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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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Dave Brubeck has died. His recordings were the first jazz I ever listened to, on a scratchy LP from my dad’s collection; and Paul Desmond’s lyrical playing on Take Five was one of the main reasons I took up alto sax as a teenager.

Here it is, on the original studio version:

And here is John Fordham’s short obituary:

The jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose pioneering style in pieces such as Take Five caught listeners’ ears with exotic, challenging rhythms, has died. He was 91.

Californian-born, Brubeck had a career that spanned almost all of American jazz since the second world war. He formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951, and his hypnotically catchy Take Five – written by his gifted saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1959 – was the first jazz instrumental to sell 1m copies.

Brubeck was the first modern jazz musician to be pictured on the cover of Time magazine, on 8 November 1954, and helped define the swinging, smoky rhythms of 1950s and 60s club jazz. The seminal album Time Out, which the quartet released in 1959, is still among the bestselling jazz albums of all time.

Brubeck first learned classical piano from his mother, and later studied with the composer Darius Milhaud. His classical leanings gave him a taste for irregular time signatures, such as 5/4 and 9/8, and structures including rondos and fugues, which are not usually used in jazz.

“When you start out with goals – mine were to play polytonally and polyrhythmically – you never exhaust that,” Brubeck said in 1995. “I started doing that in the 1940s. It’s still a challenge to discover what can be done with just those two elements.”

The rarest of phenomena in the jazz world, a household name, Brubeck enjoyed a six-decade career of astonishing productivity. He died on Wednesday morning of heart failure after being taken ill on his way to a cardiology appointment with his son Darius, according to his manager, Russell Gloyd.

His death comes two days before what would have been his 92nd birthday.

And of course without Paul Desmond and Take Five we wouldn’t have “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness”!

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I’m onto my third ‘best worship songs ever’ triple-CD in the car – the latest being The Best Live Worship Album…Ever!

This has two of my all-time favourites. I can’t find the same live versions on YouTube, so here are two alternative studio versions.

First, Majesty (Here I am) – not the hymn you often hear in Catholic churches, but the Delirious? song.

Second, There is a Day by Phatfish (I think…). It takes ten seconds to start – be patient!

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I’ve been choosing some music that I can use during a retreat, to provide a bridge between the words of the input I’m giving and the silence of the time for personal meditation and reflection. I wanted to have a variety of styles, given the variety of participants. I’ve pretty much got the genres of Western polyphony and Catholic/Evangelical worship music covered by my CD collection, so it was good to explore some non-Western Christian music and take myself outside my comfort zone. Here are two of the pieces I chose.

You might say Rachmaninov is part of the Western canon, but in this setting of vespers he is part of a movement that is consciously trying to re-connect Russian sacred music with its roots in traditional Russian chant. This section is the Russian version of the Hail Mary, from All Night Vigil, Op. 37.

And the next piece, sung in Greek and Arabic, is an Easter Chant by Sister Marie Keyrouz, entitled “Christ is risen; in his victorious death he has given life to the dead…”

Sr Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun, is an extraordinary singer (lots of CDs on Amazon here). I first heard her music at a talk by Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge historian. He wanted to show how much of the culture and musical styles that we in the West might associate with Islam, in fact go back beyond the origins of Islam to a pre-Islamic culture. Many of the Eastern chants of Sr Keyrouz, he explained, would have stylistic roots – and possibly even some melodic lines – that stretch back to the 7th century and beyond. You certainly feel that you are being drawn into a profound and living tradition.

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I found this version of ‘I arise today’ by Lisa Kelly. I’ve always loved the song. It’s not an explicit meditation on the Trinity, but it’s all there in the background, and it’s something beautiful to listen to for Trinity Sunday.

The words, from St Patrick, are here:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of the wind,

Depth of the sea,

Stability of the earth,

Firmness of the rock.

 

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me;

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s hosts to save me

Afar and anear,

Alone or in a mulitude.

 

Christ shield me today

Against wounding

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye that sees me,

Christ in the ear that hears me.

 

I arise today

Through the mighty strength

Of the Lord of creation.

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Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life introduced me to a huge collection of classical music I hadn’t heard before. There is one piece I can’t get out of my head, even months later – it just comes to me in the street, and brings back the pathos and beauty of the whole film.

I finally looked it up this morning. First, I found this great page from THE PLAYLIST that lists ‘all 37 songs’ featured in the film, and has links to recordings of many of them. Then I found the track that has been haunting me, which turns out to be: Pièces de clavecin, Book II 6e Ordre N°5: Les Barricades Mistérieuses, by Francois Couperin (1668-1733).

Here is one version:

And another on piano:

Does anyone know anything about Couperin?

OK, I know this can get a bit obsessive, the YouTube browsing, but here is the last version I’ll post, my favourite so far, which is slightly slower, and much more captivating for that.

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I admit it – this is just a gratuitous post because I happen to have listened to some old CDs in the car over the last couple of weeks. Anyway, there is no doubt that Radiohead’s OK Computer has stood the test of time and must rank very high in any list of the greatest albums of the nineties.

It’s a triumph of music and mood over meaning. I haven’t got a clue what he is singing about most of the time. But what a mood they create, somehow in that strange space between exhilaration and despair.

Take “Let Down” as an example. Utterly depressing if you just listen to the lyrics, but somehow the music takes you beyond, as if the line about growing wings is not just a sign of desperation and frustration but some half-acknowledged sign of hope – quickly denied.

I need to go back to the album that came before - The Bends. At the time I preferred it over OK Computer because it was still on the edge of a classic rock album. I’m not sure what I’ll think now.

Jason Hirschhorn at Listverse agrees with me!

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London [...]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily - an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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What are the classic albums of the seventies? I just stumbled across a box of CDs I’d packed away years ago and forgotten about, so I’ve begun listening to them in the car for the last few days. It’s a pure nostalgia trip, and it’s hard for me to tell the difference between what means a lot to me because of all the memories and associations, and what is true musical greatness. I don’t have the objectivity I need to assess these treasured albums. But surely, even without the element of nostalgia, Carole King’s Tapestry deserves classic status.

There are some lines that should have been left on the cutting floor (‘Snow is cold and rain is wet…’), and some tracks that reflect the inane optimism of hippie culture (‘You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart’). But it has the perfect mix of longing and love, of everyday poetry and easy melody.

Here is James Taylor’s live version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’:

I’m not sure that this is my top album of that decade (I’ll have to think about that…) What’s your own ‘greatest album of the seventies’? You can leave any thoughts in the comment box below.

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