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Awesome!

Palace Green Library, Durham

Palace Green Library, Durham

Worshipped any good books lately?  I have.  And if ‘worshipped’ sounds a bit extreme, perhaps even sacrilegious, how else would you approach a book which has survived, largely intact, for 1300 years, including evading Viking raids, being taken on lengthy peregrinations across the North of England, and even, according to one popular legend, emerging unscathed from complete immersion in the North Sea?  I’m referring, of course, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the centrepiece—until the end of September—of a superb exhibition in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham.

We had taken a flat in Alnwick for the week, with a London-based friend who is an expert in museums management, and our main reason for being in the North East was to visit this exhibition. So on a day that can only be described as Mediterranean, we arrived in a Durham that can rarely, if ever,  have looked more sunny, exotic and welcoming. I felt some trepidation about this excursion.  How do you build an entire exhibition around a book of which, unavoidably, only one page can be seen at any one time?  Indeed, I understand that only two different pages of the Gospels in total are being displayed during the entire three month run of the exhibition.  I needn’t have worried. As we all agreed—including our museums specialist friend—this was a superb and unforgettable experience.

First of all, it was a model of visitor management.  We had booked timed tickets for 13.30.  Arriving a few minutes before our time, we could join the rest of our cohort seated in the sun, while cheery stewards encouraged us that ‘we’ll get you in shortly’.  With the same friendliness and courtesy we were gently ‘processed’ through the entrance stages but, once inside the exhibition proper, we were left to ourselves and could stay as long as we liked.  The results of all this attention to detail were that at no time did we feel crowded, or that we had to move along without allowing enough time for a particular display, and then, when we finally entered the inner sanctum that housed the Gospels, the three of us were able to view the book itself for as long as we wished, without a queue forming behind us.

All of which would have been of little benefit had the exhibition itself not been a triumph of the combined skills of curation, display and interpretation.  Unobtrusively, almost subliminally, we were given a very clear and integrated understanding of the political, historical, religious, social and artistic context for the Gospels.  We came to understand why the Gospels had been made, where they were made, when they were made, and how they were made.  We explored the fusion they represent of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artistic forms, the world of the book in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the tensions between the Celtic and Roman churches that formed the background to the book’s production.  Nothing was ‘dumbed down’—children were offered a host of ways of getting involved in a completely separate space, which also housed a meticulous account of how the book was physically produced.  I doubt if anything in the exhibition could have troubled a believer, but nor was there the slightest hint of sanctimoniousness.

Particularly impressive was the use of video technology.  In the ante-room to that which housed the actual Gospels there were two giant video displays drawing on images of every page in the Gospels, and blowing up the illuminated pages in sequence at a scale that left you breathless with wonder at the skill of Eadfrith, the monk and bishop who is credited with both copying and illuminating the Gospels.    Then, in the separate display at the end, there were several PCs where you could explore each page in similar detail at your leisure.

The third thing that impressed us was the range of people visiting the exhibition.  Folk in the North East are very proud of the Gospels, and that was demonstrated by the diversity of ages and social backgrounds of those going round the exhibition with us.  This was a popular exhibition, without needing to be populist.  I understand there is a campaign to locate the Gospels permanently in the North East, resisted by the British Library.  It’s a campaign that deserves to succeed.

So, when I finally found myself standing in front of the book itself, able to view closely that one visible page, what did I feel?  Awe, of course.  Awe at its survival, at its incredible artistry and technical achievement, and awe also at the evidence it provides (as had the rest of the exhibition) of the richness of Northumbrian culture in the 8th century.  Pace Lord Howell, the North East was no more culturally ‘desolate’ 1300 years ago than it is today.

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

And awe, indeed, was what we felt throughout our week based in Alnwick—awe at the magnificence of Durham Cathedral (despite misguided attempts at modern and community art which threatened to diminish that glory), awe at the power and strength of the immense medieval  strongholds of Warkworth, Bamburgh and Alnwick, and at the 19th century industrial might that transformed all three of these great castles, and led to Lord Armstrong building the fantasy that is Cragside, awe even at the ambition that has led to the creation, in the last decade, of the wonder that is The Alnwick Garden.

The Alnwick Garden

The Alnwick Garden

And at all these locations we found hundreds, no, thousands of local people enjoying their heritage, often with a very well-informed perspective. At the Alnwick Garden we experienced a glimpse of the ‘peaceable kingdom’, as hundreds of families—and especially young children—experienced what I can only describe as ‘joy unconfined’ among the marvels that the Garden offers.

In many ways the Lindisfarne Gospels symbolise unity—embracing both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic artistic tropes, and also two languages and two scripts, thanks to the translation in Old English which the priest Aldred added to the text 250 years after Eadfrith’s work.  The Gospels speak of a time when Britain, no matter how fractured politically by warring kingdoms and Viking incursions, shared a culture of belief, literacy and artistic creation. Judith is a Geordie.  The Lindisfarne Gospels, and the architectural wonders of Northumberland, are part of the heritage she grew up with.  But I also feel they’re part of my heritage.  If independence comes next year, how will that change my feeling of a shared heritage?  I wish I could tell.

(all photographs: Judith Livingston)

Durham doorcases

We’ve been in Northumberland all week, of which more later.  Meanwhile, a visual blog:  doorcases around Durham Cathedral close and the South Bailey:

doorcasedoorcase1 doorcase2 doorcase3 doorcase4 doorcase5 doorcase6

A Good Read

One of the drawbacks of working from home is that I no longer get to listen to downloads of Radio 4 programmes while driving to and from work each day, and so I’ve accumulated a substantial backlog on my MP3 player.  Fortunately, though, I had to drive to Rothesay this week, a round trip of some 12 hours, and so I have caught up substantially through listening to multiple episodes of Feedback, Last Word, Saturday Review, More or Less, Counterpoint, The Life Scientific and, a particular favourite, A Good Read, with the estimable Harriet Gilbert.

My interest in Ms Gilbert is not just that she’s an excellent and quirky presenter, skilled at drawing out the views of her guests, but also that she’s the daughter of one of my favourite neglected authors, the crime- and thriller-writer, Michael Gilbert.

death-in-captivity-6850-p

Michael Gilbert enjoyed a very long life—he died in 2006 at the age of 93—and a similarly long writing career, publishing his first novel in 1948 and his last in 1999.  That means he was a contemporary of much better-remembered writers such as Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, as well as overlapping with the later careers of such eminent figures in the crime and thriller worlds as Margery Allingham, Eric Ambler, and, of course Agatha Christie.  I think he’s as good a writer as any of those famous names, and better than some of them, but, curiously, the very qualities for which I admire him may be the factors that have led to his neglect.

First, he didn’t stick to one genre, but wrote detective novels, thrillers, and espionage fiction.  And he didn’t hesitate to mix genres.  I’m currently reading one of his most acclaimed books, Death in Captivity from 1952, which is a murder mystery set in a POW camp in Italy and based directly on Gilbert’s own wartime experiences: it was made into a film in 1958.  Previously I’d read The Empty House of 1978 which starts out as a murder mystery and turns into a spy thriller.  Its innocent hero is thrust into a world whose cynicism, ruthlessness, and disregard for the law strike a remarkably contemporary resonance.  It’s an absolute page-turner.

And then, although some of his central characters do reappear in several titles, none of them achieved the fame—or notoriety—of an Albert Campion, a John Appleby, or a Hercule Poirot.  That of course left Gilbert free to tell the stories he wanted to, without being shackled by readers’—and publishers’—expectations, but it also militated against his books becoming really popular, and his characters lasting in the collective memory.  Just as with his cross-genre plots, Gilbert often compounded this characteristic by writing stories which had no one central character, but instead multiple viewpoints.  That makes for an exhilarating, but also a more demanding, read.

Finally, although his books can have a whimsical tone (Smallbone Deceased) that is reminiscent, say, of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, or a boy’s-own-adventure quality (The Etruscan Net) comparable to Michael Innes’s wonderful The Journeying Boy, all those I’ve read, no matter how fantastical their plots, have an underlying toughness and realism that prevents them from offering a cosy nostalgia for the innocent days before Prime Suspect or The Killing.

One thing that Michael Gilbert does share with his genre contemporaries is that his books are short—rarely exceeding 250 pages.  His story-telling is wonderfully terse and economical: the opening chapter frequently throws the reader in media res, with setting and character introduction following later.  That’s a virtue we need to rediscover.  I remember the wise and canny editor and literary agent John Jarrold telling budding SF writers that their books needed to be 400 pages long to meet publishers’ demands, as it seems readers today measure a book’s value by its length as much as, or more than, by its quality.  The result is too often padded, if not bloated, and has resulted in the ruination of many previously fine genre writers.

So, again unlike Allingham or Christie, Michael Gilbert’s name has not been revived through regular TV and radio adaptations, and as a result most of his books have been out of print for many years—so many years that they now rarely surface in charity shops, so obsessed are those enterprises with only the latest bestsellers, nor in libraries where older copies have long since worn out.  But technology has come to Gilbert’s rescue.  A huge number of his titles are now available in Kindle editions, while battered copies of those old paperback editions can be ordered from online sites like Abe Books for a pittance.

So I’m glad to say you have no excuse for not discovering Michael Gilbert’s merits for yourself—he really is A Good Read.

©  Robert Livingston

The Problem with Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin

Living in the Highlands, there’s very little that we miss about the Central Belt, except for the chance to see major art exhibitions.  The team at Inverness Museum and Gallery often achieve wonders with their limited resources, but that doesn’t remove the need for a regular fix—usually in Edinburgh, as Glasgow has fallen badly behind ever since the magnificent MacLellan Galleries were mothballed.

One of the early tasks I was given on joining HI~Arts in 1994 was to write the brief for the very first formal feasibility study into creating a major gallery for the Highlands and Islands.  I used to hope then that I’d see such a gallery open before I retired.  Now it’s only the shifting ages for claiming the state pension, and the poor state of my personal pension, that are keeping that possibility even remotely open.

In the meantime Edinburgh can still offer some fantastic exhibition experiences, especially through the National Galleries and Museums.  We always make sure we get down for the Festival exhibitions, so we were initially disappointed that, having to be in Edinburgh for a meeting last week, we were just too early for most of those blockbusters. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

In the first instance, this encouraged us to visit the kind of lesser display that can so easily get overlooked when the great crowd-pullers are open, Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch . Not the most stimulating of titles, perhaps, but this proved to be the kind of small but perfectly formed exhibition which, in just one room and some 25 small pictures, can be both a revelation and a source of intense pleasure.  Frederic Church is known here (insofar as he’s known at all, that is), for the Scottish National Gallery’s epic Niagara Falls from the American Side  but this exhibition showed his miniature side, and what an incredible eye and technique he had.  The exhibition is on till April next year, so you’ve no excuse if you miss it! And it’s free!

And better still, on the way to see the Church exhibition, we stepped into the little hexagonal room on the ground floor of the National Gallery that is the permanent home for seven of the greatest paintings ever created—perhaps the greatest paintings in any collection in Scotland:  Nicolas Poussin’s Seven Sacraments.  Now I’ve known these paintings all my adult life, and had we been trying to fit in various exhausting major exhibitions on this trip, we’d hardly have spared the time to revisit them, which would have been a shame, as I found the experience very moving.

How can I persuade you of the true greatness of these paintings?  It’s not an easy task.  Unless you’re a fairly well briefed member of the Catholic Church, the subject matter is obscure, not to say recondite, and not immediately easy to relate to.  Then, the paintings are now mostly very dark, due presumably to aging varnish and a certain amount of fading pigments, and so don’t make an immediate impression on the viewer.  And, most significantly, these are supreme examples of French Classicism, contemporary with the plays of Racine, the music of Lully, and the first phase of building at Versailles—a style, a philosophy, a world, that are probably as far from contemporary taste as anything in the last half-millennium.

Even as an art history student I didn’t take readily to Poussin; in fact I think I graduated without really understanding his achievement.   I was put off by the solemnity of his religious subjects and, paradoxically, by the frivolity of many of his mythological themes. It took a lot of looking, and some great exhibitions, including the Scottish National Gallery’s own landmark Cezanne and Poussin of 1990, to change my mind.    And I clearly wasn’t alone in having this problem: researching this blog I was amused to find a 2009 Guardian article titled  ‘Arts snobs can keep Poussin’.

Well, maybe I am an art snob, but my admiration for Poussin now goes well beyond the intellectual or the academic.  I quite simply love his paintings, as profoundly as I love the music of Bach, or the poems of John Donne, to mention two other artists in other artforms who can be thought ‘difficult’.  Let’s return to the Sacraments, and look at just one of them, Holy Eucharist.

Poussin: The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

Poussin: The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist

Forget Leonardo, this is the ‘Last Supper’, not least because it makes such a concerted attempt to re-imagine the scene, starting with having the apostles, in a historically correct manner, reclining on couches on three sides of a table, rather than lined up all in a row.  Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. Historically correct the scene may be in one sense, but hardly for a bunch of Galilee fishermen in an ‘upper room’.  Christ at first sight seems too idealised, while too many of the apostles’ heads seem to have the rigidity of classical tragic masks.  But set that to one side: look at how naturally everyone is posed, and look especially at their reactions.  Jesus has obviously just announced ‘One of you will betray me’ and many of the apostles are caught literally with their mouths full, or with the next bite half way to their mouths.   It has the vivid immediacy of a film still, an effect enhanced by the astonishing lighting from the central (and again archaeologically correct) hanging lamp, and especially by the figure of Judas, slipping out to the left.

But these elements are easy to describe.  What’s much harder to convey is what makes Poussin really great—a pervasive and intense sense of human empathy that, curiously, is heightened, not diminished, by the classical manner, and a truly musical sense of form and structure.  Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’ but I think the phrase could equally be applied to Poussin—after all one of his most famous paintings is A Dance to the Music of Time!

So, the only way to ‘get’ Poussin, I’d argue, is to look, look, and look again, and keep coming back. The rewards repay the effort.  And so the real problem with Poussin is that he demolishes two arguments that are increasingly gaining ground: that art should be easily (if not instantly) accessible, and that art, especially of this kind, is elitist and those who want to enjoy it should pay for their pleasure. Good art takes time, and that’s why galleries need to be free.  And why we need a really good one in the Highlands!

© Robert Livingston

The Wood and the Trees

Redundancy has its compensations.  On Wednesday afternoon the clouds at last parted and some real, bright, life-enhancing sun broke through. No longer confined to an office (albeit one from which I could see Ben Wyvis) I took myself off for a walk in Reelig Glen .

When we first moved to the area in the mid 90s the walks in Reelig Glen were unsignposted, and mostly known about by word of mouth.  A few years later it became a designated Forestry Commission walk, with roadsigns and information panels.  I ought to approve of the greater access but I’m afraid I miss that sense of it being a rather secret place, and, of course, as it’s now advertised, FCS have to ensure that it’s also safe, which has taken away some of the wildness and the (very mild!) sense of adventure. But it is still breathtakingly, throat-catchingly beautiful.

Reelig Glen was a possession of the Frasers for 500 years until sold to FCS in 1949, and it owes much of its present appearance to one member of the clan, James Baillie Fraser, who planted the gorge of the Reelig Burn in the 1850s with specimens of the exotic trees being brought back by Scottish planthunters, such as David Douglas, whose eponymous firs are among some of the most spectacular (and tallest) trees in the Glen today. The upper slopes of the woods are now in the care of the local Community Woodland group, and include a beech ‘cathedral’ that is profoundly impressive at all times of year.

reelig 1

‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ wrote Hopkins, and there were plenty of dappled things in Reelig last Wednesday.  I love the Glen at this time, when everything is at its most lush, green and overgrown, and the afternoon sunlight really brought out all the different, dense layers of foliage, especially where a break in the canopy opened up views across the gorge to the opposite slopes.

The trouble with writing a weekly blog is that you’re always on the look-out for material, and so as I trudged the paths I was wondering how I could tie this open-air experience into a blog about culture. True, I did have a heart-stopping Helen Mirren/The Queen moment when a doe broke cover about 20 yards ahead of me and stood still for a few moments, as we carefully regarded each other, but that’s not quite fertile enough blog material.

So I thought about why I like Reelig so much, of all the many lovely walks in the vicinity of Kirkhill, and I decided it was all to do with complexity.  I take an intense, immediate, sub-verbal pleasure in the extraordinarily dense prospects available round each corner of the walk: the foliage and branch patterns of a dozen different types of tree, the overlapping effect multiplied by the slopes, and then the thick ground cover of the undergrowth.  This is an effect, of course, that can be equally powerful in wintertime, with the added contrast of bare branches against evergreens.

It is complexity, not chaos.  There are no less than three underlying levels of order. First, there is the original planting of over 150 years ago, and that has created a scaffolding on which a flourishing ecosytem now operates.  And of course FCS staff apply discreet nips and tucks to keep paths safe and clear, and picturesque vistas open. So there are patterns at work here which, with enough information, could explain exactly why that one particular branch has grown in that direction and taken that shape.

reelig 2

And thinking about this made me realise how much I respond to complexity in art and music.  I love paintings like Altdorfer’s The Battle of Issus   in which, reputedly, no-one has yet counted how many figures are depicted, or poor, mad, Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke  , or, closer to the Reelig experience, the paintings of Jackson Pollock. And I’m always drawn to dense counterpoint, whether in Renaissance polyphony, the fugues of Bach, or a Mahler symphony. 

I’m also fascinated by composers for whom conventional instruments just don’t offer enough complexity, such as Conlon Nancarrow who would painstakingly punch holes in player-piano paper rolls to create pieces that sound as if they’re being played by ten hands at one piano, or Pierre Boulez, who combined the resources of a modern symphony orchestra with a whole additional layer of electronic sound in works like ‘Repons’Judith finds such music instills in her a sense of panic, and I’m sure that’s not an uncommon reaction, but I find it exhilarating.

I wonder how far this is a modern phenomenon. After all, until Capability Brown introduced the concept of the picturesque into the planned landscape, parks and gardens were rigorously formal and orderly and, if complex, were so in a geometrically definable way.  And it took the Romantic movement, spurred by Burke’s essay on the Sublime, to find beauty in rugged and natural landscapes that, in previous generations, would only have instilled fear and repulsion. Have we adapted, culturally, to cope with the increasing complexity of our modern world, and even to enjoy it, or have our brains actually developed a new ability to process such complexity (in the way that London cab drivers have been shown to have physical changes in their brains as a result of learning ‘the Knowledge’)?

Either way, it means that the kneejerk reaction of the average TV producer, to reach for some ‘English pastoral’ music to overlay images of places like Reelig Glen, may be downright wrong, and the rich complexity that sees apparent chaos emerging out of a variety of pattern sources, might be better represented by something like Elliot Carter’s Variations for Orchestra !

 

© Robert Livingston

 

 

We Will Rock You

Whoever thought Geology could be cool? Last Sunday I was part of a large and enthusiastic audience gathered at Inverness’s Ironworks venue to hear Iain Stewart talk about ‘travels in lands that don’t exist’ as a highlight of this year’s Inverness Monster Science FestivalProfessor Iain Stewart

Now, the city’s premier music venue might have seemed an unlikely location for a lecture on the history of the planet but then, as anyone knows who’s seen his many BBC series, Professor Iain Stewart is no ordinary geologist. You could describe him as Indiana Jones without the hat but with an East Kilbride accent, but that underplays his ability to be a really clear and stimulating communicator.

I think I’ve seen just about every programme he’s made for the BBC in the last ten years (I have a very good friend who’s a geologist and the enthusiasm has rubbed off), so I was keen to see what he’d be like in person.  At first I was a little disappointed, as he interspersed his talk with a number of clips from his current TV series, Rise of the Continents, which I’ve been watching anyway, but it soon became clear that this was just the set up for what turned into a 45 minute-long Q and A that was as wide-ranging, thought-provoking and entertaining as you could possibly wish.  Altogether, a consummate performance.

Nor was this a conventional lecture setting.  The audience was seated at round tables, café style, and the play-in music was decidedly related to the venue’s normal programme and clientele. Mind you, they missed the opportunity to play Queen’s We will rock you, or perhaps Diamonds are Forever. But then, on the other hand, I don’t imagine many geology lectures have a bar available.

But what was most intriguing was the make-up of the audience, which went from senior citizens to a certain four-year old geologist who was keen to share his, very articulate, enthusiasm for the subject, and his detailed knowledge of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago…

Afterwards, I began thinking about the different appeals, today, of the arts and the sciences.  If a similarly high profile TV presenter on the arts—say Andrew Graham Dixon, or Brian Sewell—had been programmed, I expect the audience would have been of much the same size, and perhaps even as keen, but I doubt if there would have been anyone present under 40.  And this broad appeal of the sciences is not just down to the universal interest in dinosaurs.  I suspect that if the guest had been Jim Al Khalili on physics, or Marcus du Sautoy on maths, the audience would have been almost as diverse in age range, and that’s without even mentioning Brian Cox.

So it looks as if the sciences have got their act together in introducing people of all ages to what are often abstruse subjects (tectonic plates, magma plumes, continental subduction) in an accessible way, that just isn’t true to the same extent for the arts.  Which is ironic, as the ancestor and template for all such hour-long documentary programmes, whether in science, history, or the arts, is Kenneth Clark’s majestic 1969 series Civilisation.  That was the first such documentary series to foreground the presenter so overtly, to have them actually speaking to camera in the locations they were discussing, rather than on voice-over, and to have the presenter start a sentence in one location and finish it in another, hundreds of miles away. And it, of course, was the brainchild of David Attenborough, during his time as Head of BBC 2, so it’s no surprise that he would then go on to adapt the model for his own Life on Earth, which changed forever how we view the natural world.

 I think there are a number of factors at play. First, these science presenters all actually do science—perhaps not always at the very highest level, but certainly as their day job.  They’re not commenting from outside, which is almost always the case with arts presenters, who are usually journalists or writers when not on the box. So an Iain Stewart, or a Steve Jones, or an Alice Roberts (for, thank goodness, they’re not all male) brings a personal passion and an insider’s view to their subject—something that is very evident, for example, in the conversations Jim Al Khalili leads in his excellent radio series The Life Scientific.

And then, so many arts documentaries seem stuck in a rut.  Andrew Graham Dixon’s various series surveying the art history of different countries have barely moved on in format since Civilisation 45 years ago—indeed it could be argued that Lord Clark was a more diffident and self-effacing presence than some of his successors.  By contrast, in his new series, and especially in his 2010 series Making Scotland’s Landscape, Iain Stewart uses every possible modern technological device to get across his points clearly—split screens in the case of the Scottish series, Sherlock style graphics in Rise of the Continents.

There are, however, some encouraging straws in the wind for the arts.  BBC4’s modest little series What do Artists do all Day allowed the artists to speak for themselves, with only the briefest off-camera prompts, and the results, at least in the case of the two I’ve seen, on Norman Ackroyd and Cornelia Parker, were little short of revelatory.

But that’s on TV.  What should we do closer to home?  I’ve been giving a few talks on the arts recently to groups in the Inverness area.  What I often find is that even those who are so actively interested in the arts as to join a dedicated group or society, still have a disconnect with ‘modern art’ that goes all the way back to a century ago, to the work of Duchamp and the other early Dadaists.

The problem seems to be that, for such people, art itself has ceased to be what they expect it to be—it is rarely representational, often defies accepted canons of beauty, and seems to shun any display of craftsmanship or virtuosity.   Yet there is surely a parallel here with the sciences, where in almost every discipline we have been increasingly asked, over the same century and more, to accept the apparently counter-intuitive and the downright mind-boggling: from natural selection to gene sampling, from splitting the atom to string theory and multiverses, from the realisation of the scale of our own galaxy to discovering that it is but one among millions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Perhaps many of us, in this increasingly unstable perception of reality, therefore, turn to art for something that will provide reassurance, comfort, continuity.  And instead we’re faced with Cubism, Abstraction, Conceptual and Performance Art, in short a world of ideas and languages that seems esoteric, hostile and excluding.

It’s not so long ago that most of contemporary science would have seemed equally challenging and unappealing. But scientists themselves took the first steps to open up their world. Since the pioneering work of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jacob Bronowksi, among others, a host of scientists in all disciplines have made strenuous and successful efforts to make their work more accessible.  There are some honourable examples in the arts, too—notably David Hockney and Grayson Perry–but they are still too few.  I’m writing, here, about science in a cultural blog because, unlike Matthew Arnold, I believe that science is an integral element of our culture.  But I equally think that artistic practice is integral to our understanding of ourselves, and we are the poorer if we ignore what contemporary artists are doing, for lack of appropriate ambassadors.

 

© Robert Livingston

The Fragmented Self – in miniature

What music is in your bones?  If you’re my age, it might be Dylan, or Pink Floyd, or Tamla Motown.  If you’re a bit younger, maybe the Clash or Morrissey.  But, as a nerdish teenager, I turned my back on rock and pop, and so the music that’s not just in my bones, but in my very DNA, or so it feels, is that of Gustav Mahler.

465px-Gustav_Mahler_silhouette_Otto_Böhler

It’s not that I’d call Mahler my ‘favourite’ composer—I go back more often to the bottomless wells of Bach and Beethoven.  But he may be the most ‘necessary’ composer, so embedded is his music in my psyché.  So every now and then, I just have to hear some of his music.  Needless to say I have dozens of recordings of the symphonies, but, living in the Highlands, there aren’t that many opportunities to hear them live.  In fact, in twenty years, I can remember only three, all at Eden Court: two from the RSNO–a lyrical, poetic Fourth under Stephane Denève, and a rip-roaring Fifth from the great Marin Alsop—and one, a couple of years ago, from the Netherlands Youth Orchestra.  Sadly, thanks to truly abysmal publicity, the players on that occasion outnumbered the audience, but when the fabulous young musicians raised the roof in the finale, we happy few did our best to match them with a standing ovation.

Strictly speaking, there was a fourth performance, though in an unusual form: back in the 90s the SCO brought Schoenberg’s reduction of the song-symphony ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ to Eden Court, and remarkably effective it proved to be. So when I saw a concert promoted as ‘Mahler in Miniature’ I was both intrigued, and grateful for any chance to hear one of the symphonies played in concert.

The three concerts under this title, in Dornoch, Strathpeffer and Nairn, were the initiative of a young Inverness-born conductor, Tomas Leakey, who has put together a group of local musicians—a mix of professional and amateur—as the Inverness Mahler Players.  That’s quite a combination—a fledgling conductor, with a newly formed ensemble, attempting to convince us of the viability of performing Mahler’s hour-long Fourth Symphony with just 14 instrumentalists (two of them percussionists!).  I headed for Strathpeffer Pavilion with an uneasy mix of anticipation and nervousness.

Tomas is nothing if not bold, and had put together a taxingly ambitious programme, kicking off with Martinu’s delightful Nonet, a cheery piece, that in its rhythmic trickery probably presents almost as many challenges as the Mahler.  A few uncertain moments apart, this was a charming experience, and was followed by a genuinely lovely account of Debussy’s ‘Faun’ in the reduced version by Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein.  So far so good.  But these were only the foothills…

What unfolded after the interval was quite magical.  By the beginning of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony I’d pretty well forgotten that this was a reduced version, and when we reached the climax, when the gates of Heaven are thrown open, I’d tears in my eyes.  Best of all, Tomas had engaged a wonderful young soprano, Emily Mitchell, for the all important solo part in the last movement.  If I say that she reminded me of a young Lucia Popp, I can give no higher praise.

Mahler is all about transitions.  These huge movements, often lasting 15 minutes and more, are a mosaic of tempo, rhythmic, and harmonic changes, often within a very few bars of each other.  Underplay these, and the music can sound bland and strait-jacketed.  Make too much of them and…well, only Leonard Bernstein could get away with that.  I’m no conductor, but I don’t imagine these challenges are much diminished by performing with a reduced chamber ensemble, and then you have to add the new difficulty of balancing such an odd mix, with single strings, one horn, one each of woodwind, a piano and a harmonium, and not forgetting those two crucial percussionists.  Tomas Leakey, for all his youth and inexperience, is clearly a highly capable musician, and a talent to watch.  He managed those transitions, and balance problems, to the manner born, and shaped the whole arc of the symphony with a quiet and unassertive assurance.  He also drew from his players, many familiar from other local ensembles, playing of huge concentration and commitment.  It’s invidious to single out an individual musician, but that one horn player, given the prominence of her instrument in both the full and reduced scores, was truly heroic.

The arrangement used is a recent one, and is part of a series of such Mahler reductions by the German conductor Klaus Simon .  Other performances, around the world, of this version have been highly praised and I can understand why: it’s been carried out with enormous imagination and insight and reveals (as one writer put it) an X-ray of the symphony, making it easier to hear how it has been put together.  I was amazed at how great an emotional impact it made, and started to think of comparisons in other art forms: Mahler with fourteen players would be like, say, ‘Hamlet’ with three actors—Oh, hang on, I’ve seen that, back in the late 70s on the Edinburgh Fringe, with Pocket Theatre of Cumbria.  Fun, but a fragment only of the original.  Mahler in Miniature is much more like the real thing.

So did this experience help me to understand why Mahler’s music has penetrated me so deeply?  It certainly proved that it’s not just about the sheer aural and visual spectacle of the huge forces that the symphonies are originally scored for.  Perhaps the key lies in those all-important transitions.  Within the immense architectural framework of each symphony, Mahler shifts mood and expression with the speed of thought. And those moods and expressions, as many commentators have pointed out, run the full gamut from schmaltz to transcendence.

Mahler was not only a contemporary of Freud in Vienna (something played on brilliantly in Frank Tallis’s series of novels), but he actually consulted Freud on one occasion, near the end of his life.  Mahler was therefore one of the first artists to portray the fragmented self, capable simultaneously of the highest ideals and the most mundane physical reactions. Listening to Mahler’s music, for me, is like listening to a depiction of what it means to be me—or any other human being, in all our confused imperfections. He holds,  as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, (‘Hamlet’ again), whether in full strength or ‘lite’ versions.

Robert Rowand Anderson and the cultural cringe

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I give you two great houses. Both were designed and built in the 1880s and 90s.  Both are the expression of one man’s extraordinary vision.  Both embody a rich and complex symbolic plan, displayed through a combination of the richest materials and the highest quality of craftsmanship.  Both combine an acute historicist awareness of past architectural styles with the most modern technologies.  Both houses are overwhelming works of art of a remarkable consistency and unity, and both enchant the visitor as if they had stepped into a fairytale fantasy.

But that’s where the resemblances end.  One house, the Palau Guell  is located in the centre of the tourist magnet that is Barcelona, and is world famous as the first mature work of one of the most acclaimed architects of all time, Antoni Gaudi. The other, Mount Stuart  is at the heart of a large country estate on the island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. I doubt if even most of Mount Stuart’s visitors could tell you the name of its architect, the atrociously under-celebrated Robert Rowand Anderson .

I first visited the Palau Guell as long ago as 1998, and I have vivid memories of the literally dazzling journey involved in moving from the subterranean entrance to the astonishing forest of tiled chimneys on the roof.  Shamefully, I only made it to Mount Stuart for the first time last week, though my excuse is that all my previous visits to Bute had been out of season!

I knew, of course, all about Mount Stuart, and the passionate personal vision of the 3rd Marquis of Bute which found expression not only here but also in the restoration of Falkland Palace, and in Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales.  And I also happened to know something of the work of Rowand Anderson, because many years ago I helped to mount an exhibition on the Victorian architecture of St Andrews, where one of his earlier works is the confusingly named St Andrew’s Church  .

But none of that prior knowledge prepared me for the immersive sensual and intellectual experience that is Mount Stuart.  I suppose, naively, I had expected something that would be entertaining in a rather kitsch way, like a less excessive version of Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein. Well, if you were a passionate advocate of Modernism’s rejection of ornament, that might be your reaction, as it would be hard to imagine an interior with more decoration. But, as the late Kenny Everett would say, it is all done ‘in the best possible taste’ .  The nearest comparison I’ve seen in Scotland is Patrick Allan Fraser’s eccentric masterpiece, Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, but that wonderful building had not yet escaped from a mid-Victorian aesthetic, and so, to contemporary eyes, it does lean to the kitsch end of the spectrum.

Just as Gaudi’s Palau Guell is an early expression of what would become the international style of Art Nouveau, so Mount Stuart, for all the dazzling richness of its materials, is infused with the new aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Its nearest comparator would be Norman Shaw’s Cragside in Northumberland, built about the same time and, like Mount Stuart, blending a melange of historical styles with innovative technology.  That means that both Cragside and Mount Stuart, despite the immense grandeur of their public spaces, still feel like comfortable homes.  All the guest bedrooms at Mount Stuart, for example, have en suite bathrooms.

I described both Palau Guell and Mount Stuart as being the results of one man’s vision, but it would be truer to say that they were the outcomes of a fruitful relationship between architect and patron, save that in Mount Stuart the direction of the relationship was reversed, with Rowand Anderson striving to realise the intensely spiritual concepts of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute, who was so passionate a convert to Catholicism that he chose to be painted and photographed dressed as a monk  .

Nonetheless, you couldn’t mistake Mount Stuart for the work of any other architect.  Which leads me to wonder why we don’t celebrate Rowand Anderson more enthusiastically.  First of all, he was responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh—Central Station Hotel and Govan’s Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the McEwan Hall, and the Mansefield Traquair Centre. He was also responsible for a huge amount of sensitive historical restoration, at Jedburgh and Paisley Abbeys, Dunblane Cathedral, and Balmoral Castle (the last earning him a knighthood).

Perhaps the problem is that we have little or no opportunity to see his work as a totality.  Once you consider all the above buildings, a strong, even idiosyncratic personal style emerges that, for me, makes him possibly Scotland’s most interesting and individual architect between Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  And there, of course, in mentioning  the ‘Mackintosh’ word I’ve found the explanation for his neglect. It’s as if we only have room in our concept of national identity for ‘one of each’. So Burns is our national bard, and overshadows not only his own exceptional contemporary, Robert Fergusson, but also a host of predecessors and successors.   Sir Walter Scott eclipses James Hogg, whose psychologically insightful writings are much more relevant to our modern interests. Even today the understandable fame of John Bellany in painting, Ian Rankin in crimewriting, or James MacMillan in music, leaves too many of their equally gifted contemporaries in the shade.

Perhaps this is inevitable in ‘small’ countries.  I imagine Norwegians are equally tired of having their culture identified only through Ibsen and Grieg, as the Finns are probably sick of Sibelius and the Kalevala. But it’s an aspect of the ‘cultural cringe’ that I don’t think gets discussed enough. And it has real impacts.  Mount Stuart is, to use a crude term, a world class visitor attraction, and it should be as well known as Gaudi’s masterpieces, and if Rowand Anderson is hardly, in the totality of his work, Gaudi’s equal, he still deserves to be far better known than he is.  That sort of fame translates directly into visitor numbers and visitor spend.   Yet time after time, from our national tourism agency, to the popular vote for the images on new bank notes (Burns and Nessie), we choose the easy option, and fail to present the true richness and variety of Scottish culture, which of course makes it too easy for sceptics and hostile commentators to deny that such richness exists.

So, do yourself a favour, if you’ve not yet been to Mount Stuart, go soon, go this summer, you won’t regret it.  And I haven’t even mentioned the superb gardens, the stunning new Visitor Centre, or the ambitious programme of annual artists’ residencies.  Let alone all the other delights of Bute.  And all just a short trip from Glasgow.