Vissi d’arte

Saturday 30th June

I was tending my garden this morning to the sound of a mandolin. I should probably make something Woolf-ish out of that – one feels it’s rather the sort of thing Mrs Dalloway would do.

Nothing so unusual, though. There’s music all over Topsham. Drake’s has visiting bands, Matthews Hall has regular concerts and musical events, and we often have strolling players of various abilities setting up on a Saturday morning. We’ve had a rather dull violinist, a very good guitarist, a truly awful fiddler who couldn’t actually play a note, and today a first class mandolinist who didn’t stay long, but was much admired.

Even Ray has joined the lists and played on the street. There’s more on his own weblog about that, but he abandoned the piano accordion last year in favour of a huge Stalinist button accordion from Ukraine, and there’s been no holding him since. It’s lovely, but it means I get terribly familiar with the things he plays.

Culture is a bit of a dirty word, I think, so I try and soft-pedal that aspect of my life for fear of sounding like a pseud, so I’ll sound like an old reactionary instead and say it seems to me that there’s much less of it visible these days. I’m thinking of the Beeb. I may be wearing the old rose-tinteds, but I’m sure we used to have dramas, operas and ballets more often than we do now. BBC1 has nothing, BBC2 very little, and we have to rely on BBC4, which may be hanging by its dental integument, and still isn’t entirely what I would call ‘proper’ culture.

That which goes under the name of ‘drama’ is mostly crime and police work; if there’s a costume drama it’s Tudors or Jane Austen. Look at what Paul McGann did single handedly for drama twenty years ago – The Monocled Mutineer, Cariani and the Courtesans, The Hanging Gate, even the awful The Monk – and what became of The Wednesday Play and Tales of the Unexpected? I’ve watched one or two Unexpected Tales on YouTube and they’re still good.

Granted, we get the Proms, but it’s a very abbreviated version, and yes, you can listen to them on the radio, but it’s nice to see the orchestra in action. There was a time when we seemed to get Wagner’s Ring Cycle fairly regularly (and we watched each series, all the way through), but opera is as rare as feathers on a cow. The recent BBC production of Il Trittico? Nice try, but dreary and not all that well sung, and as for the nuns’ silly hats in Suor Angelica

I’m not actually much of a musician myself – correction, not at all – but I do have at the back of my mind an idea for a musical version of an old novel. The Monk that I mentioned earlier is an interesting book written by Matthew Smith in 1794 when he was nineteen, and it was a sensation. You name it, he’s put it in there. It’s the story of a priest who is corrupted by a demon and, once started, is very difficult to stop until he eventually comes to a very bad end. Quite a moral tale, except that not all the good end happily.

There have been several attempts to stage it, none of which were very successful, and I even did an adaptation myself, but again it didn’t work. I’ve seen two film versions, both dire, and apparently there’s a new one which is getting poor reviews, so I have come to the conclusion that it can’t be done as is.

The obvious solution is to get away from the original, so I’m setting it on a space ship in the future as the remains of humanity flee the doomed earth. It just seemed to call for it, OK? I got the idea from a rarely-seen Swedish opera called Aniara, based on an SF poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, which I heard when I was fifteen and which stayed in my mind until I recently unearthed it. It’s one of those charismatic pieces that you don’t forget.

Aniara is about the tragedy of a space ship with a cargo of colonists from the ravaged Earth. The ship is originally bound for Mars, but after an accident is ejected from the solar system into an existential struggle.

I wrote several musical Christmas shows when I was teaching, with my own songs arranged by Ray, but I’m thinking of something more serious now. I wrote yesterday about a woman who wanted me to do the book for her songs; well, I want a composer for mine. But where am I going to find someone who will work for nothing for an uncertain outcome? Any takers?