Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Ave Maria...Oh NO!

Since completing my Grade 8 in singing with an embarrassingly high mark (for me anyway), a lot of things have come my way. I've sung with a couple of choirs outside of school, been paid token amounts for my efforts (hey, money is money), and somehow weaselled my way into a choir of semi-professional real ale drinkers musicians. And on top of that, I'm looking for paid choral work in Manchester - so if anyone needs a soprano, kindly drop me a line. (Seriously. I'm a student. It's a foregone conclusion that I'm broke - but fortunately surviving off more than just noodles and ramen because I know how to cook.) And I want to continue and maybe do diplomas and such.

Anyway, sometime in late August I went up to St Albans to sing with one of the choirs that my former music teacher helps run, which was pretty fun (if exhausting) and I met a lot of nice people...and we got asked, at more or less the last minute, to sing at a wedding.

Now, I don't really mind doing this. I've sung at weddings before and I'm reasonably good at sight-reading.

The thing is, a lot of people just pick the same stuff over and over again and there are definitely some musicians out there (including me) who are a bit fed up of this. We understand that it's not our day, that it's yours, that fundamentally the decision is yours, that fundamentally I'm too broke to be complaining and yes I'm happy to sing that at your wedding, but often you get a problem with people only half-knowing pieces. More on this later.

Now, I personally am a vocalist (incidentally, some people look down on me for this because I use my body as an instrument, but I still needed to actually train it so it sort of counts). In fact, I am a lyric soprano, which is a dirt-common voice type...but still able to pull off that song.

Yes. You know the one. The light floaty one sung by a soprano as everyone oohs and ahs.

Oh, fuck it - it's Schubert's Ave Maria, as sung by Renée Fleming.

If you're a soprano, you'll probably get asked to sing this at some point. If you've been a soprano for long enough, you might very well get sick of it - my singing teacher and I used to complain about it together.

"But why do you not like it?" a non-musician might ask. "It's so pretty and emotional!"

Yes, we know it's pretty and emotional. That's why you folks keep asking for it to be performed. We understand this.

However, there are still two main problems:

Because it's so well-known, it's difficult to do well. At first glance this probably doesn't make sense - after all, if it's well-known, surely it must take less time to learn and perform properly? The catch is that when it's well-known, lots of people sort of know how to sing it - but don't know completely. They miss out the finer points and develop bad habits, such as lagging behind the beat, and because they already sort of know how to sing the piece it becomes more difficult to fine-tune the song and iron out those bad habits. For example, it's really easy to go flat on...well...most of the piece, to be perfectly honest. If you know the piece inside out - which is ideal but you might only get something on short notice - you'll know what you need to do to keep your notes on pitch. If you half-know it, you've got to listen like mad, and if you don't have absolute pitch this gets a bit more difficult. So when you half-know it, you're more likely to go disastrously flat on the first note of the piece, lag behind your poor accompanist...and worst of all, not even realise that this is happening.

The text is annoying. This is probably the best way I can put it. Ave Maria actually started life as Ellens dritter Gesang or Ellens Gesang III (Ellen's Third Song), loosely translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott. If you sing the German text, it flows much better than the Latin.

Yep, that's right. The melody was adapted for use with the Roman Catholic prayer Ave Maria (Hail Mary), in Latin, when it was initially designed to fit English and German words. As Latin and German are quite different languages, this went about as well as can be expected - that is to say, quite badly. Despite the best efforts of the poor schmucks setting it, the prayer doesn't flow at all well and it feels like you're spitting out Latin. The music is sometimes also badly set, and when you're sight-reading this thinking you half-know it...well...you're as likely as not to end up with garbled mishmash that sounds like a cruel parody of Ave Maria.

At this point, a lot of you might be feeling offended. I advise you to direct your eyes towards my blog header, which points out that I'm almost certain to offend you and that I did give you fair warning of this.

There's nothing wrong with the piece itself - it's very beautiful. The problem comes in how overdone it is, and that introduces additional problems with half-knowing the piece (on the technical side). Of course, I'm talking about a straight performance here: for example, if you want to use a different text or arrangement that's more unique and also helps solve the two main problems.

So what now? Well, we have about 1500 years of Western art music, from plainsong to pieces being composed every day. That's not even taking into account the music of other cultures. In short, you're spoiled for choice. That's not meant to be patronising but rather to point out that there's an awe-inspiring amount of beautiful, stirring music out there. (This is the kind of the thing that makes me happy - it's genuinely not intended to be a put-down.) If you want to narrow it down, talk to a musician, check your song choice with your church if you're having a church wedding (there may be certain rules about what can and can't be performed). If you want something with a similar feel to Ave Maria, there are plenty of pieces out there from around the same time period, maybe a little earlier or later. Some of them are absolutely lovely, full of emotion - and great to have!

Monday, 1 September 2014

In Praise of Parents

So parents get a lot of shtick sometimes, from the criticisms of resentful offspring to the sneering attitude that the vast majority of the population are more than capable of fertilising an egg. And I've got to admit that a lot of the criticisms are justified: parents make a lot of mistakes, mistakes that have lifelong impacts on their children. Parents can be selfish and irresponsible, often cruel. Parents can be ignorant, maybe wilfully so.

Despite all that, I still want to praise parents. Sure, the vast majority of people can fertilise an egg and carry a pregnancy to term, but the actual business of raising a child - guiding a little human being through the world and making sure they come out as happy and well-adjusted at the end of it all as is humanly possible - is difficult.

Right now I've got a seven-month-old niece. She's a charming little cutie pie and no matter what she does I'm her proud auntie, but all the same looking after her is difficult. I know; I've tried. And frankly, when it comes to rocking a baby with one hand while using the other to call the local clinic to see why she's not taking food, or attempting to feed an obviously hungry infant who keeps spitting food back at you, or being able to change nappies literally anywhere without disgust (ewww)...those aren't things that humans are born with. Those are things that are learned and require actual skill, which I respect because I certainly know that I don't have the skill to do that. And we haven't even got to the stage where my niece starts to say "NO" to things, or to the petulance or the preteen years or the adolescent angst...Even the most experienced of parents mess up on those. You might look down on carrying a pregnancy to term as something that most people can do, but looking down on those parents who actually do a good job with their children and raise them to be well-adjusted and prepared for life's challenges isn't something I can condone. Not when I know from experience just how difficult that actually is.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

I'm leaving home!

Well, it's official. I got into Manchester to study physics, with a year in Europe like the cherry on top (France, here I come!). By mid-September, I'll be driving hundreds of miles up north to the great cold city while my friends are still down south packing for university. I'm filled with pride that I did well enough to get in and excited to start my new life in a new city, and I'm scared too that I'll find myself rejected by the people who don't already know me.

And although just a week ago I was walking out of the house and vowing that I couldn't wait to get of that fucking house in London, as moving day inches closer towards me I find myself wanting to hold on to life in the south. There's nothing wrong with the north...it's just not home. Not yet.

Yesterday, I woke up on a grey rainy day and dragged myself to the nearest shopping centre to get kitted out for Manchester; when it comes to big things, I'm ridiculously organised. Unfortunately, when it comes to my desk and especially my mind, I'm a slovenly mess - but that's a sob story and internet complaint for another day.

I bought my first two pairs of skinny jeans at the ripe old age of 18 and discovered that I'd been wearing my clothes too big all along. I bought cookware and crockery and tea towels so that I didn't have to leave my parents too depleted of stuff. I bought more warm clothes for the nippy winters. I bought a lava lamp to light my desk. I bought kilograms and kilograms of pen and paper and Blu-Tak to take notes and decorate my room with random stuff.

Yes, I am a rabid consumerist (at least when it comes to preparing to go away). Please rag on me for that at another time, when I'm not feeling so down in the dumps.

Anyway, my mum and I lugged all that home in the rain and started packing it up in the spare room. I meticulously organised my stationery into little piles and boxes, writing all over it, and packed up my Brian Cox books and my French stuff.

And as I knelt down in the incandescent light looking at my neatly organised stacks of stuff, the thought hit me: I'm leaving London.

I've known that I was going to leave London for...well, years now, ever since I started fighting with my parents and quickly cottoned on to the fact that I needed my own space. But it only really started to seem real yesterday, as I closed up the first cardboard box with my stationery in it.

I'm leaving. If all goes well, I'll be leaving forever. Perhaps in 3 years I'll be in a different country. I'm leaving my family and my friends behind for a new life.

And as I leave - though I don't want to admit it to my parents - I can't help but feel sad. I'm going away to start life somewhere else and cutting the ties I used to hold.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Books Hold Memories

My classics corner
There are two things I like about second-hand books: the price and the atmosphere. Living in London, where a decent science paperback can set me back anywhere between £8.99 and £10.99 and hardbacks break the £20 barrier, being able to get books cheaply is important to me and my insatiable desire for more stuff to read.

...Maybe the problem is that I've got too many books.

That's probably it.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The atmosphere, however, is what makes me love coming in bookshops - any sort of bookshop. In a normal bookshop, the kind where all the books are fresh and bright and new, I love just getting lost looking at the new releases or the promoted books, or going further back into the winding bookshelves to search for their classics and foreign literature sections. I love picking up books and looking at the blurb, or catching a whiff of some of that new book smell as I quickly flip through them to see whether I like the writing style. I love sitting on the floor to arrange the books I want, and I love carrying armfuls and armfuls of them to the brightly-lit counter to bankrupt myself.

In second-hand bookshops - particularly the independent ones which I really like visiting - the atmosphere is very different. Far from the brightly-lit shelves of a Foyles or even a Waterstone's, battered old books are crammed up against each other in the most bizarre ways. I maneouvre myself into tiny spaces with books strewn everywhere just to find one I might like. And when I take a book out to look at it, I find the most touching things.

Lucien Leuwen by Stendhal
I once walked into a lovely little second-hand bookshop not expecting to find anything particularly good (I then walked out carrying 4 books and having to be dragged away lest I buy any more, so I was wrong about that one). In a lot of second-hand books, you tend to find people writing their name on the inside - John bought this book in 1970 and so on.

What's rarer, and a lot more touching, is to see actual dedications. I remember that in that bookshop I picked up a hardcover title that, to be honest, I wasn't entirely interested in. I couldn't read what the spine said, so I opened the book to find the title and what it was actually about.

When it fell open right at the beginning, so did my mouth. For someone had written a dedication to a loved one back in the 40s. That in itself is not unusual, true - and I don't see it as that unusual. But I found it very touching, very emotional: someone loved and cared for this book - and the person they bought it for - very, very much. It was sad to see it wind up in a bookshop, far from its original owners.

Books are loved and cared for and studied by people from the past, people who have perhaps passed on - but who nonetheless had their own hopes and dreams and personalities. Their books are a link to them, a link I am privileged to have.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Why Heteronormativity is Sucky

So a lot of straight people don't understand why heteronormativity is a bad thing. And my head feels like a mess right now so bear with me if this isn't particularly well-structured.

First of all, what is heteronormativity? I use it to mean the idea that heterosexuality is, effectively, the "default setting" for humans, and that by extension MOGAI people are special and different. On the surface, you can see why this would be adopted: somewhere between 95-98% of the population are heterosexual, which is an overwhelming majority.

Secondly, why am I moaning about this in the first place? Well, because I think it's harmful. And why do I think it's harmful?

Let's start with the definition I just gave: in heteronormativity, heterosexuality is the default, the norm. Boring. You are presumed to be straight. Now, if heterosexuality is the norm, being anything else must be different and weird - and because you're presumed to be straight, you have to make a public declaration of your not-straightness. That is, you have to come out.

For those who've never had to come out, coming out is not a one-time event where you get really anxious, screw up all the courage you can muster, gather up all your friends and family and blurt it out to acceptance and relief. Because of the presumption of heterosexuality, coming out is a continuous thing and it sometimes feels almost like an obligation; I don't like people assuming I'm straight, because I'm not and I really don't like living a lie, but at the same time I know that a lot of people are still homophobic and biphobic and I'm never sure whether people will react favourably or beat me off with a stick. It's actually pretty exhausting to do.

The presumption of heterosexuality also hurts MOGAI people in other ways: we're expected to prove that we're "really" who we say we are, otherwise we're just straight people faking it for attention. Now, faking it makes sense if you take the viewpoint that being straight is boring (due to being the default), but if you take the viewpoint that MOGAI people are oppressed and discriminated against not only does the "straight people faking it for attention" idea start falling apart, you actually find a lot of MOGAI people pretending to be straight (staying in the closet) to avoid coming under fire for being the "wrong" orientation - which still happens around the world today. Not only is being told that we're faking it really stupid and hypocritical - I shouldn't have to present proof that I'm actually bisexual while people believe you without question if you say that you're straight - but it's upsetting, too, especially if it comes from people you trust. I once witnessed a discussion between two straight people I trusted about how bisexual girls who hadn't slept with girls were just straight girls who wanted attention. I felt utterly betrayed and also very helpless, because I knew that if I told them the truth they'd dismiss me as just another attention-seeker. My only crime was not fitting their model of what a bisexual should look like. Being very mentally fragile at the time, I had an anxiety attack, crawled into a corner and shook, and avoided the two of them for a couple of weeks after that.

So in brief, that's why heteronormativity sucks: it means MOGAI people have to constantly tell other people about our sexual orientations or live a lie, and it means that we have to "prove" it (particularly to straight people).

Who upholds heteronormativity? Most straight people and some MOGAI people too. It's an idea. You don't have to be one specific identity to hold it. However, because it's an idea it can also be rejected - and I find that the best way to reject heteronormativity is not to assume things. Recognise that being MOGAI is not an aberration or a deviation from the heterosexual norm, because if you're born with it, it's normal. Try to use gender-neutral language, particularly when referring to people's spouses and such; if they get offended, they get offended. Better than heteronormativity anyway. And for the love of whatever deity you believe in, don't assume that MOGAI people have to "prove" their sexuality. It's untrue, annoying and harmful.