I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.
As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.
The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?
As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.
And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ‘embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.
The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.
In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.
So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.
As people all over the world gather to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a remarkable boat will set sail on its maiden voyage. The boat will be made from the lives and memories of people across the South East.
We want your wood: but not just any old wood, we want something that’s a part of you, something with a story to tell. Come and tell us that story – your donated wood will be used along with donations from thousands of others to build this unique 30ft sailing boat, a living archive of our lives.
Donations will be accepted in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre between 1- 7pm this Wednesday.
The Boat Project is part of Artists Taking the Lead, a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Boat Project is the winning commission for the South East region and is funded by Arts Council England.
An article in last week’s Guardian laments the lack of speculative fiction – that’s science fiction and fantasy in common parlance – novels making the Booker prize list.
Science fiction and fantasy, traditionally viewed with grave suspicion by the supposedly more ‘serious’ of the mainstream fiction genres, have together been a flourishing literary canon for years; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings regularly polls in high places as ‘Most Read,’ whilst writers like China Mieville, Alistair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton have been patiently carving out successful careers with epic science fiction and fantasy novels for many years.
Perhaps part of the difficulty lies in the boundary-defying nature of some of the novels associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville include a luxurious element of the gothic in their novels; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offered an alternative history take on fantasy, where magic is commonplace and is used in the Napoleonic Wars. Similary, Mary Gentle’s sprawling Ash: A Secret History follows the same character across centuries. Perhaps it’s simply the scope of the novels that causes them to be dismissed: Peter F Hamilton’s epic space-opera sagas, Michael Moorcock’s long-running Elric or Hawkmoon tales stride across whole volumes.
But with writers such as Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Michael Moorcock all a part of the canon, it’s hard to ignore the impact of science fiction and fantasy literature.
Perhaps this year will change all that.
As reported over on The Guardian’s classical music blog, the culture minister Ed Vaizey reveals that there will continue to be a pot of money allocated to music education next year.
The previous government had set up a Music Standards Fund, dedicated to music provision, which is due to end next year. Vaizey declares that a ring-fenced amount of funding will replace it.
Music provision in primary education is a matter of hit and miss, dependent on local variables: it depends on whether the school values the arts generally and music in particular, whether it has a dedicated music specialist teaching a focused music curriculum; sometimes, it’s just a matter of whether a member of staff happens a) to have an interest or a facility in a particular musical discipline and b) to be sufficiently motivated to run such classess off their own bat.
This creates widespread inequality in provision at primary level across schools, quite apart from the LEA-allocation model that existed under the Conservatives in the mid-80′s. Hopefully, music education and county music provision will continue to be funded under the Coalition, although with arts funding cuts announced earlier this week, whether there will be musical opportunities for the current generation of primary school children when they come to the employment market as adults remains to be seen…
For over forty years, Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, the woman who shared his life. As Anthony Thwaite, Larkin’s literary executor and friend, revealed in The Telegraph this weekend, letters and postcards the two exchanged have now been published for the first time.
Fantastic news for those who enjoyed Larkin’s Selected Letters published by Faber in 1993, and who read the replies to Larkin by his friend and fellow literary giant, Kingsley Amis when HarperCollins published a vast tome of Amis’ vibrant correspondence in 2001, The Letters of Kingsley Amis.
Notoriously reclusive, shunning travel and avoiding the limelight, not much of Larkin, other than the few slim volumes of poetry he published, reaches the public eye; at his request, Monica Jones destroyed Larkin’s journals when he died.
Some of the letters are published in The Telegraph here.
I watched Westworld again recently, a Michael Crichton film from 1973 in which two characters go on holiday to a mock Western resort, populated by gun-toting robots. Holiday-makers can live out their fantasies of being cowboys, and shoot these robotic residents: alas, one of the robots malfunctions in a shoot-out and pursues the pair throughout the film on a relentless quest for revenge (the robot in question played with menacing remorselessness by a fantastic Yul Bryner.)
The formula of historical theme-park-going-wrong is one Crichton would repeat with greater commercial success with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and to a certain extent in the disappointing novel Timeline with knights.
Seeing the film again made me reflect that its whole scenario is akin to the way in which we perceive our own history, and how sometimes we experience it. Much of our view of history can come from film and literature – think of the multitude of Vietnam films such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, or Norman Mailer’s Vietnam-novel The Naked and the Dead,or Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals vision of Rome in Gladiator.
Our learning about the past can come filtered though the film-maker’s lense – Spielberg’s account of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List – or the novelist’s imagination – Bernard Cornwell, Henry Treece, etc.
Re-enactments and displays are popular ways of bringing historical events to some sort of ‘life;’ mock jousting tournaments at English Heritage castles across the country, or air displays featuring the dwindling number of aircraft from World War II. Like Crichton’s automaton-populated holiday resort mock-ups, these create an artificial snapshot of a generalised sense of a moment in the past, and purport to bring it to life for popular consumption.
But are we losing a real sense of our past, our history, buried under (or papered over by) a fictionalised representation of it ? And, like the remorseless robot in Westworld, will populist reinventions of our past, in representing it, actually destroy us in the end ?
Real history – if it possible to define something which we haven’t experienced for ourselves, because it occurred before we were born, as such – is being eroded by our reinventions, or re-imaginings of it; the glare of Hollywood’s limelight fails to illuminate most of history’s shadowed corners: in fact, it creates those obscuring shadows precisely because it spotlights heroes and villains for our entertainment. The same strobe lighting up the hero necessarily blinds us to the realities lost out of sight beyond the lit circle in which they stand.
Ironically, it’s almost as if the very media working to preserve history, whether for our education or entertainment, are instead serving, as the writer and cultural analyst Fredric Jameson puts it, ‘as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.’ (‘Postmodernism and consumer society’ in Gray & McGuigan, 1993: 205.) Fredric makes this point in relation to the function of news media, but arguably it’s also a pertinent definition of the methods by which film, television and historical novels are making history disappear in the very act of trying to bring it alive.
Where has our past gone ? Or, more accurately perhaps: where did we begin to erase it ?
Video artist David Shrigley’s message about the proposed dangers to UK arts organisations in the face of proposed funding cuts (via a recent article in The Guardian).
Visit the blogsite at http://savethearts-uk.blogspot.com/
How does music mean ? Indeed, can it mean anything at all ? Does its meaning derive from its internal sequence of events, or is part of its secret its ability to resonate with a listener’s wealth of previous experiences ?
“The music in that show isn’t hip hop … or rock…or anything essential to culture.”
So says one basketball player to another in the otherwise yawn-inducing High School Musical. At that piece of dialogue, my brain was finally roused from the torpor into which it had slumped, driven there by the film, and emerged into the light of reason with the promise of something actually interesting to contemplate. (Such moments in the film are rare indeed: then again, I may not be its target audience).
What culture does he mean ? Contemporary youth culture ? Urban culture ? His own culture ? Or, more likely, anything connected with the Culture of Cool ?
Even more interesting is the idea of what is ‘essential’ to culture: what’s ‘cultural necessity’ ? Is it something that allows culture to thrive, to develop, to progress, to evolve ? Or something that allows culture to protect, to venerate, and to preserve ? Or is it something that allows culture to communicate, to be handed down from one generation to another, or across national divides ?
It’s probably a mixture of all of the above: as teenagers (perhaps even most of us as adults) do, they define culture perhaps in terms of their own interests, of peer pressure and their own growing and developing experience and tastes and what’s seen as cool, or hip.
Culture is what we define it as: what we read, watch, write, paint, listen to, indeed create. It’s also how we view our own society, our fellow citizens; it’s how we define our beliefs and creeds, what is important to us socially, morally, educationally and intellectually. It’s the ways in which society entertains itself, deals with its dead, dresses itself and raises its children.
It’s the mirror in which we view ourselves, define our values and judge our own actions. I wonder what the music in that show Chad was talking about actually was…
(Oh wait: this all took place in High School Musical: no, I don’t).
(Or, more succinctly: who has to die ?)
Art is about form, structure and balance: the Golden Section, proportion, a sense of integrity that unifies a work’s formal elements, supporting an understanding of the work as a whole. Music uses sonata-form, and structural principles of harmonic motion through related keys: painting uses the Golden Section (as does music, admittedly) and ideas of proportion; some are often underpinned by a triangular shape holding them together (Picasso’s Guernica being a prime example). A fourteen-line sonnet is divided into two sections of eight and six lines, the octet and the sestet, with a ‘turn’ between the two sections leading the tone of the poem from one section to the other.
But balance can also operate in a moral sense too, particularly in literature and especially in film. There is a unifying thread of fairness which governs the way elements relate to each other, and that drives the narrative towards a conclusion that reflects this idea. Moral equilibrium is the balance between right and wrong being asserted as part of a work which maintains not only structural proportions but moral ones as well. The success of the whole depends not only on the unfolding narrative and its resolution but also the moral relationships operating across the work and an effective culmination that links and balances them.
Is there a case for arguing that in fact it is the establishing of the moral balance that is the governing factor behind a narrative’s architecture? Actions need reactions, choices need justification, wrongs need to be righted, evil needs punishing and virtue needs rewarding: all these elements need to be aligned for a work to feel complete in the resolution of its inherent conflicts.
In stories, characters are obliged to die because they have transgressed, committed some act which ordains their end in order to balance the moral state of the narrative; whatever steps they may take to redeem themselves will not be sufficient to allow them to survive. The queen in Snow White is irredeemable because she is jealous of the beauty of another, and condems herself by attempting to murder the object of her jealousy with a poisoned apple.
The more interesting works, though, are often those where the state of moral equilibrium is not established: the killer gets away with it, the monster is not vanquished by the hero but may still be alive somewhere; the wronged hero takes bloody vengeance and is not penalized for doing so.
Open-ended films are often more rewarding. Consider the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner; there is no tidy finale where the ends are all sewn up, all the issues resolved. Deckard flees with Rachel into the wilderness – will they be caught ? How long has Rachel left to live ? And is Deckard himself a replicant ?
At the conclusion of Thomas Harris’ novel, Hannibal, serial killer Lecter has seduced and won FBI agent Clarice Starling, and they sit together in a box at the opera. The film re-writes this ending – shamefully so – to allow Starling to attain a state of grace and redemption after leading the disastrous sting operation at the start of the film that results in the death of another agent. Perhaps the producers felt audiences would feel betrayed by the original ending in the novel.
Audiences often prefer these endings: stories that have a different resolution other than that which the moral imperative would ordain. They are more like real life, where problems often have no glib solution, where moral justice is often not attained.
In the controversial film American Psycho, if the film is not, as some readings of the end suggest it is, entirely in Patrick Bateman’s imagination, then there is no justice imparted in the film; the balance is not established, his villainy goes un-punished. Perhaps that’s why we don’t condemn the crooks in Ocean’s Eleven: Danny Ocean and his crew are villains, after all: but they are an amiable bunch who are breaking the law for what, from a moral perspective, seem to be the ‘right’ reasons: for the artistry of the challenge, for the re-dressing of former wrongs (Reuben Tishkoff’s casino was torn down by slickly villainous Terry Benedict to make way for, unforgivably, “some gaudy monstrosity,” thereby proving Benedict’s charlatanism by offending our aesthetic sensibilities as well. And not only that: Benedict has stolen Ocean’s girl.)
Perhaps that is why a series like The Sopranos has been so successful; secretly, the audience yearns for moral equilibrium not to be maintained, because life is like that…
Do you ?