Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Sunrise on the Quiraing [#39]

Sunrise on the Quiraing by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

 

Last night I did something incredibly simple which I have been terrified of doing for four months: I uploaded a photograph I took during our time on Skye.

It was a big deal, to me, for two reasons. First of all, I decided during our Islands & Highlands trip that I wanted to make more of my photography. Uploading to Flickr is a very slow process for me, which is why after a year and a half there are only three albums available. A large part of that is the desire to upload albums, not photographs; to tell a story in a single swoop, rather than drip-feed snippets shot by shot. It’s the main reason I like Flickr and it’s what the service is great at doing, but it means that very little content ever gets uploaded. The plan, then, was to repurpose/divide my Instagram account to utilise it for more than a running log of the beer I’ve tried, as well as reviving my old 500px account. On paper, that sounds pretty easy, but that meant starting new accounts, which has the knock-on effect of forcing me to pick the first photograph that was ever going to be uploaded to them. That was big deal number one, largely because I tend to overthink these things, but mainly because I like my projects to hit the ground running.

The second reason was those great artistic demons: imposter syndrome and rejection. I hadn’t even uploaded a photo but, somehow, doing so on a platform like 500px or Instagram feels much more loaded than Facebook, Flickr or even DeviantArt. Full time photographers, of course, use all of those platforms, but somehow I feel some of them are used to share their work whilst 500px and Instagram are used to curate it. That transforms those websites into portfolios, which sounds serious, even ‘professional’. But I definitely don’t see myself as a ‘professional’ photographer, so what right did I have to use those services? Worse still, what if I used them and was found out. I can deal with insignificance, to be lost beneath the ever heightening waves of content and uploads. My website gets an average of zero hits a week, but that doesn’t make me stop writing; my deviations would frequently go unnoticed, but I still fired up Photoshop. No, the problem is when you are noticed, but no one has anything nice to say. What if it turns out I have no photographic skill at all? What if I’m just copying other photographers*? What if I’m so bad that I get shared for the wrong reasons? Any chance of progressing my hobby, building a following, maybe even making a small amount of money, would all be dead in the water. Better to never try than to fail, right?

Well, obviously those were both terrible reasons for simply doing nothing and the result was just procrastination, plain and simple. At first I was “finding the right photograph”, but if I’m honest I knew which shot I should use within four days of the being in the Hebrides. Waking up on the Quiraing to that sunrise meant I would have to screw up pretty spectacularly to not have a great photograph. So, instead, the focus switched to “I need to set up the accounts” (achieved in June), then to “I need to edit it perfectly” (achieved in August, if not earlier), then to the simple “I need the time”. Ultimately, what it really boiled down to was “I need the courage”.

So last night I exported the file from Lightroom, found my old account logins and uploaded the shot. I never really found that courage, though. The reality is that not uploading was beginning to feel like more of a weight then the fear was. Still, the photograph was out there, despite some mild road-bumps. I have a real love-hate relationship with Instagram and I’m not particularly convinced  that the wait was worthwhile here, but that’s a story for another post. The flipside is that I am incredibly happy with how the photo looks on 500px and the response it has received. My wildest dreams of instant, viral success (hah!) haven’t come true but over 50 people have liked the photo, it momentarily hit the “Popular” page and I’ve even been added to a couple of galleries, within whose company I feel incredibly out-of-my-depth. Instagram hasn’t been as positive, neither has Facebook, but neither have been negative in the slightest. Above all else, though, I’ve finally breached the levy of fear that has been holding me back. It’s a very real weight off my shoulders, ridiculous though that may be, and I feel genuinely elated at the new-found freedom. Hopefully it’s just the first in an on-going series – though when have I said that before…


* By which I don’t mean “inspiration”. Obviously, you photograph a range of mountains the chances are good someone else did so before you, probably even from the exact same spot. I mean more being accused of genuine copyright theft, something which would gut any sense of achievement I’ve felt to date.

Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses [#36]

Today is a day for another round-up of interesting pieces from across the web. Nothing too special, but hopefully a little intriguing.

First up is Google Lighthouse, one of the many branches of the Alphabet behemoth and a pretty interesting little project. I haven’t actually managed to get it up and running, but I’ll definitely be trying it out on theAdhocracy some time soon (and probably weeping at the result). I don’t need to test it, though, to see it will be a very useful tool in battling the increasingly problematic issue of internet lag.

Second is the article which led me to Lighthouse in the first place: AMPersan, by Ethan Marcotte. Not much to add to this one, just another voice adding weight to my uneasiness with the idea of AMP and similar projects. Well worth a read if you’re interested in the open web.

In third place is a collection of ‘achievement’ stickers doing the rounds of the blogosphere right now. Originally designed by Jeremy Nguyen, published on The New Yorker and personally discovered via TheLogoSmith, the stickers are a humorous look at the pitfalls of being self employed. They’re specifically designed for freelance designers, but I feel a lot of them are applicable across disciplines. If you work from home, you’ll probably find yourself smiling and nodding.

Fourth on the list is a simple article from Martian Craft outlining “The Importance of Routine“. The post is aimed at remote works and is far from news to me, but it is a well written example of how to apply this kind of thinking. I’m saving it here more to try and force myself into setting something like this up for my own free time.

Finally, I was blown away by the “Lifetime Eclipse Predictor” visualisation created for The Washington Post (discovered via Source). In the wake of the recent total eclipse in the US, along with reading various posts on the rarity of such events, I’ve been left with a real urge to try and make sure at my path eventually coincides with a path of totality. It is a ridiculously awesome coincidence that our moon’s diameter and planet’s solar distance align so accurately. I mean, even if there are other life-hosting planets out there, we’re certainly one of an incredibly small number that can witness this phenomenon. That makes it practically a responsibility to see a total eclipse, at least once.

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.