Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sweet FA

The good old days
For the last 15 years I have been reduced to watching the FA Cup Final from afar, in retrospect, or not at all. Today I watched the four goals which Arsenal knocked in against Villa on YouTube in what looked like a one-sided but entertaining match.
During the first half of the 70s when I was between 9-14 years old, the FA Cup and particularly the final were very big deals for me and my brother. I remember in the school playground, in the week or two leading up to the Chelsea-Leeds match of 1970, everyone had to choose their team. I've no idea way we chose Leeds. We'd never even been there. Perhaps it was the crisp white kit?  Anyway, they lost following a replay, but no matter, Leeds were now our team. They won the next one (in its centenary year), and a couple of years later made it to the final again (losing to Sunderland). 
We would watch all the build-up, the teams having their breakfast, It's An FA Cup Knockout, interviews with the wives and groundsmen… And as 3 o'clock got nearer we'd lay out a rug out in front of the telly with all our Leeds paraphernalia: rosettes, pennants  scarves, mugs, rattles, stickers. We'd watch the coaches arrive, crawling through a sea of fans. Switch to the hallowed turf of Wembley for the marching band and the Queen being introduced to the players (…and this, Ma'am, is Alan Clarke, otherwise known as 'Sniffer'; and Peter Lorimer - he's got the hardest shot in football you know… Oh really, is that so?), and then over to Barry Davies, John Motson or Brian Moore. When someone scored it was a truly momentous, almost religious, event. I can still remember Charlie George scoring the winner in 1972 and simply lying down (at the time quite an unusual form of celebration). And then we'd watch it all over again on Match of the Day.  
Now? Well, it's easy to say it's not the same, but it isn't. Any mid-table league match will get a few hours devoted to it. Who cares about the Cup (let alone the other one, whatever it's called) when all that really matters is getting into the Champions League or avoiding relegation. Could I name the last five FA Cup winners? Could I not.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Silence

Matt Wright's Totem for Den Haag
How hushed can you get? 
We've been working with Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and their kind-of equivalent here, Cepromusic, to get some collaborations going. Graham Mckenzie, Artistic Director of the former, came over last year for initial discussions and he's back again, this time with composers James Dillon and Matt Wright in tow. Lots of meetings, a public talk, rehearsals and interviews preceded a well-attended concert in PBA's smaller chamber orchestra hall. 
The programme featured Matt Wright's brand new Totem for Den Haag (five musicians reacting to a video of three vari-speed turntables - hypnotic), Rebecca Saunders' Stirring Still I, and James Dillon's 45-minute New York Triptych. The last was quite challenging and highlighted the issue of how certain music needs absolute quiet to best appreciate it. Of course it is impossible to sit absolutely still and silent for 45 minutes and sure enough the creaks, occasional coughs, somebody dropping something, another person getting up and leaving halfway through, the extraneous noise from outside the hall, even the musicians turning a page of the score… all made their presence felt. But if one is to make such a quiet piece of music (or at least with passages that are very quiet) for public performance, then I think you just have to accept that it's not going to be like a controlled recording where such interventions are excised. I remember last summer attending a Laurence Crane concert in London which was consistently affected by ambient noise (which somehow kind of added to the experience) and of course John Cage's 4:33 is the supreme example of ambient intrusion, but Dillon's piece really did need silence. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Theatre or Dance?

Gecko Theatre Co have been touring Mexico for the last week or so. Liz and I took A & N to see their last show at the Teatro Julio Castillo this evening. The show is Missing. It's part play, part dance work and a lot of amazing visual effects. I saw it two years ago in Edinburgh but it still surprises. The story's very simple really: Lilly tries to come to terms with her past, her parent's divorce, her mother's departure, has some therapy and forgives her. Her mother was a dancer and the story is one long piece of exquisite choreography. But it's more than that. It also feels like a film. Much of the action is quite literally framed, and there are moments of fast-forward and rewind, brilliantly accomplished in real time. There is dialogue, but it's sparingly used, in different languages, sometimes gobbledygook. 
Our girls kind of got it, but it was pretty existential stuff. At the end, N asked "What does 'existential' mean?"  Um… oh look it's raining. Where are the umbrellas? Shall we go now?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Tuxedomoon Connection

Two big events today: the monthly UKMX programme board and a fundraising dinner at the National Museum of Art. But it's the little events that sometimes stand out. I had a quick lunch with Carlos Becerra in my favourite cafe in Roma. Aside from organizing concerts (he did the Mute Festival a couple of months ago), he runs an interesting label and record shop called Independent Recordings, which he co-founded with Steven Brown of Tuxedomoon (who these days lives in Oaxaca, here in Mexico). Carlos used to be their tour manager in Europe. He have me a big bunch of Mexican CDs and vinyl. Now that's what makes me happy.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Big Numbers

Mexicans are not shy about numbering their homes. Whereas in England you sometimes have to hunt high and low - below a letterbox, tiny numerals on a post, sometimes nothing at all - in Mexico City it's in your face.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Eurovision

The Eurovision Song Contest: so bad it's good. Last night the 2015 show was won by Sweden with a song called 'Heroes', but not that 'Heroes'. The first time I watched ESC, now including Australia for some reason, Sweden were also winners. But that was Abba. 
One of the weirdest performances was by Telex, the 'Belgian Kraftwerk', in 1980. I remember looking forward to it. Three guys, two keyboards and a modular Moog behind singer Michel Moers. Unfortunately the song, 'Euro-Vision', was rubbish. Of course it was meant to be rubbish - the lyrics were a send-up of the competition itself. They hoped to finish last, but Portugal spoiled it all by giving them 10 points so they finished a boring 17th. But that wasn't the weirdest. Now if you really want to see some genuinely 'out there' performances, check out this top 10 selection.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Speechless

Another Nyman concert, this time at the Teatro de la Ciudad with his Band and the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. Interesting programme: some short familiar soundtrack pieces from his Band to begin with; Symphony no.2 with full orchestra (together with a projected compilation of  snippets of 20th Century Mexican cinema); and ending with Musique a Grand Vitesse from 1993. 
But the evening began with a strange incident. A couple of days ago, a Mexico City official phoned us to say he would be making a speech onstage before the concert began and would I like to say a few words about UKMX? So I said yes and got there early, but no sign of the official. Turned out the Philharmonic musicians wanted to talk to him about pay or conditions or something. So finally he arrived backstage and onto the stage we went. Just as he was about to speak, a heckler in the audience shouted out "We're already 20 minutes behind time. We didn't come here to see you, we came to see Nyman!"  Some applauded, others tried to shhhh him, but ultimately it had the effect of truncating his speech and under the circumstances I decided not to give mine. Actually, I had some sympathy for the guy... 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Shoot-out at the Rancho del Sol

Big, three-hour shoot-out at the Rancho del Sol in the state of Michoacan, leaving 43 dead, 42 of which were apparently drug cartel affiliates. Strange to think that it's only 100 miles west of Mexico City. Seems another world away...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Solar Ring

Extraordinary solar ring over Mexico City this afternoon. The last (and indeed first) time I saw one of these was in Yunan province in China four years ago (see here). I've never seen one in Britain. Amazing thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nyman at War

This evening I caught the third of Michael Nyman's five Mexico concerts, in the garden of the Fonoteca Nacional in Coyoacan. It was free to all so 1,200 people showed up. With Band and Marie Louise Angel on soprano, he performed his recent War Works: Eight Songs with Film. The films were compiled from German, French and American WW1 newsreels, focussing on the poor sods who had to fight (and die in) the war rather than the officers and generals, and there was some pretty grim footage of victims suffering from physical & psychological trauma. The music was, well I have to say it, typical Nyman: brass, strings, electric bass and MN leading from the piano. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure whether it was the visuals or the aurals that won out.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

Plaza Uruguay

Outside my office is a square called Plaza Uruguay. It's a small park with lots of trees and a very large modernist sculpture in the middle, from which at one time water would have cascaded into a pool but is now dry.  I pass it every day, to and from work, and often wonder who created it, but there's no information. 
50 yards away is a statue of Jose Artigas, 'liberator of Uruguay'. There's plenty of information about him. Turns out he made his name fighting the Spanish in the early 19th Century, but interestingly he started his 'career' fighting the British in what is known as the Invasions of the River Plate in 1806/7, which I'd never heard of before. There is a nice irony that his statue sits a stone's throw away from the British Council.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Busking in the Zocalo

The Zocalo is used for many things: concerts, demonstrations, an ice-rink in winter... Currently it's the setting for the 10-day Feria de las Culturas Amigas, a sort of super-sized version of our children's school's International Day (see this post). So there are around 90 stalls displaying posters, selling food and crafts, giving out stuff, whatever each under-staffed embassy can get together on minimum budgets. Some are very imaginative (Saudi Arabia's adobe-style dwelling), bewildering (North Korea's religious paintings, eh?), while others look like airport tourist offices. The UK's was a mix of T-shirts, videos of UKMX events and Cumberland sausage rolls. All were inundated with people.
There's also a huge stage which was used for the opening ceremony a few days ago, and today hosted the Classic Buskers. The Buskers are normally a duo - Michael Copley (myriad assortment of wind instruments) and Ian Moore (accordion) - but on this tour they're joined by  magician Neil Henry. It's a highly visual, crowd-pleasing show, with mini-versions of popular classics performed with a lot of humour and imagination. The magic element is a nice touch.   

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mondo Extremo and Haagen Dazs

For her birthday party, N chose an assault course and ice cream. Well maybe assault course is exaggerating but it was strenuous, vertiginous stuff band made me nervous just watching them. Here's A & N passing each other on the zip wire.
Ice cream was a rather more sedate affair.

Friday, May 15, 2015

11

N is 11 today. Pretzels for breakie, cupcakes at school, presents when she got home and daddy's homemade pizza for dinner. Her big present was a Kindle and her first downloaded book is Erin Hunter's Forest of Secrets. Me? I can't get into e-books. I need the physical thing. But talking of which, she also got her first CD, not a download. It's Taylor Swift's 1989. It's OK, very catchy. I kind of approve. Incidentally, N shares her birthday with Brian Eno (67), Mike Oldfield (62) and Pete Wiggs (49) of St Etienne, whom she used to love but doesn't anymore. Oh, fickle tweenie!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Zandra Rhodes and Cornelius Cardew


Bringing an exhibition about the rebozo, the traditional garment worn by Mexican women, from London to Mexico City is a bit like bringing a Mexican exhibition on the history of tweed to London. And yet, that's what we have at the Franz Mayer Museum, which opened this evening. There is some logic at work. Rebozo: Made in Mexico was curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum in London and showed there last summer, and as part of that process they established an education programme between Chelsea College of Art and Universidad Iberoamericana in which fashion students designed rebozos for the 21st Century, which are shown alongside the main exhibition. 
The rebozo is basically a shawl, produced in many different fabrics and patterns and made famous by Frida Kahlo who wore them as much as a political statement than simply nice thing to wear, though they are that. 
Zandra Rhodes, who founded the FTM twelve years ago in a warehouse near Tower Bridge*, came over for the event. Lovely woman, 74 years old now but as sprightly and whacky as she was at the height of her fame 30-40 years ago. 

From fashion, I hotfooted it to the fabulous Ex Teresa del Arte Actual, a deconsecrated church just off the Zocalo. Gorgeous space, cavernous nave and lots of reverb - the perfect setting for Round 2 of El Nicho's festival of improvised music. Tonight it was Cornelius Cardew's Treatise (1963-67) performed by a group of eight circular-seated musicians, directed by Keith Rowe (of AMM). It's scored, but they look more like artworks than anything a conventional orchestra could follow. It's up to each musician how they want to interpret each sheet (there are 37 in total), or they can choose not to do anything. 
This particular performance lasted an hour and half and I found it relaxing, absorbing and beautiful. Interestingly, when Cardew went Maoist in the early 70s, he totally disowned the piece, as if it were bourgeois, capitalist filth or something. 
Nice to chat with Keith Rowe (born1940, same year as Zandra Rhodes) afterwards. We'd met in Tokyo 15 years ago and he said he remembered, but I think he was just being kind.

(* re-designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, interestingly enough)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

El Nicho


A day of experimental music. We're supporting a great little festival called El Nicho. Well, I say 'little', but only in as much that it's basically one guy, Eric Namour, who's running it and it is, as the title says, 'niche'. A personal labour of love rather than anything grander. 
So it opened today, starting with a workshop in the British Council. We don't normally do events in the office, but we do have a multipurpose space at the back which is actually perfect for small events, and we should do more really. So musician Robin Hayward ran a 5-hour workshop on a software programme he uses to expand on the sound of his tuba (oh yes, he plays a tuba). But it works for other instruments too.
We then shifted to the Goethe Institut across town for the opening concert which involved Robin improvising with violinist Alex Bruck, a film about Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra by Luke Fowler and, a headlining improv session between Tony Buck (percussion) and Magda Mayas (prepared piano). Buck is best known as drummer for The Necks, one of my favourite bands. They're improv too but less scratchy, random, plinky-plonk experimentation (I generalise) and more a slow-build hypnotically rhythmic groove. 
Robin Hayward
Anyway, it took me back. I used to listen to and attend concerts of this stuff on a regular basis 'in my youth'. What happened? When did I (largely) stop listening to 'difficult music' and why? Partly it's having family around, although they'd say that half the stuff I listen to is difficult music ("What's that racket?!"). But there's a difference between Steve Reich and AMM, or The Necks and Robin Hayward. The former are a lot easier on the ear, the latter require a certain amount of concentration. If you're willing to put the effort in and find the right listening conditions, then it will reward, which is why my preferred conditions is a concert. Firstly, there are no distractions - you are in there for an hour or so. Secondly - and this is pretty crucial for me - you get to see the music being made, what instruments they're playing, how they create the sounds, perhaps even a smile or a knowing nod between musicians. On vinyl, CD or MP3, it's just not the same, even if all other conditions are the same.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Another Brit Abroad

Nyman at home in Mexico City
This morning I took part in a press conference to promote Michael Nyman's upcoming three-city tour. Nyman loves Mexico. So much so that he bought a house in the boho Roma neighbourhood in 2008 and moved here semi-permanently in 2012. The tour will feature the Michael Nyman Band playing on its own and, on the last night, with the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. 
Exactly 30 years ago, when his album The Kiss and Other Movements was released, I interviewed him at EG offices in Chelsea and regularly attended his Band's London gigs. And they were gigs. It was what I liked about Nyman. An amplified band playing stomping Baroque music with the audience split 50/50 rock and classical. 
I reminded him of our first meeting and embarrassed him by asking him to sign his eponymous second album from 1981 in front of everybody. I then further embarrassed him by offering my condolences re QPR's relegation from the Premier League last weekend. (He is a lifelong supporter). I was perhaps chancing my luck there.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Becks in Polanco

A quiet Sunday night. Little did we know that David Beckham, Posh and family were celebrating the former's 40th birthday in a restaurant just a few blocks away (OK, continuing to celebrate; apparently he spent his actual birthday, 2 May, in Morocco). And we weren't invited!
Here he is, with ubiquitous mariachi band.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Maps, Maps, Maps

California as an island
Just finished reading a terrific book about the history of cartography, On the Map, by Simon Garfield. In 450 pages it takes in cave paintings, the Mappa Mundi, the fabulous atlases of 17th Century Holland, Ordnance Survey, globe making, guidebooks, map dealers (and thieves), Beck's London tube map, whether men are better map-readers than women (inconclusive), GPS and Google Earth.
There are some great stories like how California drifted off into the ocean from 1622 to 1747 (it was still depicted as an island on a map made in Japan as late as 1865) or the 'legendary' and extensive Mountains of Kong in West Africa which never existed, even though they appeared on maps from 1798 to 1892. 
I have always loved maps. (See this post from five years ago). Whether it's staring at the one of Mexico on our study wall, leafing through an atlas, or watching me as a blue dot progress along Paseo de la Reforma. Where would we be without them? Lost, I guess.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Inked & Murmur

This evening the Festival Cultural de Mayo, at which UK is the Country of Honour, opened in the beautiful 19th Century Teatro Degollado in the centre of Guadalajara. Ahead of us are three weeks of music, dance and theatre from nine different performing arts companies (see press conf post or the UKMX website for full list). 
Following the speeches, it was then over to Aakash Odedra's one-man dance double-bill of Inked and Murmur. The former is clever if a little slow. Murmur is more accessible: a fantastically creative combination of Kathak movement, powerful music and hi- and lo-tech visual interventions in which we see both him and his digital doppelganger dance behind gauze one moment and battle with fluttering paper blown by a ring of fans the next. See here for short video
Great start to the festival.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Narcos

To Guadalajara for meetings and the opening (tomorrow) of the Festival Cultural de Mayo. Just under a week ago, the city - or rather the State of Jalisco - experienced one of those intermittent spats between police and narcos which plagues Mexico as a whole. The 'spat' left seven dead. Thankfully, things have returned pretty much to normal this week and there's little likelihood of it disrupting the Festival. Which is of little comfort to the innocent citizens who have to live with narco-violence on a pretty much permanent basis.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hannah Murray

Fresh from her triumphant appearance as a meerkat in The Lion King, A received a postcard from Hannah Murray, actress in Game of Thrones today. "Good luck and break a leg!" she said. Ms Murray is filming in Mexico and taking some Spanish lessons from my & Liz's teacher and that's how it came about. Now I must confess that I've never seen GoT but I believe it's a big deal and A is thrilled. Just found out that Murray also appeared in a Belle & Sebastian video. Now that's impressive! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five Zero

A milestone (if not a millstone) for Liz. The big half century. Of course she doesn't look anything like it - late 30s being honest and not just kind - but apparently it's true. So a nice family day: pancakes, presents, a promenade to our favourite cafe, Pain de Quotidien, Pendulum bookshop, Parque Lincoln and other things not beginning with P. 
The main present was an album of well-wishes, reminiscences, photos and even poems which I've been gathering from friends around the world for the past month or two. It made me realise just how many people we know - and have stayed in touch with - old and new, far and wide. We may not seem them frequently, but they're reassuringly there.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Taxco

To Taxco, a 3-hour drive south of Mexico City, but worth it. Taxco is one of those tourist towns the Mexico Tourist Office calls ‘Pueblos Magic√≥s’ (of which there are officially 83 scattered around Mexico). Taxco is worthy of the name: it really is a magical place, perched precariously on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Like Guanajuato and several other towns in the orbit of the capital, Taxco is famous for its silver mines and you can’t move for shops selling the stuff. But really it’s a place to wander around and get lost in. It is a maze of steep, narrow lanes where the town’s white VW Beatle taxis scoot around causing pedestrians to hug walls. Thank goodness for the unfeasibly high Santa Prisca church in the centre of town, glimpsed around corners just when you thought you were lost. But the real maze is the market which sprawls down the hill, stairways and alleyways taking you deeper and deeper into its labyrinth.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Mall Culture

A public holiday today, but it was a bit like school, with A’s friends coming over for cinema, restaurant, cake & prezzies. The only film on at our local that was vaguely suitable seemed to be Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, quite the worst film I’ve seen in a long time – and it was dubbed in Spanish. Still, it was harmless and an improvement on Insurgent, and the girls liked it so what do I know?