Sunday, 26 March 2017

Hearts, Minds and Souls

I had been pondering the theme of the March issue of The BeZine for some time without a resolution in my mind as to how I can possibly limit a written piece to less than a thousand words to cover it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot come close truly to doing it justice, if for no other reason than that it just about spans the entirety of human existence on this Earth as well as its place in the universe.

So what of the impact of science on culture, politics and religion? From the earliest beginnings of its roots in thinking by philosophers, whose intellectual machinations observed and interpreted the nature of things, it could now be argued that, from those beginnings come the roots of its downfall; our self destruction.

Our culture is driven by a desire for control of our lives, which in turn is determined and limited by our own genetic make up, our chemistry if you like, and the environment in which we evolved as individuals and as communities.

Religion is perhaps the result of a desire, for most of us in recognition of our mortality, to make sense of the chaos that results as every individual interprets their circumstances differently and therefore to give collective structure to it all. Politics originally seeks to formalise and legislate, to provide equity and security across the divisions between individuals, communities and religious belief systems and ultimately democracy, but politics has always conspired to fail us, because of self interest; because of our deeply ingrained, genetic survival instinct.

The science that attempts to explain and underpin it all ultimately fails us. Whilst it has achieved the most remarkable things, taken us to the moon, cured diseases, built bridges and enabled us to communicate with the world, it has, like most other aspects of our lives, been overcome by that cornerstone of culture, that of commerce and commercial interest. Politics and religion have, for better or worse, tried to limit its influence, but self interest, desire for survival and greed for consumption of ‘things’, is winning the day.  It has captured hearts, minds and souls and enveloped our day to day approach to living and life itself and is causing us to lose touch with our place in the universe. Unless we can conceive of ways to halt this fairground ride as it hurtles out of control, it strikes me that the relevance and usefulness of science in our culture will be lost, because we will be lost.

Poet and friend, Kona Macphee wrote a short piece around six years ago in her enlightened blog, ‘That Elusive Clarity‘, which described a conversation with her daughter entitled “A Brief Blonde Sun” …

My daughter and I recently went to see “Tangled”, Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairytale, in which Rapunzel’s evil, ancient captor perpetually restores her own youth via the power of Rapunzel’s magic hair.
“Would she stay young forever?” my daughter asked.
“I don’t know. I guess so. It’s magic hair.”
“But it couldn’t work forever!”
“Why not?”
“What about when the sun explodes?”

With all that we try to achieve, shouldn’t we remind ourselves not only of what the future holds for our children but also that, regardless of how much we feel in control of our lives now … we’re not! Regardless of our continuing dreams that science will explain it all in the end … it won’t!

Such dreams are simply a kind of vanity, subsidised by hugely expensive quests to conquer space, fly to Mars, send satellites beyond our solar system, which is, let's face it, only one of billions inside our galaxy, the ‘Milky Way’, which, in turn, is only one of billions in the universe; to escape reality; to deny our mortality. Come on! Wake up! Smell the coffee!

Humanity may be the only current voice by which the known universe can understand itself, but ultimately I find it impossible to believe, right now, that we should be spending our money, expending the intellectual energies of our greatest minds in solving anything other than the many issues we have here, on our own gentle, amazing, beautiful but yielding and long suffering Mother Earth.

© 2017 John Anstie
All rights reserved

Image,  "Moon", from Pixaboy ( with licence to use by Creative Commons CC0.

[This article was originally published in the BeZine, earlier this month, the theme of which was Science in culture, politics and religion]

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love is in The Air

(Hallmark of Harmony's show at Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday, 11th February 2017)

On Saturday night, the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony put on a show at Sheffield's Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul; a great venue with a magnificent acoustic.

Chorus with a view (Photo: John Anstie)
For a moment, I stood on top of the world, a feeling prompted by having to stand on the uppermost platform of the tallest and steepest risers I've ever had the pleasure to stand on. Shoulder to shoulder with my fellow singers at Hallmark, we looked 'down' ... a very long way down ... on the audience. At first, it felt like that moment before you take flight; before you jump out of an aeroplane, combined with a sense of euphoria induced by a mild dose of adrenalin. But then reality kicked in and so it began.

The audience, queueing from just before 7pm, by the time the show opened at 7:30pm, filled every last seat in the Cathedral; plus extras I suspect! It was bursting at the seams, a huge lift before we'd even started. 

What followed was very special. The Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra was spread in front of us. Their performance was immense. The acoustic was brilliant and the echo of the final chords, before each applause, ringing from our unaccompanied singing was one of the most memorable things I'll carry with me for some time. At the end of the show, the response of the audience was almost unexpected, if that doesn't sound contradictory. It was as much an acknowledgement of how well the orchestra performed, made up, as it is, of the finest young musicians from this city of music, as it was of the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony. Here's what John Faben of Hallmark's own PR team wrote ...

" Come on, deliver to me!

And deliver they did - in spades. From West Side Story to Braveheart, the astonishingly proficient talents of the Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra, under the charismatic direction of Ian Naylor provided a remarkable counterpoint to Hallmark's singing, in the stunning surroundings of Sheffield Cathedral. In a first for the chorus, we even sang two songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra!

Love is in the Air was a Valentine's show with a difference; without an MC, but with a clever and moving narrative by Mike Lowry, which wove the musical pieces together and was delivered brilliantly by Caroline Hallam and Ed Sayers-Flood. 

After the show some veterans of Hallmark (of whom there are quite a few!) were heard to say that this was the best show they had ever been part of. Praise indeed from guys who have sung all over the UK and in the USA. 

So a big thank you to everyone who took part. Thank you to Ian and to Tim Briggs for their superb direction and to Rachel Ward, of the Music Hub, who played a large part in helping to make it all happen, but special thanks to the accomplished musicians in the orchestra. We were proud to share a stage with you. 

Let's do it again, soon! "

Everything they played was impressive. Notably, their tour de force, in the second half, of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, itself complex enough for even the most experienced orchestra was quite frankly epic. This also, incidentally, involved the chorus making certain 'moves' and 'gestures' at various points throughout the twenty minute piece, whilst trying not to distract the attention of the audience ... more of a challenge than you might think! Another of my favourite pieces was one that opened the second half; that big as the sky, screen busting theme by the evergreen John Barry, of the film "Out of Africa"; so very stirring.

It is true, Hallmark of Harmony and barbershop singers in general, spend some of their time singing romantic ballads. And so it was on Saturday night, on the eve, so to speak, of Valentines Day. We sang some of the more romantic songs from our current repertoire; songs like, "Happy Together", "You Are My Sunshine", "Till There Was You", "Mona Lisa", "Too Marvellous for Words". Two of the songs we performed were accompanied by the orchestra. The first was from Sheffield's own: Human League's big 1981 Christmas No.1 hit "Don't You Want Me, Baby". But perhaps the most special songs were saved till last. We sang, a cappella, Leonard Cohen's evergreen "Hallelujah", which rang gloriously through every hallowed corner of the cathedral. Then the song that closed the show, "I Only Have Eyes for You". Accompanied beautifully by the strings of the orchestra, this song was our finale and presented to the audience for the first time in the show, the boy and girl, who were the voices of the love story narrative that threaded itself seamlessly through the evening ... and n'er one eye was left too dry.

Suffice to say, if I could, I would have bottled the final ovation and taken it home with me, even though I know a good deal of it was for those young talents in the orchestra. I could then open it, whenever things aren't going as well as they are right now, and hold it to my ear, as if to remind me that whatever skill or gift for good we are blessed with ... and, regardless of whether we think we have something to offer ... we should always try to share it, at least offer it. However insignificant you may think your contribution may be for a world so full of human strife, each of us can at least try to do our best for the benefit of our fellow beings and to encourage our children to do the same, much as the Sheffield Music Hub are doing with this orchestra and many other musical endeavours with the children of Sheffield schools. The rewards are beyond price.

Whilst Hallmark's Show Team do a remarkable job of putting our performances on the stage, it would be remiss of me not to mention some individuals. The man, who conceived the idea and produced and directed the narrative through the show is is the young and talented Mr Paul Kaiserman. Not to forget our even younger bass singer, roadie, script consultant and programme writer, Mr Paul "Fingers" Dalpra.

It's also thanks to the singers of Hallmark and to their top notch music team that I have this opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. In consequence of this evening, I am left with the feeling that anything is possible, including for me, the magic and therapeutic effect that using the human voice to sing in harmony has not only on performers but also on audiences everywhere. 

Long may it last.