Elegy in a Macau Graveyard

Cemeteries are strange things, or rather it is our reaction to them that is often contradictory. The graveyard of an English country church nestled in the heart of the countryside can be a beautiful place, on the other hand I live in a converted church which we would never have bought if the graveyard was part of the garden. Thankfully it is over the road and out of sight. In Hong Kong apartments are cheaper if they overlook a cemetery, while traditional hillside graves are often in the most beautiful locations.

Some have become tourist attractions based on who is interred there. Highgate in London or Père Lachaise in Paris are, of course, the most well-known depending on whether your interest is in radical politics or 1960s music, but the one that speaks the most to me is the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau. A quiet, peaceful gem in the middle of the city and which started a writing project that for me has become enormously fulfilling.

Old Protestant Cemetery

Old Protestant Cemetery, Macau

The cemetery was founded in 1821 to provide a protestant burial ground in Catholic Macau. Next to the cemetery is Casa Garden, a salmon-pink and white building that was the East India Company’s base when Macau was the centre of its China business.

Casa Garden

Casa Garden

A later addition was the plain, simple white-walled Morrison Chapel.

Morrison Chapel

Morrison Chapel

The result is a haven of peace where the graves and memorials stand in the shade of frangipani trees. Most of those who were buried there were British, American and Dutch sailors and missionaries, but also their families and some of the most tragic are the infants such as Charlotte M Livingstone who died in 1858 aged 5 months and 10 days, and the even younger Charles Hodge who died in 1857 aged 2 months and 6 days. Of course there was nothing unusual in infant death in those days, but there’s something particularly heart-breaking when it occurs so far from home.

At the other end of the scale from small stones to the memory of children are the large, grand memorials such as that to Lord Henry John Spencer Churchill.

The cemetery closed in 1858, by which time most British and Americans had moved to Hong Kong, and gradually fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that the cemetery was restored and documented primarily through the efforts of the University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Sir Lindsay Ride and his wife Mary. Their book “An East India Company Cemetery” is a testament to their love of the place and to the work they put into bringing the cemetery back to life (as it were). It’s well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy. Lindsay Ride’s own ashes were interred there in 1977.

At a personal level it was thoughts of the cemetery that set me on the course of writing about Macau and realising just how many stories there were to be told about this remarkable city. I am really excited that the fruits of this obsession will be available for all to see in August when Fly on the Wall Press (https://www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk/) publish my first short story collection “The Goddess of Macau”. Until then, you can still read my first Macau story (“Sacred to the Memory”), which was directly inspired by the cemetery and this grave stone in particular,  https://www.litro.co.uk/2015/04/sacred-to-the-memory/.

George Duncan

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

Sleep. Perchance to dream.

There are of course plenty of pieces of music where sleep is an unintended, unwanted consequence, and let’s be honest it’s happened to all of us at one time or another, but with Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep it is the objective. Described as an eight-hour lullaby when it was premiered in 2015 at the Wellcome Collection library in London – as part of an exhibition devoted to the science of sleep I recall – the audience had beds and sleeping bags. The recording of that premiere was broadcast again on BBC Radio 3 the night of Saturday into Easter Sunday morning, in response to lockdown-anxiety, and broadcast in many other countries over the same weekend. I knew more or less what to expect from the one hour extracts available on the from Sleep disc but I had never heard the whole piece, so that night I decamped to the spare bedroom (for the sake of marital harmony) with a Bluetooth speaker.

It is possible to read about how Max Richter worked with neuroscientist David Eagleman, to learn about how the music references sleep patterns, about how the pitch spectrum was chosen to bring the listener into a womb-like state, but that all falls away in the face of the sheer sensual beauty of the music. The subtle interplay between the live musicians (piano and keyboards, five string players, and the ethereal soprano of Grace Davidson) and electronics was such that at times I wasn’t even sure which I was listening to, and the transitions as one section segued into the next…blissful.

I didn’t want to fall asleep, so gorgeous was the music I wanted to keep listening, but after an hour or two I inevitably did and the music worked its way into my dreams. I woke a couple of times during the night and when I did I felt a sense of extreme contentment, lying in bed bathed in this magical sound world and knowing that other people across the country were doing just the same.

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

On Bruckner, Writing, and Self-Confidence

I never expected there to be a connection between the music of Anton Bruckner and my writing, but somehow the two have come together in the last few days.

I hated Bruckner in my youth, but in my mid-years he has become more and more important to me. I might even go as far as to say that he is a composer I really couldn’t live without. But this isn’t going to be about his music, wonderful though it is, but about artistic self-confidence – something he famously lacked.

In addition to the canon of nine symphonies that I love, there are two others that until recently I hadn’t heard at all. Bizarrely, they are known as the Symphony No.00 and Symphony No.0. The “00” is a student work – though Bruckner was such a late-starter that in this case “student” means 39 years old, which is another story – it’s enjoyable and interesting for Bruckner lovers, but it’s the background to the “0” that struck a chord with me (pun intended).

It should really have been his second symphony, completed in its final form after his first, but he was so disheartened by a single negative comment from the conductor Otto Dessoff that he withdrew the symphony completely. Bruckner scratched out the “No.2” in the score replacing it with the German “annulirt”, cancelled. These days it’s known as the “Nullte” – the Zero.

Bruckner was so lacking in self-confidence, so doubtful of his own talent, that all it took was one negative comment. Just one comment, that was enough. But he never destroyed the score and the symphony was finally played in 1924. And it’s terrific music, not perhaps in the same league as his later mature symphonies but well worth playing and hearing.

So, what has this to do with my writing? Well, the day after failing to win a competition I had high hopes with, it’s a reminder that critics and judges are not always right, and that to have belief in your own writing is one of the most important things any writer (or artist) must have.

I don’t want any of my stories to be published decades after my death under the title “The Cancelled Stories”.

On The Perils Of Not Being Able To Plot

I have decided that I hate those writers who plot their novels in advance to the last detail; writers who have precise storyboards showing every last nuance of the story, writers who have written lengthy biographies of all their characters before they start.

Well I don’t hate them of course. I’m just very jealous. I am incapable of doing that. I start with a general idea for what the novel is going to be about, but only by the act of writing itself can I generate plot ideas, and only be writing can I find out who my characters are.

Which is all very well, but it comes with a price.

I’ve just finished a first draft of a new novel. It has come in at only 70,000 words, but that’s okay because later sections are a little skeletal: there wasn’t much point in expending a huge amount of effort on them when I know how much needs to be revised or added in the second draft because I didn’t properly plot in the first place.

Take the ending. When it came to the final chapter I suddenly discovered that my narrator needed access to a boat. Stealing a boat would be out of character, chartering one unrealistic in the context, so he is going to have to own one. For this character it is perfectly plausible that he might, but I’m going to have to write various chunks to explain this so that the boat doesn’t appear out of nowhere as a deus ex machina!

Then there’s the little matter of how the entire thrust of the novel has changed. To the extent that I had planned it, I had a main storyline and one subsidiary. Of course the subsidiary idea has proved far more fruitful, and in particular one minor character (barely more than an incidental figure on the sidelines in the early chapters) has completely taken over the book, so she will need to be introduced more thoughtfully than before.

Oh well, lots to do in the second draft.

My next novel will feature a frustrated writer who becomes a serial killer tracking down all those smug novelists who have more control over their characters and their fate.

On the Importance of a Unique Voice

Today is John Cage’s birthday, a composer whose music I find myself turning to more and more as I get older, a composer who devoted so much of his work to questioning our assumptions about music, and a composer who has made me ponder one of the mysteries of my own response to music.

Over the years I have unconsciously developed a test for whether a composer is worthy of my further attention or not: Does he or she have an individual voice that marks them out from others? You can use this test with music of any period old or new, and indeed it can be extended to other genres of music such as jazz, though then I normally ask the question of the performer rather than the composer. I am picking my words carefully. Worthy of further attention is not the same as like. There are plenty of composers whose music passes that test, and who are undoubtedly important in the history of music, but where I struggle to say that I enjoy them. Liszt, Rossini and Verdi for example. Equally there are minor composers who do not have that special something, but who have written at least some pieces that I enjoy regardless. Guilty pleasures such as Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphonyand d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français.

Musicians and others more expert than I am can probably explain why Mozart has a different voice from Haydn, Schubert from Schumann, Shostakovich from Prokofiev, but from years of listening I think that I have a good ear for identifying the composer when it is a piece that I don’t know. Sometimes of course you get other clues. Once when driving I turned on the radio and found myself in the middle of a violin concerto that was clearly mid-twentieth century and probably Russian (or Soviet anyway) but wasn’t one that I knew and therefore I could rule out Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The soloist was evidently brilliant but the recording quality less so and perhaps dated from the late 50s early 60s. Adding those facts together surely it had to be David Oistrakh? So, I asked myself, what other composers were there that Oistrakh championed? Khatchachurian? Correct on both accounts as it turned out, though I think I might have been lucky.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with John Cage, seen by many as the ultimate avant-garde crazy composer of silent pieces, chance operations and general wackiness? I have listened to a lot of Cage over the years, both on CD and in concert, and what has struck me is that he is an example of a composer with a unique voice (or perhaps several different voices) even though in some of his music – particularly the music that involves chance elements – his stated aim has been to remove the composer from the music and to allow the sounds to exist independently from the composer’s ego. That is the mystery for me. Even when Cage uses the most extreme aleatoric elements, such as using the I Ching, star maps, or even flaws in manuscript paper to derive the notes, it still ends up sounding like John Cage. How can that be?

One of my favourite Cage discs is a CD of vocal works performed by Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices. The main work is the haunting Litany for the Whale which gives the disc its title and which could be enjoyed by anybody who likes the music of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. The track I enjoy the most though is Experiences #2 which is one of the more misleading titles in music, giving the impression of a difficult obscure over-complicated piece when the reality is very different. Experiences #2 is an exquisite setting for solo voice of an e.e. cummings poem, highly modal, sung with very little vibrato, and with an almost folk-like melody. So why does it sound like Cage and nobody else? I don’t know though perhaps it is the extended silences between the musical phrases that gives it away.

The Value of Persistence (Again)

I’ve written before about the importance of persistence and never giving up, and yet I still sometimes forget about it.

Last year I put in an enormous amount of effort into writing a story that needed to be set on the North West coast of England. Not a part of the world I knew particularly, but the setting was a requirement for submission to a planned anthology. It took me quite some time to come up with a story idea, set in Morecambe, one that I could latch onto and thought that I could do justice. A first draft appeared and a friend read it and said: “It’s very good Graeme, but it reads as if you have never been to Morecambe.”

It was a salutary reminder that you can’t learn everything about a place from Google Images. So I took myself off to Morecambe, walked the back streets, poked my head down alleyways, and the second draft was so much better. Thrilled with it I submitted the story, quietly confident of acceptance. Well, reasonably hopeful anyway – so much so that the subsequent rejection was more than a little disheartening.

But once that initial despair had died down, I didn’t give up and thanks to the wonderful people at Litro Online “A Love of Numbers” found a home. Enjoy it here if you’d like to read it and tell me what you think. Was I right to persevere?

A Love of Numbers

Anne-Sophie Mutter

Listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter play Penderecki’s second violin concerto – Metamorphosen – with the LPO at Bridgewater Hall last night caused me to reflect on issues of change and consistency.

Let’s deal with the change first: the shift in Penderecki’s music from the mid-1970s and in turn my own reaction to his later music. I loved Penderecki’s early pieces from works like Threnody, and De Natura Sonoris to the first Symphony, and the excitement of those thrilling scores. I couldn’t understand – felt betrayed almost – by his shift to a kind of hyper late romantic post-Shostakovich style, more or less from around the first violin concerto of 1976-1977. It just seemed dark and boring. But over the years, perhaps with greater familiarity, perhaps just my getting older and (hopefully) more mature, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of these pieces, and the wonderful handling of the orchestra, especially in Metamorphosen and particularly when played as well as it was by the LPO. If anything, it is now the earlier works that seem a little superficial.

More importantly though, what struck me most was Anne-Sophie herself. The brilliance of her playing was never going to be in doubt, that was a given. She followed the concerto with a Bach encore so exquisite that it had me not wanting to breathe lest I disturb her, and I can think of few musicians of her calibre who have been so committed to the cause of contemporary music, but it was the consistency of her approach to music that registered most strongly. I was a student when I first saw her play as a teenager, when Karajan brought the Berlin Phil to Oxford, and because she started so young I almost feel like she’s been around forever (when in fact she’s two years younger than me). There’s no shortage these days of brilliant young violinists, but that connection to Karajan links her to a different age. An age before the mediocrity of the present day; a time before the obsession with diversity and inclusivity, and the false god of cultural relativism. A world before talent shows designed for the curse of attention deficit, and before BBC arts and culture descended to the level of ‘journeys’ and soundbites.

With Anne-Sophie Mutter you know that what matters above all is the music and that everything else should be subservient to the art itself. A seriousness of purpose so often missing in the shallow waters of the quotidian inanities of life.

The Perfect Combination

What is it about the string quartet? Why is a form that is so intimately linked to the history of music, so tied to the greats of the past, still so popular with composers today? The symphony is now a rare beast, even the concerto is often written almost apologetically, and yet the string quartet – which for the general public may represent almost the quintessence of classical form – seems to go from strength to strength.

I’ve wondered about this before, but the question came back to me the other night after hearing a performance of Jörg Widmann’s Fourth Quartet (out of five), but also having seen that James Dillon’s Eighth had just been premiered, as had Rebecca Saunders’ “Unbreathed” to great acclaim. Nor do you have to look far to find other examples: the ten quartets of Peter Maxwell Davies, Wolfgang Rihm’s thirteen and counting (I’m writing this listening to his Third Quartet), and it doesn’t make much difference what particular style or aesthetic the composer comes from, Philip Glass and Brian Ferneyhough don’t have much in common except for fine string quartets.

Part of the answer must lie in practicalities, in cost and economy. A string quartet is more likely to be played than something written for a hundred-strong symphony orchestra; it’s more easily transportable, more easily fitted in to a regular concert programme (the Widmann I heard was sandwiched between Haydn and Tchaikovsky). Another reason surely is the commitment to new music by many quartets, especially younger quartets who have followed the example set by the indefatigable Ardittis (the Kronos having in my view taken the wrong path with their move into world music): Quatour Diotima, Minguet Quartett, and the Heath Quartet are just the first names to come to mind.

But there must be more to it than that. Perhaps it’s linked to another question: Why the string quartet and not the string trio? The trio is too simple and the difference that the second violin makes is remarkable, leading to the perfect combination and balance allowing for complexity and clarity, add a second viola or cello and the balance is lost again.

Unless of course your name is Mozart or Schubert.

The Value of Persistence (or Taking the Hint)

It is such a cliché: If at first you don’t succeed… We’ve all been given the same advice – don’t give up, keep trying, persevere, and so on. Easy to say when you’re the one giving the advice, not so easy when you’re on the receiving end of repeated rejections.

Twice I entered the Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story Competition and was excited to be short-listed only to have my hopes dashed with not so much as a Highly Commended. How could the judge be so blind to my obvious talents? So, come 2017 and I am in two minds – do I either give it one last go or abandon my efforts completely? Well, you can guess the answer, I don’t just give it a go, I decide to go in all guns blazing and enter three stories, taking the view that the more tickets you buy the better your chances of winning the lottery. And I did, sort of anyway. Two of the three were short-listed, and one of those two pieces (though not the one that I liked the most!) ended up with third prize.

So I was thrilled right? Perhaps. A bit. But then the nagging doubts crept in again. Third-place? After all that effort is that the best I can do? And if it is, then what’s the point of continuing? Another rejection came in for a project I’d worked very hard on. Perhaps I’ve reached the summit of my ability, I’m not going to go any further and I’d be better off spending my time watching daytime TV. I don’t know, I’m still in the same two minds. I can hear my father’s voice telling me not to be so stupid and to keep trying, but taking the hint from multiple rejections is very tempting.

André Cluytens: In memoriam

We all know how unreliable childhood memories can be. Those remembered long hot summers when in fact it rained all the time; those happy family holidays when we have wiped from our memory the arguments and bickering. And the books, music and TV programmes of our youth? How often do they live up to our recollection of them? Hardly ever.

Starting to grow my record collection as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I was constrained by the limitations of pocket money that over a few years ranged from £1 per month to £3 – partly depending on a highly complex algorithm designed by my father that linked financial rewards to school grades. I used to get the money on a Friday evening, and then by Saturday lunchtime it had been spent in the local record shop (remember those?). This meant one LP a month that had to be chosen carefully to get the most out of my limited resources; make a bad choice and I was stuck with a lemon and a whole month to wait before I could buy anything else. And they weren’t cheap, not in real terms compared with today. With a new full-price LP costing around £2.99 – going up to £3.25 for a Deutsche Grammophon release (you had to pay extra for that smart yellow label with the tulip crown) – I needed really kind teachers to afford anything other than the budget labels such as EMI’s Classics for Pleasure, which is where I discovered André Cluytens’ Beethoven. Not that I knew or cared who André Cluytens was, I just wanted to buy some Beethoven symphonies.

With the original LPs long lost, I can’t say with certainty which I bought, but they definitely included the Eroica, Pastoral and the Seventh – all from his Berlin Philharmonic cycle recorded in the late 50s right at the beginning of the stereo era (and interestingly that means it’s the Berlin Phil pre-Karajan). A warm memory of those recordings has stayed with me over the last 40 years, recordings that first enabled me to really get to know Beethoven. So it was with a little trepidation that I recently bought the symphonies again on CD (about £10 for the set – how times have changed), and with no little joy to discover that in this case my memory was correct. They still give enormous pleasure all these years later, even with a CD collection that includes complete cycles by the likes of Furtwängler, Brüggen, Rattle, Gardiner, Abbado, and Böhm, as well as countless individual recordings. They are immensely civilised performances, no suggestion of a Cluytens style or sound, he simply lets the music be itself, and even the recorded sound is better than many later recordings.

André Cluytens died fifty years ago this month. The teenage me didn’t know him from Adam, and he’s still not really remembered in the same way as someone like, say, Fritz Reiner, but he should be.