Thursday, February 28, 2013

On My 13 Favourite Pieces of Classical Music


I felt like compiling another list of music I enjoy. I'm told that I listen to a fairly broad range of music, but I don't really. All of the music I really enjoy falls into the genres of metal, alternative rock and classical, and even within those genres, I'm quite discerning. Anyway, here is a list of the 13 pieces of classical music that I would list as my favourite, in no particular order. It wasn't easy, but I did try limit myself to listing each composer only once. Sit back, listen, and enjoy.


    1. Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi's music was incredibly advanced for it's time. Although it is a full concerto in it's own right (No. 4 in F minor), it is usually listed as the final part of the set The Four Seasons. The first concerto, "Spring" is probably the most famous (and you'd probably recognise the opening bars if you heard them), but of the four, it is definitely the one I like least.


    2. The Funeral March from Mahlers's Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler wrote a couple of funeral marches throughout his life. The first, "Hunter's Funeral", which served as the third movement of his first symphony is probably one you'd recognise - the melody is from the nursery rhyme "Are You Sleeping?". The opening movement of his 5th symphony, however, is far more powerful. It portrays such complex emotion, more than just the sadness which funeral marches tend to carry. It contains pieces which carry grief, distress, frustration, resignation, and gratefulness all pulled together in a single piece of music.


    3. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Movement I

There is a reason why Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th symphony is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written. I enjoy the majority of Beethoven's work from his middle period, but his fifth symphony (together with the more light hearted eighth symphony and the Moonlight Sonata) really stands out from the rest.


    4. Dvořák's New World Symphony, Movement IV

Antonín Dvořák's From the New World was apparently one of the pieces of music that Neil Armstrong chose to take with him to the moon. As far as epic music goes, the final movement is one of the best. Having been a big fan of this piece for years, I was incredibly excited when I first heard The Wizard's Last Rhymes (by the Italian power metal band Rhapsody of Fire) use it to such good effect.


    5. Tchaikovsky's "Scene" from Act II of Swan Lake

Although Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture was the first piece of instrumental music that I heard that portrayed it's story perfectly (who can't love music that uses cannons as a musical instrument), but it's just not quite as beautiful as the Swan Lake's "Scene".


    6. Prokofiev's Dance of the Knights

I first heard this piece in the form of Lords of Bedlam (by the Austrian symphonic black metal band Hollenthon), and eventually went on a hunt for Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev's original from his Romeo and Juliet ballet. It's the sort of tune that gets stuck in your head for years, and never truly leaves.


    7. Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu

Limiting myself to listing Frédéric François Chopin only once was difficult, since Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E minor is by far, the most emotional piece of music I have ever heard, and no single piece of music has quite as much effect on me. However, Fantaisie-Impromptu, which is heavily inspired by Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (another work which maybe should have made this list) is easily one of my favourite pieces of pieces of piano music. Interestingly, it's the most complex piece I've ever tried learning on the piano. Too date, I have mastered the first two notes.


    8. Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, Movement I

Apparently, the only piano concerto Edvard Hagerup Grieg ever wrote is somehow the one of the most famous piano concerto's ever. It's the introduction that I enjoy most, but the rest of the piece is extremely relaxing and perfect background music when reading or working. As Bill Bailey's character Manny from Black Books says, "It's good isn't it. It's sort of relaxing."


    9. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement II

Sergei Rachmaninoff hated his second piano concerto. He wrote it while trying to recover from clinical depression and severe writer's block. I have mixed feelings about a lot of Rachmaninoff's work, but this particular piece is one that I always enjoy listening to. For some reason though, the depressing 1975 pop song (which will remain unnamed) that features the main theme from this movement is one song I can't stand listening to.


    10. Pachelbel's Canon

Apparently, Johann Pachelbel's Canon is quite popular at weddings. Having only been to one wedding in my life, I didn't actually know that. I enjoy it because of the complex harmonies that arise out of such a technically simple piece. For those who don't know, a canon is a single melody that is played, with one or more instruments picking up the same melody after a delay (much like rounds in singing). In Pachelbel's Canon, all of the variation and complexity in the music essentially comes from a single melody interacting with two delayed versions of itself.


    11. "Rondo" from Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2

I was torn between listing Niccolò Paganini's original violin concerto and Franz Liszt's piano version, La Campanella. In the end, I chose Paganini. I'm not sure why. It's probably because of the violin


    12. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Johann Sebastian Bach actually wrote three Toccata and Fugues for the organ - two of which were in D minor. Two of them (BWV 538 in D minor and BWV 540 in F major) are quite similar, and I'm not a big fan of either of them. In fact, I dislike almost all of Bach's music. The one exception, of course is the better known of the three Toccata and Fugues, BWV 565, which is one of the most recognisable organ pieces ever written. It is completely different to any of Bach's other works, and indeed contains many features that were either extremely rare or completely unique at the time. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that it was not written by Bach at all (there is actually no manuscript signed by Bach), and the second is that it was actually written for violin and later transcribed for organ.


    13. "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov had an incredible talent for telling stories through music, and most of his orchestral works are the sort of thing you can just sit and listen to at any time. Scheherazade is just one of my favourite examples of that. He was also renowned as an excellent teacher, describing his philosophy as "I will speak, and you will listen. Then I will speak less, and you will start to work. And finally I will not speak at all, and you will work."


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Thursday, February 21, 2013

On John


Crouching forward, glaring at the dull grey light emanating from the screen, the man appeared deep in thought. It took a while to realise that he was dead, and probably had been so for a day or so. Even after realising this, and seeing the red of the gunshot wound in the back of the man's head, John gave the body a quick nudge with the tip of his boot before checking for a pulse, just to make sure. Nothing. Of course.

He left the room, returning less than a minute later with a large black bag. He pulled the chair out from under the table, and tipped the body onto the floor. In the manner of one who has unexpectedly spent a decade or two too long in one job, he dragged the heavy body into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. A thick, tattered cord was hastily tied through a pair of roughly cut holes in the bag's base, and John dragged it out into the hallway, carelessly knocking furniture on the way out. He passed by the too-long-out-of-order elevator doors, and made his way down the stairs, the body thunking violently down each step. A hobo lay in a pile of his own vomit, drunk at the bottom of the stairs. John carried on walking, dragging the bag over the hobo’s legs as if he weren’t there. The hobo mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep, but John lurched on.

It was late morning, although little more than wisps of light could pierce the deep mist curtains that hid the rest of the city away. John tossed the body into the back of a run-down truck. He spent a couple of seconds looking back at the building before clambering into the driver’s seat and heading off. He was tired of this.

It was several hours before he approached his destination. Two blocks away from the place he was looking for, he was forced to swerve at an intersection as a couple in a battered sports car hurtled through on a red light, sending John and his truck skidding out of control into the side of a grey brick apartment block. He yelled profanities after them, but they were already long gone. Mumbling under his breath, he pushed the airbag down and climbed out to inspect the damage. It wasn’t too bad – it could probably be repaired – but the truck would not be going anywhere for a couple of days. That was unfortunate. He doubted that he had a couple of days. He took the body bag and a steel shovel out of the back, and grudgingly dragged them the final couple of blocks.

There was a park on the banks of the river, beautiful trees dropping autumn leaves which drifted under a large stone bridge. He had always loved this park. It was so peaceful here. He found a quiet corner under a tree, and in the orange light of a setting sun, he began to dig.

He wondered briefly how strange it was that he felt nothing. It was as if he was fulfilling an almost forgotten promise to a friend with whom he’d long since parted company.

The body buried, he turned back toward the road. A woman stood watching, long, wispy grey hair blowing gently in the breeze. He was not surprised. He had been expecting her to be there. “It is difficult,” she said, a small tear glistening in her otherwise lifeless face. He shook his head. “An obligation owed. Nothing more,” he replied.

He took her hand, and the pair walked down the street to the nearby pub. It was deserted, save the sullen barman behind the counter. He gave them little more than a glance as they walked in and seated themselves at the bar. The two sat in silence for quite some time before ordering.

The hours passed by, and the dirty glasses piled up. The pub closed, and the two made their way to the woman’s tiny apartment.

The night blurred into early morning, and John awoke on the kitchen floor. The woman was gone, but empty bottles still lay across the table and floor. Feeling bilious, John staggered out into the street, barely registering that the sun was still not up. His stomach finally giving up the battle, he threw up violently over his pants and shoes. He walked through the doors of the building next door, and passed out in the lobby. He lay there for several hours. Few people walked by, but those that did looked down scornfully, before pretending that they hadn’t seen him.

The grey-haired woman woke him. “Hurry, we need to leave,” she told him. “If we don’t make it in time…” John nodded, understanding. The two climbed into her car and set off.

“We won’t make it in time,” John told her.

“We have to,” the woman replied, pushing down on the accelerator.

They soared out of the city, and up a windy pass. As they left the mountains behind, the clouds opened up, and the mid afternoon sun pummelled down on them. The distant blue of ocean flickered though gaps in the trees as they heedlessly bounced over the cracked asphalt.

Speeding through the narrow streets of the city, the woman rashly cut corners, leapt over sidewalks, and completely ignored the traffic signals, sending more than one car swerving out of her way. She came to a stop in the middle of the street outside a battered old building. The two leapt out of the car, and made their way up the stairs, cursing the elevator which was not working.

Sitting in the chair, John fired up the computer. “Come on, come on,” he mumbled under his breath. The screen lit up, and he began clicking the mouse furiously.

“Will it work?” the grey-haired woman asked.

“I’m not sure. We need more time,” John replied.

“We don’t have time. Will it work?”

“I think so.”

“We need to be certain.”

“Yes. It will work.”

“Thank-you.” She turned made her way to the door. Her hand on the handle, she stopped and turned. “And, John?”

John did not remove his eyes from the screen. “Yes?” he asked, exhausted.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she fired the gun. She scrambled down the stairs, out the door, across the road, hurried across the river at the bridge, and came to a stop on a small hill looking over a quiet corner of the park. There, she stood and waited patiently as an old man slowly filled a grave for a long-forgotten friend.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On the Seven-Year-Old Who Bought Stuff


Sorting out some paperwork in my cupboard, I came across an invoice for a cheap keyring, dated 5 July 2009. Its not that I don't clean out my cupboard very often (I try do it at least every six months), but I kept that particular invoice for a reason. You see, it's only a copy of an invoice, printed a week after the sale, and I wasn't the one who made the purchase, and, actually, I have never even touched the keyring in question.

I printed and kept a copy of the invoice because, over that one little keyring, threats and accusations were made against me, and on two separate occasions, security guards were called. All thanks to a single cheap little keyring.

The whole issue revealed so many flaws in our society and the way people think that I just had to write a post about it. However, it didn't feel right posting it while I was still working at the shop where the incident occurred. After three and a half years of a two-sentence draft post sitting in my post list, and more than two and a half years since I stopped working at the shop, I finally feel that the time has come for me to write the things that I wish I had been quick enough to think of at the time.

Let me tell the whole story. It's pretty long, but I think I should include all the details.

It all started at about 4PM on a Sunday, where I was working as a casual in a small retail store. I about five hours into a nine hour shift (immediately after a three hour shift at my sound engineering job earlier that morning), and I was pretty tired. It had been a quiet afternoon, and I'd spent most of it doing reading for my final year research project that I didn't really understand. A small boy walked in alone, and spent quite a bit of time looking around. Now this wasn't unusual - the centre is primarily a casino complex (one of the most popular in the country), and an alarming number of parents would leave their kids to wander the centre while they were off gambling, rather than fork out money for the childcare facilities that were provided. Eventually, the child brought a keyring to the counter, and handed over his money. I ring it up, handed him his change and a receipt, and thought nothing more of it. If it hadn't been such a slow day (that was practically the only sale I'd made that afternoon), I wouldn't have remembered it at all.

(On a side note: The babysitting issue was pretty serious problem for us, but I'll get back to that later. We actually at one stage had a large TV in the store, and we used to play DVDs on it to attract customers. We got rid of it, because we'd inevitably land up with a row of kids seated in the middle of the store as parents left them for hours at a time while they went to watch a show or gamble.)

At around 6:30, the boy came back with a slightly older (maybe ten to twelve years old) girl. She holds out the keyring, and says "You have to take it back. His father will kill him if he finds out." The store had a no returns policy, but if an item was still in the packaging, I often used to do a refund anyway. Unfortunately, the boy had thrown away the receipt and packaging (so we'd never be able to resell it even if I had taken it back), so I apologised, and explained that I couldn't give a refund. The two left disappointed.

Closing time was officially 8PM, but I noticed pretty soon after I started working there that there that the store's busy periods coincided with the end of each show at the cinema. I could normally make half a dozen or so extra sales for the day if I kept the store open an extra 30 minutes, and that day was no different. I cashed up and closed off the day's accounts, switched everything off, packed up my stuff and left. Just as I turned away after locking the door (this is 45 minutes after the official closing time), a woman approached me.

"How could you sell this to my son!" she yelled, waving the keyring in my face. "He's a child of seven!" I noticed the boy now hiding behind her, terrified. Tired, and just wanting to go home, I asked her calmly if she wouldn't mind coming back the next day - someone else worked Monday's, and I was hoping that by passing off the problem, I wouldn't have to deal with it. She did not accept that. I repeated what I had told her children - that without the packaging and receipt, there was nothing I could do. If a child is old enough to carry money and walk around a shopping mall alone, he's old enough to buy stuff. After around fifteen minutes of arguing, I gave up and began to walk away, but she grabbed my arm and violently pulled me back. That was my trigger - no one touches me aggressively. The two years of Taekwondo training that I'd had at the time probably showed a little in the way that I twisted my arm out of the grip, and I murmured "Don't f****** touch me." Now, those who know me personally will be able to confirm that I almost never swear, and that I am almost always calm. In fact, this was the fourth time out of four that I have ever genuinely lost my temper in public. I turned and stormed off. I heard her calling for security, calling "Stop him! That man stole from my son." I walked through the centre, people staring, straight past the security check point at the exit, made sure no one was going to stop me, got in my car, and drove home. I made a very angry Facebook status update, followed half an hour later by an apology, both to my friends and the woman I swore at (who would obviously never read it).

The following Sunday evening, an angry man with popping eyes and throbbing veins on his forehead came into the store and started yelling at me. With an awful lot of cursing, he was demanding his money back, but it took me a full five minutes to figure out that he was the husband of the woman I'd dealt with the week before. I explained, as I had to his wife and daughter, that I could not do the refund without a packaging and receipt. he demanded that I get the store owner on the phone. I did so, and the store owner (who'd heard the whole story the week before, and supported the way I'd handled it) explained our no refunds policy to him. The man stormed out. Ten minutes later, he stormed back in. This time, he had a security guard with him. "This is the one. He's scamming children out of their money," he told the guard. The guard asked him to explain the whole story. The man started by explaining how I took advantage of his son's naivety and tricked him out of his money. Then he explained how I had not given his son any change or receipt, changing his story as he went along. Eventually, the story went that I did this all the time: I took advantage of children who had money and overcharged them for unmarked keyrings with no packaging from under the counter, and pocketed the cash. Naturally, I interjected to deny the allegations, to which he responded "Shut up. You'd better watch your back when you go home tonight, because I'll follow you and smash your face in." I could see the situation resolving in the security guards face, even as he explained to the man that threats wouldn't help anything. He asked the man to step outside so that he could ask me my side of the story. When the man had gone, I began to explain to the security guard what had happened, but he stopped me. "Its obvious what's happened here. Don't worry. We'll sort it out." He went out, and I didn't see the man again. Just to be on the safe side, I went back to the previous week's sales, found the transaction in question, and printed the copy invoice in case any more accusations came up. A security guard stood across the corridor for the rest of the day, and when I left that evening, I noticed a pair of security guards following me at a comfortable distance as I made my way through the car park. I put the invoice on my paperwork-awaiting-filing pile, and that's where it's been ever since.

That's pretty much the end of the story. I still have the father's eyes imprinted in my memory, and would almost certainly recognise him if I ever saw him again. I probably won't, but if I do see him again one day, I will direct him to this post. Unfortunately, it's a big world, and that's unlikely. Instead, all of you will be the ones who read this, and most of you are the ones who this least applies to. Nevertheless, I feel that it all still needs to be said.

First of all, the babysitting issue. I know childcare facilities can be expensive, and I know that a lot of people do not trust the people who work in them (they're mostly underpaid with very little experience and no qualifications anyway), but both of these points are easily addressed. The cost is easily argued away by pointing out that gambling is an extremely expensive habit in the first place. If a person cannot afford to pay for childcare services because of a gambling habit, one can't help wondering which other of the child's needs that person is neglecting. If this is a problem for you, you should probably seek free, confidential, expert help from the National Responsible Gambling Programme. The second point is even simpler: if a person doesn't trust the childcare staff, then what exactly is it that makes you prefer to put your trust in the roughly 9 and a half million annual visitors to the centre? I wish I'd thought to point out these flaws in their parenting at the time.

Second, the age issue. It turns out that the money that the child spent on the keyring had been intended to buy his dinner. One of the principle arguments that the mother had brought up was that it was irresponsible of me to be selling to such a young child. This is a terrible notion. I started receiving pocket money at around the age of five, and by then my parents were already teaching me the basics of saving up to buy bigger things. I was raised from the very beginning to learn to make sure I really wanted something before I bought it, and if I ever ever decided that I didn't want something after buying it, my parents would simply laugh at me and point out that there was a lesson to be learnt. So when I see a seven-year-old, eagerly handing over money, having been staring at an item on the rack for several minutes, I naturally put my seven-year-old self in his shoes, and imagine that they are coming to a final decision regarding hard earned money. It's not my place to remind him (even if I had known) that he needed the money to buy dinner. I think going hungry for a night would be the best way to teach him where his priorities should lie (this is exactly the same way life likes to teach this same lesson to children and adults alike). That aside, surely if it's irresponsible for me to be selling to a seven-year-old, then it's also irresponsible for a fast food joint to be selling to a seven-year-old? Not to mention giving a seven-year-old money, expecting him to buy stuff?

Thirdly, the blame and accusation issue, and this applies to people in general. Why on earth do some people feel the need to pile up accusation after accusation when they're angry? Even when the accusations turn out to be true (which wasn't the case in this situation), they are often irrelevant - merely constituting an argumentum ad hominem, one of the most common logical fallacies. In this case, of course, the accusations were actually relevant to the complaint, but the repeated exaggeration of the accusation, and adding additional false claims if the originals don't seem to have an impact is a deliberate malicious act. It only serves to weaken the case - inconsistencies in a testimonial form the biggest clue that it is false. It is completely irrational, and I don't think I'll ever understand the thought processes that would lead a person to do that sort of thing.

And finally, the threat. How on earth is threatening to smash a person's face in - in front of a security guard, no less - ever going to solve the situation. Especially since, from the security guards point of view, the party making the threats has been yelling and swearing excessively the whole time, while the other party just stood there calmly, unable to get a single word in. People do this all the time. They immediately want to revert to violence, when simple thought and calm debate would get both parties much further. Even if they can't reach agreement, there's always a compromise to be made.

Anyway, I'm glad that I've finally gotten around to writing this post. I'm sorry I lost my temper with a customer - something that I still feel guilty about today - and I'm sorry to everyone who saw me lose my temper. And even though she will never read it, I apologise to that woman. Most of all, I apologise for that poor little boy (who will be eleven this year), who has had to grow up with parents like that. I'm sorry.

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