alan little’s weblog archive for june 2004

roles & expectations

30th June 2004 permanent link

I live in a society that was once made transparent by the roles assigned by kinship, community, and religion. I knew who you were and what I could expect of you because I could identity the group and the role that defines you. In a society of strangers, where individuals are individuated, this is no longer true.

Western, First world societies are broken away from cultural continuities and shared definitions. Things change. We are unmoored. There is almost no domain in which change is not constantly “on the boil”. Religion, politics, family, community, entertainment, communication, all of these rewrite themselves and unmoor us.

Where does order come from in such a world?

I don’t often write weblog posts that say nothing more than “this post on some other weblog is great, go and read it”. But this post by anthropologist Grant McCracken is great, go and read it. It’s about how, in his view, modern western societies are fundamentally unlike traditional societies where people’s lives are largely governed by conventional roles and expectations; and how anthropologists really only understand how to think about traditional societies. I’m not sure if what we’ve been doing for the last forty years is trying to learn to live without stereotyped roles and conventions, invent a new set of same (the communes & cults McCracken mentions), or rediscover for ourselves that there was some sound basis to much of the old set after all. Or some permutation of all of the above.

Just so this is isn’t only a “this is great, go and read it” post: it is also very relevant to an interesting yoga book I’m reading at the moment in which Elizabeth Kadetsky reflects on the (perhaps) fundamental difference in expectations about the teacher-pupil (or is it guru-disciple?) relationship between Indian Brahmin yoga teachers and their western students. Among other things. Review to follow shortly, maybe.

related entries: Yoga

30th June 2004 permanent link

Julie Kremer’s new website,, is intended to be “a central resource for blogs and other information about Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois”, apparently largley built around an aggregation of ashtanga-related weblogs. She’s using my pictures (with permission of course) so she should be supported.

So, coming soon: RSS feed of only my yoga weblog entries so that they can appear on, and an essay on yoga photography from my Perpetually Unfinished Drafts collection.

related entries: Yoga

my right knee

29th June 2004 permanent link

A story of hubris, yoga and the anatomy of the human knee. Part One: Hubris

It all began in the summer of 1984, when Alan as a young climber decided to attempt a climb named Brown’s Eliminate, at Froggatt Edge in the English Peak District.

climber on Brown’s Eliminate
climber on Brown’s Eliminate

Note the absence of a rope in this picture. You either climb Brown’s Eliminate on a safety rope from above – which doesn’t count – or you Don’t Fall Off. The picture – © Carl Ryan, who was very gracious about granting permission to use it – isn’t by or of me or anybody I know.

The normal way of doing Brown’s Eliminate starts up a much easier route on the right, then moves out onto the face along the narrow ledge you can see just below the climber’s feet in the picture. I had already done it this way and found it straightforward. The direct start, which is considerably harder, comes straight up to the left end of the ledge; the hard bit is getting to the ledge, about 20 feet off the ground. The landing zone is flat but hard: hitting it from 20 feet isn’t life-threatening but is guaranteed to be unpleasant. As I was about to find out.

The kids these days use crash mats for this sort of thing, so I’m told. Twenty years ago we just used Moral Fibre. Ha!

According to the guidebook, the direct start should have been about at the limit of my abilities in ideal conditions. Conditions weren’t ideal – it was a hot, humid day in July, exactly the wrong weather for climbing gritstone where friction is everything – but I was young, arrogant & stupid and I thought I could pull it off anyway. Just below the ledge it all went horribly wrong. There was clearly no way I was going to reach the ledge in control. The climbing up to that point had already been tricky and I didn’t think I could get back down either. The right thing to do at this point would probably have been to jump off; I could have landed in control and probably got away with a bruised ankle or two. But jumping off was too scary. I knew if I could just reach the ledge, the rest was much easier. So I jumped for the ledge. Reached it with one hand, couldn’t hold it ... bang.

Five minutes with Excel and my faintly remembered school physics reveals that (assuming negligible air resistance) a body falling 20 feet hits the ground at 26mph.

Lots of bits hurt. I was still able to walk so I hitched home and took myself to Accident & Emergency at my local hospital. What they spotted at the time was a broken left wrist and some strained ligaments on the outside of my right knee.

To be continued …

related entries: Yoga

was listening to …

28th June 2004 permanent link

At the weekend, on the other hand, I was listening to music of an entirely different kind. On Saturday after the kitchen-bashing I went to a party where a friend’s band was playing country & western. This is not what they normally play but he’s fully qualified, he comes from Dallas, and they’re good.

On Sunday, the friend who is now without the kitchen was working. He runs a restaurant and he was doing the catering for an open air blues festival in my old neighbourhood. His wife, meanwhile, needed to clean the apartment where the kitchen used to be, so we said we’d take their baby (and ours) to hear the blues for a couple of hours. The band that was playing most of the time we were there interpreted “blues” to mean “the complete works of AC/DC”, which I suppose might even be technically defensible and is fine by me in any case. Listening to string quartets is good. Listening to rock, where the bass comes up through the ground and the whole thing bypasses the forebrain entirely, is good too.

My son loves listening to music, which is something I feel I should try to encourage at every opportunity, and open air gigs aren’t too loud, late at night and smoky. A chance to hang out with friends in the sun, have a beer, listen to some live music and feel like you actually have a life is a rare and precious thing for parents of small child.

related entries: Music

currently listening to …

28th June 2004 permanent link

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar , as indirectly recommended by Michael Brooke who says it is even better than a Shostakovich film score he has been listening to and enjoying.

Listening to it quietly, though, because the baby is in bed and I’m too busy to sit down with headphones. Listening to orchestral music quietly is always kind of absurd, and especially orchestral music like this that is very much Big Orchestra on Full Steam Ahead, plus in this case Big Choir too. But such is life. Definitely a very impressive piece, though, and I must listen to it properly (i.e. loud) one day.

The recording is a recent one by Rudolf Barshai, who was a close friend and co-worker of Shostakovich, and it’s excellent. €22 for the complete set of 15 symphonies on 11 CDs, which is about what one “full price” CD used to cost in England five or six years ago.

Babi Yar is “a kind of landscape”, says my Russian language consultant, cryptically. Update: even at this price you get liner notes, which inform you that Babi Yar is the name of a place where a Nazi massacre of Russian Jews (as opposed to a Soviet massacre of Russian Jews: also not an unheard-of event) took place. The words are a poem by Yevtushenko.

This qualifies, just, as great classical music written in my lifetime.

related entries: Music

the correct answer

27th June 2004 permanent link

Yesterday I was helping a friend to dismantle the old fitted kitchen in his apartment and take it to the dump. An excellent day: karma yoga points for helping a friend, plus good healthy exercise, plus I now know a lot more than I did (none of it very confidence-inspiring) about how fitted kitchens are constructed.

My friend only had a small van. The biggest cupboard resisted being taken apart, and nearly fitted in the van but not quite. My friend looked at all kinds of possibilities. “Well,, we could move the seat forward a bit further, or take this other cupboard out and just angle it across a little bit then the back door might shut …”. “Or”, said I, “we could just get a big hammer and bash it until it fits”. Which turned out to be the correct answer, as it so often does.

yoga clothes

22nd June 2004 permanent link

Michael Blowhard in his usual refreshingly eyes-and-mind-open manner, writing about the aspects of culture other people really think about but think it’s beneath their dignity to write about, on yoga sociology. In particular, men in a minority, and “a big and underrecognized element here – there’s the whole yoga-clothes question.”

He doesn’t like lycra shorts. Sorry Michael, but lycra shorts (*) are, in fact, the only answer. The following comments apply to ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which is a vigorous physical practice involving a lot of movement and sweating:

Basic ground rule: cotton. Cotton is the only thing that is comfortable and unobtrusive worn next to the skin, especially when it’s sweaty. Synthetics are the right answer for running, cycling etc. but not for yoga. Fleece jackets are marginally ok for end-of-session relaxation, but wool blankets are better.

From the skin out: underwear. Reasonably supportive briefs are essential to prevent excessive flop, not to mention more severe hazards during some legs-crossed twisting manoeuvres. Boxers have no anti-flop properties and too much loose fabric that can get in the way. Shorts? The requirements are: complete freedom of movement, but also no swathes of loose baggy fabric getting in the way. Those baggy short shorts with built-in briefs are sort of ok on the freedom of movement / no excess fabric criteria, but offer completely inadequate protection against flop and unsightliness. Can you spell l-y-c-r-a? Sourcing your lycra is problematic, though – see below. Shirts? I hate practicing with a shirt on and avoid it whenever possible. If I’m forced to, e.g. by class rules, I find a fairly loose fitting, low cut cotton vest (tank top) is the only viable solution.

Some Indian practitioners favour Calvin Klein boxer briefs as a single-garment solution. I find these don’t offer enough flop resistance, and even in the privacy of my own spare room I feel too naked practicing in my underwear – even if in fact it covers about as much of me as a pair of shorts.

There are quite a lot of manoeuvres in ashtanga yoga that involve knees resting on the upper arms and/or arms wrapped around legs. These require a very high degree of core body strength and control – referred to in ashtanga circles as bandas – to keep everthing in place. In the absence of sufficient banda control (er, so I’m told) a spot of friction can help. Wet, sweaty knees pressed into wet, sweaty armpits do not have the desired frictional properties, so a teeshirt with sleeves or below-the-knee leggings can help. But in general teeshirts with sleeves are far too hot, clammy and uncomfortable, and leggings get in the way for certain other things. This is a difficult one, if only because the obvious and correct answer is “develop banda control so you don’t need the friction” which is much harder work than buying leggings.

Sources of lycra shorts for men? Difficult. I know a designer who produces her own line of Designer Yoga Clothing. All the Yoga Chicks I know wear it, and it’s great. I’ve been trying for years to persuade her to produce a line for men, but have so far failed to convince her that I am a viable market. Probably the nearest sport in terms of clothing requirements, with a majority of male participants, is rock climbing; so rock climbing gear can be a good bet. Prana make a good line of sports clothing that they aim at both yogis and climbers; difficult to find in Europe but possibly easier in the States. (I’m not linking to their flash-infested website though) Even climbing stuff tends to be a bit too baggy and made from too heavy fabric, though. So in the end I’m usually reduced to furtively buying extra-large women’s aerobics shorts. I don’t care if they’re not the height of style or elegance: they are the only things that actually do the job.

(*) Matte black cotton, not shiny synthetics. Other cotton colours are also acceptable - I had some rather fine brick red ones, made from a cut-off pair of climbing leggings, until I left them in a hotel room in New Orleans.

related entries: Yoga


21st June 2004 permanent link

I have never intended this weblog to be a yoga practice diary, for various reasons not least among which is that it might reveal how embarrassingly little I actually practice these days. (If you want to read somebody who does, sporadically, maintain an interesting online practice diary check out Days in John’s Lives)

Right now, though, I feel the urge to moan publicly about how unfair it is that I seem to be cursed never to have any consistent spells of good practice. I’ve managed to spend the first half of this year clawing my way back to something like a (for me) respectable level of physical practice after several months of new baby and almost no practice last year. I already moaned about how hard I found the workshop I attended last weekend; for various reasons but two of the main ones were directly related my son’s sinus infection. This caused me to commute two hundred miles a day to class; I also caught it, which made it vary hard for me to breathe after I got there. Nevertheless, the workshop was still a rewarding and inspiring experience, and it came at the end of a few weeks’ steadily building practice intensity that felt like I might actually be seeing major progress on several physical aspects of my practice.

So I was looking forward to carrying on practicing last week with some of the energy and motivation I derived from the workshop, but at home in a less frenetic and intense setting. Not to be: the sinus infection took all week to go away, and since I couldn’t breathe properly I only managed a couple of very short practices.

At the weekend, though, I managed two long practices. They were great. Several important things were suddenly better than they have ever been: in particular, anything involving half lotus position with the right leg has always been a struggle for me because of an old knee injury (long story, to be told here one day, perhaps). For the last couple of years, since just before I went to Mysore, I’ve been able to do them but they’ve always been a struggle and always felt like they needed extra care and attention. This weekend, suddenly, they just felt like a normal part of my practice the same as everything else. Wow.

So, carried away with enthusiasm, I proceeded to strain my neck lifting up into urdhva mukha paschimottanasana. Hmm. For me, getting from here to here is one of those things that when it happens, happens easily. By means that I can’t analyse or, unfortunately, repeat at will. Other times, it goes with a certain amount of bending of the legs or letting go of the feet, both of which are not strictly speaking correct. If you actually try to make it happen … well, do it sufficiently wrong and you can strain your neck. Bugger. Please don’t try this at home if you haven’t learned it from a qualified yoga teacher. Thanks.

It wasn’t a *bad* neck strain, but that sort of thing can really linger for weeks and I was worried about it putting another major crimp in my practice just when things seemed to be going well. (Which, of course, wouldn’t matter in the slightest in the grand scheme of things. But.) Prodding to see exactly where it hurt, combined with hasty consultation of David Coulter’s excellent Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, suggested the levator scapulae as the injured bit – not good if correct, because it’s mostly underneath the trapezius and not easy to get at. Slathered the area with ayurvedic pain-relieving oil anyway, asked Maria to massage it, had a hot bath; and went to bed still half expecting to wake up in the morning with my neck and upper back completely seized. But no. I can tell I did something but it seems to be nowhere near as bad as I expected/feared. Will still go easy with it for a day or two until I’m sure it’s alright; but for the moment (touch wood) it looks like either it was nothing, or my emergency oil-massage-hot bath regimen actually worked.

Once again, looking for yoga asana photos to illustrate this item I came to the conclusion that the web really needs better yoga asana photos. Coming soon: thoughts on yoga photography.

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to ...

18th June 2004 permanent link

Something I only recently realised I had.

A while ago I emailed Brian Micklethwait to ask if he could recommend a recording of Shostakovich’s 15th string quartet, since he had mentioned that he thinks it’s very good. The “complete” Borodin Quartet set that I have was complete when it was made in the 1960s, but then he wrote two more. In the end I bought a couple of versions of the 15th on discount labels - the Eder Quartet on Naxos and the Rubio Quartet on Brilliant Classics - and found the piece is wonderful and I liked both performances. Then I looked at a double CD that I bought for the piece that is on the first CD, and realised I hadn’t reallly looked at the second disk. On which it turns out there are performances of Shostakovich’s first and fifteenth quartets by the Borodin Quartet from 1996.

Now the Borodin Quartet in the 1960s was undoubtedly one of the greatest chamber ensembles of the recorded music era. In 1975 the original first violin, Rostislav Dubinsky, defected to the west and was replaced by Mikhail Kopelman. There are those who say the Kopelman-led Borodin Quartet is not the same and greatly inferior to the previous lineup. I have a couple of recordings of them and would say they are not the same but bloody good. This performance is marvellous. The recorded sound by Teldec is very good too.

This posting does not come under my self-imposed ban on writing about Shostakovich because it does not contain any speculation about his life or opinions.

My other self-imposed policy of not slagging off Apple’s online music store because it’s too easy & boring is, however, not strong enough to resist the temptation to point out that this double CD cost me €12, or roughly half what Apple would like to charge me for an inferior compressed, limited-rights version of the same thing. In the unlikely event that they sold it at all.

related entries: Music

yogic brain waves

17th June 2004 permanent link

Enhanced flexibility, strength, and endurance should not be yoga’s goal.
The “goal” is learning how to simply pay attention to “What Is ...”

Says Sam Dworkis, on a website that also contains the fascinating information that the brainwaves of advanced yoga students doing physical asana practice have the same “alpha wave” pattern as people doing sitting meditation, quite different from the pattern of people doing other physical activities.

Link courtesy of Michael Smith.

related entries: Yoga

politics, art and yoga

16th June 2004 permanent link

Aaron Haspel says

Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Which might also say something about why I tend to write more about music than photography, and more about photography than yoga.

Update: this is also what I like about Alice Bachini’s writing. You might not agree with what she says all the time, but you can’t deny that here is somebody really making a serious, honest attempt to work out what they believe about the things they care most about, in public, on a daily basis. I’m glad she’s back.

related entries: Yoga

another cheap shot

16th June 2004 permanent link

Not finding music in Apple’s music store is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s also cheap & easy weblog footage, so … I’ll try to make this the last time.

The search facility, and the metadata for the classical music they do have, is quite reasonable. Although they’re still using “album” (= CD) – a basically irrelevant concept for classical music – instead of “work” as the main unit.

There appears to be no facility for marking interesting things that you don’t want to buy right now. Other obvious ideas not present: ratings, recommendations, reviews, liner notes, lyrics.

I started off looking at the German version of the site but then had an altercation with the registration system when I thought about buying something. I naïvely took the phrase “a credit card with a billing address in Germany” to mean “a credit card with a billing address in Germany”. What Apple actually appear to mean is “a credit card with a billing address in Germany and not issued by a British bank”. So now I'm on the UK store instead and faced with the unpleasant prospect of paying the 20% Brit Tax. In the increasingly unlikely-looking event that I can actually find anything I want to listen to.

I start off looking in classical. The UK site has hardly any Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge or William Walton. (The German version admittedly has plenty of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; and presumably when it happens will not be deficient in Mozart or Haydn. Although on what I’ve seen so far I wouldn’t be counting on a great selection of Bruckner.)

Look for English music in other directions. No AC/DC, Motorhead, Radiohead, Pretenders, Fall. (Pretenders & (?) AC/DC admittedly not actually English. While we’re doing not actually English: we have a grand total of one Runrig album which is more than we have of Capercaillie). From a somewhat different perspective, no Autechre, Aphex Twin or Underworld either. Still no Led Zeppelin. One Rolling Stones track. There’ll be Beatles on this particular Apple’s music store when Hell freezes over, presumably (i.e. in about three weeks, according to that stupid film). Very little Sisters of Mercy. Plenty of Clash, Buzzcocks, Joy Division. Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays: absent. Some Big Audio Dynamite. One album by Pulp that I already have. I didn’t pay £7.99 for it either. They’ve got a Kirsty MacColl album but it doesn’t have her cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England on it, bugger. They don’t have Billy’s version either, although they do have two of his considerably more than two albums.

I am not being deliberately perverse or difficult here. None of the names in the last paragraph are obscure; some of them are even quite famous. I’m looking for things I might actually seriously consider downloading, somewhat at random as they happen to cross my mind. I’m finding something like one in three of them. Which is really not very impressive considering that the whole point of something like this is supposed to be selection and convenience.

Just as a control, let’s check up on some people I wouldn’t listen to if Apple paid me. Nope, Coldplay and Peter Gabriel aren’t there either, although Phil Collins and Sting are out in force as is only to be expected.

I’m not the only person noticing this striking absence of music either. Such august Mac commentators as As the Apple Turns and Macworld UK are saying the same things. On MacSlash: “great swathes of music are missing. Of more concern, it seems to be having difficulty validating my plastic”, says one commenter; others wonder if it’s actually legal in the EU to refuse cross-border sales to residents of other EU countries (I can’t imagine Apple’s legal department would have overlooked something like that though). The most enthusiastic responses seem to be along the lines of “oh well, it’s probably no worse than the US store was when it launched, let’s hope it gets better quickly”. Mine is more like “I’m not wasting any more time with this. I’ll drop by again in a few months to see if it’s improved”.

They do, however, have seventeen versions of La Bamba. Now we’re getting somewhere, although not anywhere near the episode of Andy Kershaw’s world music show on BBC Radio 1 that consisted of nothing but versions of La Bamba for two hours, not least among them John Peel’s unaccompanied spoken version in English. This being the most glorious moment of Andy Kershaw’s career that I actually personally heard, although presumably not as glorious as the time he played The Ramones on Radio Three. (If somebody wishes to write in and confirm that the whole thing, some time around the late 1980s possibly, wasn’t a hallucination I would be profoundly grateful)

related entries: Mac Music

itunes (immer noch keine) musik store

15th June 2004 permanent link

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opened today in Britain, France and Germany.

I’ve mentioned before that when I looked at what was available in the US version last year, I was underwhelmed by the selection of music available and sceptical about whether it could possibly be worth paying not much below CD prices for possibly very much below CD sound quality. Now I get to find out.

Pricing: not as bad as expected. £0.79 is $1.43, and in fairness to Apple the UK price includes sales tax whereas the US $0.99 doesn’t. Without sales tax it’s $1.20, so not as outrageously far above US prices as rumours suggested. European price is cheaper, though - €0.99 including sales tax is $1.19 or £0.66. Basically the US price plus sales tax, which seems fair enough. UK music buyers get overcharged as always; but not as badly as I expected and I suspect it’s more the record companies’ fault than Apple’s.

By the standard of UK CD prices, £7.99 for an album is quite reasonable for current full price releases. But there are plenty of places where you can get back catalogue CDs at or below that price.

The question remains: is AAC at 128 kbits/sec anywhere even remotely near CD sound quality? I very much doubt it, but I plan to buy a couple and see (or rather, hear). Watch this space.

I log on. For some reason it thinks I’m in the States. I decide to search for something I already have on CD (and, as it happens in this particular case, on vinyl too): Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. They have the album version and two live versions. In order to buy the album version, I have to tell it I’m in Germany. At which point they don’t have Thunder Road any more, or any thing else by Mr. Springsteen either. Once again, Apple’s alleged collection of 700,000 songs fails to include exactly what I happen to be looking for. And again: I decide to give the classical music a look, and they have nothing by the Borodin, Smetana, Hungarian or Juilliard Quartets. I could carry on and eliminate all the greatest chamber ensembles of the last half century, but since that’s already four of any conceivable top ten accounted for, searching any further would just be too depressing. But wait, heavens above: they have two CDs’ worth of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s entire recorded output (of, probably, several hundred items). Credibility restored. Er …

related entries: Mac Music

reflections on ahimsa

15th June 2004 permanent link

The first point of the first of the eight “limbs” of classical yoga is ahimsa, which can be translated as non-harming. Ahimsa has many aspects and implications. One is, as I mentioned to Michael Smith last week, that most serious yoga students take it to imply vegetarianism. Another important one is that non-harming starts at home: one shouldn’t beat the crap out of oneself in pursuit of a more “advanced” yoga practice. Last Saturday afternoon I was seriously asking myself if I was doing just that.

As I mentioned previously, I was attending a weekend yoga course taught by Andrew Eppler in Erlangen. Erlangen is about a hundred miles from where I live, and my son wasn’t well so I didn’t want to spend the whole weekend away. I skipped the Friday night session and did the 200 mile commute for the Saturday and Sunday classes.

I found the workshop very tough for various reasons, none of which have anything to do with Andrew’s teaching. Taught classes are always hard because you’re practicing at somebody else’s pace and rhythm rather than your own(*). Workshops are hard because inevitably to some degree, whether consciously or not, you’re trying to practice at your absolute best in order to look good in front of a new teacher and other students who you don’t know. I hardly ever have the chance to practice uninterrupted for two hours or more at a time at home these days, so I’m not used to it. And I was having breathing difficulties – a sinus infection that I picked up from my son, I think, rather than hayfever – that didn’t help at all in the normal practice sessions and made the pranayama class on Saturday afternoon almost impossible. And getting up at 5 in the morning, after a night of intermittent sleep with a sick child, to drive 100 miles to class presumably wasn’t helping either. I don’t think would choose to put myself through that last bit again although – I want to make this completely clear – I would jump at the chance to study with Andrew again in less trying circumstances.

That’s enough moaning about my largely self-inflicted personal struggles and sufferings. Was it worth it? Yes. Apart from those the workshop was very good. Andrew is a really nice guy and an inspiring teacher who clearly has immense depth of experience and commitment in his own practice. The group was pleasantly small – about 15 students – but still managed to include me from Munich and two guys from Hamburg, which is about as far apart as you can get with major German cities. A friendly bunch of people, and all appeared to be serious and committed yoga students.

It was great to see the organisers of the workshop, Arjuna and Melanie of, on their home ground – I’ve only ever met them before when they’ve travelled to yoga classes in Munich – and to hear about their travels and adventures (they’re just back from studying with Pattabhi Jois in India).

I didn’t take any pictures, for reasons I will explain another time.

(*) There are two normal types of class in ashtanga vinyasa yoga. The one that is recommended for normal practice is “Mysore style”, where the students go through the standard practice series at their own pace, and the teacher(s) keep an eye on what’s going on and help individual students as and when needed. Practicing this way ensures that students learn the practice properly and therefore also learn to go away and practice on their own. It also means that students can go at the pace that is appropriate for them and only as far as they are able, rather than struggling to keep up with a "one size fits all" class. The other approach, “led classes”, are more like what a begnner would normally expect from a yoga class – the teacher says what is to be done and everybody does everything at the same time. Pattabhi Jois used to teach all “Mysore style” at his school in Mysore, hence the name. When I was there he said he was planning to start doing one led class a week because he had noticed a tendency for students to get sloppy about pacing if they are allowed to do their own thing all the time. I hear he’s actually now doing led classes two days a week. Led classes also have obvious advantages for workshops, where the teachers don’t know the students and have teaching points they want to convey to everybody at the same time. I generally don’t like them because I find practicing at somebody else’s pace more harder and less congenial than practicing at my own – but precisely for that reason I think it’s quite a good mental discipline to do them once in a while.

Update: ahimsa could also be interpreted to include not saying scathing things about online music shops, no matter how much their allegedly vast music selection miraculously fails to include almost everything one looks for. I never claimed to be perfect.

related entries: Yoga

liner notes

14th June 2004 permanent link

Lynn Sislo of Reflections in D Minor says “I don’t normally send email begging for links but this is sort of a crusade of mine and I'm hoping it will get a lot of attention.” Happy to oblige in a good cause, Lynn.

Lynn is pointing out that a lot of people start listening to classical music from “Greatest Hits” selection CDs, and that those CDs (like many others) often have very poor liner notes that don’t even indicate that they only contain parts (single movements) of pieces of music, or where somebody who likes something on the CD might go about finding more of it. “Not everyone will choose to seek out the complete works but doesn't it make sense to at least let them know that there is more?”

(See, for example, the shockingly amateurish liner notes by Sony France that I noticed a while ago. It doesn’t have to be this way: as Lynn says, “Naxos manages to have impressive liner notes and still keep their price under $10 per CD”. The blogosphere loves Naxos)

I agree with Lynn about what the problem is – if classical music is going to attract and keep a bigger audience, it needs to be welcoming and easy for people who have already dipped a toe in the water to wade further in if they want to. I know from my own experience that it’s daunting to be faced with all these names that you’ve perhaps heard of but basically know nothing about, and not have a clue how to find out what you might like. And I had several extremely well informed classical musicians in the family who were all too willing to give me advice and recommendations, plus BBC Radio 3 where I could find out about other things for myself without having to risk a fortune on CDs. Most people have neither of these things.

However, I’m not sure if I agree with Lynn that liner notes, or anything else done by record companies – especially the major labels who don’t care about what the product is anyway, are part of the solution. CDs – and any other means of physical distribution on plastic disks – will be a small and obsolescent market niche in a few years anyway, although like vinyl they’ll probably never completely go away. Record shops generally carry a pathetic selection and are dying even faster than the major labels’ classical departments. I happen to live in a city where there is huge specialist classical record shop with a vast selection of full price titles, and two other places that have interesting ranges of discount stuff. I’m well aware that this is highly unusual; and in any case, I still get a lot of stuff from amazon or ebay.

What’s going to be important is search facilities and ratings and recommendations services; but what’s available at the moment is generally either very poor or difficult to find. Some examples: Amazon has quite a lot of classical music available, but their search facilities are abysmal. No matter what you’re actually looking for, the list almost always come back with a pile of those “Best Romantic Candlelight Music Ever” CDs that Lynn is talking about. The record labels are no better. I wanted to link to particular EMI CD for this entry; I couldn’t find it on Amazon, and EMI’s own website was so badly organised and designed I gave up after five minutes.

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opens in Europe tomorrow, supposedly. I’ll be interested to see if its search is any good for classical music. (Among other things, like whether the sound quality of their compressed files is actually any good, and if the prices in the UK are really almost double what they are in the US as rumoured)

The musicbrainz project has some interesting ideas in this direction that I really do intend to talk about in detail one day (Drafts folder).

Ratings and recommendations: there is good advice out there even if your brother isn’t a professional musician. The problem is, it takes a lot of finding. I don’t set much store by Amazon’s average ratings or their “people who bought this also bought that”. There are just too many variables in classical music. I might love a piece but dislike many of the recorded performances of it, and I can’t see Amazon or anybody else ever having a large enough sample of customers sufficiently like me to be able to make any useful predictions at that level. I have, however, found some individual reviewers whose opinions I find very interesting and worthwhile.

And down in the dark, dank vaults of the Internet there’s still Usenet. (old-time internet pedants please do not write and inform me that Usenet is really a separate thing from the Internet, because I already know. Thank you.). Usenet has newsgroups for the discussion of everything anybody can possibly imagine and many things most people probably can’t; included among them is If you read this on a daily basis the signal to noise ratio isn’t that high, but if you search the archives you can find well informed discussions of pretty much anything.

None of this is easy to find for somebody who isn’t already committed and determined. Tim Oren thinks there’s a major role in the future shape of the music industry for what he calls a ”genre manager”:

You could also call this component a market maker, and it follows the sysop role described above. The genre manager should know everything about the area, assemble an audience, keep them informed and entertained, help publicize new acts. The genre manager is the promotional specialist.

This is a large part of what record labels originally did, and what good small labels still do. DJs also largely fit into this niche in dance music and several other fields – John Peel and Andy Kershaw (whom a good friend of mine, also called Andy, knew at university) being very famous British examples – but not in classical. Apart from the small labels, it really isn’t clear to me where these people are going to come from or how they are going to make a living in the classical field; although I strongly suspect it isn’t going to be from writing random thoughts about what one’s listening to in one’s weblog at random intervals. Even if what one is listening really is exceptionally good and interesting.

Some other things I think might help:

Not intimidating people with the idea that it all has to be terribly, terribly serious po-faced High Art. I had a great time at a concert a couple of weeks ago listening to Tchaikovsky’s hilarious pisstake Mozartiana.

Not insisting that it’s all wonderful and everybody has to like everything that’s commonly regarded as a “masterpiece”. I don’t have a car at the moment; when I need one for something I hire one, and the first thing I do is tune the radio to Bayern 4 Klassik (nearly as good as Radio 3). Where I generally find that a lot of what I hear sounds to me like complete nonsense (romantic orchestral music, majority of) or pleasant enough but not really especially interesting (baroque music, most). But I listen anyway, mostly because I know that every now and again I’ll discover some absolute gem that I didn’t previously know about.

Or that you always have to like the whole thing. I’m sure if they’re honest, lots of people could name plenty of pieces of music – including famous masterpieces by big name composers – that they really only find interesting in parts. The finale of Brahms’ first symphony, to name one piece I’ve been listening to lately. Some people find that heretical; I don’t have a problem with it.

But on the other hand, not being afraid to show people serious High Art either. Lots of people don’t know much about classical music but listen to lots of other serious, sophisticated, demanding music. Brian Micklethwait’s friend, for example:

I remember once trying to interest a friend at university in classical music. He was a true friend and he was truly showing interest. So I played a succession of pieces that I thought might be accessible, easily "understood", tuneful, approachable, and … nothing. It might as well have been dishwater for all the tastiness he could find in it. Finally I said to hell with it and resumed my listening to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, which I happened to be playing through at that moment. This is considered fearsomely "difficult" by those who know about these things. And my friend also heard that and loved it, because it was the nearest thing that classical music offers to the kind of drug driven rock and roll he favoured – being violent, rather discordant, full of heavy gypsy rhythms and cross rhythms, especially in the rather dry and edgy sixties CBS recording I had of it by the Juilliards. Indeed he got it a lot better than many people coming to the piece with a background of Beethoven and Mozart listening tend to get it.

Not a lot of point presenting somebody like Brian’s friend with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, fine piece of music though that is.

related entries: Music

small world yoga

8th June 2004 permanent link

In unrelated yoga news: this weekend I’m going to a yoga workshop. It’s in Erlangen, which is about a hundred miles away, so I’m going to have to either skip the Friday evening session or spend a night away from my family for the first time since Jack was born. (Agenda for this evening: discuss weekend logistics with family). I feel vaguely guilty about (literally) leaving Maria holding the baby for a weekend while I go and have fun, but I’m reasonably sure this won’t keep me from being fully focused most of the time in class. I can ease my conscience by telling myself I would do the same if Maria wanted to do something for a weekend somewhere, secure in the knowledge that (a) yes I really would but (b) as Jack’s mum, she’s probably far less likely to contemplate doing something that involves spending a night away than I am as his dad.

This event is brought to me by Small World Yoga: I’ve never met the teacher but he’s a friend of my former Mysore rommate.

Update: Maria points out that I overlooked the weekend I visited my brother in England, and says she’s booking a week’s holiday. Oops. Suggesting that visiting my brother can’t possibly count as “away from family” turned out not to be a good idea. As it happens I can’t get away early enough to make it to the Friday night session anyway.

related entries: Yoga

prana journal

8th June 2004 permanent link

Michael Smith has a newish weblog, Prana Journal. He was kind enough to say nice things about me(*); now I’ve had time to read some of his stuff I can return the complement. He is making a serious, honest and open-minded attempt to document his encounter with yoga as it goes through the “hey, this stuff really is something more than a way to keep fit and look at babes” phase, and I will be following his adventures with interest.

I think I may have rather different ideas than Michael about how complementary weblogging and serious yoga practice really are, or can be. But that’s another of the perpetually unfinished items in my Drafts folder, sub-folder “Too Hard”.

Michael is thinking about a buying a new yoga book that I also have on my shopping list: Elizabeth Kadetsky’s First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. Links courtesy of Michael: excerpt from a different book, describing her experiences studying at the Iyengar Institute in Pune; article by her on Killing the Buddha about just how tenuous the evidence is for a continuous tradition linking modern yoga practices to classical and mediaeval traditions, but also how little that really matters; interview by her publisher and another one for MetroActive. While we’re about it, here’s her website and here are a couple of discussions of her book on my internet yoga home-from-home, ezboard.

Ms Kadetsky’s writing style is rather generic American journalese for my tastes, but I have the feeling her attitude is one I might be able to relate to. She’s appreciative of the real effects and benefits of yoga, hard-nosed sceptical about the actual history and origins of the way it’s currently taught.

(*) And to alter his original description of me “blogging from the louts position”, which I sincerely hope was a typo all along. If it wasn’t, watch those apostrophes Michael ;-)

related entries: Yoga

record shops

4th June 2004 permanent link

Having been so much impressed by Zoltán Székely’s playing of the Bartok violin concerto the other day, I went googling for a performance with violin playing similar to his but listenable modern sound. No conclusive results yet; recommendations welcome. Meanwhile though, I stumbled across this excellent posting on the state of the music industry, from a guy who actually runs a classical section in a big record shop:

Naxos on the other hand actually does great music. They have a catalog of composers, compositions and performers that dwarfs any of the major labels’ releases. They are also $6.99 a disc. The combination of unduplicated repertoire (which no one else bothers to record at all), excellent craft and affordable price has given them roughly 23% of the entire classical CD market, and this percentage is even higher in England.

Furthermore, the major labels haven’t any real interest in music as such. Decca, Deutsche Grammafon, RCA, EMI/Virgin, Teldec and Sony couldn’t care less about repertory. The major labels’ strategy in classics relies upon the promotion of classical touring "stars," like Hilary Hahn, Anne-Sofie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma, and Renee Fleming. The entire budgets of these companies goes quite often to promoting a package, centered around a single performer, who invariably will play something incredibly well-trod and not terribly innovative, like the Brahms Violin Concerto or opera arias from Puccini. BFD. Because they put so much money into promoting stars, they are kept from releasing anything on a "rising star," or an unknown. Although it would be far less expensive to release material from their vaults (as DG does now with its "Originals" series, or Decca with their "Legends"), in truth these companies are not run by people who have the faintest idea what they actually have in their catalogs. The worst offenders by far are Sony and RCA [RCA, for example, are sitting on a set of late Beethoven recordings by the Juilliard Quartet that is reputed to be one of the best performances ever recorded. It’s long since out of print on vinyl and has never been issued on CD – Alan], but the rest are equally culpable.

Brian Micklethwait thinks Hilary Hahn is actually very good, but even if true that doesn’t in any way invalidate the general point the guy is making. The rest of the post is interesting and well worth reading. Yes, there’s good stuff on usenet as well as in weblogs. Although the signal-to-noise ratio is even lower.

It seems, too, that all the good classical record shops these days are departments run by enthusiasts in bigger shops. At least that’s true of two of my regular record-buying haunts: HMV in Manchester and Müller in Munich. Perhaps once upon a time these guys might have been running independent shops - but then they might not have been as good at other aspects of running a business as they are at selecting classical records; they might not have had the capital or the buying power to negotiate good deals with labels and distributors or to carry a wide enough stock to be interesting, either. Big chain stores not necessarily all bad, as long as they employ the right eccentrics to head up specialist sections and give them a certain amount of discretion.

While we’re on the subject of record shop proprietors, as we suddenly & fortuitously seem to be: anybody who hasn’t already done so really should read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the best British novel of the 1990s. (Forget the dull, mediocre and set-in-Chicago-for-no-apparent-reason film).

document not saved

3rd June 2004 permanent link

Finding fault with Microsoft’s software design is usually too easy to be interesting, and I’ve already complained about Word’s tendency to crash every half hour or so on the Mac. But I would still, o incompetent morons on the Excel development team, like to know exactly what it is I’m expected to do next in this situation:

Document not saved

Update: despite this astounding piece of gratuitously user-hostile design I have, perhaps foolishly, persisted with Excel for one particular project. And so have discovered that, guess what, Word isn't the only application on my Mac that crashes more than once a day on average.

related entries: Mac

currently listening to …

2nd June 2004 permanent link

Zoltán Székely performing the 1939 premier of Bartok’s violin concerto. Sound quality is dreadful – lots of surface noise from the original 78 recording and the orchestra mostly pretty muffled, which is a pity, because it’s the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and they’re normally very good. But it sounds like a fun piece of music and the violin playing – not surprisingly since it’s Székely – is great. Székely was less well known as a soloist than as leader of the Hungarian Quartet, one of the great chamber music ensembles of the mid 20th century.

Thinking about Székely’s recorded legacy (and others of his generation, see below), I wonder if there will ever be anyone like him (them) again. The Hungarian Quartet are best known now for their 1950s recording of Beethoven’s string quartets – still one of the best recommendations for a good complete Beethoven set. Haydn and Schubert performances that I’ve heard by them are stunning too. But Székely also liked, and was noted for playing, ferociously avant garde new music by his friend Bartok: this violin concerto was written for him, and the Hungarian Quartet also recorded Bartok’s complete string quartets (recently re-released cheaply on CD, and sitting in my bought-but-not-yet-listened-to pile)

Now, far be it from me to suggest that nobody writing “classical” music today is in the same league as Bartok (look at the trouble I got into the last time I implied anything like that); but I do think it’s fair to say there aren’t that many current top flight performers who are at the forefront of avant garde/experimental contemporary music and making excellent recordings of older music. People seem to specialise in one or the other, quite possibly to the detriment of both. Cue deluge of emails/weblog postings proving me wrong.

An example, possibly, of contemporary music and older music cross-fertilising one another when played by people who are at the forefront of both: last week I was listening with a friend, who knows a great deal more than I do about these things, to 1960s recordings of the Borodin Quartet playing Tchaikovsky and a soviet composer I don’t write about any more. Both wonderful; the Tchaikovsky wonderful in a modern-sounding way that I really have a hard time imagining anybody actually having thought of in the middle of the nineteenth century. It sounded to me very obviously like Tchaikovsky played by people who spent a lot of time playing contemporary soviet music, and much the better for it. Or perhaps not. I am not a musician, I just try to describe what I think I’m hearing. My friend didn’t disagree.

Update: A casualty of war? I have listened to quite a lot of 1930s recordings. Most of them sound obviously “historical”, but I’ve never heard one quite as bad as this. When I asked about it on, somebody said the reason is that the original Dutch radio master tape is lost. The CD releases were done from Székely’s personal copy of the record, which presumably had been played rather heavily. Hmm, 1939 recording, master tape lost or destroyed? What happened to Holland shortly after 1939?

related entries: Music


1st June 2004 permanent link

Not for the first time, Brian M. gives me a reason to wonder why I actually bother writing anything myself when I could just link to and/or quote what he says:

even blogging can get complicated. With me, the complication takes the form of a whole series of complicated blog postings which I want to write accumulating in my mind, but which don't get done because none of them is capable of getting finished in time to be a today's posting. This posting is actually an example of this. And I made a conscious decision a few minutes ago to just write the damn thing, quick and dirty as the American engineers like to say, rather than do it as a great set-piece performance that I would be able to link back to for years, confident that it said everything about … it.

In my “drafts” folder at the moment: Yoga Teaching Part Three, Indian Music Part Two (the latter originally stemming from some thoughts about painting and photography, in response to something Brian said months ago, that I never did get round to), Classical Music Metadata next part …

all text and images © 2003–2008

< may 2004 july 2004 >