Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

BBC Proms – the Sibelius symphonies and more

Proms_logoThe BBC Proms is an extraordinary annual classical music festival. For two-and-a-half months, each night some amazing orchestra (and sometimes more than one) takes to the stage in the Royal Albert Hall in London and plays some amazing music. For visitors, it is possible to see this spectacle for 5 Pounds (the standing space in the arena). If that does not appeal, it is possible to have a seat ranging from the Circle at what seems to be close to the moon (and hence cheap), or the stalls just around the arena (a shade more expensive). Relative to most ticket prices for Orchestra performances, it is the best deal in town over the summer.

We mix and match, sometimes in the circle, others in small boxes (otherwise known as the second tier). We often dressA&I_proms_160515 up for the occasion (right). This year we have been quite strategic in our choice. It is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius and to mark it all of his symphonies are being performed over three nights (that is 7 in all). Moreover, the BBC being what it is, does not just play the music, but it tries to give context and develop listeners’ understanding of music in general and specific pieces in particular. It is fair to say that we knew very little of Sibelius other than he being Finnish. We learn that at the time that Sibelius was writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Finland was a place with little history and national identity. Sibelius became a cheerleader for Finnish nationalism and independence (first from Sweden and then Russia – finally getting independence in 1963, six years after his death).

SibeliusOne of his most famous pieces, Finlandia, dating from 1899, is an eight-minute call to national self-determination. It seems to me, it is a piece to Sibelius what Bohemian Rhapsody is to Queen in more modern times. It was a great way to start. But then come the symphonies – some against the backdrop of tumultuous change, others against his own alcoholism (his wife would go searching local bars to drag him home). His fourth symphony is a paen to landscape. The programme notes for this symphony make reference to conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who described it as ‘an essay in trying to be happy which fails.’ That works for me.

They are a mixed bag. Again, my ignorance takes over. Sibelius’ symphonies were not written for huge orchestras. Strings do much of the work (there is a lot of string plucking going on which doubles as percussion; there is not much of a percussion section). Woodwind and brass also feature. There are a lot of key changes. They are not the most accessible or indeed friendly. In his later years, he was a recluse, retreating to a country residence, Ainola, touchingly named after his wife, Aino. Though he did compose an eighth symphony, the score for which he destroyed.

We were treated, however, to Sibelius’ violin concerto. The soloist was Julian Rachlin (right). Seemingly, this is not an easyJulian_rachlin_ta_2011 piece for violin. The expectations for finger and bow coordination are considerable. Rachlin, however, is a virtuoso – a child prodigy – and handled it with aplomb – and provided an encore (a little frowned upon at the Proms). The concerto demonstrates the brilliance of the composer who, it seems, always doubted  his ability.

And maybe that accounts for – what seems to me to be – the inconsistency between the symphonies. His influences may also be a factor. In his early work inevitably Tchaikovsky is evident, as well as Brahms. Later he seemed to be in some kind of battle with Schoenberg, certainly in terms of pushing the boundaries of what actually is a symphony. For example, the Seventh Symphony which is about a river is composed in a single movement (normally one would expect three or four). That said, if one really listens closely, the separate movements are there. Maybe he was just trying not to give an opportunity for the audience to shuffle and cough inbetween movements (a very Proms thing to do)? His efforts at creating his own identity may well have done the opposite. I’m not sure how easy it would be for us to immediately identify a Sibelius piece, say for example against Mozart or Beethoven. One feature, perhaps, is Sibelius’ curious way of ending movements and symphonies. The end can often come by surprise for the uninitiated. I think further listening is needed.


Sibelius (BBC Proms website)

Julian Rachlin: Levg (Wikipedia)

Design Museum, London. Camper Shoes exhibition

2015-07-29 17.06.05The Design Museum in London is currently offering an exhibition of history of the Spanish family-owned shoe maker, Camper. I’m not a particular fan of the style of the shoes, iconic though they are (left).

For those unfamiliar with Catalan, Camper means peasant or farmer, suitably betraying the origins of the company. They are a2015-07-29 17.02.41 hybrid work-leasure-sport shoe. The company tells its own history here.

The exhibition itself does three things excellently. First, it shows the core artefact, the shoes. Second, the process of design and manufacture is explained, not just for Campers, but for shoes more generally, complete with tools and demonstrations using video screens.

2015-07-29 16.47.52Finally, there is a business element. Camper has a rich marketing heritage (even though the firm dates only from 1975). The advertising (left and above left) has a 1930s feel about it. The brand itself is simple and distinctive.

The exhibition runs until 1 November 2015.

Design Museum exhibition – Designs of the Year 2015

I’ve said this before, the people at the Design Museum in London know how to present artefacts. One of the current exhibitions, Designs of the Year 2015 is a case in point. Conceptually, it is very simple: present 60 or so design ideas to demonstrate the scope for design in modern times. Scope is everything from fashion to ways to save the planet. Here is a selection of what I deemed to be the best after my visit on 29 July.

2015-07-29 14.08.46The evolution of chairs is a perennial design discussion. This one (left), I like the most as it takes inspiration and scientific validation from nature. It is by the Italian designer Odo Fioravanti, and is called Dragonfly. Seemingly dragonflies have an imbalance between the weight distribution between their front legs and tail. The chair deals with this with ribbing (which can be seen underneath). Equally interesting, however, is the process involved. In order to validate the design, computer aided structural tests were undertaken and plastic mudflow analysis conducted before the injection moulding process started.

Next, is an example as design for safety. 2015-07-29 14.13.45It is a jacket that anticipates a body-damaging accident or fall from a motorbike. There are sensors in the front fork (to detect a collision) and on the side (in anticipation of a non-collision-caused fall). A wireless signal is sent to the jacket which then inflates and protects the vital organs and bones. The designer is Vittorio Cafaggi.

Bike_lightsAs a cyclist, the development of bicycle lights over the years has been welcome. In the old days they were big, unreliable and often invisible to other road users. I currently have a set of Brainy Bikelights which I am delighted with. However, these (left) by the Paul Cocksedge Studio, are great for urban riders prone to having their lights stolen. The idea is that when the rider locks the bicycle with a D-lock, the lights can be locked at the same time as they have a suitable hole in the middle. Neat.

Next up is the electricity-generating table (right) by Marijam van Aubel. 2015-07-29 15.06.07The table is for home or library use and can, without direct sunlight, generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone, tablet, etc. This is another good example of borrowing from nature as the 8 dye sensitized solar cells replicate the process of photosynthesis used by plants. The dye replaces chlorophyll. Stylish, too.

2015-07-29 16.45.17Continuing on the energy theme (left) is the kinetic floor system. Essentially these are slabs that absorb the energy injected into them when one walks over them and converts it into electricity. Each slab flexes by 5mm – enough to create 5w of power. Seemingly, slabs on a highly walked-over area at peak time – say in the morning – can generate sufficient electricity to provide the street lighting in the evening for the walk back.

Moving on to the humble kettle. Normally we overfill them 2015-07-29 16.13.11and waste energy in the process. This device, called Milto (right), is by Nils Chudy and Jasimina Grase which ‘re-imagines’ the kettle. This is a common ruse of designers, the ‘re-imagination’. It uses ‘induction technology’ similar to that employed in hobs on domestic cookers. The cup, teapot, or whatever is placed on the base and the rod inserted. It then heats the liquid and turns off when boiled. Extraordinary.

Three more designs are of note. First – and certainly one that is for me special if it reduces the use of animals in medical research – is the so-called, human-organs-on-chips experimental technology. It is the work of Donald Ingber and Dan Dangeun Huh. Ingber is a biologist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard in the USA. Essentially they are computer chips with a piece of polymer lined with living human cells that mimic the tissue structure, function and mechanical motions of whole human organs. It seems perfectly feasible that this technology could be far superior to the animal models in its predictability and efficacy.

2015-07-29 16.29.28Second, is protocel footwear. The idea here is to create footwear that changes depending on the level of impact generated by different surfaces. Seemingly, protocels become semi-living substances through the manipulation of their chemical structure. It is the work of Shamees Aden who thinks that it could be possible for the shoes to create a layer of skin on the foot. Not yet the height of fashion, even in training shoes, but I can see the benefits.

And finally, the exhibition hall has a big board on which to display the votes of visitors for the best design. Leading by a country mile, and deservedly so, is the2015-07-29 16.23.37 Daniel Project (right). It is what is says on the can – 3-D printing of prosthetics for people affected by conflict. It is the brainchild of Nick Abeling of a design studio called, appropriately, Not Impossible. Daniel lost both arms in an explosion when he was tending his cattle in South Sudan. They are now producing one arm a week and transforming the lives of amputees as a result. Though of course, getting rid of the munitions that cause the problem in the first place needs to be done as well.

I recommend this exhibition to all. And these are only a sample of the ideas.