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Dans l’Obscurité

Elsa Barraine

Elsa Barraine

Last night YouTube made me really angry.  I don’t mean that I was offended by being presented with some fratboy inanity, the cavorting of a former child star, or the rantings of a deluded fanatic.  No, what got me enraged was a symphony written in 1938.

It’s one of the more surprising facets of YouTube that it has become a repository for recordings of thousands of works by obscure classical composers.  And by ‘obscure’ I mean really obscure.  I’ve been hunting down lesser known composers since the late 60s—marking programmes in Radio Times (usually at odd hours in the afternoons or late at night), setting up timed recordings and, more recently, sampling some of the rarities offered by Naxos and other adventurous CD labels.  Despite that, what I’ve found on YouTube is a host of composers whose very names—never mind their music—were completely unknown to me.

Needless to say most of this music has never made it onto CD, and so can’t be found on sites like Spotify. Dedicated enthusiasts are posting these recordings on YouTube, sourced, presumably, mostly from radio broadcasts around the world, or in some cases from old LPs that were never digitally transferred.  Ah, the nostalgic sound of a stylus settling into a vinyl groove, immediately followed by a pervasive hiss and the occasional click…

Most of the music, it has to be said, rarely rises above the pleasantly competent, but every now and then I hear something that really makes me sit up. For fellow enthusiasts of obscurity, let me drop the names of: Vaino Raitia, Nikolai Peiko, Alessandro Solbiati, and Yngve Sköld.  Believe me, they’re all worth hearing.

Last night, I had YouTube running in the background while I was doing something else, and I found that my attention was being caught by a really distinctive piece of music: spiky, witty, energetic, with a sharp edge to it that was really engaging.   I went over to see what was playing: the Second Symphony by Elsa Barraine.     That’s right, Elsa.  Unlike the list of men in the previous paragraph, this was a female composer that I’d never heard of.

Thank goodness for Wikipedia, as I doubt if I would have found much on Elsa Barraine in more conventional works of reference.  Her story is a remarkable one, and her present day neglect is certainly not due to her having lived a quiet or cloistered life.  She was a pupil of Paul Dukas (of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame), who also taught Messiaen, with whom Barraine became lifelong friends. On either side of the war she worked in radio, and during the war was active in the French Resistance, a particularly brave move as she may have had Jewish ancestry.  In 1972 the French Ministry of Culture named her Director of Music, giving her charge of all French national lyric theatres. She died in 1999 at the age of 89.

So why is it that this excellent Second Symphony, written when she was just 28, seems to be the sole composition by her that is in any way accessible? (There is also a YouTube recording of a short organ prelude, but it’s an amateur film and the sound is poor). Even then, given the apparent audience noise, this seems to be a radio transfer, not a commercial recording.  Given the quality of the work—one comment on the site rightly compares it to Martinu or Roussel—it surely deserves to be better known.  And while it’s true that there are such things as ‘one work’ composers (think of Reznicek’s five minutes of delight, Donna Diana, long time favourite of BBC’s ‘These you have loved’, and then try his tediously pompous symphonies!) I don’t somehow think Barraine falls into that category. Nor is her style old-fashioned—the language of this symphony is directly comparable with pieces being written in the 30s by Honegger, Milhaud or Prokofiev.

So that’s why I’m angry: the only reason, it would seem, for the neglect of Elsa Barraine is her gender.  That seems particularly odd for a French female composer, because France has a longer and more illustrious list of women composers than almost any other country, from Louise Farrenc in the mid 19th century through Germaine Tailleferre and Cecile Chaminade to the great Boulanger sisters.  But that list seems to end with the Second World War, and I can think of no post-war French female composer to stand alongside those from Britain, Finland, the US, and Russia. Perhaps by living so long, Barraine ended up eclipsed by her male contemporaries such as Messiaen and Dutilleux, even if she was an almost exact contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex!

So thank goodness for YouTube and Wikipedia, which have introduced me to this remarkable woman.  Here’s hoping those dedicated hunters after musical truffles will unearth some more examples of her work!

© Robert Livingston

Ps French music fans will recognise that the title comes from Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande

Rambling on Bute


Kilchattan Bay

Kilchattan Bay

Are you a tourist or a visitor?  Do you like to be part of an organised group, plan your own itinerary in meticulous detail, or be spontaneous and leave everything to chance and the whim of the day? I was back on Bute this week, for a meeting that helped to move forward the slow process of planning the redevelopment of Rothesay Pavilion, and with some time to spare, I decided to play the tourist.

It was a morning meeting, so I had stayed the night before in Rothesay, at the Glendale, a comfortable, modestly-priced and, architecturally, wonderfully eccentric guest house, where, for breakfast, I partook of brioche with creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Smashing.

Winter Gardens, Rothesay

Winter Gardens, Rothesay

Having arrived at around 8.00 on a pleasant and dry evening, I had gone for a walk along the front.  Now, the front at Rothesay should be celebrated as one of Scotland’s small glories.  An unbroken walkway stretching for miles, from north of Port Bannatyne right through Rothesay to its southernmost tip, it has, to the seaward, the unmatchable view across to the Cowal Peninsula and the hills of south-east Argyll and, to the landward, a long line of the most delightfully diverse vernacular architecture, with many of the larger villas having fine gardens to their front.  And in the centre of Rothesay there are the glories of the Winter Gardens (their fabric sadly looking rather the worse for wear) and their flowerbeds, and, of course, the finest Gents’ lavatories in the country (I can’t speak for the Ladies).  Rather like at Nairn Beach, I don’t imagine that walking the front at Rothesay is a pastime of which one would tire quickly.

My meeting was over by lunchtime, so I bought a picnic and drove down to Kilchattan Bay, which I had last visited when I was eleven years old, and I had spent an idyllic week with my mother on a farm holiday there.  It’s still idyllic, especially as the weather was positively Mediterranean, and it has a quiet peace that, oddly, reminded me of South Ronaldsay at Scotland’s other extremity.  Then on to the picturesque ruins of St Blane’s Church, up the west coast to Ettrick Bay, and across to Rhubodach and the ferry back to the mainland, and the long drive north.

Dunagoil Hill Fort

Dunagoil Hill Fort

Now, here’s where the paradox comes in. At each place I stopped I was just able to squeeze my little Peugeot into the last parking space—at Kilchattan bay, and at the roadside bays for the hillfort at Dunagoil, and St Blane’s Church.  And at all of these locations the special quality of the experience would have been marred if there had been many more visitors—especially a large coach party. At a different scale, something of the same is true at Bute’s largest visitor attraction, Mount Stuart (subject of an earlier blog): it’s in the nature of the house that visitors have to be guided round in small groups, and in high season the numbers going round could probably only be increased by extending the opening hours, the extra income from which might be outweighed by cost.

Yet, in the middle of August, my very pleasant and well situated guest house still had vacancies.  On the other hand, those who organise events on the island tell me that Bute doesn’t have enough bed spaces to meet existing demand at times like the Jazz Festival, never mind an increased demand that might be occasioned by new events at a refurbished Pavilion.  And nor is the existing accommodation of the type that would attract back to a rebuilt Pavilion the large conferences—especially party political conferences—which the building used to host in its heyday. This is in part due, I’m told, to the number of hotels which, in recent years, have been turned into flats or left derelict.

So, if Bute is going to increase its prosperity, it would seem that it can only do so by increasing the number of visitors, even in high season, and consequently providing more and different accommodation. Yet this risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. As I found in my short trip, Bute offers the visitor an exceptional range of experiences in a small compass, but those experiences are very different from those of the days of going ‘doon the watter’: they favour the independent traveller, not organised mass tourism. I think I’m rather falling for Bute, and not just its landscape: its folk are cheerful and welcoming, but also energetic and enterprising.  The island has tremendous potential: we all need to ensure that in trying to realise that potential, we don’t mar rather than make better.

© Robert Livingston


To Tweet or not to Tweet


We’ve been slow to catch up with the wave of live satellite relays now being offered by Eden Court. Last week, however, we made it to Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and we found it an utterly engaging experience. In fact, I suspect that, for a very long and wholly unfamiliar Baroque Opera like this, the cinema experience might actually be the best way to see it for the first time, better even than being in the opera house itself. In the auditorium I could imagine my attention wandering during some of the long passages of declamation, but in the cinema, sensitive camerawork, and judicious use of close-ups, really drew us into the personal tragedies at the heart of the work. We did miss the champagne, though.

So, we’d give the whole experience a gold star, except for one really surprising element. As we in Inverness waited for the curtain to go up in Sussex, Glyndebourne regaled us with advertisements for future live relays (fair enough), and also with repeated injunctions to ‘get involved’ by tweeting during the screening! As avid fans of Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC Radio 5 Live, we were horrified at such a flagrant incitement to break the Wittertainment Code of Conduct. Needless to say no-one in the small but select Inverness audience did anything so crass.

The Code of Conduct started out, as many things do on this rather anarchic programme, as a joke between Mayo and Kermode, but it has been taken up by many cinemas around the world who see its ten rules, jokes aside, as simply good common sense for ensuring a pleasurable movie-going experience. For Glyndebourne to encourage its relay audiences to have their phones on at all, with all the light pollution that implies, and with the risk that not all of them will be set to ‘silent’, was really astonishing. I have written to complain!

But I think there’s a deeper philosophical issue here. ‘Get involved!’ exhorted the Glyndebourne advert, but surely, any audience member who is taking the time to compose and send a tweet is absolutely not involved in the gripping tragedy and the surreal spectacle unfolding on the screen. Certainly, over three hours and 45 minutes (including interval) I didn’t find my own involvement weakening for a moment, whereas during the film of Les Miserables a few weeks ago I was so bored I could have composed an entire novel in 140-character tweets.

The ‘involvement’ which Glyndebourne meant is social, not personal, and the two are not necessarily compatible. As someone who retains enough naivety to want to be made to laugh, cry, gasp and even hide behind the sofa while watching any drama, I do worry that there is a culture of objectivity and irony that is becoming all-pervasive. Why else do movie trailers now reveal almost the entire plot of a film, including the most exciting action sequences? Why does the Radio Times introduce each week’s new Dr Who monster before the new episode is screened? How else can perfectly normal people sit through such torture-porn movies as the Saw franchise? (I write as someone who nearly had to leave Pan’s Labyrinth at three different points in the movie, because of the violence.)

Mark Kermode even argues that it would be wrong to tweet or text during a film screening, even if you were the only person in the cinema, because it shows disrespect for the film-makers. While that rather Zen concept may be taking things a little far, I sympathise with his position. But we have to recognise that history is on the side of the tweeters. Gustav Mahler is credited with the practice of dimming the house lights during the overture of an opera, and then keeping them dim throughout the performance, and that was only at the start of the last century, when electric lighting made such an approach feasible, and it was initially resented by the audience. Prior to that, of course, the opera house was a place to go to see and be seen. French Grand Opera always had a ballet scene in the third or fourth act because that was when the members of the Jockey Club would turn up and expect to be able to see their favourite dancers. Hence, for example, the very rarely performed ballet scene in Verdi’s Otello. One doesn’t imagine the chaps from the Jockey arrived and left in sensitive silence.

It’s often said that it is unwritten codes of conduct that discourage many people from attending concerts, plays, opera and ballet: they’re worried about being made to look stupid because they might do the wrong thing—like applauding between movements. Yet the performers themselves can often be those who are most resistant to change. At the BBC Proms last week musicians were suffering from the heatwave, especially those involved in performing Wagner’s mammoth Ring cycle. In the liberal informality of the Proms, the audience could be in t-shirts and shorts, and several of them encouraged the musicians to discard their white ties and tails and do the same, but it’s the musicians themselves who defend their formal garb, saying it helps to create a sense of occasion.

And of course it is actors who are doing most to fight the menace of the mobile phone, often making up for the pusillanimity of theatre managements, as regular news reports testify Even more difficult is the situation of music venues that keep their bars open during the performance. A few years ago the great Steve Earle famously lost his temper at an Ironworks gig in Inverness, with a group of drinkers who would not shut up during his solo set.

So, am I making a Canute-like gesture in complaining to Glyndebourne? Should I accept that my wish to be profoundly moved, to be taken out of myself, to forget my surroundings, is the product of a relatively short period in cultural history, and that the tweeters, the chatterers and the drinkers are just the modern equivalent of the audiences that bought oranges from Nell Gwyn in 17th century London, or formed the notorious claque in 19th century Paris, or cheered on loquacious music hall MCs less than a century ago? Does the social trump the personal? Perhaps not. We’ve just been discussing how it no longer seems quite so cool to be ‘cool’, or an airhead, and that geeks and nerds are becoming more fashionable. So perhaps in future I may not need to long for the power of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who could command entire productions of Wagner’s operas for which he was the sole member of the audience. In the meantime, Glyndebourne really should think about adopting the Code.

© Robert Livingston

A Cultural Compass Point

elephant and northings

I started writing this as the last elements of HI~Arts were being shut down around me, computers being wiped, permanent out of office notices put on email addresses.  But I’m not going to write about that.  I want to flag up just one aspect of our 23-year history—the online arts magazine

It has been a perennial, and entirely justified, complaint that cultural activity in the north of Scotland doesn’t get the coverage it deserves in the national media.  As newspaper budgets have shrunk, and local stringers have been cast off, that problem has, if anything, become more acute.  Knowing that, I was also conscious of the transience of all such cultural activity, the lack of any permanent, public record of what happened, when, and what people thought of it.  This had been forcibly brought home to me when I tried to find online any history of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, where I worked in the early 80s.  One of the most significant cultural initiatives in Scotland in the last half century had virtually no online presence.  Happily, that’s now being sorted, with a major research project under way to document all Third Eye’s archives, and those of its successor the CCA.

So Northings had two main aims: to tell the rest of the world what was happening now, and to build up a long term record for future readers of what happened then. In ten years Northings posted over 1700 reviews of events from Shetland to Argyll and Benbecula to Moray, and over 700 features on artists and arts companies working in the Highlands and Islands.

For a website with a contemporary focus, was a defiantly old fashioned model.  It was not ‘crowd-sourced’.  It had the inestimable Kenny Mathieson as its editor for its entire ten year history, bringing a wealth of experience from the world of print arts journalism.  All features and reviews were directly commissioned, and all the writers were paid a going rate for their work.  Northings carried no advertising, so that there could be no suspicion of special pleading, although for a brief period we did flirt unsuccessfully with automated links to Amazon.

So, Trip Advisor for the arts this wasn’t.  And I believe that that was what gave it its strength and credibility.  Don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for the power and the collective intelligence of crowd-sourced judgements.  I use Trip Advisor regularly, and am often swayed by ratings on Amazon (other online retailers are available). But, for our purposes, crowd-sourcing had two drawbacks.  First, for many of the events involved, there simply wouldn’t be a big enough critical mass of individual opinions and, secondly, we wanted to build a recognisable credibility for our individual writers, so that their positive reviews could become calling cards and marketing tools for the fortunate recipients. Of course, that meant that the negative reviews carried a similar weight, a factor that dismayed some of our subjects!

Hence the need for an experienced editor, who could guide writers new to the discipline, and apply the necessary (and often modest) subbing required.  Hence also the avoidance of advertising—this was all about integrity and credibility.

Above all, what Northings gave its writers and readers was space-space to describe, analyse and reflect on a performance or an exhibition in depth and in detail; space, where appropriate, to provide context.  Writers like Georgina Coburn in Inverness, Ian Stephen in Lewis, and Morag MacInnes on Orkney had the space to devote, if they wanted, 1,000 words or more to a review that, in the national press, would have barely merited 200. Again, that’s counter-intuitive. After all, the Web is supposed to be all about sound bites and a lack of sustained attention. But perhaps that’s just another untested assumption.

Technically, Northings is not a costly site, because being based on the estimable WordPress platform, it’s cheap to host and easy to use—our writers could use the ‘back end’ to post their reviews and features directly, leaving Kenny only to sub and approve them. The cost of course lay in the fees, to editor and writers.  Nonetheless, the total budget was still less than that of a specialist publication such as the new writing journal Northwords Now.  In its ‘tabloid’ format, free to pick up, Northwords Now produces 7,000 copies per edition, three times a year.  Online Northings, by comparison, received around 6,000 unique visits for each of its monthly  editions.   So, as a means of disseminating knowledge, it was cost-effective.

Northings still exists.  As part of the process of winding up HI~Arts we paid for an additional year’s hosting, to March 2014.  Its huge archive of reviews and features, a unique picture of a decade’s cultural activity, will remain fully accessible and searchable throughout that period.  So, if anyone out there has a vision for reviving Northings, in a way that will be faithful to its original concept, the gauntlet is thrown down—feel free to pick it up!

© Robert Livingston

2017: a long overdue update to flag up the excellent news that the Northings Archive is hosted by High Life Highland and fully accessible at . Huge thanks to High Life Highland for making this possible!