Saturday, 28 January 2012

Phillippe Jaroussky

I’ve just been seduced by Philippe Jaroussky and I’m not alone.  Just listen to this!

Philippe is naturally a baritone, and his speaking voice has that pitch, but he sings as a counter tenor.  The counter tenor voice is obtained by singing in the falsetto range and, whilst many men can do this, there are very few who are able to do so with great artistry and produce a beautiful sound. 
The repertoire for these specialist performers comes mostly from the baroque period and was written for castrati.  Italian composers like Monteverdi, Vivaldi and others, such as Purcell and Handel, wrote extensively for the high pitched male voice.
Until very recently I’ve not been a great fan of this period, because I thought that I didn’t like the long highly decorated melismatic passages that were the fashion, but listen to Philippe performing this aria, which is very fast, with lots of melismas, but so well done even all the other musicians can’t help smiling!

Andreas Scholl , probably the world’s best known counter tenor, was interviewed with Philippe Jaroussky in the Guardian when they were rehearsing for a joint concert in London’s Barbican just over a year ago.  

Andreas said: "There's always this fascination about the counter tenor voice.  But I've never really understood what that is, because I'm doing it every day – it's my voice.  Yet when we sing, people cry and we get love letters.  You get used to that." He turns to Jaroussky.  "But I experienced, for the first time, what other people feel when I heard your recording Opium.  I got goosebumps.  For the first time in my life – I'm serious, Philippe – I thought, 'A-ha! This is why people are so fascinated by our voices.'"

I know exactly what he means, because I had the same response when listening, with other members of our quartet, to “Sì dolce è 'l tormento”.   When the track had finished I turned to Quince, who sings Alto, and said “I think I’ve just been seduced by Philippe Jaroussky!”   And she said “So have I!”

I’ve sung this Purcell duet with Netty, who sings soprano, but we are nowhere near achieving the perfection of this version by Andreas and Philippe.  In fact they have given me a model interpretation to work towards.  

Quince and I are rehearsing “Et Misericordia”  from the Magnificat by JS Bach but I’m quite sure that our interpretation will be completely different from this one. Don't get confused Jaroussky is singing the upper line!

But for a final frisson or two, try this Vivaldi aria "Vedro con mio diletto"

Some more links

Piangero (Vivaldi)

A very good article about Philippe has been published in French News Online
Here is Phillippe Jaroussky’s official website

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Burn's Night - An Address to the Ladies

George has kindly asked me to address the ladies -  
And where indeed would we men be today without our ladies? 
Who can naysay their particular household skill –
Which ensures that nothing stays where we mere mortal men might will?
Who could criticize such persistence in adversity –
Providing that it’s not of mechanical or electrical diversity,
Or deny their skilful observation –
Of all those tiny things we men have overlooked in aberration?
Let us marvel at their resolve and their finality –
When going shopping in the spirit of frugality.
And don’t discount how they can fill tongue-tied tranquillity with talk of topics everyday –
But perhaps only amongst the ladies of my own family is this their way.
Above all who could not but praise such womanly qualities as nurturing and protection - 
Which are their virtues most outstanding in our affection? 


But putting aside poetic tributes to the ladies just for a moment, it must be said, that ladies were not always so valued and appreciated by men for the exceptional abilities of their sex, neither have they always taken such a prominent role in society as they do now.  Here, in our beloved Republic, before the revolution of 1789 women were considered “passive citizens” – and up to 1945 they still relied on men for their political representation.

And what should one say of the feminine qualities of Pauline Léon, who on 6 March 1792, submitted a petition to the National Assembly, signed by 319 women, requesting permission to form a “Garde National” of women armed with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion.  Her request was, of course, denied. 

Yes, this was the era of revolution but, as Madame Defarge and her feisty female friends were practising their knitting skills in Paris, whilst eagerly awaiting the free spectacle soon to be offered by the abrupt demise of royalty and the aristocracy, at the same time, in 1791, Thomas Paine published “The Rights of Man”. 

Our hero for this night, Rabbie Burns, one of Scotland’s first gallants and proto-feminists, felt that this document was  far too one sided, so in 1792 he replied to Thomas Paine with his poem “The Rights of Woman”, which I would like to read to you now.

The Rights of Woman

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

First, in the Sexes' intermix'd connection,
One sacred Right of Woman is, protection.
The tender flower that lifts its head, elate,
Helpless, must fall before the blasts of Fate,
Sunk on the earth, defac'd its lovely form,
Unless your shelter ward th' impending storm.

Our second Right - but needless here is caution,
To keep that right inviolate's the fashion;
Each man of sense has it so full before him,
He'd die before he'd wrong it -   'tis    decorum.
There was, indeed, in far less polish'd days,
A time, when rough rude man had naughty ways,
Would swagger, swear, get drunk, kick up a riot,
Nay even thus invade a Lady's quiet.

Now, thank our stars! those Gothic times are fled;
Now, well-bred men - and you are all well-bred -
Most justly think (and we are much the gainers)
Such conduct neither spirit, wit, nor manners.

For Right the third, our last, our best, our dearest,
That right to fluttering female hearts the nearest;
Which even the Rights of Kings, in low prostration,
Most humbly own -   'tis dear, dear admiration!
In that blest sphere alone we live and move;
There taste that life of life-immortal love.
Smiles, glances, sighs, tears, fits, flirtations, airs;
'Gainst such an host what flinty savage dares,
When awful Beauty joins with all her charms ˄
Who is so rash as to rise in rebel arms?

But truce with kings, and truce with constitutions,
With bloody armaments and revolutions;
Let Majesty your first attention summon,
Ah! ca ira! The Majesty Of Woman!

Gentleman I ask you to raise your glasses to the Ladies!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Roger Penrose “Cycles of Time”

The man who tore up the rule book, which says that for each equation you include in a popular science book you will halve its sales, has published another to follow his best seller “The Road to Reality”.  It’s called “Cycles of Time” (published in 2010) and it proposes a form of cosmology in which the universe follows successive cycles of big bangs; he calls it “Cyclic Conformal Cosmology” or CCC.

Although it’s well written and the development of his line of reasoning is clear it’s not at all easy to comprehend.  I did mathematics as a secondary subject to an engineering degree and the concepts that he uses go well beyond that level.  If you really want to understand his arguments properly you need to have studied, to graduate level, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and his use of tensors, together with statistical thermodynamics and quantum theory, as well as have a familiarity with current and historical cosmological models and the physics and mathematics of black holes.  People have written entire books and devoted their lives to researching these subjects and he assumes that you are up to date with their findings.  I found that it was just about possible to follow the outline of his ideas and the very numerous diagrams helped a lot.
Whilst he’s prepared to speculate in certain areas he sticks rigidly to the correctness of the second law of thermodynamics.  He emphasizes throughout the definition of entropy derived from statistical mechanics.

Current experimental evidence indicates that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate.  It’s widely accepted that at the Big Bang the entropy of the universe was low and has increased continually thereafter.   During the evolution of the universe many black holes form, some of them at the centre of galaxies are extremely massive.  At one stage Stephen Hawking thought that matter entering a black hole entailed a destruction of entropy, which is against the second law of thermodynamics, but he withdrew that opinion in 2004.  According to Stephen Hawking’s widely accepted theoretical research, a black hole very very gradually evaporates by radiating at a very low temperature until it eventually disappears altogether with a small pop”.  Thus the entropy swallowed by the black hole is eventually released in the form of radiation. 

But not all matter will end up in black holes, whatever the age of the universe.  Some matter will just cool down and stay there.  Here Penrose is forced to accept a speculation that allows him to dispose of this matter over a very long period of time.  He postulates that matter in itself has a propensity to decay and the decay products to annihilate each other and disappear as radiation, to return, if you like, to its equivalence in energy.  The reason that he is forced down this route of allowing matter to evaporate, as well as the black holes, is that his mathematical construct of Cyclic Conformal Cosmology requires that time becomes impossible to measure at the limiting condition.  If there's no matter and just radiation, then there’s no way to construct even an atomic clock, so time itself becomes irrelevant in the expression of space time and by using conformal mathematical concepts he postulates that the cosmological cycle restarts from this state. 

I’m afraid that this is where my understanding fails me.  In the way that he presents it diagrammatically it seems possible.  Mathematically you are equating the low entropy state of the origins of the Big Bang with the low entropy state that would exist once all of the black holes and matter had turned into low temperature radiation but how the latter, in the form of dispersed radiation, turns into the former, a singularity containing the entire energy of the cosmos, leaves me perplexed.  It can be made to work mathematically, but as in many things mathematical, it does not seem to relate to any normal concept of reality.  It’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

In the very last part of the book he speculates that it might be possible to detect the results of gravitational waves resulting from close encounters between massive black holes which took place BEFORE the big bang.  These would show as ripples appearing in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.  He persuaded David Spergel and his research assistant Amir Hajian at Princeton University to look for these in the CMB data and, when spurious spikes from regions around the galactic plane were suppressed, the results were not encouraging.  Then they tried using elliptical shapes instead of circles to look for correlations and they had more success but this might be due to lensing by the gravitational curvature of space time introduced by massive objects in the current aeon as the CMB radiation traverses our universe.  Roger Penrose hopes that by correcting for these anomalies he will be able to confirm his ideas about Conformal Cyclic Cosmology.  
I wish him good luck.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Meet the Politicians - Cécile Duflot

Today on France Inter it was the turn of Cécile Duflot, Party Secretary of the Europe Ecology Party (the Greens).

On the prestigious news and current affairs programme between 7am and 9am she was promulgating all the current received wisdom of this disproportionately influential minority party.
·         Nuclear power is not sustainable in the long term,
·         Renewable energy can provide all our needs and,
·         We don’t need growth because you can have prosperity without economic growth.

The depressing thing in France is that nobody challenges such statements.  Not on the radio at any rate and the result is that people are at risk of being persuaded that it’s true.
Nuclear Power is Sustainable
With the use of the right technologies, such as liquid fluoride thorium reactors, nuclear power can be both safe and sustainable for centuries to come, without increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and without generating wastes which will still be radioactive in thousands of year’s time.  There are even technologies available which can safely burn existing nuclear wastes and surplus plutonium stocks, but they all need political commitment and investment.
Renewable Sources cannot provide all our needs
Renewable energy sources do have a place in the energy mix, I'm even considering an installation myself, but they cannot be a complete replacement for nuclear power, or power from fossil fuels, because they either only work during daylight hours, or when it’s windy.  There is no suitable storage technology that will enable sufficient energy storage solely from such sources for our current patterns of demand.   I didn’t hear her mention biofuels but they need huge areas of land and, unless you live in a country that has thousands of hectares of unpopulated forest, they are in direct competition with food crops.
German consumers already pay 40% more for their electricity than consumers in France because they have less nuclear power and are now going to withdraw from it altogether.  They haven’t yet admitted that there’s a problem of satisfying the base load with renewables but when they do they will make it up by burning more Russian gas or importing French nuclear electricity!  Fortunately they are unlikely to be in direct political conflict with Putin et al, who have a history of turning off the gas as a political weapon and, however high the price of gas gets, they can afford it!  They are a successful country that can export its manufactured goods and has sustained higher economic growth over the decades than its neighbours. 
Prosperity without economic growth is a myth
France is not so lucky but Cecile Duflot has an answer to that as well, “prosperity without economic growth”.  Even that might be possible in an unconnected world where we all lived in our own small isolated communities.  I suppose it would be rather like after the romans left, no economic growth but just lots of invasions.  Between successive waves of wars and invasions there was a form of prosperity, if you could call being able to feed yourself and stay alive until the Black Death arrived, being prosperous. 

Somewhat more recently we saw what happened to communist regimes following over seventy years of stifling dogma and the cold war, both of which had the effect of restricting economic growth.  Eastern European countries are still living with the economic and political legacy. 
Oh sorry!  You want an army to defend your borders, a better health service, state subsidies for failing industries and more social protection but all without economic growth to pay for it.  Clearly we need another revolution!
So if you want to pay at least 40% more for your electricity, you think economic growth is a bad thing and you have no children or grandchildren who will need jobs in the future, then vote for Europe Ecology. You know it makes sense!