Friday 1 July 2016

Meet The Composers: Górecki

Originally published on Litro on 09/01/14

© Ian Shine

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” So said Voltaire back in the 18th century. But in a 21st century world where, for many, God does not exist because we’ve chosen to phase out such a notion, what is it necessary to invent to replace God?

“Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true,” according to Alain de Botton. “What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind… and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively.”

So what is good within the faiths? What do religions offer? Well, they offer us something we need, because if they did not — regardless of whether they are a fantasy or not — no-one would pay any attention to them.

They offers us a realm to escape to, away from the burdens of the world. A place to stop and consider life; to turn away from ourselves and survey the meaning of our existence, our place within the universe. A place to admit that we are wrong and flawed; that we are human. A form of release. Somewhere where the unceasing machinations of time cease to matter.

And depending on who we are, we may already find such good within yoga, getting smashed on a Friday night, burying our head in a book, running marathons, attending orgies, stroking a cat or popping outside for a fag break at work.

We may also find it in music, as the Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) noted:

“I think that music is one of the domains that people really need, and its importance only depends on whether one knows how to receive it. Not only music, also literature, painting, sculpture, and film. [Russian film director Andrei] Tarkovsky said that art is prayer. It is something that I also emphasise.”

Górecki (pronounced goo-ret-ski) was a practitioner of “holy minimalism”, a school of classical music that uses simple forms of composition — harmonies, repetition, a limited number of chords — in accordance with sacred music techniques and texts, but without intending to convey a spiritual message. In short, a form of music that seeks to take the good within faiths and offer it to the secular world.

Holy minimalism’s foremost exponent was probably the recently departed John Tavener, but, for me, Tavener’s music doesn’t quite plunge to the same emotional depths as Góreck’s output. For while Tavener’s music is like a huge rock thrown into the lake of the soul, causing enormous splashes and billows, the surface soon returns to its original state. Górecki’s music, however, is like a perpetual scree of pebbles that slip through the lake’s surface and steadily build on top of one another until they fill up the basin, totally displacing the water. See, in particular, the second movement of his Symphony No. 3.

Górecki’s name may not be the first that would trip off the tongue if asked to name a composer born in the 20th century, but he is responsible for the best-selling contemporary classical CD in the shape of his Symphony No. 3. He wrote the piece in late 1976, but it only gained international recognition after a 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta became one of the UK’s best-selling albums in 1993.

This popularity prompted Górecki to say of the symphony: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music… something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them.”

Indeed, Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, says Górecki’s works provide “oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture”.

What is Symphony No. 3?

Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it is a piece of three “very, very slow” movements, according to Michał Dworzynski, who recently conducted it at London’s Southbank Centre. That performance lasted about 55 minutes, although when Górecki conducted it himself it could take up to 70 minutes.

The text of each movement is a variation on the theme of separation of mother and child. The first is a 15th-century prayer in which the Virgin Mary grieves over the dying Jesus. The words of the second were written by a teenage girl on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell, while the third is based on a 19th-century Polish folk melody in which a mother mourns the loss of her young son during an uprising.

“But even if you don’t understand the text, you can find meaning,” Dworzynski says. “The strongest meaning of this symphony, is that it is giving us time to live. Us as humans, we need this kind of time to ourselves.”

This extra-temporality of the symphony is something that is widely commented upon. The sleeve notes say that: “All tempi are nominally slow, but are subject to such subtle changes and influences that conventional notions of slow and fast are set at nought, and a new sort of dynamism develops.”

The music seems to almost pulse, the violin and cello strings unceasing but slipping from the borders of silence to a place just beneath piercing, lifting the listener up and down with them. As I mentioned in my previous piece about composers, it easy to see links between classical and electronic music. The overarching idea of subtly altered repetitions of a simple motif that build to a peak and then descend is one that props up all electronic music. You can hear this a lot in Floating Points’ work, and you can hear the same oscillating pulse in The Streets. Lamb even sampled Symphony No. 3 for their 1997 single Górecki, although this is a rather poor tribute to the man and his works in this writer’s opinion.

Symphony No. 3 was seen as somewhat naïve when it first appeared, marking a shift in Górecki’s style from the avant garde’s favoured dissonant clashes and violent stabbings of sound — remnants of which can be heard at the start of his second symphony — to traditional composition. It is no coincidence that he wrote it just after becoming professor of composition at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, where he found himself in continuous conflict with Poland’s communist authorities as he looked to shield his students from political interference. As such, the symphony’s nod towards the church is a subtle attack on these authorities, for the Polish church was “the sole, truly independent church in the whole Soviet Bloc”, according to the historian Norman Davies, and as such offered a shelter from the regime, somewhere to escape to.

“[The church’s] strength can be explained in part by the suffering of the war years, which turned people’s minds to the solace of religion; in part by the law of human cussedness, which increased people’s loyalty to the church just because their government forbade it,”[i] Davies says.

Górecki became more overtly political with his later composition, Miserere, written in protest at militia violence against members of the Polish trade union Solidarity in 1981. The piece, which runs to over 30 minutes, involves an unaccompanied choir repeating a Latin text of only five words — “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis” (Lord our God, have mercy on us) — with the final clause not actually sung until the final three minutes. It might sound dull, but it possesses an otherworldliness that, if I could express in writing, would make it not worth listening to.

For Górecki, music was not just music, but it was a response to life, a way of coping with life, and even more so, it was life itself. One of his most famous remarks was uttered to a student who asked him how they should know what music to write. “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write — it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer. If you can live without listening to music — any kind of music — then live without music. If you don’t need it, you don’t need it. But then that is a very poor person. Very, very poor.”

Symphony No. 3 has become something I cannot live without; something I have come to need, every two or three days, to find space to live. Once you’ve listened to it, you may find that the same becomes true for you. Górecki’s Symphony No. 4 will have its world premiere at London’s Southbank Centre on Saturday 12 April.

[i] Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, Norman Davies

Friday 13 May 2016

Smart TV

Originally published in SAS Inflight Magazine, December 2014

Science fiction meets science fact in Swedish drama Real Humans

How do you feel about your smartphone or your tablet computer? Are they essential to your daily life? Would you miss them if they were taken away? Are they changing the way you think? Do you, perhaps, love them?

These might sound like ridiculous questions, especially the last one, but they’re not ridiculous to the creators of Swedish TV series Real Humans (Äkta Människor). Set in a parallel version of the present day, it shows us a world where humans live and work alongside ‘hubots’ (robots that look and act like humans), which they buy to help with everything from childcare to keeping fit, cleaning houses to companionship.

The action follows two families: the Engmans – who get a free hubot after buying a replacement for their grandfather’s malfunctioning hubot, Odi – and the Pålssons, whose robot companions jeopardize their marriage and employment prospects. However, Grandfather Engman isn’t happy with his bossy new hubot’s lifestyle suggestions, and he begins to miss the companionship he had with Odi. As for Roger Pålsson, his wife’s close relationship with their male hubot and his own frustrations with electronic colleagues lead him to join the anti-hubot movement, ‘Real Humans’.

Meanwhile, living on the edges of society is a group of rebel hubots, so sophisticatedly programmed (through USB ports in their necks) that they’ve developed free will and set out to find independent lives. Constantly tracking them are two black marketeers, who look to capture and reprogramme these hubots before selling them on.

More than sci-fi or pure fantasy, Real Humans explores the effects of our growing reliance on technology. Why do we need to remember information if a computer can do it for us? Why does someone need to employ us if a computer can do a quicker job? Why do people need to talk to us if a robot knows them better?

And if you think the concept is a bit far-fetched, get out your smartphone (once you land) to look up Asimo, a Japanse robot that recently played football with Barack Obama. Or Pepper, a robot that can read and respond to human emotions. Or Eugene Goostman, a computer that tricked judges at a Turing test into believing it was a real boy. That parallel world may not be too far away.

Monday 2 May 2016

Why I was wrong about Hong Kong

Originally published in Travel Trade Gazette in January 2011

Hong Kong may be known for its skyline, bankers and knock-off watches, but Ian Shine saw a different side to it on a Hong Kong Tourism Board and Qatar Airways fam trip

I went to Hong Kong with “fake expectations”. I was ready for fake watches, fake designer bags, man-made landscapes and expat communities – and while I did get offered plenty of pretty convincing fake Rolexes, I also found a lot more than just a counterfeit culture.

The undeveloped rural fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island was the last thing I had anticipated, while the hustle and bustle of Kowloon’s markets showed up a raw side of Hong Kong – literally raw in the case of the wet markets – that is far from prominent in many guide books.

Hong Kong markets © Ian Shine

Hong Kong is essentially made up of three parts – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and Lantau Island. Our three-night trip began on Kowloon, and on our first night we dragged our jet-lagged bodies to Victoria Harbour to see the Symphony of Lights.

Recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest permanent light and sound show, it involves lights and lasers being splashed over 40 buildings on the Kowloon and Hong Kong Island sides of the harbour, but did little to impress us.

The sight of Hong Kong’s skyline is stunning enough on its own – when you’re confronted by a jaw-dropping tableau of super-structures piercing the night sky with their height and white office lights, it seems somewhat unnecessary to daub crude reds, blues, yellows and greens all over it.

Off the beaten track
The next morning we went on a “behind the scenes” tour of Kowloon, getting off the tourist trail and into the markets. But Hong Kong’s size means nothing is far from anything, and Kowloon’s main street, Nathan Road, is only a few minutes’ walk away.

We hit the more sedate Jade Market and the wet markets, where locals manhandle still-living fish before selecting that night’s dinner and having it killed before their eyes. It doesn’t stink of fish though, and the pavements are continually doused in water to keep them clean. 

Raw fish for sale on Hong Kong's wet markets © Ian Shine

Round the wet markets you can also find colour-coordinated displays of fruit and vegetables. Dragon fruit was a personal favourite – spiky on the outside, spongy on the inside, it has a pleasant neutral taste and is common at Hong Kong hotel breakfasts.

That evening we got our haggling hats on for the Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon – the most crowded place in the world with 130,000 people living in every square kilometre.

It is just as crowded with counterfeit, or as the stallholders call them “copy”, watches and bags. There’s a tangible buzz about the place as 10.30pm closes in – prices fall as sellers try to shift everything – and I see tourists haggling prices on copy Jimmy Choo bags down from £40 to £10. It would take a skilled eye to tell they are fake though.

Island mentality
The next day was Lantau Island day, where we saw the fishing village of Tai O. The fishermen and their families live in wooden stilt houses that are anything but 21st century.

It is hard to believe it is just a 30-minute drive from built-up Kowloon. Andy Hancock, Wendy Wu’s head of product and operations, described the experience as “like seeing two different worlds in one”.

Lantau Island © Ian Shine

The markets are decked out with strings of fish bladders and jars of shark fins – both eaten for their youth-preserving collagen.

“It’s so different to the images you see of Hong Kong,” said Justine Hubbard, Infinity Holidays’ Australasia sales manager. “You don’t realise Lantau is out there and is so easy to get to.”

After seeing the Tian Tan Buddha – the largest outdoor Buddha statue in the world – and marvelling at the vistas from the 25-minute cable car ride on the Ngong Ping Skyrail, we headed to Hong Kong island and the nightlife of its Lan Kwai Fong area – where the expats go out after a day at work.

It is packed with bars and the partying goes on well into the early hours. We got round three bars, including one with a DJ who is unable to leave any record on for longer than 45 seconds, and left at 5am – an early night by Hong Kong standards.

Selling Hong Kong
Hong Kong mainly attracts the 50-plus market for two or three-night stopovers, but there is so much here for a younger market – and that could easily fill four or five days.

“Hong Kong’s selling point is its diversity,” said Sandra Kwan, the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s travel trade marketing manager. “Hong Kong island is new, young, modern and trendy; Kowloon is more cultural and traditional, while Lantau is a lot greener.”

What makes this diversity extra special is its accessibility. Hong Kong is small and easy to get around; taxis are cheap, the metro is slick and our hotels ran regular shuttle buses. 

From rural Tai O to the buzzing markets of Kowloon and nightlife of Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong has it all, and it feels very real.

Flying to Hong Kong
We flew via Doha with Qatar Airways, sampling business class on the newer Boeing 777 (above) and the older Airbus A330-200. The mounds of space, especially on the 777, combined with the restaurant-worthy food and drinks, plus an entertainment system with more than 200 films, makes the trip feel anything but long. The disadvantage of flying Qatar is that you have to change in Doha, although this could be used as an opportunity for a 24-hour stopover.

Flights from Heathrow to Doha take about six hours, and from Doha to Hong Kong about eight hours. Return flights take another hour due to headwinds. The 777 only flies the Heathrow leg, while the Airbus A330-200 with its slightly smaller business class – still roomy but without the fully flat beds of the 777 – flies the Doha to Hong Kong leg. Heathrow-Hong Kong flights start from £547 in economy and £1,892 business class.

Hong Kong’s Airport Express makes getting away easy, allowing you to check-in bags at the central Kowloon or Hong Kong stations at no extra cost. They are then taken to the airport for you. It runs every 12 minutes from 05.50 to 01.15 every day. A single ticket costs £8, a return £14.

Where to stay
On Kowloon we stayed in the quirky Harbour Plaza 8 Degrees hotel – so-named because the walls and ceiling in its lobby lean at eight degrees. The rooms are generously-sized by Hong Kong standards, and two rooms can be linked for families. It is about a 10-minute drive from central Kowloon, and a free shuttle bus runs every 40 minutes. City Superior rooms are priced from £61 per night. City Deluxe rooms (above) start from £82 per night. Book through

On Hong Kong Island we stayed in the ultra modern L’Hotel Island South. Just six months old, it has free Wi-Fi, iPod docks in every room and the kind of pristine design that would appeal to 20-somethings. The main drawback is its location on the south of the island, where the metro does not yet reach. The plus side of being a bit further out is that prices are low considering the quality. A free shuttle bus runs every 90 minutes to Hong Kong station and takes about 30 minutes. City View rooms start at £53 per night. Book through