The American Concert

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.”  I, like most people, used to think that this was pure Shakespeare.  Well, it is not; it is actually from the play “The Mourning Bride” by William Cosgrove, which was first performed in 1697.  No, I cannot be having you say that you learn nothing from this blog, right?

So you get a free fact of the day.  First, I don’t have breasts, but man boobs, and second, they’re not savage either!  Trust me! As suggested in the title, this article is about a concert, and surprisingly the music was American, hence the name of the American Concert.  Mind-blowing I know, right?

Now I can hear you saying this blog is about this man’s depression and photography, and possibly tea and cake.  Give me some time and I’ll get there.  My mental health is on the melancholic side due to rain, and teenagers at home, but it will get better. 

My friend Hervé, who has already starred twice on my blog, is part of a Brass Quintet called Arabesque who have only been mentioned once on my blog.  This lovely chap asked if I wanted to take some photos of their American Concert and I, of course, said yes, that would be great fun! They are revamping their website and wanted some photographs for it and after the success of the last shoot I did for them, they asked me to come back. 

This would be the first concert I would photograph with stage lights.  And when you photograph a concert, you have to get it right and not mess it up.  I, of course, messed quite a few photos up, but it’s all a learning process, isn’t it?  “They” said to use your fastest lenses, which is photographer lingo saying that you need the lens to have the widest opening possible to let in the most light and still have a relatively quick shutter speed.  “They” seem to give out some good advice so I took my very fastest lens, an f1.2 35mm lens for my XT2 and because it has focus peaking, you can’t go wrong.  That’s what “they” said.  I proved “them” wrong and wasted about 60 photos.  That’ll teach me to listen to “them!”  

Fortunately, I had my Plan B (Canon 6D MarkII) with me, which worked a treat.  What did I learn from this precarious situation?  First, I was the only one who knew that I had messed up.  Second, the importance of having a Plan B.  Thirdly, using both cameras and thus still getting the shot, and fourthly that using a manual lens usually provides no worries during the day, but autofocus can be quite a good friend, especially for a concert.  No need to be a purist.  You can save that for later.  What you need is to get the job done.  So leave your pride at home and get some decent photos. 

The entire show was splendid, and the music was first class too!  If you have time to see Arabesque in concert you’ll definitely enjoy yourself, and you’ll be supporting live music and a great bunch of guys too!  I would also like to thank them for the restaurant meal after the concert.  What a delightful way to spend an evening!

Sea Mist

Right, I’m going to be completely honest with you Dear Reader, and tell you that the next few articles will be about my Summer (sorry 12 days in Summer) whilst in the UK. No novels, just photos. I might tell you a little about the context of the photos, how they happened, and under which circumstances they happened. So basically it’s my holiday snaps and not creative writing. Just thought it fair to warn you in case. You never know.

I mean, I say holiday snaps, but I have tried to keep a certain standard and make the photos look good! I wouldn’t dare do otherwise!

So, let’s get some context. The last time I was in Alnmouth I didn’t have my Canon 6D Mark II with me and I didn’t have my 16-35mm lens. As you might know by now, this is my other favourite set-up and rivals the Fujifilm X100F. Yes, I like to go a little wider when I can!

Now the following conditions were something that I had never seen before here but really knocked me for six. It was suddenly that the beach disappeared. This fog just came from the sea and ate up the entire village, like me, with a piece of cake. Gobbled it up as if it were the last cake on the plate. The whole place became quite eerie and when on the beach, I couldn’t even see the sea. I could only just make out some people sitting on the beach being very English and bloody-minded. Well, we got here. It’s foggy, but we’re still going to have a good time on the beach. It was almost French… Almost…

It was my first morning in the village and I had slipped out saying that I was off to take some photos. I was, of course, but said nothing about going to Scott’s of Alnmouth, which is a rather gorgeous deli, and coffee shop. It used to be the village Grocers, and I love what they’ve done to the place. It looks magnificent, and I also follow the owner on Instagram and was so happy to get there after so much time. I was welcomed as an old friend which always makes me feel special. The coffee was the best coffee that I had ever had in the UK, which is saying something. British people are good at tea. The French are excellent at coffee. The French have traumatised me with what they think of as a cup of tea. Warm tepid water with not enough tea, no milk, and a crappy little biscuit to say sorry. British coffee inspires the same disgust in me. Killian and I, famously, once tried Costa coffee, and said never again! And when I say never, I really mean never. However Scotts of Alnmouth destroyed the myth that the Brits know nothing about coffee, and I was very agreeably surprised. The generous slice of Tiffin that I had with it had nothing to do with my state of happiness. Well, it did, of course, but the coffee was superb!

And how did you spend your summer?

Everyone seems to ask that question after the summer holidays when we take leave from our daily toils and worries, and maybe for a week or two, we can create our own little paradise on earth. Some make it to a hotel next to the ocean and enjoy the sun’s warmth on their skin, whereas others will find a boat and spend time in the ocean trying to stay cool. Others will drive all over making that Grand Tour that the Victorians made. Others will be at work keeping the country going. Others will be fighting fires in the Gironde because of somebody’s carelessness in this heat wave, which I wouldn’t really call a wave but rather a smack around the face, with the heat taking away our comfort, our sleep, our water, our rivers, and our gardens.

Whatever your summer, I hope you could find moments of cool, in the figurative and literal senses. What can I tell you about my summer? In four days, I go back to work to start the humdrum of my daily life, and in these remaining four days of freedom, I seem to look back over the previous three weeks wondering where it all went!

It went off to the UK, that’s where it went. I haven’t been back home since 2019 and it was about bloody time that I got back to my roots. Living without roots or being able to feel rooted somewhere that one calls home is an idea that only immigrants can really get their heads around. They left their homes, sometimes forced by evil and unfortunate circumstances, and for others, it was for love and freely entered into. I was lucky to be in the latter category. But it’s still amazing to get back home.

With modern technology, I can call my parents on the phone when I want to, and do so a few times a week. I can hear their voices, but it’s not the same as taking them in my arms and hugging them and really showing them how much I love them. Only when in their presence can I do that. And as none of us is getting any younger, one has the morbid thought, will this be the last time I see them? I tend not to dwell on this rather disturbing question, but one still asks it.

I found a country where everyone speaks the same language as me and where my wife and daughter seemed to cope with what I do every day (ie speaking a foreign language) and maybe it gave them the chance to walk around in my shoes for a while, as Atticus Finch once said in a book a long time ago.

I found a country that had gone through Brexit, Covid, and yet further Tory government and it looked more or less the same. Tired, pissed off, but still exquisite to my eyes. And most of all, it was home. The Germans talk about this concept of Heimat, home, but not quite. It’s more akin to a motherland, or a place where you are rooted. Some could argue that after nearly 30 years in France, France should be my Heimat, and although I am very grateful to have been “welcomed” to France, it certainly isn’t home, despite all the best intentions.

Anyway! I saw my parents in Alnmouth and surprisingly took some photos. They haven’t all been edited yet, as I have to sort and edit them, which will be a hefty job. We didn’t really go wandering like we have in the past, but just tried to relax in the comparative cool of Northumbria. I wandered around the village and even was as bold enough as to go into Alnwick and let my daughter discover Superdrug’s cosmetics counter! Ah well, it was going to happen one day.

I had some time with my father as we drove towards Otterburn to get some landscape photos. It was lovely just sharing with him how I take my photos and seeing this part of me that few people see. We ate with my parents and enjoyed curries, Chinese food, and the tastiest of Sunday roasts. My daughter, that intriguing and sometimes frightening creature, discovered more of her father’s country and just how special it is.

As some of you may know, I am adopted and have been since three weeks after my birth. The story of all that, Dear Reader, is understandably only for those concerned, and during our time in Alnmouth, I had the good fortune to see my birth mother and my half-sister for the day. Afternoon tea and we even had crumpets with salted butter and jam, and tea. Coffee is fine, but tea in the UK takes you to what heaven must feel like!

On our way back south towards France, we stopped off to see my birth mother again. It felt so intimate being able to visit her in her own home. My half-brother’s daughters were there to meet not only me but probably more Kate, their half-cousin who by definition is exotic because she is French! They have, of course, received an open invitation to come over whenever they like. We even saw my Aunty Margie, whom I hadn’t seen for over 5 years.

Then down to Hull to see my father’s side of the family. My cousin Nick and his wife, Maria, received us like kings and I will be ever grateful to him for organising the family reunion where 23 of us gathered in his immaculate back garden. A couple of beers were drunk that day. The following day it was off to see Aunty Mon, and Kate was delighted to see me being scolded as I answered a question for her. Nobody messes around with Aunty Mon! We met up with Nick and Maria in the next village for a pub lunch, with the traditional and nigh quasi obligatory roast dinner! Those two pints of Yorkshire bitter just helped wash down the meal in the most tasteful way.

Sadly, we had to continue our voyage down South and ended up in Dover, where the next day, we were to catch our ferry back to France. We met up with my wife’s cousin for dinner in our hotel, and they discussed everything about family, from gossip to scandal, to the next generation who will carry the family name.

We arrived home and found my newly single son at home and Molly, the dog who have both been sorely missed.

As I read the article, there is one word that seems to stand out, and that word is family. These holidays had nothing to do with visiting tourist sights. It did, however, have everything to do about renewing connections to those most important in our lives after Covid had separated us for so long. That is what the holidays meant to me. I became rooted in my country, my culture, and my family. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to see old friends, but everyone knows that family has to come first. It’s what gives us our sense of being and belonging. It is the visible form of our roots on God’s Earth, however warm that earth might feel during an exceptionally warm summer.

May God bless you and your families, bring you together, heal the eventual discords, and give you too a feeling of being grounded after so long.

First Concert in over Twenty Years

Dear Reader, I may have mentioned before in previous articles that for my many sins, and to curb my pride, I am a musician, and some might even go further still, and remind me I am a horn player.  As a musician, we can have a tendency to “do” concerts and play in them, rather than going along as a listener.  I mean, of course, that we listen to our fellow musicians, especially when playing that music together.  It is a team effort, after all.  But not as a spectator.

Little did I know that when I went to taste some homemade beer at my friend Hervé’s house, he would invite me to take some photos of a concert he was playing in, on the 18th of June.  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity.  An evening of taking photos and getting to listen to live music at the same time?  What a way to spend the hottest day of the year so far!

We were rehearsing together the following Friday, and he said to be at his house at such-and-such a time, and that I should just park up in the driveway.  There would also be my old and very much revered horn teacher, as in my previous horn teacher, and not my old new horn teacher, nor a teacher that is old despite his great wisdom.  But that is a story for another day.  Hervé was going to drive us to the concert.  Jérôme, my very much revered horn teacher, plays in the same ensemble as Hervé.  They are members of the Brass Quintet Arabesque, made up of instrument teachers from across my particular region of France. 

So, I got into the car, turned on the ignition, saw the temperature, and promptly melted. 44°C! For those who only work in Fahrenheit, body temperature is 37°C, and 44°C is 111°F. My point exactly. By the time I reached Hervé’s house, it was a mere 40°C. A tad warm, even for me!

I drove up, parked, saw my horn teacher in very summery attire, but always with a hat, saunter up, and Smaug, the family Labrador, who you remember from my last article, who does not know what sauntering is about, just ran around the car three times and jumped up to say hello, being as friendly as ever. Bless him! We quickly went inside into the shade and cool. I do like a bit of cool from time to time.

We eventually got all the kit together in the car, thanks again Hervé for doing all the driving, and set off. The way to Guérande isn’t very complicated, and it’s pretty plain sailing. We talked about everything and nothing, about my presence at the Wind Band next year, and what alternatives I could think of, about the photoshoot from the previous week, about the various instruments and would we change instrument, how much it might cost to change, and what newer instruments could bring to the table, or should I say rehearsal room…

Parking in Guérande was a doddle, and we headed to the Collégiale, or church inside the medieval walls. We dropped everything off in the church, and things suddenly became very serious. Where would we eat? The first place we tried, a creperie, was no longer serving food, so we headed to Plan B. Plan B was fully booked, but was able to fit us in. Five brass musicians, one organist, and yours truly. Luckily I don’t seem to take up much space. Simon said he had to go and shave and came back with blood on his face. Michel, the organist that would be playing with the quintet, told us that the organ in that building needed a makeover and was basically shite. Out of tune, and half of it didn’t work. That’s something you don’t really want to hear when you don’t have a huge amount of time to have the pre-concert setup and run through. Another thing you don’t want to hear is that you’re all going to have to tune your instruments up to 444hz. This basically means you’re all fecked because your instruments have been in slightly warm cars. After all, it’s boiling outside and you’ll just never make it. The brass expands in the heat and therefore will sound flatter, and at 444hz you really need to be on the sharper side. It’s a bit like me trying to walk past a slice of cake and a nice cup of tea; it’s just not going to happen… Luckily the food arrived, as did the beers, and the puds. We were happy. I had all my camera gear, and most importantly plenty of batteries in case the batteries inside the cameras gave up the will to live. Some lovely shots were begging to be taken outside the church.

What I didn’t have, especially inside the church, was a whole lot of light. For photography, light is quite important. Understatement of the year contender again… This was going to be interesting. I had been fed by Arabesque, and now there was bugger all light inside, so photography was going to be a tad tricky.

Luckily, somebody turned on the lights and I was saved. Who said miracles never happen in the Catholic Church? They did this evening. The only photos I could take were before the concert actually began because afterwards the church would fall into darkness as there was going to be drone footage shown on a screen behind the Quintet as they played, showing the church in which they were playing. This was the main idea behind the concert. Through music and film, show people the church they were in from a slightly different viewpoint. It was great just to sit and take in the music. And take in the music I did. I was always told the importance of concert-going to musicians and how it helps us develop musically in so many ways. I only had to make an effort to sit there, make no noise, and just listen and be captivated. And captivated I was! I thought the tuning was fine and not at all the catastrophe announced by the organist. But I was just here to listen to some quality sounds and not to be a critic from the Times

The first half finished with the Toccata by Charles Marie Widor from his Organ symphony number 5. Any pedal notes that were missing from the organ were amply covered by the bass notes of the tuba that seem to just go right through you. It’s also a piece of music that has, amongst others, the ability to make my eye become all watery with emotion. I’ll leave it here for you to listen to.

The interval arrived. I say that but it didn’t really make an entrance. It just happened. The public was invited to walk around the church and rediscover images from the film in real life. They could also purchase CDs of the Quintet. 10€ each, or 20€ for three. They could also subscribe and have a CD of the programme, as well as make a contribution to the Association Résonnance, who gave their name to the entire project. It also meant that I could take more ambience photos and not be in anybody’s way.

Up until then, I had been using the Canon 6D Mark II which makes a tremendous noise when the mirror moves up to expose the sensor. I was worried that I would disturb everyone and switched to the comparatively silent Fuji XT2 with the 18-55mm zoom lens, which is a 24-70mm full-frame equivalent, so a good all-rounder for reportage. During the second half, I could be seen trying to move silently the way Corporal McCune taught me to so as not to disturb my fellow concertgoers.

The second half started with the horn and trombone playing a one thousand-year-old tune for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, the audience hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that the second half had just started and some were still talking! As soon as the other musicians appear and Hervé started introducing the next piece, they seemed to get the message and promptly shut up! They lead us through time through the Baroque, the Classical, and the Romantic periods. They ended up with Aaron Copland, and music from Grover’s Corner, whoever Grover was. I suspect it wasn’t the same Grover that lives on Sesame Street…

After the concert, we did the official group photo, and eventually said good night and see back at Hervé’s house. It was midnight, much cooler, windy, and felt as if a storm was on the way. Jérôme fell asleep in the back, and Hervé and I just chilled, talking about this very blog and photography, especially the differences between being a good amateur photographer, and a professional photographer and how the two are completely different, in the same way, that I quickly realised when doing my music studies here in France. You have to produce consistently good results, and the pressure is on. They were already doing the concert debrief about everything that went wrong. I tried to reassure them that it wasn’t a competition and that as an audience member, I had a great time. Basically, the same things that I had been taught by Jérôme. If the audience is happy, then the audience is happy.

On the way home, we saw the sky fill up with lightning and thunder. It felt magical, and also the temperature had halved. It was a mere 22°C. It felt wonderful. We got home first and had a beer whilst waiting for the others to arrive. The others arrived and there was still some English beer for them, and some homemade beer too. It received the seal of approval from everyone present. We ended saying what went wrong with the concert and how it was a learning experience. I still thought it was brilliant. So there!!

All I have to do is the photo editing…

The Phenomenon that is Johan de Meij

For my many sins, I am a musician and not just a depressive dude with a camera.  I play the French horn.  Some might even say that I’m a French French horn player, without being corrected by my autocorrect.  So this music thing…  I play the horn in a Wind Band, in Cholet, in the Anjou region of France, with good food and wine.  I wonder what decided me to join them…  There are a series of concerts every year with each concert having a given theme.  This next concert’s theme is about the planets.  The programme will be The Planets, by Gustav Holst, and the third Symphony by Johan de Meij, Planet Earth.

If you want to read Wikipedia to tell you about the Planets by Holst, then you can click here.  I will now give you my version of events.  Gustav Holst, a man with Swedish, German, and Latvian origins but born in England, wrote a series of pieces that made up the Planets Suite.  His ancestors must have settled before Brexit!  This was ground-breaking stuff, akin to Stravinsky and his Rites of Spring.  However, this program is about the planets, so we’ll leave Spring to Igor, the composer and not Frankenstein’s whacky assistant.  As any trailblazer will tell, they just weren’t ready for it man, and that it was ahead of its time, which to be fair, it was.  He started writing the suite in 1914, and the first movement was “Mars, the bringer of War.”  Quite eerie when you think about what happened in 1914.  Composing finished in 1917 and the première took place at Queen’s Hall, on the 29th of September, in 1918.  There were seven movements, and when I was a child, I always wondered why the planet Pluto wasn’t included.  What did they have against Mickey Mouse’s dog???  Then I learnt Pluto was only discovered in 1930.  The poor planet was demoted in 2006 and is no longer considered a planet but is still a heavenly body…  Just like Yours Truly!

This music that first disturbed people, has, over time, and thanks to John Williams, become the music of space and the stars, wars or no wars.  Some have accused John Williams of nicking everything in the first movement, Mars the bringer of War, and using it to compose the music to Star Wars.  I’m not saying he nicked it, but… A nice American gentleman, Charles Cornell, has exposed his point of view in a YouTube video 

When you look at it like that you can get where those people are coming from.  But in a completely nonpartial way, I couldn’t give a flying fart.  Both composers’ music is wonderful, and I think one could call it more homage than pilfering. Mind you, there are certain similarities.

When you look at the Planets Suite, you notice the Earth isn’t mentioned.  One person that noticed this and who could do something about it, is a certain Johan de Meij, whose name is engraved on a plaque on our rehearsal room in the Cholet Conservatoire.  A Dutch trombonist, he moved into composition, arranging, and conducting.  In the Wind Band world, he is very well known and respected.  Nearly all of us will have played some of his music at one stage in our careers.

The third Symphony takes us from the beginning of our Lonely Planet, Planet Earth, ending with Mother Earth.  It isn’t as much a narrative, but a more auditory exposition of ideas in an abstract form.  A soundtrack with electronic sounds helps the symphony become one musical experience as opposed to the classical three separate movements.  Planet Earth really is a continuation of Holst’s Planets.

It’s a whopping significant piece and a joy to play despite a few difficulties to challenge the horn player.  We were very fortunate to have Johan come and visit us, not just to say Hallo, but to explain the piece to us, conduct us and rehearse us.  The poor lad was full of cold, but shared his wisdom and experience with us, which I’m sure will prove itself invaluable for our performance on the 14th of November in the Théâtre Saint Louis in Cholet.  We worked on aural skills listening to the chords and listening to them to adjust the tuning and seeing where we fit into those chords. It might be an insignificant detail to you, but the seats are very comfortable and the acoustics are pretty damned good too!.  Holst couldn’t make it. Must have had something else in his diary for that weekend! 

The Olympus Trip 35

After the success of my review of the Fuji Film X100F, I thought I might have to present another camera to you.  For the non-techy of you, don’t worry, this camera is a doddle to use, and my daughter was using it when she was a seven year old!  It won’t get complicated. 

I wanted to use a film camera to do it.   I will presume that you have no experience of using a film or vintage cameras also, so Millennial friendly, and after a certain age, you will be meeting an old friend.  I would like to introduce you to the Olympus Trip 35.

As the name might suggest the Olympus Trip was a camera designed for travel photography and for the mass market in the 1960s and 1970s (production stopped in 1988).  A point and shoot.  No gimmicks.  Although this is not a style or fashion blog, this camera is a beautiful object, and if you thought you had people coming up to you and telling you how sexy your camera was with the X100F, then you’ll get even more people coming up to you telling you how gorgeous your camera is.  It is one of those timeless cameras that just oozes sex appeal.  I replaced the original wrist strap with a more chunky and comfortable version from Amazon.

There are some things that you will not be able to do with this camera.  You won’t be able to add another lens.  You get a 40mm Zuiko F 2.8, however the 40mm focal length will have you covered for the majority of situations for your photographic trip, and also gives beautiful results, especially with modern emulsions!.  Just look at the X100F photos and it will be self evident.  You won’t have all the modern conveniences of a Modern DSLR or even mirrorless camera, but you won’t have any problems with batteries.  There aren’t any.  The power for the metering comes from the selenium cell (which contrary to appearances isn’t a New Romantic group from the 1980’s).  You will have get film for it.  It take film from ISO (or ASA) 25 to 400 which, for when you’re on the road is fine, and will cover most eventualities.

Loading film is so simple that a child of seven could do it, and my child, when seven years old did it easily.  Then basically, you’re ready.  Off you go and explore.  I haven’t talked about how to focus the camera.  So….  The camera uses the principle of zone focussing.  You turn the lens and you will see a face, a couple, a group of people, and then a mountain.  If you turn the camera around so the top is the bottom, and the bottom the top (Pride reference, even if I am slightly late), you will see the distances marked out: 1m, 1m50, and 3m to infinity, but not beyond.  We’re talking photography, and not a film based on Ants, or Seven Samurai.

There are two shutter speeds, 1/200th of a second and 1/40th and the camera chooses which one it uses.  But 1/40th with a 40mm lens shouldn’t give camera shake.  So you can cover light from F22 at 1/200th of a second to F2.8 at 1/40th of a second.  You will see an F stop dial on the camera, and that you will see in the viewfinder.  When not using a flash, just put it to A (automatic).  If ever there is not enough light, there is a little red flag that pops up into the viewfinder, and the camera shutter won’t fire.  It’s idiot proof!

I will include a video from YouTube to show you how to load the film as it will be easier than describing to you in written language.   

So get out there and start taking some photos!  Go on the streets.  Go on a Trip.  Just get out there and start using it.  Have fun and share photos if you want!  Mine are from a trip to Portugal and the Canary Islands from 2016 taken on Ilford HP5 Plus.  Make of them what you will…