I joined a colleague for a Friday night out at a club – Soul Train. More of an evening club than a nightclub, really, since they opened at 19:00 and closed at 22:00. An after work disco, I guess.

The photo shows the official photographer at the club. We took photos of each other.

The whole thing was kind of fun but oh my god the sound level. If this is what other people regularly subject their ears to, it’s a wonder that they are not all deaf. I put in earplugs (which I always have in my handbag) the moment I got there – had it not been for those, I would have lasted a few minutes, tops.

I do not understand the point of turning up the volume to 11. Yes, loud music sounds better and is more danceable than quiet music, but only up to a point. At this volume and probably with cheapish speakers to boot, the music just sounds atrocious, with distortion and crackling bass. You cannot speak to your friends; you cannot even order a drink without yelling. Where is the fun in that?

Today we went to a concert with Helen Sjöholm and Magnus Carlson, and Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester. They sang pop songs, mostly older ones, mostly moody and melancholy – Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, David Bowie etc.

Helen Sjöholm is one of my favourite Swedish artists – I love her voice and the way she sings. I had no idea who Magnus Carlson was (turns out he is quite well known) but Helen Sjöholm on her own would be enough for me.

The concert was nice, but no more than that. I had hoped for something better. I didn’t think the songs they performed really let her shine – the programme seemed to consist of songs that they liked, and that the audience would like, rather than songs that suited her voice and style best. I came there to listen to Helen Sjöholm, but got more enjoyment out of listening to Magnus Carlson.

And, like almost all concerts, the sound was too loud and unbalanced in my opinion.

I understand that most singers need amplification. But a symphonic orchestra should be able to fill a concert hall with sound without any amplification. Now Adrian was holding his hands over his ears and complaining the music was too loud, and I had to agree. It was not quite loud enough to hurt my ears, but definitely louder than I had expected. It had truly never crossed my mind that we would need to bring hearing protectors to a concert with a symphonic orchestra.

Adrian likes music and I had hoped he might actually enjoy this concert. Perhaps not as much as Eric and I, but some. He didn’t get a chance because he was too busy covering his ears.

I also wish the sound technicians prioritized the singers more. The song and the singer’s voice is what it is all about, to me. I want the song to soar, and the orchestra to back and accompany it. Most concerts amplify them to about equal “weight”.

If I was filthy rich and had nothing better to do with my money, I would pay for private concerts with my favourite singers – sound engineered to fit my taste and not to the needs of people with dull or damaged hearing!

This is Ramy Essam at Best of Sweden, a concert with five singers who are famous in their countries of origin but effectively unknown in Sweden. They were all unknown to me.

I am trying to get back into the habit of experiencing culture other than literature: going to the theatre and cinema, concerts and exhibitions. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with Eric, sometimes with the kids, sometimes all of us together.

This was a pleasant evening. The music was maybe not the most exciting but good enough, and really varied: from Eritrean swinging 1960s rock to Egyptian hard rock. It all had a nice undercurrent of freedom, peace, acceptance and love (as in loving thy neighbour). All of these singers live in Sweden not because they are globetrotters or adventurers, but because they could not live in their country of birth. This naturally coloured their performances and lent them common themes.

A similar theme was inherent in the whole idea of this concert, which was a celebration of people with different roots and what they have to offer Sweden. Not made explicit too obviously, but still very obvious to all who were there.

Sunday night I went to see and hear Leonard Cohen live at Globen. My first concert in over 3 years. I came home with mixed impressions.

On the plus side, Cohen is in great shape despite his age and he sounds as good live as he does on any of his albums – and he really gave all he had. (As he said himself, this might be the last time he is here.) Over 3 hours on stage at the age of 76 is quite impressive. It was nice to see him live, and to spend several hours just listening to music, which is not something I do often nowadays. And the sound was good, relatively well balanced between vocals and backing music, and not too loud.

On the minus side, Globen just isn’t a good venue for a concert (except for loud rock music). It’s a huge hall with seats almost all the way around. All music is piped through a bunch of large loudspeakers, which means there is, effectively, no stereo sound. The sound will inevitably be somewhat flat and come from a point in front of you.

Another slight minus was the lighting. As with the sound, the visuals are all delivered to you via screens. (From our seats I could just about identify Leonard Cohen on the scene, but not see much more.) In this case the scene was too dimly lit, so often half of whatever was shown on screen was in a dark shadow.

There is a Swedish children’s song about a spider. It goes like this:

Imse vimse spindel klättrar upp för trå’n.
Ned faller regnet, spolar spindeln bort.
Upp stiger solen, torkar bort allt regn,
Imse vimse spindel klättrar upp igen.

It never made sense to me as a song. It doesn’t rhyme, for starters. It seems to describe a rather random sequence of events. Why would the rain wash the spider away from its thread? And what the heck is “imse vimse”, anyway? I wondered for years why anyone who sets out to write a children’s song would come up with such a weak effort.

Then one day I heard it in English. Suddenly it all said click.

The eensy weensy spider crawled up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain,
And the eensy weensy spider climbed up the spout again.

The lyrics rhyme! And they make sense! Instead of climbing up a thread, the spider really crawls up a water spout – and of course when it rains there’s lots of water in a water spout, which would flush the spider out. Instead of the meaningless “imse vimse” the spider is a perfectly sensible “eensy weensy” spider (or “itsy bitsy” if it’s an American spider). And the “Swedish” song is really a bad translation of an English one.

Interestingly, though, even the English version seems to be degrading and slowly slipping towards meaninglessness. I’ve heard the first words being pronounced more like “incy wincy”, and indeed Google finds 49,800 hits for “incy wincy spider” but only 47,600 hits for “eensy weensy spider”. (The American version “itsy bitsy spider” gets 465,000 hits.)

I have a lullaby. Exactly one. It helps her calm down when she is sleepy and tired, and knows that she is tired (so that she is no longer trying to crawl all over the bed) but still isn’t quite comfortable just going quietly to sleep. I don’t know whether it’s just the fact that I sing, or because it is a tune she is used to, or perhaps because it is a good lullaby – simple and repetitive melody, lots of humming mmm sounds etc.

The song is a very well-known one that every Estonian will recognise: Karumõmmi unelaul. It is about a little bear (karumõmm) who cannot sleep, because there is no one to sing for him. A honeybee (mesimumm) flies by and tells the bear to sing to himself. Bears say mõmm-mõmm in Estonian, and bees go summ-summ.

I have been singing it to Ingrid for many months. By now I know it so well that I can sing it almost unconsciously, even while I am half asleep. Sometimes I come to the end of one of the phrases (“mõmm-mõmm, mõmm-mõmm, something karujõmm”) and then I realise I don’t know which one it is, because I have sung the lyrics without any thought. I suspect that sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’ve looped the first verse several times before going on to the next one. (Nowadays I rarely need it in the middle of the night, but I used to use it more often some months ago.)

Unlike the bear, Ingrid is not yet listening to suggestions that she might sing to herself. However I am quite impressed that she is now willing to lie quietly while I sing to her, given how distant this possibility seemed 9–10 months ago.

This summer has been relatively culture-poor for us. No particularly interesting theatre or musical events in London have caught our attention, and we’ve both been working too much to see any spontaneous, unplanned culture.

Looking forward, now that summer is over, all sorts of interesting events are cropping up. But now we’re not really sure whether it will be possible for us to get out at all, so we’re not booking anything.

Between these two lulls, we managed to get in one excellent evening of dance to music by Steve Reich.

Part 1

The first of the three parts was set to Piano Phase and Violin Phase. In both of these a short phrase of music is played over and over again by two musicians (pianists or violinists). They start out in phase. Then one of them speeds up marginally so they get out of phase, and slows down again when he is exactly one beat ahead of the other. They repeat that until they’ve gone full circle and are in phase again. Wikipedia’s article on Piano Phase explains it in more detail.

The full description actually sounds boring and technical to me – an experiment, a gimmick, “see how clever I can be” – but the music was anything but. It was absolutely mesmerising. The melody itself was beautiful in its utter simplicity, and even though this was taped music, it sounded very good through the Barbican’s sound system. I imagine it must be rather challenging to play, so live performances of this are probably rare. The phasing in/out kept a constant subtle tension, so despite the simplicity the music never got boring. (While listening I didn’t actually realise fully what they were doing – I just heard the repeating music and shifting in/out of phase.)

Violin Phase was similar in setup, but because the rhythm wasn’t as distinct, I felt it lost some of that magic.

The dance element matched the music. Two dancers performed a simple, short sequence of movements over and over again, shifting in and out of phase with each other. The two dancers look almost identical, and are far back on the stage so details aren’t visible. Instead the focus is on the shape of the movements – pendulum-like with long arm swings and rhythmical 180-degree turns – and the phase, the similarity. Two strong lights cast two shadows of each of them, and the ones in the middle overlap, so the dancers melt into one. Like the music, this was almost hypnotic.

Part 2

Part 2 also consisted of two pieces of music – Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes, a medieval polyphonic piece for four singers, followed by Reich’s Proverb for five singers plus vibraphones and electric organs. Both are, again, very minimalistic, and beautiful in their simplicity. They are far less technical than the Phases, and really got their strength from bringing out the best from human voices: clear, graceful, melodious. (Performed live by Theatre of Voices.) Reminded me of Tehillim, which I saw/heard a year ago or so, and which I also loved a lot.

The dance part by Richard Alston Dance Company, on the other hand, was completely uninteresting to me. It didn’t suit the music in style or temperament, and wasn’t particularly interesting on its own, either. I found it a distraction, and simply closed my eyes to shut them out. Therefore I don’t really have much more to say about that.

Part 3

The last part was Variations for Vibes, Pianos & Strings. Nice enough, but not as interesting or engrossing as the previous two parts – relatively tame and neutral compared to his best pieces.

Yet this part was most popular with the rest of the audience. I guess that was mostly due to the dance, performed by three very vigourous male dancers (Akram Khan Dance Company). It had some interesting aspects. For example, even when the three were doing the same thing, they retained quite individual styles, reflecting their different backgrounds (one African, one Middle Eastern, one Asian). But I found the choreography itself a bit simplistic. Much of it was very close to the music, almost acting it out: long sweeps of violins were accompanied by long arm sweeps, etc. At times the dancers were mock-conducting the orchestra in the way a child would: not providing direction but following the music exactly. It was the kind of choreography that might emerge if a very talented someone, with no education or experience in choreography, tried to just dance to the music. I guess this immediacy and closeness to the music may have been what the audience liked about it.

The more I hear of Steve Reich’s music, the more I like it. And every time I run into Theatre of Voices, I like what they do. Both deserve more of my attention, I think.

This was a concert that Eric bought tickets to, and I would join him mostly because… well, why not?… just because he was going. In the end, Eric got sent off to Manchester for the week, and I went on my own.

They turned out to be talented musicians, but the music (much of it from their latest CD “Day is Done”) was not really to my taste. It was the sort of refined and elegant jazz that makes experts nod knowingly at each other and comment on how skilled the bassist is. And that may be entirely true, but isn’t enough to carry a whole concert, unless you’re one of those experts, which I am not. The kind of jazz where every song sounds much like every other song, at least to an untrained ear. They could have played any one of them again, and I wouldn’t have been able to say whether I had already heard it or not. (Even reviewers at The Guardian who gave it 4 stars described it as “absentmindedly drifting”.) I like music to have some sense direction, not just aimlessly wandering improvisation.

A few of the songs had more character, more groove and melody. Their rendition of “The very thought of you” was quite nice. But most of it was pleasant but rather boring, in my opinion.

Dave Brubeck’s jazz quartet (4 white-haired old men) and the London Symphony Orchestra. Pleasant enough to listen to, and all well played, but ultimately just not very interesting. I was on the verge of falling asleep during the second half of the concert.

I don’t understand the point of adding a symphony orchestra to a jazz band… It took away most of the raw energy of jazz and smoothed it out to mellow “easy listening” music. And it feels like a bit of an insult to the orchestra. If you’ve got 25 violins, it’s a waste to have them all play the exact same (and rather simple) score – which is also the same as the score for the trombones and the cellos.

The only piece where the orchestra sounded really good was one that had originally been written for symphony orchestra & jazz band.
And the only piece that felt really alive was the encore, totally free from symphony. At least it ended well!