Saturday, August 25, 2012

Double Bass

A close associate of a famous pianist had invited us to a vegetarian Sunday lunch in her London garden.
            Another guest was a man of no great stature who parted from our direct company for a furtive few puffs on his Sherlock Holmes pipe.
After pre-prandial, sparkling drinks, he came to sit at our table.
            “Tell me about you,” say I.
            This Englishman was not only a Professor of Music, had played the bass (or was it double bass?) for several years in that famous Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, was in regular demand around the world for playing his instrument and, from working in Holland, had learned to speak Dutch fluently (much to Margreet’s delight).
            Although singing solo at school, I am almost completely non-musical – generally liking silence more than sound.
            Because a tune from some source or other fills my head throughout each night, I suppose, what with my father playing the drums and saxophone, I have been provided with a small musical gene (many more skipping on through to my youngest son who composes and plays the acoustic and bass guitar in rock bands).
            So, knowing virtually nothing of music, I am curious about it. Thus, my poor table companion came in for some questions,
            What are bass strings made of? Gut alone would be fine but subject to changes in temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. So they have a gut core surrounded by wire.
            Has nylon been tried? Yes, but without great success.
            Does the horsehair in a bow come only from white horse tails? No. Some bass players favour brown hair.
            For how long do the bow hairs last? They break and are cut off. Some bows are rather short of hair.
            How about their tension? The hair is tightened before a concert and slackened after it.
            How does the hair grip the strings? It doesn’t. The hair is treated with a resin powder and would make no noise at all if dragged across the strings without it.
            If you lost your instrument, would another be satisfactory? Another could be used, but you get to know your own instrument’s capabilities.
            Do players in an orchestra ever pretend to play, but don’t? Not so much nowadays, but more often in the past.
            When playing in a quartet or such with a singer, how much does artistic temperament enter the equation? There are temperamental players as well as singers, and when a prima donna singer is a nuisance by making unnecessary changes, the musicians generally agree to do what they were going to do anyway.
            Does much solo bass music exist? Yes, often interpreted from other music, but much is now being composed.
Are there many female bass players? A lot are coming along, but few reach the top flight because they are not physically strong enough.
            To press down on the strings he used his fingertips and two parts of a thumb. I asked to see them. The skin was firm but not hard. If, due to a force of nature, he was unable to play for a while, to start again with soft skin was extremely painful.
            Can you teach up to virtuoso standard? No. I can only teach about 45%. The rest is up to the musician.
            I might have misheard the answers to my recalled enquiries, but I was extremely lucky to have had a chance to make them at all.
            With the questions from this ignoramus over, he returned to a corner of the garden to puff on his St Bruno-filled pipe, and I returned to nibble on a lettuce leaf.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Our Olympic Games

We all have our memories of the 2012 Olympics in London. As far as my own family (Margreet and I) were concerned, we planned to not travel, stay at home, lock the door, and watch the goings-on on television.
            But, as I am English and Margreet Dutch, there was a dichotomy of allegiances involved. “We” generally meant English (or British) and us both, and “you” - Dutch. So Margreet had a firmer foot in my camp and me a lighter foot in hers – if you can see what I am trying to say.
What we hadn’t quite anticipated was that we were to entertain some (generally large) Dutch relations and their friends.
Two of these were dressed entirely in orange suits. They were not just ragbag and bobtail but well-educated and fervent nationalists – and out to have fun.
I felt that their violent orange display of nationalism was rather on the excessive side, but then realised that many of the home crowd were adorned equally violently in the bright colours of the Union flag.
Anyhow, after imbibing elsewhere beforehand, our Dutch contingent came to be entertained for drinks in our garden, where a considerable amount of wine was consumed. With only olives and our “house” pancake to eat, they left for Olympic entertainment (provided by bikini-clad Beach Volleyball ladies) in a jolly mood.
Just what happened to them later was none of our business. We heard that they returned to the Netherlands having had a splendid time here.
            Another Dutch relation, an eminent lawyer and ardent sports fan (especially of Olympics), had been residing with friends in a hotel near to Victoria Station. He had seen and enjoyed many of the sporting events that took place in specialist venues – one building of which he found to be architecturally interesting.
            He came to visit family before leaving for home and had quite a different view of the Olympic occasion.
            He loved the sports, but found the Olympic site to be far too large. It had been a considerable trek to get from one venue to another. Whereas the more compact Athens site had been an occasion for intimacy between spectators and athletes, here there was too much space in which to feel part of the sporting and festive scene.
            He also found the colours of buildings and paving to be drab after Athens. All seemed grey, in contrast to the colours displayed in Greece.
            One of his comments really interested us. He was astounded to see so many drunken women lying on the ground in London.
            So, in two groups of Dutchmen, we experienced two diverse viewpoints concerning the games.
            One crowd had come “on the spree” and loved it, the other to enjoy the camaraderie, colour and sport, with the sport winning hands down, and with the rest rather a disappointment.

Thursday, August 02, 2012



Had I but a grain of historical scholarship in my bones I would have evolved the theme of the second most used book on our shelves (the first is the dictionary).
            Whenever there is reference to a king or queen in England’s past history, this book, “Kings and Queens”, is referred to.
            From William the Conqueror onwards, each monarch is given a short monograph.
            The book’s language is simple and direct. So when a Shakespeare play about our royal past appears on screen or stage, this splendid volume is invaluable.
            It is not possible for the ordinary punter to verify the accuracy of the text. But then Shakespeare turned history into entertainment. So there may be some discrepancies – as there is in much of historical writing.
            The book is a paperback, written by Elizabeth Gundrey in 1977. And when telling us about the reign of Henry IV and his persecution of the Lollards and how many were eliminated and burned alive, we wanted to know more about these followers of Wyclif who operated under a name derived from the Dutch language.
            But there was a slight snag. The text recommended on one page that we turn to page 36 to discover more about these people.
            It was then that we discovered that the recommended page (36) might well have told us more had the publishers not omitted to number the pages.
            Perseverance paid off, and on an earlier unnumbered page we learned that in Edward III’s reign, these followers of Wyclif (“in a way the first Protestant”) were critics of the corruption and pride spreading through the Catholic Church. They preached sermons against the power of the Pope and urged the people to return to more spiritual ways with less striving for wealth.
            No wonder they were persecuted and burned alive by those who were then, in the late 1300s to early 1400s, enjoying the fruits of power and money.
            This paperback has been a great and simple source of information. And from it we have now learned a little about the Lollards.
            It was a bit of a job to glean this information from the book’s unnumbered pages – and more difficult, I imagine, for the readers upon publication, as its recommended readership age group was 9 – 14.