It might be the vernal equinox at quarter past four on Tuesday afternoon but clearly, winter isn't done just yet.
I saw the forecast yesterday so I was expecting there to be some snow outside this morning, but I wasn't expecting quite as much as I've got. Just one of my collection of Amaryllis plants bloomed this year and the thing is probably feeling very confused right now.
I headed into Wales on Friday, to the little village of Pentyrch just north of Cardiff. I had a ticket to a concert at Acapela Studio which was given by one of my favourite progressive rock trios, Stick Men. It's been a few years since I last saw them live - four, in fact - and the band have taken things to another level since then. When I chatted to Markus before the show, he said that something has changed on this tour, and that he has felt a deeper connection to the audience. When the show got under way I could see (and hear) exactly what he meant. His posture and body language was entirely different and his playing was relaxed and fluid. And spectacularly good.
In two short sets separated by an intermission, Markus, Tony and Pat showed the audience just what you can do with a T8 Touch Guitar (Markus is road testing the new model of his signature instrument), a Chapman Grand Stick, and a drum set. It turns out that that's one hell of a lot. The band push themselves just about as far as a trio can go, both with their own compositions but also with tracks from King Crimson and Mike Oldfield - as well as snatches of music by classical composers including Carl Orff and Tchaikovsky - playing material originally written for far more than three performers in a way that never felt thin or cut down. How Markus and Tony manage to do what they do and have enough cognitive power left over to sing while they're doing it is beyond me. Their version of Crimson's "Level 5" - which Crimson currently play with an eight-piece band that includes Pat and Tony - was probably the best live performance I've seen. The whole band were intimidatingly good, but Markus's solos were spectacular. I realised at one point that I was just sitting there gaping, mouth wide open. As an audience member it was something special to treasure, and as a performer it's very much a level to aspire to. It was a gig that will stay with me for a long time.
The night turned out to be quite a social event too, as I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen for a few years and met up in real life with people I previously only knew through Facebook. And I also got to chat with Markus, Pat and Tony after the show. It was a very memorable evening.
It's just a week after snowmageddon, and this weekend it's been warm enough to walk about outside without needing a coat. Despite this, there are still the occasional lumps of snow lying about in shady spots, the remnants of the biggest snow drifts (at the side of the A46 south of Old Sodbury, they were over five feet deep.) They won't last much longer, though - there's plenty of sunshine and at 12°C outside, the temperature today is well in to double figures.
Last night I was at the Tortworth Court Hotel to help celebrate my friend Richard's 50th birthday. There is a significantly high probability of me having a bit of a hangover right now.
Today is Douglas Adams's birthday. Were he still alive, he would only be 66 and would, I am sure, still be writing material that would be witty, acerbic, exasperated, and surprising. Were he still alive, I am sure he would have been giving interviews this week about the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was celebrating the 40th anniversary of its original broadcast on BBC Radio 4, back in 1978. But Douglas died of a heart attack in 2001 at the desperately young age of 49. He is still very sadly missed.
Despite being dead, he is still producing - or, at least, helping to produce - new material; the first episode of the latest series of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast this week, forty years to the day after the first ever episode was aired. Many of the original cast were present, and it was a delight to hear their voices in character once again. The new series is based on material written by Eoin Colfer, but assistance from Douglas came in the form of several hard disc drives from his computer, on which are kept sketches and ideas which never made it into the original show. The initial result of this collaboration was Colfer's novel And Another Thing... that was published in 2009, and it's this novel which forms the basis for the new series, which has been named the Hexagonal Phase.
The result is something that often sounds like the show, but ever so slightly different. In much the same way that the "uncanny valley" effect can unsettle someone when they come across something that is pretending to be a human being but has not quite managed it, the slight differences - in the choice of names for planets or minor characters, for example - can have a mildly disturbing effect on the listener. It's a testament to Colfer's writing that his style comes close enough to Adams's own to trigger the effect.
Episode 2 of the new series will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 6:30 pm on Thursday, March 15th. If you're in the UK, you can listen to the first episode on iPlayer using the first link above.
I've been less impressed by a book that I started reading this week; I'm not going to identify the book other than to say that it claims to be a history of ambient music. I'm not going to identify it because it's so badly written that I had to restrain myself from shouting at it several times, and I haven't even made it to the end of the first chapter yet. But reading it has been a very educational experience, because it's helped me identify a number of rules that you should follow when writing non-fiction material. I decided to write them down for your edification and delight, so here they are.
First of all, it's important that the reader has a clear idea of what it is that you're writing about. This helps the reader to understand the context in which the text is written. If you're writing a history of ambient music, for example, one of the first things you need to do is to provide a definition of what ambient music actually is. What do we mean when we say a piece of music is ambient? What are its distinguishing characteristics? How do we decide, for example, that Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring isn't an ambient piece, but that Claude Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie is? Giving the listener the ability to decide for herself if a piece is ambient music or not should be the first goal of your book. And as your range of subject matter grows, it will help you to both keep on track and to know when to discard something as irrelevant. Having a central thesis that you can clearly state comes in very useful. It isn't just something you do when you're trying to get a degree, after all.
Just as with fiction writing, it's important to have a narrative that the listener can follow through the book. Once the reader is armed with the context of knowing what ambient music is, you can start to explain how the music came to be. What is the story of ambient music? What is the tale you are telling? You must pick a start point to begin, of course. Then you must decide how you are going to let the tale unfold. That has as much to do with the technology available to composers for the performance (and, later on, the reproduction) of musical works as it has to do with the personalities of the composers responsible. So in your (theoretical) history of ambient, you'd want to make sure that the reader understood how pivotal inventions or compositions influenced the development of the genre and enabled the specific timbres that are associated with ambient music to be produced. For example, you might start with Benjamin Franklin's invention in 1761 of the glass armonica. You might describe how the instrument's haunting, bell-like musical tonalities were used to convey a feeling of psychosis, such as in the original orchestration of Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. You might entertain the reader by explaining that the instrument fell into disuse thanks to its alarming tendency to drive its players insane as a result of lead poisoning from the glass used in the instrument; later on in the book you could then reveal that the instrument has now gone lead-free and is enjoying a resurgence, and note that the musician Thomas Bloch has played one in recordings by Radiohead, John Cage, Daft Punk, Gorillaz, and Tom Waits, to name just a few. You wouldn't want to omit any mention of it at all, because then people might think you weren't taking the book seriously.
You wouldn't want to jump backwards and forwards in your introductory chapter to present random facts as they occur to you, because that would be much too confusing. Instead you'd probably want to provide a timeline of the technological improvements that influenced the performance and recording of works in the genre, noting when particular inventions such as the Theremin or the Ondes-Martenot were patented or first used in performance. Your overview of the development of recording technology ought to be a comprehensive one, starting with the early scratches on paper covered in carbon black (you know, the ones that gave Charlotte Green an attack of the giggles) and wax cylinders. Rather than presenting wire recorders as dangerous and bulky contraptions that could kill people if they unspooled, you might, instead, talk about their heyday in the 1940s where they had become small and cheap enough to be affordable for dictation and family use, even if they still weren't exactly safe. It'd be worth pointing out that they were still a viable commercial proposition a whole fifty years after they were invented, so they weren't just a flash in the pan.
The main body of the book would then be a chronological analysis of important works, supplying a biography of the composer responsible. You're writing a history of the genre, so you'd want us to know about the people responsible in considerable detail - not, for example, just giving us a page or two of random facts about them in your introductory chapter.
You'd make sure that your biographies started at the beginning of the composer's life and worked through to the end, rather than jumping about at random. As you work through the progression of material that leads to the present day, you'd probably want to examine the reasons why particular events might have occurred, and you'd want to explain why they were historically significant. And as you're writing a book that describes itself as a history, you would, of course, have spent hours conducting painstaking research, making sure to fact-check the information provided (and it goes without saying that you'd want to provide a comprehensive set of references, notes and a bibliography for the reader.) You'd be confident that what you said happened actually happened, to the people you said it happened to, as this would mean you could avoid making assertions that begin with "Some people say" or "Many considered that." You'd never write like that anyway, because you'd have seen on Wikipedia that such things always end up with (citation needed) flags, because that's the sort of writing style that you realised was childish when you were still in your first year of secondary school, and because you knew all too well that it signified a writer who was too lazy to be more specific. More importantly you'd never write like that because - having done all that lovely, painstaking research - you'd be excited about explaining who said it, why they said it, and whether they were right or not.
And while we're talking about writing style, you'd be mindful of the axiom that spellcheckers are not your friends. You'd make sure that you didn't use "dispatched" when "dispensed" was the word you meant, for example. Of course you'd get a proofreader to make sure that no aberrations like "taught wires" got through to the final print, because you know how such things might give the impression that you were in too much of a rush to get the book done to pay attention to details. And you'd make sure that you paid attention to what your editor told you - you did use an editor, didn't you? - to pull you back on track when you started throwing in superficial asides that didn't have anything to do with the subject of the paragraph...
Finally, you'd make sure that your book was about a subject that you knew in encyclopedic detail. If you were writing about the Russian inventor Leon Theremin and his famous invention, you'd certainly avoid howlers like claiming the instrument reached the top of the charts on the Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations" because you'd know that the instrument used to create the distinctive tones on the single was actually a Tannerin, built by the trombonist Paul Tanner assisted by the American inventor Bob Whitsell. You'd be able to joke about the fact that rather than waving your hands in the air next to an antenna, the player controlled pitch on the Tannerin - perhaps unsurprisingly - by a trombone slide. Similarly, you'd disabuse people of the notion that a Theremin was used by Louis and Bebe Barron for the score to Forbidden Planet. You'd know that the Barrons built their own cybernetic circuits to make the "electronic tonalities" for the film (and as neither of them was in the American musicians' union, you would know that they were thus rendered ineligible for an Academy Award for the score, which would provide you with an opportunity to express how shocking and unjust this was.) You'd certainly know that the Russian Thereminist Lydia Kavina is the granddaughter of Theremin's first cousin, not his granddaughter.
As your history of ambient music reached the 1940s, you'd probably want to examine how the genre began to be heard in film soundtracks. You'd certainly want to mention of the composer Dr Miklós Rózsa, who wrote the score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound, which went on to win an Academy Award. You'd want to name-check Miklós when you discussed the Billy Wilder film The Lost Weekend, because it also featured a Rózsa score written after he completed work on Spellbound, and you could tell the story of how Hitchcock and his producer David Selznick believed that they had negotiated exclusive rights to use the Theremin on film soundtracks; after Lost Weekend came out, a furious Selznick called Rózsa and accused him of using the Theremin. "Yes, I did use the Theremin," came the reply. "And I used the violin, the oboe, and the clarinet as well. Goodbye!" Hitchcock never worked with Rózsa again. Examining those scores would also enable you to tell the tale of the Thereminist who played on them, one Dr Samuel Hoffman, who was the only Thereminist in the Los Angeles area and was actually a podiatrist by profession. You'd want to note that it was Hoffman who went on to play the instrument on Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1951 science fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still and you'd want to be sure to discuss Hoffman's subsequent musical adventures with the likes of Captain Beefheart, as he appears on two tracks on Beefheart's LP Safe As Milk. If you'd researched the Theremin's history, you'd never pass up the opportunity to mention that Neil Armstrong took a recording of Sam Hoffman's album "Music Out Of The Moon" with him on Apollo 11. And once you started writing about popular music, you'd want to be sure that you didn't omit Brian Jones's use of a Theremin for the Rolling Stones albums Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Oh, and you'd probably also point out that the "Theremin" used by Portishead on their legendary track Mysterons was actually a Roland SH-101 synthesizer, and so on, and so on...
You'd want to do all of the above because if you didn't, you'd end up producing the book that I'm currently slogging through.
I'm still reading - and still being frustrated by - it, and somehow I don't expect I'll be giving it a particularly positive review on my Goodreads page...
The snow arrived as promised; from the early evening onwards on Thursday there was one of the heaviest snowfalls I can remember here, dumping more than six inches of the white stuff in my back garden.
It all looked rather pretty. I worked at home again on Friday and stayed nice and warm indoors. A lot of other people did the same, although not everyone had a choice: ten miles or so further north in Slad, Ruth and Will reported drifts more than five feet deep on Friday. Not only were they snowed in, their pipes froze and they had to melt snow to get drinking water. Today the cold snap has come to a close and the temperature here is now well above freezing, the snow is melting (it's already slid off the conservatory roof) and with yet higher temperatures forecast tomorrow together with rain, I expect things to be mostly back to normal by Monday morning.
The new windows have come through the challenge of the last few days with flying colours, and I haven't needed to leave the heating on overnight once - although a hot water bottle has come in handy.
So far today the weather has been rather anticlimactic. Light snow fell sporadically during the day but it didn't start to settle until abround three in the afternoon. I've been working at home today, and the chief feature of the weather I've noticed has been the cold; I put the central heating on for a couple of hours at lunchtime, but by the middle of the afternoon I'd caved in and set it to run continuously; I'd also switched on the fire in the living room for a while. I even ran the fan heater in the conservatory for an hour as the temperature in there had dropped down to 1°C, which was still warmer than it was outside, where the temperature didn't manage to climb above -2°C. After days of temperatures remaining below zero, the ground is cold enough that the snow isn't melting when it lands. With the cold air keeping falling snow fine and dry, the light snow we've had here has been blowing around in the street rather than lying where it fell. As it begins to get dark, the road outside is covered but there's probably less than 2 cm of snow lying. I can still see grass on the lawn at the back. Given the hyperbole being thrown around yesterday, I have to admit that I'm feeling quite disappointed. When I can stay inside and look at it through the windows, I rather like a good fall of snow.
The Met Office have issued a red warning for Devon and Somerset, though. Their models are predicting significant snowfall further west when Storm Emma finally arrives, and here we have an amber warning in effect until Saturday. So I guess I'll have to wait and see what turns up overnight...