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Music Review – “Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia” (Helena Tulve, 2014)

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I first encountered Helena Tulve’s work by accident, while searching through my local library’s depressingly small collection of female classical composers. A copy of her 2008 album “Lijnen” was all that this search yielded, although it justified the effort with its starkly beautiful, free-form works: part audio poetry or storytelling, part sound-scapes, each piece feeling like a journey through some compelling yet dangerous wilderness.

Her second collection is similar insofar as it builds on this style, yet an overall richer experience in texture and composition than its predecessor, as becomes quickly apparent from the first track, “Reyah hadas ‘ala” with both complex instrumentals and several vocalists (“Lijnen”, by contrast, had only one voiced track, with a haunting solo by Ariana Savall. “Arboles …” has vocals on most of its tracks, and several vocalists besides Savall). While this makes for a less tense experience than the eerie simplicities of “Lijnen”, the mood is no less haunting, yet in a more introspective way. If “Lijnen” often felt like a dangerous journey through frozen, treacherous landscapes, “Arboles …” feels like the dangerous journey into the multifaceted, treacherous psyche.

The piece opens with mournful strings, instantly reminiscent of Tulve’s earlier work, then staccato bursts of flute enter the scene like bird cries (The translated title of the piece, “The perfume of the myrtle rises”, already seems to set the scene in some mystic garden). The piece is dominated by a recurring Gregorian chant motif, with male vocalists in solemn harmony, seeming to offer the hope of serenity yet ghostly and unsettling. Flutes strike dissonant notes, and harmony between instruments and vocals is only ever achieved in uneasy, fleeting moments (The motif of complex yet competing, or somehow irreconcilable harmonies occurs throughout this album). A female vocalist then offers a new chant, heralding a change of mood: a new calmness in the instrumentals (though still with ominous undertones), with lighter melodies and trills suggestive of birdsong and dance. One could almost imagine competing tutelary spirits of this strange “psychic garden” vying for control. Ultimately, the chants loosely harmonise, and peace descends on this otherworldly space as the piece closes, although inconclusively, its troubled notes unresolved. There are no easy solutions in Tulve’s work.

The second piece, “Silences / larmes” (silences / tears), makes liberal use of silences as a device (as you might expect) and begins on a protracted one, before giving way to strings and a single oboe. These instruments are presently joined by a female vocalist (the aforementioned and inimitable Ariana Savall) whose ethereal chants interweave with the oboe melody yet do not strictly harmonise. The effect becomes of a swirling dance between the two, an elusive search for unity, reinforced by some suggestive lyrics (imagery of moths, leaves, and the strange solace of a single chime highlighting the themes of transience and mutability throughout these works). Intermittent silences break in upon the piece, while percussion effects could almost suggest waves breaking upon the shoreline, as the piece draws to a melancholy close. The effect is of exquisite vulnerability, the performers again seeming like spirits or personifications of nature, yet themselves prey to the greater forces of chaos and entropy, threatening to silence them at any given moment, perhaps eternally.

The third piece, “L’Équinoxe de l’âme” (The equinox of the soul) continues and deepens the strong metaphysical themes, taking as its basis a Sufi poem that characterises the soul as a phoenix-like entity. Its opening, in contrast to the serenity of the earlier works, is shrill and energetic, and this sense of tumult builds, with many instrumental voices seemingly vying for dominance. One could imagine it to be the psyche at is most turbulent, raw and unfocused. The faint hint of a female vocal (Savall again) enters, then builds in significance, exerting a calming and harmonising influence, strings forming around its melody. Perhaps this signifies the “dawning” spirituality bringing peace and enlightenment, or an alchemical transformation of formless elements, but (as is characteristic in Tulve’s work) the epiphany is transient, chaos and randomness returning before the piece draws to its close (although the vocal nevertheless continues to soar, phoenix-like, suggesting its influence may yet return).

Track four is the title track, “Arboles lloran por lluvia” (Trees cry for rain), and is another reflective, serene, yet melancholy piece. A silent opening tentatively gives way to strings and vocals, male and female voices echoing each other’s plaintive lyrics yet (as ever) unable to synchronise easily, overlapping yet constantly separated. The tone becomes more desperate, the lovers’ longed-for union only more elusive for its fleeting moments of harmony. It feels like a ghostly, two-way chase that will never find a lasting resolution. A simple, wistful, repeated string motif closes the work, seeming to signal a sad acceptance of the inevitable.

As an appropriate climax, the final piece, “Extinction des choses vues” (The extinction of the things seen) utilises the full orchestra and its sense of scale to dramatic effect. From a subtle opening, energy and volume soon increase as several instrumental voices build simultaneously in a long-drawn crescendo (curiously reminiscent of the orchestral bridge in the Beatles’ 1967 track “A Day in the Life”, and not dissimilar to it in terms of the effect achieved). Incompatible yet not formless, the various voices reach a peak of unbearable intensity, then tail off with high-pitched strings into near-silence. Shrill, formless notes linger in the void, until the piece finally closes on a two-note string motif (not unlike the “Jaws” hook, though eerie rather than urgent), reduced to starkest simplicity in its final moments. It is, like so much of Tulve’s work, a piece open to any number of interpretations, although the title offers provocative hints. Ultimately, it leaves the feeling either of a musical “Road to Damascus” moment – some blinding revelation that eclipses all that came before – or a musical mental breakdown, the psyche overwhelmed and laid low by its inability to find peace and reconciliation (or possibly both).

Overall, then, “Arboles …” emerges as both a logical development from Helena Tulve’s earlier work, and a hugely rewarding collection in its own right. It is far from ‘easy listening’ – its loose, constantly-evolving structures absolutely demand attention – but for those who allow themselves to be lost in its liminal, Gothic spaces, it is a beautiful if often unsettling experience.

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Persephone’s Pendants

Writing, modelling, dancing, and game designing have all been uneventful subjects of late, alas, and since transitioning is pretty well done and dusted (other than ongoing speech therapy classes) there won’t be much news on that score either. However, I haven’t been a complete layabout, and here is the evidence …

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(Some examples of my work, resting on my altar.)

Persephone’s Pendants* (currently based over on Facebook) began life as another of my myriad hobbies that got out of hand. A friend of mine introduced me to various witchcrafty arts last year, including Tarot reading (which I also adore) and spellwork involving crystals. I started making pendants such as these when I was looking for a way to wear some of the crystals I had used in my spellwork. My first idea was to buy plain spiral cages, but only finding these for sale in a high street shop for six pounds apiece, I decided it would cheaper and more fun buy some wire and teach myself. Having thus made a few for my own personal use, I then decided to keep on doing it as a very small business venture.

My original intention was to start an Etsy shop, but after half of my first batch sold to friends and friends of friends within a day of being announced, I have put that on hold until I have more stock made up, and I will just be keeping in touch with potential customers through my Facebook page and possibly this blog for now. Please look out for updates there. My typical price range is £8-£10 (based on the size of stone used, and complexity of design).

I also take requests for specific stones, design types, wire types, etc. Bespoke pendants need to be priced a little higher, though, to cover the cost of sourcing specific stones (I tend to buy in batches, so I may or may not have a particular stone free to work with at any given time).

Incidentally, In case anyone else buys these for magical purposes, all stones are cleared vibrationally in my Tibetan singing bowl.


* Named less for the Greek Goddess of the Underworld and more for my burlesque stage persona

 

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Two small achievements …

The ten weeks of my mandatory sick leave are now exhausted – more’s the pity, as I was getting quite used to being a lady of leisure – and I am now back at work, albeit on reduced hours: for the present, only my weekend shifts, which I can just about manage on. Still, it was a tiresome first weekend back: the workplace has never been uplifting, the job itself is repetitive and undemanding, and the only challenge is sheer physical stamina, which I am currently short on (ten weeks of mostly inertia have not left me in the best of shape). It was thus with a somewhat downbeat mood I commenced this week, and having to get a very early start on Tuesday to take a 6AM bus to London for my post-op check-up did not help matters. All I could think of was what complications the surgeon might find: I knew beforehand that I was not quite fully healed, and the prospect of further sick leave was a very slender silver lining under the circumstances. I am so ready for this all to be over and done with so I can really start to move forward with my life.

Thankfully, before 12AM that day, it was. The surgeon examined me, declared my little bit of unhealed tissue to be a very minor complication that would fix itself, and gave me the all-clear. Cue one very big sigh of relief … followed by some hours of boredom, as the coach back to Cardiff was not until 4PM, and it was too hot and humid a day to want to go sightseeing in London. For want of any better activity, I camped out in a nearby coffee shop with a couple of iced soya milk lattes and idled away the time on the internet, thus discovering that my C64 game “Valkyrie 3 – The Night Witch” which I had programmed earlier this year and submitted for an annual competition had won said competition. This was obviously my day for good news …

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So, how best to use the current state of feeling inspired before it drains away? Resuming job-hunting, for one thing. Grateful as I am to my current employer for having seen me through this far, I am not even good value for money any more in that environment, and would be better suited in a more cerebrally-oriented job (and probably happier). In any case, the weekend-heavy hours are not good for burlesque performing, which I plan to do a lot of in the future.

While I am looking for the ideal job, though, I am also planning to start an Etsy shop as soon as possible to sell handmade jewellery, and possibly even start doing Tarot readings via this blog for anyone interested, although that will be donation only. I would be very reluctant to put a price on that, and the practice itself would be valuable for me (and I’m not sure I’m that gifted a reader in any case, but we live and learn).

Having got this far, I do for once feel equal to these challenges, and convinced if I want these changes enough they will materialise. Still, all positive vibes, prayers, and blessings appreciated … xxx

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Dark Tarot Shoot

Another threshold crossed on the path to recovery: I have done my first photoshoot post-surgery. The photographer was Dark Venice from Purpleport, and the theme, nicely utilising my own Wiccan leanings, was dark versions of the Tarot cards. The location was Tinkinswood Burial Chamber: a Neolithic site just outside Cardiff which made the perfect pagan backdrop, although we did have to work the shoot around occasional bemused sightseers …

 

Tropes which you might recognise here (if you are familiar with the Tarot) are the Hermit, the High Priestess, and the Fool, to which I brought my best manic Harley Quinn air. There are so many more cards left to attempt, though, so this will very probably be one of a series of shoots. I never thought I would keep on modelling beyond my thirties – indeed, I once naively assumed I that would have a proper job by this point in time – but between this lark and burlesque dancing, it’s just too compelling finally getting to shine a little as the person I always wanted to be. Responsibility can always wait for another decade …

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Convalescent Critic #3: “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion production)

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(Flyer from school website)


The sad aspect of this review is that even if it convinces you, there is no way you will be able to see this production, as we caught its last night (unless someone else caught it on their phone and puts it on YouTube, of course). However, I felt it deserved a shout-out, regardless, and that may hopefully draw attention to the general excellent of Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion’s performing arts department (who stage a new production every year).

Since all the signs of my recovery have been positive, my lovely hubby invited me to a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion (near Bridgend). He had heard about it through his job (he works as a library assistant in Bridgend, where he manages a junior reading group), he had heard that the school had a strong reputation for performing arts, and he was also very aware that “Phantom” is a musical I am just a little obsessed about, as I may have mentioned once or twice

As I have seen it twice on Broadway, I knew it was a big-budget production full of large-scale set pieces (including giant statues, lakes of smoke and candles, and of course falling chandeliers), elaborate stage magic, lavish costumes, and complex choreography. With all due scepticism over how a comprehensive school budget was going to even approximate this, I decided to give it its due … and was blown away.

There were, inevitably, limitations. The stage magic was necessarily simplified to accommodate the lack of trapdoors (although there were still some impressive pyrotechnic and lighting effects), and some effects such as the lake of candles and the giant statue were understandably omitted. Otherwise, the staging was much more impressive than I had dared to expect, with some striking backdrops and props (including a large pipe organ, as every good Phantom ought to have), fantastic costumes all round (which were, one gathers, worked on entirely by the students themselves), some astounding choreography including beautiful and skilful ballet scenes which made me very wistful for my sadly wasted non-girlhood in which I never got to do ballet (*sighs*), and most astoundingly of all, the two most memorable effects from the stage show were brilliantly replicated: the Phantom’s boat crossing the lake (albeit without candles, but with plenty of smoke), and the falling chandelier: another beautiful prop devised by the students.

What really made it a triumph, however, were the performances, and the fact that the two romantic leads – Christine Daae and Raoul de Chagny – were played by teen actors suited the coming-of-age nature of the story immensely. Raoul in particular has an unfortunate tendency in adaptations to be played by dashing matinée idol types, whereas in Gaston Leroux’s original novel he is clearly an angry, impulsive, near-adolescent, generally well-meaning but utterly out of his depth (and not destined to be the big damn hero, as he supposes, but the ironic damsel in distress). The actress who played Christine (Sadly, I do not know their names – I wish now that I had bought a programme – but they all deserve to go on to bigger things) brilliantly captured that character’s journey through her initial brainwashed, childish state of naive enthralment, through to growing realisation, trauma, conflict, and finally maturing into a capable and defiant person who can both resist and forgive her abuser, breaking his spirit in the process.

As for the Phantom himself – another role that has occasionally suffered from having its “romantic” aspects played up at the costs of its dark and sordid elements (particularly in the 2004 film version) – he came across exactly as he ought to: an incredible, ingenious, larger-than-life showman … but with the terrible social skills and general sociopathy one would expect of a man who would spend years living in a basement, posing as a ghost, and surviving by blackmail. Operatically intense and melodramatically confident while in his element (or behind his masks, so to speak), yet miserably inept and awkward when faced with actual human contact, he is certainly an archetype that this particular nerd (who has faced her own body dysphoria issues) can readily relate to … although I have tried to deal with my own issues in a less murderous and manipulative way, of course.

Also, I should add to the acting plaudits, that all three of the leads were superb singers, and did total justice to the intensity of the music, both in the skill and the emotion they brought to it.

Not to forget kudos for the supporting roles, and especially for the actors playing the opera house managers, Carlotta, Piangi, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry: characters on whom the comic relief burden often falls (especially during the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Prima Donna” sequence of Act One) but who can easily be overplayed as too grotesque to be sympathetic. This production wisely steered clear of that, let the characters have their nuances, and even worked in some clever physical comedy I had not seen in the show before (so which was presumably devised in rehearsal). Although certainly faithful to its source, this staging was clearly not afraid to interpret the material to suit its own players, and it did so very successfully.

I cannot really praise this enough. Especially considering the slender resources available, this was an amazing achievement, and a grander spectacle than I had dared to imagine possible. It was also a glorious showcase for performers whom we can but hope will be up-and-coming names in their fields. I only wish it were possible to go back again and see it tonight, but one can hardly expect Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion to permanently let its gym serve as Wales’ equivalent of Broadway and keep the show running non-stop for thirty-plus years, if only … Still, the hubby and I certainly look forward to seeing what they will stage next year.


[Edit – 21/7/2018] Now, in addition to the above, we also have some slightly wobbly camera footage of the edited highlights to appreciate. Only twenty-five minutes of it, alas, and sadly the hardware doesn’t do the live acoustics justice, but it gives a good idea of the incredible work that went into this.

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Perils of Persephone

Rather quicker than I had expected, there are now videos of my latest burlesque show with Cardiff Cabaret Club (Yin and Yang show, June 22nd 2018). Thus, as requested, my better judgement notwithstanding, here is exhibit A. I am the suspect at the very far right of the scene, on the dancefloor. Please be forgiving …



Also in burlesque news, I am giving thought to doing a solo routine based on Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera”: a novel with which I have been a bit obsessed ever since I first saw the Broadway show version back in 2000, seeing in the titular antihero a character whose physical self-loathing issues I could all too readily identify with. I would be reinterpreting the Phantom as a female character, however.

I have already had some help and encouragement from other members of the group, and further offers, so in spite of my inexperience (less than a year’s worth, and only two shows) it is looking distinctly possible. I have also chosen the burlesque stage name I intend to use if this does come to fruition. Eschewing pleas to use a more straightforwardly Gothic pseudonym, I have opted for “Persephone Pitstop”: half-Goth, half-silly, and it made the hubby laugh, which is all the confirmation I need (and also no other dancers seem to be using it right now, so I’m staking the claim while it’s good).

None of which is to say that I am fully healed yet – I am still on sick leave, still bruised and sore, and still tire very easily – but when I compare this to how I felt when I first left hospital, I am confident the end of the tunnel is in sight (and hopefully some exciting times not too far beyond).

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Bad Things

(The obligatory dressing room group shot, although not the complete group, as some dancers were doing up to three routines and solo dances that night. I was less ambitious, but maybe one day …)


Over the past three weeks I have gradually been getting more mobile and independent, doing small shopping trips, taking accompanied walks, helping the hubby more with the household chores … and performing in another burlesque show.

Having been discharged from hospital only a month or so ago,  I can’t argue that the latter was the wisest thing I have ever done, but with no shows nor classes now due until September, having rehearsed the routine for several weeks, now feeling well enough to take brief outings, and being sorely in need of a change of scene and a chance to feel a little bit glamorous for the first time in ages, I decided I would only regret not making the effort.

One thing I was certain of was that I would be in safe company. As I previously posted on, our local burlesque scene is wonderfully accepting and supportive, and while I was in hospital I had no end of messages and offers of assistance from classmates, my teacher, and my fellow-performers. Some even connected with my hubby on Facebook to make sure not to lose track of me in dire emergencies, thus leaving him with the strange situation of now being online friends with a vast quantity of showgirls. That ought to be interesting if any future employer ever decides to scope his social media …

I do love the backstage atmosphere at our shows: a heady mixture of camaraderie, urgency, and spray-on glitter, almost like comrades-in-arms gearing up for a very sparkly non-lethal battle. As for the dance itself … well, I’m impressed I did it at all, all things considered, although I fear my steps were running behind on a few occasions, my annoyingly long legs are still causing me to overshoot my marks, and I barely knew the steps for the encore dance at all (having missed the last rehearsals for that routine while I was in hospital). Hopefully I didn’t let the side down too badly, though. I hope not, as I’d be seriously loath to give this pursuit up.


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(And here we are in action, dancing to “Bad Things” by Jace Everett. Hopefully we look the part. Image copyright Martin Gibson Photography.)


No more classes till September, alas, though that is probably just as well from the healing perspective. Although I am certainly a lot stronger than I was after discharge, complete healing from gender confirmation surgery is a matter of months rather than weeks. I am glad I managed to rally well enough to make this show, though. It is the sort of thing I used to dream of doing but thought completely unattainable to the person I used to be (Indeed, as a friend recently reminded me, the heroine of one of my early Gothic stories is herself a disillusioned would-be cabaret dancer … who gets on the wrong side of some particularly ruthless vampire hunters, so life has not perfectly imitated art as yet). Now that the big journey is finally almost over, and without any complications so far (fingers crossed), I can dare hope that this exhilarating new pastime and the amazing people who come with it will be a big part of the future … assuming we can get through another year without a nuclear war, of course. Some days I have to wonder.