Leonard. Oh, Leonard.

You have left us.

But you have left us the music. Leonard Cohen, fare well.

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The Circle

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The circle of the last year is complete; the new one just beginning. The party’s over, or it’s just beginning. Let’s face the music, and dance. Wishing you, dear Reader, a happy New Year.

[Image/post in response to this week’s WordPress photo challenge theme of Circle]

Is This the Era of the Short Head ?

Rhino

Rhino, courtesy wildlife-pictures-online.com

Have you noticed how winners seem to win ever bigger these days. That one book/film/app/search engine etc. takes a mega-portion of the market, leaving all the rest fighting over a tiny slice of the cake?

Well, there’s a theory for this: the short head.

In the 10 rules of the short head, Dan Chen provides some persuasive statistics:

  • The top 10% of songs on iTunes get 86% of streams, and account for 90% of the store’s total sales
  • 2.7% of Amazon’s titles produce 75% of its revenues
  • 4.5% of apps generate 86% of the revenues, 0.1% generate more than 50%
  • 14% of movies generate 90% of revenues
  • Even in live performance the top 5% of artists get 84% of concert ticket revenues (56% of revenues going to the top 1%)

In January 2014 Oxfam claimed a similar type of concentration in terms of the world’s wealth – that the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world.

So what about the long tail ?

All this is in stark contrast to the long tail, the theory developed by Chris Anderson in the early 2000s, that the future lay in selling less of more, that “our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”

The short head is essentially the opposite of the long tail, and appears to be prevailing: the present reality of business is selling more of less. But why?

Ring Tailed Lemur

Ring Tailed Lemur, creative commons

Choice and social media

One of the reasons lies in the sheer quantity of choice available. Who has the time to go through all the options, check out all the new games, listen to all the new bands?

Instead our attention is drawn to the  apps/songs/games etc. that get featured on iTunes, Amazon etc., the ones that are most popular, have sold most, have the best/most reviews.

And this effect is multiplied by social media. Here’s Dan Chen again: ‘New stuff spreads through social interaction and, thanks to social media, we now have hundreds a day, where before we might have had just a few. Thus we adopt much faster.’

It took the telephone about 75 years to reach 50 million users. The app Draw Something achieved the same milestone in something like 35 days.

Instead of broadening our horizons and nurturing our unique, niche interests – it turns out we all want the same stuff.

Is the news all bad ?

I don’t think it’s time to throw in the towel just yet. To some degree at least, there are a huge number of niches in the tail, and the internet has enabled huge numbers of small businesses and solopreneurs to find a market.

We may not be making fortunes but, in many cases, we are making a living.

And there’s always hope: The developers of Angry Birds released 51 apps that failed to make an impact before hitting the jackpot.

Furthermore – though this cuts both ways – there’s no clear map to hitsville for big business or micro business (see this post on Seth’s blog).

Gartner’s January 2014 report says that less than 0.01 Percent of Consumer Mobile Apps Will Be Considered a Financial Success by Their Developers Through 2018.

“The vast number of mobile apps may imply that mobile is a new revenue stream that will bring riches to many,” said Ken Dulaney, VP and analyst at Gartner. “However, our analysis shows that most mobile applications are not generating profits and that many mobile apps are not designed to generate revenue, but rather are used to build brand recognition and product awareness or are just for fun. Application designers who do not recognize this may find profits elusive.”

The St James Infirmary Blues

Folk songs, memes, and going viral

It’s been a long road down but I hope I’m finally and decisively on the way back up and I won’t be playing the pneumonia blues no more.

However I have been playing the St James Infirmary Blues and what a great song it is. You can play it quietly as a lamentation, fiercely as a howl of rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or any combination in an extended improv.

Credited as ‘traditional’, it has been taken up and reinterpreted through the generations, moving across time and space.

The song is based on an 18th century English folksong ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, which recounted the story of the untimely death of a soldier from venereal disease after frequenting too many prostitutes.

The St James Infirmary of the title is often claimed to be the St James leprosy hospital in London; however since this hospital closed in the 1530s when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St James’s Palace , this is questionable.

When the song emerges in the USA in the early 20th century, somewhere along its transatlantic journey the subject has become a young woman, and the cause of her downfall is drinking and gambling.

There are countless variations in the lyrics, and of course in the playing, but the version recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928 begins

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so bare.

Going viral

It strikes me that folk songs are an early form of going viral, or of memes threading their way through different cultures.

They also provide a perfect example of content with soul – that is, content produced by people who are passionate about their mission and their audience.

(That is, if describing folk songs as content is helpful in any way.)

I have a feeling content marketing may give content a bad name. Endless stuff produced with ever decreasing effect because it is transparently marketing as opposed to a genuine and meaningful value exchange (see digitaltonto for an interesting post on this).

But if we take the richness of experience of the St James Infirmary Blues as a guide then maybe, just maybe, our content (and even our content marketing) may have the impact we hope for. And staying power.

In the meantime, play it one more time. From the top…

Are you ready?

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images via telegraph.co.uk

One for rock trivia fans:

“Everybody seems to be ready. Are you ready?”

Mick Jagger, Madison Square Gardens, November 1969 (only two weeks before Altamont, or so I read on Amazon).  ‘Get Yer Ya Yas Out’.

Leonard Cohen at the Isle of Wight“Are you ready? Is everybody ready?”

Leonard Cohen, Isle of Wight, August 31 1970.  ‘Leonard Cohen Live at The Isle of Wight 1970′.

After that, things get pretty different. But both great performances. And, after seeing LC recently at Waldbühne in Berlin – a fantastic, magical performance – and the Stones at Glastonbury (though on TV only sadly), both are still going strong.

Leonard’s recent renaissance, incidentally, is a good example of a positive created from misfortune: having his money stolen by his manager has led to his re-engagement with life and the world. Bad luck or good luck? Or are they just two sides of the same coin?

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same; (Kipling)

Meanwhile… know any other live albums that begin with ‘Are you ready?’

Being You

I was listening to Tom Waits version of ‘Somewhere‘ (on ‘Blue Valentine’) and remembering Leonard Bernstein, in the documentary of the 1984 recording of West Side Story (the first time he conducted his own music, incidentally), tearing his hair out because Jose Carreras (playing Tony) just couldn’t help but keep slipping back into perfect pronunciation, away from the street gang edge that Bernstein was looking for.

Tom Waits by Anton Corbijn

Tom Waits by Anton Corbijn

More than likely Waits would be more than a few shades too far the other way for Bernstein (and indeed my mother-in-law who thought the CD player had broken), but opera singers versions of folk or pop songs rarely work because the sound of their voice is just too pure and polished.

And you don’t have to go as far as opera singers. Just think of the Byrds’ limp, smoothed out version of Mr Tambourine Man which empties the song of all challenge and meaning (even whilst it way outsold Dylan’s version). Listen to the sand and glue of Dylan and you feel the power of the words.

It’s something Seth Godin pointed to in his post ‘Effortless’,  taking John Coltrane playing ‘Harmonique’ as an example:

Sometimes, “never let them see you sweat,” is truly bad advice. The work of an individual who cares often exposes the grit and determination and effort that it takes to be present.

Perfecting your talk, refining your essay and polishing your service until all elements of you disappear might be obvious tactics, but they remove the thing we were looking for: you.

To get in the mood for celebrating you, just watch this encore from the proms in which Gustavo Dudamel and the Bolivars (Simon Bolivar Orchestra) don tracksuit tops in Venezuelan colours and rip into ‘Mambo!’ (from West Side Story). Speaking to Intelligent Life, Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard) had no doubt her father would have loved it:

“I never thought I would again have those chills in a concert that I used to get watching my dad conduct … He would have gone down there, to Venezuela, in a shot. He would have crushed every rib in Gustavo’s body with a hug … He would have been beside himself with excitement.”
 

Jahrhunderttalent

Gustavo Dudamel

Jahrhunderttalent. A
nother beautiful German word to follow on from ‘Heimweh’ (see Primo Levi below). In her long article for Intelligent Life magazine Clemency Burton-Hill quotes the music executive Deborah Borda on first seeing Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel in performance –

“The Germans have a word for it: Jahrhunderttalent. Once in a hundred years. That was my immediate feeling. Once in a hundred years.”

It’s a great piece in the best magazine I know (and the only one I subscribe to). You can read the article, and much more, at moreintelligentlife.co.uk

Speaking of exciting talents: Listening to her breathtaking recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, I’m tempted to nominate Alisia Weilerstein – except it’s not quite 50 years since Jacqueline du Pré’s landmark recording (also, of course, with Barenboim). But this is no place for ‘either/or.’ Here one can only celebrate abundance.

Who would you nominate as a Jahrhunderttalent?

Exile’s Letter

I was reading ‘My Heroin Christmas’, one of the essays in Terry Castle’s excellent The Professor and Other Writings, and an aside took me to this astonishingly beautiful poem by Ezra Pound, a ‘translation’ from the Chinese of Li Po.

Widely considered the greatest poet of China, Li Po wrote the poem in about 760 AD whilst in exile. It takes the form of a letter to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

Pound knew ittle Chinese himself, and the translation is based on notes on the original poem made by Ernest Fenellosa, an American scholar who studied Chinese poetry while living in Japan.

The poem first appeared in ‘Cathay’, published in 1915, and containing, according to its title page ‘translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.’ However, it is not a good idea to look at the poems as literal translations – in fact, as the prominent Pound scholar Hugh Kenner argued, to do so is to miss the point.

Pound sought to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template

… maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.

Also included in Cathay was Pound’s ‘translation’ of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’, written in roughly the same historical period and, thematically, very similar. In the ABC Of Reading (New Directions, 1960) Pound wrote that he considered ‘Exile’s Letter’ and ‘The Seafarer’ the two greatest poems of the eighth century.

Art Pepper (and/or his wife with whom he wrote the book) used the lines

What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

as the epigraph for his autobiography ‘Straight Life.’

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

Please don’t

On the evidence of this track it sounds like David Byrne, the most exciting performer (and songwriter) of the late seventies, is back with a big new album, this time working with Fatboy Slim, and on this track with singer Santigold.  You can find much more information at DavidByrne.com.

The album (for want of a better word) is an examination of power through the story of Imelda Marcos (!), though Byrne insists there’s no mention of the shoes. On this track most of the lyrics are lifted from interviews and quotations.

OK. The embed code doesn’t seem to work here, but click this link to watch the video.

Kisses on the bottom

English is such a rich language for ambiguities that you can have almost as much fun trying to write a sentence that cannot be misunderstood, as writing lines that deliberately exploit a play on words.

And characteristically, the way we most commonly describe a play on words is ‘double entendre’ which, of course, is not English at all (which, incidentally reminds me of one of my favourite jokes; you know the one…).

The flexibility of the language has often been brilliantly exploited by lyricists, especially in the classic Broadway era in the thirties and forties.

The authorities in some states were in no doubt that Joe Young had more than the bottom of the page in mind when he wrote, in the song “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
A lot of kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I got ’em

and banned the version released by the Boswell Sisters, who had the first big hit with the song in 1936.

Ben of the Spikedrivers recounted this tale when introducing the song at Mick and Deborah’s wedding – and hopefully it’s true. Deb’s sister went on to give a spellbinding version of the song.

Madeleine Peyroux also has a good version, but check out the Bozzies on Youtube.
(And may all your letters come with kisses on the bottom).

If you’re not living on the edge,

you’re taking up too much space!’ (Unknown).

My take-away from the excellent presentation by Dr Dave (Richards, of Bournemouth University) who spoke at the South Coast Connections networking event earlier in the week.

He was speaking on innovation, defining the innovative as that which adds new value – though he was careful to emphasise that value should not be understood solely in monetary terms.

He also highlighted the importance of conviviality: an idea not shared is probably an idea that will not be developed to its full potential. Brainstorm constantly, share, be joyful, but be ruthless in throwing out good ideas as soon as possible within the development process in order to concentrate your resources on the great ideas.

His presentation was thought-provoking and entertaining, but the visuals occasionally a bit tired. For example, a dominatrix to illustrate discipline. That idea’s been round the houses and then some.

Except, of course that’ll probably be the one thing everyone will remember. I can just see us all, a month or so from now, waking with the insistent idea in our heads that ‘we need discipline‘ but not being entirely sure why.

The next morning I was out early, walking through the woods with the dog, the crunch of a light frost underfoot and Joni Mitchell in the earphones as the sun rose in a red sky; a fleeting moment of perfection.

But let’s not talk about fare-thee-well’s now
The night is a starry dome.
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala moon…

Today the postman brought a surprise – a beautifully produced hardback book of samples of Colorplan, paper and card by GF Smith.

It is ideal for filing on the shelf, so it is always to hand, ready to be consulted. And, as it happens, I use Colorplan for the cover of our poetry magazine (Tears in the Fence, issue 51 just out). BUT, and it’s a big but, there is no key or other text to identify the colours.  So having chosen a paper colour, how do I communicate this to the printer?

Live on the edge, but don’t step into the void.

Helen Yorke recital, May 30th in Dorchester

I have mentioned Helen Yorke’s recitals a while ago in this blog and am pleased to say she has another, larger event coming up, this time at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester on May 30th.

Here she will be accompanied by Tom Randle, tenor. They will play music by Bernstein (excerpts from West Side Story), Duke Ellington, Quilter, as well as solo piano – pieces by Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Helen  is a truly exceptional pianist. She has given piano recitals worldwide and worked with American singer Renee Fleming for over a decade. She presently teaches at Trinity College, London and at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Tom Randle made his debut as Tamino for ENO, and since then has enjoyed critical success with many of the world’s leading opera houses and orchestras.

Tickets are  £12 each, with interval refreshments provided. Reserve your ticket, call 01305 264038 or email Helen directly

Keith Richards

There is a fabulous photo of Keith Richards in today’s Guardian, which has the most beautiful colours and which gives a real sense of the journey, written in his time-worn, uncompromising features, from young blues enthusiast to old bluesman. The picture of a rock ‘n’ roller who tracked the history of the music to its source:

[photograph: PR] 

Read the article here. Though not exactly full of new information, it does highlight one of the most important cultural/historical features of the Stones’ early visits to the US, in their music and in their insistence on having the early bluesmen on their TV shows as guests, that of bringing to the attention of Americans – particularly of White America – their own, ignored musical heritage.

I think we just thought it was our job to pay back, to give them what they’ve given us. They’ve given us the music and the friendship, and let’s stand up, be men, and give them a blues, and it went to No 1. Mr Howlin’ Wolf, he didn’t mind at all. It was maybe a moment of bravado, in retrospect, but it worked. We have been blessed by the music that we listened to, and let’s see if we can actually spin it back around and make American white kids listen to Little Red Rooster. You had it all the time, pal, you know. You just didn’t listen.

We’re all listening now: where is the article placed? In the culture section. Roll over Beethoven!

It is written

I’m still buzzing from seeing Slumdog Millionaire at the weekend. A stunning film pulsating with life, brilliant colour, sadness and joy. It’s beautifully shot and well worth seeing on the big screen. We were right up at the front, in the second row (by chance rather than design), and – once the eyes had adjusted! – the images completely filled our field of vision. Awesome.

Playful, engaging, thought-provoking, this modern Dickensian fable plays with questions of chance and destiny in a thrilling and satisfying way, balancing light and darkness, terror and pity, laughter and joy. See it!

Otherwise, last week was one of loss – Updike and John Martyn. Two Johns; only just realised that. Here are a couple of my favourite Updike quotes, by way of In Memoriam:

Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.

Sex is like money; only too much is enough.

Can’t resist a thrid:

We are most alive when we’re in love.

And finally … can’t end today without a mention of the snow, this evening giving a satisfying crunchiness as I fed the pigs.

May you never lay your head down,
without a hand to hold.
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

Just like I’m greeting some brother of mine,
you know that I love you true.
You never talk ‘n’ judge me behind my back
and I know that there’s those that do.

Oh, please, won’t ya please, won’t ya bear it in mind
love is a lesson to learn in our time.
And please, won’t ya please, wont ya bear it in mind for me?

John Martyn

Helen Yorke

Helen Yorke, concert pianist

Helen Yorke, concert pianist

Internationally acclaimed pianist Helen Yorke is giving another series of recitals at her home in Dorchester (Dorset, England) later this week – on Thursday, Friday and Saturday 20th, 21st and 22nd November, starting at 7pm. The programme will include some Bach, Schumann and Rodrigo.

Helen’s recitals offer a rare opportunity to listen to a world class pianist in intimate surroundings and are not to be missed.

I attended her first recital series back in the Summer. Being so close to the piano, which is played so brilliantly, is a totally involving experience in which you really feel the power of the music.

Helen has given piano recitals worldwide, and worked with American singer Renee Fleming for over a decade. She presently teaches at Trinity College, London and at the Birmingham Conservatoire. This summer she also gave recitals at the Buxton Festival and Dartington International Summer School.

Tickets are £10, including interval drinks and canapés. Contact Helen on 01305 264038 to reserve your tickets.

NO MORE BUSH!

A week after the event, Obama’s victory is still thrilling and has brought with it a ray of hope. Even some supportive words from Tony Blair have failed to completely dispel the mood of optimism.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As Leonard Cohen sang last night on stage in Bournemouth.

Try as I might, and believe me I’ve tried hard, I have never been entirely convinced by Cohen as a novelist or, even more so, as a poet on the page. But as a songwriter he hits it, note perfect.

(Well, ok, not every time; ‘Chelsea Hotel’ is a horror, clunky and tasteless, the least refined song he has ever written. But thankfully they didn’t play it.)

He hasn’t been on tour for about 15 years – as he said at one point, “The last time I was here, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream,” – but from the moment he bounds (yes, really!) onstage and you hear the signature honeyed-gravel tones of his voice, you know he’s back at the top of his game.

What becomes clear, over the course of the evening, in the most exciting and involving way, is the quality of the songwriting. And that, as song follows song, the performance becomes truly an event in which we are all, performers and audience alike, there to serve and keep alive these songs that achieve a very special resonance, that penetrate and make a real human connection and, hell, I’m going to say it, songs that fill your being with a profound sense of joy and celebration. Of the possibilities of language and music, and of human beings and the tangled web of contradictions that we live.

In short, if songs are a promise, that promise was kept.

‘So Long Marianne’ is heart-stoppingly perfect. ‘Suzanne’ thrillingly on edge, that somehow seemed to make afresh that most iconic of songs. ‘Who by Fire’ was given a sumptuous introduction by Javier Mas on the bandurria (or the laud!). The musicianship throughout is truly excellent, and the evening is carefully plotted and shaped, the attack of the more recent songs counterbalanced by the more contemplative classics.

‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’, a gorgeous mixture of celebration, longing and regret; the ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ bathed in blue light. And what better night than the 11th of the 11th for ‘The Partisan’, realised beautifully. What’s to say about songs that you haved live with throughout your life? A certain amount of relief that they still stand up; a certain amount of surprise that they seem to be getting even better with time.

Almost at the end, in the final encore, they played ‘Democracy’, with the gleefully satirical refrain ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’. Obama’s victory maybe offers a chance to join in on the chorus:

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on …’

Of course, other celebratory options exist – as subscribers to Jeanette Winterson’s November message will know:

‘… I delayed the site updates this month because I wanted to wait until after the election. I did not, though, shave my pubic hair as instructed by more radical friends in the US, to shout the statement NO MORE BUSH.

But I think we can all have a drink…’

I thoroughly recommend Jeanette Winterson’s monthly newsletter. Her writing is always witty, elegant and full of insight. Most importantly it celebrates life, living and good writing. Sign up to it by following the link from jeanettewinterson.com

Cohen’s autumn tour, meanwhile, heads off to London, Birmingham, Paris, Brighton and Manchester. Catch it if you can. You won’t be disappointed.