alan little’s weblog archive for april 2007

what was i thinking?

30th April 2007 permanent link

A random email, from somebody who thought I was somebody else, led me to have a look back through my music blogging archive. There among other things I noticed a top ten list from three years ago of my then-favourite classical recordings.

We all grow up, hopefully, and sometimes our tastes change and mature with time. But I’ve listened to quite a bit more classical music in the last three years than I had before, and quite a few of the things on that list now jump out at me as signs that when you’re just starting to get interested in something, your ideas and opinions might not be quite as well informed as you think they are. (Under-experienced yoga teachers also take note)

Beethoven: Symphony no.3 "Eroica"Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 recording I haven’t been listening to Beethoven symphonies much lately. If I did, these would still be the ones I would listen to.
Beethoven: Symphony no.7Carlos Kleiber / Vienna Philharmonic (their recording of no. 5 on the same CD is more famous but I prefer the 7th)
Beethoven: complete string quartetsHungarian Quartet 1950s mono recordings The Hungarian Quartet mono recordings would still be a decent choice for a complete set, supposing they were still available, which I believe they’re not. I’m sure there are also plenty of very good performances by modern ensembles available in state of the art recorded sound, but I havt listene to them (and, to be honest, don’t feel any great need to).
As always with sets of recordings, you can find better version of the individual pieces. That fantastic Smetana Quartet Rasumovsky 3, for example, but it’s only available on a very obscure German label and absurdly difficult to get hold of. As are their 1960s recordings of the late quartets, which overenthusiastic people can get hold of by importing them from Japan. This is just absurd. There are people who want these things, and there’s just no need any more to get into all the costs of burning hundreds of funny little plastic disks and shipping them around the place. Just put the damn things on a server somewhere already, and charge enough to cover the bandwidth costs plus a reasonable profit margin. Free money. what could be simpler?
A slightly unfashionable choice: The Italian Quartet. Lots of people find their style too smooth and pretty for Beethoven, but I personally find their opus 132 Heiliger Dankgesang (Pinnacle Of Western Culture?) astounding. On a par with that Smetana Quartet Rasumovsky 3, even.
Beethoven: String Quartet no.9, Rasumovsky 3Smetana Quartet 1960s recording
Mozart piano concertosAlfred Brendel /  Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the FieldsThese are quite good as a cheap starter set of some of the best known concertos. There are better recordings of individual pieces – Martha Argerich’s wild Number 20, for example
Mozart Requiem Mass. Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields That was a typo in the first place, I meant Hogwood / Academy of Ancient Music
Schubert String QuintetStern / Katim / Schneider / Casals / Tortellier Another one I haven’t listened to for quite a while, but if I did, this is still a very fine performance of a very fine piece of music. Also good: the Hungrarian Quartet
Brahms Violin Concerto Kremer / Bernstein /  Vienna Philharmonic There are other Brahms Violin Concerto recordings I would prefer now, Oistrakh/Klemperer for example. But these days when I want to listen to a Big Romantic Concerto it’s generally the Dvorak Cello Concerto, for which Fournier/Celibidache (1948) is definitive.
Shostakovich String Quartets.Original Borodin Quartet recordings Yep.
There’s a BBC live recording of number eight from an early 1960s Edinburgh Festival that’s even better than the slightly later studio recording. The orginal Borodin Quartet only recorded the first thirteen; number fifteen is also wonderful and the Mark II Borodin Quartet, in which Mikhail Kopelman replaced Rostislav Dubinsky as first violin, did that stunningly too.
Bach Cello Suites Since we might as well have ten, I have the feeling there must be a recording of the Bach cello suites out there somewhere that I would really, really love but I haven’t found it yet. I’ve listened to Casals, Fournier and Tortellier and they haven’t blown me away What was I thinking? Not blown away by Casals?
Clearly I can’t have been listening properly. Pau is Da Man. I also again and again find myself pleasantly surprised by an obscure recording by Yehuda Hanani (pupil of Casals, apparently) for which I have to thank emusic.
Pieter Wispelwey – seemingly regarded by quite a few people as Greatest Cellist Of His Generation, etc. – somehow doesn’t do a whole lot for me in this or in quite a few other things.
Elgar cello concertodu Pré / Barbirolli)
Haydn Seven Last WordsBorodin Quartet
Smetana String Quartet  no. 1. Juilliard Quartet Having so many CDs that if you listened to one a day, you’d listen to each one about once every couple of years, has its disadvantages. On the other hand, you can be pleased when you dig out something that you used to like a lot but haven’t listened to for a while, and find that you still like it a lot.
Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition Fritz Reiner / Chicago Symphony Orchestra Not a profound utterance from the depths of somebody's soul, but who ever said everything has to be? Great Fun. If you’re used to Ravel’s famous orchestral version, [Alan now recommends Toscanini, not that there’s anything noticeably wrong with Reiner] then Mussorgsky’s original for solo piano takes a little bit of getting used to. Richter was the undisputed master of it; Pletnev is good too, especially if you want a modern recording with decent sound instead of Richter’s accompaniment by the collective coughing of Bulgaria’s Stalinist nomenklatura in his most famous live recording.

Speaking of Greatest Cellists Of Their Generation: rest in peace Mstislav Rostropovich.

Recommended recordings too many to even think about listing, so I’ll just pick a personal favourite: the premiere of Britten’s Cello Symphony, recorded live in Moscow in 1960.

brian micklethwait · stephen pollard · alex ross · on an overgrown path

related entries: Music

not yoga?

24th April 2007 permanent link

I was trawling my mail archives today looking for something else, and stumbled across these pointers that I sent to somebody who emailed me a little while ago. Just in case they might be of more general interest, the question was:

I was wondering how tight were your hips when you first started out? I'm trying hard to stretch everyday, but my knees are so high above the ground that I cannot sit crosslegged? Were your hips that tight?

I assumed/hoped the guy probably goes to a yoga teacher who can teach the standard stuff competently, so I thought I would try to be helpful and point out a couple of things I learned by myself / in other contexts. There’s probably no position the human body is capable of assuming that somebody hasn’t labeled as a yoga asana somewhere in the last five thousand years. Nevertheless these things are useful and not that often taught in yoga classes

I wasn't that tight. In some ways I was quite flexible - hamstrings for example - from years of climbing & martial arts, training for high steps & kicks. Other ways - hips, shoulders - extremely tight. I think if I hadn't had *something* I was good at from day one, I would have found the whole yoga business too discouraging and wouldn't have stuck with it.

I could sit cross-legged, although not with a very straight back - but in my early attempts at “lotus” my foot barely came above my knee.

Here are some hints & tips that you won't get in many standard yoga classes or texts:

- squatting. Surprisingly good hip opener, also good for quads, back etc. Very important to keep your heels down, with weight on them, and your feet turned slightly out with knees tracking in the same direction as the feet, not collapsing inwards. The closer together and the more parallel you have your feet, the harder it is to balance.

A good game to play (actually a Chi Gung practice) is squatting facing the wall, with your toes as close to the wall as possible. But trying not to touch the wall with anything but your toes - also not to fall backwards onto your ass. You can start a bit away from the wall, and only go down as low as you feel comfortable, and gradually work closer/lower. Then, if you have tight shoulders like me, doing it with your arms stretched overhead makes it *really* interesting.

-a gymnasts' stretch that I've not encountered often in yoga classes: kneel on your elbows & knees. Support your weight on your elbows and spread your knees sideways, keeping your legs bent. (Imagine from above you look like a frog). Go to a comfortable stretch point and stay there a while. (Try to keep your back straight and not let your lower back sag) Then tense your inner thighs as hard as you can, as if you were trying to pull your knees back together or push them down into the floor, but without actually letting them move. Then on an exhale, relax suddenly, and you may find you can go a bit further. Repeat a few times. A soft surface helps _ I sometimes practice this one in bed - on a hard floor it's very uncomfortable for the knees

Don't on any account let yourself be pressured into trying lotus or half lotus too soon, you can hurt yourself if you try to bend your knees & ankles into lotus when your hips aren't ready.

(So where did you learn that last one, Alan? The gymnast/frog thing? Well. I originally picked that one up about a quarter of a century ago, although I haven’t felt the need to try it myself on a regular basis until quite recently. [So I don’t actually know if it works yet. Check back in a few months. It feels like it ought to] I learned it in a university sports hall(*), where the gymnastics club – predominantly female – used to train on Monday nights. The climbing wall overlooked the sports hall. At eighteen-nineteen I presume the young ladies were pretty decrepit and superannuated as gymnasts, but somehow that didn’t prevent the climbing club – predominantly male – from turning up en masse on Mondays nights to, er, train seriously and at the same time pick up hints and tips on state of the art stretching exercises. Yes.)

(*) I believe this was also the place where – about as long ago then as then is now, although then it seemed like longer – Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. But I’m not sure and I can’t be bothered to google it just now.

related entries: Yoga

brian on bach

21st April 2007 permanent link

Brian Mickethwait on Johann Sebastian Bach:

Bach was making his music for God, who hears everything and remembers everything and who has no need of his own personal score. And, Bach was composing to bring his contemporaries closer to God. He pretty much assumed that future musicians attempting the same would do it with music that they had themselves composed, rather than with music composed by a dead person.

related entries: Music

backbending breakthrough

19th April 2007 permanent link

I’m a slow learner, Part Two. (Part One here)

More backbending wisdom: at the yoga conference in Köln I went to a backbending class with Iyengar yoga teacher Rita Keller. She’s really good. Iyengar yoga is a style I don’t practice and I haven’t found the few classes of it that I’ve tried congenial. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t good for a lot of other people or that Iyengar teachers don’t know a whole lot of useful things. Especially about how to to bend backwards safely. I’ve even seen normally really hardcore ashtanga yoga purists(<ancient link from some long-lost yoga message board long ago>) recommending learning safe backbending from Iyengar teachers.

The key to safe backbending: lengthening the spine, especially the otherwise vulnerable lumbar spine. There are two things you have to do to achieve this.

  1. Pull the navel inwards & upwards. You don’t necessarily have to suck your belly in hollow – some ashtangis do practice & teach this way – but there has to be tension & intention in that direction. The navel is trying to be closer to the sternum than to the pubis.
  2. At the same time, tuck the coccyx and the perineum down and slightly forward. Or, as Rita Keller puts it in lovely German, pull the “Sitzfleisch” down.

Quite apart from whatever esoteric effects these things may have one one’s prana, nadis and chakras, they lengthen and stabilise the lumbar spine in a whole range of important physical ways:

Rita had us spend quite a lot of time at the start of the class practicing forwards and sideway bends with the abdomen held correctly. Why? I assume to get us used to moving with the torso as a single stable unit and the lumbar spine supported all the time, never letting excessive lordosis (arching) or instability creep in. When we did get into some standard backbends, with some important additional advice about generating tension the whole time with the legs rather than just pushing into position then passively staying there, I was both deeper into the positions than I normally get and more comfortable.

The relevant bit here with regard to my learning speed: every ashtanga teacher in the world tries to teach this slight-pelvic-tuck-and-abdominal-tension business to every beginner from Day One, under the title of mula bandha and uddiyana bandha. So people have been trying to get me to grasp it for ten years now. I’ve had a theoretical understanding of how the mechanics of it work at least since I read David Coulter’s anatomy book three years ago. And yet it took having it explained to me in this particular way in this class, for me to really grasp how to apply it effectively going backwards.

Maybe Rita Keller just happens to be the teacher who can explain this stuff in a way that I personally can grasp. Maybe my backbending practice has just now reached the point where I can usefully apply this information and I couldn’t before. Or maybe I’m just a slow learner when it comes to this sort of thing. Which would be fine. Yoga isn’t a race.

That Disclaimer Again: you may wish to consider whether or not taking advice about how to do difficult yoga asanas from random strangers on the internet would be a wise course of action.

related entries: Yoga

maybe i’m just slow

19th April 2007 permanent link

Maybe I’m just slow, but these days in yoga classes I find myself again and again being told things again that other people told me years before, but now suddenly they make sense and I can see how they could work for me in my practice, where before I couldn’t.

Maybe I’m just slow at this kind of stuff. Maybe these people are are explaining certain things in a particular way that makes sense for me, whereas those other teachers before explained them in other ways that made sense to themselves and to other students but not to me. Maybe I was set for a long time in pursuing my practice in a particular way, and not able/ready to integrate other perspectives and new information – and maybe that was the right thing for me to to to build a base of solid understanding in my body and mind. Maybe after ten years of practice and study I now have some basis and context to understand things that were just random bits of information before.

It would be easy to get frustrated here and think oh, if only I’d understood this when so-and-so told me it eight years ago, then I’d be so much further on now. So what? There is no “further on” in yoga practice. Yoga practice is about being where you are and focusing on what you are doing now, not on what you may or may not be able to do in the future. Being able to perform cool-looking physical stunts is [great fun, but …] a side effect and basically irrelevant.

A couple of examples:

I have very tight shoulders, from fifteen years of rock climbing and more years than that of working sitting hunched over desks. I can barely lift my arms straight up over my head – which is a major disadvantage in things like handstands and backbends. Jenny Sauer-Klein was talking about how useful it is to have an extra margin of movement in the shoulders in handstand, and not to be right at the limit of your flexibility just getting your arms straight overhead. But Jenny, I said, I am right at my limit just getting my arms straight up overhead. She showed my a very simple little half downward dog stretch leaning against the wall, which she promised should do the trick fairly quickly. We’ll see. But I distinctly remember that a yoga teacher I went to for a short time when I first arrived in Munich tried to teach me the same thing years ago, and I tried it for a little while but it didn’t seem to do much and I didn’t stick with it.

Maybe now I’m more motivated. Certainly now I know a lot more about how to use my hips and abdominal muscles to protect my lower back in this stretch, so that I can be sure I am working my shoulders & upper back and and not just sagging harmfully into my lumbar spine.

(The other example got too long, so it’s coming later as a separate posting)

related entries: Yoga

new york brits

19th April 2007 permanent link

My mate Charlie, an Englishman in New York, would like lots of people to look at his new website New York Brits.

That’s my eighteen readers heading your way, Chas.

oh dear

16th April 2007 permanent link

In Dona Holleman’s class: “who here can do full lotus postion?”. A lot of hands go up. “And who can do headstand?”. More lots of hands. “Ok – who can do full lotus and headstand, but can’t get into full lotus in headstand?”

Oh shit. Suddenly my hand is looking awfully lonely up there.

“OK, you - up. Up!”. Dona has a very no-bullshit teaching style. Up into headstand I go, in front of fifty strangers, and she shows me how to take take the first leg into half lotus, then rotate the thigh back as far as I can so that the other leg has somewhere to go. I don’t get it this time but, as Jason Nemmer says: if the mind knows something is possible, the body will catch up sooner or later.

The smoothness of my lift into headstand did, however, impress at least one yoga chick who told me so over lunch. All suffering brings its rewards.

related entries: Yoga


15th April 2007 permanent link

acro yoga

Wot, no yoga conference liveblogging? Nope. I did bring my laptop and I thought I might, but it’s just not realistic. When you’re doing seven to nine hours of yoga classes a day – mostly pretty physical, too, the ones I tend to choose – you’re not doing much else except getting as much sleep as you can, and walking the culinary tightrope between the scylla of needing energy and the charybdis of needing an empty stomach in yoga classes.

Typically after the last class you’re fairly wiped out. It’s back to the hotel for a shower and a clean shirt, then out for something to eat(*): enough for energy for the next day, because you won’t be eating much during the day, but not so much that you still feel full in the morning. By then it's well past nine o’clock and bedtime, because …

In the morning, you need to be up early to get a small breakfast in. Some don’t, but I feel I need it so I do, and then I just hope that the first class doesn’t involve too much by way of upside down or twisting. Shortly after breakfast comes the first of four or five classes for the day. Repeat.

I did take some notes, and I might post some of them over the next few days. I always learn enough at these things to last me through well over a year of trying to work out how they might fit into my own practice at home. I’m still absorbing lessons from my short visit to Ilya Zhuravlev in Moscow last year – sign of a good teacher.

(*) In Köln, I recommend the Govindam (Indian vegetarian) restaurant on Roonstrasse and Habibi’s Falafel on Zülpicherstrasse. There's also an Osho meditation centre that has a decent cafe that’s popular with yoga chicks.

related entries: Yoga

yoga babes

14th April 2007 permanent link

Michael Blowhard is interested in women in yoga (preponderance thereof), yoga clothing and the semiotics of women dressing up. This one’s for you, Michael.

Something I noticed this evening, not for the first time: yoga chicks. Well duh. As I mentioned a little while go in a comment chez Russell, there ain’t a straight guy who does yoga who hasn’t noticed and been motivated by them to some degree at some stage. But today in particular: what they wear.

Yoga guys tend to have a dress theme of loose, lived-in cotton earth tones, plus matte black cotton lycra in actual classes – sorry Michael, it’s still the only viable answer. As my roommate in India put it: “yoga guys mostly dress ok, in an ‘I'm a traveling guy and I don't have many clothes’ sorta way”. I assume she was being kind. Yoga chicks – similar. Somewhat more colourful and elegant variations on the same basic theme.

It all changes when the sun goes down.

The guys: much the same. Clean shirts, hopefully. The girls: at least half of them suddenly resplendent in evening dresses, heels and full makeup. This struck me today in the foyer waiting for the German Yoga Conference post-classes concert in Köln, and I assume a high proportion of the thus-resplendent ladies were the home team with access to their full wardrobes. But I can state from personal observation that if they were living out of backpacks somewhere in the depths of rural India, that wouldn’t stop them either. How do they do it?

related entries: Yoga


12th April 2007 permanent link

I am jealous. My already outrageously well-travelled wife is on a business trip to Istanbul, where between meetings she managed to fit in a visit to Architectural Wonder Of The World the Hagia Sophia mosque / former cathedral, and (far more jealousy-inducing for me), an exhibition by brilliant Turkish photographer and film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

She’s bringing me back an exhibition catalogue and three of his DVDs, which we already tried to find on and but no go. Strange. Perhaps Germany’s large Turkish population wants a rose-tinted view of home and isn’t into gritty arthouse social realism.

I have Mike Johnston to thank for introducing me to Ceylan’s work.

I can’t be too jealous, though – this is just a quick dashed-off blog posting before I run out the door to catch a flight to Köln, where I will be hanging out with yoga babes at the Yoga Conference Germany 2007. Köln Cathedral ain’t the Hagia Sophia, nor am I aware of any current photo exhibitions there by artists as talented as Pieter Bruegel the Elder – but I’ll be disappointed if my yoga classes aren’t considerably more fun than Maria’s business meetings.

related entries: Photography

random linkage

9th April 2007 permanent link

I just stumbled across(*) Michael Jennings’ link to [the] William Gibson’s link to the Georgian Ministry of Architecture Transport. Holy shit. Fallingwater as designed by a Vogon.

My highly travelled family’s reactions were more interesting. My wife: “Oh yeah. I think I’ve seen that”. My son: “What is this for a house?”. Thus showing (1), the development of a trilingual child. This not very idiomatic English sentence is a word for word translation of the perfectly idiomatic German “was ist das für ein Haus?”. And (2), surprisingly, the thing is recognisable to a small child as a “house”, i.e. a building.

Michael’s article – musings on Rotterdam, Paris and architecture – is well worth reading.

(*) “Just stumbled across” = “was ego surfing on technorati, and found …”

lessons in seeing

8th April 2007 permanent link

Bruce Robbins and Sharon Akler both, coincidentally, emailed me this week about my years-old review of Magnum Landscape – thus causing me to have another look at the book, which I hadn’t opened for a while. It's still my Desert Island Photography Book; thanks, Bruce and Sharon.

Bruce shakes his head over a reviewer on who thinks “very few of the images are truly outstanding”. S/he is is of course entitled to his/her opinion even though it is completely wrong.

I found the review after mine on interesting, where the guy complains bitterly about the reproduction quality of the pictures in Landscape compared to Magnum Degrees. My thoughts about this:

Here’s your list of who’s in the book, Sharon:

Abbas · Eve Arnold · Micha Bar-Am · Bruno Barbey · Ian Berry · Werner Bischof · René Burri · Cornell Capa · Robert Capa · Henri Carier-Bresson · Bruce Davidson · Carl de Keyzer · Luc Delahaye · Raymond Depardon · Nikos Economopoulos · Elliott Erwitt · Martine Franck · Stuart Franklin · Leonard Freed · Paul Fusco · Jean Gaumy · Burt Glinn · Harry Gruyaert · Ernst Haaas · Erich Hartmann · David Alan Harvey · Thomas Höpker · David Hurn · Richard Kalvar · Josef Koudelka · Hiroji Kubota · Guy Le Querrec · Paul Lowe · Costa Manos · Peter Marlow · Steve McCurry · Susan Meiselas · Inge Morath · James Nachtwey · Martin Parr · Gilles Peress · Gueorgui Pinkhassov · Raghu Rai · Marc Riboud · Miguel Rio Branco · George Rodger · Ferdinando Scianna · Chris Steele-Perkins · Dennis Stock · Larry Towell · John Vink · Alex Webb · Patrick Zachmann

related entries: Photography

yoga teaching (again)

8th April 2007 permanent link

A couple of smart people whose opinions I respect: Michael Smith and my friend Jeff by email (UPDATE: and Lianne at yogalila) have drawn my attention to an article from the New York Times about young yoga teachers.

I say, hmm …

There are far too many people attempting to teach yoga these days with nowhere near enough experience to actually have anything to teach, well meaning and dedicated though many of them no doubt are. They should stop and get a few years practice in, then think about it.

Age is a red herring. I have no problem at all with the age of yoga teachers as such. Experience and commitment are the issue. Arjuna of (and several other information-packed but design-challenged yoga websites, most of them in German) is much younger than me, but I have the highest respect for his experience, knowledge and dedication – and not just because he is super fit and can do amazing advanced asanas.

But somebody who, like one of the “teachers” mentioned in the NYT article, has ten months practice experience and then does a two month teacher training, knows nothing and should not be attempting to teach before they have actually learned something.

I have been practicing yoga for about ten years. Admittedly somewhat sporadically for some of that time, and somebody more dedicated and willing to put the hours in could have reached a similar level of physical practice in half the time or less. But. I’ve been though a lot of challenges and changes in that decade, and my yoga practice has been a thread of continuity and sanity through all of them. I've been content and inwardly at peace with myself for the first time ever in my life, largely due to the yoga. Why on earth would I consider trusting my valuable practice time to somebody who hasn’t themself been through something at least vaguely similar?

(Actually, I hardly ever go to classes these days anyway. I try to make it to my ashtanga teacher once a week when she’s not in India, just to make sure that I don’t stray too far from the straight and narrow in my own practice the rest of the time. A couple of times a year I go to workshops for inspiration and to pick up new ideas, the lessons from which I then spend the rest of the year slowly absorbing on my own mat at home. This is the next one. Encouraging students to have their own independent practice and not always be dependent on classes should be an important goal for every yoga teacher.)

I’ve written about this before, and now I find I don’t have very much more to say about it. Beware of well-meaning but underexperienced yoga teachers. A two hundred hour “certification” means very little - that’s four or five weeks full time work, folks. How much can you learn in four or five weeks? You need a teacher who shows clear signs of their yoga practice having been the central focus of their life for a substantial period of time.

related entries: Yoga

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