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...!


cjcjc said...

Great place, which also does excellent concerts during the festival.

Andy Gilmour said...

Absolutely. Although hopefully not so many like the one where the guy tripped while heading on-stage, and fell awkwardly, breaking his leg - because he was protecting the extremely precious and valuable guitar he was carrying.

Nice to see he'd got his priorities right, though.