Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A John Williams Journey

Inspired by Dan Golding's John Williams presentation on ABC Classic I've put together a selection of ten tracks to take you on a musical journey through the world of John Williams.

These aren't necessarily his greatest his greatest hits or his most familiar themes. Instead I've pulled together ten of his lesser known pieces to illustrate the diversity and emotional power of Williams' music.

1. Journey to the Island (Jurassic Park)

We begin our journey in prehistoric times, or at least a recreation of them, as we fly to Isla Nublar and Jurassic Park. That first sight of the dinosaurs on the island has to rank as one of the greatest moments in cinema and John Williams' noble theme never fails to bring a tear to the eye.

2. The Olympic Spirit (1988 Olympics)

A long journey requires endurance and spirit. Williams has composed music for four Olympic games, but this is my favourite. I remember camping in outback Central Queensland with only a radio to keep abreast of the Seoul Olympics and each broadcast would be introduced with The Olympic Spirit. I didn't know that John Williams composed it at the time, but it's little wonder I fell in love with its rousing theme.

3. A Window to the Past (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

Our journey now takes us to a magical place, but one with a dark history. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite movie of the series, no doubt in part due to John Williams' wondrous score. This haunting theme is one of many in this episode, as Harry and his teachers recall Harry's murdered parents. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the only movie shown on our first flight to Europe and the soundtrack represented the magic as we travelled through countries with their own dark pasts.

4. The Book Thief (The Book Thief)

Staying in Europe's past here, The Book Thief conveys both the horror and the humanity and hope of a young adoptee in Germany during the Second World War. Though famous for his big scores and grand marches, John Williams has composed many delicate scores for much smaller movies, and The Book Thief is a fine example of this. I first watched the movie on another flight, this time to Japan, with the score now reminding me of flying 40,000 feet above the ocean on a sunny day, so far away from the cold grey Germany portrayed in the movie.

5. Becoming a Geisha (Memories of a Geisha)

We've now landed in Japan, my favourite country other than my own! I believe that Memories of a Geisha was one of John Williams' finest scores in recent memory, combining Western melodic sensibilities with a genuine Japanese sound. Becoming a Geisha propels me along the incredibly scenic railway line through the mountains to historic Takayama, the whole soundtrack capturing the beauty of the country in spring.

6. Midway March (Midway)

John Williams is the master of the march. This is one of his lesser known ones, but one I have a lot of fondness for as the US Navy goes into battle with the Japanese aircraft carriers in a pivotal battle of World War Two.

7. Toy Planes, Home and Hearth (Empire of the Sun)

Staying in the Pacific Conflict of World War Two, this time we follow the story of a young English lad growing up as a prisoner of war when the Japanese invade China. This particular piece interpolates Chopin's Mazurka Opus 17 No 4, but is beautiful on its own if you can get your hands on the special edition release of the soundtrack. 

I first heard this music as a new release on ABC Classic FM and it immediately evoked strong imagery. I then borrowed J.G. Ballard's book from the library and it too was powerfully visual. It was with great surprise that I saw those same pictures in Steven Spielberg's screen adaptation

8. Parade of the Slave Children (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

The journey moves to India with the rousing struggle of child slaves freeing themselves from an evil cult. Musically I always thought that the first three Indiana Jones movies followed those of the Star Wars movies, with the second introducing a number of memorably great themes.

9. ET and Me (E.T. The Extraterrestrial)

After a long journey one can get rather homesick. This time we are not the travellers, but the ones meeting a traveller from very, very far away. This particular piece captures the wistful sadness I felt at living so far away from my previous home in Melbourne. Everyone knows the Flying Theme from ET, but the movie has so much great music, this being a concert arrangement of the relationship between ET and Elliot. Just to listen to this soundtrack is an amazing emotional journey in itself. 

10. The Return of the Jedi (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)

Finally our journey comes to a close in the most triumphant way possible. No John Williams journey would be complete without Star Wars, the movie that introduced me to film music a long time ago, in a city far, far away.

I could easily have chosen a hundred more songs to include in my list, but each of these pieces is a soundtrack to my own emotional and musical journey through life. I hope that you have enjoyed the list and find your own joy in the music of John Williams.

Spotify playlist (Hopefully this works, as it's my first time using Spotify!)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sutherland Shire Relay for Life 2019

Over 8 hours of walking, more than 60,000 steps, 30 minutes sleep and two very blistered feet.

This year I joined the Dark Fire Fitness team in the Cancer Council's Sutherland Shire Relay For Life to raise funds for cancer research and treatment.

After Alex's tennis tournament I arrived at midday to Don Lucas Reserve at Cronulla to find most of the other members already there. We had a simple marquee and small tent setup. The previous day I'd spent the afternoon and evening deep frying cekodok pisang (banana fritters), karaage chicken and inchi kabin (Malaysian spiced chicken) to share amongst the team.

The relay involves maintaining a constant walking (or running for some) relay along the 400 metres track for 24 hours.

I preferred doing the late night shifts after 10 pm to avoid the loud live music blaring out from the main stage, walking for one period between 10 pm  to 1 am, then another between 3 - 4 am when I found it too cold to sleep.

I had my bag decked out with electroluminescent wire and a Microbit programmed to display animations and the current temperature on its LEDs. The lowest it showed was 12 degrees Centigrade.

By the end of that last walk my body had well and truly enough, my feet too blistered to continue. I staggered to the only food truck still open, a poffertjes stall, and carried my little batter balls and some ice cream off to the food tent, which offered a modicum of warmth and shelter. They tasted so good.

Then I managed to fall asleep in a camp chair for about half and hour, waking to see the sunrise. Somehow I dragged myself up for another few laps before the relay closed at 10 am, just as the rain started to fall. Whatever pain I felt was nothing compared to what cancer sufferers go through and it felt special to have a chance to high five survivors as we did those final laps.

It was good to chat to the other members, who I know through karate, as we walked and to have some rare quiet time alone to listen to a podcast. The reserve is also in a great location to watch aircraft on their take-off or landing approaches into Sydney Airport.

I could barely walk through Miranda after B and Alex picked me up this morning and, once home, enjoyed a hot shower before falling fast asleep for a few hours.

I'm looking forward to doing it again next year, but with some better preparation and hopefully somewhere warm to sleep.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lego robots, driving north and piloting planes

The term one holidays are over and what a break it's been, if break is the right way to describe it. I do feel kind of broken.

It started, for me, with the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Concert. The next day I joined Alex and his friend mountain biking at Wylde Park and managed to stack it, giving myself some painful bruises and scrapes. I think that's it for me and mountain biking.

While I worked for a few days Alex attended a couple of Lego EV3 Mindstorms robotics workshops at ANSTO. He especially enjoyed the sensing and data logging session.

Then it was holidays, with my longest time behind the wheel driving up to Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and the Gold Coast.

I had one day of work in the final week and it felt like it was the whole week packing into that one day, while Alex and B went swimming at the Olympic Park Aquatic Centre. Maybe I developed an allergy to work, but I felt pretty sick over the weekend.

B, Alex, and Alex's friend drove down to Nowra for some adventures in the trees while I stayed home sick in bed, but was well enough the next day to visit the Flight Experience open day and spend some time in the 737 simulator.

We also visited the excellent Star Wars Identities exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. The well constructed exhibits make you think about who you are and how you have been shaped. They also house some fascinating models, costumes and plans from the movies. The intricacies of the constructions have to be seen to be believed.

Back to work, back to karate for me on Monday, but one pupil-free day more for Alex. Now it's time to plan the next break.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Concert

As the first school term of 2019 ends so another year of Harry Potter begins. As for my son, it's Year 5 for Harry and things are getting darker.

I'm at the Sydney Opera House with listening to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while the movie is played on the big screen.

The charismatic Nicholas Buc conducts.

I've reviewed enough of these concerts now that it's difficult to write anything new. This is the first of Nicholas Hooper's two efforts in composing a Harry Potter score and I'm rather fond of the soundtrack.

There is a delicate touch to many of the compositions with plenty of tuned percussion from the xylophone family (I couldn't see from my row) and some strong string passages for the more dramatic moments. Very different from John Williams and Patrick Doyle's writing for the previous movies.

The only thing missing seemed to be the electric guitar in the Fireworks piece, though I need to confirm that in the movie as opposed to the soundtrack recording.

The live orchestra really enhanced my enjoyment of the soundtrack. It was lovely and clear against the visual backdrop and the Sydney Symphony did a fine job of performing what I suspect is some quite difficult music.

I'm looking forward to their next effort with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in July.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


If I were a leaf
I'd be a thief
Stealing sunshine from air.

Some other plants
Would envy my grants
Others wouldn't care.

For when I pass
Down I dance
Carrying gifts from toil.

My days in the sun
Now I've won
Nutrients for the soil.

New leaves grow
They will know
From where their bounty came

From sun and air
The soil we share
Life is renewed again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Ishinryu Summer Camp: 5 days of karate

I was too knackered to post about the other two days of the 25th Annual Summer Camp. We had our usual Monday session in the dojo last night, except it wasn't usual because the founder of Ishinryu, Sensei Ticky Donovan was there watching our mistakes.

I guess we couldn't have been too bad because he awarded Sensei Tony his 8th Dan, Sensei Alison her 6th and Sensei Leighton his 5th. All richly deserved in my humble opinion. Sensei Ticky is based in the UK/Thailand and his visits to Australia are increasingly rare. It's been maybe four years since the last time.

Anyway, that capped off five days straight of karate. Thursday and Monday in the dojo, Friday and the weekend at Wollongong.

I did almost every session, except for the competitions and the tai chi/yoga when I was helping with the kids' blocker competition scoring. Alex's team came second in that one after getting gold last year. He missed out on medals in the team kata competition, where an experienced teammate pulled out to join another team and another was felled by injury, leaving him with a single, younger, but enthusiastic teammate.

Alex didn't compete in the kumite. There weren't any others in his age group even if he did want to give it a go.

He did come second in the beach run! I'm just happy that he participated in the events and most of the lessons.

Us seniors tend not to compete. It's a pity as I wouldn't have minded doing kata if I wasn't so utterly exhausted. Not the kumite, not against the Fijians and the giant ex-rugby league player who trains at our dojo.

I feel like I learned a lot at the camp, though it can be difficult to quantify. Some of it is more "aha" moments than new concepts. In partnering with someone from another school I realised how line really affected the technique we were practising. I also watched the very fast hands of Sensei Ticky and Sensei Ryan and how their movements flowed. Not sure I can ever replicate that.

What was somewhat frustrating were the corrections on technique. Some Sensei Ticky has changed since he was last at the dojo, others were small things I have probably been doing wrong all this time. there is a lot to unlearn and it must be done because as we rise through the ranks we demonstrate to the younger students. We must know how to do it right to teach it right.

Apart from that Alex and I had a swim in the pool and played tennis between sessions. B came up on the Saturday and they played mini golf together.

Despite being exhausted at the end of each day I haven't slept well, especially as Alex had me getting up at 5.30 am and training my body for this bad habit of his. I was close to my limit when I drove back on Sunday night and then we had Monday...

A couple of days' rest now and then it begins again on Thursday.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Ishinryu Karate Summer Camp 2019 Day 1

We've only had one session and already I'm confused. Everything I learned about Pinan Yon has been changed by our master Sensei Ticky Donovan.

It's that time of year, the Summer Camp. This year it's a 25th anniversary special with Ishinryu's founder attending.

I'm not in the most receptive state for change. It's been a bugger of a week at work and the two weekly karate lessons were exhausting too, along with a changed Alex routine due to this weekend interruption to our normal programming.

Today was hard too. Washed clothes, vacuumed, ironed on badges for the new gi (they are already coming off), baked brownies, shopped for food to take and finally packed the car. I was slightly late to pick Alex up, but his teacher came out to tell me what a wonderful student he was, so attentive and ready to participate that it made it all worthwhile.

Then off in a packed car to the Wollongong Surf Leisure Resort by Towradgi Beach. No sooner had we carried in the bags of gear brought down from the dojo in our boot and we were put to work laying out the mats. We barely had time to drop off our own bags and change into our gis before we were back doing karate on those mats.

It was a nice dinner at the pub across the road, meeting a fellow karateka with the first name Rhythm, along with many of the usual suspects.

Our cabin is smaller than last year but better for our needs. An early start tomorrow, so time for bed. Q

Friday, February 08, 2019

SSO: 2019 Season Opening Gala

It's 2019 and time for another concert. Actually, I wasn't planning to attend any this month but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra offered a couple of free tickets to some 20th and 21st Century music so who was I to refuse, especially when David Robertson is conducting?

Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra isn't quite 20th Century, but it was made famous by a rather famous movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey, so that counts. The only bit I'm familiar with is the Introduction: Sunrise.

For the rest of the piece it sort of felt like Zarathustra spake too much, but I'm not a huge classical music fan. Too much exposure as a child I should think. But it was certainly interesting from a tonal sense, watching the different elements of the orchestra, including the massive pipe organ looming high above the stage.

A large portion of the orchestra disappeared for Nigel Westlake's Oboe Concerto Spirit of the Wild, written for the SSO's Diane Doherty.

Doherty's virtuoso oboe performance was amazing, but I really enjoyed the accompanying orchestral melodies. Westlake has composed for a number of films and I could quite imagine some cinematic scenes for his music. What I couldn't really see was the Tasmanian wilderness that inspired the score - My own experiences would have lead to very different music. Still, this was the highlight of the night in my opinion.

The orchestra returned for the final piece of the night, Percy Grainger's The Warriors. In fact, it expanded with three pianos on stage, a celesta, two harps and a number of other instruments including a heckelphone, which sounds like an audience rather than an instrument.

The conductor had to enter from the right as there wasn't any room through the normal entrance.

I thought all that sound made the piece rather muddy. It lacked a strong melody and again, it wasn't really my thing. But it was visually spectacular and picking out individual sections made the experience quite interesting. Some of the brass also decamped during the piece and you could hear them play outside the concert hall, which was a curious development.

David Robertson, the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the SSO, was mesmerising to watch, his conducting a performance in itself. If that baton was a wand the spells he would create would definitely be those of a grand musical wizard.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend the opening Gala and am looking forward to a year full of music.

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