08 June 2020

Circle of time

This entry is in another blog, too. Insofar as it has to do with my allegiance to this part of the world, it also has a place here. Other blogs may not be the fare for every palate.



From one viewpoint, being is a one-way stream that flows relentlessly forward, with no hope of stopping or returning. Much has been said and written about the transience of life, the irretrievability of youth and the ephemerality of everything we achieve or experience. Everything progresses without pause towards its end. You could even say that you begin to die the moment you are born. There would be incontestable evidence for that: children grow, we age, relatives die, cultures change. And yet, arguably, the starkest evidence dwells in the mind. Life is the more transient the more you think about its transience. And what a melancholy thought that is! It has been expressed by the wordsmiths with every degree of gloom, often with searing beauty, too. A random example out of a myriad is Atahuallpa Yupanqui’s speaking river: tú que puedes, vuélvete! - “you who can, go back!”.

As a light to guide your steps along the path of life, however, this thought is not very helpful. It can dim your spark and it can dull your zest. To be blunt, it can depress you to death. Luckily, there are alternatives to hand.

From another viewpoint, a more helpful one, there is a circularity about life. The seasons keep returning, as it is a delight to see, to hear and to smell in Northumberland at this time of the year. The calendar is a repetitive cycle, and the web of experiences we weave on its loom reassures us with the feeling that things do come back. We will them to return; we summon them back by the power of that homecoming momentum there is in everything that has a season or a date. Fortunately, for this, too, there is tangible evidence: the sun brightens, the foliage greens, the bluebells blossom, the river stops roaring to start singing again. And, in this regard, too, the main drive comes from within, from our inner thoughts, knowledge, affections and desires: the matutinal cup of tea, the Friday-evening release, the Sunday lie-in, the store we set by festivals, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays. Our repetitive rituals give us the means to relate to the wildness of time. We put a lasso around its neck and we ride it, clinging to it for dear life until we can be convinced that it will come home, with us on its back. Many a fall has been fallen in the course of this taming, sometimes causing injury or worse. And yet we risk it. We crave it. We need time to come back. We celebrate the return of that full moon, that spring, that solstice. The last water never flows in this river. The last summer never shines. The last colt never bolts. Lastness is not an acceptable notion in the circle of time.

My late friend Oscar Uzín Fernández, priest, novelist and music-lover, once came up with an appealing simile: the preordained structure of the day (dawn, morning, noon and so on) is the theme, whereas the experiences with which we populate each day are the variations on the theme. His precise words, which I can no longer remember, were better than that. They were a pleasure to hear, until he told you that the music he had in mind as he said them was Pachelbel’s Canon. Even in that callow age when I befriended Oscar, I had long been desensitised to any appeal Pachelbel’s Canon may have once held. A potentially good simile was thus spoiled for me.

Perhaps that was unfair of me. We don’t quibble on the musical merits of the Big Ben chimes, or Auld Lang Syne, or Happy Birthday to You. We let them punctuate our hours and years and, if we have performing privileges, we make sure there is a suitable variation to make each time’s rendition special.

My Northumbrian Anthem is on the way to becoming a landmark for certain times of the year, in my calendar at least. I could keep on wheeling it out, as I will no doubt do every time it seems necessary. But, since I do have performing privileges and, in this case, composing and arranging too, I might also update it if the occasion seems to demand it.

Here it is, in an updated version. Instead of an organ piece, it is now for brass band. That is certainly not an area of my expertise; if commissioned to do it, I might have had to bow out on grounds of inexperience. But when the imperative is compelling enough many things become possible, even if leaving perhaps some room for improvement. I did learn about the organ to write the original; I am learning about brass bands now. Brass bands are a strong tradition in the Northeast of England; it makes every sense for A Northumbrian Anthem to be heard through this medium. The keen ear (does anyone listen with that kind of attention these days?) may spot other differences, too. I may have to go back to the organ version and update it accordingly.

You have driven me from you in the fiercest imaginable way, Northumbria. And yet, I am still in you, and you in me. I cannot conceive of life without your lights and your shadows, your frosts and your warmths, your sounds and your stills. They are in my every day and my every night. They are in the cycle of time as I know it. May God bless you. I certainly do.


31 December 2019

I know it was not a dream, anymore than life is

Just as we exit 2019 I have a little something to add. 

In connection with the previous post Dreamed lake? Dreamed river?, we now have a live recording of Ve'ulai to listen to. In the unexplained absence of the recording engineer, my friends in Canaria had to make a homemade recording. Not the best sound, but a lot better than a computer demo. The performance itself is expressive, tasteful and lovingly prepared. Thank you, Canarias!



28 November 2019

Faraway cats, home cats


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In my remote location – a temporary one, I hasten to add – I find myself, as I did during my recent stint in Fenham, in frequent interaction with the local feline population. In this town cats lurk in unexpected places, and it is almost always they who are sitting there in the place I come to, looking bored or vexed, as if the wait had been long and as if it had been my fault for taking so long.

Last night there were three sitting atop a wall and one down on the pavement. As I approached the spot, one jumped down from the wall. Naturally I could do no less than bend down and stroke him. Before I knew, all four were around me. The only touchy-feely one was the one I was stroking, a tabby who purred and walked around my leg like a self-appointed spokescat for the rest. The others hovered, not looking at me but making it clear that this was our meeting.



Eventually I had to move on. But the cats would have none of it. The spokescat got between my legs with such persistence that once he got himself kicked by one of my walking steps. All four were coming with me, some in front, some alongside. This was flattering, but also worrying, all the more so as I approached an avenue with heavy traffic. How was I going to stop them crossing with me?

Fortunately I had been flattering myself. They were only keeping me company as far as their own place. The last building before the corner was some kind of workshop or disused car park. It had a metal gate, quite solid, but with a gap underneath, high enough for cats to pass. One by one my four companions went under the gate and out of sight. Quite a relief.

This calls to mind another memorable interaction I experienced with a cohort of four cats. It was on the eve of the trip to Romania for my honorary doctorate, in May 2018; K was away for work. I had dropped the children off at the house of a relative who was to look after them for a day or two. For one night I found myself in the unusual situation of being alone in the riverside enclave.

The four surviving cats – Tiger had passed away five months earlier – were no fools. they knew something was afoot. I was not aware of any of them seeing me pack a suitcase, but somehow they had caught wind of what was happening. They had more water and more prey to hunt than they could wish for, and the hunting skills of seasoned predators. But that didn’t mean they liked the prospect of being left without human company.

When, late at night, the time came for the Bouvier’s last walk – I was due to drop him at kennels in the morning, on my way to the airport – an eerie sight greeted me outside: the moon was out and the four cats were assembled, sitting in quite solemn postures, all looking at me intently. They cut four totemic figures, casting long shadows on the grass. I don’t remember them being particularly upset – they did know how to express concern when they wanted to. They seemed, how can I put it, serenely reproachful. Disappointed, even. And, not meaning to shed retrospective light from later events, I think the cats were showing me an awareness of the fragility of life. We were the closest of friends, yet there we were, about to say goodbye for an unspecified time. Cats have no watch and no calendar, and a detailed explanation from me as to K’s imminent return would have meant little to them. For them, regardless of any wordy explanations, an unwonted absence was a threat; something that should not be happening.  




10 October 2019

Dreamed lake? Dreamed river?


And here is the famous Ve’ulai.

It is a poem written by Rachel (1890-1931).

Also known as Rachel Blaustein, or Rachel Bluwstein, Rachel is often referred to as the national poet of Israel, even though she was born in Russia and technically she never set foot in Israel, since, although she emigrated to Palestine, she died there well before Israel’s foundation in 1948.

She wrote her early works in Russian. She grew up speaking Yiddish. The works of her maturity – if one can use this word about somebody who died at forty – are in Hebrew. She knew hardship, rejection and illness.

Rachel’s poetry records the life of hard work and idealism of the early Zionists in Palestine. It also deals with her own sense of displacement, loss and unfulfilled dreams. Although she deals with some of the deepest questions of life and death, those who know her and her language tell us that she uses simple, conversational Hebrew.

Lake Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee – features recurrently in Rachel’s work. She loved it. She asked to be buried near it  in a poem, as a matter of fact: If fate decrees. Upon her death, her friends and followers complied with her wishes.

I discovered Rachel before I turned twenty and fell in love with her poetry, first in Spanish translations. I set three of her poems for choir in 1976.

Why am I saying all this here and not, for example, in my composer’s blog? Read on.

I have been keenly aware of Rachel and her work lately. Some aspects of her life make her a sympathetic companion to think of. In particular, Rachel’s best-known poem, Ve’ulai, has been haunting me in the context of thinking about my much longed-for Redesdale home.

Although I have not been assiduous, I have written a fair amount in this blog about life by the Rede. Rachel uses many fewer words, but she expresses better the kind of feeling I have struggled to convey.

Ve’ulai is not one of the poems I set in 1976; that would have been redundant, since there was already a beautiful setting of it by Yehuda Sharet. I wrote an arrangement of Sharet's song in 1983 and a reconstruction of that arrangement this year – just completed. Another humble homage to Rachel, and another way to say “I love you” to the place and the people I think of so obsessively.

In more than one way, the land of my memories and dreams has rejected me. Even though recent developments would suggest that I may not be setting foot on that blessed place again, I find that impossible to accept.

There is no guessing how things will stand by the time I die. In any case – since I am, almost literally, borrowing a leaf out of Rachel's book – I want to say that, "if fate decrees" that I should stay away, when I die I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered into the river Rede. Ideally from the spot of the riverside fires of yore, by the rock where my children sat and played. 



If the house's occupants at that time object, then from the Rede Bridge, which is a public place. 



I will leave no tangible trace that may inconvenience anybody. I will pass, like the river. But first I will have returned, even if only for an instant. The prospect of that eventual return will reassure me, for the remainder of my days on this world, that all that life, all that love and all that work by the Rede were not just a dream. 

Or, as Rachel puts it:

If fate decrees
that I should live far from your space
- I shall return, Kinneret, 
to lie in your resting place!


Ve'ulai (And Maybe) 
a poem by Rachel

And maybe these things never happened?
And maybe I never rose at dawn to the garden
to work it by the sweat of my brow?
And never on long and blazing days of harvest
atop a cart full of sheaves
did I raise my voice in song?

Did I never cleanse myself in the calm azure
and innocence of my Kinneret?
Oh my Kinneret! Did you exist?
Or did I dream a dream?