250 Is A Magic Number

I might still be searching for a job, but I nevertheless feel I am ending July on the crest of a creative wave. With this post, I will reach my stated aim of publishing four for the month, and I’ll be doing so with two new reasons to smile. Firstly, as revealed last time, I’ve started our next book club title – A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir – and it’s proving very fruitful where my notes are concerned. In addition, I have added an exciting new string to my bow. Just a couple of weeks ago, I spotted an appeal on LinkedIn for contributors to a website, Music Is To Blame. Some items – reviews, interviews and the like – would be submitted free of charge, and others would be paid, but I didn’t really mind either way. I saw this as exactly what it was, a golden opportunity to gain greater exposure as a writer, and I couldn’t apply for it fast enough.

After some discussion with the editor, I was tasked with writing a sample review of an album of my choice – and it could be no longer than 250 words. I sat down and eagerly scribbled my observations away as Wolf Alice’s Blue Weekend, a record I’d recently enjoyed, played through my headphones. Little did I know that I’d finish having created a small problem for myself. There were detailed notes for every one of its songs, but I’d only be able to use a fraction of them in the final product. If I didn’t, I’d risk spreading myself too thin, but thankfully, I had enough experience with essays to feel confident in being selective – ruthless, in fact. If I came to a song about which I had nothing worthwhile to say, or was repeating myself, I didn’t talk about it. That meant that it was much easier to separate the highlights from the low points.

It was a new and exciting endeavour for me, and any worries I had about the word count soon evaporated. I became lost in how freeing the whole exercise felt – since music is an art form, I could talk much more expressively about what I’d heard and how it made me feel. I could delve so deeply inside myself that the text almost seemed to write itself (even if it did require some chopping back afterwards). Luckily, the result went down well with the editor, and because of that, I’m now pleased to say that I was welcomed aboard as a member of the team. Since the sample, I’ve written my first full-length review of a different album, which is yet to be published but came to a smidgeon over 1,000 words in its submitted form! I’ll be sure to include a link here when it is released into the world, by which time I’ll have completed my second piece – on a mysterious new single by a mysterious new artist I’ve not had the pleasure of listening to before. It seems that there’s an inherent unpredictability in reviewing for this website, as a lot of the music discussed on it is unknown to me, but I love that. Who wouldn’t embrace the challenge of never quite knowing what they’ll write next?

Mason

Operation Book Club, Part 2

Last week, Nora finished To Kill a Mockingbird. Believe it or not, this was bad news, because Lara had finished it before her – meaning that of the three who are currently signed up to our book club, only I am trailing behind. It’s now approximately three weeks since I started, and I’m currently on Chapter 18. There’s still some way to go, but I have promised myself that I will definitely finish the novel within a month – giving me another seven days to hit my target. I don’t want to keep the other two waiting, and I believe that getting through each book relatively promptly will make the whole club concept much easier for us to maintain.

Having said that, though, I need to make sure I don’t feel any pressure in reaching the end. I’ve been guilty of that on the odd page recently, and what that means is that I find myself inadvertently racing through, reminding myself to slow down. I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been scanning, because I still register what’s going on, but I’m focusing on the destination rather than the journey, and that’s not good for my notes. I’ve really enjoyed writing my thoughts down in my new notebook as and when they occur. Not only is this whole endeavour helping to broaden my horizons as a reader, it’s also challenging me as a writer too. Although only my eyes will see them, confined as they are to private paper, each set of new notes is in effect part of a larger review, and this is useful, because I haven’t always been particularly good at offering a balanced or negative perspective of a book, film or TV series.

As I may have said before, I tend to find something to enjoy in most things unless there’s an obvious reason to dislike it, which isn’t completely ideal if you need to write about its pros and cons. Because of this, I’ve found it handy during Mockingbird to force myself to note down what I did and didn’t like about the sections I’ve finished reading, even if it’s just a few lines for each. If I remember correctly, there are at least another 12 chapters to go, so if I do this for every one going forward, I should have plenty of thoughts to collate when it comes to discussing what I thought with Lara and Nora. I can’t deny, by the way, that most of them are positive, and I can most definitely see why the novel is so widely regarded as a classic. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so slow reading it – I can’t face feeling bereft after I turn the last page!

Mason

When The Well Was Dry

Over the last few days, it’d been looking increasingly likely that June 2020 might become the first month in Third Time Enabled’s short history not to offer any new posts. I don’t know if I can fully attribute the lack of material to the ongoing lockdown situation, but I simply haven’t had anything worthwhile to say for myself. It might partly be because that’s just how life is sometimes. It’s full of fluctuations – there can be plenty or nothing at all to say. Lots of new ideas to share, or none whatsoever. The lack of predictability keeps us on our toes – we never know quite what will or won’t work out. Just think of all the things I’ve said I’ll do on this blog before – how many of them have I actually managed to follow through?

Circumstance can be to blame then, but I probably am too. I’m doing a Creative Writing degree I love wholeheartedly, and yet I haven’t been proactive enough in creating outside of it. Maybe that’s down to simple procrastination, or self-doubt about the quality of my work. Whatever the case, I haven’t been able to take the plunge. Thankfully, though, sheer desperation has driven me to take action, and I’ve been working on two posts simultaneously for a little while now. Since I’ve had little to say about my own life here, I decided to write something new to showcase, and in this instance, poetry seemed appropriate. I’ve been trying to come up with some using a method I’ve used before – progress has stalled, but there’s been progress nevertheless. The same goes for a film review I started two weeks ago. There’s been much typing and deleting, and while I have managed to put some thoughts to paper, I don’t feel particularly close to finishing it. All I can say is that I’ll keep taking the initiative and pushing myself to write – hopefully you’ll have more to see here soon enough, and I’ll have more to add to my personal portfolio.

In addition to that, I’ll be having the first discussion about my final degree project with my tutor tomorrow…

Mason

 

Bum Notes

Ahead of starting my new “Composing Song Lyrics” module next semester, I wanted to do something different here and review the next album I listened to for the first time. That way, I’d have something to go with my review of the film Whiplash, which I posted here at the end of June. It was my birthday on Sunday, and at my request, Louis gave me one of the albums that I needed to plug a conspicuous hole in my vinyl collection – I was missing the final three Oasis records, of which Dig Out Your Soul is the last. Released in 2008, this seventh studio effort was also the seventh consecutive album by the Manchester icons to go to number one in the UK, and their last hurrah before their abrupt split in August 2009. As we have now arrived at the tenth anniversary of the event, it seems apt for me to tackle their last offering now, even if this did come about entirely by coincidence. Louis tells me that he chose Dig Out Your Soul because out of all my missing Oasis albums, “it had the prettiest cover”.

Dad plugged my record player back in – after it had spent the last couple of months in the garage following my return from university – and I listened to the album from start to finish with my notebook to hand. I tried to write something about every song, even if it was just a few words or a single sentence. For the opening track, “Bag It Up”, I wrote “raw, repetitive, lumbering juggernaut of a riff begins the album. Liam’s vocals are crisp but full of attitude.” As I soon discovered, those words presented me with a considerable problem – namely that I could pretty much say the same for every song. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but as I got further into the album, I struggled to muster anything more adventurous, to the point where it felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel out of desperation at times.

I can see the decline in the notes I made. Of “The Turning”, the album’s second song, I was able to say that its opening was “soft and more subdued, with gentle drums and keyboards.” From this point, though, I can tell that I was gradually running out of any kind of valuable insight. All I could offer on “Waiting For The Rapture” was that it was “stylistically similar to the opening track”, and a throwaway reference to the fact that Noel Gallagher apparently wrote it about meeting his wife. It got even worse by the time of “Ain’t Got Nothin'”, another song full of attitude that only received a response of “typical Liam!” from me. I did redeem myself to some extent with certain judgements. I managed to specify that “The Shock of the Lightning” was “a great, unashamedly rock and roll anthem that would have been great to hear live”, and “I’m Outta Time” was a song that seemed to “unknowingly foreshadow” the fate of Oasis itself. Overall, though, my attempt to thoroughly review Dig Out Your Soul fell flat on its face – there were several songs about which I could say nothing at all.

I don’t think that’s a reflection on the quality of the album at all. There are only a select few records I’ve ever heard that I’ve categorically disliked. It’s more a reflection on my own reviewing abilities, and the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the depth I was looking for. I didn’t feel confident enough to try using any musical terminology either, and the end result was a set of notes that couldn’t have looked less knowledgeable if they’d tried. They’ve given me a reason to go back to the drawing board, but I’m going to look at that as a positive thing. Maybe my upcoming module will give me the insight into the songwriting process that I need to confidently discuss how music is made. At the very least, it’ll allow me to think about adding another string to my writing bow, and including more reviews here. Mum has told me they’d be well worth doing more often, so maybe – for once – I should take her advice on board!

Mason

 

Whiplash (2014)

From the very first scene of writer and director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, budding jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is presented as a man under pressure. Before we see him, we hear the rolling of his drum kit, getting faster and faster as he pushes himself to the limit, determined to improve and impress. When he is subsequently introduced to his formidable tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he stops playing to greet him, only for Fletcher to ask why. He begins again, only to be challenged once more. Eventually, when Fletcher asks to hear Neiman’s rudiments in double time, he obliges, but becomes so engrossed that he does not initially see Fletcher leave the room. It is clear from the outset, then, that Neiman is not destined for an easy ride, and it’s this exchange that begins a dramatic student-teacher relationship. I was immediately both hooked and emotionally invested.

I felt my chest tighten seeing just how much pressure Neiman was under to succeed, as much from himself than anyone else. I shared in the intimidation he and his fellow Studio Band musicians felt in Fletcher’s presence, particularly when he is unleashing the full force of his fury upon them; Chazelle told Simmons to be “a monster, a gargoyle, an animal” during filming. He is established as a firm perfectionist who won’t think twice about punishing the band for rushing or dragging even by a fraction. His abuse is both physical and verbal, and we learn that a past student of his, Sean Casey, was driven to suicide as a result of his aggression. Nobody’s position in the band is safe, and many of the musicians are deliberately pushed to their physical limits in order to prove themselves. There are multiple scenes of sweat, blistered fingers and blood on the drums as they strive to play harder and faster to perfect a piece, and the sheer pain involved induced many a wince in me; I had never realised just what such determination can drive people to do. The strain is mental as well as physical; Neiman breaks up with his girlfriend and crawls out of the wreckage of a car accident in order to join the band at a performance, even though he is covered in blood and severely injured. The latter incident demonstrates just how Neiman’s priorities have changed as he looks to achieve greatness, and it also pushes him over the edge, as Fletcher’s lack of compassion leads Neiman to physically attack him on stage and get him fired.

At this point, relieved that Neiman’s torment was over, I assumed that the film’s conclusion would be smoother for him. The emotional rollercoaster continues, however, when Neiman, having subsequently abandoned drumming, re-encounters Fletcher at a club. They chat in a manner that is almost friendly, but I was convinced this was too good to be true. Sure enough, when Fletcher offers Neiman a drumming spot at a local festival, he reveals he knows Neiman got him fired, getting his revenge by forcing him to play a piece he has not learnt. Fletcher’s status as a total villain is sealed, as it seems he has humiliated Neiman in front of an audience. Neiman hits back with a performance that eventually earns Fletcher’s respect, and in the closing moments of the film the two exchange smiles. It’s a satisfying ending to something that toyed with me from the start. It’s what Chazelle and his cast do so well; I felt fear, anger, determination and disappointment, all alongside our protagonist, and that is surely the mark of a truly great film.

Mason

The Stage And The Stars

Prior to last weekend, I had been lucky enough to see three Shakespeare plays, and these opportunities all came during my A-Levels. I saw the first two – a modernised adaptation of Twelfth Night and a more traditional version of Romeo and Juliet – on trips to the University of Exeter, and I was then incredibly fortunate to see Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre in London. We studied the latter two plays as part of my English Literature course, and as we did so it was hard to notice the lack of enthusiasm creeping around the room at times. Maybe that was because we were made to read and endlessly analyse them, but I still thought it a shame to see. I knew these plays were great, and that everyone else would find them a lot easier to engage with when they saw them unfold on stage.

Sure enough, when we eventually did go on the trips, I could tell that they were more enthused by watching them in the flesh than any sweaty classroom reading. There’s a certain magic I feel watching a Shakespeare play that no other piece of theatre has, no matter how good it is. I’m not entirely sure what it is, or where it comes from, but I know for sure that I felt it again on Saturday night when I attended an outdoor production of Hamlet along with Mum. It was a warm and pleasant summer’s evening, and our surroundings weren’t bad either – that’s high praise coming from someone who doesn’t always get on with the countryside. The show was to be performed by the five members of a theatre group known as the Three Inch Fools, who would use only a simple wooden stage (adorned with a string of fairy lights for when it got dark) and the various props and costumes dotted around it to play multiple parts each. I was intrigued by this minimalist approach as soon as we arrived, and I liked the fact that everything had been laid bare for the audience to see.

I was not disappointed. I welcomed Shakespeare’s words again as though they were old friends, and every one was delivered beautifully by the actress behind Hamlet, Rose Reade, and the rest of the cast, whose projected voices were carried all the way through the audience and across the hills by the light breeze. Everyone present was both respectful of the actors and totally captivated by humour and pathos alike. The English language was a very different thing in Shakespeare’s day, but as it manifested itself in front of my eyes I had no trouble at all understanding and interpreting it. It felt almost like I had become suddenly and instantly fluent in French or another foreign tongue. This helped to make me very comfortable with what I was seeing, even when I was also on the edge of my seat – this was a feeling only exacerbated by how well the cast made the entire piece flow. Each actor was also an equally proficient singer and musician, and many of the props they performed with were traditional folk instruments that matched the time period the play was set in. In such gifted hands, these were able to provide excellent interludes that either served as useful bridges between scenes or illustrative devices at key points within them. Any movements to and from the stage were gentle and hardly noticeable, as was every costume change – anything slower or more stilted was made a part of the performance, usually with a line from one character that put another back on track. Not once did any of the cast slip out of character. If anything, with every passing scene they seemed even more at one with their roles. This added a little more comedy to every laugh, and a little more gravity to every tragedy – especially the multitude of deaths at the play’s climax.

I originally started writing this post on Sunday morning, only hours after we had returned from Hamlet. What prevented me from finishing it in one sitting was mainly my lack of confidence as a reviewer – I was worried about publishing it and appearing as though I had no idea what I was talking about (I might not anyway, but you can be the judge of that). Ultimately, though, I decided that it was more important for whoever did read this to know how much I appreciated the Three Inch Fools and the evening of first-class theatre they gave us. As that particular performance was the penultimate one on their summer tour, I was glad to have been able to see them before their break, and I have no doubt that everyone who sees them when they are next on stage will feel exactly the same way. Look them up if you haven’t already, and if you do feel inclined to witness them at their best, I am certain you won’t regret it in the slightest.

Mason