Music: Robert Fripp—New York, New York, New York

(After six weeks of toil I have finally finished exams, so even though schoolwork is mounting again, I have time! Yay!)

WARNING: long post. Can I excuse it on the grounds that Saturday was my blog’s one-year anniversary?


Miss Alexandrina asked me the other day whether SINGULARITY, the title under which I entered CAPTAIN’S PAPER/TRUMPING HEARTS/Drina’s story in PitchSlam, is a Shakespeare reference.

Here I attempt to explain the tenuous links which led to that title.


  1. Star-Cross’d Lovers (Shakespeare)

I studied Romeo and Juliet at GCSE, so multiple references crept into the first few drafts of Drina’s story. One passage in particular, when I was brainstorming titles last year, came back to me. Romeo meets Mercutio and Benvolio (finally) and they tease him by insinuating that the ‘important business’ that had delayed him was of a sexual nature.

The exact quote (Act II, Scene IV):

ROMEO         Why, then is my pump well-flowered.

MERCUTIO   Sure wit, follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing solely singular.

ROMEO         O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness.

Note that ‘pump’ is a double entendre, as are the ‘flowers’. Beyond that, Mercutio is saying the joke is poor and no longer amusing. Romeo then invokes the low joke and I like to think he is berating Mercutio not only for the joke but for assuming he was with Rosaline (or any girl, for that matter). In the event, Romeo is planning his wedding to Juliet, has just received a hate note from Tybalt, her cousin, and is keeping his marriage secret from his best friends.

How in the world does this sordid passage relate to Drina, besides her tendency to bandy about words?

"O Garden Clogs!" - yeah, they're so wasted in the daily trip to the compost heap and back

“O Garden Clogs!” – yeah, they’re so wasted in the daily trip to the compost heap and back

First the play. Garden Clogs are one of my motifs (‘pumps’). In Drina’s very first scene they are broke-soled, but it is implied that the antagonist will salvage them. Later they reappear as a threat (pretty much a hate note), and as an icon of corrupted richness, with sexual connotations.

Like Romeo, Drina engages herself to someone she’s only recently met, and conceals it for fear of the repercussions. A major plot-point is her crushed, inebriated deal with her fiancé’s brother, and the speculation surrounding it. Assumptions being one of the two major themes, joking over something so untrue—yet, notice, undenied by Romeo—seems apt.

Regarding other Drina-Romeo parallels, Act II, Scene II is the famous balcony scene, in which Romeo begins to mature from the antisocial, melancholy Rosaline-lover. Similarly, Drina begins to mature after meeting Chas—realising the Captaincy isn’t the glory everyone made it out to be, foreshadowing how many times it will betray her over the coming months. Chas, like Juliet, is the more mature member of the pair—though Drina, like Romeo, likes at least to feel that she’s the dominant.

A young DiCaprio opposite Claire Danes in the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation.

A young DiCaprio opposite Claire Danes in the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation.

Drina and Chas’s families are old friends; not feuding factions. However, with Chas’s mother’s dementia and Drina’s mother’s problems (I’m beginning to think PTSD), there’ll never be a good time for the young ones to prioritise elsewhere.

Then there’s the famous line about a rose of any other name still having the essence of a rose. This exemplifies Drina’s dilemma: she feels inextricably bound to her mother’s history and fate, which I believe come under ‘name’. The definition of a Montague is one who fights with Capulet, and that of Capulet fights with Montague. Juliet denies that the ‘children’s teeth be set on edge because their fathers have eaten sour grapes (Jeremiah), opening up the debate that our forefathers are not responsible for our actions as we are not responsible for theirs—we have no obligation to repeat our ancestors’ successes (or failures). ‘Independent’ Drina likes this idea, but struggles to free herself of liability to her mother’s state; like many children in such home environments, she half-believes the instability is her fault, whether directly or indirectly.

Anyway, the cyclic nature of generation: good or bad? #2 suggests another approach thereto.


2.   The Singularity of Life (Shakespeare)

Is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance.” ― John Updike, Self-Consciousness

What can I add? Tragedy and comedy are two fundamental layers of this life—intermixing the two is allegedly a ‘British’ habit. That’s one of the things Shakespeare does best: in King Lear, one daughter refusing to admit her father’s ego leads to half a dozen bodies on the floor. I hesitate to use the word ‘comedic’, but there is something acutely disturbing about the boundary between life and death: it is not nearly so solid and straight as we like to think. Perhaps amusement is my coping mechanism when it comes to such realisations.

Drina’s demise begins with her best friend insinuating that perhaps she’s just as arrogant as gossip tells. From there, an arrogance complex develops into distrust and withdrawal, prompting Drina into a series of progressively less wise decisions. One parallel relates her mother’s similar fall from glory—through an accident, it is worth saying, coupled with her inability to accept the singularity of life—though in fact it is Drina who gets the second chance; there’s something satisfyingly sacrificial about the climax, if I say so myself.

Anyway, unlike a Shakespearian tragedy, Drina gets another chance, flinging away the ‘solely singular’ Garden Clogs. There’s a reason it begins with Chopin and ends with Mendelssohn.


3.   Infinite Compression to Infinitesimal Volume

In terms of physics, the idea of an infinitely dense, infinitely voluminous point excites me. Lots of people believe black holes are some kind of portal to oblivion. A singularity is a point; sometimes it’s described as a ring. Get this: gravity deforms space-time to prevent ANYTHING from escaping. (Also, singular matrix in mathematics is an arrangement of terms with no inverse. That basically means it’s difficult to manipulate.) Contrary to #2, this singularity is infinite.

so beautiful

so beautiful

Drina is fundamentally self-interested, so you could be forgiven for thinking Drina is the singularity, the dense point at the centre of everything—gosh, Drina herself thinks so! She believes her success will attract her mother’s love.

Midway the set-up is flipped. Realising she’s just another galactic object, Drina alters her trajectory to accelerate her travel towards the black hole that is her mother’s ruination.

Warping space-time

Warping space-time

There’s something so cool about an inevitable path of fate, and a horizon only crossed in one direction. So, singularities warp space-time and quantities become physically infinite, they are weighty, powerful and at the pinnacle of destructive efficiency; ambitious physicist Drina, in the race for power, would definitely aspire such qualities—and definitely fall short of her aspirations.



4.   Individuality versus Community

A singular is a distinguishing quality or a peculiarity. Drina’s is that she has the capacity to become School Captain, and nobody else has that. In fact, that’s all she has that can possibly win her mother’s affections. But it also ignites the conflict between individuality and community, which composes the second major theme—not just in terms of whether to please oneself or those for whom one has responsibility, or grappling with standing out from the mob (or not!), but reliance on a significant other.

Drina’s self-esteem is dependent upon fulfilling her mother’s aspirations. The first act charts the drift and unvoiced betrayal of Drina and her best friend. While fearful of placing her welfare in the hands of another, whom she cannot control, Drina gradually surrenders to romantic love. Everyone might fancy her superwoman (including herself, at the beginning), but by the end she realises she can’t survive without other people—her power is not intrinsic, but channelled through those with whom she associates.


5.   Singularity and Suffering (Austen)

Singularity often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct.’—Persuasion, Jane Austen. So that is our crudeness, single-mindedness, egotism, independence, vanity, conceit, ambition, obstinacy and power, our cyclic, infinite perception of life, both our overestimation and underestimation of our own significance. Maybe she’s even talking about singleness; her very voice seems to exalt the kind of community Immanuel Kant called the ‘Kingdom of Ends’ (I can’t think of another way to describe it). Austen ridicules society and abhors human selfishness, but there’s something undeniably unifying about reading her work.

You can almost breathe this guy's ego. (Oh, it's Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot, to whom the Persuasion quote applies.)

You can almost breathe this guy’s ego.
(Oh, it’s Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot, to whom the Persuasion quote applies.)

Anyhow, I like to think Austen’s equating singularity to suffering, and blaming both upon our conduct, but there are many many interpretations.


BONUS: ‘trick of singularity’, the Twelfth Night quote Alex was thinking of originally, is equally pertinent; when I first plotted the story, back in 2011, the tenor-changing plot-points matched the thirteen tricks of a bridge hand, and one of them I named ‘singularity’ (as discussed in #4). Sparknotes tells me ‘singularity’ in this quote means ‘free and independent’.

Hey. THE TRICK OF SINGULARITY. That might even work…


I may just have written an analysis of my own novel’s alternative title, and for that I very genuinely apologise! To make up for it, I’ve written another post for today. I promise it’s short!




A Short Résumé of the Euphonium

When I tell people I play the euphonium, most of them look at me blankly and wish they’d never asked. And I explain, “oh, it’s just like a slightly smaller tuba”, and hope they know what a tuba is. But really a euphonium isn’t much like a tuba at all. We may play the bass part a lot of the time in windbands, but we are in fact the chief tenor soloists. We are important! And it would be lovely to be appreciated, or at least half as well-known as trumpets are.

This post is meant to clear up any doubt there may be regarding what a euphonium is, what it does, and what it doesn’t. I’ll begin with its origins.

Like many bass wind instruments, the euphonium itself can be traced back to the Serpent, an eighteenth century bass instrument used in military bands and church choirs. It had six holes to be covered with the fingers, but for this reason, the Serpent had serious intonation problems.

The Serpent, in all its slithering glory.

The Serpent, in all its slithering glory.

In 1821 the Ophicleide was produced. Like most modern woodwind instruments it was constructed with keys to cover tone holes, allowing slightly better evenness of sound.

Over the next few decades, valve mechanisms were developed, which helped both the manufacture and intonation of instruments of all types. To an observer, pushing down a valve seemingly lowers the pitch of the instrument. In practice, this is because the valve is a type of ‘cross-road’ piece in the tube, with holes in it through which the air can pass. When pushed down, these holes align with the network of tubes through which the valve compartment passes, allowing the air to enter other regions of the instrument. This increases the length of the instrument, therefore lowering the tone; and if you’re a physicist, and you know all about the relationship between bore distances and the sound wavelengths they produce, you’ll understand exactly why. If you don’t, just take it for granted.

According to Wikipedia, the modern British euphonium was invented by David Blaikley in 1874, and its design hasn’t altered much since.

We usually have either three or four valves, the fourth valve allowing us to play lower notes that would otherwise be out of range, and we are pitched in concert B flat. This means, to quote Wikipedia (it’s okay; I don’t use Wiki all the time!), that the open notes are ‘partials of the B flat harmonic series’. In simpler language, this means that when no valves are pressed down, the instrument will produce the notes B flat, D and F (though the higher you get, the more notes you can play on open). These make up the arpeggio of the B flat major scale.

Brass Instrument
Some pretty brass instruments, probably tubas (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

Although there are international difficulties relating to the names of many instruments, in England we use the word ‘euphonium’ to describe what I play. This is derived from the Greek word ‘euphonos’, meaning ‘well-sounding’, or ‘sweetly sounding’. A baritone, it must be said, is smaller than a euphonium, with the same range but greater flexibility in the upper register. You can apply to this the same logic I used to explain the mechanics of valves. But anyway, whatever you do, don’t insult a euphonium player by calling him or her a ‘bari’.

There are different types of euphoniums, too. Double-belled euphoniums are a creation unique to the US, and there are marching euphoniums which look rather like enormous cornets. Tenor horns are even smaller than baritones, set a perfect fourth (I believe) above the euphonium in pitch. I have one of these, too, and I love it, but they’re even less useful than euphoniums in the musical world.

My tenor horn.

My tenor horn.

Euphoniums aren’t used in orchestras, which is my greatest regret. It sets us apart from the rest of the brass section, because however many snooty upper register solos we get in brass bands, we’re still unwanted in the biggest musical group of the lot. Sad, really.

We have the same range as a trombone, too, which causes some people to ask me, why? But that annoys me, because you could turn that question on a trombonist just as well. (I suppose they’re just in love with the special trombone glissando. I, of course, am not…)

Anyway, it’s to do with tone. Perhaps to a non-musician this doesn’t make much sense, but euphoniums have a much broader, fuller timbre. This is due to their conical bore: the tube that constitutes the instrument gets gradually wider from the mouthpiece to the bell, producing some kind of special wavelength. Trombones are mainly cylindrical, meaning the bore has a constant diameter, except for the conical mouthpiece at one end and the flaring bell at the other. Woodwind players are especially fascinated by the fact we can ‘lip’ any notes up and down, increasing the flexibility of the sound.

The physics of the brass is far more interesting than the strings, don’t you think? (I’m horrendously biased.)

Stephen Mead is one of the most renowned British euphonium players, and I have one of his albums on my iriver.

Yes, I’m a brass player. Not just any brass player. I reside down in the lower brass. Squidged between a row of uproarious trombonists and the rather intimidating bell of a tuba, the king of the brass section, is me. I play the euphonium.

I get lonely. Even amidst all the lovely brass players I know, who are truly hilarious, the euphonium player must remain aloof, for some of the reasons I’ve explained above, about our detachment from the trombone section and our different span of usefulness to many of the other brass family. I’ve also been the only euphonium in my bands for the past two years. Whilst the five trombones have the most hilarious camaraderie (plus they’re all boys, lucky them), I’m a bit of a one-man band (no pun intended). I didn’t even have my friends in the same bands, because I passed Grade 7 earlier than they, and besides, I’m the oldest euphonium student I know (save one, who doesn’t practice).

And here's what we've all been waiting for. Meet Florence - MY euphonium.

And here’s what we’ve all been waiting for. Meet Florence – my euphonium.

In conclusion, the euphoniums mentioned in the third verse of Meredith Willson’s famous ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’ are not just a myth. We exist, and despite our lack of recognition, we’re proud to be who we are.