Friday, 31 March 2017

The pencil-sharpenings of journalism

Last week I was reminded of my intense dislike of rolling news (although to call it news is an unmerited compliment: EVOLVING RUMOUR might be nearer the mark). During the BBC's ravings, the phrase the pencil-sharpenings of journalism occurred to me (building on the first draught of history trope. Pencil sharpenings look like a mess, but one made of discrete chunks of apparently innocuous bits; at a first glance, one doesn't notice the dark bits at the end of each shaving. But the shavings are good for nothing; they just indicate that something, involving a pencil, has happened. It's not clear from the shavings even if the effort of sharpening worked. There's no telling what the sharpened pencil, if it was sharp in the end, was used for.

At Westminster on that day, something happened. What it was is beginning to become clear. I imagine in a month or two we'll have a better idea.
This reminded me of the afternoon of 11 September 2001. I was working in an open-plan office, recovering from the Y2K jollities.
<rant flame="low-mid">
Which reminds me of all the smart a*s (=ALECS, of course) who say things like "Remember all that Millennium Bug nonsense. The IT sales people used it as an excuse to sell a load of new kit. And what happened? Nothing! Not a thing, except that we all have to fill in 4-digit dates. I mean who needs to scroll down through dozens of 21st century dates when they're opening a new bank account, say?.... Er... maybe that's not the best of examples."

Well no, you bozo, I think. Nothing happened, not a thing, because for the last two or three years of the 20th century IT engineers were busy making sure it didn't.
A colleague was following rolling news on one of his many devices (he was the early adopter's early adopter – adoptio praecox was his thing, perhaps). A reporter (possibly from the BBC, though they're not by any means the worst ...
<digression type="mitigation">
In a recent Media Show [correction, Feedback] a  caller compared the BBC's coverage with Channel 4's. He referred to a scoop the BBC had "missed". The presenter came back with what to me – and to Humpty Dumpty, probably – seemed like a knock-down argument: the "scoop" was a mistake.

But the complainant was not remotely disturbed: the BBC's job, it seemed, was not only to jump on any passing bandwagon, however unroadworthy, but preferably to start its own: Nation shall speak cr@p unto nation.
...)  passed on the "news" that there had been several casualties and AT LEAST A DOZEN deaths.
So, as far as I'm concerned, rolling news can just keep rolling. It seems to me interesting that – among the many possible "first uses" investigated in that Slate piece – one, Phil Graham's (not the Ur-text, it turns out), came from a speech addressed to correspondents for a weekly. Let us not get our fingertips dirty with the pencil-sharpenings.

But I must go and learn some words, ready for Sunday's Johannes-Passion. (That story's more than two millennia old, and still people are arguing about what really happened!)


Update: 2017. – Correction and typo-fix

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Johannes-Passion, Take N

("Take N", because I've had the good fortune to sing it several times.)

As I have said before, more than once, when talking about music:

(This is an open goal for musicologists – my theoretical knowledge of music is minimal. Please comment if this needs another update.)
When I first discussed Bach's St John Passion here I recalled many hours standing listening to the Passion story during mass;  it was standing room only in churches around Easter  (in the One True Chorch, that is):
... on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday ([ed. there were] dramatized readings on that day, to the extent of having separate voices for the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter et al., but without Bach's extraordinary music).
Later in the same post I mentioned this pelagic pun:
from Rick Marschall's biography, p. 99 
[I imagine the English word 'beck' – now for the most part reserved for dialects and crossword puzzles–is related.]
Beethoven's pun ...


I am reminded of a venial sin of mine, which I feel the need to confess. At a quiz held by my choir a few years ago, this pun was background to a question about the meaning of Bach. At the time, I didn't know; but I guessed that there might be some link between the consonants in the two languages (German and English). I scrawled my guess: book. My reputation as someone who sometimes knows stuff about language may have influenced the marker on the neighbouring table  – assuming that I'd got it right because it was the sort of thing I get right,

The situation was quite competitive, and I accepted the ill-gotten point. (Stupid really. We didn't win – divine retribution, no doubt.)

...came to mind as I listened to the recit before Peter's Ach, mein Sinn, with its excruciating chromatic keening – a mixture of grief, fear, and self-pity. Not long afterwards the dramatic writing is no less oceanic when the veil of the Temple is rent 'from top to bottom' [cascade of  little black notes] and 'the earth did quake' [another three bars of frenetic black notes], until an uneasy peace is restored when 'many bodies of saints arose'
(Ed: My memory here was at fault. Ach mein Sinn isn't sung by Peter; it's a reflection sung by an unnamed tenor after Peter's denial.)

Anyway, the St John Passion is uppermost in my mind at the moment, because of my choir's forthcoming concert (oo-er, on Sunday week):


Don't miss it.

Update 2017. – Added PS


In my subject line, both here and on the occasion of my Cambridge rendition , I said Johannes-Passion. This isn't because of snobbery (though elitism does come into it – so bite me, as I believe they say in some parts of the world). It's because the German is part of the music.

There are, in the piece, two choruses with more-or-less identical settings. But what is matched is not just the notes. In one the mocking words are

Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüden König!

In the other, the corresponding words are

Schreibe nicht der Jüden König!

The last two words are (trivially, of course) a perfect match, but consider the vowel sounds in the first three syllables: two are identical (Sei/schrei-, ge-/-be) and the third is similar: nicht has a front vowel and grüßet has a vowel that, though not strictly a front vowel, is fronted (the lips are forward); the same applies to König. All the stressed vowels are either front, or fronted,  or in the case of the first diphthong the tongue position is moving forwards (from [a] to [ɪ])

The first version, which I sang (in  English) with a previous choir about 30 years ago, had "Write thou not..." for Schreibe nicht... The first syllable is a close match; not so the others. My present edition has both German and English and goes for a strangled and outlandish version: "Write Him not as our king of the Jews"; how glad I am that we're not singing that... :-)

There's more to be said, but tempus is fugendum (or whatever). My point is that the original language adds to the drama of the original, forcing facial antics in the singers to indicate mockery/anger/hatred... as appropriate. And the sounds are part of the musical picture.

Update 2017. – Tiny correction to PS, in bold.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Here we go steadily nuts in May

...Or perhaps it was April.

Last Saturday's Times announced a revival of the National Theatre‘s original(-ish production of Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. At least, I assume it's a revival; the 50th anniversary can't have escaped the notice of the publicity department. I say -ish because the first production of the play under this title took place on the Edinburgh Fringe in the Summer of 1966

The following Spring the play  opened at the Old Vic (because at the time there was no bricks and mortar [or rather slabs and mastic, I suppose] home for the National Theatre). For a few weeks before the opening, the doors were open for Press Previews, at reduced prices – reduced enough for a school trip.

The school minibus accommodated about fifteen passengers. Priority bookings went to the VIth form, and any seats left were offered to the years below. At the time I was in the fourth year (which, in new money, is Year 10), so it was a rare treat for the likes of us to be given the chance. But in the March or early April of 1967 I had such a chance. Some of us were self-assured enough to be amused by the bar-room talk at the interval, with pseuds ....
<explanatory_note type="suspected neologism">
(some of us read Private Eye, home of the Pseuds Corner column).

Until writing this I assumed that the Eye had created the word. But it  turns out that it has been around since the turn of the 18th century, peaking in 1930. Then there was a lesser peak in 1953, 8 years before Private Eye was founded. The second of these mini-peaks, which the Eye might claim some credit for, was in 1967 – the year of my visit. So the word was popular at the time;  just not as popular as I once supposed (or for the reasons I imagined):
Frequency graph from this Collins site
(though the graph is generated from scratch when your browser loads the page,
so you may want to have a cup of tea while you wait)

... who, having no reviews to bone up on, didn't know what to think). Some of us, though. were too shocked at the prices (4/6 for a bottle of Double Diamond! [bought for us by the older boys while Mr Crawford's back was turned]).

Another visit, one that I didn't go on, was to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun – also at the Old Vic. But I did witness its fruits, as it became the school play (once in my time, but with many revivals since*).

When, a few years later, I started to learn Spanish, I smugly laughed at the pronunciation of Pizarro with a [ts]. Though on reflection my school play's pronunciation no doubt mimicked that of the National Theatre; and they, very probably, had a dialogue coach who had done their homework.

In my loft there may well be a moldering copy of  "The De-voicing of Mediaeval Sibilants", mentioned in a similarly Latin-American context here. A written z, which had in Old Castilian been pronounced [dz], came to be pronounced [ts]. I don't know how long this process took, or when the subsequent progression to [Ѳ] heard in some parts of mainland Spain (and on the lips of learners – of whom, at the time of the aforementioned smugness, I was one) started. But with my usual magnanimity I'm prepared to give that National Theatre dialogue coach the benefit of the doubt; besides, as Pizarro's men were adventurers, it's reasonable to imagine that they were early-adopters of the linguistic trend.

Thassall – I must try to catch the last of this glorious weather.


* Many years later, a contemporary of mine (and the other half – though much the more vocal half – of The Simon and Garfunkel of North Pinner), who had taken the leading part of Pizarro in 1969, visited the old school unexpectedly and unannounced. One of the directors of the play was still there. And when Albert interrupted his class he said to the boys "This is the original Pizarro".

This is a sample of the duo's work – not precisely contemporary, but from  1969.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Out of the mouths of babes and ducklings

Some time ago, here,  I wrote this:
To learn to speak a foreign language, we must regress to our infancy and learn to make speech noises the way a baby does. Even infancy is a bit late*; there is evidence that growing familiarity with speech sound starts in the womb. Here is just one such study).

* To quote from a recent article:

"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany.
I've just come across a much more recent source via this NY Times article .  The immediately relevant issue (language-acquisition in the womb) is summed up here:
In the latest study, published in January in Royal Society Open Science, Jiyoun Choi, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands... and her colleagues looked at Dutch-speaking adults, some of whom had been adopted from Korea, but none of whom spoke Korean. The researchers found that people born in Korea and adopted as babies or toddlers by Dutch families were able to learn to make Korean sounds significantly better than the Dutch-speaking controls who had been born into Dutch families.

It was especially interesting that this effect held not only for those who had been adopted after the age of 17 months, when they would have been saying some words, but also for those adopted at under 6 months. In other words, the language heard before birth and in the first months of life had affected both sound perception and sound production, even though the change of language environment happened before the children started making those sounds themselves.

This is impressive, though I‘m not sure the NY Times‘s last sentence (in that excerpt) is entirely justified: "under 6  months" is not the same as "before birth"; and how could they possibly test anything to do with sound production...? (That's a rather immature question: I need to read the original paper – although the title

Early development of abstract language knowledge...

doesn't inspire confidence. The continuation does though:

...: evidence from perception–production transfer of birth-language memory

... is more  promising though.)
During last Saturday's Purcell concert – which, sadly, many of you missed – I was struck by two pre-echoes of our next (perhaps the little MD knows something about it, as  veterans of the original Bill and Ben series might think
<digression type="cultural background">
Bill and Ben were flower-pot-men (don't ask – it was a children's TV programme in the days when [in the UK] the BBC's Watch with Mother was more-or-less the only source of children's TV) . They caused various sorts of mild mayhem; and the narrator often finished with the words "... and I think the Little House knows something about it").
         Where was I...? Oh yes, pre-echoes:
  • The trumpets in the canzona in the overture to Come ye sons of art play a phrase remarkably similar to this tune from a very different context (J. S. Bach's St John Passion):
  • The words "Haste, haste to town" in Dido and Aeneas, which are similar in both sense and melody to this passage::
Enough. Onward and upward: next on the agenda (perhaps that should be canenda –  from Latin cano [="I sing"]) needs work:

PS Quite incidentally (not a COincidence, it just happened), I wonder if Evan Davies in last week's The Bottom Line knew what he was doing when he produced this glorious mixed metaphor:

Is the white van your bète noire?


Update: 2017. – Added PPS

PPS And here‘s a clue:
  • Switch prison guard‘s allegiance and increase metaphorical pressure. (4, 3, 5)
Update: 2017. – Added PPPS

PPS: On the subject of my last point, I wonder how a white-van man might become an eminence grise. Oh, and that clue: TURN THE SCREW.

Incidentally, for the benefit of anyone expecting sense from my subject lines, ... no, it's gone. There was a reason though.