Wednesday, 4 March 2015

On the verge of nervous breakdowns

After a tiring day of writing arrangements, formatting parts and running at the gym, Nathan and I decided to give ourselves a little treat. For two utterly broke individuals, that was probably only ever going to amount to a walk on the Heath or a chip supper from Toffs in Muswell Hill, until we remembered that the lovely Matt Lucas had given us theatre tokens for our 40th birthdays. An hour later, we jumped in the car, drove down to our secret road off the Strand with its free parking spaces, and bought tickets to see the musical version of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't actually seen the original Almodóvar film, which is quite some admission for a man who loved All About My Mother so enormously. I think I've always been the partner of men who don't particularly like watching films with subtitles (yes, sadly that includes Nathan)!

The show was okay. Some things stood out. Tamsin Grieg is a fabulous actress and Haydn Gwynne absolutely stole the show with the most gloriously subtle, yet simultaneously over the top performance. I know her as a telly actress, so was rather astounded by her totes legit musical theatre chops, but Nathan, of course, knew her previous work in the West End, which included playing the original Miss Oolie in City of Angels.

The set was perhaps the most ghastly looking thing I've ever seen on a West End stage. It looked like a melamine flat pack from MFI, all white and lit with ludicrous primary colours. It offered nothing to the show. Nothing whatsoever. And in many instances it was a distracting eyesore.

The book and lyrics were good. The lyrics were excellent in places. Gwynne sings a divinely moving song about feeling invisible as an older woman which was beautifully structured. Sadly, the music did nothing but groove. It was all baselines and drum beats and not a lot of musical content, particularly in the realm of tunes, which had the effect of making everything seem a bit bland and non-dramatic. There were a few too many songs as well which seemed to rather come out of nowhere.

But overall, I applaud any musical which fills its stage with strong female roles, and after I'd accepted that everything looked a little cheap and sounded a little bland, I was able to sit back and enjoy what was being offered to me. Will it run and run, however? No.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Portraits 12, 13 and 14

My day started with a touch of tinnitus, which I could have done without. Sadly, the more I mention tinnitus in this blog, the more likely I am to receive emails offering me curious American remedies. I've genuinely no idea how that works. I mean, how do those bastards know my email address?

Today's been another day of photographing Pepys singers, starting with Rebecca Shanks, a soprano who has sung in every composition I've written for the Rebel Chorus in the last five years. Rebecca's involvement with the Pepys Motet goes all the way back to 2010. Long-term readers of this blog will recall that when I first put pen to metaphorical paper, I was in the process of trying to raise the finances to perform an even more ambitious version of the motet, which was actually scored for forty individual singers. In this initial incarnation, the singers split into eight choirs of five, each of whom represented a different aspect of Pepys' life. We had a gospel choir representing Pepys' family life, an opera chorus representing his brutal snobbishness and a folk choir singing passages in the diary which mention the often lively occurrences in the streets and theatres of 17th century London. Add to this a choir of students from Magdalene College, Cambridge (where Pepys studied) and a choir of Naval officers (to represent Pepys' job as a naval administrator) and you have an incredibly complicated and ambitious piece of music, the rehearsals for which sent me closer to the edge than perhaps any period of my life ever! Read back over blog entries from October 2010, and you'll be introduced to a man on the verge of nervous breakdown! On one occasion I remember rehearsing the folk choir in a flat in Vauxhall, before driving through the night in a terrible storm to Dartmouth in Devon, where I had a 10am rehearsal with the navy boys.

Still, the performance itself went incredibly well, despite the fact that the forty singers were actually singing together for the first time. We performed at St Olave's, the church where Pepys and his wife are buried and it was a visual and sonic feast. The folk singers dressed like pagans, the musical theatre choir came in their tuxes, the Magdalene college crew wore their gowns, and the navy officers set many hearts a flutter by arriving in full ceremonial uniform including swords. The last movement was performed "in the round" with the forty singers actually surrounding the audience. I'm told it was like medieval surround sound!

Rebecca sang in the early music choir in that particular performance and when it came to the recording she sang the third soprano line on all six movements. Today, I photographed her in a mixture of city locations with giant skyscrapers to represent the City which Pepys knew so well, but plainly wouldn't recognise if he were scooped up, great skirts, vests and all, and deposited in the 21st century.

I walked from the Gherkin to St Paul's, feeling my way through the City like a tourist without a map. The second portrait of the day was with the charming Scottish mezzo, Helen Stanley, who sang alto on four movements of the motet. I photographed her by the Millennium footbridge which links St Paul's to that other great London cathedral, the Tate Modern.

I'm one of the few lucky people who can actually claim to have been on that particular bridge on the day it opened; the day it bounced up and down like a trampoline! It was a curiously unsettling experience, which would even have made an old sea dog a little queasy. I actually think it would have been a bigger tourist destination had they allowed the bridge to keep its wobble, but I guess, no matter how much we were all assured at the time that it was perfectly safe, eventually the whole thing would have collapsed into the Thames, taking scores of bemused elderly people with it.

I had a cup of tea from a little Italian cafe which was so insanely strong it gave me the jitters all the way from the bridge to Borough.

I had osteopathy in Borough after working for a few hours in a cafe there. I read a newspaper in the waiting room, which, for the first time, made me understand why some people actively like the Tory Boris Johnson. He's apparently had a quite the showdown with Asim Qureshi, director of Cage (which campaigns against the US-led war on terror.) Qureshi claims that MI5 have to take a great deal of responsibility for the behaviour of the ghastly Jihadi John, whom they apparently harassed. Johnson tore into Qureshi with a tirade of abuse which, in my view, makes perfect sense; "if you are going to have an impact on the lives and the minds of young Muslims, you have to focus on what these people are doing wrong and not immediately start scattering blame around. You have got to focus on where they have got their lives wrong, the false choices they are making, the false understanding they have of Islam..." And I'm afraid I agree.

The third and last portrait was of Jana Sutherland, another stalwart of the Rebel Chorus, who sang in the musical theatre choir on the original forty-part version of the motet. I photographed her at Drury Lane, which is mentioned twice in the sections of the diary I have set to music, the first time, most hauntingly, in relation to the plague; "I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon their doors..." The second reference is far more jolly, and talks about milk maids dancing in the street, watched over by none other than Nell Gwynn, standing at her lodgings door in Drury Lane.

On my way to the tube I bumped into young Josh, the assistant director on Brass. He's in a young writers' group at the Soho Theatre, and was heading in the wrong direction, so I walked him to the theatre and we sat and nattered for an hour.

I went home via the new station at Tottenham Court Road where there's something horribly wrong with the escalators which were shrieking and screaming so much I thought my teeth were going to fall out. It was a truly hideous noise, which must be fixed for the sake of the collective sanity of the thousands of people who go up and down there on a daily basis!

Feet like stumps, I'm home again, feeling exhausted but upbeat. Let's hope the tinnitus doesn't haunt me tonight!


My voice has officially packed up on me. There's nothing left of it. It turns out that too much coughing and too much singing on a ragged throat makes your voice sound like Crusty the Clown!

I spent the day looking for work. I wrote to a million artistic directors and looked at a thousand jobs on the Guardian website, whilst juggling all sorts of other tasks, like prepping scores for the Man In The Straw Hat and chiseling away at A Symphony for Yorkshire, which I decided today was absolute bullshit! I even got my 'cello out of its case for five minutes and had a little scrape. It genuinely sounded like I was sawing wood. In fact, my 'cello sounded like my voice does this evening!

I was appalled at how many jobs in the Arts and Heritage section of the Guardian were for fundraising posts. They've got all sorts of fancy titles, but, based on what I saw today, it would seem that the only people who are actually getting paid good money in my industry are those who are fleecing money out of others to pay themselves! I'm astonished by how much money fundraisers in the arts are earning compared to the artists themselves. There's something extraordinarily messed up about that!

This evening I rehearsed the Fleet Singers again. We had a sectional with the tenors and bases and then a full rehearsal. I was particularly pleased with the altos. What a difference a week makes. Perhaps a few of them read this blog last week when I said I was a little disappointed with them, but I got the distinct impression that some of them had gone away and done their homework. When I was conducting, quite a number of them were staring up at me with big grins which told me they knew exactly what they were doing... or at least that they had the confidence to blag! Giving good face is the first rule of performance.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Portrait eleven

I took the eleventh portrait for the Pepys Motet album cover today. This one was with the lovely Nigel Pilkington, who sang tenor on all movements of the piece. Nigel is almost the dictionary definition of a polymath. He works as a voice over artist, but is also a trained lawyer, a sign language specialist and a speaker of an abnormal number of languages, the latest of which is Swedish. I keep meaning to introduce him to Brother Edward and Sascha. I'm sure they'd find a million things to talk about.

Nigel lives in the Barbican, and initially I thought I might take advantage of the location by taking his picture at the London Wall car park which is notable for one thing; deep underground, amongst the concrete pillars, a section of the original Roman London wall still stands. It's the most curious anomaly. It's a sizeable chunk of wall, about ten feet high and twenty feet long, and very obviously Roman with its line of red tiles half way up the stone work. It's so surreal to see it nestling down there entirely surrounded by 1960s concrete!

We actually decided not to photograph Nigel in front if it. I tried a few sample shots and couldn't get an angle which adequately displayed the bizarre juxtaposition of wall and car park.

We met Nigel on the street outside instead. It was a beautiful sunny day, but as we stood waiting for him, there was a light rain shower, which astounded us because there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We simply couldn't work out where the rain was coming from.

Nigel suggested we went to a public roof terrace with astonishing views over St Paul's Cathedral. It amazed me that the place existed. The city is full of all kinds of crazy nooks and crannies. You could live or work there for years and still be surprised.

We went from the city to Julie and Sam's house for Craft and Cake, which was remarkably well attended with about twelve crafters doing everything from double-knitted hearts, to Abbie, who was was knitting a three-dimensional fox's head! I did hair! That's going to be my craft from now on. I'm absolutely awful at it, but I'm willing to learn. I put Michelle's hair up in a beehive and Tina's into a neat little chignon. It strikes me that this could well be the gayest sentence I've ever written. I told everyone I was going to open up a salon. "What sort?" They asked. "A literary salon?" Yeah, yeah. Very funny...

We stayed behind afterwards and watched a film called Big Eyes whilst Tina knitted socks aggressively and Nathan continued to teach Julie how to double knit. Double knitting, for the uninitiated, is a form of knitting where two sides of a garment are created simultaneously. Most knitting has a "wrong side"; a side which the knitter doesn't want the world to see. Double knitting is reversible, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. It's also something of a science. Double knit patterns have to be incredibly carefully worked-out; which is one of the reason I suspect why Nathan is drawn to it.

Talk schmalk

I've sat on the sofa working all day today. On and on the arrangements of the Symphony for Yorkshire go. I'm bored rigid.

Nathan and I are plainly rather boring people. We never go out on a Saturday, in fact we rarely go out any night. A great deal of this is because Nathan so often works at the weekends, but it's also because we're both poor, neither of us drink that much and both of us hate noisy, crowded spaces! Perhaps we've become smug marrieds? I'm reminded of the Beautiful South song, We Are Each Other:

"There's no more little secrets we haven't yet disclosed,
We bore the living daylights of anyone too close,
And all our cards at Christmas are written to us both...
Count them up, who's got the most?"

I spent a great deal of time in the late afternoon talking to various people at Talk Talk about our intermittent wireless reception. First port of call was an utterly pointless series of conversations with call centres in New Delhi. It's impossible to say what I'm about to say without sounding ludicrously racist, but then again, we've been conditioned in the last twenty years into thinking that anything which remotely criticises practices involving ethnic minorities is bigoted.  But here's the deal. I think all call centres for British customers should be in the UK. There. I've said it.

Here's the main issue: People in Indian call centres are invariably not given the clout necessary to help customers with anything other than the most simplistic problems, regardless of how stressed the customer is getting. So there's always a limit to what can be achieved if you end up speaking to one...

There are also cultural differences. When someone in London talks to someone in Newcastle, they are likely to have shared points of reference, a shared sense of what is acceptable, and more capacity to bend the system in the process of standing up for their customers' rights.

There's also a formality to the language which some of the Indian call centre people employ, which can drive a caller up the wall. The bloke I spoke to today actually sounded like he was talking in riddles at one point. Why say it in one word when you can say it in nineteen? Today the chap actually said, "I humbly request," which might have been quite endearing had he not gone on to tell me that "the five fingers on one hand are not equal in size." I mean, what the hell does that mean?

Anyway. I had a little trump card up my sleeve, which is a number for an English office somewhere within Talk Talk which was given to me years ago when I brought an ombudsman in to complain about their appalling customer service. Whenever I call it, a bemused person asks how I got the number, but they always go out of their way to help...

So, when, after an hour of talking to New Delhi, I was still heading in ever-decreasing circles, I called the secret UK number, and, surprise surprise, within five minutes the problem had been escalated and, within half an hour, solved. Fairly ludicrous.

Nathan came home and we went for a walk around the block in the drizzle. We went through Queen's Wood, and gazed at the droplets of water hanging from the branches of the trees, backlit by lamplight. They looked like tiny LEDs behind a star cloth. Beautiful.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Photograph ten

A last minute decision saw me rushing into Oxford Circus today to take a quick photograph of Laura Cheetham, who sang soprano on all six movements of the Pepys Motet. We ended up opting to use the impressive timber-framed exterior of Liberty's department store as a back drop for the shot. I felt it looked suitably Pepysian despite the fact that it's a nineteenth century building masquerading as a sixteenth century one.

In order to get a splash of blue sky and the immense grandeur of the building, I ended up having to lie on my back to take the picture. It's amazing how many unnecessary tuts and mock sighs of astonishment you generate by lying on your back on a London pavement. I would have thought the majority of people have better things to worry about!

I was back in Highgate within an hour and a half and at the kitchen table working on A Symphony for Yorkshire. On and on it goes. I wonder sometimes if it will ever be done, and quite why it seems to be taking me this long, I've no idea. Perhaps it's because I've got nothing else to do.

We went down to Kentish Town at 6pm to meet Uncle Archie and Cat to discuss an ever-growing list of potential projects. Surely one of them will come to fruition? This waiting for gainful employment lark is like pulling teeth.

We ate pretzels and drank tea whilst Archie and Kat had a well-deserved end of week glass of wine. It was lovely to see them both. Dreaming about the future is fun!

We came home and watched Cucumber on Channel 4. Everyone's been talking about the most recent episode, so I tuned in with high hopes. Sadly it told the story of the least loveable of all the characters in the show, and did so in a series of yawn-worthy, badly-acted cliches, which disappointed me greatly. For the record, not all gay people are gurning, self-loathing, dysfunctional, emotionally aloof violent bastards who live in some weird Mancunian underworld. The ending was unnecessarily brutal. But why should that surprise me? It seems this entire series has done very little other than attempt to shock. The whole thing has left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Portraits 5-9

I slept for about ten hours last night, and woke up feeling a little better than I have been of late. Today promised to be rather epic, so I was relieved not to feel like a rinsed out dish cloth.

The purpose of today was to take another five... count them... five portraits for the front cover of the Pepys Motet CD, so I charged the camera batteries, grabbed a handful of Little Welsh Nathalie's beautiful placards and headed first to London's Pride, the epic St Pancras train station, which genuinely has to be one of the greatest stations in the world.

What they've done to save that place is genuinely amazing. This was the grotty barn of a building surrounded by old gas works where trains from Bedford and Wellingborough used to pull in. I sat as a teenager for many hours on various benches next to dirty-looking coffee kiosks drinking tea and feeding Mars Bars to pigeons. These days the entire place has been hollowed out. The Eurostar trains sit proudly alongside the longest champagne bar in Europe and the kiosks have been replaced by Carluccios, and Cafe Paul and Fortnam and Masons and scores of fancy little boutiques which announce to the rest of Europe that London means business. Two bronze statues peer over the hustle and bustle: Paul Day's giant meeting statue of two aquiline-nosed lovers fondly embracing and, appropriately, a statue of Sir John Betjeman, who loved this place.

The first photograph I took was of Joe Louis Robinson, who sang tenor on four of the Pepys movements. He's actually a little better known as a musical director, but he also has a charming light voice, which works very well in the mix. The Pepys Motet is an a'capella composition scored for twenty individual voices, each with a unique part, which means, at various stages, the twenty singers are all singing something entirely different. It is a highly complicated piece of music, which was almost impossible to record!

I photographed Joe at the Paul Day statue, and then again rubbing shoulders with Dear Sir John.

My second shoot of the day was in a rainy Greenwich, fortunately under cover, underground in fact, in the famous foot tunnel under the Thames. We actually filmed here, years ago, when I was working as the acting coach on the movie 28 Weeks Later. We were there for a whole day, but I don't remember much about it apart from climbing a lamp post somewhere near the tunnel, just to show off really. I used to be able to hitch my way up a rope or lamppost barefooted like a little monkey. I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do that now.

Our green room during the shoot was actually on the Cutty Sark; that famous old tea clipper in dry dock in Greenwich, which I'm told, for ten years, held the record for the shortest trip from London to Australia. There was a terrible fire a few years ago which nearly destroyed the ship, but fortunately, when it struck, most of its original wooden fixtures and fittings had been removed for renovation.

The Greenwich portrait was with Trevor Bowes, a professional operatic bass, who, like Joe, sang on four of the six motet movements. This evening he opens in Purcell's African Queen at English National Opera.

The Greenwich foot tunnel is a spooky sort of place, which smells of damp plaster. A lone double bass player was busking down there. It was a curious noise. A bowed double bass sounds a bit odd whoever's playing it; a curious blend of scrapy and robust, like a beginner 'cellist. For a few moments I even wondered if it was some sort of low saxophone or a tuba. The sound was reverberating through the tunnel in a most mysterious way. Anyway, it was a rather quirky accompaniment to our shoot, which I ended up rather liking. If you look carefully on all the pictures, the double bass is nestling proudly in the distance.

I took the DLR to Tower Gateway where I met Christopher Diffey, an operatic tenor who sings on all six movements of the piece. He's just off to Leeds to start rehearsals on a Jonathan Dove opera with Opera North, which actually opens at Covent Garden. I took his photo down on one of the Thames beaches by the Tower of London; an area I'm almost convinced would have been Pepys' alighting point for pretty much any river taxis he took whilst living at the Navy Offices near St Olave's Church. The tide had only just gone out, so everything was slippery and covered in algae and sludge. It was worth it. We stood underneath a wooden pier which provided some really interesting shadows and shapes against the murky brown water of the river.

I walked all the way from Tower Bridge to Moorgate to look at a potential location for a shoot on Sunday, then walked back to Bank and tubed it to Holborn before walking to Soho where I met the lovely Anthony Harris, a deeply theatrical and wonderful tenor who sang on all movements of the Pepys Motet. I photographed him outside a sex shop as a sort of nod to Pepys who was quite a randy bugger, and, if sex shops had existed in his day, would almost certainly have frequented them. As it was, Soho was only just being developed in his day. Previously it had been a hunting ground for the well-to-do. I'm told the word Soho was actually a hunting call.

Anthony and I had a lot of fun wondering around Soho, China Town, Piccadilly Circus, and then Soho again, where we sat outside a cafe drinking tea. I was determined to find him a husband, but my mission failed.

We met Nathan at his theatre and then walked up to Euston Square tube for the last shoot of the day. This one was with David Gregory who sang bass on all movements of the motet. I took photos of him staring into one of those curious warping convex circular mirrors you get on the underground. I'm never quite sure who they're for. They're usually on the stairs, one assumes so that you can see who's coming down as you're going up, but I'm not entirely sure they're necessary! They're cool to photograph though. I once took a shot of Tanita Tikaram staring into one of those. I used it for the inner sleeve of the London Requiem album.

I'm now in the bath. Shattered!