wasn’t really like that - it was less a “love at first sight” scenario, and more of a “marriage of convenience”.

At the age of nine I had two ambitions. One was to be an astronaut and the other was to be a professional clarinet player. I was a VERY good clarinet player – I had the highest music grade of anybody in my school, which was excellent because the Headmistress made me stand up in assembly and the whole school clapped and they gave me a sweet.

However, by the time I reached age twelve, clarinet dreams had faded. I had braces on my teeth, my lips bled when I played, I couldn’t get into an orchestra and I hated my teacher. I knew now that I wanted to play the violin. My brother played the violin and got into orchestras. Furthermore he was taught by a cool boy in the fifth-form who I found just the tiniest bit attractive. So I started to pester my parents to let me give up the clarinet and play the violin instead.

Eventually they approached the attractive boy’s mother, who was the local violin and viola teacher. She said I was quite big, and really a bit old to start the violin but I could always learn the viola. Could the attractive boy still teach me? Apparently he could.

That settled the deal. A beaten up old viola was located somewhere at the back of a cupboard in the music centre and I started lessons, which were really cool. I painted my fingernails black every week to impress the attractive boy and I even got into an orchestra. On the day I joined I passed my viola to the teacher for tuning and she became so excited at having a viola in her orchestra she nearly fell over. I was the oldest in the orchestra by several years and I sat towering above tens of seven year-olds violinists and a couple of eight-year old cellists.

The honeymoon period ended with grade 4 scales. I hadn’t signed up for tedious minutes of scale practice – I wanted orchestras and the attractive boy. So I decided to give up. However, my parents had already paid for the exam, so I wasn’t allowed. Instead my Dad wrote out all the names of my scales on little bits of card and sat in my bedroom for 30 minutes every day, making me pick out cards and practice scales until they were perfect. In that way I worked through “C major, slurred”, “G minor, separate bows” and the rest of them until I eventually passed grade 4 with flying colours.

At that point all thoughts of giving up evaporated. After 8 months learning the viola I had gained grade 4 and I got moved up an orchestra. I was now “A Viola Player” and what had started as a “marriage of convenience” was rapidly becoming a full-blown love affair!

And that is why I play the viola!

Monday, 22 June 2009

On Word Clouds and Blog Posts

From the moment I first saw a “Word Cloud” I thought they were fabulous, mainly because I’m particularly fond of the use of pictures, diagrams and graphs to represent information. I view word clouds much as I would graphs, and enjoy getting information out of them. However, they also please me aesthetically. This latter property is harder to explain, but maybe you, dear reader, will understand what I mean?

One of my fabulous twitter friends, @_FK_ (whose classical music blog An everyman for himself is well worth reading) recently sent me a link to a word cloud he had made using Wordle. I was instantly tempted to explore further, and pasted in several random blocks of text I just happened to have lying around to see what happened. Great fun was what happened!

After I had posted my first blog, I couldn’t resist making a word cloud from it, and it did indeed turn out rather nicely. I thought you might like to see it, so it’s pasted here for your entertainment and delectation (if you’re into that sort of thing):However, seeing a word cloud for a chunk of text that you’ve already read might not be the very most exciting thing you’ve ever done, so then I wondered whether I should make a word cloud of my NEXT blog post. That way, you might get a little taster of what is in store in the next post, and have a little fun trying to imagine what it’s about. The downside of this is that you might take one look at the cloud, see the principal words, decide that the blog doesn’t look very interesting and decide not to read it. But I thought I might just take that risk!

The advantage of posting the cloud a few days before the blog post is that it ensures that I have actually written something to post. As I seem to have set a precedent for posting on a Wednesday, right in the middle of the working week, maybe writing the post the previous weekend is a very good idea. I also speculated to the Wonderspouse that I might challenge readers to write the blog themselves, just starting with the word cloud – anyone who came up with the exact blog by Tuesday evening could then win, say, a chocolate biscuit!

Maybe by this stage I was getting a little fanciful, but then this is all still very new to me, and I’m still having enormous fun with it. So much fun, in fact, that here is the cloud for THIS post:

After I wrote most of the above, I tried pasting my original word clouds into the blogger and the smaller words were so minuscule that they were illegible. However, I was determined to publish SOMETHING about word clouds since I love them so much. So after a restless night’s sleep and a lot of head scratching I came up with the idea of a minimalist word cloud – just 25 words in each cloud. Maybe this will still give you a tantalizing foretaste of the blog post that is to come, but I suspect that the chocolate biscuit challenge has just become considerably more difficult!

And finally, as promised, the word cloud for the post that is shortly to be published – hope you like it!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

On Starting My Blog

So here it is - at long last, my first blog springs to life! After months of pondering, deliberation and boring the Wonderspouse silly with “When I start my blog I’ll . . .” conversations, I’ve finally done it! Hooray!

I’m setting off into the blogosphere with a certain amount of trepidation. Various books and websites have instructed me that my blog should be different, entertaining, interesting and short. It should also contain humour and lots of links as well as being jargon-free and giving an unusual viewpoint on the world. Furthermore, there are apparently trolls on the internet who will take any opportunity to criticise my blog just for some kind of sport, leaving me a quivering wreck on the floor under my desk. Oh crumbs, what have I let myself in for?

My only previous experience of “blogging” in any shape or form has involved posting rather a lot of updates on Twitter. When I joined Twitter I complained to the Wonderspouse that I didn’t have anything to tweet about. However, 2000 updates later, I seem to be managing fine, so I’m kind of hoping the same will happen with this blog.

The Wonderspouse, who is an author with his own blog, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, has asked me on several occasions what I’m going to blog about. My rather simple answer has been “I don’t know”, and, guess what, I still don’t! I have so many and varied interests, that I’m not sure I could ever stick to a single-subject blog. Really I’m a “Jack of all trades and Master of none”, although the Wonderspouse rather flatteringly tells me that I simply have Too Many Aptitudes!

Maybe the best place to start would be with my blog’s title? It was inspired by a throw-away comment I made when I was asked why I had started a maths degree, having previously gained a music degree. I responded by saying that I was specializing in degrees beginning with the letter “M” (oh, and in case you’re interested, next on the list is modern languages, not moggies!). As it turns out, I do seem to be rather interested in things beginning with M, so a blog title was born.

Music is an obvious blog topic for me. I can state, quite categorically, that I could not imagine life without music. I have been obsessed with sounds, instruments, and compositions for as long as I can remember. My father taught me to read both music and words when I was 3 years old, so I really have no memory of life before music. I was brought up in “the classical tradition”, and eventually studied music at degree & postgraduate level. These days I have also branched out and discovered the exciting and vibrant world of Indie and Rock music! I continue to play the viola reasonably well and the piano fairly badly, and I’ve recently discovered the joy of electric guitars and fallen in love with the bass.

I’m less sure how I’m going to blog about maths! However, I am setting myself the challenge of saying something interesting about a subject that fascinates me so much that I spend vast swathes of my spare time studying it in the hope that I will eventually complete enough course units to gain a BSc. I can become engrossed in solving maths problems to such an extent that I forget about life’s difficulties and I find working on those problems deeply satisfying. I’m particularly fond of pure mathematics, as I love the way that it makes me think very clearly about abstract ideas in such a logical way.

I could write pages and pages about moggies, so you’ll be relieved to hear that I intend to restrict each blog post to 750 words or fewer. The Wonderspouse and I live with four fabulous felines - although “fabulous” is sometimes replaced by another, more robust, word beginning with “f” when we see the damage they do to the house! As they are so integrated into my domestic life, I don’t see how they can possibly stay out of my blog.

As for all the other “M”s listed above, we’ll all have to wait and see how they work themselves into blog format. I feel like I’m setting off on an intrepid adventure of blogosphere exploration! Maybe some of you will come along for the ride? Oh, and thank you so much for reading to the end!