A Brief History of Non-Time

Book Review: Reality is not what it seems – The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Carlo Rovelli
This is a clever and interesting book, but if you struggled with A Brief History of Time, I don’t think this book is for you. Rovelli’s style is at points florid and pretentious, though this may be a feature of the translation. He first reviews the science of Ancient Greece, before proceeding through Newton and Einstein. After discussing quantum mechanics, it’s on to the fundamental purpose of this book: how to resolve the approaches of general relativity and quantum mechanics in describing the universe. They are both experimentally verified to very high standards, yet are incompatible. Rovelli makes the argument (for me, not wholly convincingly) that time does not exist as a fundamental entity; like temperature, or “up” and “down”, it is a property that emerges at a macroscopic layer.

There were some new discoveries for me in this book: Rovelli’s explanation that spacetime is the field of gravity (rather than that the field of gravity permeates spacetime) is good, and goes beyond many popular science books which simply explain that gravity is “different” when it comes to unifying the fundamental forces. Yet, there is a missed opportunity here: the presented self-referential nature of spacetime and gravity ought to trigger the word “Gödel”, but it doesn’t, possibly because of a fear that would cause the end of physics, just as it might have been feared to cause the end of mathematics. One would also expect some mention of quantum entanglement, and this is also missing, although in the chapter on information the concept rears its head, unspoken, and again the opportunity is left untaken. Overall I am left with the feeling that this is a good and useful book, but that given its depth it nevertheless has some unexpected limitations.

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The Geneva Trap

Book Review: The Geneva Trap, by Stella Rimington
Rounding up a backlog of reviews, I found this in the Mortimer station book swap – I was curious about the author, without any great expectations. As such it’s been on my “to read” pile for a while, and I got through it in two or three days, aided by some time waiting for the Proms. This is several novels in to the series of the character Liz Carlyle, and concerns a Russian diplomat in Geneva who has information that a “Third Country” has infiltrated a top-secret US/UK encryption programme. The book is somewhere between the cerebral world of John Le Carré (with political machinations between MI5, MI6, and various international counterparts) and an action thriller (rapidly jumping between London, Geneva, Marseilles and elsewhere), which may go some way to explaining the variety of opinions I’ve seen on Goodreads in not entirely satisfying either of those positions. Some technical details bothered me: the lack of technical understanding among some of the managerial characters combined with their complacency is caricature, but sadly plausible. Call me old-fashioned, but if you require separation of two computer networks and you’re serious about security, then you will have two physically separate networks; having only a logical separation and sharing the hardware is, well, asking for trouble. Weaving Carlyle’s domestic life as a parallel strand worked quite well and gave some extra dimensions to the story. On the whole, I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure I would actively seek out other books in the series.

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Long Ride in a Slow Machine

Book Review: Hallelujah Junction – Composing an American Life, by John Adams
I picked this up a while ago in a work book sale, but it sat on the shelves waiting for the right moment. I decided, with Adams’ music featuring in the First Night of the Proms, that it was now time.

It makes for an interesting read. Adams traces his roots back to the dance hall Winnipesaukee Gardens, in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, where his maternal grandparents had a troubled relationship; his parents ended up in modest circumstances and his childhood was comfortable but basic. From an early age he was interested in music and played the clarinet, showing enough talent to take lessons and eventually play orchestral parts. He also liked the idea of conducting in particular. Conventional classical music training in the eastern US in the mid twentieth-century was focused very much on twelve-tone serialism, which did not much appeal to Adams, who was steeped in jazz and interested in rock and roll as much as classical music. Despite offers of further tuition, he eventually decided to spread his wings (or at least, a rickety Volkswagen camper-van) and head west.

Through the seventies Adams made a career mostly as a conductor and concert organiser; a few of his own works, such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium started to make his reputation. He goes on to describe the collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman that led to Nixon in China, which became one of his most successful works, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which has always been one of his most controversial. Later chapters in the book go into some depth, creatively and bureaucratically, as well as musically, on several works; Adams also ponders the creative process in general. He has an easy writing style, and acknowledges problematic works as well as success. The foreword to this edition notes the 2012 performance at the Proms of Nixon in China as one of his career highlights; I’m glad he thinks that, because, having been there myself, I agree.

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The Great Wave

We’d known the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum would be popular and we’d booked in advance; just as well, as advance tickets have now sold out, and day tickets had also sold out when we arrived. There were long queues for the museum as a whole now that the bag search has become ubiquitous – having a pre-booked ticket allows you to fast-track through some elements of this, but it’s still hassle. Sadly it’s an arms race of security theatre – if one place does it, they all have to do it for fear of being left behind, a softer target. It’s job creation all right, but I rather doubt these are quality jobs.

We had allowed plenty of time and wandered through the free, smaller exhibitions of British Watercolours, which was a mixed bag but had some interesting pieces by Paul Nash, his brother John Nash, Ravilious and others, and Pacific North America, marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Canada in a possibly rather awkward way, but at least acknowledging the indigenous culture.

The Hokusai exhibition itself was very busy, essentially a slow-moving queue from end to end, which didn’t make for the best experience, but it was worth it to see the range of works, starting with the summoning of a dragon, proceeding through many views of Mount Fuji (including the Great Wave itself), but also flower and bird paintings, a few portraits, and two unusual aerial views of Japan and China. It was interesting to compare with Hiroshige’s slightly later paintings of Mount Fuji; on the whole, Hokusai was more monochromatic, frequently using (the then novel) Prussian Blue for his main colour scheme. At the end of the exhibition there are also one or two works by his daughter; sometimes these were passed off as by Hokusia himself in order to increase their value.

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A short time ago, in a concert hall not very far away …

Prom 8 – Film Music of John Williams – was always going to be popular; I believe it was one of the first concerts of the season to be a sell-out for seats. As I joined the queue I only saw a couple of people I recognised in front of me – there were another twenty or so who were “tourists”. This can be good or bad; on this occasion they were fine, although one person in front did manage to blag their way in without a raffle ticket to join their two friends who did have tickets. Somehow I ended up in front of them; that’s karma, I suppose.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, very much at home in this kind of music, were conducted by Keith Lockhart. Williams has contributed scores for more than 100 films, so it would not be possible to please everyone, but I think the concert captured a good cross-section of his most famous works; perhaps Schindler’s List was the only obvious omission. The concert began with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and other well-known pieces in the first half were from Jaws, Superman, Harry Potter and ET. But there were other less well-known pieces, for me at least: Goodbye Mr Chips, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Terminal, War Horse, and The BFG. These showed another side to Williams away from the bombast; Jamal Aliyev’s cello in Memoirs of a Geisha was very evocative, clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe and accordion player Mark Bousie hinted at klezmer and east European inspiration for The Terminal, and War Horse captured the English pastoralia and seemed to quote from The Lark Ascending.

The second half began in a more serious mood, with music from JFK, Munich and Amistad – the last of these featuring young voices from Haringey Vox and Music Centre London. Then, another mood shift to The Witches of Eastwick and, with Jess Gillam playing a beautifully steampunk saxophone and Alasdair Malloy on vibraphone, Catch Me If You Can. Finally, we moved on to music from Star Wars. I would really have liked the Imperial March and Cantina Band, as in the 2013 Sci-Fi Film Music Prom; but as I observed above, you can’t please everybody, and it made sense to include music from the latest film in the saga, so the programmed numbers were March of the Resistance and Rey’s Theme from The Force Awakens, before finishing with A New Hope – Main Title.

Encores generally fall into two categories: extravagant, showy, virtuosic or comic on the one hand, and quiet, reflective on the other. Unfortunately The Imperial March falls into neither category. But I could tell there was going to be more, and spotted the drummer sneaking in to the orchestra. The quickest way to silence the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall is for the soloist to take up position at the instrument, or for the conductor to raise the baton to the orchestra once more, and so Keith Lockhart did. Some jazzy scales began – just enough for you to wonder, “what’s this?”, before I remembered that the orchestral version of The Cantina Band has just enough intro to throw you off before the big tune begins. So there you have it, for the first category of encore; and a little more from Harry Potter finished off the concert in a more reflective mood.

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Tempora mutantur nos sed mutamur non in illis

Oh dear, oh dear. It’s all changed this year: the queueing system has changed, an attempt to disperse people which leads to a much less social atmosphere, and there’s additional security theatre (a modicum of which has a potential effect, but much of it striking me as somewhat pointless). At least some of this must have been thrust upon the Royal Albert Hall at short notice, because it has driven a coach and horses through the Proms Extra events: essentially, Promenaders who are in the front half (say) of the queue will lose their places by going to the pre-Prom talks, and I gather attendance has slumped correspondingly. I’m sure this scheduling debacle wouldn’t have been designed. The other deplorable innovation is that yet another phase of building work means that the Arena Day and Season Ticket holders are being admitted through the same door in parallel, which has apparently produced some “tired and emotional” moments. There’s a long-standing convention that Season Ticket holders stand in the left half of the front row, and Day prommers stand in the right half – when admitted carefully in two separate queues from opposite sides of the hall this works quite well, but with the vagaries of bag searches and ticket scanning, there is only one stream entering the arena, with correspondingly random results.

Anyhow, after the initial disorientation, I was in any case four or five rows back for Prom 5, which was the first in a pair of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. I’d picked this concert because it was full of favourite works of mine. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 does seem a slightly odd piece with which to begin a concert, but it’s a single movement work of about 20 minutes duration. It worked quite well, and I preferred Søndergård’s ending in particular to the rendition by Osmo Vänskä in the Proms’ Sibelius cycle a couple of years ago – holding the final chord a little longer, but not too much. As Jonathan Meades says, good is not always the same as authentic.

For the next piece, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the orchestra was joined by pianist Bezhod Abduraimov. I found it an assured but not arrogant performance. Being a few rows back I decided on this occasion to stand on the left side, which sometimes gives you a better view of the pianists’s hands; however it turned out I was in line with a couple of rather tall people and I didn’t see that much detail. Søndergård gave the work indulgent tempi at a few points; but it is a late Romantic work and to be honest, I think Stephen Hough just took the piece far too fast all those years ago. On this accasion I found there was a positive chemistry between soloist and conductor, right through to the final bars. Remarkably there was no applause between movements, and Abduraimov indulged us further with a Tchaikovsky Nocturne as an encore.

After the interval, another orchestral workhorse: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. I remember reading once that Shostakovich paces the final movement of this work just right – that there’s a long, but not too long, introduction. In fact I think this sentiment applies across the work; the themes shuffle around in the long first movement at just the right pace. In fact I found myself starting to fade during this long concert, but made it through to the end unscathed.

It was a late finish, and I finally arrived home at about ten to midnight. As I entered the estate, there were two Southern Electric vans parked ominously under an arc-light; even worse, two more, with a digger and a pneumatic drill closer to the house. There were no power problems in my home, but the other side of the street seemed to be off, including street lights. Although the work seemed to be going on for some time, I found my earplugs were fortunately tuned to block out the industrial noise.

Having understood the changes to the system, I planned for the following day more carefully, and this resulted in a place in the second row. The same orchestra and conductor, but a less familiar programme. In fact, I didn’t know either piece in the first half – Shostakovich’s symphonic poem October (a Proms first performance) and then his Violin Concerto No. 1, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. This, of course, made it a popular concert; the work is certainly virtuosic and she played it strenuously. I recognised fragments; Shostakovich frequently quoted or reused material, and there were certainly themes and passages that feature in other works such as the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and strings. Benedetti gave us an encore of a version of Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns, arranged by Petr Limonov. In the second half, we had Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, a more familiar and favourite work. The orchestra seemed to me to be a little patchy; in particular there was one chord from the brass in the scherzo that just seemed like noise. But, by the end, Søndergård had everything under control and the final “big tune” was a great success.

After an earlier finish, I was lucky with connections and made it back to Reading by about 22:20. As I walked from the station to the car park, I was rather surprised to discover the IDR had been submerged under the bridge by the station, with one or two cars helplessly marooned in the water. Clearly there had been a downpour at some point in the evening. The car park I was in was unaffected, but the road by Burghfield Bridge was awash (shallowly) from one side to the other. I’m looking forward to less eventful journeys home for the rest of the season.

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The Antidote to Cookbooks

Book Review: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, by Jonathan Meades
When I saw this in the work book sale, I reached straight for it, no questions asked, as I knew it was already on my wish list.

Imagine, if you will, a cookbook written by Jonathan Meades. And there you have it, more or less. If you are unfamiliar with his TV programmes, the MeadesShrine YouTube channel is a good starting point, although these programmes are generally architecturally rather than gastronomically focused. An acquaintance once declaimed that Meades was best watched “with a glass of wine in one hand, and a dictionary in the other”.

Meades did spend some years as a restaurant critic, and became morbidly obese for his efforts. The collection of recipes here is, for the most part, surprisingly practical, though several refer to unheard-of ingredients (many of them I believe to be cheeses) for which one might have to imagine more quotidian substitutions, and the elephant gratin is, on a detailed read of the ingredients, somewhat disappointing. Interspersed with anecdotes and musings on the question of whether anything in food is truly original, this is an audio book, albeit without an MP3. What did you expect?

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