Monthly Archives: December 2004

The wonderful voice of Oleg Pogudin

The cover of Panikhida Khristal'naya

The cover of Pogudin's album Panikhida Khristal'naya. The image is direct-linked to the relevant page on his website.

In my search for the authors of Dorogoi Dlinnoyu (see last entry) I have listened to scores of different recordings, and discovered that Aleksandr  Vertinskii wrote some of the most beautiful songs, in addition to making Fomin’s song famous.

But the real find of the day, indeed of the year, is the singer Oleg Pogudin whose album of Vertinskii’s songs, Panikhida Khrustal’naya is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in a long time. Pogudin’s voice is warm, clear and soulful, like stroking velvet. He makes each song sound like a masterpiece.

What makes the album even more stunning is the brilliant accompaniment of Igor’ Ur’yash. He’s a fanstastic pianist, and his accompanying is probably the best I’ve ever heard in this genre. If I was Pogudin, I’d want to sign him for life. Both of them can do the ‘caf?’ sound to perfection, but with a subtlety, technique and depth that is breathtaking, and their partnership is so well attuned that they sound like a single voice.

Copyrighting the public domain


When the choreographer Christopher Hampson had to change the music for his piece Canciones four days before the premiere because City Ballet of London couldn’t get permission to use de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españas for a ballet, I was so angry that I fantasized about bringing a case called ‘The People of Spain vs. Publisher X’, or putting the decision to the Spaniards in a referendum.

What vexed me was that these songs were, as the title suggests, based on public domain material. In an absolutely fair world, the ‘folk’ from whom these ‘folksongs’ came should have been party to the decision. Furthermore, if royalties were payable to The Folk for their contribution to the songs, then The Folk would have had a financial interest in the public performance of those songs.

Unlike the de Falla estate (or whoever it was who initiated the refusal), they might have been glad of the few pence owing to them, rather than saying sniffily ‘We don’t want ballet done to our songs!’.

Just when I had calmed down (about five years later) I came across a similar problem with another concert-hall composer and his folk song arrangements. I have been struggling with the morality of the question ever since – can copyright, designed to protect author’s rights, really be so exploitative?

[NB: 26/05/07 – on checking, half these links are dead now – but I’m leaving them in for historical accuracy, and for the sake of those who might want to follow them up]

Then I found this article in the South African Sunday Times from 2000 called ‘Where has all the money gone?‘. The article is mainly about the case of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ from the Lion King (Margo v. Weiss), but along the way, the author mentions the American folk singer Pete Seeger who feels it is wrong for songwriters to claim all the royalties from folk songs, and tries to put the money back somewhere, even if it’s a rather oblique target:

He [Seeger] has directed, for example, that royalties from the version of We Shall Overcome he recorded in 1959, with extra verses he penned, be directed to US trade union benefits – an arrangement that still continues. Elsewhere, he wants royalties from Where Have all the Flowers Gone? sent to a Russian folk-song archive – because he got the idea for the song from the Mikhail Sholokhov novel, And Quiet Flows the Don.

[from SA Sunday Times, 27/08/2000]

I’m glad that someone in Russia is getting some money from Russian ‘folk songs’. Consider how much cash has been made from the 1960s hit Those were the days my friend (Mary Hopkin, 1968), and then ask yourself how much of it found its way to the family of Boris Fomin 1900-1948 who wrote the song on which it was based (called Дорогой длинною, with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii). Anglophone sites talk vaguely and shamelessly about this as a ‘Russian folk song’ or ‘gipsy song’. To anyone except the anglophones, the provenance is clear (see Willy P’s diary on the subject, for example).

The absolute proof is in this recording of Дорогой длинною by Aleksander Vertinskii (track 3), from the wonderful Vertinsky website. [NB: 26/05/07: I’ve updated this link because the Vertinskii site has changed address – but the direct link to the track is yielding a 404 page – but the link just given points to the album tracklisting, and hopefully the site-owners will repair the link soon]. Boris Fomin’s grandson DJ Fomin is alive and well and dj-ing in Moscow and could buy some fantastic new gear with the royalties. The Copyright Term Extension Act put all kinds of Russian music (including the Rite of Spring) back into copyright in the USA, so I wonder how long it will be before the unrepresented Russians like the Fomin estate are able to collect in the way that ‘classical’ composers do?

Another ‘folk’ song which people seem happy to copy and post all over the net without fear of copyright infringement is Poliushko-pole, made famous by the Red Army Choir. Once again, this isn’t a folk song, but was written by Viktor Gusev to music by Lev Knipper in 1934.

More copyright fun…

Happy Christmas


Another year where I’ve been completely hopeless at sending Christmas cards, so here – for the two or three people who read this site – is something just as lovely, a gallery of images from last night’s performance by ENB of Christopher Hampson’s Nutcracker at the Coliseum. Sarah Frater of the Evening Standard seemed to think Gerald Scarfe had run out of inspiration when it came to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s costume, I thought it was rather lovely myself.

It’s been a fantastic year, one way and another, I hope it has for you. Please come back and visit often.

J’accuse: the eurocentricity of eurocentrism


All of the last entry in my weblog brings me on to my next rant: the meaninglessness of ‘eurocentrism’.

The quickest and easiest way to avoid responsible scholarship is to dismiss a subject as ‘Eurocentric’. Study ballet from an anthropological, psychological, feminist or sociological perspective, or smother it with cultural theory, and you can avoid all the things that make it difficult, like music & movement notation, knowledge of the repertoire, texts in multiple languages, or – dare I say it – dancing itself. You can sit in a luxury bath of texts in English, sculpting literary foam into a myriad new forms and subjects, and talking de haut en bas about eurocentricity. Throw in a few references to Indian classical dance, African People’s Dance, a tribe in Papua New Guinea and (for the sake of postmodernity) trance & hiphop, and you’ll look smart and chic, and no-one could call you – heaven forbid – Eurocentric.

But as the example of my pentilingual Prague friend below illustrates, this just wouldn’t pass for scholarship in many European countries; the concept and term ‘Eurocentricity’ is itself an instance of precisely the kind of blinkered generalization that it purports to describe. As Europe expands, the term becomes even more nonsensical. Did all the people who used the word five years ago experience a paradigm shift in May this year, and write cards to their friends saying “Oh by the way, when I say eurocentric from now on, I am now mentally including Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta”?

Or do they, in a kind of post-Engelsian way, view these nations as ‘non-historic‘, places to get a cheap holiday and cheap beer, but not worthy of study, and incapable of contributing to respectable scholarship because they don’t publish in English?

Nationalism and racism
The trouble is, we don’t really have a word that is as immediately pejorative as ‘racist’ when it comes to this kind of thing. In one of the most bizarre pieces of educational writing I’ve ever seen, an unnamed author says

“Sometimes the meaning of words is changed in a racist way. If we then use these words we are ourselves being racist. For example, ‘palaver’ (see Programme 1, ‘Empire’) is an African language word for a meeting. In English this word is often used to describe unnecessary fuss or pointless chatter. It is therefore insulting to African culture.”

From a Channel 4 ‘Activities’ page on Migration

I use the word ‘palaver’ all the time, but until this morning, had no idea that this made me and many of my friends into racists. Channel 4’s ‘educational’ activity sheet, in my view, commits many more crimes against national cultures than me using the word palaver. For one thing, although I’m no expert, I understand that Africa has between 800-1,000 different languages in different language groups, and I would imagine that, as the second-largest continent in the world, ‘African culture’ is not just a blanket-term, but a whole darned king-size duvet of a term, not to mention the fact that ‘culture’ as an abstract phenomenon is a difficult thing to insult.

And what about the word ‘palaver’? Is it really an ‘African language word for “meeting”‘? The etymology in most sources I can find is Latin parabola via Portuguese (with metathesis) palabra, most probably 1735 sailors’ slang for a ‘negotiating with the natives‘. If you want to claim that the word is at all racist, the whole point is that it is not an African language word at all, but a Portuguese one that describes a visitor’s experience of the country.

Johnny Foreigner is still alive and well
Despite the internet, the expansion of Europe, low-cost travel and ‘education, education, education’, this kind of ignorance and generalization in the English speaking world seems to be getting worse. I recently introduced my friend and colleague the dancer Oxana Panchenko to one of my students, a second-generation Ukrainian from Canada who was writing a dissertation on Ukrainian folk dance. Before I’d finished the introduction, the student said to Oxana ‘Where are you from?’.
“From Russia” said Oxana.
“Hang on”, I said, worried that the whole point of the introduction was lost, “I thought you were Ukrainian!”.
She laughed
“Well, yes, I am, but we [i.e. Ukrainians] don’t bother anymore in this country. We just say we’re Russian. Ivan Putrov says the same. People here think that Ukraine is in Russia anyway, so there’s no point”.

The situation is worse for other East Europeans. Many years ago, when the brilliant Croatian dancer Irena Pasarić first danced with ENB, some well-heeled guest with big hair and court-shoes at a reception asked where she was from. When Irena said ‘Croatia’, the other woman’s reply made it clear that she had assumed Irena was an asylum seeker fresh from Sangatte who had gatecrashed the party to steal a few sandwiches in between cleaning jobs. It didn’t occur to her that she might have chosen to come to England, bought her own ticket, or indeed, that the director of the company might have asked her to come because she was a world-class ballerina.

Global schmobal
The view from Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Poland, France, Spain or any other country in Europe is not the same as the view from England or America. How on earth can you talk about something being ‘eurocentric’ if you are unable to read about or experience those perspectives? Is it any more worthy to be ‘global’ in your thinking, when your understanding of non-European culture is as crass and superficial as that demonstrated in the Channel 4 activity sheet above?

It is bad enough that eurocentrism assumes that European or Western values are the same wherever you go from Belfast to Brno. But if eurocentrism, defined by Western academics is “a worldview that believes European or Western values to be superior” then isn’t an abhorrence of eurocentrism itself a eurocentric concept, and therefore a ridiculous case of circular reasoning?

Presumably, too, as I am a European, the views I have expressed above are also Eurocentric. I would welcome comments by non-Europeans which will help me to overcome this problem.

Google, Gutenberg & Research


Just how exciting is all the hype about Google’s venture into online books? Is it really the dawn of a new era?

What seems to be missing from all the journalistic screaming is the fact that huge numbers of books and other materials have been available online for some time now. Some of my favourites:

Spell to kvell

But how useful is it to have all these texts, if you can’t spell, type, research, filter, or evaluate? A classic example of this is the difference that accents & diacritical marks make on searching. In a recent search for information on the lovely Daria Klimentova, I decided to see what came up if I spelt her name with the proper Czech accents, i.e. Daria Klimentová. As I suspected, a totally different set of pages, including an encyclopedia entry on Daria from the beautifully designed and webbified ?eský hudební slovník osob a institucí (Czech Musical Dictionary of People & Institutions) from the – as their logo has it – Universitas Masarykiana Brunensis, the Masaryk University in Brno, another beautifully designed site. How would I know that Brunensis was Latin for ‘of Brno’, unless I had a smattering of Latin grammar, geography and the metathesis of medial liquid diphthongs in Slavic languages?

A free lunch?
And in the end, apart from the limitations of Google’s offerings imposed by the humanoids that read the stuff, what will or what can Google actually deliver? Are all those academic publishers who have invested thousands on online journal subscription services suddenly going to stop charging between $10 – $25 dollars an article, or forget about charging universities an institutional rate based on the number of enrolled students?

What’s on the menu, then?
And what of a field like mine, which involves a notation/recording system other than text? As I wrote in another weblog entry, it’s darned difficult to find some of Czerny’s lesser-known works, unless you can be bothered to go to a library, request them from the stack service and search through almost a thousand pages by hand. Similarly, when I tried to get hold of a copy of Tchaikovsky’s 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet by conventional means, I found that Peters Edition still publish them, but – inexplicably – only 36 of the original 50, and with the titles only in German translation – which is no use at all if you want to cross-reference collections.

I found the full set with the original titles by looking through 60+ volumes of the complete works of Tchaikovsky at the University of London library. I only knew they were there because I saw them on the shelves as I was leaving, having failed to find them in the catalogue ; I only knew when I had found them because I read Russian and music notation.

My point? It takes minutes to flick through hundreds of pages of a physical book, but – even with broadband – hours to do the same online. Catalogues, even in University libraries, are unreliable and inaccurate, prone as they are to the errors and limitations of the person who inputs the records. Materials for study are in multiple languages, formats and notation systems, which you have to know and understand if you want to do anything more than read text in English.

Scholarship? Не пудри мне мозги!”
My rant is about the suffocating domination of English texts in what laughably passes as ‘scholarship’, particularly in my own field, and an insidious acceptance in some areas of Anglo-American academia that this is OK. By contrast, in Central & Eastern Europe, a knowledge of five European languages is not uncommon, and some of the people I studied with in Croatia had a reading knowledge of 12 languages at undergraduate level. A friend in Prague who speaks fluent English, German, Czech, Italian and French had her PhD dissertation proposal thrown out by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague because she wanted to look at the Tchaikovsky ballets, but didn’t speak Russian, and would therefore not have access to the relevant texts. You can guess where she went instead, of course.

Information vs. Intelligence
I’ve been using the net for nearly 10 years, and I still find that having billions of documents available online is no more useful than having a billion pounds in Albanian lek when you need to feed a parking meter, unless you have some knowledge and understanding about the subject in your head, critical skills, advanced literacy skills, advanced IT skills and a few languages: information does not equal intelligence.

The congress of libraries
But none of this is any use unless you have intellectual curiosity, determination and patience. Ironically, it seems to me that high information at high speed kills off the very passion for knowledge that is needed to process and use it. Furthermore, the thing that used to be at the heart of academic life – dialogue, debate, congress, conference – is also at risk. Webchat and video-conferencing are no substitute for real dialogue. It’s great that you can access libraries online without moving from your seat, but not great if this becomes a substitute for travel and knowledge of an experiential kind.

Study? No thanks
‘Study’ is becoming as boring as it sounds – you, a computer terminal and a lot of words on a screen. I hope I am not still marking papers when essays become little more than a newsfeed from a bunch of anglophone websites, written by students who’ve never had the opportunity to get drunk, travel or sleep with each other, and thus are unable to put the subject, themselves and the whole notion of ‘study’ in perspective.

Prague gallery


I meant to go christmas shopping today, but ended up taking my films to Boots instead. Well, it needed doing. I went to Prague three times this year, and I still haven’t seen the pictures. The more I go there, the more I understand why all those composers kept going back in the 19th century – it is the most affable, beautiful, humane and cultured (in the nicest sense of the word) city I know of. So here is my very personal photo gallery of Prague 2004 (a trip in February which I’ll call ‘the Rudolfinum moment’, the Premiere of Chris’s Giselle in April, and the ballet masterclasses in Augst). I’m itching to go back now…

Tooting swimming times


Update on July 29th 2012 – You can ignore all my rants about Tooting Leisure Centre and their lack of online timetables – you can now view the swimming timetable for Tooting online, and even filter it by, for example, Adult Lane Swimming.  Now all they need to do is to get some lane discipline going…

At last! This will be of interest to nobody except other Tootingese, but Kinetika have at last published the swimming timetable for Tooting Leisure Centre online [update on Feb 18th 2010: this link has been dead for a long time: please see later post here]

Having a corporate website that doesn’t provide information that the public might want to access is, well, typical of the dumb way that people use computers and the net. I guess I could now take down my Tooting Swimming Times page now after so many years, except that it’s still more useful as a quick guide to when the pool’s open to the public than the official one. It’s too much to ask that Kinetika publish updates so that the public know if there’s a gala on and the pool’s closed. It would take them 5 minutes to update the site, whereas the number of hours wasted by members of the public turning up to a pool that’s closed runs into hundreds.

One day I’m also going to challenge them on their policy of having a ‘ladies’ swimming’ on a Saturday afternoon, but no equivalent for men. Surely we men should get a discount, or do we have to accept that this is just a kind of Feminist Tax? What have I ever done to women that I have subsidise their leisure activities? I’ve slightly changed my view on this now: I still think it’s wrong, but I now think it’s wrong because of the gender-assumptions underlying it: what about the many groups of people who may also wish to swim alone, for reasons other than their biological sex?