31 October 2006

Sir Paul McCartney's fourth classical album

In 1991, Sir Paul McCartney marched on classical music and co-composed a semi-autobiographical Liverpool Oratorio with Carl Davis. He continued his exploration of classical composition, releasing his second work Standing Stone in 1997, the third album Working Classical in 1999 and a choral tribute album A Garland For Linda in 2000.

Ecce Cor MeumWhile working on the last two albums, a towering project was under incubation. In 1998, he was invited by Anthony Smith, the former President of Magdalen College Oxford, to compose a choral piece for a new concert hall of the college. Eight years later after the commission had been accepted, Paul's fourth full-length classical work, Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart), for choir and orchestra in four movements, with an interlude featuring oboe solo, was released by EMI Classics on the 25 of September 2006.

This album is produced by John Fraser and recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Gavin Greenaway conducts the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Boys of King’s College Choir (Cambridge), the Boys of Magdalen College Choir (Oxford) and London Voices.

Since Ecce Cor Meum is sort of 'classical' classical music, rather than 'contemporary', 'atonal' or 'avant garde' classical music, composing such a work requires compositional techniques, such as harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, musical form and so on. I suppose either Paul is a great musical mastermind so he doesn't need any musical theories when composing, or he has actually spent some time hitting the books and then brought his own musical experience into theories.

Although I was never a pupil of music nor did I read music at any institution, I familiarise myself with all sorts of compositional techniques through endless reading and experimenting. Nevertheless, I can't compose an oratorio.

Hail Paul.

27 October 2006

Major differences between Chinese traditional and Western bel canto singing

Over so many sleepless nights, I have been wondering if I would really screw up my PhD and disappoint all those who have been supporting me. Moving slowly, and unsurely, is my thesis; however, I have to perk up and keep writing no matter how much the thesis seems to be bunkum and balderdash. At the moment, I am struggling to finish a section on the singing styles of the 30s and 40s Shanghai pop song.

Although everybody knows Chinese traditional singing (for example Beijing opera) are very different from the Western bel canto (for example a dramatic tenor in a Verdi's opera), few people really know what makes the difference.

Hence, I copy some boring, technical, academic words from my thesis and paste them here. Read them patiently, if you think they may be interesting, but don't blame me for using technobabbles.

A fundamental difference is that Western and Chinese vocal techniques deal with the resonating cavities differently. According to the part of human body in which the sound a singer makes mostly resonates, singing voices may be categorised into three registers indicating the changing tonal qualities from pitch range to pitch range: the chest, the middle and the head voices.

The chest voice denotes a singer’s lower range of voice, which generally resonates in the chest cavity, and is usually described as having deep, weighty quality. The head voice is associated with bright, light singing voice of the upper end of a singer’s vocal range, which resonates in the mouth and the head cavities. The middle voice refers to the warm, rich singing tones of a singer’s middle pitch range resonating in the throat cavity, which is sometimes regarded as the crossover between the chest and head voices.

Vocal organThe Western classical singing style, or precisely the bel canto, is characterised by even vocal quality with the greatest amount of resonance along the whole of a singer’s voice range and every singing note smoothly merged with the next to produce continuous lines. To achieve this, a singer has to utilise all resonating cavities properly, maintain a fine balance among various voice registers, and develop seamless transitions between registers. Singing in this style, one is required to be able to place the head voice down to the notes that are normally produced as the chest voice, and vice versa. In other words, a trained vocalist would adjust the amount of resonance in different cavities to gain consistent tone quality throughout the singing range. For more favourable resonance, the larynx is lowered to expand the bottom of the pharynx and sometimes there are even adjustments in the usual pronunciation of vowels.

In contrast, rather than seeking to produce consistent tone quality across the entire voice range by using different resonating areas accordingly, in the Chinese traditional singing style, a vocalist sings principally in the head voice and develops brighter and lighter tones resonating mostly in the hard palate, the nose cavity and the head cavities. Therefore, resonance of sounds is fixed principally in the anterior part of the head. When singing, the larynx is positioned higher than it is in the bel canto style, and there is more laryngeal muscle tension. As every syllable has to be enunciated precisely, the pronunciation of a vowel is never modified for the sake of optimum resonance.

Generally speaking, due to the differences between vocal techniques, while using the bel canto method, a singer tends to produce mellow, round and open-throated sounds, singing in the Chinese traditional fashion, a singer’s tone quality is relatively nasal, bright with more tension in the throat.

Is it clear?

24 October 2006

Earning petty cash

Because I quit my cleaning job, as a cleaner supervisor, in January and haven't done any teaching since last academic year, I need new source of income to support the bloody final stage of PhD study, however little cash it may bring in.

Online surveys and some consumer sites are good bets. So far, I've joinedThese sites do gross me some cash. So far, I've got 700 Nectar points (worth 3.5 pounds in Sainsbury's) from MyTNS, 10-pound Tesco voucher from Valued Opions, 500 Taiwanese dollar cash (slightly less than 10 pounds) from CyberPanel, 500 Taiwanese dollar cash from EmailCash, 10-pound Bella Italia voucher from Pigsback and 15-pound gift voucher by keeping a two-week food diary for a project referred by MyTNS – that's about 60 pounds in total!

Well, although not a big fortune, all of these help towards the cost of living for poor Wei. If you are interested in earning some extra petty cash, try the above-mentioned websites.

22 October 2006

Mr Bean and I

Mr Bean licenceDo I look like Mr Bean in any way? I don't know, but somehow more and more Taiwanese friends have been telling me that I'm Taiwanese Mr Bean ever since my fiancée made this comment long time ago.

I suppose because I have been trained up to understand British dry humour over the past four years and started practising all sorts of sparkling combination of British witticism and gesticulation in real life, those Taiwanese friends simply regard whatever they can't grasp from me as British humour and characteristic of Mr Bean.

I don't mind what they think; nevertheless, I just can't recognise any similarity between me and Mr Bean, or Rowan Atkinson. Last night I mulled over all various possibilities how on earth I could be related to Mr Bean, and finally arrived at an inescapable conclusion: I am a victim of the blasted media.

I won a DVD set of Mr Bean 10 Years Collection, which includes all the 14 episodes broadcast from 1990 to 1995, two unseen episodes and a documentary, on eBay a few weeks ago, and have been watching one or two episodes everyday ever since. I believe these comic episodes have made certain impacts on me.Mr Bean videoOf course I don't fall into hilarious situations, nor do I cook up any schemes or contrivances in the way Mr Bean does to solve problems. However, somehow, I start having silly and quizzical expression on my face when I feel disoriented or stranded in a sticky situation, or after I screw up something. Even worse, my hands also begin wagging in a moronic way.

Pedro writes here that Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was abducted and detained for eight years, learnt how to behave and talk 'properly' from what she saw on telly. I supposed she didn't watch Mr Bean.

17 October 2006

Chinglish in Beijing

Mind your head

(When in China, do as the Chinese do – read from right to left!)

In a bid to build up the city's international image, as well as to create a sound and smooth language environment for the 29th Summer Olympic Games in 2008, Beijing launched a campaign to improve its bilingual signs four years ago. The municipal government set up committees, task forces and all sorts of projects to undertake major construction work: the removal of all signs written in Chinglish.

Chinglish, obviously a portmanteau of 'Chinese' and 'English', may refer to the pidign English which is profound influenced by Chinese grammar and accent, or the broken Chinese woven with English words used by some American-born Chinese who, due to their limited Chinese vocabulary, use English words all the time when speaking Chinese. However, in Beijing Chinglish refers to awkward translation arising from incorrect grammar, non-idiomatic phrases, erroneous vocabulary usage and coined words.

Take a look at some examples:
  1. To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty
  2. Extraordinary Door
  3. Deformed Man Toilet
  4. Engine room is a serious place
  5. Please don't stand, sit and pass through the surface of water feature
  6. The luxuring nothing rail remote controlling stretches out and draws back the door
Got any clue? Compare with the proper phrases:
  1. Be careful, slippery slopes
  2. Emergency Exit
  3. Disabled Toilet
  4. Caution – Engine room
  5. Please don't stand, sit or walk by the side of the pond
  6. Deluxe wireless remote controlled retractable door
Two more interesting cases with photos:

Watch your herd

(What sort of herd shall we watch? Do cattle or sheep usually graze in department stores in Beijing?)

Sever heart and soul

(What a horrible supermarket where customers end up being slaughtered physically and spiritually)

I hope all signs written in such a rib-tickling, and sometimes almost incomprehensible, Chinglish language can be supplanted by proper signs in the run-up to the Olympic Games so that foreign visitors and Olympians will not get scared or lost in translation.

16 October 2006

Resist or retreat?

Last night I was pondering how to give my valediction to someone for whom I have cared for a long time. It was agonising. It caused great mental pain, and probably physical as well since a physical pang of disillusion did make my wobbly.

As often as not, once-besotted, starry-eyed people metamorphose from best companions on earth into archenemies just because one side suddenly find that the relationship is foredoomed, or simply because one side is falling for another romantic entanglement. It is never easy to be on either side of a breakup, and thus how to break up gracefully is indeed art, as much as how to enter into courtship. That's why I have to be punctilious in proposing to split up.

Preparing a farewell address is probably even more difficult than writing an introductory chapter for a PhD thesis. It took me five months to finish the first chapter of my doctoral work in my first year, then one month to turn it into an article for an academic journal, and finally almost two years to get it published, but how long will it take to orchestrate a parting tune?

I don't know. My mind is flummoxed at the moment.

In the sphere of academia you publish or perish; over the tortuous course of studying a foreign language you write or rot; on the meadow where love blossoms you resist or retreat. I have been doing fine in the first two arenas. I have three articles published in academic journals and one in a government gazette; I maintain a weblog and keep writing in English. However, I decide to retreat, to withdraw from the coliseum of love as I know there is no Camelot for me.

Is it really a wise option to forgo a fractious yet still solid relationship and start being tortured by an unrequited affection for a perpetually unavailable diva, or is it better to reset the discolouring relationship to default? Whatever, I gather I was anathematised right at the beginning.

13 October 2006

How to make it up to make up for it?

(Spiffy Monica at a year-end party, early 2005)

Phrasal verbs in English are always nightmares to non-native speakers, particularly to those who have just started learning this language.

Having spending years in polishing up my rusty English, I am now advised not to use phrasal verbs in academic writings, for they are less formal, and sometimes even equivocal, and thus not appropriate in serious works. Crikey, how could it happen? I am told to forget about what I have gained from years' hard working.

To name a few, 'examine' is preferred to 'look into', 'capitulate' looks smarter than 'give in', 'convalesce' gives a more precise notion than 'get over', and so forth.

Anyhow, I do miss those days when fellow classmates tried their best to learn as many as possible phrases, or simply 'make up' their own phrases. I still remember a classic example in a cloze test.
John and Mary made __ after the quarrel last night.
Nine out of ten students would guess the missed word to be 'love', notwithstanding that 'up' is in fact the correct answer.

Although 'make up' denotes 'reconcile' here, this phrasal verb may carry different meanings in different contexts. A case in point comes from an amusing conversation with Monica over MSN this morning.

I told her that I started keeping a diary 18 years ago, and have become incurably obsessed about writing something in my diary every day ever since. However, when I go on a binge and can't be asked to do so before collapsing into my berth, I will definitely make up for it first thing in the morning.

While by 'make up' I mean that I will write my diary next morning to 'mend' the inexcusable mistake – falling asleep before the daily task is completed, Monica thought I would 'concoct' a story of the night before.

I shall tell Monica that I will never make up a story about how I tried to make up for a semantic misunderstanding in order to make up with her.

I'm sure this sort of sentence will never appear in my thesis; otherwise the examiners will get cross.

12 October 2006

Ilha Formosa

Have a look at this over-ten-miniute long promotion video produced by the Tourist Bureau of Taiwan to gain a snapshot view of my motherland.

The theme song in this video is Ilha Formosa, i.e. 'beautiful island' in Portuguese, an unofficial name which Taiwan was dubbed in 1544 when a Portuguese ship spotted the island. Taiwan has been know as Formosa ever since.

Mute telly or deaf pubgoer?

I've got a question for some publicans and clublords in Britain: What's the point to have TVs on the premises should customers can't hear a single word or whatever sounds on TV?

Since time immemorial there have been TVs in pubs or clubs with images budging on the screens and the volume turned down to an inaudible level, or simply switched off, against backdrops of head-banging music. I just don't understand what those mute boxes are for if nobody can twig what's really going on.

Maybe some would argue that in sports programmes, such as a live football match or golf tour, images talk for themselves. Therefore, what matter if we cannot hear those commentators?

I can't agree anymore. It's true that you don't really need to hear what the commentator say when watching Premier League or Six Nations, but can you make any sense of what's under discussion in the news, particularly when a guest is commenting on a particular issue live in the studio, or what's happening in a soap, or what a song is about in a music video, if all you have are jiggling human bodies with the accompaniment of some thunderous music totally irrelevant to what's on the screen?

I don't think it's any easy. So, can somebody tell me about the raison d'être of a mute telly in a pub or club? Or shall we pretend as if we were hearing impaired and thus it didn't matter whether the volume was on?

09 October 2006

An alternative version of Braised Lionhead

Braised Lionhead
Reduced items in the clearance shelf of a supermarket can sometimes arouse a brainwave and give you a bright idea of what to eat.

As usual, I did my weekly shopping after Sunday service in the Church of the Holy Rude. I was just not particularly interested in beef today, but somehow a pack of lean cubed beef steak, a reduced one, caught my eye. Since it was almost past its 'best before', I supposed it might not be good enough for broiling, but could still be succulent if made into meatballs. I had seen this item scarcely when it come to my mind that beef meatballs in super mega hot spicy soup would be the main course for dinner.

I hand-minced those cubes with my everlasting cleaver, which has been with me since fifteen years ago when I started to learn cooking, then mixed beef mince with crushed garlic, smashed ginger pieces, an egg and some water, fiercely stirred all of them for twenty minutes, and finally made the mixture into balls. Deep-fried them and put aside.

Voilà, I've got my meatballs.

As for the super mega hot spicy soup, I tried first to create a piquant paste of spices, herbs and grease. Cumin, bay leaves, smashed stoned dates, chilli oil, Szechuan pepper, star anise, soya sauce, cinnamon and freshly crushed chilli were gently heated in sunflower oil and reduced into a thick paste. I then prepared the soup by boiling shredded Chinese leaves (cabbages) in chicken stock and stirring the paste into it.

Ta-dah, the soup was done as well.

At last, I put the meatballs into the soup, brought them into a quick boil. The main course for dinner was ready. It's an alternative version, i.e. my own version, of a Chinese dish, Braised Lionhead (Click here to see the authentic 'Lionhead').

It's a pity that Pedro was not here as these meat balls, I guess, are one of his favourites among my specialities. We had so many good times with Braised Lionhead, which used to be our team name when we attended pub quizzes, though we never won.

07 October 2006

Mid-autumn festival

Moon cake

(bloody extravagent Cantonese-style moon cake)

Today is the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, the Chinese mid-autumn festival, one of the three most important festivals in the lunar calendar (the other two are the Chinese New Year and the dragon boat festival), on which family members reunited.

As the eighth month of the year is the second month of autumn according to the Chinese lunar calendar, the festival being named mid-autumn is self-evident. Nevertheless, when introducing this festival to my Western colleagues, I usually refer to it as harvest moon festival, since the 'mid-autumn' day usually falls around the autumn equinox and the full moon occurring nearest to this equinoctial point is called the harvest moon in the West.

The century-old tradition is a night-out on this particular day, certainly neither clubbing nor pub-crawling, but rather, admiring the fullest and brightest moon of the year. Moon cakes and pomelos are the main festive food.

Haven't got a clue what they are? Read this BBC news article to know more about moon cakes and this Wikipedia entry to study this citrus fruit.

Somehow, since the mid 1980s, barbecue has become a ritual of this festival in Taiwan. Some Taiwanese folklorists argue that having barbecues on the mid-autumn festival is just a westernised form of celebration, which reflects the thriving economy and uplifted living standard in Taiwan at that time.

Actually, not only in the Chinese but also some other Asian people celebrate this festival. For example, in Japan, the brightest moon on this day is known as chyûshyûnomeigetsu, literally 'the bright moon of mid-autumn', while the Koreans call it chuseok, which means 'autumn night'.

Moreover, whereas Korean people eat 'pine cake' (songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake steamed upon pine needles) on this 'autumn night', the Japanese usually have 'moon-gazing cake' (tsukimidango, a glutinous rice dumpling), taros, soybeans and chestnuts beneath 'the bright moon of mid-autumn'.

3/4 Moon cake

(the luscious adzuki paste filling)

Another 'mid-autumn' in Scotland for me. Although I didn't have a barbecue, as I suppose it would be loopy to summon my colleagues to sort of harvest moon BBQ at a windy, chilling night in Scotland, I still managed to grab myelf from a Chinese supermarket some bloody expensive moon cakes, which are actually imported from Hong Kong. However, it's a pity that we don't have pomeloes in Scotland, nor is any shipped in.

02 October 2006

Stop for now ≠ quit for good

Hookah smoking
I stopped smoking ten days ago. When I tell people so, including my GP, I get either of these two responses:
  • Oh, brilliant! Good for you! (Of course, smoking is no longer kicky nowadays.)
  • Goodness me, I don't even know you smoke! (As I'm not an addict, people rarely notice that I puff fags from time to time.)
Accordingly, I have to tell them that in fact I 'stop for the nonce' rather than 'quit for always'. I stop simply because I don't have any cigarette in stock and I shall recommence whenever the supply resumes.

I would say that cigarette smoking is really an extravagant pastime in Britain as opposed in Taiwan: it costs about £5.50 a pack of twenty cigarettes here while it costs only £10.00 a carton, which contains 200 cigarettes, in my homeland. Therefore, instead of paying exorbitant amounts here, I usually cough out only £6.00 in the airport in Taiwan and bring back a carton of duty-free cigarettes, or just ask a friend or my fiancée to send me some from Taiwan.

Unfortunately, I haven't been back to Taiwan for more than a year, and suddenly both my friend and fiancée refused to send me any more as they claimed that they would no longer aid and abet chronic suicide.

Nevertheless, fortunately, I'm not addicted to smoking; I'm always fine without ciggies in my daily life. I can stop and resume at any time.

Well, although I don't have any cigarettes in stock, I do have some shisha, tobacco mixed with molasses and fruit flavours to be smoked in a hookah, and the gadget for shisha smoking. So I set up my hookah, a precious gift from a very good friend, and had a good puff at the weekend.

I don't think I would bother to smoke shisha as often as I would smoke those blooming cancer sticks, as it's absolutely vexing to assemble the entire hookah. Click here to see the step-by-step instruction and you will know how I can't be asked to do this.

Cappuccino tobacco
Anyway, the interesting cappuccino-flavoured molasses did offer me a rather good first experience of shisha smoking. I've never thought that apart from nicotine I could sniffed in the piquant taste of the Italian beverage with crema and steamed milk when smoking. Next weekend it'll be cherry or grape, and I'll see how fruits go with tobacco.