Saturday, 27 February 2010

Sorry, Belgium

I'm really, really sorry. The ridiculous, posturing Nigel Farage used his status as an MEP last week to launch a tirade of abuse at the EU President, Mr van Rompuy - and at Belgium generally.

I just hope Belgians (whether Fleming or Walloon - but that's a distinction Mr Farage probably doesn't grasp) realise that this view of Belgium is not commonly shared in England.

Coming from Norwich, which in the 15th century was part of a cosmopolitan northern European trading network and in the 16th century accepted a large number of immigrants from the Spanish Netherlands, I feel Belgium is in some ways part of my own culture - the paths of Holland, Belgium and Norfolk have always been linked.

And if Belgium is a 'non-country' because it was for years colonised byv the Spanish, that presumably means India is a non-country - and so is the United States. Heck, the States belonged to three separate owners - France, Britain and Spain - how much more of a non-country can you get?

So: what did the Belgians ever do for us?

  • Frites. The humble chip, in Belgian hands, becomes a gastronomic delight, with a choice of mayonnaise or up to twenty different sauces. For a full meal, just add mussels - moules frites is one of the great classic dishes of the world.

  • Beer. While it's possible to spend your time in Belgium drinking Stella or Jupiler, head for the good beer houses to explore the artisanal traditions of lambic, oud bruin, and saison beers. I particularly like my lambics - beers like Rodenbach Grand Cru and Duchesse de Bourgogne have a sweet-and-sour character and strong flavour that makes them rival a really good pint of porter in my affections.

  • Chocolate. Now I have to tread carefully here because of my French partner who will no doubt tell me that the best chocolate in the world is French. But the Belgians really don't do chocolate badly.

  • Speculoos. Snappy crackly little ginger biscuits with your coffee.

  • Tintin, the boy reporter. I can imagine the world without Tintin - but I can't imagine it without Captain Haddock or Madame Castafiore, or Snowy the little dog (Milou, in French). HergĂ©'s Tintin has afforded generations of children, and adults, immense delight. Belgium is still one of those nations where le BD - bande dessinĂ©e, comic, graphic novel - is treated seriously; it has a comics museum, even. And if you haven't discovered the amazingly strange comics, fantastic architectures and perverse worldview of Schuiten & Peeters, you must - Piranesi's prisons updated to the 21st century.

  • Simenon's Maigret, a brooding, intuitive detective who knocks the faux-Belge Poirot into a cocked hat. Excellent, moody books. As for the crimes, they're a bit darker than you find in Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers .

  • Marvellous art nouveau architecture - Brussels is one of the best places in the world to see it. You can mix great Belgian beer with art noov if you visit the Mort Subite brasserie - drink your faro and see yourself reflected into infinity in the huge mirrors.

  • Rubens - a great baroque artist, perhaps the greatest working north of the Alps. Mr Farage really ought to be told that Britain owes this great Belgian painter a debt of thanks for creating the paintings of the Banqueting House in Whitehall - not far from the Houses of Parliament. (Van Dyck, another Belgian, pretty much created the seventeenth-century English portrait school - as well as the preferred royal iconography of Charles I.)

  • Gothic Belgium - you will never see a greater Gothic city than Bruges, with its chivalric culture, its canals, its great churches, its paintings, the quiet alleyways where ivy and wisteria grow, the busy market square, the little fish market under tall trees. If Belgium had only given us Bruges, and nothing else, it would still be memorable.

  • Mr van Rompuy. A politician who writes haiku; and in the proper Japanese tradition, writes them all the time (the ones on his website are this year's; so far, a good handful).  My Flemish isn't good enough to say how good they are, but what I have managed to read, I liked. Maybe what Mr Farage needs is to go off and sit in a Zen garden for a while, and learn to write haiku instead of making speeches.

So thank you, Belgium. An odd country, for sure, but not a 'non-country' by any means.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Cries of the heart

While I was trying to find the clip for Gibbons's 'Cries of London' I found the youtube channel for 'I Fagiolini', a fine group of singers who specialise in Renaissance music.

Their 'Tallis in Wonderland' takes the usual mellifluous world of chordal harmony, the cathedral acoustic which drains the voices of humanity and roughness and creates a sound with the distance and enchantment of singing bowls, and it busts it apart.

This is Renaissance music sung for the passion. Sung for the words, which are somehow things that get forgotten in the big cathedral acoustic. It's Renaissance music close up and personal.

Doubly close up because it uses speakers throughout the audience to distribute the sound. Nothing distanced.

Dynamic music. The singers move, act, speak. They display the characters of the melodic lines and the words they're singing.

Now, would I want to live with this all the time? Maybe not. But when I go back to some of my recordings of Tallis sung in that nice English way, everything absolutely right and exactly in tune with the soaring boy trebles and the chunky chords, and no suspicion at all that Tallis was actually setting (the shock of it!) words that might mean something... I find it rather lacking.

Another revolutionary revision: Allegri's Miserere. I learned to love this piece of music when I was at King's; for me, the Nine Lessons and Carols is kitsch, it's Ash Wednesday that is the musical highlight of the liturgical year. Monumental, a fauxbourdon that's left the ground and found wings, a marvellous mixture of block chord solidity and swooping descant.

Then I discovered A Sei Voci's remix, with baroque ornamentation. You can only do this with a talented singer, of course - with a singer well trained enough to feel their way through the harmonies, to trace a staggering, drunken, swirling path around the notes, creating a gossamer of fleeting suspensions and discords, tiny messe di voce, mordents and apoggiature. Not for boys. (The Sistine castrati had trained for years in the art of ornamentation, of course.)

Here it is without the ornaments.

On a personal note, I've found ornamentation is a never failing delight for the singer. I particularly love singing Handel; for some reason, his melodic patterns seem wired into me, in a way that Vivaldi's or Bach's aren't. (The only other composer I have that deeply intimate relationship with is Reynaldo Hahn.)

But what's purely lovely in singing Handel is the room he gives you for ornamentation. Cadenzas, simple descending cadences that just need to be ornamented, the da capo of an aria as a ground for experimentation, improvisation, spontaneity.

If you have any tendency to control freakery, to a concern with  'the right notes', to freezing up your emotional response to the music, the da capo aria will sort you out. Suddenly you're free, soaring with the wings of pure risk. You know how to do that cadenza, you've sort of worked out a way of approaching it, you know where you started and what pitch you need to find at the end - but you let your voice go, and suddenly it's all a dare, you've let go, hang-gliding way above the figured bass in pure freedom.

And that, for a singer, is sublime.

Street cries

'Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r! Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r!'



This was Meknes bus station. As we approached, the tongues of the ticket salesmen were loosened; like gaudy parrots in their football shirts, two of them seemed to be shouting in a repetitive duet. We could hardly hear the murmur of 'Marrakesh, marrakesh' in the background, coming from the old man in the brown jellaba.

I used to read about the street cries of London without really understanding. 'Who'll buy my sweet lavender'... It didn't ring true. Now I've heard the noise of a Moroccan bus station, I understand what London must have been like in the seventeenth or eighteenth century - a cacophony of shouting, of rhythm, of words yammered out or repeated like the blows of a club.

Orlando Gibbons's 'Cries of London' sounds quaint now, but I wonder if in its day it didn't have the shock value of, say, Stockhausen's Stimmung.

Then the other day I was at Lynn Mart - an amazing event, a full scale funfair in the Tuesday Market Place, overlooked by fine Georgian houses and inns - and I realised that the fairground is the one place street cries can still be heard. Even though some of them - 'Are you rea-dyyy?' and 'Are you brave enough for the Extr-e-e-e-e-me?' - are now recorded in sepulchral furry tones and played on speakers, rather than shouted as they might have been twenty years ago by the barkers.

Street traders still sometimes have a good line in patter. The guy at Brick Lane who used to advise 'Ladies, get a new tool for yer husband!' But it's patter - it's a spiel - not really the same thing as the street cry with its formal, ritual conversion of the word into a thing, a melodic or rhythmic tag.

For days after Meknes, Jacques and I would start up like the two parrot-bus-men; 'Agadir-agadir-agadir', 'Fas-fas-fas-fas' - and then burst out laughing. No one else ever got the joke.