Learning by accident

When we arrived we went to our hotel, a well-designed modern building; every room has a picture window view over the river.

Victoria Hotel 3

This photograph of the parliament building was taken through the window of our bedroom.

Parliament from bedroom

To one side of Reception was a bar, to the other a dining room.

Victoria Hotel 2

But behind Reception, to the rear of the building, was something else entirely, an area normally kept locked. Through the doorway we could see beautifully carved woodwork and a flight of stairs.  ‘What is this?’ we asked the receptionist. This, he told us, was a reconstruction of rooms where a famous composer had lived before the Nazis invaded. The house had been destroyed during the defence of Budapest against the Soviets when Germans and Hungarians had tried to hold off Russians and Romanians.

And who was the famous composer? He was Jenő Hubay, which disconcerted me a lot because I hadn’t heard of him. A little research found that he was a fine violin player who had studied with Joseph Joachim, played chamber music with Brahms and had a string of famous pupils himself, including Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmanyi, for whom Nielsen wrote his violin concerto.


The owners of the hotel have carefully reconstructed some of Hubay’s house, where he used to hold recitals until his death in 1937. They were so popular that his wife started them up again two years later.

Hubay rooms 2Hubay rooms 1

Hubay has a considerable number of compositions to his credit. These include operas and also, as you would expect, compositions for the violin including four concertos. It sometimes happens that when a virtuoso writes concertos for his or her instrument they are strong on technical demands but weak in musical interest. This is not always the case, though, and certainly isn’t with Jenő Hubay. His concertos are excellent and well scored. Here is Ragin playing a movemnt of the third concerto.

And there are a few recordings featuring Hubay himself.

Two more little wrinkles. Hubay married a countess, Róza Cebrian.

Hubay and Cebrian

And then there is the Chaplin connection. Chaplin’s daughter, Antoinette, studied violin with Jenő Hubay in Budapest in the 1920’s and often mentioned Hubay and members of his family in letters home. That said, she did not stand comparison with most of Hubay’s other students.

But I have just begun to explore all this and haven’t even mentioned General Bem, about whom a book could be written and probably has been.

Women Composers

One of the advantages of insomniac tendencies is being plugged into a radio and hearing new music by accident. In my case, the programme is All Through The Night, where the presenter pretends the show is going out live even though it isn’t. One clue is a complete absence of time checks. Another (rarely) is a mistake going uncorrected on the recording before it goes out.

This morning, while half awake, I heard music by a composer new to me. Her name is Ruth Gipps, which I misheard as Gibbs. She was born on the 20th of February 1921 and died on 23rd of February 1999.

Ruth Gipps 1Ruth Gipps 2

The piece I heard was the second movement of her Horn Concerto Op 58, the soloist being the wonderful David Pyatt with the London Philharmonic. I now have the whole concerto but bought it as a download and consequently have no sleeve note, so I have no idea when she wrote it or who she wrote it for. But I can safely exclude the composer herself since she did not play the horn.

First impressions are that this concerto is a well composed piece and that Gipps is a very able orchestrator who, among other things, makes good use of colour and moves deftly from orchestral tuttis to more lightly scored passages which tickle the ear.

Gipps faced impediments in her life as a composer and conductor, some of them caused by the fact she was a woman. She was also opposed to the overly avant garde, serialism and the like and wasn’t shy of making her views known. Why would she be?

This is a link to an obituary published in The Independent.


Taylor Swift’s Legs

Taylor Swift is a woman of unblemished countenance who sings songs. Although she doesn’t sing with her legs, they are deemed to be a major part of her act in much the same way as Betty Grable’s legs were in bygone years. Remember Betty?

 Betty Grable

‘Hosiery specialists of the era often noted the ideal proportions of her legs as thigh (18.5 inches (47 cm)), calf (12 inches (30 cm)), and ankle (7.5 inches (19 cm)).[2] Grable’s legs were famously insured by her studio for $1 million with Lloyds of London.’ (Wikipedia)

Mean (song)

Mean (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia

I read that Ms Swift has also insured her legs – reportedly for the sum of $26,000,000. This may be an astute move on her part since breaking one of them would ruin her forthcoming tour. Why? Because, nowadays, singing is not enough. There has to be bodywork too. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs didn’t need to gyrate, and neither did Doc Watson, but times have changed. So get out there, why don’t you, and shake those tail feathers!

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact I have no interest in Ms Swift’s legs, but I have been following some of her other moves. She seems to be an astute business person.

To maintain her squeaky clean image, she has bought the domain names TaylorSwift.porn and TaylorSwift.adult before they become available to buy as part of a public sale by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) planned to take place on 1 June. She has done this so that no one else can use these domain names to move ‘adult’ material. According to Ad Week, a select few businesses and individuals were offered the opportunity to buy addresses based on the new domains for $2,500 (£1,600) before they went on the open market and Ms Swift was one of those individuals. I think she did the right thing.

But Ms Swift has done something else as well. She has applied to trademark five phrases from her latest album 1989: ‘Party like it’s 1989’, ‘this sick beat’, ‘cause we never go out of style’, ‘could show you incredible things’, and ‘nice to meet you, where you been?’

So if you are innocently writing a novel or short story including the line, ‘Nice to meet you, where you been?’ you could end up on the wrong side of a law suit from Ms Swift’s legal team. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot see how it can be right to trademark an entirely normal phrase like this. Such moves should be resisted. If your book exists in file form only it will be easy to amend, but if you or your publisher have paid for a print run as well, then the entire consignment might have to be pulped.

Two years ago I came across an author who discovered, by way of a heavy letter from a lawyer, that her title had been trademarked and she couldn’t legally use it. Since her book was self-published, she had to come up with a new title, no easy matter, and pay for an amended cover design. All of which caused her considerable anguish.

Surely this is not the way we want to go.

A blast from the past (continued)

I have been asked for some background to a recent post, A Blast From The Past. What was I doing in Afghanistan in the first place?


Although I am not a biologist I went on a biology expedition to Afghanistan as medical officer, which involved training before we left in setting broken legs with splints and injecting innocent oranges with water. All good fun, but what would have been more useful was learning how to deal with problems of the digestive system. To better earn my keep I supplemented the bandages and syringes with a small study of music in the Badakshan province, my equipment being ears, a tape recorder and manuscript paper.

Badakshan 2

Badakshan province is in the far north east of Afghanistan and much of it is mountainous, including part of the Hindu Kush. This is a photograph of the provincial capital, Faizabad.


To get to our destination we travelled overland in an ex-army K9 truck through Greece, Turkey and Iran, and took the same way back. Since I did not then have a camera all I have to offer are a few verbal snapshots supplemented with images from the web. I do not claim to be a latter-day Freya Stark.

Men with guns

We were rounded up by a unit of Turkish army and removed to a low building with small, glassless windows. We spent the night there, a soldier with a rifle at each window. They were worried we might be taken out by Kurds. We had seen quite a few, many on horseback, but they had always ignored us.

A café in Herat

A waiter had hung his pencil on the wall. Suddenly I noticed that the wall was swaying from side to side about the pencil, which remained pointing towards the floor. I thought I was losing it and took a little too long to hit the street. From memory, the earthquake was centred near Mashad in Iran.

A quiet game of chess

We sat on a rug under a tree. I used to play chess, and even defeated a reverend once in a competition, but this time my strategy was different. If the Afghan was better than I was, then I would lose and we would both be happy. If he was not a good player, I would have the difficult task of engineering a loss without making it obvious what I was doing. That way we would both be happy too. On no account would I use the en passant rule in case it was not known in these parts. I had no wish to be accused of cheating. The game took quite a while, during which I ate the occasional grape while some of my colleagues  resorted to deep draughts from a hookah.

Hookah 3

I find it amusing that the current craze for e-cigarettes uses vapour – exactly what the hookah has been doing in its various forms for some four hundred years.

 A game of volleyball

Challenged to a game of volleyball by the Afghan army, engineering a loss was not necessary. We didn’t stand a chance.

 Checking Shoes

We checked them every morning before putting them on to make sure they weren’t occupied by scorpions.

The baker

I still remember the grim look on the his face when, for the third night running, our lead biologist with his advanced technology failed to trap any of the rodents raiding his mill.

Losing a gear

When our truck lost its reverse gear a local mechanic managed to fix it. Our problem then was to avoid offending him – either by offering him too little or too much money. What local mechanics managed to do with limited tools was amazing. They were particularly good at keeping fire-arms in working order, a fact foreign invaders might have taken into account.

Ceremonial tea

On several occasions we were invited to join village elders in large tents, where we were offered tea and unleavened bread. We knew drinking the tea might be risky, but refusing to drink it more so.  The custom was to sit round the edges of the tent on carpets and rugs. We did what we could to communicate using hand gestures. All of the people we met on these occasions were men.

 An old man and a donkey

I met several old men in Afghanistan, but had to remind myself that these were the ones who had survived disease and ill health. Many had not.

I have a clear memory of one in particular. We were making our way along a path about two feet wide. The path was half way up a ravine, raging water below and high cliff above. Stepping aside for someone coming the other way was dangerous, and this particular old gent was not only coming the other way but had a donkey with him. He produced a bag of dried mulberries from his flowing sleeve and offered us some. Very civil of him, I thought at the time, as I tried to take a few without plunging into the torrent below. He hit us with the usual greeting, which we returned. As I remember it, this was ‘burubachai’, but I recently found out I had mis-remembered some Serbian I used to know, so maybe I have this wrong too.


Most of the music I heard took the form of songs accompanied by small stringed instruments. The songs were strophic, and a given song sometimes had quite a few verses. I was told by a passing group of US anthropologists that the subject matter was usually patriotic. Add this to the local ability to make and repair weapons and Afghanistan is a place only an idiot would think of invading.

I recorded quite a few of these songs, but the recordings were taken back to the UK when I was in hospital in Belgrade and I have not been reunited with them since. Something else I learned was that women had music of their own, but always played it in their own homes. Not being a woman myself, there was no possibility of eavesdropping on this music, let alone recording it.

Note 1

The present Kurdish problem has been caused by the arrogance of diplomats during the First World War, who thought it was alright to draw invisible lines in the sand and deny the Kurds a homeland of their own, splitting them up between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – a problem which persists to this day.  Check out Sir Mark Sykes, Monsieur  François Georges-Picot and their secret agreement of 1916.

Note 2

Readers of a musical tendency might like to know that the songs I recorded were in the mixolydian mode. This mode is not far removed from our major diatonic major scale except that the seventh degree is flattened. So if the major scale was C major, then instead of a B natural we have a B flat (Bb). Thinking in terms of chords, Vaughan Williams might use this Bb as part of a G minor chord, whereas Carl Nielsen would surely have used it as part of a Bb major chord. Isn’t life fun?

Making money from torture

I read that the Canadian group Skinny Puppy has billed the US government for $666,000 in royalty payments. No doubt the use of the sum 666 is thought to be witty. Why have they submitted this demand? A security guard and a fan at Guantanamo Bay told the band that its music had been used to torture prisoners, which could only be done by playing it.

I also read in Wikipedia that ‘The group is widely considered to be one of the founders of the electro-industrial genre.’ Until now I had no idea there was such a genre, but if the description is accurate it might commend itself to torture of the sensitive if played for any length of time. To judge from the royalty demand it was played at Guantanamo for weeks on end.

Like many, I first came across this abuse of music when the US military blasted Manuel Noriega with rock music prior to his capture in 1989. At the time he was holed up in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See’s embassy in Panama, and crumbled after five days.

If, like me, you find the words hard to make out, the following is a transcript.

oil remove shred and tear radiation vapor
it’s the fear so unclear man in motion going nowhere
in our homes stuck in the face spread the dirt to populace
yellow journal yellow journal set the pace feel the rage
manifestations of a sort so insidious off the point
simple solution never confusion sport a gun kill a cop
crazy world of weary thought so receive me had enough
lock me up lock me up
rot and assimilate so hot to annihilate
deviation tonic mess prolonged existence innocence
is he who speaks isn’t weak wheelchair virtue so to speak
bubonic plague the truth of aids immunity avoid decay
in the trench of pestilence the bible screams announce your faith
mutterings of death to bring suffocate a newborn thing
degradation of an age venereal it’s all sensation
protect design the moral plan infallible as propaganda
completely black with no steps back
hot to assimilate we’ll rot or annihilate
agony profusely stains the inner thinking of the brain
accusations clanking chains experiments with the groans of pain
all prefer no one blames the terror in an animal’s screams
in cages our future – the answers insane