Archive for the ‘What I'm listening to’ Category

This Janelle Monáe song is from last year but I just listened to it for the first time in ages. I had forgotten how good it was – and the video rocks as well.

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Being musical is one of the many talents that I do not have. So in order to learn more I have been working through The Great Courses’ How to Listen to and Understand Great Music.

The lectures by Professor Robert Greenberg make the subject so approachable that I have unexpectedly become a huge fan of polyphonic Renaissance choir music (and I now actually understand what polyphonic means).

I subscribed to the Chorworks podcast and have just made my first choral download.  It is quite surreal to walk around the modern streets of Manhattan while listening to Latin singing.

I have become addicted to Magnificat‘s performance of Spem in alium, composed by Thomas Tallis in around 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each:

Simply managing 40 independent parts so that they sound well and don’t tread on each other’s toes is hard enough. But Tallis goes beyond simply managing. He uses his eight five-voice choirs in every conceivable combination, sometimes flowing into each other, sometimes set against each other, and saves the glorious 40-voice sound for dramatic high points. (The Telegraph)

Linn Records – Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium.

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By complete coincidence I got to number 20 of A History of the World in 100 Objects – the British Museum’s statue of Ramesses II – as protests erupted in Egypt (incredible eyewitness photo).

The giant statue inspired poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to create Ozymandias in 1818 – but it seems startlingly relevant to current events.

He knew what had happened to Egypt after Ramesses – with the crown passing to Libyans and Nubians, Persians and Macedonians, and Ramesses’ statue itself squabbled over by European intruders.  Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ is a meditation not on imperial grandeur, but on the transience of earthly power, and in it Ramesses’ statue becomes a symbol of the futility of all human achievement.


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


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“When people come to the museum, they choose their own objects and make their own journey round the world and through time, I think what they will find, is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s – and when that happens, you no longer have a history of a particular people or nation, but a story of endless connections.”

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

A History of the World in 100 Objects combines two of my favourite things from home – Radio 4 and the British Museum. The book accompanying the series was a bestseller and I only managed to get a copy because I was in a shop just after a delivery (providing the perfect riposte to those who think you have to dumb things down to be successful).

I use a pestle and mortar to grind spices and through the podcast discovered a connection to the people of  Papua New Guinea who used a bird-shaped pestle in the same way 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.

This ancient pestle is also used to illustrate the time, about 10,000 years ago, when we became farmers and for the first time bred animals, cultivated plants and cooked them in new ways. Martin Jones, professor of archaeological science at Cambridge University, points out this gave humans a competitive edge over other species as we could eat food that would have been indigestible, or even poisonous, when raw.

Early human’s competitive advantage is also shown by the oldest object in the British Museum, a stone chopping tool made nearly two million years ago, found in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa :

“From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make and, in this sense, it is making things that makes us human.”

Another object found in the Olduvai Gorge, a handaxe from between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago, highlights the beginning of speech. Scientists have found that areas of the modern brain that are activated when you make a handaxe overlap with those used for speech:

“It now seems very likely that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence.”

We transformed from toolmakers into artists as long ago as the Ice Age as shown by this beautiful sculpture of swimming reindeer carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago.

These objects show that humans have not fundamentally changed.  Our ancestors had the same preoccupations that as us – family, religion, art, sex, love and food. As MacGregor says:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors … So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality.”

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Rather than a list of things that have inspired me this week I am just going to go with this amazing podcast from  This American Life on unconditional love. Anyone who knows me will be very unsurprised to hear that it made me cry – which was embarrassing as I was walking down the street at the time while listening on my iPod.

For those who haven’t heard the program before, its usual format is to have three of four stories on one topic.

This week starts off with psychologist Harry Harlow who performed experiments  in order to prove that it was good for parents to show love to their children. Unbelievable as it may sound, before the 1950s the prevailing wisdom was that it was harmful to  hold or kiss babies too often – too often being defined as once a year.

The second story is about Heidi and Rick Solomon, who adopt a seven and a half-year old boy from a Romanian orphanage and their perseverance and dedication as they teach him how to love, despite his battles against them.

In the final story Dave Royko talks about his family’s decision on whether to put their autistic son into full-time residential care – which proves that both love and being a parent are hard.

The podcast is about an hour but is an hour well spent: listen here.

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Thought it was worth watching Bad Romance again after Lady Gaga won eight MTV Video Music Awards – including video of the year – although my preference is for Telephone:

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The Lincoln Center is not normally a place I associate with a dance party but last Sunday the place went wild at an outdoor concert commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I don’t think there was a single person who stayed sitting down instead of getting up on their feet to dance.

A friend and I joined the Soul Rebels Brass Band for an unforgettable second line from the Caribbean Cultural Center to the Lincoln Center and all the way around it’s fountain. For those of you who are unfamiliar with a second line (as I was) you basically get to dance through the streets, or in New York’s case – the sidewalks:

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