Tuesday, 2 April 2013

bread and circuses

My experiments in bread making are coming on by leaps and bounds.  Or at least, I have made several edible loaves in a row, and no inedible ones, or even lumps of bread that you could could eat at a pinch but would really be more use as ballast.  This morning's loaf was bread made with old dough, which does what it says on the tin, really.  You keep a bit of dough back when you make a loaf, store it in the fridge, and add it to the next lot of dough when you make bread again.  The idea is that the acids and yeasts in the old dough add flavour to the new, and help it develop a good structure.  The recipe comes from Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley, and for those of you who want to try it at home, you make a dough with 330 grammes of water and 500 grammes of flour, and after kneading it for five minutes add 160 grammes of old dough.  It isn't a true sourdough, because you still use yeast in the new dough.  Today's loaf was made with a roughly fifty-fifty mix of wholemeal and white flour, just because I ran out of wholemeal, and the old dough was one hundred per cent stoneground wholemeal.

It made a very nice loaf, though I say so myself.  I think that when I started off I was overly cautious due to the dire warnings in the books about the ill effects of using too much heat.  Water that was too hot would kill the yeast or inhibit its action, the books said, and proving at too warm a temperature would produce crumbly, funny tasting bread that didn't keep.  Heeding their advice, I was trying to make bread at temperatures that would have needed about twenty-four hours to produce a fully risen loaf.  Cranking up the heat a few degrees seems to have got things moving at a pace that fits in better with a desire to make bread, but not spend the entire day keeping an eye on the wretched stuff to see if it is finally ready to move on to the next stage.

Picking up the concertina after a gap of so many years is proving an education in learning and memory as well as music.  I'm sure I've read that athletes in training can continue to improve on days when they don't actually do any running around or physical activity at all, as their brains process the movements they were making the previous day.  Admittedly I read this thirty years ago, and I may have muddled the details in the interim, or science may now have proved the opposite. It is certainly the case that a tune I was struggling to learn, finding each time I listened to it and tried to play it through that I was missing a beat somewhere in the middle, suddenly popped into my head fully formed the next day.  The missing bar wasn't very interesting, the musical equivalent of hopping on one foot and going la-la for the duration, but it filled in the shape.

On the other hand, recalling tunes is horribly difficult.  I have worked out the fingerings for Walsh's Hornpipe, and once I've heard the first three notes of it I could play the rest of it.  At this stage 'play' means stumble through in a rather horrible and halting fashion, but I know the tune.  And yet I have whole hours when I try to remember how Walsh's Hornpipe starts, and nothing comes into my head, not one note, phrase or scintilla.  Suddenly it will bob up in odd moments and I'll run through it in my head several times.  An hour later it's gone again.  Clearly I have to practice not just playing tunes, but remembering them when I want them.  I've never had that problem with songs, and it is most peculiar.

I suppose that with songs you have the words to act as a cue.  The words also help me remember the title, something I have always struggled with when it comes to tunes.  Song titles tend to be self-explanatory.  A song about a girl cruelly betrayed by a blacksmith who marries someone else is called A Blacksmith Courted Me or The Blacksmith.  But Walsh's Hornpipe could be anything. It is a hornpipe, obviously, but it could just as well be called Robson's Fancy, or Buckets and Brooms (traditional songs often have names like that), or The Honiton Bypass because somebody wrote it while stuck in a traffic jam on the Honiton bypass.

If you went to the sort of school where morning assembly was daily and compulsory, complete with dirge-like hymn to piano accompaniment, then you almost certainly know some British folk tunes, even if you don't think you do.  Many share the same basic construction, starting with a phrase of eight bars, which is repeated with variations, then the whole sixteen bar phrase is repeated again. When I was young that was generally referred to as the 'a music', if it was called anything, though I don't know if the term is used nowadays.  Then came a second eight bar phrase, generally developing the first phrase in some way and often higher pitched, followed by a second eight bar phrase that was generally a reprise of the 'a music'.  This second sixteen bar construction was also repeated, and that was the 'b music'.  The hymn I heard the voice of Jesus say follows this pattern. When it is not doing duty as a hymn tune it serves for the traditional song Dives and Lazarus, and as a traditional tune when it is often called the Star of the County Down.

You will see that a traditional tune isn't very long, so to spin the proceedings out to a decent length and make them more interesting it's customary to string two or three tunes together into a set, which is played through with no pauses between movements (if you are a player of pure genius, such as Martin Hayes, you will go off into sets of multiple tunes lasting a full half hour, while your trusted accompanist begins to look a trifle anxious as to how you are both going to get out of this or when you are ever going to stop).  To form a set you pick tunes that sound right together, which creates another challenge for the novice musician, to avoid following the first half of one tune with the second half of a different one.  At one level I suppose that wouldn't matter, but it would irritate anyone in the audience who knew them.

I am sure that the mental effort in grappling with this at my age will be extremely good for me, probably helping ward off dementia and all sorts of things.  In the meantime, at this particular moment, I still can't think how Walsh's Hornpipe starts.

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