Friday, 29 June 2007

Inter-Faith Fair

Kate and I went along to the Guildhall for this (in wedding togs, as we had to nip out for such a celebration half way through) to wo/man a Rock Baptist Church stall with our church evangelist, Al. It was just as interesting and just as sad as it had been last year. [Though last year was notable for the amusing way that the earnest young men from the University Islamic Society crowded round the Ahhadiyyas' stall to argue, and possibly to prevent anyone else from talking to them...!?] So many little systems out there, so many of them based on 'my take on eastern mysticism'. But at least people were happy to discuss spiritual matters openly, even if in a different language. God does provide us with opportunities to speak of Christ, if we are alert and gracious to take them.

I learned quite a bit about "Christian Science", which seemed rather akin to neoplatonism infused with some alternative medicine and guru syndrome. And I had a long conversation with some well-funded Turkish muslims who were followers of Fetullah Gulen (a modern Sufi, with a fascinating place in that fascinating country). Their energetic, apparently peaceful, theism is undeniably appealing as an apologetic strategy, if you like that sort of thing. Quasi-universal, but still, it was strange that the only religious violence the guy I was talking to could remember was the Crusades...

any cockney antiquarians out there?

A for ‘orses
B for mutton
C for yourself
D for ‘ential
E for brick
F for ‘vescence
G for
H for
I for an eye
J for oranges
K for
L for leather
M for sis
N for
O for the wings of a dove
P for a penny
Q for a bus
R for mo’
S for
T for two
U for ‘mism
V for
W for
X for
Y for girlfriend
Z for

17 down, 9 to go... This was something my late maternal grandfather enjoyed bemusing me with, only now I'm old enough to appreciate it, I can't remember it all.

An Easter Recital

I know it's not Easter any more, but I'm on a roll and Christ is still risen! This was a very special (Good Friday) concert for me because it was the first time I've tried to work a theological narrative into the programme.

Ayo Bankole, Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun

Franz Schubert, Impromptu in C minor, D899, No. 1

Bankole, Sonata No. 2 in C, “ The Passion”

I ‘And they sought about for to kill Him’ (Allegretto molto)

II ‘And He was crucified’ (Largo-Presto-Largo)

III ‘The song of Mary’ (Allegro scherzissimo)

Schubert, Impromptu in A flat, D899, No. 4

Both Bankole (1935-1976) and Schubert (1797-1828) died young. The Nigerian and his wife were tragically killed when the composer was forty-one, and syphilis caught up with Schubert when he was only thirty-one. Nevertheless, both achieved an incredible amount in their respective musical worlds, though in dramatically different ways, and made significant contributions to the repertoires of the piano and the human voice. It seemed fitting to programme their music together at Easter, the traditional time for remembering and celebrating the defining events of history – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, another man who died in his thirties and yet achieved more than Schubert or Bankole ever could have.

Today’s concert loosely follows the historical and theological shape of the mission of the Son of God. Only one of the works was written with Easter in mind, but in this combination I find that their varying moods and characters resonate with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The opening Rhapsody is a set of variations on a haunting, beautiful theme from an African opera (possibly by Bankole himself – information about him is scarce). This theme has two essential elements – a group of mysterious chords that open and close the work, and a haunting melody that overlays these chords. Each of the episodes of the Rhapsody explores one or both of these elements, often heading off in surprising directions. Throughout, you find both virtuosity and tenderness, which serves in this concert to symbolise Jesus’ life of teaching, healing, compassion and challenge as he interacted with the ordinary people of Palestine two thousand years ago and began to establish the promised kingdom of God.

The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of a recording of Bankole improvising at the keyboard. The pianist Glen Inanga has done much to popularise Bankole’s piano music around the world, and he generously posted several rare scores to me.

Schubert’s C minor Impromptu is full of foreboding, just as the shadow of the cross is cast across more than half of the gospel narratives of Jesus’ life. As the time approached for his to be taken up to heaven Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) He deliberately went there even though he knew that confrontation with the Jewish religious authorities would lead to his death at the hands of the Roman rulers of Palestine. He went willingly to his death because he knew that by this sacrifice he would set his people free. This determination and resolution are recalled by the elaborated repetitions of the march-like main theme (almost the only theme) of the Impromptu. At times this work sounds angry, at times it is almost funereal, but it closes in quiet confidence. Schubert wrote the set of four Impromptus in 1827, but it did not find favour with a publisher until decades later. The public apparently wanted something ‘easier’, accorrding to the Paris firm of Schott, to whom Schubert in vain sent much of his serious late piano music.

While Schubert lived in relative obscurity but is now recognised as one of the ‘great’ European composers, Bankole was successful and popular in his professional life but is little known in Europe. A virtuoso on piano and organ, a prolific composer, teacher and broadcaster, he received much of his training in England (London and Cambridge) and devoted his career to bringing Nigerian music back to the Nigerian people and to the world at large. A large proportion of his music is explicitly religious in inspiration or purpose – either choral works for use in the worship at Lagos Cathedral or programmed instrumental music such as this “Passion” Sonata. The titles of the movements speak for themselves. The music is sinister, skittish, bathetic and, when it comes to painting the cruxifixion itself, brutal yet curiously noble.

Jesus did not stay dead, so it would not be appropriate to end on the sombre and understated note provided by Bankole’s “Passion” Sonata. The fourth of Schubert’s Impromptus enacts that transformation from apparent defeat and confusion to victory accomplished by Jesus’ resurrection. While the Impromptu opens in A flat minor, and has an even darker central section in C sharp minor, the climax of the work involves a transformation to a triumphant A flat major. With a spring in its step, the music ascends the keyboard and closes in a blaze of glory. As one of the first Christians put it, Death has been swallowed up in victory! (1 Corinthahians 15:54)

...and now for something slightly different

Hummel, Variations on a theme by Gluck, Op. 57
Born in Pozsony (now Bratislava, the capital of modern-day Slovakia), Hummel hopped across the border to Austria at an early age. His parents sent him back to the country of their birth to study with Mozart, and it was in Vienna that he made his concert debut at the age of nine. Forty years later he was a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. His elegant piano writing was a great influence on Chopin, and several of his orchestral and chamber works are still in the repertoire today. His ten Variations sur un thème d’Armide de Gluck are in the Classical variation style; each one (aside from the finale) is the same length as the operatic theme and sticks closely to its harmonic shape. Despite, or because of, these stylistic contraints, they are full of invention and humour.

Janacek, Variations, Op. 1
Less than a hundred miles north of Bratislava is the region of Moravia, in the Czech Republic. (The ‘Czechoslovakia’ of my title is nothing more than a convenient shorthand for this culturally-rich region of Eastern Europe.) The small Moravian town of Hukvaldy was the birthplace of Leoš Janáček, one of the most important twentieth-century composers (though he appears to day in his Romantic guise). Unlike Hummel, Janáček was not able to win fame and fortune in Austria, so he returned to his native land aged 22. He composed prolifically while working as a teacher, soloist and critic in Brno, although his lasting fame rests on a handful of works written after 1903. In these later years Janáček turned against the Classical-Romantic music of his youth, destroying almost everything he had written, forging a new fragmentary and acerbic idiom derived from Moravian folklore. Fortunately for us, these variations (from 1880) had been dedicated to his fiancée, later wife, Zdenka Schulsová, so he wisely spared them! They perfectly exhibit the tension inherent to the form; always striving for something new, yet each time pulled back towards the contours of the yearning theme.

Bankole, Variations for Little Ayo
Of all the works on the programme today, this one exhibits the ‘cleanest’ variation form, almost akin to a Baroque Chaconne, in which each variation is exactly the same length as the theme (about 8 seconds). It is a deceptively simple work, driven relentlessly forward by the dance. ‘Little Ayo’, presumably the compser’s son, must have been a pretty decent pianist when he was little. Bankole himself was a virtuoso on piano and organ, a prolific composer, teacher and broadcaster, who received much of his training in the UK (London and Cambridge) and devoted his tragically short career to bringing Nigerian music back to the Nigerian people and to the world at large.

Bankole, Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun
As far as I can gather (and information about Bankole has not been easy to get hold of – there is not even a Wikipedia article about him!) Egun is an African opera, possibly by Bankole himself. The theme has two essential elements: a set of chords heard at the start, which almost hum with melancholy and mystery, and a haunting melody which overlays the chords. Each of the episodes of the work varies one or both of these elements. Occasionally the music goes off in an unusual direction, and many of the central passages are exciting and upbeat, but it closes as it began, in haunting simplicity. The pianist Glen Inanga has done much to popularise Bankole’s piano music around the world, and after a concert in Cambridge last year he generously posted several rare scores to me. The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of Bankole himself improvising at the keyboard.

While I'm thinking about music, I thought I'd post a few more programme notes. This recital I gave in February. (I was particularly pleased with the title!) The Round Church is a lovely venue for such things, even if the piano is a bit creaky. There is something wonderful about giving people pleasure through music - indescribable. I guess that's why we have music - 'it'/'they' simply can't be rendered in words.

Gombrich, A History of Art

Read it. Perfect bathroom book. Seriously good for all those who don't know much about art but know what they like - prepare to be broadened!

with a position like this, who needs to move?

What do you do when your opponent has tripled pawns but is two pawns up? If only you could sit there, admiring the position and claim a moral (or aesthetic) victory.

1. e4 c5
2. d4 cxd4
3. c3 dxc3
4. Nxc3 Nc6
5. Nf3 d6
6. Bc4 a6
7. e5 dxe5
8. Qxd8+ Nxd8
9. Nd5 Ne6
10. Ng5 Nf6
11. Nxe6 Nxd5
12. Bxd5 fxe6
13. Be4 g6
14. Ke2

Now that my advantage over Charles with respect to opening theory has become irrelevant, I wonder how long it will be before I blunder or get rolled off the board...

Rare, Ravishing Romantics

When alliteration goes too far.

One of the most satisfying concerts I have given for a long time. The building (Emmanuel URC) and the instrument (a Kawai grand with a huge dynamic range and golden touch) were magnificent. And the programme, despite my nagging doubts up until 12.58pm yesterday, proved not to be cloying, but rather rousing.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) Three-Fours (Valse Suite), Op. 71 , I, II & VI
His songs and smaller instrumental works were all the rage in the early part of the century, but it all went quiet until Classic FM rediscovered and popularised Coleridge-Taylor’s violin concerto a few years ago. This set of waltzes reveals the hand of a fine pianist with a real gift for melody. The first is very ambiguous in mood and tonality until the final few lines. The second is what one might call ‘cheesy’, a languid, ravishing dance. The sixth is hammer and tongs all the way. His father, from Sierra Leone, had faced insurrmountable predjudice in starting his medical career in England, but Samuel was perhaps too successful: extensive concert tours and a professorship at Trinity College London contributed to his early death from exhaustion.

Theophilus Ayo Bankole (1932-1976) Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun
Bankole’s roots were even more firmly in Africa: though he studied in London and Cambridge he returned to his homeland of Nigeria to take up a distinguished composing and conducting career, cut tragically short. The theme has two essential elements: a set of chords heard at the start, which almost hum with melancholy and mystery, and a haunting melody which overlays the chords. Each of the episodes of the work varies one or both of these elements. Occasionally the music goes off in an unusual direction, and many of the central passages are exciting and upbeat, but it closes as it began, in haunting simplicity. The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of Bankole himself improvising at the keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 9 & Prelude in B major, Op. 32, No. 10
The last great romantic left Russia forever in 1917 and settled in the US. He already had three piano concertos and two symphonies to his name, but was forced to make his living as a pianist – not that this was a great problem, since Rachmaninov was one of the most talented virtuosi who has ever lived. Many recordings he made survive to demonstrate that. There could hardly be a greater contrast than between these two preludes – the first a funereal monster, dark, brooding, even savage in places; the second, light and airy, in the manner of a Siciliano, a Renaissance courtly dance.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Album-Sonata in A flat
In 1875, while recovering from the long task of completing Götterdämmerung, the final opera in his Ring cycle, Wagner wrote to Betty Schott, widow of the famous music publisher. He had promised her a work many years previously, and was now able to deliver this, his final work for piano. Unlike the juvenile sonatas, which are very much pastiches, this piece speaks with Wagner’s own voice. It is in a single movement, slow-fast-slow, noble and only rarely agitated. As we might expect the textures are rich and the small amount of melodic material is transformed and reinvented on every page.

Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) Warsaw Concerto
The film Dangerous Moonlight, about a Polish pianist/pilot who joins the RAF during the Second World War, was a patriotic romance that suited the needs and mood of audiences of 1941. The centrepiece of its score has stood the test of time rather more successfully. Its enduring popularity lies in the fundamental quality of the material such that it transcends mere pastiche. This arrangement for solo piano is by Henry Geehl.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007 the scary

Perhaps it's not really all that surprising when you reflect on the nationalist and Islamic presuppositions of Turkey, and a very tense political atmosphere, but it was still a shock to read this.

Ministry of Justice Laws director-general Niyazi Guney as saying that missionaries were more dangerous than terror organizations, and that missionary activity was spreading uncontrollably, much as it had during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

In contrast AKP deputy Husrev Kutlu stated, "A real Muslim cannot convert to Christianity, so there is nothing to be afraid of regarding missionary activities."

Of course both are right and both are wrong.

I pray for Turkey's Christians that they may stand firm in their precarious position and for the rest of the people of Turkey that they might accept the wonderful gift of life in Christ. the ridiculous (weeeeee)

This story about seventh century urine caught my eye and, I must confess, made me grin (well, the Romans did use it as a dental whitener). Extreme and relentless hagiography does tend to lead in this direction (I think with shame of the relic idiocy of Catholic medieval Europe), so it was interesting to hear the opinions of the Egyptian Mufti's critics regarding the authenticity of hadith literature. One man's idea of coherence is clearly not another's.

from the sublime

Cambridge Papers will shortly publish a paper on A Christian Response to Islamism, written by Colin Chapman, a thoughtful author on Muslim-Christian interactions who is pretty sternly anti-Zionist (though gracious and gentle in his manner, and a delightful guest at the Writing Group meetings). See Whose Promised Land? and Cross and Crescent, for example...

The meetings of the Writing Group certainly helped me to shed some caricatures of Islam that I had been unfairly lugging around. One caricature that remains is that Muslims don't admit they're wrong (I'm not talking about at a personal level, but at the grand level of justifying themselves or other Muslims in the political and social arenas). And then the other day I came across this remarkable editorial in a Qatari paper about the root causes of terrorism. The author, an Islamic legal scholar, dismisses the excuses (denial, minimising, socio-political justifications) and blames a culture of hate. Wow.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Internet Watchdog

These bits of software are extremely useful. It's not just kids who need protecting from the internet, it's adults, especially blokes, and especially me. How easy it is to idly find damaging and offensive material, and how easy it is to look just that little bit longer. The software we've got really needs to be updated to prevent access to a sub-species of pornography currently not in its database. Professional Wrestling, whose association of sexuality and violence is in fact hideous. I grew up watching the occasional episode of Sunday afternoon wrestling on the telly - kind of fun, kind of silly, kind of fascinating. But in recent years it seems to have got nastier (surprise, surprise) and involves more unnecessary soft porn than [insert tacky celeb magazine here]. Perusing the webpages of the wwe led to another Being John Malkovich moment (do we really need to watch it to know about its nastiness? What do we gain from that?) - except without the excuse that what I was could access pretended to be art or in any indirect fashion ennobling. I rather think that's called sin. Which is not trivial.

It can hardly help men who struggle against pornography (which I think includes all of us) to have such a cheapening of the body - of the person - on display at every turn.

...part deux...

The combination of direct selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism provides the sociobiologist with a battery of speculative possibilities that guarantees an explanation for every observation. The system is unbeatable because it is insulated from any possibility of being contradicted by fact. If one is allowed to invent genes with arbitrarily complicated effects on phenotype and then invent adaptive stories about the unrecoverable past of human history, all phenomena, real and imaginary, can be explained.

Lewontin, Rose & Kamin, Not in our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (NY: Pantheon, 1984), pp. 261-2.

What happens if we substitute 'average evolutionist' for 'sociobiologist'?

With thanks to Walter James ReMine's remarkable exposure of evolutionary theory's varied and contradictory expressions, The Biotic Message (St Paul, Minn.: St Paul Science, 1993).

out of the mouths of...

If one simply cannot measure the stated variables or the parameters with which the theory is constructed, or if their measurement is so laden with error that no discrimination between alternative hypotheses is possible, the theory becomes a vacuous exercise in formal logic that has on points of contact with the contingent world. The theory explains nothing because it explains everything. It is my contention that a good deal of the structure of evolutionary genetics comes perilously close to being of this sort.

Richard Lewontin, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change (Columbia UP, 1974), p.12.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

must stop reading blogs

not only have I got a lot of work to do, but it's all rather disheartening. Here's a story almost too frightening to be true, and almost enough to turn me into a libertarian...

more cross bloggers

Surprising as it may be to any Euro-Anglo-American liberals out there, there are places in the world where national and cultural differences do arouse the passions somewhat. I don't quite know what to make of this remarkably cross blog from an American in Japan. Our many personal contacts with Japanese people have been almost entirely positive, indeed we have hosted many Japanese friends in our house for evenings, weeks and even months! So, it's no anti-Japanese animus that has inspired me to put this link. Rather the creeping suspicion that the world really is in a mess (that's not just Reformed dogma) and that looking under stones across the globe does not always bring delight.

Looking under the stone of my heart does not do so either, so I shan't be casting anything of hard mineral matter just yet.

Monday, 11 June 2007

more Reformed bloggers

The devil makes work for idle surfers. Sometimes, so does the Lord.
Just came across this interesting cultural blog, and a very exciting sounding cookbook by Robert Farrar Capon (whoever he is, he sounds very interesting), which was too good to refuse...

after Proverbs 30:18-19

There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand.
Kate resting under my left arm,
The perseverance of the saints, and of God with His saints,
The elusiveness of self-control,
The too-painful nobility of Elgar's First Symphony.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

not all that profound

Being John Malkovich struck me as deeply sad, more than anything else. Once you get past the zany carapace you are left with people who treat each other like objects and whose only meaningful contact, whether spoken or touching, is sexual, in a shallow mode.

What also struck me (in that way that things are wont to do, when one is thinking about A, everything seems to link to A somehow...) was the cross-sex theme. Characters muse on inhabiting the bodies of the opposite sex, and some do so as well. Ultimately it's all within a simple binary framework, and some of their comments are rather trite, but it all resonated with the research I have been doing on sex/gender for the Jubilee Centre. This really has challenged my assumptions and forced me to do some serious thinking and engagement with scholarship totally opposed to the biblical gospel. At the moment, rather like BJM, my thoughts on gender/sex are not all that profound, but lots of what I'm reading truly is, so it may make its way to the blog at some point.

Being John Malkovich

This is not really a film about voyeurism, but as I watched it this afternoon I wondered whether I did so as a voyeur.

As a Christian I am called to this standard - Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil 4:8). It is all too easy to fall short of this. There are, after all, so many wonderfully thought-provoking films out there, films with real quality performances, great concepts, clever execution, genuine humour...
But if the content is significantly tawdry does that invalidate the film? More precisely, does that invalidate it for me? If my conscience is active in this reasoning does that signal that, no matter the artistic merit (at least in a humanist sense), there are better things to do with my mind and time?

So, I watched Being John Malkovich, even though I knew it would trample on things I hold to be precious and cheapen by display that which is of almost inestimable relational value. I watched it 'tentatively', not willing to engage fully or embrace it (of course that would be improper, I could hear myself telling myself) but not willing to stop watching it either. I was watching it purely to see it, because it's a film highly respected by the cinema cognoscenti. I was watching myself watching it. Very much hovering, almost voyeuristically. Unlike the characters, I did not want to be John Malkovich, nor to manipulate him like a puppet, rather (I think) I both wanted and did not want to see what all the fuss was about, and feel smug for having enjoyed quality cinema, quirky cinema, not just another action movie, or whatever.

It left me admiring and also wondering whether or not I'd have been better off not watching it.
Predictable, you might say.

Friday, 8 June 2007

mystery, enigma, riddle... Turkey

Wow. A place with historical significance that is is almost unsurpassed, wonderful food, warm people, a bursting economy, beautiful and varied landscape, architecture, and yet so full of contradictions and tensions and violence... For an insight into Turkey, the newspaper Zaman is a good place to start.

Although Christians are martyred every day, in great numbers, across Africa and the Indian subcontient, these three murders (the first Protestant Christian martyrs since 1924, by some accounts) caught the attention of various portions of the world media (though not the BBC, oddly).

The ethnic and political difficulties in modern Turkey are quite remarkable. Whether it's Kurds or Armenians or Greeks, everyone apparently has it in for the Turks. I have not seen many internet debates hotter than those surrounding the events of 1892-1917, which are still very much alive to thousands, if not millions. Proper scholars debate the 'genocide' question, it's not just net fiends, and there are reasons to tone down the rhetoric and listen carefully to the official Turkish position regarding these events.

But brutalities aside for a moment (there is not much I can meaningfully say about them from the comfort of Cambridge), what I struggle to understand, as an Englishman, for whom diffidence about my nationality is part of what patriotism means, is how this incredible patriotism works alongside all the undercurrents of cultural Islam (not to mention all the varieties of Islam found in Turkey). And I have scarce come a across people so keenly aware of the injustice against them in the eyes of the world, so willing to mutter darkly about conspiracies. Orhan Pamuk's Snow was a wonderful dramatisation of some of these tensions (not that everyone likes his style), but it's easy to poke and provoke - much harder to achieve something constructive. So, in my wonder, confusion and frustration at Turkey recently it was wonderful to come across the blog of a Christian Turk. He rightly points to the need for the gospel (a weapon of mass forgiveness and love) if there is to be any deep reconciliation there, as indeed is true for all nations, all regions, all families, all people.

When in my ignorance and prejudices I am confronted by Turkey, it is necessary to be humbled, to realise that so many people have more right to speak than I do, and to pray for God's mercy. The witness of believers in Turkey today, such as the public forgiveness of their husbands' killers expressed by the Malatya widows, is what offers hope.