The dress and the ladder

I wanted to share a song that I’ve been preoccupied by a little. It’s a song by the French singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel and, when put prosaically, couldn’t be more French. An adult looks back at a formative sexual experience of his adolescence, when he – basically – looked up the dress of a girl who had climbed up a tree ahead of him. Put like that, it sounds prurient and a bit pervy. So far, so middle aged French singer-songwriter. Continue reading “The dress and the ladder”

Just like two women

Francis Cabrel is one of my favourite singer-songwriters, coming from the region of France where I lived for ten years. I learnt much of my French from his songs, as he writes with a great deal of intelligence and poetic sensibility and love for language and music – in the best tradition of la Chanson Francaise but also set apart from it.

His new album, however, has raised some questions and for me it’s an opportunity to think about translation a little. Continue reading “Just like two women”

Some folks’ lives

One of my favourite Paul Simon songs is “Some folks’ lives” and I was reminded of it today meeting some other Harrogate Gingerbread mums and sharing stories. Here are the lyrics; have a listen:

It’s a song that, to me, now, poses an implicit challenge. Will we catch our star? Where do you turn when you’re at rock bottom?

And does stumbling always mean you fall? It’s the challenge to be one of those who stumbles but who doesn’t fall; to be a person who picks him or herself up and tries again, the star still in reach.

Maybe some folks’ lives do roll easy. Most, however, have been touched by loss, trauma, and darkness in life.

Many single parents have experienced very extreme situations in our personal lives and we are still negotiating them (and I’m increasingly realising that we are more numerous than it would seem on the surface). For us, a life that rolls easy is a distant dream from childhood. It’s a lost innocence. We feel there’s a small, dark sense in which we’ve grown up, and we can never go back.

For those of us who have been through nightmarish times, the only way to survive them is to plant our feet and claim back normality for ourselves and our children; to refuse to be beaten and to succumb to the darkness; and to take little steps to protect ourselves and make sure that we are surviving. We WILL be happy, and we won’t hear a suggestion otherwise.

Every separation, every heartbreak and relationship trauma is acutely painful in its own way and has its own idiosyncratic horror built in; on whatever scale that horror plays out. Sometimes the most spectacular endings are the easiest to deal with. Amicable relationships can result from horrible crises, and nasty fallout can result from apparently calm separations. Sometimes angry, passionate breakups might be easier than silent, private, empty tragedies: and vice versa. There are very few stories that resemble each other, and all of us have different feelings about our exes, and different wishes for the future.

All our lives are playing out at different speeds, and we’re all on different stages. There are the first weeks into single parenthood, the adrenaline-fuelled pangs, anguish of separation and battles for visitation; the philosophical 8 months in, where the immediate fog has lifted and you can enjoy a little perspective; the optimistic 16 months in, where life has settled, the urgent loneliness has faded, and the horizon forward looks clearer; and people four years down the line whose lives are reshaping and resettling gradually into new forms. Then there are people trapped in stagnant situations and for whom time doesn’t seem to effect change. Those of us who are just beginning to emerge from the darkness wish we could help them in some way.

We’ve all been at the lowest points where we don’t know where to look for help. And maybe help is there, in the shape of family, friends, or perhaps a faith that helps us feel stronger. But in the end, we have to rely on ourselves to grow a strength from inside: it’s the only way. We’ll deal with the ex, we’ll deal with the divorce, we’ll deal with being short of money, we’ll deal with the house, we’ll deal with the children’s tantrums and potty training and childcare, we’ll deal with the arguments and the tears and the fun things and the tiring things, we’ll deal with learning to live again, learning to love again, and finding a new place in life on our own.

Because no matter what we end up doing or who we end up living with, we’ll always be single parents. That inevitably defines us, right from the moment our innocent hope of making our ideal family broke apart, and until our children are adults and beyond. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There’s something liberating and strengthening about learning to negotiate life on your own terms and drawing up your own rules.

Now that we’ve been through what we’ve been through, life can roll however it wants; we’re ready; we may stumble but we’ll get up again; and some day, we’ll catch our star.

Choirs old and new

Sadly I’ve decided to stop singing with the Clerkes in York, an excellent and fun chamber choir which I have been a member of for six months. While I’ve enjoyed the time I have spent, and I’ve tried various things to make it work, it’s just too much; and I think there’s a skill in identifying when something is no longer good for you (even something, paradoxically, which is fun and fulfilling). It’s all about balance, and identifying the moment when the scales tip. Continue reading “Choirs old and new”

The Lamb

Something which often preoccupies me is how an atheist (like me) can fully engage with and experience art which is inspired by religious faith.  That’s not to say I don’t think it’s possible, as in fact I think rather the opposite. But defining how that works is difficult. Here’s a small snapshot of thought from the other day, inspired by Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, which is a choral setting of a poem by William Blake.

I think how Blake interprets Christian imagery here (and I’m writing in full awareness that my literary culture in general and my knowledge of Blake in particular are poor: I just know he had an unorthodox, personal, and rather powerful visionary take on religious faith) is stunningly moving, and in the music there’s a sense of unease and awe that corresponds, for me, to the tremendous fear that comes through in the poetry, and which should come from genuine faith in these amazing, amazing ideas.

Once you accept God become man, and the power and mystery of the image of the Lamb embodying both incredible humility and incredible power (so that all depends on it and all comes from it – ‘we are called by thy name’) it has to lead to the kind of dark, solemn power which the music finds and conveys both through and beyond the poem.

Go here to listen to a beautiful version on Youtube. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing John Tavener’s “The Lamb”. 1998.

Classic FM versus Radio 3

I lived away from the UK for ten years, and had a slow internet connection so couldn’t stream radio. So coming back here last summer, I had no idea what the different UK radio stations were or what you could listen to on them. I love listening to classical music, so I’ve settled on a combination of Classic FM and Radio 3, mostly. And I can’t decide on one or the other permanently. Continue reading “Classic FM versus Radio 3”

Allegri’s Miserere and some happy mistakes

I discovered a strange musical fact the other day, which is that the high C in Allegri’s Miserere shouldn’t be there at all, and is due to a transcription error. Surely one of the happiest errors ever made!

If you don’t know the piece, or can’t picture how high a high C is and what might be special about it, set aside a few minutes to discover it. It is worth your time.

I’ve chosen a version with a young boy chorister instead of an adult soprano – adult sopranos do sing it (I heard a version by The Sixteen recently, who are touting themselves around a lot at the moment, particularly if you listen to Classic FM) but there’s a special purity in the voice of a treble.

Oddly it was in the Youtube comments that I discovered that the high C wasn’t originally written by Allegri. In all likelihood, it is due to  Mendelssohn, who transposed everything up a fourth which was how he had heard it performed. Then, when one section of Mendelssohn’s transcription was stuck back together with some other sections the wrong way round – an error which was cemented in the 1880 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians – the result is the heart-stoppingly strange and beautiful version which has remained with us ever since. A more careful account of how this happened can be found here.

Even more extraordinary is the popular legend of how the work came down to us. Apparently the score was kept secret, and its revelation was an excommunicable offence. It seems that the fourteen-year-old Mozart heard the piece in the Sistine Chapel, where it was regularly performed, made a transcription from memory when he got home, and it is this transcription which finally made it into the public domain with its publication by Dr. Charles Burnley in 1771. Here and here are some sources.

I intend to keep an eye out for other happy mistakes which, in fact, have created cultural artefacts of great beauty, or which had long-lasting positive effects on the world. If you know of any, please tell me about them. In the meantime, a piece about unintentional inventions, and finally, particularly for the translators among you, a fun piece from Cracked about mistranslations that changed the world.

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