Once more, at the right tempo

Timing, as the saying goes, is all. This is nowhere more true than in music. The speed or tempo at which a piece of music is played has more to do with how we perceive that music than any other factor.

Think about how much a person’s walk says about them. An energetic person will dash around, a more elderly person will move in a deliberate and unhurried way; somebody elderly or injured will hobble. In the same way, the character of a piece of music is immediately announced by the tempo adopted in the performance. Beethoven 5, first movement, announces itself dramatically — da-da-da-dumm! — at allegro con brio. The nostalgic slow movement of Dvorak 9 (“From the new world”) is marked Largo.  These are almost the extremes of tempo markings. 

Since music began to be notated, these Italian tempo markings were the only means composers had to indicate how fast they wanted a piece of music to be played. Then came the metronome, beloved of music students around the globe. This clockwork device  allows the tempo to be expressed as a number — the metronome marking. A book, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, by Matthew Guerrieri, contains the story:

The metronome was an invention of Beethoven’s day; he didn’t have access to it when he was writing his early symphonies. But later, he came into contact with it and loved the device. “He immediately buys one and sits down and starts going back over all his old scores and putting in metronome markings,” Guerrieri says. “And he picked a tempo for the Fifth Symphony that even today sounds really, astonishingly fast.”

The setting he chose was 108 beats per minute — so fast, so hard to play, Guerrieri says, that people have been theorizing for centuries about why Beethoven might have mismarked his own symphony. A broken metronome? Advancing deafness? Nobody knows. [Deceptive cadence, NPR Public Radio]

From this point you might ask — what’s the big deal with choosing a tempo? Just set your metronome (clockwork or app) to the marking in the score, and play it at that speed. The composer can’t be wrong, right? Well, not quite. Their metronome may be faulty, as Beethoven’s could have been. There is quite a literature, including a mathematical paper, trying to work out why Beethoven put such fast tempo markings on his music. (This New York Times article reviews the various issues that the faulty-metronome hypothesis raises.)

There are other considerations too. One of these is the nature of the acoustic in which the music is to be played.

Sergiu Celibidache was a Vegemite kind of conductor — some love him, others can’t stand him. The issue is the extremely slow tempos he used to adopt, particularly in Bruckner. Celibidache was very interested in Zen, and had a semi-mystical view of conducting. I’ve never really understood this until I read this excerpt from his autobiography:

‘Herr Doctor, how fast does that go?’ he once asked Wilhelm Furtwangler about a particular passage. The answer had unexpected consequences: ‘Ah that depends on how it sounds.’ Later Celibidache alluded to this laconic remark: ‘So, the way it sounds can determine the tempo! Tempo isn’t a reality per se, but a condition. If there are an enormous variety of factors working together, then I need more time in order to create something musical; if less is going on, I can move through more quickly.’ [Notes to Bruckner 3, Symphonies 3-9, Munich Philharmonic/Celibidache]

Or, as his son puts it

more notes need more time to develop and return (to the ear). The richer the music, therefore, the slower the tempo … When only a percentage of what existed in the hall can be heard, the tempo always feels “too slow”. [Ibid.]

The point is “in the hall”. A large reverberant space like a cathedral will have a much slower or “wetter” acoustic than a concert hall or recording studio. So there is no such thing as “the right tempo”; a work will be played at speeds that suit the acoustic of that performance.

Celi’s interest in Zen leads one to a few paradoxes. This recording has the shou symbol for longevity on the cover and in the liner notes:


This symbolises his ongoing legacy. He was obviously a major conductor, whose work we can now only know through recordings. However, he hated recordings, believing that they destroyed the uniqueness of each performance. He believed in the primacy of the moment, and wanted to create the conditions for a transcendent experience on the part of the audience. This concept is summed up in the term ichi-go ichi-e: 

often translated as “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” The term reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, citing the fact that many meetings in life are not repeated. Even when the same group of people can get together again, a particular gathering will never be replicated and thus, each moment is always once-in-a-lifetime. [Wikipedia]

So why did his family authorise EMI to issue a series of Celi’s recordings? There are several official reasons. First, they wanted to secure his legacy before copyright on his recordings expired, when pirate editions of questionable quality would be issued. Second, they intended to create two foundations: one musical, the Celibidache Foundation, the other more general, S.C. Help, which “will cover various needs in the world”.  Whether these intentions were realised or not, the volumes of this edition I have seen are handsome productions, with full liner notes and beautiful photography of  Japanese dry gardens.

Regardless of the philosopy, what do the results sound like? I have only heard Bruckner 3 and 4. Bruckner was a special favourite of Celi’s; the mystical and spacious aspects of this music lend themselves to the latter’s approach. I find the interpretations quite hypnotic. It helps that, with the exception of no. 7, I don’t know the symphonies very well. I can just space out and let the process take over. It definitely works for me. It is music of mountain peaks and sudden storms. As in Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, time becomes space.

Needles, active and stationary

I wonder when “moving the needle” started creeping into our discourse? I would have said some time last year. Wiktionary, however, has a quote from the august Time magazine, dating from 2002.

I had a blood test in late January before seeing Phillip Parente earlier this week. The results of the latter appointment: the PSA is still undetectable. So I was glad not to have moved that needle. Everything else is good, and Dr P commented also on how well I was looking. After every other specialist appointment, all being well, I get a new another Zolodex implant. This had been scheduled in half an hour after seeing Dr P, so I duly walked up the hill and presented at the Epworth Eastern oncology ward.

The cheery nurse (they all are) checked with a colleague that I was to get the right stuff, and with me that I was the correct body. Then, having prepped the site, the needle was wielded and the new dose swiftly implanted. I thought of quoting from the Scottish play

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly

but didn’t want to attract any bad luck to the enterprise! But I do find, with this particular procedure, the sooner, the better. Because the Zolodex is about the size of a rice grain, a decent size needle is needed to shove it in. The nurse confirmed that this was “pretty much” the biggest syringe they had. I joked that, should they run short, they could go and borrow one from a horse vet. She agreed — they are doubtless used to patients’ black humour. The implants are put in each time on the alternate side of the abdomen. Strangely, I find an implant put into the right hand side less bruising than one on the left. I had an impressive bruise from the last one, which took quite a while to fade. I must ask next time whether implanting it into muscle is more difficult than into fat. (I hope I have a bit more of the former after three months of exercise classes, due to finish this week.)

Each time I am to see Dr P, I get a bit of testing anxiety. I usually sleep fairly well the night before, figuring that I have done what I can to maintain myself in a well state. This time, following the appointment, I had a very poor night’s sleep. Fortunately I didn’t have exercise class to get to, so could just plod around, go and get some groceries, do a bit of feeding and pruning in the courtyard, and other anodyne activities.

I also spent much of the day reading A life of my own, by Claire Tomalin (the link in the title points to my local library record). This had been recommended by a friend who is also writing a memoir. (He and I are a kind of mutual admiration society). I liked it a lot too — it is certainly very readable, and I finished it in a day. Her resilience in the face of the dreadful things that happened to her is impressive, and she writes about them in an unadorned and straightforward way. For me, however, there was an indefinable something missing from it. She is candid, but not really self-disclosing. Maybe there is a British reserve in her temperament and upbringing that inhibited her from really exploring the darkest places. There is a lot about what she did, and she was very busy, researching and  writing biographies, being literary editor of several major newspapers, and looking after her family. Work was possibly her therapy, and she obviously had too much going on to drop her bundle, even if she had felt like it. I am glad to have read it — books that don’t quite hit the mark are often more instructive than the ten out of ten ones — those books that are like discovering a new planet.

Mariss Jansons

Late last year I saw an obituary for Mariss Jansons, who died last November of a heart attack. I felt quite a sense of loss. He was one of those conductors whose recordings I had started to look out for. Jansons was never a household name like Karajan or Solti, but I think he was more reliable than both. (Karajan, with a few exceptions, I have always thought over-rated, while Solti could drive things along too hard — although his Ring Cycle is terrific.)

As one might expect from someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Jansons was an expert in the Russian symphonic repertoire, particularly Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. He was had great versatility, though; his Sibelius recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic are very fine, and he was at home also in the standard German fare. I have his Beethoven 3, 4 and 5, and Bruckner 8, all with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (of whom he became chief conductor in 2003). I was also able to acquire his Shostakovich cycle last year (thanks, Jane!).

Mariss Jansons studied these scores with his father Arpads, also a conductor: the latter knew Shostakovich. Mariss Jansons clearly understood that these symphonies portray the fear, anxiety and betrayal of a generation. His readings are neither flashy nor dull; even the longest movements have a sense of momentum. Climaxes are full-blooded, and there is plenty of that sense of mounting hysteria that seems peculiar to Russian music (and Shostakovich in particular). The set features the work of eight orchestras: his own Bavarians, the Berlin, London, Oslo, St Petersburg and Vienna Philharmonics, as well as the Philadelphia and Pittsburg orchestras. With the exception of the last, these are all top bands. (He was also chief conductor of the Concertgebouw.) That Jansons was able to work with all these orchestras gives you an idea of the regard in which he was held around the world. His ability to get a Russian sound from all of them is also quite remarkable.

This set reveals many of his strengths, and possibly the reason why greater fame eluded him. Maybe he became a victim of his success. Rather than being identified with one orchestra, as Karajan was with Berlin, working in so many places prevented his “brand” from being really established. I don’t think Mariss Jansons would have cared about this. For him, the music came first. 

I recently got a couple of encores to my Jansons collection. Thanks again to Jane’s generosity, I was able to get from Readings, via special order, a box set called Mariss Jansons: Portrait. This is issued by BR Klassik, a label that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra founded for the dissemination of their recordings. It is a five CD set featuring Jansons and the BRSO in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. There were not many conductors who had all these composers in their repertoire. The Shostakovich is the sixth symphony. The performance in the complete set is with the Oslo Philharmonic, so when I have time, I can compare the two performances.

I have also had the chance to hear Janson’s final thoughts on Brahms’ fourth symphony. This work is included in the Portrait box, in a recording from 2012. Jansons and the BRSO also performed this in October last year, one of his last concerts. This program was recorded by the BBC; I made a disc from this, which I played through again this evening. The timings of the 2019 performance are definitely slower than those in the 2012 recording. (The first movement is 1′ 15″ longer, which is quite noticeable.) However, the feeling is valedictory rather than sentimental. Phrases are moulded lovingly, and with tremendous insight, but very little pulling around. The orchestra plays wonderfully. No-one was going gentle into that good night. 

Another ending begins

Shakespeare famously likened life to a stage. Many Shakespeare quotes have become clichés. Nonetheless, this one popped into my mind this morning:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …

[As you like it, II 7]

I hasten to add that I have neither received my exit cue from the Great Director, nor am I expecting it any time soon. But Shakespeare’s simile applies as much to the daily aspects of our lives as it does to grand entrances and exits. I am at a mini-exit in that I have nearly finished the exercise classes that I wrote about previously. I am wondering what to do next, and what life will be like when I don’t have to haul myself off to the Hawthorn Aquatic Centre three times a week.

Whatever I decide to do — more on that below — it feels like the end of an era. The classes began in November. The dreadful bushfire season and Christmas formed a background to the routine of class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Fortunately we had a mini-break over Christmas, which came just in time — I was feeling quite worn out. Three times a week is just a bit too much. However, the exercise has had good effects. I have been a bit more flexible physically, and been slowly putting on a bit more muscle. The Zolodex, however, inhibits this process, so I haven’t been bulking up as much as I would have expected to. (I would have liked to lose a bit of the spare tyre, too! But this is also associated with the medication.) Nevertheless, the exercise has has minimised the muscle wastage that would otherwise have occurred. This by itself is a good reason to continue, at a level that I can sustain.

I will miss the social side of the process, meeting the other participants for coffee before class, and swapping prostate cancer war stories. Such things are a chance to find out what life is like for other fellas with PC. It possibly takes a circumstance like cancer to get Australian males at our stage of life to talk about themselves to total strangers — even, shock horror, about how they are feeling! Everyone has been very generous with their experiences. Having had the three big cancer treatments (cut, slash and poison), I have been able to give them some idea of how these have affected me. (I am always careful to add the rider — your mileage may vary.) At Christmas I gave them a bit of my spiced fudge. One of them lives in the next suburb to us, and keeps bees. I gave him quite a few of the empty jars I had in the garage, in return for which I have got several jars of the most delicious honey. (I am going to give him a jar of my lime marmalade as a quid pro quo.)

These acquaintances are like work friendships; after the work ceases, they could either continue, or come to a natural end. I am hoping it will be the former. Of course, this will depend on everyone feeling the same way, and being prepared to make the effort to keep getting together. We will have to see what happens next. However it works out, it has been very enjoyable and reassuring, somehow, to have the encouragement and support of people who know exactly what you are going through. 

So, what happens next? Before I started the research program last November, I had a membership in a local gym, and a weekly group class at an exercise physiology practice in Camberwell. (I put both of these on hold until February.) Instead of resuming at those places, though, I could continue with my membership at the Hawthorn Aquatic Centre. The cost there is very similar to the local gym. Also, the university will be continuing to run the research classes at Hawthorn, as they have been doing for a couple of years. An exercise physiology student will be supervising those classes, as at present, and they would keep an eye on me as well. They would also adjust my program as required. So I would sort-of be getting a two-in-one deal, with gym and exercise physio in one.

I looked at the cost saving of maintaining the Hawthorn membership over going back to the combination I had before November. Over a year, it comes to about $1400 — not a huge amount, but not nothing. On the other hand, I would miss out on working with the Camberwell exercise physiologist, of whom I have been a client for about eighteen months. And Camberwell is easier to get to, just a twenty minute tram ride. Hawthorn is about a half hour drive from home, or a one hour tram trip. So inevitably I would end up driving, and doing my bit for global warming.

However I decide, I am thankful to have these options to choose among. My oncologist certainly wants me to keep up the exercise. Exercise has had so much research showing its beneficial effects on cancer patients, it is becoming a front line treatment. As I heard someone say at an open day at Peter Mac: if you could get a medication which would reduce stress, risk of heart attack and stroke, improve sleep, and bring about a more positive outlook, with no side effects, you’d want some of that! These are generic benefits, but there are specific ones for cancer patients as well. The idea is that, if your blood is circulating faster, you are exposing the tumours to more of the effective compounds in the medication than if you are just sitting on your backside. So, although brevity is the soul of wit, it could keep me treading the boards a bit longer.


Moving it

I’ve mentioned that I am participating in a study being performed at ACU into the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of prostate cancer patients. I am a bit over half way through that study, and expect to be finished with it in early February. So I was interested to see a story in The Age about research into the effect of exercise on mental well being. This study, conducted by University of Southern Queensland and Deakin researchers, isn’t specifically targeting prostate cancer, or any cancer patients. The researchers were  looking at the effect on mental well being of adding a strength training session to your regular exercise class. They found that adding only one strength training session enhances the effect of that class. In other words, “combining the two is more beneficial than doing either alone”.

The USQ project was a cross-sectional study, that is, it wasn’t original research, but one that sliced and diced previous studies. The authors looked at four previous US health surveys, with a huge number of subjects — nearly 1.5 million. The size of the combined data pool, plus the fact that the USQ researchers were examining four successive studies, further improves the potential reliability of their conclusions. You can read the story from the Nine Media/Fairfax sources here, and the NLM abstract is here.  

I am finding participation in the ACU study is generally very beneficial. I feel good, and only really feel flat when I am tired — nothing new there. My oncologist definitely wants me to keep exercising. I intend to, but it is just a matter of finding the appropriate level. Zolodex does make me a bit fatigued in the afternoons. I do want to go back to doing everything that I was doing before I started the study, while continuing to do more exercise than I did before. Just what exercise is another question. The ACU folk are upping the intensity of my class, adding interval training in the cardio section, and increasing the weights in the resistance part. This is all part of the progressive resistance idea, and I get that. The Zolodex, again, makes it more difficult for me to put on muscle as I normally would when lifting bigger weights. So I am finding it tiring! The ACU researchers (as with my regular exercise physiologist) are all very careful only to give me exercises that won’t aggravate any of the metastases from the last scan.

There is a nice social side to the classes as well — I often meet the other guys for a coffee beforehand. One of them has a beehive, and gave me a wonderful jar of honey last week. So that is all very enjoyable as well, and something that I hope continues after the classes are finished. I don’t know if there has been any research into this, but if there ever is, I would be happy to volunteer for it!


Time of reckoning

I thank my lucky stars that, to date, no-one I know has been directly affected by the bushfires. Of course their effect is not just people losing their lives, homes, or livelihoods, as has already occurred. I know some family members are affected by the environmental conditions, including smoke. We will all be paying more in higher produce prices and insurance premiums. The relationship Australians have with the bush will need to be re-thought. There will be places where people live where it will no longer be viable for them to live, either without major adjustments, or at all. All this will need to be considered.

I think there are psychological effects, too, and not just for those directly affected. We may have thought ourselves immune to nature, or at least able to make a bargain with it. The thinking has been: we’ll contribute so much to efforts to reduce global heating. This means we can go on selling coal and using cheap fossil fuels. The stupidity of this attitude is more obvious than ever. As someone on the ABC recently commented, the atmosphere doesn’t care about our spreadsheets. It only cares if we emit fewer molecules of carbon. Nature doesn’t care about our bargains and trade-offs.

I’m not attributing the bushfires directly to climate change. Even our PM, though, a denialist at heart, acknowledges global heating to be a factor in the current bushfire season. There’s no change, however, in government policies on carbon emissions. The Labor Party isn’t any better. I do feel despairing that the two major parties have their heads in the sand about climate policy. Are our current pathetic and largely symbolic efforts really the best we can do? Global heating seems a failure of politics as we know it.

It is fantastic, of course, that so many people have contributed to bushfire relief appeals. Extraordinary amounts — I read $30 million dollars — have been raised for fire fighting and relief funds. Many of these appeals would not have been possible without the internet and social media, so these technologies can obviously have a positive side. Of course huge amounts of money are going to be required to rebuild homes, bridges, schools and other infrastructure. But people’s willingness to pitch in and help is both amazing and encouraging.

Maybe these things are part of why I have felt so distracted and weird in general. These dreadful events have overshadowed Christmas and my recent birthday. I don’t mean to sound world-weary about it — any anniversary is worth celebrating. And I was given some lovely presents. One worthy of note (because it was so unexpected) came from our local greengrocer. When we dropped into his shop a few days ago, I mentioned that my birthday had just occurred. So he gave me a beautiful purple orchid from his shop. It was such a sweet gesture. He and his wife are lovely people, and I like to support young people having a go. But all the gifts, cards, and good wishes were very much appreciated. We can all make someone feel valued and appreciated with these small gestures.

Exercise classes have resumed at Hawthorn Aquatic Centre, and I am dragging the now 65-year old bones along for another six weeks. It has been the season also for getting things fixed, and the air conditioners have been high on that list. Both have required service calls. The split system is working normally now; it had been very noisy, sounding as though a leaf had gotten caught in the air intake. The evaporative has been problematic to get going reliably. After being switched on, it either just pushes out hot air, or air that is half cooled. A third service call is going to be required before the problem can be escalated. (Of course Christmas has gummed up the works, taking longer than normal to obtain parts and so on.)

There have been two problems. First, one rings the manufacturer for customer service. But those folk just pass your details onto the contractors, who carry out the actual servicing. Second, the contractor gives you only half an hour’s notice before rolling up, and — of course! — no-one can give you even an indication of whether they will be around in the morning or afternoon. Moaning about this to the customer service people gets you nowhere, because they don’t do the servicing. (One of them actually said “I’m not a service man”.) No-one’s accountable! I don’t like to play the cancer card, but I pointed out that having potentially to be at home all day would mean I may have to miss one or more exercise classes, something that is part of my treatment. All the right noises were made in response, promising they would work with me, etc. We will see.  I do hope everyone stays safe. 

Scoreless draw

My beloved and I went along for my final appointment with Dr Parente for the year. All was as if had been the other times — PSA undetectable — everything good. Of course, this is something we never get tired of hearing! Herself and I had a celebratory coffee in Hawthorn before went to my exercise class.

The week before each appointment, I have a blood test, leaving enough time for the lab work to be done and delivered to Dr P. Around then, I start getting testing anxiety; I am more irritable, although I try not to be, and my sleep is worse. On the morning of the appointment, I feel quite neutral — there is almost a relief that it is here.  On the morning of the appointment, we drive to Box Hill, hoping to get a spot in the practice’s car park. This is quite contested. To keep non-patients out, the practice has had to hand out passes each day to display on the top of their vehicle’s dashboard. If there is a spot, my beloved parks the car while I nick in to grab a pass. I bring this back to her and retrieve my backpack. Necessary things contained therein are my notebook, and a book to read. If I don’t have the notebook, I just don’t remember anything much of what is said in the appointment. I just sit and read my book until my name is called. 

We have found morning appointments are best; I am usually a bit more alert, and there is less chance of the good doctor running behind. Dr P goes through the results from the blood test. This is usually straightforward; everything is over in about five minutes.  It is strange how, after I get this news, I feel a bit scatty and distracted. I never expect the results to be the same as they were last time, even when they have been good all year, or remember how I feel from one time to the next. We have gone through this cycle eight times this year. In saying this, I am very conscious that everything is the best that it can be.

Every other time I see Dr P, all being well, I have another Zolodex. (This is the estrogen treatment that is keeping the cancer quiet. It is delivered in the form of an implant about the size of a grain of rice.) I just walk up the street from the practice to the Epworth Box Hill oncology ward. One of the nurses there checks the dose, and what side it went in on last time. Then they swab the other side of my tummy, and shove it in. This is one of the situations where being a bit rounded is actually quite a good thing! One of the nurses said that they have to hunt around on really lean patients to find enough fat into which to put the implant. Even with my moderate spare tyre, the injection still leaves a fair size bruise.

Dr P told me to keep up the exercise, which I intend to do. I am about half way through the three months of exercise classes I am doing for the university study; three classes a week for the next six weeks, with a break for Christmas. The classes are all supervised by PhD students in exercise physiology. They are lovely young folk, radiating fitness and endorphins, who implacably raise the bar on us old roosters. The aerobic session I do first has gotten longer, and now features high intensity interval training. (This is where you go flat out for a minute, then ease back to the original speed. I do this three or four times, then have a cool-down.) In the resistance training part, the weights have gotten heavier, and the number of sets has gone from two to three. I am feeling better for it all, and even putting on some muscle.  On Sunday, two days after my last class, I felt restless, and found it hard to concentrate. I think I am getting hooked on this exercise caper!

I have been pondering what to do around the end of January, after the study finishes.  I don’t think I will do three sessions a week on my own dime; two, however, is quite a possibility. Meanwhile, Christmas looms into view again. I had the end-of-year party for the Museum last week. This week there is the party for the physio practice I was going to before starting the university program. The same day there is a coffee morning for former RMIT people; everyone kindly rearranged this from its usual day to accommodate my exercise class. This week we will also be getting a visit from an air-conditioning installer, fortunately the day before a heatwave. We will have gone from fifteen to thirty-eight in the same week, an impressive range even for Melbourne.