Sunday, 20 September 2009

Living in the Past

If you should ever find yourself in the centre of dear old Edinburgh on a wet Saturday (or Wednesday afternoon), maybe at a bit of a loose end - you've read half a book without paying for it in Blackwell's, and it's not been long enough since your last coffee-and-cake (what's the one without the other?) stop to justify downing some more quite so soon, then here's a wee suggestion.

Head over to the Cowgate, and just by the end of Niddry Street (perhaps the ugliest street in the Old Town?), you'll come across the cavern of historical wonder and delight that is St. Cecilia's Hall. Quite apart from being the oldest concert hall in Scotland (the fascinating oval auditorium dates from 1763, making it the second oldest in Britain - well, that's what the brochure says, and who am I to doubt Edinburgh University's veracity? I mean, I worked for them for 9 years, and they only lied to me a few times, so there's a strong probability they've got their facts straight. Hey, at least it isn't Wikimpedimentia [sic] I'm relying on here - credit me with some 'journalistic integrity', please), the building houses an incredible collection of "harpsichords, virginals, spinets, organs and fortepianos from 1586 to 1840". Including one that Mozart messed-about on for a bit - although it isn't recorded whether he also hollered "Hoo-eee baby!" while playing the upper register with his (elegantly be-slippered) right foot. Of course, nowhere does it state he didn't do either (or both) of those things, so it is within the bounds of possibility for us to speculate...such is the occasionally elusive nature of historical fact.

And that's not all. Oh no. Far from it...

For any twanger, strummer or plucker (all at once, if you think you can get away with it), there is a small, but mightily impressive collection of lutes, citterns, "English Guitars" (intended for the ladies, apparently, including one with keys - so that C18th gentlewomen should not damage their fingernails. The mechanics of it are breathtaking, frankly), and so forth. Living in an industrial age, where the construction and basic form of the guitar has become widely standardised, the array of instruments here provide a fascinating insight into the diversity of styles and shapes that were once more commonplace. Intricate bone-inlaid fingerboards, capos that fitted into peg holes that were pre-drilled between the strings, frets directly mounted on the body beyond the end of the neck. All that sort of thing.

They've also got one that's signed by Fernando Sor, for any classical guitar groupies out there...?

This, though, has to be my personal favourite - a sensational, 300-year old, 14-string Archlute. Alas, this particular beast can't take full string tension any more, but - after a 10-string bouzouki, naturally, oh, and some talent. A lot more talent, to be honest. More time with which to explore that talent could come in handy, too. Oh, then there's that old "world peace" concept, isn't there? well, alright, that too - I really, really want one of these! The crackly, low-quality, musically-dubious videos I could unleash on YouTube with my very own Archlute...! (Apologies for my poor photography - I dragged Martin Lennon - and his delightful partner, Susie - along, and he'd happened to bring his very nice camera, so there might be some better pictures soon. *update 27th Sept. Some of Mr.Lennon's snaps are now at the foot of the post. Very pretty, especially for hand-held in low light with nae flash*).

If you've still got any energy left after all that historically-induced excitement, there's a whole other museum-full of (mostly wind & brass) instruments a short, yet decently cake-excusing, walk away at the Reid Concert Hall ,in the corner of Bristo Square. Ah, hang on though - pausing to think for a moment, if it's a Saturday, go to the Reid Hall first, since it's open 10am - 1pm, while St. C's is 2pm - 5pm. If visiting on a Wednesday afternoon, do the opposite. Yes, they're quite limited opening hours, but did I mention that these museums are free? I didn't? Oops. Well, just in case you'd been wondering, they are.

Yes, the "world's oldest purpose-built museum of musical instruments" (brochure again) doesn't cost a single penny to access. It's a beautifully-preserved, world-class resource, subsidised heavily by the taxpayer, and a damned good thing, too. If offering people the chance to see a 'Contrabass serpent ("The Anaconda")' without charging an admission fee offends anyone's libertarian or fiscally-conservative sensibilities, then all I can do is extend my pity to such mentally-stunted individuals. Either that, or refer them to Stephen Fry's famously pithy response to the question of 'offence' at the 2005 Hay-on-Wye literary festival...which I'm not going to reproduce here. Depends what kind of a mood I'm in, I suppose.

On which mildly-confrontational note it's time to end this instalment - oh, except for this one thing...

Back in late August, it seems that some (deeply frustrated) internet-searcher from Halden, in the Oestfold area of Norway, was washed-up on these shores by accident. What they were actually after, apparently, was "strømpebukse porno". Mmmm-hmm. Riiiight. Well.

I hate to think that 'Mid-Life Bassist' could ever be a complete disappointment to its readers (annoying, tedious, unfunny - certainly, but disappointing? oh dear).

So, only this once, mind - you poor, lost Nordic soul - this is just for you:

Oh yes. Not just strømpebukse, but strømpebukse and kitchen implements. Enjoy...!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

I Ain't Ever Satisfied

I'm a bouzouki fetishist. Ever since I got my hands on a cheap Roumanian model earlier this year, I've been utterly hooked. There's just something different about the feel, the sound - the 660mm scale length (longer than most electric and acoustic guitars) seems to fit my bass-stretched fingers, I love the 'not-quite-the-same-as-a-12-string' effect of the lower two pairs of strings, where the plectrum typically strikes the 'octave up' string first - don't know exactly what's going on, but I can't help myself. I'm addicted, and "Bouzoukiholics Anonymous" aren't going to be getting a call any time soon. You get the picture...

Anyhow, I'm already looking to replace my current instrument with something...well, better, frankly. And that's where the difficulties start, because the supply of bouzoukis around here isn't exactly bounteous. There aren't several different, widely-available models to choose from at each price point - let's not forget, this is primarily an acoustic instrument, with arguably greater variation between individual examples than when you're after a slab of mahogany, maple, and rosewood with some lumps of metal and plastic screwed onto it. So buying on-line is, arguably, even less of a good idea - although that having been said, there's a guy been trying to sell a 10-string Freshwater example on Ebay that if I had the cash, I'd buy in an instant. Hey, my 'reason' is a slave of my passions - and if it was good enough for the great philosopher and historian David Hume, then that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

All this does, as usual, omit the key problem with my purchasing budget - I don't have one. But still, it was a perfect day to trek round the music shops in Edinburgh, to see what the top end of the market was like - just for comparative purposes, you understand. Careful research when considering such matters is always very, very important - not to mention a lot of fun.

Now, I know, bouzoukis don't generate a significant proportion of any of the local retailers' profits. They probably barely pay for their slice of the de-humidifying and heating bills, frankly, but of the three properly expensive ones I got my hands on, precisely none were fit for immediate sale. Which, at the prices they were asking, simply isn't acceptable.

The cheapest of the trio, a £950 Fylde, should, if it had arrived from the maker in such poor condition, (rather than it resulting from poor storage, handling, and neglect while languishing in the shop), have been sent back without delay. There were some serious intonation issues (nae adjustable bridge saddles here - count yourselves truly fortunate, electric guitar and bass owners), and the overall 'dead' sound and feel of the instrument were beyond the quick "slap on a new set of strings" fix. It was honestly worse than my £99 Ozark beast at home (although admittedly I tried several cheapies, and was very lucky to find a satisfactory one). When you consider you could buy a decent 3/4-sized double-bass for that kind of money, well...

It's bigger, £1050 brother was ok (nothing inspiring though), if in need of some general care and attention, but just like the £1500 (hey, we're in fantasy unaffordable land, why not?) Steve Agnew model in another shop, urgently required a new set of strings. That said, if the Agnew one had been re-strung properly, it would have been absolutely lovely, and far and away the best of the three for tone and playability. As it was, I didn't want to give it back...which is saying quite a lot, given the listless, lifeless nature of what it was equipped with.

Trouble is, bouzoukis aren't, as I said before, what you might call 'volume sellers', and inevitably they come way down the list of priorities for busy music shops - just below banjos, I reckon, but possibly ahead of beginner accordians - so are likely not to be checked and maintained very often. Except these weren't the low-end, 'budget' range examples - these were instruments that represented a major financial outlay for most folk, so you'd have to feel very confident about them before committing to buying. So failing to maintain them properly is unimpressive, to say the least.

But then I would say that - I'm a bouzouki fetishist, after all.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Breaking The Law

 I've got a confession to make - I've been a very naughty boy. Nothing on the scale of robbing a bank using electric guitars and early 80's British metal as weapons, I grant you, but still, 'the law' has most definitely been 'broken' (although very carefully, so that the pieces can be re-assembled without too much fuss - possibly with a small dab of superglue).

Illegal downloading of copyright musical material is the issue at hand. Normally something I'm not in favour of, no matter how great a bunch of low-tax pursuing, corporate-whore multi-millionaires the likes of U2 (just one example out of so many possible candidates) might be. Flouting creative copyright is not, no matter how restricted some people's thinking may be, simply a matter of "sticking it to The Man". But that's beside the point right now.

This is about personal weakness in the face of temptation.

As some poor folk who've endured this blog of mine for a while will already know, I used to be a member of a minor prog rock band - Edinburgh's very own "Citizen Cain". It was all a (very) long time ago, and I only played on one album ("Somewhere But Yesterday", 1994, bought by a few people in Poland and Quebec, as far as I can recall), but thanks to this connection I come into the "obscure" category of musician, rather than merely "non-existent, except in their own imaginations" - although the gap between those definitions can often seem exceptionally slender.

My only copy of the CD, however, is out on loan to a friend - currently languishing in a big box somewhere near Kelso, as far as I'm aware. So when challenged about my musical past by my oh-so-delightful mini-primates, I had nothing to show them, no proof that their father used to be almost-quite-good at something, way back in the Pleistocene epoch.

And that's what broke me, in the end. The pathetic spasms of my tiny-but-still-defiant ego.

In my defence, the album itself had long been deleted, re-released, and deleted again, and was supposed to have been re-issued by Festival Music, but the scheduled date had been and gone with no sign of its re-emergence, soooo...

I searched for a file-sharing site that didn't want to ask too many questions, but also looked like it wasn't necessarily going to hijack my machine for nefarious botnet purposes. That's right, I had no idea, it was a complete guess, but my computer hasn't gone screwy, or slowed right down (yet), so fingers crossed, eh? Downloading was straightforward, and, even if whoever created the archive had cut one of the tracks in two for no particular reason (and no, it wasn't the 25-minute one, which could have made some sort of practical sense), listening to the music again brought back lots of good memories.

The kids even liked some of it, and seemed minutely impressed that their incompetent, decrepit father had been involved.

It does pose a small ethical question, though - the act was illegal, and the CD is currently licensed to a record company (although I've never made anything out of it), but since I've essentially ripped-off myself, exactly how naughty have I been?

I expect I'll be receiving my letter-of-stern-rebuke soon -  I'll consider myself suitably chastened.

p.s. hope folk don't mind all the extra widget-gadget stuff I've stuck on the blog page (YouTube, Facebook, Twit-ter). Trying to keep up even a basic level of shameless self-promotion, while simultaneously providing full domestic services to two small boys gets very tiring at my age, so I thought if I could centralise matters it might make life a little easier. Or not.