Archive for September, 2013

When I’m 84

September 28, 2013

the drip 3

I’ve had my Aunt to stay since the beginning of the month. She turned 84 just after her arrival from Albany WA.

I was a bit shocked when I first saw her, assisted in a wheelchair to the baggage carousel. Macquarie Bank/Sydney Airport Corporation certainly didn’t make it any easier to get her to my car, though she was better once she’d been able to pause for a moment and have a cigarette after the flight.

I don’t expect to live so long: I can scarcely afford to do so. Her visit has given me a foresight of what it might involve.

She is an undemanding guest. She mostly sleeps. Projected expeditions are nearly always abandoned or cut down to something more modest: she is reluctant to leave the car or walk for long.

I have slowed down to her pace.

One reason, she tells me, that she came all the way to see me (this is just a little unflattering, really: sometimes she even says “the main reason”) was because she wants to get back in the saddle with computers and the internet. She had a computer for a few years at the beginning of the century (and a rather racy hotmail handle to boot) but at some point it got a bit old and she let it slip.

Her attempts to wrestle with my home computer revealed just how temperamental it has become – mostly because the hard disk was too full. I have trimmed it down and now things are going much better, even if, in computer terms (think: cat years) you might say it is about as old as my aunt.

Along the way I have been rationalising old pictures and came across these three of “The Drip,” on the Goulburn River north of Ulan (in turn north of Mudgee and Gulgong. It is a beautiful place to which these pictures scarcely do justice, now threatened by the rash of coal mining which is ripping up the countryside around there.

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I’ve been there more than once but failed to spot the Brett Whiteley “murals” (see also (1), (2) (3) (4)).

In the meantime, I went to hear Ingrid Fliter on Monday. She played sonatas by Haydn (Hob XVI.34), Schubert (D959) and the Chopin Preludes. I enjoyed the Schubert the most: the first movement didn’t quite “click” for me but after that she (and perhaps Schubert or maybe even just I) really got into the groove. The Preludes were an achievement but a different sort of experience. I wonder if I have ever listened through to all of them properly before? No 23 (in F major) bears an obvious relationship to the Op 10 Etude in the same key.

In the park across the road from my place the big excitement this week has been the ongoing confrontation over an evidently highly desirable piece of tree-hollow real estate. This has actually been going on a few months now but maybe the stakes are rising. A pair of cockatoos perch on the rim of the hollow and call/squawk/screech very loudly and aggressively at whatever it is that is in there. If they are trying to drive it out, it seems a counterproductive strategy – it would be a brave creature indeed that would face such abuse by leaving the hollow. This can keep going late into the night.

In the daytime, there is a man who plays the grand piano quite a lot from a house facing the park. He especially favours a splashy expansion of the Mozart Rondo a la Turca. This week he had the piano tuner round. That will be a very big improvement.

the drip 2

Siegfrieds Tod

September 24, 2013

Spring is here. I have it on an authoritative source. Never mind 1 September, the date commonly designated in Australia (though the anti-Antipodes – is that the Podes? – do not say the same for 1 March) as the beginning of Spring. Some time in the past week my local Woollies has reallocated to salads the shelf space previously assigned to prepared/refrigerated soups.

Yet in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on Saturday night, where I went to hear the SSO and Ingrid Fliter play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually, like Beethoven’s, his first) you could have sworn that it was deepest winter. “I thought we had eliminated TB in this country,” I heard a chap in the row behind me say as we went out for interval. It must be the tourists and, of course, boat people.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

The Concerto is a funny work: it is early Chopin and with the exception perhaps of the slow movement does not show so many signs of his fully developed style: the first movement is a lot of notes with only a few hints of things to come (the bassoon moments, for example, in this movement and elsewhere warmly played by Matthew Wilkie); I suppose the last movement prefigures the national dance elements but there is an awful lot of tonic-dominant vamping. What is mostly missing is the hidden inner tunes and more adventurous harmonies of his mature style.

At the first performance there was apparently some criticism that Chopin played too quietly. This was not a criticism which could be levelled against Fliter. The middle movement was the best but here the coughing was at its most chronic. Oddly enough, they were perfectly quiet in the encores which Fliter generously gave: the last movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata and Chopin’s so-called “Minute” Waltz. Why? It can only be because people were listening more attentively. Is that because the piano on its own is quieter? Is it because they perceive that the encore is more “special” and respond accordingly? What cannot entirely be ruled out is that Fliter’s rendition of the encores was itself more compelling. Probably once the coughing begins it sets off its own vicious circle: concentration and attentiveness by an audience is a game which everybody has to play.

Rant over.

The second half was the “The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure” arranged by Henk de Vlieger from Wagner. Peter McCallum in the SMH was rather snooty about this: what is the point of extracting merely one element from the Gesamtkunstwerk?

Rearranging any work of art is a bit like kicking a leg out from underneath a stool: the result is likely to be a little wobbly. For that matter, just doing opera in English suffers that risk; take away the scenery, take away the action, take away the singing, of course you don’t have what you had before.

Well, it is what it is.

I think it is reasonable to approach the “Adventure” as a “Reminiscence” or “Souvenir” in the Lisztian tradition: as with the Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences in his time, it is a means of hearing music which you otherwise would not hear – or, in this day and age, would not hear live. You have to bring your memory or knowledge of the original work to fill in the missing bits and to adjust the balance. That’s more than putting the voices back in, to speak only of the missing musical elements.

In cutting things back to about a 70=minute orchestral tone poem, de Vlieger inevitably brought the whole thing back to Wagner’s original concept of Siegfrieds Tod. The back story (the Ring Cycle is one enormous prequel) is inevitably pruned so as to give an emotional shape around the big moments in Götterdämmerung. We whizzed through Das Rheingold (the opening Rhine music, a bit of Nibelung stuff and then some Valhalla music, anachronistically using the Wagner tubas (not, I think, introduced by Wagner until later in the cycle). Die Walküre went straight to the ride of the Valkyries and a bit of Wotan’s farewell and some fire music; we got a bit more detail in Siegfried (forest murmurs, a snatch of woodbird, Siegfried’s horn call then on to Brunnhilde on the mountain top) and quite a lot more of Götterdämmerung.

The main problem with an orchestralisation of the Ring like this is that Wagner’s musical currency has been debased by its very success. Played in patched-together excerpts it inevitably sounds like movie music: movies with music are after all the true twentieth century post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s not much you can do about that, and opportunities to see the operas in the flesh are rare and expensive.

The emotional heart of it for me was the passage which (I’m pretty sure) came from Siegfried’s narration where he unwittingly betrays himself. This leads up to his death – which was then followed pretty smartly by his funeral March and a truncated version of Brunnhilde’s peroration. Second place was the kind of slow movement from Siegfried where he thought about his mother. Otherwise, Siegmund, Sieglinde, the Norns, the other gods were all very much in the background.

The orchestral playing was not blemish-free: the celli in particular seemed to have a hard time cutting through and there were a few more horn fluffs than ideal (starting with the top note in the first Rhine music chordal build-up) but hey, that’s live performance. Perhaps they still need more time to really play into the style. There were plenty of exciting bits and also beautiful bits. The point was to think about where they came from and seek the mood and meaning which this related to. My only gripe is that it could have been longer: the thing you miss is the endurance excitement and cumulative effect of the real thing, but it’s hard to see how that can be reproduced consistently with a feasible abridgement.

I enjoyed it.

This way to the shadow agglomeration pond

September 22, 2013

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More from my trip behind the great firewall. The Chinese are big on these.

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Apparently there is a spot (this is the Chongsheng temple near Dali, Yunnan Province) where the points of the three pagodas can come together. I couldn’t even manage to get a proper picture of all three: it is hard to find a good spot.

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The fruit on the left were new to me:

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This plant seemed vaguely familiar:

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though a tea brewed from it (in the spirit of science: we had to try) yielded no discernible result.

One day somebody who can start to sell drinking yoghurt in Australia in the Chinese style should surely make a fortune. This is the more expensive (of two brands) widely available in this part of Yunnan:

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That’s yak milk yoghurt.

A dangerous place

September 13, 2013

Recently I was doing my turn as duty barrister at what Charles Waterstreet aptly calls “the Drowning Centre” – the complex of courts in the old Mark Foy’s building now known as the Downing Centre after the long-term NSW Attorney-General in the 50s and 60s (and Catholic/right wing Labour power-broker), Reg Downing.

In fact, the Downing Centre, at least in its Local Courts part (the District Court is another matter), presents the courts’ mildest visage: it does not (at least normally) deal with persons in custody, so there is no dock and all the terrible apparatus (“Take the prisoner down!”) which goes with that. Of course, there are the now ubiquitous security searches at the entrance – a legacy of 9/11, can you believe.

Prisoners in custody are dealt with at the Central Criminal Court in Liverpool Street. Now that really is an old-school court. When you go there after the Downing Centre, it seems like a step back in time. Unfortunately, pictures are scarce. (Security, you know.) The main court is cavernous and, by modern standards, huge: you can feel the majesty of the law. That this particular manifestation has a shabby air simply lends a gothic touch.

My client was facing charges to do with child pornography and child abuse material.

I’m not going to talk about my client’s case.

Yesterday the ACT Attorney-General announced the appointment of a new Chief Justice for the ACT Supreme Court. The appointee is Helen Murrell. I must have too much time on my hands because I decided to have a quick scan of her published judgments.

One recent judgment delivered by Judge Murrell is a sentencing decision: R v Jack [2013] NSWDC 171. It’s a not unrepresentative example of a child-pornography sentencing.

Mr Jack was found guilty of the following five charges:

(1)Between about 1 July 2009 and 14 April 2010 at Peakhurst, the offender used a carriage service to access child pornography material (s 474.19(1)(a)(i) of the Criminal Code (Commonwealth)).

(2) Between 15 April 2010 and about 26 January 2011 at Peakhurst, the offender used a carriage service to access child pornography material (s 474.19(1)(a)(i) of the Criminal Code (Commonwealth)).

(3) Between about 18 January 2010 and 14 April 2010 at Peakhurst, the offender used a carriage service to make available child pornography material (s 474.19(1)(a)(iii) of the Criminal Code (Commonwealth)).

(4) Between 15 April 2010 and about 26 January 2011 at Peakhurst, the offender used a carriage service to make available child pornography material (s 474.19(1)(a)(iii) of the Criminal Code (Commonwealth)).

(5) On or about 25 January 2011 at Peakhurst, the accused possessed child abuse material (s 91H(2) of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW)).

The maximum penalty for each of the Commonwealth offences is 15 years, and for the NSW offence, 10 years.

From mid 2009 to January 2011 (when he was arrested) Mr Jack downloaded and shared (by means of a file sharing program called Gigatribe) approximately 22,000 images and 1,000 multimedia files. They were overwhelmingly of boys aged up to about 14 (the judge doesn’t say what the lowest age was). It is worth quoting the breakdown of the files (at [5]:

The material in question has been analysed and classified into six categories. The first five categories follow those developed in the UK guideline judgment of Oliver & Ors [2002] EWCA Crim 2766. The sixth category is a category utilised in the child exploitation tracking system. Category 1 is images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity. The offender was in possession of 18,520 Category 1 images and 332 Category 1 videos of children. The images focussed on genitalia and children dancing and undressing. The offender was in possession of 2,087 images and 696 videos of children performing sexual acts on themselves and each other, which fell into Category 2, being sexual activity between children or solo masturbation by a child. In relation to Category 3, nonpenetrative sexual activity between adults and children, the offender was in possession of 712 images and sixtyone videos that fell into this category. In relation to Category 4, penetrative sexual activity between adults and children, the offender was in possession of 559 images and 188 videos of children engaged in penetrative sexual intercourse or sexual activities with adults. In relation to Category 5, sadism or bestiality, the offender was in possession of thirtyseven images and thirty videos of children engaged in sadistic acts or bestiality. In relation to Category 6, animated or virtual images on videos, the offender was in possession of twelve images.

Category 6, you will see, is not the most serious category. It is a special category for Australia (maybe even just for NSW) because of the (out-on-a-limb) decision of Justice Michael Adams that animated and virtual images (in that case it was depictions of characters from “The Simpsons”) depict a person and so can be either child pornography or child abuse material.

Mr Jack was about 30 at the time of the offences and is now 33. He could not have the benefit of any attribution to him of remorse or any discount for a plea of guilty because Mr Jack maintained somebody else had downloaded and shared the files (which was not believed by the jury). He was a teacher and worked in the Anglican church with the young: there was no suggestion that he had engaged in any actual sexual conduct with such people and he had glowing character references to that effect. It was also likely he would have difficulties in gaol associated with his diabetic condition and the need for insulin injections – something which apparently the prison system is basically incapable of dealing with.

Judge Murrell sentenced him to total combined sentence of 3 years and 3 months, with an effective non-parole period of 2 years.

That’s not unusual. There’s nothing particular to see about Judge Murrell here.

To me this is a harsh punishment for a person who has yielded to the temptations of the internet to explore his repressed (and forbidden) sexuality, especially when you might well think that in the religious context of his life the specific direction of the sexuality might well have been partly influenced by its repression generally.

John Stuart Mill, I think it was, made the point that all punishment is harm and it must still be justifiable as some kind of good. There is so much of this material available on the internet; it must mostly be a matter of chance whether a particular person is apprehended: do we really think we will stamp it out this way? How can we justify such punishments?

The internet: it’s a dangerous place.

Wall of sound

September 10, 2013

On Saturday with my old friend P and her son, T, to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The bill of fare was:

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Sonata in B minor for flute and keyboard BWV1030 (c1736)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949):
Metamorphosen (Transformations) arr. Rudolf Leopold for string septet (1945)
Claude DEBUSSY (1861-1918):
Petite pièce (1910) and Première rapsodie (1909/10) for clarinet and piano
Francis POULENC (1899-1963):
Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1932/9)

Geoffrey Collins brought out a wooden flute for the Bach. It is a rehashing (after Bach started running the Collegium Musicale in the 1730s) of earlier works. It has an obbligato keyboard part (ie, written out rather than depending on continuo realisation) of some complexity. I thought that this overwhelmed some of the more delicate early-musicish mannerism with which Collins played the flute part, particularly in the first movement. Ian Munro played with the stick up. I don’t think that this was the problem (though P wasn’t happy with his almost unremitting use of the “soft” pedal to compensate) but something else about the style and its realisation didn’t entirely gell for me.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen was written in the dark days (for the Germans) towards the end of the war. It is a famously sombre and melancholy work in Strauss’s late late romantic style. The printed program quoted letters by Strauss bemoaning the destruction of, as well as Dresden and Hamburg, the Goethe-haus in Weimar. This last was news to me: the present Haus doesn’t show much sign of it and even allowing for the zeal of German post-war construction, this could only be so if not only the contents but also the furnishings and fittings had been spirited away for security during the war.

In order to realise for 7 players a piece originally written for 23 distinct solo parts, there was some sacrifice of the light and shade of the original – with only a few exceptions (as when the upper strings were silent) everyone had to play for pretty much all of the time. Sitting up close, as P and I do, we faced a veritable “wall of sound” – an intricate, intimate and very beautiful wall of string sound. The late romanticism is a pretty rich mix, and there was a point about two-thirds of the way through when I found it all becoming a bit much for me, as the music-induced swoon moved towards drowsiness. Then all of a sudden there was a sense of an impending ending (as the reminiscence of the Beethoven funeral march was made explicit) and I just didn’t want it to end.

The final chord was underscored by the profound infra/ultra-low C of the double bass. I’m not sure if one can literally do so but you felt you almost could hear the air between the vibrations (it’s about 33 per second). It felt like sinking into a very deep pillow. Well, a very soft wall.

Catherine McCorkill, the Ensemble’s regular clarinetist, is still apparently hors-de-combat. Philip Arkinstall filled in for the Debussy. It was a relief to revert to pianism rather than on-eggshells quasi-harpsichordism. The pieces were commissioned as test pieces for the Conservatoire – the first as a sight reading exercise and the second as something more demanding. The Rapsodie ends a bit like the violin sonata, but otherwise I was surprised that the style seemed much earlier Debussy than the composition date suggested. In terms of the German-French split of the program, this felt like a kind of sorbet, clearing the palate for the Poulenc which was to come – which is not meant to underestimate the piece or the fine performances. PA will be welcome back if CM’s indisposition continues.

The Poulenc was fun. The slow movement opens with a tune which seems quintessentially Poulencian in its charm and the harmonic corners it turns. The outer movements owed more to Poulenc’s jolly-jazzy mode. They bubbled over with ideas – almost too many to contain within the one piece. So much invention sounded like allusions, though I don’t know exactly to what.

The concert will be broadcast late in November and I hope to manage to catch it then.

We didn’t check the election result (T had voted for the first time) until after the concert, which was probably just as well.

Election

September 4, 2013

There is an election coming. Newspapers editorialise so why shouldn’t I?

I shall vote for the Greens. Ultimately I shall give my preferences to the Labor Party. In my experience, even the worst Labor government has not been worse than the Liberal government which has replaced it, even after some Augean purging is taken in its credit. Where I disagree with the present Labor federal government, the Liberals are only worse – education funding, refugees/asylum seekers, newstart allowance and single parents, the environment, civil liberties and the security/surveillance state – I could add more to this list.

In relation to refugees it seems only the courts will constrain the majority consensus that this problem is such a threat to our society that we should sacrifice all our values in order to choose the refugees we want (a paradox, surely) and seek to deter the remainder by elaborate and expensive cruelties.

Kevin Rudd is almost certainly a total shit but I was at university with Tony Abbott and know what he has been like from his youth – I loathe him and he hasn’t changed his spots since then. He is just wrong and a bully and thug from way back even if he is sincere about it. Scott Morrison is a disgrace. Don’t get me started on Julie (‘death stare’) Bishop, Eric Abetz, or a host of others who appear soon to be destined to run our country.

There are people in politics, even on the conservative side, whom I have known, at least in their youth (I was a university debater) whom I can respect and admire but they mostly operate (on both sides) within a world view which I often doubt really represents their personal views as opposed to what they accept as the reality of publicly formed and expressed opinion in the land where Murdoch controls 70% of the print press and commercial broadcasting is no better and sometimes worse.

The election outcome in the lower house, we are told, is a foregone conclusion. I’m pinning my hopes on the Senate to hold things in check, though I’m not overly confident of this, as the Greens’ support appears to have peaked and the tide of public opinion appears to have turned so rabidly and (in the case of the carbon tax and cost of living complaints) misguidedly.

It’s all depressing. It is only a mild comfort that even in the worst of times, life will go on, even while irreparable damage is done and opportunities for a better way are missed.

Oh yes, and along with the Liberals running the country for at least the next three years, Lyndon Terracini will be running Opera Australia and boastfully trashing its repertoire and ensembles.

I suppose I should try to keep it all in proportion.

From behind the great firewall

September 2, 2013

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I am just back from China. I traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, Kunming, Lijiang and Dali in Yunnan Province, and to Yangzhou in Jiansu province. If I lived there I would doubtless equip myself with the necessary proxies etc, but without them, access to this blog (and many others) was denied me.

At various scenic attractions, a frequently encountered side-show is a stall where you can fire an air rifle or (as in this case) throw darts at targets or arrays of little balloons. This one was at a scenic spot and waterfall about 50km south of Lijiang on the pass which provides the entry to Lijiang from Dali.

That’s the Japanese prime minister’s picture on the board.

Last night at the opera

September 2, 2013

On Saturday, again with my colleague, K, (D is still in China, from which I have just returned) to see Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata.

I have not yet tired of Elijah Moshinsky’s production, and especially the set (there were a few moments where the action seemed to have coarsened). That is notwithstanding a rather too modern bicycle and what looked like (from where I sat) filter-tipped cigarettes. I suppose we must accept that Violetta would write her letters in pencil of some sort, since ink is dramatically inconvenient.

It’s a great work. Emma Matthews, as Violetta, received a warm reception. I’m not really sure she has a Verdian voice. That’s not crucial: nor, for that matter, did OA’s for a while almost perennial Violetta. Elvira Fatykhova, really have one. I think I preferred EF’s more fragile approach to the role: Emma was bigger on Violetta’s defiance of constraint (Sempre libera) than on any very convincing consumptiveness.

Opposite her was Martin Buckingham as Alfredo. He is described as a rising Australian tenor. There is still a bit of rising to do. He was good when angry in the card-playing scene, but does not yet have a relaxed-sounding (but actually strong so not really all that relaxed) cantilena line for the more romantic moments, and his departing high note in Act II scene i was a bit of a fizzer. His diction is good. He is small statured which assisted a boyish rendition though I think he needs to relax his bearing a little.

Up close, MB seemed too young for Emma. Jose Carbo, as his dad, seemed a better match age-wise, and so really a bit young for that role, which he sang beautifully. He really is a rising star in the company’s firmament. The rest of the ensemble part were strongly cast – in part, I suspect, because there is little else left in the season for the singers to do so the company could pick from its ensemble top drawer.

Patrick Lange conducted. The orchestra apparently liked him though from my spot just in front of the violins I think he could have been a bit stricter on the ensemble in the divisi strings work at the beginning of the overture and the last act. On the other hand, the strings really dug into the more furious music in Act II scene ii to most exciting effect. Just for the record (because it is exceptional) the flutes/piccolo in the pit were both boys (well, men, by now, I suppose, though they still seem young to me). As is my wont, I should also record a cimbasso sighting. Act II scene i is at the heart of this opera, but orchestrally it is the tread of death in the brass section in the last scene which makes the hairs stand up on my neck and the tears prick my eyes.

Shamefully, this was the last real opera in Opera Australia’s 2013 Sydney winter season. 2014 will be no better. More of that anon.