A Convert to Cloudspotting

A Convert to Cloudspotting

Inspired by, and written with the aid of, The Cloudspotter’s Guide & The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

In the west, chronically-happy people are set to have a sunny disposition. But for Iranians, a cloudy sky is a metaphor for happiness. For a long time I too longed for tranquil blue skies, and would without fail be moody when a cloud hanged over my head — figuratively and literally. Yet the weirdest thing has happened, and I’m siding with the Iranians.

‘Winnie the Pooh’ cloud spotted earlier this year. The Telegraph

Cumulus – that’s the fluffy ‘sheep’ clouds – have always filled people with delight. These raggy clumps of cloud have always been a source of fascination for children who find all kinds of shapes and patterns in them. The wispy Cirrus clouds high up in the sky also have their charm, as if they were mythic writing left by God for us to marvel at.

Yet when ever you mention clouds, especially in Britain, there’s seldom anyone who thinks of these beautiful collections of air particles. Everyone thinks of Stratus clouds, those oppressive featureless clusters of clouds that fill up all the sky and block out the sun.

But consider this: Stratus are the only clouds that everyone has walked through. They meet us at the ground as fog or mist. It is likely that you’ve also seen stood above them on hills, or even walked through Stratus cloud that only reached below your head. You may well have seen it at a distance in the form of sea fog.

Source: Sandy Ritchie on Flickr

The other cloud almost universally detested is the cumulonimbus. The storm cloud. Its dark underbelly looms over the sky, occasionally lit up by lightning. Inside, the cloud is a vicious creature. William Rankin, the only man to have survived falling through a cumulonimbus clouds, has written about his experience. His account is exhilitaring:

My first shock was the incredibly cold air. I had gone abruptly from
a comfortable cockpit temperature of 75° F. to almost minus 70° F. … I could feel my abdomen distending, stretching, stretching, stretching, until I thought it would burst. My eyes felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, my head as if it were splitting into several parts, my ears bursting inside … I saw lightning all around me, over, above, everywhere, and I saw it in every shape imaginable. But when very close it appeared mainly as a huge, bluish sheet, several feet thick, sometimes sticking close to me in pairs, like the blades of a scissor, and I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two.

Then the semi-religious experience that any thinking person would have to have:

At one point, I saw such an eerie effect that I thought I had already died. I had been looking up in the direction of my ’chute, when a bolt of lightning struck, illuminating the huge interior of the ’chute’s billow as though it were a strange white-domed cathedral, and the effect seemed to linger on the retinas of my eyes. For a moment, I had the distinct feeling that I was sailing into a softly lit church and at any moment I might hear the subdued strains of an organ and a mournful voice in prayer—and I thought I had died. Maybe this is it, I thought. This is the way it all begins after death. You’re dead, Bill. It’s all over. Now you’ll have peace.

Then he experiences drowning — but thousands of feet in the sky!

…sometimes the rain was so dense and came in such swift, drenching sheets, I thought I would drown in  midair. It was as though I were under a swimming pool, and I had held my breath several times, fearful of drowning. If I had not run out of oxygen, I would have held the mask over my face as protection against drowning.

Later, he describes an unimaginably frightening scene:

Occasionally, I’d look up to try and see what was happening to my parachute … and during one such observation, I saw and felt what I shall perhaps never witness again (unless in a thunderstorm). A sudden and violent blast of air, coming from the long dark narrow corridor in the storm, apparently hitting me with greater force and just prior to hitting my ’chute, sent me careening up into the ’chute itself.

The most frightening storm experience I ever had was seeing a roll cloud during an impressive storm. I believe this is a video of that exact cloud — you can see the anchor-shaped Cumulonimbus hovering above:

(It was much more intimating from where I was!)

Given such dramatic images, it’s easy to see why people have invested so much meaning in clouds. Schoenberg kept a diary of clouds thinking he could predict German victory in the First World War. According to ancient Hindu belief, clouds are the spiritual cousins of elephants. Most portrayals of heaven, after all, centre around clouds.

Cloudspotting needn’t, then, be about finding crude images in clouds. It is much more fulfilling to find the inherent beauty and magnificence in clouds, to see them as the culmination of nature. For the cloudspotter, the thrill is in discerning what makes each cloud remarkable. My favourite cloud I’ve spotted is this one, what I believe to be Altocumulus perlucidus, though I’m by no means sure. I adore the diamond arrangement of little Cumulus clouds, joined together like the decorative floor of some grand sky city, its edges trailing off in disordered beauty:


There’s even much to enjoy about more normal clouds. Look at the photo below. Notice the Cumulus fractus in the foreground and the wispy Cirrus clouds in the top left. Faintly, I can see what looks line a distant plane trail on the right — itself a form of cloud, albeit man-made. The closest clouds are likely about 1-2000 feet away; the farthest perhaps 40,000 feet.


So, who’d a thunk it, cloudspotting?

I suppose there’s no better way to finish but with some music. Debussy’s Nocturnes, the first of which is titled Nuages, or Clouds:

How Many Composers of March Music Can You Name?

For most people, only one name comes to mind: John Philip Sousa. Yet over a century ago, in America at least, the average person would be able to reel off a good number of names. Somehow a once-popular genre has become defined by just one of its dozens of major composers.

This was one of the topics on a recent EconTalk podcast with guest Chuck Klosterman on his latest book What If We’re Wrong? He examines past works and trends and demonstrates that contemporaries were almost always wrong in what they expected, or did not expect, to be a long-lasting masterpiece.

His best example is Moby Dick. At the time, it got mixed reviews and largely faded into obscurity. But come the 20th century it had become the American novel. Something similar happened to Bach, after Mendelssohn revived his importance in the 19th century.

After the discussion of march music, Klosterman asked what rock artist we expect to define the genre. He predicts, I think quite reasonably, that come a hundred years historians will treat rock music as much more homogeneous than we do. Just as Sousa has come to define march music, Elvis, say, may define rock music.

My guess is that it will be David Bowie. He is the sexual revolution, the avant garde, the popular, the adolescent, all in one.

How many jazz musicians can you name, for instance? My generation – let’s say the under 30s – can probably barely name five. My parents’ generation can doubtless name more, but gradually we’re seeing the genre homogenise through the narrow lens of history.

I suspect this is where rock is heading. It’s close to saturation point, with mainstream rock and pop musicians sounding ever-more alike, and with creativity being more subservient to commercial demands than ever before.

What will come next? Very crudely, and trying to accommodate both America and Europe, the transition of popular music seems to have been thus: local folk traditions, alongside popular variations on opera arias and the like, march and festive music, dance music from ragtime to big band, youth music starting with rock ‘n’ roll onto modern day rock and pop.

Rock and jazz owe everything to the musical traditions of African American slaves and their descendants. Will migrants (not that black slaves were ‘migrants’ exactly) again help to reinvent popular music? It would seem implausible in the case of Islamic migrants, the dominant migrant cultural force in Britain, at least. And Hispanic culture has always been inherent within American culture, so it is unlikely to be a revolutionary force either.

I wonder whether there will be a revival of jazz, say, rather than a new genre. Moreover, I wonder whether the increasing size of pop music – the stadiums, the production values, the celebrity, the ridiculous glamour – will become overwhelming, and that a new genre will be a more intimate form of music, rejecting the ostentatiousness of contemporary pop/rock. Perhaps it’s just my hope for a humbler, more local kind of popular music.

In reality, though, I’m much more pessimistic. And I have my doubts as to whether pop music will die anytime soon while billions still seem to be amused by the I-IV-V chord sequence – or the four-chord trick.

When the dominant form of music has very little to do with music and much more to do with the buoyancy of a female singer’s bottom, or how claustrophobic the dynamic range is, one does start to feel a touch apocalyptic.

But let’s say we know that rock/pop music will die out by the next century. How will the historians of 2150 view the genre, and who will emerge as its central historical figures? I doubt anyone’s guess will be right. Those at the forefront of today’s culture will fade, and historians will find relevance in the most unlikely of artists.

The Gostak Distims the Doshes

‘The gostak distims the doshes’. I have no idea what it refers to — but some idea what it means.

To start with, you’ll notice each word also has a certain feel. One commentator in 1939 wrote that

sometimes I like to think of the gostak as being a big bully, even a sort of Frankenstein monster … the doshes I look upon as being silly, possibly because they haven’t been able to avoid being distimmed, and if this is the case, it serves them jolly well right.

Anything can come to mind. For me, the gostak is a timid reptilian creature slavishly performing some menial task. But he (or she or it) could easily be a big formidable creature violently distimming the doshes, whatever they may be.

Putting aside imagination for a moment, the logic of the sentence is very obvious. Even a four year old would be able to work out some obvious meanings of the phrase. The author of the 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning, from which the phrase is taken, explains:

… if we assume it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.

Most readers will find it likely that the gostak is a sentient being, that distimming is an action, and that the doshes are an object. It’s remarkable how much imagination one is able to inject into an empty sentence.

It is particularly interesting is that the phrase — though utterly vague — nevertheless has a ring to it. It is an insight, perhaps, into how political phrases work. They are sentences that are structured attractively, but whose references are totally irrelevant. ‘The gostak distims the dishes’ will be forever stuck on your mind, yet you will never understand to what it refers. It’s as vacuous as ‘Yes We Can’, the trite slogan of Obama’s 2008 campaign. These phrases have a clear feeling without having a clear meaning.

Someone rather clever once made a game out of the gostak sentence. Made in 2001, it’s a work of interactive fiction — that is, an all-text game — and is a blast to play for puzzle lovers. I’ve never finished it myself, though got some way along a few years back. It begins as such:

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave. But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud will vorl them from you.

This is the delcot of tondam, where gitches frike and duscats glake. Across from a tophthed curple, a gomway deaves to kiloff and kirf, gombing a samilen to its hoff.

Crenned in the loff lutt are five glauds.

You then have to enter verb-noun commands and gradually decipher the odd language. For example, I first typed ‘kirf’, assuming that ‘kiloff’ and ‘kirf’ were cardinal directions. ‘Kirf’ took me to the gomway, as predicted. Here are the first few commands I tried afterwards:

You’re on a gomway deaving hoff, with gropples on the fosk. There’s a stike across the gomway here, and the delcot is to jirf.

>look at gropples
That’s not a dape I recognise.


This is the delcot of tondam, where gitches frike and duscats glake. Across from a tophthed curple, a gomway deaves to kiloff and kirf, gombing a samilen to its hoff.

Crenned in the loff lutt are five glauds.
A warb degombs the brangy.

You can’t pell at that lutt.
A gitch frikes from the hoggam to zank and leil the warb.

>zank glaud
Which do you mean, the raskable glaud, the poltive glaud, the glaud-with-roggler, the glaud of jenth or the Cobbic glaud?

>raskable glaud
You can’t zank what isn’t poltive.

>leil raskable glaud
(first rasking the raskable glaud)
That’s unleilable.

>frike glaud
You can’t reb any such thing.

>glake glaud
Which do you mean, the poltive glaud, the glaud-with-roggler, the glaud of jenth, the Cobbic glaud or the raskable glaud?

>poltive glaud
You zank it durly. It smibs into the brangy.

You’ll notice that even with those handful of commands the nonsense words seem less and less nonsensical. Play the game here if you’re interested.

In the maen tmie, I’ll levae you wtih Three Chants by Ruth Crawford Seeger. She cereatd her own lagaugne for the pceie, hvaing been ublane to fnid an Egnslih tirnaotslan for the Iidann religious txet the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Tihs is the fsirt mevmneot:

Reinbert de Leeuw — Der Nächtlige Wanderer (‘The Night Wanderer’)

Review of Prom 26 concert with Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Night Wanderer is a huge nocturnal landscape, with an orchestra of over a hundred. There was even with a small ensemble camped up in the gallery, and a trumpet in one of the boxes. Half way through the work a man with a mallet twice his size started bashing a giant bit of wood. And earlier on there’s a magnificent antiphonal section where four players, on opposite sides of the stage, clapped their slapsticks noisily.

It was quite an experience, needless to say. An immersive, impressionistic symphonic poem that defies comparison. But it’s the kind of thing one can expect from a composer like Reinbert de Leeuw.

He seems to be a typical 60s era rebel, but the kind of equal opportunity rebel one can’t help but respecting, having taken on both the traditionalist and avant garde establishments. No doubt I have some philosophical differences with the chap, but I can’t help but be charmed, especially after reading this by cellist Zoe Martlew:

One of the original bad boys of Dutch new music in the 60s, Reinbert de Leeuw, along with fellow new mu rabble rouser Louis Andriessen initiated a now-famous riot at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by setting off a bunch of clacking clockwork frogs and other percussive distractors during a concert of Mozart in an attempt to shake up the stultifying musical establishment of the time. Since then, de Leeuw has continued to stoke the flame of musical innovation as pianist, conductor, composer, programme planner and organiser of the highest calibre

I would have wanted to throttle him were I an audience member, but viewed from a good historical distance, I find it really quite amusing.

On top of all that, he’s done some excellent recordings of Erik Satie works alongside soprano Barbara Hannigan. In the late sixties he set up the Dutch Charles Ives Society and co-wrote a biography (sadly not translated) of the great man. Being an Ives partisan myself, I naturally admire him for that.

Anyway, onto the concert. The Night Wanderer is an odd work, based on an enigmatic poem of the same name. The poem is actually read out later in the work. In fact, recordings are used throughout, starting with the opening, faint sound of a barking dog. But the moment when the poem is read is undoubtedly the most effective. A deep, gravelly, whispering voice reads it slowly; the orchestra interrupt once with a screeching, powerful chord. Then after, the orchestra crescendo on these dissonant chords, playing to a steady, throbbing pulse.

But it ends unsatisfyingly, returning to quiet. It is, in a sense, an anticlimactic work. It hits louds moments, for sure, and moments like this imply climax even if it’s never realised. But this is why it’s such a frightening work, an ever weirder walk into the unknown. Anything could happen, even though it never quite does. The piece ends where it begins, with the distant sound of a dog barking.

Listening for a second time, today, via the Radio 3 recording, I found the piece no less tense. The recording is certainly not adequate — it is a challenge to convey the use of space in stereo — but I was surprised not to find the piece irritating on second listen. I somewhat expected to grow weary of the lack of clear direction, the very deliberate ambiguity. I didn’t. I was even surprised at how memorable some of the sections were, particularly a powerful rising violin melody.

(An aside, apparently the work used variation quotations, including by the likes of Galina Ustvolskaya. I suspect, though I may well be wrong, that I heard a partial quotation of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the ultimate statement of uncertainty and ambiguity.)

My hands want to type the word ‘masterpiece’, but being in that fertile stage, wherein one has only recently discovered a love for classical music, I am quite aware of how excitable I can be.

Praise must be given Oliver Knussen for his precise and confident conducting. I tremble to consider how challenging it must be to conduct a work like that, where you not only have a large orchestra in front of you but offstage musicians on the other end of the hall and recordings to play alongside. But Knussen was masterly, of course.

Both Knussen and de Leeuw strike me as wonderful characters too. Knussen with his wintry beard and flame-pattern walking stick (a closet House fan, perhaps?), and de Leeuw, a very slight man, with his floppy hair and drooping moustache.

The audience fuelled my misanthropy somewhat, though. I direct my ire particularly towards whoever started clapping before the piece ended.

But what a place to see it like the Albert Hall — and why on earth can’t there be more like this at the Proms?

Picking a Composer at Random: Teodorico Pedrini

I’m bored and can’t sleep, after having had a touch to drink in Westherspoons, so I thought it would be a fun distraction to pick a random composer to write some first impressions on.

To pick one I went onto Wikipedia to list composers by name. Using an online letter dice, I narrowed the list alphabetically. I kept rolling the dice until I got a composer. The first roll was P, then E, then D, then R, and finally rolled an I. Pedrini, Teodorico Pedrini.

Born in 1671, Pedrini was an Italian composer — but also a missionary in China. According to Wikipedia, he ‘is the author of the only Western Baroque music compositions known in China in the 18th century’. This surely makes him a highly important figure in the early export of western classical music.

So, onto YouTube I go. First video:

Forgive me, but I did not listen to the whole hour. Instead just the first two pieces. It’s certainly very Chinese, the first piece sounding like it could have been written for the erhu. It’s not strictly pentatonic, but it’s quite obviously the scale on which it’s centred.

The second piece is more interesting, and more recognisably baroque, basso continuo and all. Each movement is short and delightful. It doesn’t sound especially remarkable to my ears, but one can only imagine how alien it must have sounded to audiences in early 18th century Beijing. I notice, however, that the portrait of Pedrini included in the video suggests that he successfully assimilated into Chinese culture. The music is perhaps fascinating in this one sense, Pedrini being the only Chinese (or near enough) baroque composer I can think of. He clearly borrows from Chinese traditional music, giving it a personality distinct from any other music of the time.

Becoming a bit more curious, I’m skipping to half way through, around the 27 minute mark. More pentatonic scale on the cello. Now at 30:15, it gets much better. The cello starts playing an attractive minor-key melody, and the accompaniment is quite good. It does go on a bit though, losing focus somewhat. The allegro is sounding very monotonous to me.

Next video:

I think I prefer this. The lute, or whichever instrument it is, is particularly pleasant. It doesn’t sound quite as oriental, but the harmonies work well. The flute is the solo instrument, and texturally seems a better fit than the cello. Much lighter, more endearing.

I would be interested to read about Pedrini’s inspirations. Did his Catholic faith (recall his status as a missionary) inspire his writing? Did he become more interested in Confucianism, as his assimilation into Chinese culture might suggest, and did this affect his music? Regardless, an interesting composer, at least historically, and definitely worth a listen.