Friday, 21 December 2012

Some notes on Bach.

If it’s alright with you I’d like to share some notes on Bach.

There are a few little interesting historical anomalies that mean that there’s something really rather interesting about playing J.S. Bach on the guitar. The first is the fact that the guitar is a classical instrument which only really became ‘serious’ in the 20th century, meaning that its repertoire is a) distinctly limited, and b) mostly rather lightweight, decorative stuff, even at its peak only rising to a kind of banal romantic whimsy. This has led to the guitar being a predominantly solo instrument: not being part of the romantic orchestra and not having many significant ensemble parts written for it, guitarists generally perform alone, like pianists. Furthermore, if the performer finds the general repertoire uninteresting, then they are forced to play transcriptions of works for other instruments; this has become an integral part of playing the instrument, which my amateur attempts at Chopin’s preludes attest to.

As far as Bach is concerned, there are two things we might note; one of which is that as a Baroque composer, the instrumentation of his works are somewhat malleable- there were far more different instruments in common usage back then, and a great many works are orchestrated for whichever musicians happened to be at court at that time. Furthermore, there are a number of instruments which are somewhat unclear - the mystery five stringed cello from BWV1012 for example, or the debate as to whether or not Bach even wrote music for the lute, or rather the gut-stringed harpsichord called a lautenwerk that he certainly owned a couple of. It seems that there is a certain ‘interchangeability’ to Bach’s music, where, especially with its famous logical consistency, not to mention his own habit of transcribing, it lends itself to being moved from instrument to instrument.

So with this in mind, I’ve recently been playing Bach almost exclusively (bearing in mind any playing at all has to fit in the cracks between Job 1, Job 2, freelance work, not dying, and all the other things I regularly struggle with), and have alighted upon a ‘core’ selection of works to play. Yet another auspicious aspect of Bach’s music is his writing for solo instruments, for so long dismissed as mere studies, but then so unbelievably influential over new music in the 20th century. It is these that form the basis of what I’ve been playing.

Lute Suites BWV995-1000

As I mentioned above, the suites for lute were almost certainly not written for the actual lute, and are actually keyboard music with a lighter polyphonic texture than usual, and I generally play the transcriptions for guitar by Jerry Willard.
BWV 995 is Bach’s own transcription of Cello Suite 5, BWV1011 with added voices, and so I consider it part of that work.

BWV996 is a Suite in E minor, with some very challenging three and four part writing, with the initial Presto and final Gigue really impressive.

BWV997, another suite, is most notable for a long, powerful minor-key fugue.

BWV998 is the serene Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, a beautifully majestic mini-suite which is an absolute joy to play, especially the fugue and its slow build-up of its three parts.

BWV999&1000 are a prelude (akin to a minor key version of the prelude of BWV1007) and a fugue that is based upon the violin fugue from BWV1001, one which was a favourite piece of Julian Bream.
As well as all these, BWV1006a is Bach’s own elaboration of 1006 for the lute, which is best played in place of 1006.

Violin Sonatas and Partitas BWV1001-1006

Where the lute suites are often richly polyphonic, the violin works are much more varied - a great number of them are composed of single lines, where all harmony is implied, while on the other hand, there are a number of pieces which utilise all four strings on the violin, giving serious polyphony. I generally play Tadashi Sasaki’s transcriptions, which maintain all the original keys.

BWV1001 in G minor has an incredible prelude, all ornament and lugubrious harmony, a real joy to play, including just the most exquisite deceptive cadence near the end. It’s followed by a fugue, a siciliana and a solid presto.

BWV1002 is rather long, and contrasts a series of dance movements with Doubles in single lines.

BWV1003 was transcribed by Bach himself for the harpsichord, and so there is a version of much thicker texture and ornaments that the performer can pick and choose from. This sonata is completely dominated by the Andante, a piece of unbelievable spiritual calmness and power, one which Bach actually made worse by elaborating it for the keyboard. I was lucky to hear this played by Frank Peter Zimmerman as an encore this summer at the proms, Mein Gott!

BWV1004 is the D minor partita, which is most famous for the Chaconne, which completely dwarfs all of the movements preceding it, for good reason: without hyperbole, it’s one of the most incredible achievements in all music, grandiose, tortured, passionate, sweeping, emphatic.

BWV1005 is another sonata, with a gigantic fugue as its second movement. What is most exciting about this one though, I would say, is the faltering, heartbeat-like prelude, building from near silence into glorious, churning, four-part grandeur.

The prelude of BWV1006 is a guitar favourite, and for good reason. Its effervescent, joyous, rolling rhythm creates a wonderful web of sound that is ideally suited to the guitar, and as I’ve mentioned, there is a ready-made Bach transcription for multi-stringed instrument. In my opinion, however, the rest of the suite can’t really match up to it, despite its charm.

Suites for unaccompanied cello BWV1007-1012

It’s a little bit harder to do these ones justice, such hallowed works, inextricably tied to Casals and his grainy, over-romantic resurrection of what were once simply practicing etudes. The least polyphonic of Bach’s solo instrumental works (not counting the flute partita), they are also the most awkward to transcribe. Unlike the violin works, which can literally be played off the stave in the original without edits, the cello suites have to be completely transposed in order to fit the guitar. Furthermore, decisions have to be made as to how to treat the texture of the pieces - the guitar, charming though it is, simply cannot compete with the cello in the power of a single line, and so the suites can sound naked in a lot of places if they are not dressed up. However, that opens cans of worms about how much tinkering one is allowed to do to the beauty of the original. I’ve encountered a variety of approaches, and I think it depends upon what each of the suites demands in its own logic.

Everyone knows BWV1007! It’s got to be one of Bach’s most famous pieces, recognisable from a million recordings, the background of a innumerable films and so on. I play a transcription by John Duarte, which has become a classic in its own right. He fills the texture out considerably, making for quite rich and challenging pieces, which I think suits the jovial nature of this suite.

BWV1008 is the opposite - sparse, melancholic and vulnerable, to me it sounds better with its nudity emphasised. I haven’t found a satisfactory transcription of this one, so I’m working on my own at the moment, which I’ll probably continue editing as time goes on.

BWV1009 also has a satisfying edition transcribed by Duarte, with slightly less added texture but still a rich and open sonority is achieved.

BWV1010 is proving slightly tricky. The transcription I’m working with happens to be in the same key as BWV1009, and despite me not playing one after the other, I feel that they ought not to be structured in this way. I’ll have to have a further think about this one.

As I mentioned previously, Bach himself filled out BWV1011 into BWV995, and this is excellent help in deciding how to go about playing the others. This is the home of the sarabande, that timeless single melody which sounds like it could easily have been Webern. It’s hard to achieve the same gravitas on a guitar, but it’s worth trying.

And of course, BWV1012, the mighty end to the suites. This is particularly challenging, featuring quite a lot of passages of incredible speed and difficulty, written as it was for the mystery five-string cello (which some believe might have been more like a viola!). Again, I have no decent transcription to work with, so I’m editing it myself. The highlight just has to be the overwhelming, titanic prelude.

So overall that’s eighty-three movements and almost five and a half hours of music to play through (I haven't included the flute partita because I don't know if I can be bothered at the moment). It’s very comforting music; in turbulent times, both worldly and personally, there’s something steady and firm about Bach’s formality, his a-historicism and pre-modern sensibility, that seems like the right thing for me now. I’m still working on transcriptions but I have much less time for that now. We’ll see what happens, but I’m quite keen, if I get bored of this regime, to start really working on some of the more modern C20th guitar works, of which there’s reassuringly quite a lot. On the other hand I have some transcriptions of Bach's keyboard music (including some quite infamous Well Tempered Clavier transcriptions) which if I'm feeling very confident about I may try to work on in future.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Owen, Dezeen, photography, criticism and its decline, etc etc

[EDIT - For some reason I lost the second paragraph of this piece when I originally posted it - I've now put it back in]

In the last week there was a very minor spat, which although silly, does point to some interesting difficulties in the way that architecture is mediated these days. It concerns two very different approaches to how we discuss buildings. It started with Owen Hatherley writing a blog for the Photographer’s Gallery, about modern architecture and photography. Overall this focussed upon various topics close to Owen’s academic work; critiques of Neue Sachlichkeit, constructivist photography and the influence of black and white photography on the design of early modernist buildings. It’s all very interesting, and you can read it here.

But it’s Owen’s opening gambit that’s of interest here. In it, he laments that the current archi-porn websites Dezeen and Archdaily “provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining” - a situation he describes as “disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.” While I generally agree, I think that there still needs to be a proper discussion of super-photographers like Iwan Baan (who recently jumped into mainstream media by taking that image of Lower Manhattan blacked out after the storm), but that will have to come some other time.

Within a day however, Dezeen posted up a link to this very article, summarising its points, under the headline of ‘Architecture “no longer interested in anything but its own image”’. Rather cleverly they’d found a picture of Owen being all vain and Bowie-ish, thus somewhat hoisting him by his own petard. Underneath, Dezeen editor Marcus Fairs did actually respond, saying “Rather than being "utterly distastrous [sic]" for architecture, sites like Dezeen are a powerful new platform for presenting and discussing architecture in new ways, in front of far bigger and more diverse audiences than the old magazines (and their hermetic writers and critics) ever managed to reach. It's a huge opportunity.”

Of course, Dezeen’s posting up of Owen’s criticisms is amoral recuperation - as a web-business, anything that gets them ‘hits’ is good, so it matters not a jot whether Owen’s right, because it only makes them stronger - and one can imagine them laughing away in the office at the irony of their choice of picture. But it’s also very symptomatic of where ‘criticism’ is at the moment.  Owen has never made any secret of his distaste for these sites, although he luckily doesn’t need to keep a close eye on them - my RSS feed is constantly plugged into them in case there’s a press release that I haven’t received. In fact, frequently I’ll receive an email from a PR, and within half an hour or so it’s up on both Dezeen and Archdaily, wording unchanged; which certainly undercuts the journalist’s traditional information privilege. But at the very same time it also wipes out the role of the expert journalist in giving context and narrative to these unconnected images. So on the one hand you have the democratising effect of internet culture, but as we have seen in other fields, this causes a sagging in quality, and I certainly find most of the stuff that gets posted up there depressingly banal.

But both Owen and Dezeen are successful - now that Owen basically doesn’t blog any more, he’s occupying a very traditional niche of the writer/journalist, creating long arguments spread over hundreds of thousands of words. On the other hand the archi-blogs have been traditionally devoid of original thinking, but neither Dezeen nor Archdaily are as blank as they were before; for example, Archdaily now has columnists and short original articles, but they are often of cringe-inducingly low quality. Dezeen generally doesn’t speak in its own voice, but the massive increase in filmed interviews that they post up means that there actually is a rather high level of debate being conducted on the site, channelled through Dezeen rather than directly created by them. I certainly applaud this, it's certainly great to have access to people discussing their work, but I have to say that it’s also dangerously flawed. Fairs has made an incredible success of Dezeen, which now has all manner of pie-fingers, selling watches, organising events, pop-up shops, sponsoring various events and even appearing in global branding campaigns for Apple. But at the same time it buys into a rather sickly language of web-entrepreneurship, all ‘creatives’ and ‘content’ and assorted bollocks. It sails close to some very negative practices too; recently it got involved with a property developer in the East End of London, inviting local ‘creatives’ to submit work which would eventually adorn the lobbies and spaces of a new block of yuppiedromes in the extremely poor neighbourhood of Stepney Green. I personally find this horrid; you can’t claim to be celebrating ‘creatives’ while at the very same time contributing to the forces that make their lives difficult, you can’t promote the East End design scene while simultaneously assisting in its being wiped out.

So while Owen is very lucky to be in a position of disseminator of expert knowledge, creating original ‘content’ of intellectual and critical quality, it’s an incredibly hard life, getting harder by the year, as the traditional media model sinks ever deeper. Dezeen have found a platform that works, that financially sustains itself, but it doesn’t necessarily perform a useful role in terms of understanding, historical context or, of course, critique. Is the only way forward from here an ongoing obliteration of culture’s independence from PR?

Friday, 30 November 2012

The International Anthem

I have created a new international anthem, to be played at all public events, everywhere, from now on.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Future (in 1974)

- All of the below comes from 'Man and Environment', a fascinating Pelican book, of which this edition was published in 1974. Yes, 1974! It contributes to the impression that the 1980s all the way up until 2008 were all just a procrastinator's diversion from what needed to be done in the world. Now, it looks more and more like we've missed the deadline completely, and will have just hope we don't get thrown out altogether.


... the one fact about the Future of which we can be certain is that it will be utterly fantastic.
Arthur C. Clarke

Logically, the first prediction is that in the twenty-first century Europe will become a single unit for strategic planning and administration. All over the world regional 'blocs' are evolving and no faster than in Europe, not only in the economic field but also in the whole range of social activities. In a Europe planned as a physical entity, the Scandinavian coastline, much of Scotland, the Black Forest, and the Alps and many similar areas would receive priority for conservation and enhancement. 
Perhaps most of England and Belgium would be accepted as primarily industrial; possibly southern Sweden would be the location of half a dozen new cities, each of a million population taken from the overcrowded areas of Europe. The planning of six new cities would call for new patterns of thinking, for no country in the Western world has so far attempted anything on this scale. Development for six million means deliberately setting out to create a new environment for more people than at present live in the whole of Scotland.
With the development of techniques like atomic blasting, vastly more nuclear power, and underground sources of oil and gas, it should be possible to create landscapes on a European scale. Resources could be developed in a vast and excitingly imaginative way - agricultural zones could be related to the value over centuries of the best soils and climatic conditions, fish farmed in barrages created for water supply, and hydro-electric schemes combined with new motorways.
More knowledge of the environment should lead to measures for elimination of elements like bronchitis, which are associated with particular environmental conditions. Great scope exists for the detection and control of illnesses related to the mineral and other content of soils. Biogeochemistry has already found some areas which are conducive to cancer or heart problems. Preliminary indications relate these to a wide range of environmental factos, including soil. Perhaps planning will exclude certain activities or uses from such areas or require the dangerous conditions to be remedied before development takes place.
Computerized inventory and processing of all resource information will have become an accepted feature of man's relationship to his environment. Research will increase in importance; its role in decision-making may be extended to promote the examination of basic assumptions and personal prejudices. Decisions should thus be based more on facts and known preferences and less on vague intuition. Although the imponderables will always count in respect of physical issues, many could be eliminated in the twenty-first century. Design-awareness centres will be an accepted 'institutionalized' part of the educational process as the public-health values of a high quality environment are accepted.
As more is learned about the diversity and quality of intelligence and man's potential for increasing it, so it may be expected that environmental conditions will be improved to enhance this most vital of all resources. The population pressure itself becomes the source of new qualities and quantities of human ability, provided that its growth is related to the development of man's intellect and his resource productivity, and that it is always borne in mind that he may have to occupy this planet for millions of years.
But optimism is denied by the assessments and forecasts made for the Club of Rome in its project on the predicament of mankind. This stresses the critical world situation arising from the many complex interactions between industrialization and depletion of natural resources, and between populations and food shortage, pollution, war, stress and disease. It forecasts a marked deterioration in material standards of living of western nations and contends that many of the proposed remedies may be self defeating. The Club seeks to identify and implement policies which will enable the world to make an orderly transition from a growth-based economy to an ecological equilibrium.
These aims received strong support in January 1972, when the British magazine The Ecologist, vol. 2, no. 1, launched A Blueprint for Survival. This proposed the formation of a movement for survival based on a new philosophy of life in harmony with the environment. It prescribed a comprehensive programme for the long-term stabilization of society based upon self-regulating systems and self-supporting communities.
Albert Schweitzer, too, was pessimistic. He said: 'Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.'
How then to conclude? In such a vast field and with so much at stake, it is perhaps most important to emphasize man's responsibility, and to stress the challenge he faces now.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Concrete and Longing

I'm literally running out of London avant-garde council estates to visit now; I've probably been past most of them, and after this post I'll have written something about all but one of the classic Camden estates. Indeed, in the picture above, here I am at Stoneleigh Terrace, on one of the ever-more sodden days we live through, off to see a two bedroom flat on Open House weekend.

Apparently a rather famous young architect lives round here, and occasionally shows their flat off, but they weren't doing so this time. The flat that was being shown was just lovely though, almost calculated  to instill florid envy, with its complete set of Pevsners, its upright pianos, its stacks of vinyl (Schoenberg on the top!), and it felt beautifully cosy to sit and look out through the dark stained timber windows at the torrential rain, so close and yet so distanced. Sigh...

A couple of new interesting things were learned though; the majority of the tenants of Highgate New Town are still local authority, which is very heartening to hear. Secondly, I had never noticed the clever detailing at the cemetery end of the estate, with large open picture windows looking across the graveyard, a delectably romantic touch.

Less welcome was finding out that a large underground car park beneath the buildings is completely blocked off: one of the casualties of the 70s oil and financial crises that so effected the construction of the estate was the cutting of caretaker staff, which meant there was nobody to stop the drug-taking and fire-setting that went on down underground. Eventually the council's response was to just block it off.

Now, if I were running a unit in one of the weird and wonderful architecture schools in and around this fair city, I can hardly think of a more interesting site for a project than a large unwanted underground space underneath an experimental modernist housing estate next to a very large and very famous cemetery. That is, if the students were interested in creatively wrestling with the overlaps between romanticism, high-modernism, socialism and decline that it inevitably suggests.

But anyway, I'm getting a little carried away there. Not long ago I found myself heading towards Alexandra Road, another Camden council estate, perhaps the best known one, and one where I had previously visited a flat as part of open house weekend a few years ago. But if you approach from the north, before you reach the estate there's actually another example of modernist housing that you pass by, complete with raised walkways!

As usual, it's worth quoting the Pevsner guide in full on this one:
... the ABBEY ESTATE, planned in the early 1960s by Austin-Smith, Salmon, Lord Partnership for Hampstead Borough Council, but not built until 1965. It consists of an ungainly group of three coarsely detailed twenty-storey towers, a grossly ugly multi-storey car park and a pair of eight-storey slabs...

... They are awkwardly linked by bridges across Abbey Road and Belsize Road, a half-hearted demonstration of the 1960s concern with pedestrian segregation, for the convenience of the traffic clearly comes first...

 ... Slabs and car park have unrelenting horizontal aggregate-faced concrete bands to their upper floors. Shops, a health centre and a community centre (refurbished 1991 by Neil Thomson Associates) provide a little relief at ground level. 


Personally, I think that is more than a little harsh - the slab blocks here have got quite a few nice things going for them, the aggregate is actually rather golden and warm, and there is more than a little drama in the massing of the staircases and communal functions. The slabs also look out at each other rather than over the busy road, and last but not least, there is a piano shop in one of the commercial premises.

But of course, the star of the show is obviously Alexandra Road, the most dramatic re-interpretation of the classic high-density working class terrace in London for sure, perhaps in the world, perhaps.

Super-dense, arranged around a long curve of the railway line out of Euston, with most buildings facing into a pedestrian street, it once again banishes cars to a lower level.

But the section, oh! The section! The ground floor flats have a balcony that sits just about a meter and a half from the pavement, yet is separated from it by a moat, a sheer drop to the car park. This creates a wonderful proximate but 'safe' feeling; a resident on their balcony can feel safe from strange passers-by, but can also provide a sense of sight, of presence on the public street itself, in that Smithsons / Jacobs-ian fashion. Further flats are stacked up backwards each with a balcony, stepping back partly to increase light, partly to mitigate bulk, and partly for the sheer bloody joy of it.

How's this for a funny bit of detailing? A spot of concrete repair where the artiste has scratched faux-wood grains into their work.

Early photos of the estate show it clean, and crisp. Obviously over the years the concrete has gotten much older, although it's still quite obviously of a better grade than in many places. The balconies have all grown up as well, plants are everywhere, and many of the communal planting areas have tropical plants in them, giving a distinctly mediterranean feel to the place.   

The little cat you see there was very friendly. Up it came to say hello, cautiously sniffing before demanding its chin be tickled. As I crouched down towards it, it even decided to jump up onto my lap as if I was on a sofa, rubbing its face deep into the sleeve of my jumper, before becoming distracted by a passing pigeon and bounding off to ineffectually stalk its quarry.  

And all the while you could hear the bouncing sound of some turn of the millenium UK 2-step music, all skittish off-beat drums and lolloping bass. It was difficult to tell where it was coming from, presumably it was one of the flats, but no, eventually it became clear that someone was down in the basement car-park having a little rave to themselves.

This estate is also still mostly inhabited by local authority tenants, the lucky bastards!

And, to be honest, it's been a while since I've been in a place that had such a mix of Londoners. I've been here for the best part of a decade now, and have always lived in the East, in a few different locations, although my god! you'd think it was actually called 'Huckneigh', the sheer saturation of home counties accents you hear there now: shut your eyes and you could be walking through the beautiful limestone market town of Preening Shitbury, but anyway... 

... while I was there I saw a couple of hipsters, a few old fashioned geezers, some muslim families, various other families of all different backgrounds, some elegant elderly types. The point is not some facile multicultural one, more a multi-class one. There were people who were obviously of very different economic milieu, but they all had a bloody great place to live, whether they were on social rent, had exercised the right-to-buy, or were renting off some buy-to-let creep or whatever. It's not full communism but it's far better than where I am now, and far better than most places. It felt like what London ought to be about.

And to be honest, it's not even really about the dramatic design, but about various lovely details, such as the sliding partitions at the kitchens, the full-height doors creating genuine spatial variety, the intimacy achieved even at such density. Look at the balconies there; there's built in planting there; you could grow all your herbs, some veg, it's just such a nice little touch, something you just can't do in 'traditional' housing unless you've got a garden, but here it's built into every single flat. It's just well-designed. 

And unlike many housing estates, you can still have access to the upper floors here. I wonder if people have asked for them to be closed off; nobody cared that I was up there for a while, and everywhere public is so visible that I can't imagine there being a great vulnerability to hiding, sneaking and pouncing up there.

Here you see the smaller of the two main rows of blocks, which are just two maisonettes deep. From here you could see a number of cats lounging around on the roof, confronting each other, balancing along the concrete panels. It's also clear just how 'seen' the main street is, how closely watched the public space is, and what with its regular benches set into the low walls, I'm not sure I know many more homely public space in London.

And here, to go back to the question of style, you really get a sense of the drama, the rugged beauty of the composition, the 'architecture' part of the project.

Stretching off, a genuine 1970s megastructure, a single monolithic entity, a massive object yet completely separable into its constituent parts (which themselves are separable). It may not be plastic and plug-in but the logic is most certainly there in spades.

But here's a funny thing. It's true that Alexandra Road went way over-budget, but of course that had an awful lot to do with the collapse of the 1970s leading to bankruptcy for many contractors (even after their free-for-all in the system building scams of the 1960s), and Alexandra Road got bogged down as many other schemes did. I also recall Patrick Keiller talking about his time working for an engineer on this scheme and talking about how the concrete work on site resembled the scene of some kind of trench war, an experience that put him off 'wet trades' in construction to this day. But the real test of a magnificent design of this type, if you are easily blinded by the artistry of the building, is how it copes with its budget being slashed. What you see above are extra units pasted onto the side of the original scheme, built in breeze blocks and standard components, by different architects.

Another of the peripheral buildings, looking ever so romantisch.

But oh!!!

There's something funny here; you can see the roads that run under the building to the yard round the back, beside the railway tracks. But look at how narrow the columns are, look at how spartan the grid appears! There's something very very out of joint there, a sense of massive, tottering weight, despite the fact that one understands the principle of the frame. It makes you realise that in contradiction to what I wrote a minute ago, there is a sense of the 'plug-in' to this scheme, there is a feeling that it could keep going in, that you might be able to slide one of the flats out like a bottle from a rack.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Mahler - Kindertotenlieder 1/5

It's about time I tried to squeeze one of these out.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, (Songs on the Death of Children), have to be the apotheosis of a certain  conception of Romanticism in music; there's probably nothing out there more bleak, more morose, more histrionic, perhaps no more extreme example of the quintessentially romantic intertwining of natural phenomena and emotional states. But at the same time, it is also one of the first proper stirrings of musical modernism, with its introduction of the stripped down chamber orchestra at the very height of the trend towards musical gigantism, and its frequently barren, wandering counterpoint laying the seeds of the second Viennese school's sound world and texture.

Composed between 1901-04, there are five songs in the cycle, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, on the death of his own child. The one that I have transcribed here is the first, "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n", with the text as follows:
Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!

Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken,
Mußt sie ins ew'ge Licht versenken!
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!
Which translates as:
Now the sun will rise as brightly
as if no misfortune had occurred in the night.
The misfortune has fallen on me alone.
The sun - it shines for everyone. 
You must not keep the night inside you;
you must immerse it in eternal light.
A little light has been extinguished in my household;
Light of joy in the world, be welcome.
(from here) 

The music itself is of remarkable contrast, beginning with a weightless counterpoint in diminished harmony, before chromatic rises and falls lead to an emphatic D minor. There are the usual Mahlerian major to minor modulations, and a more lush, textured section with a typically romantic arpeggiated harp part. The climax is a tempestuous passage which slips sideways between chords before dropping back with resignation into the main theme.

Transcribing it for the guitar is both simple and bloody difficult. The fact that the piece is in D minor means that it's well suited to the instrument's own sonority, and didn't require transposing. However, in order for the piece to make sense on its own, and also perhaps to abstract it a little from its more 19th century connections, I have also decided to render the vocal line as part of the transcription. In the more spartan passages this is not really a problem, but in the more complex section this adds a whole extra voice on what is already quite a tricky passage, with at least three independent voices requiring expression. You can hear that it's not exactly easy to achieve, although as usual a more skilled player than I could probably get more out of it.  As with many transcriptions there are points that require artificial harmonics, in this piece more so than usual, and getting the guitar to do justice to the dynamic range of the piece is not easy either. That said, I'm quite pleased that it has been possible to play the piece without chopping huge amounts of sound from it, so it's at least a small success.

As you can imagine, the undecided straddling of the romantic and modernist views of the world appeals to me greatly, so I hope you find that I haven't butchered it too much.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Doughnuts on Spikes

Well how about this then? Apparently it was the BT Tower's birthday yesterday as well, but let's look a little bit beyond the nostalgia for a second, I think there's something worth considering here.

A Series of Transmissions

Have you ever seen how much the BT Tower looks like an echo of the water towers from the Crystal Palace? Designed by Brunel, and showing him up to be somewhat lacking in architectural skill, they carried the water for the ruinously expensive fountains that Paxton created for the park. Apart from that  the towers had various other programmes incorporated; the art and engineering college from the Crystal Palace occupied some of the internal floors, while the south tower was the setting for some of John Logie Baird's initial television broadcasts - he maintained a transmission station and broadcasting suite there until the towers were demolished after the fire in 1936.

In 1936 a TV transmission station was set up by the BBC to broadcast from the Alexandra Palace in the north of London, another massive iron & glass palace built in the mid 19th century exhibition fever.

The Alexandra Palace transmitter was superceded in 1956 by the Crystal Palace transmission tower, which occupies a site within the footprint of the original palace, within meters of where the north tower once stood.

Which leads us to the original tower/restaurant hybrid, the Eiffel tower of 1889. In my book I discuss it thusly:
It might be stating the obvious, but the Eiffel Tower is the most significant material product of the world exhibitions that still exists. Despite being as temporary as any other exhibition structure, despite the vociferous opposition to its very construction in the first place, and despite the frequent collapse of other attempts to make permanent structures out of the exhibitions, it still stands proudly over Paris. Two specific things mark it out from any other 19th century exhibition structure; one, it is an almost sublimely useless piece of architecture – it barely encloses any space at all. [...] The other thing that marks it out is its verticality – rather than being an enclosure over a large area of ground, it is mostly open structure. We can perhaps suggest that this allowed it to seem important long into the twentieth century, with the rise of the skyscraper as the technological limit of building. In fact; it was the tallest ‘building’ in the world for almost forty years after its construction.
With that, I closed off a whole line of enquiry. My investigation blocked off the question of verticality and went on with the vast ground-covering exhibition palaces. But there's definitely something about transmission towers with restaurants on top; I may well come back to this typology.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Chopin - Prélude op.28 no.13 in F sharp

Another installment in one of my slowly moving background projects.

This is perhaps the most sentimental of the préludes: if we're being a little harsh we must admit that it's pretty saccharine. However, it is not without interest; the slippery chromatics in the base are satisfyingly complex, the major key cousin of the super-chromatic étude op.10 no.6, while the trio features two somewhat jazzy II-V-I progressions with a delicate stress on the major seventh in the melody.  Furthermore, the trio features some interesting modal harmony, which sounds surprisingly modern if listened to closely.

The transcription presents a couple of challenges; the chromatic line at times fits perfectly under the hand and at others is rather uncomfortable, and as it is played mostly on the lowest strings you can hear that I've had trouble preventing squeaks and creaks as the left hand voicing shifts around. There are also a couple of polyrhythms, one is 5 over 6: a challenge to achieve in both hands at once. In the trio, the ornamental melodies necessitate leaving a rest where the piano's left hand part should be, and overall it should be played far more smoothly than I've achieved here. Lastly, the high notes in the last few bars are played as artificial harmonics, which presents its own little challenges, although is in keeping with the way it's played on the piano.

Only time will tell if I ever get the chance to finish these all off, it'll probably take at least a few years and who knows what will be happening then. There are ten done, there's a good few that are written but need to be thoroughly practised, and we'll see if I can make rudimentary recordings as we go along. I'm pretty shy about showing the transcriptions themselves, but maybe at some point I'd like an expert to have a look at them.

Anyway, more architectural stuff to come...

Monday, 27 August 2012

A Trip to NW3

Another brief wander was gone on.  This one was certainly not a drift, as it was guided by a certain Mr. Pevsner, whose guide to North London (not yet updated in the latest round of re-edits) was given to me by my father recently. Thus it was an opportunity to head up to a part of London (namely Hampstead) that I had spent very little time in at all, and deliberately see buildings, in this case modernist houses that I'll never ever ever have even the slightest glimmer of a fragment of a smithereen of a fleck of a hope of living in.

But to be honest, I simple wasn't prepared for the strangeness of the experience of the architectural experience of visiting one of the lesser known examples of the Camden avant-garde of the 1970s, the Branch Hill Estate, by the great Scottish Corbusian architects Benson and Forsyth.

It's certainly not easily found, the Branch Hill estate. Based upon the description of the perambulation from Pevsner, we had to descend from a pond (once used to wet the throats of tired horses) at the very top of the hill, passing through a meadow after the pavement vanished, and then deducing that the little hidden driveway beside a terrace was actually the route down. Then, nestled into hillside of pronounced slope, surrounded on all four sides by a thickness of trees, the tell-tale white render and black window frames became visible, the signature details of a Camden Council brutalist estate.

But I have to say that this was the very weirdest one I have ever encountered. Neave Brown on Alexandra Road is a fantastic abstraction of the density and massing of your typical 19th century estate housing, while Vincent Tabori's effort near Highgate Cemetery plays wonderful games with garden landscapes. But while those might both be formally more exciting, I've never encountered an estate arranged in such a strange fashion as this one.


Even Benson & Forsyth's work over at Maiden Lane (which like no other place in London allows you to imagine that you are in a city in continental Europe), is nowhere near as ridiculously set out as this. 

Because the Branch Hill Estate is arranged as a grid, a ruthless grid. Take a look at the map from the first image; apart from perhaps the Heygate Estate map, with its long black streaks, this is perhaps the most unique of all the layouts of housing estates in London. Each of the 21 blocks on the plot takes up what is basically a square. These are divided into 2 units each, meaning that this is a block of semi-detached houses, stretched out into a quilt, a mat, rather than a terrace. Each house is entered from the side, and linked in one direction by staircases, and then in the other direction by straight walkways.  

Flats are organised with 2 bedrooms at the lower level, with a large open plan kitchen/dining space, a living area and one more bedroom above. The lower bedrooms have a courtyard, albeit a small one, and most of these were highly verdant. But look at the images above; there are bridges that run across from the upper floor of each building...

... which lead onto the roof of the one below. So each house has a roof terrace which is set above the house below it on the slope. I, for one, think that this is a lovely gesture of communal spirit; assuming that the heavy concrete frame construction is adequate for sound insulation (and it should be, considering there are gardens placed above), then there's something incredibly touching about an estate of such apparent gridded rigidity actually harbouring a complex and ambiguous differentiation of property boundaries.

At the top of the hill there you can see the Branch Hill Lodge, which was an existing large house on the hill. This was bought by the council in 1965, and is now an old people's home. The grounds are what became the site of the council housing beneath. 

There's something hilariously incongruous about the design of the estate; the strange mediterranean hill-top impressions, the brick staircases, the high-grade concrete, the white paint everywhere, it's almost a joke to stumble upon this in such a seemingly Ennnnnnglish part of London. 

An abstraction, not of some Georgian or Victorian typology as found elsewhere in Camden, but a Sicilian hill village, misinterpreted and translated into a leafy suburb.

But there is something else about the estate, another slightly unsettling sensation, that is palpable as one walks around. If you believe people who claim that bad design can make you vulnerable to muggings, that a certain layout of buildings and open space necessarily lead to failed neighbourhoods (or vice versa, certain layouts and arrangements necessarily lead to vital, thriving neighbourhoods), and this includes supposed empiricists like Space Syntax, as well as anecdotalists like Jane Jacobs, then Branch Hill Estate just makes no sense at all. It should, by all accounts, be a stabber's paradise. Its narrow lanes, with blind corners every few meters and a plethora of possible escape routes for a ne'er-do-well, should be teeming with junkies and gangs. If you believe that spatial environment is everything, then this block should be the worst in the world; it breaks every single rule.  

But no, it's just lovely. Quiet as a mouse (although not completely, there were a few people passing by as we walked through), and with what one can see of the interiors appearing to be as seductive a living space as one can envisage, there isn't even the slightest hint that this place is anything other than a wonderful little secret village.

But, to slightly expand; there are probably a few counter-arguments that could be made to explain why this estate isn't a dump. On the one hand, it's in Hampstead, for God's sake. I've no idea what the figures are, but I'd be willing to bet that there may well not be a single unit in the Branch Hill Estate that remains under control of the local authority: that the right-to-buy open-plan modernist houses in Hampstead was too good an opportunity to ever miss. Wealthy neighbourhoods, by and large, have lower crime rates, whether the houses that make them up be made of concrete or of brick. 

On the other hand, it's isolated. Being so very very cut off from the outside means that there's probably almost no through traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian. This I have mixed feelings about; this estate may be high density and it may be unashamedly modern, but in urbanistic terms it probably has most in common with your suburban cul-de-sac. It may be hypocritical, but I'm tempted to look the other way on this one.

Now I'm perfectly happy to accept that were this estate to have been built in a down-on-its-luck area in South London in the 1970s, then its fate may well have been very different (Maiden Lane was pretty notorious, from what I have heard). But the only thing that this proves is the tautological point that nice areas tend to be nice, no matter what the style of their buildings. Let us not throw the proverbial babies out with the bathwater here, but at the end of the day, the social performance of a neighbourhood is mostly due to its economic fortunes. Ignore these in favour of some panacea based on how many small shops there are or how few blind corners there are to hide behind, and you're basically trying to sell us snake oil.


(Just too lush, too gorgeous!)

But perhaps I should make a further economic point here, one that concerns the project for modernist housing in general. We have to admit that the Branch Hill Estate was a financial mess during construction; problems on site and the complicated nature of the design meant that the budget was subject to massive over-runs. A familiar story, especially for Camden Council estates, but with Branch Hill and others now listed buildings, with people like me traipsing around staring at them hungrily, we must ask what the significance of this is. When you look at the mass-housing buildings from the heroic post-war period, one rule of thumb seems to be glaringly obvious; the buildings that have survived to the present day were frequently the ones with bespoke designs, while those most swiftly removed are frequently the system-built, pre-fab panel construction buildings. Obviously there are exceptions to this (in Glasgow, Basil Spence's Hutchesontown flats are long demolished but the Red Road Flats are only just going down), but a general rule seems to be that if you build it properly, if you spend the money on it in the first place, then it's worth keeping. Indeed; this is the same for every generation of building; we love our Georgian terraces because the slums were pulled down, we love our Glasgow tenements because the single-ends were torn down. Now; we love our Balfron Tower at least partly because the Freemasons Estate was torn down.

Does this mean that a lesson to be drawn is that architects should attempt to spend as much as they possibly can, that budgets are irrelevant to the task at hand? Of course not. Architects need no extra help in rendering themselves redundant to the modern construction industry. But perhaps the lesson here is that there might just be a secondary economic effect involved in successful estates, that it is not quite enough to have wealthy residents, but that if it's designed thoughtfully, and built properly, then it will be worth it in the long run.

And to tell you the truth, it was somewhat agonising walking around the Branch Hill Estate, with its beautiful woodland, its seclusion, its large open interiors, its massive roof terraces, its large windows and narrow alleys, its all important sense of adventure, experiment and of course modernity.

Because one had to drift away...