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Piers' Journal

Deep thoughts, subtle distinctions or pretentious wanking? You choose

7/21/12 07:19 am - Wow! That was fun!

So, yesterday I did an invited keynote talk at O'Reilly's Open Source Conference:

How much fun can one geek have on a stage in front of bunch of geeks who didn't know they could sing?
Lots. Thanks to filklore_on_lj for letting me sing "Space is Big" and to stevieannie for both 'commissioning' it and introducing me to it. And, of course, to Randall Munroe for (a) writing Every Major's Terrible in the first place and (b) giving me a (very) high resolution version of it to use in my slides.

2/8/11 09:14 pm - I wrote a song about libraries

 Please have a listen on SoundCloud. Lyrics are on my blog site. Please spread it far and wide. Feel free to sing it and adapt verses to fit your library memories.


8/16/10 10:46 pm - ManorCon (the filk version which Will Be Renamed)

If it weren't for the fact that sticks were indeed shaken (and woven, and locked) at the con, I'd say that this weekend at Halsway Manor was more fun than you could shake a stick at. From the shanties on Friday night (with a place to stand, I could move the world // with a lever Jonny, lever! through to the last knockings of the dead dog (which finished almost on the stroke of midnight, I think we may be getting older) we had a fabulous time.

Acoustics matter. So do harmonies. Ceilidhs are ace, though it's hard to teach a set how to do a good basket when your trousers fall down halfway through the process. Everyone keeps getting better. Songs about bringing in the harvest need choruses. And there aren't enough hours in a day or days in a weekend.

And the staff at the manor were wonderful: baking a birthday cake for Tim Walker; food every time the sinews needed stiffening; cream tea when the arteries needed stiffening; and there was tea, tea, tea and did I mention the cocoa to you?

Thanks Annie, we must do this again sometime.

2/13/10 07:15 am - My Weekend in Grantham

Back in 2005, Glasgow hosted the World Science Fiction Convention. I had a couple of days free and friends with a hotel room I could crash in, so off I went to my first (and so far, only) SF Convention and had a jolly good time. However, I fell among filkers.

Now, I suppose I'll admit that I was, how shall I put it, filk-curious, but putting sf related lyrics to someone else's tunes? That would surely get old very quickly. But, it's a circle of people singing in company, that's got to be good, whatever they're singing about, no?

And it was. Filk's not all new words to old tunes, nor is it all laboured jokes and stuff that's impenetrable if you don't know what's being referenced. People are writing new music all the time, and the best refit jobs can be marvellous. So, although I still wouldn't call myself a filker, I found myself once again (after a couple of years off due to various family party clashes) at the Grantham Ramada on the first weekend in February.

And, once again, I had a ball.

I'm a terrible concert goer - I think I've managed to miss talis_kimberley's set at every single filkcon I've been to, for instance, and Talis is brilliant. What I did hear of the various concerts over the weekend was excellent though.

There was one concert I couldn't miss though - I was one of the_gwenzilliad's backing singers for her second set of the weekend. Due to various annoyances and diary clashes, we'd not actually rehearsed very much at all, and never as a trio, so we spent a huge chunk of Sunday morning and early afternoon at least running through the setlist. We had a ball in the actual concert. I'm afraid one of the symptoms of our lack of rehearsal was that my 'first chorus' harmonies were decidedly ropy, but tended to tighten up by the end of the song. Gwen and the_magician were great though. We must do it again some time.

The real heart of a filk convention is the circle though. Every evening, after the concerts and dinner, we sit in a circle and sing songs. Friday's circle was small and fun. Saturday's was large and fun. And Sunday's 'dead mouse' was large and fun.

At least, I had fun at all of them, but... well, my name's Piers and I'm a Song Hog.

There are different ways that a circle can operate. Generally, on the uk folk, they're called singarounds and what happens is everyone sits in a circle and the singing goes around the circle in strictish order, the other common option is to have an MC with a list of singers (or a good memory) who calls people to sing as and when. You hardly ever see what Filkers call a 'chaos' circle in folk clubs or festivals. In a chaos circle, there's no order. People sing what and when they're moved to. Which is fine, when everyone is confident and assertive enough to jump in when they want to, or when the people who are confident and assertive are alive to the possibility that others might want to sing something.

Saturday night at Grantham was a chaos circle. Those of us on the front row of seats had a whale of a time. As an unaccompanied singer with a large, from memory, repertoire and a powerful voice, it's awfully easy for me to just pipe up with something very quickly if things have gone a bit quiet. It wasn't until embarrassingly late that I realised that there were rather too many people in the room that I know are singers, but who hadn't yet sung and asked for people who hadn't sung yet to join in. I'm glad I did. Once we'd opened up a little and consciously tried to bring in more singers, the circle got much mellower and less about showoffs like me vying for position with the rest of the loud and confident crowd.

On Sunday night those of us who got their early agreed to at least start the evening in bardic style. And it stayed that way all night. I made a point of explaining to each newcomer that we were bardic, which way we were going round and, if they arrived during a gap, who'd sung last. This let them decide whether they wanted to sing sooner or later by choosing where they sat. It was lovely. At the height of the circle's size we were taking a _long_ time to get round it, but there was a really nice atmosphere. There was some grumbling from a few of the chaos stalwarts, but there had been some grumbling earlier in the day by some of the folks who don't tend to get heard in chaos, so I reckon we struck a decent balance.

The thing that still mystifies me though was the claim by some chaos folks that "Bardic's all right with a small circle, but once it gets big, you're better off with chaos". They said this as if it were some kind of axiom. I could be misrepresenting them, but the reasoning for this seemed to be that in a large bardic circle you had to wait ages to get a song. I still don't understand how this is a bad thing.

So, I had a great time. Thanks to the organisers for another excellent con and to everyone who made music and listened through the weekend. There's nothing I'd rather be doing (in public, at least) than singing in company. See you next year.

2/12/10 04:19 pm - My night with Fay Hield

So, last night I toddled over to the "New Empowering Church" in Hackney, which is, by quite some margin, the coldest place I've ever seen a folk act. Promoted by the Folklahoma wing of the Magpie's Nest Folk Club ( this is definitely not your average folk club. I joke that I've been going to folk clubs for twenty years, and for twenty years I've been the youngest person there. Not last night I wasn't. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the oldest person there either, but the usual demographics have been turned on their head.

The evening opened with Sophie and Fiachra ( She's a fine Quebecois fiddler and he's a fiendishly accomplished uilleann piper (you don't get to play uilleann pipes in public until you're fiendishly accomplished, of course, but Fiachra's definitely out of the top draw) and they play really well together. They were slightly upstaged (and rather wonderfully) by a couple of women from the audience who got up and did a wee bit of Irish dancing.

I have a bittersweet memory of going to see Tony Benn unveiling a new Cotia Pit banner. Because this banner carried a picture of Jack Elliott and Jock Purdon - both fine singers and songwriters - the local folk community were out in force and there was a session going on in one corner of the hall. The thing is, the hall was normally used by the local Irish dancing school at that time, so there were plenty of small girls wandering around in those bizarre embroidered dresses that's become the uniform of the competitive Irish dancer. The girls were going to dance for us, so the musicians obviously offered to play for them, but they wouldn't have it. They'd learned to dance to their tapes and CDs, in their expensive frocks. Dancing with real musicians? Musicians who might play at a different tempo? Musicians who could see the dancers' feet? Nah. Jesus, those CD tracks were LOUD, and leadfooted. The kids danced well, if solemnly, but there was a distinct absence of joy.

Where was I? Ah, yes, the women from the audience were the very opposite. They were dancing in ordinary clothes and doing it for the pleasure of it. You can't fake that. And the Sophie and Fiachra obviously appreciated it too. I'm not normally a lover of the 'tunes' set, but I really enjoyed these two. Look out for them.

Then, after a quick detour to the car to fetch a hat and scarf, it was time for Fay Hield ( Fay used to run my favourite singaround, every other Tuesday at the Cumberland Arms in Byker. A great, laid back, singaround and natter in the public bar of the Cumberland. She was a great singer then and, now she has two kids and the best part of a PhD, she's still a great singer and getting better. She's got a band now. They're damned good.

Ah, bollocks, I can't write well about music. It's like trying to plait fog. How do you get close to summoning up anything close to the magic that happens when you're in a room with people making real music. Fay has 'it'. She always has and she always will do. By the time she'd finished singing some of the blood and guts ballads like Child Owlet and Bill Norrie you could have heard a pin drop. These are the songs that you grow into and that grow with you. I'm sure Fay will be singing them for years, making them new every time. What else? I think the other standout, for me, was Peter Bellamy's setting of Rudyard Kipling's 'The Looking-Glass', which is also the title track of the album that wasn't quite ready for this gig. When it comes out, buy it.

So, if you get a chance to see her on this tour (or at any other time) grab the opportunity with both hands. You really won't regret it.

4/10/09 06:29 am - Blowing away cobwebs

Hmm... I have the feeling I may be posting more here than I have of late. For now, may I commend this to you all and ask that you pass it on?

For those of you who asked in the comments, it's my response to the killing of Ian Tomlinson, posted to my new site, Freedom is in Peril.

5/26/06 08:47 pm - Today's bread

Today I made the same loaf as a couple of days ago. Based on Dan Lepard's Mill Loaf from the excellent The Handmade Loaf. This time, instead of dividing the dough I chucked 2kg of dough in my new banetton and hope. As you can see, it worked:


I haven't cut it yet mind, the crumb could still be awful but it's earmarked for tomorrow's breakfast.

I also made a big foccacia, but the six of us fell on it with glad cries, tore it apart and ate it with leek and potato soup before I'd got the camera out. It was good. The formula came from the folder I got on a bread matters course a few years back. I've cooked it a few times in conventional ovens, and it was good, but this version won hands down. Dan Lepard's technique of mix, rest 10 minutes, knead for ten seconds, rest, knead, rest for half an hour, knead, rest for an hour, shape, prove and bake makes for a fantastic crumb structure.

I'm not sure I'm feeling brave enough to attempt ciabatta tomorrow though.

5/25/06 12:10 am - Mmm....

I've just made my first sourdough loaves in our shiny new Aga.

God is in his heaven and all is right with the world...

2/7/06 08:38 am - This is just to say...

That if I never hear the song 'Bend over Greek Sailor' again, it will be too soon.

12/16/05 07:32 am - Can I call it new?

Right, that's us moved then. All that remains is to unpack all the boxes (there's so many boxes marked china that I'm beginning to think that's the country, not the tableware), rewire the house, fit an Aga, get the roof fettled, next door's chimney rebuilt, find a good lion knocker for the front door and replace all the crappy looky likey windows with real sashes.

Oh, and is it okay to describe it as 'our new house' when it's 178 years old?
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