The first painting I fell in love with ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, was Botticelli’s little ‘Annunciation’ in Kelvingrove Art Gallery in my home city of Glasgow. So our latest cultural jaunt to London had to include a visit to ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ at the V&A. It’s an exhibition that has divided opinion. Some reviewers have given it five stars, while Boyd Tonkin in The Independent described it as ‘the grossest heap of kitsch and dross ever to litter [the V&A’s] halls’!
It’s certainly different and unexpected. Being greeted at the entrance by Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr No, while Sean Connery looks on from the bushes like a satyr, was an arresting opening. The first gallery then explores the appropriation of Botticelli’s most iconic images throughout the 20th century, from Surrealist and Pop artists to Dolce and Gabbano, while the second gallery examines the impact of his ‘rediscovery’ on artists in the 19th century, including some fascinating copies by names famous and unknown, and even two outright forgeries. Only in the third room do you reach the real Botticelli—or do you? Because only one signed painting by Botticelli survives: the Mystic Nativity usually in the National Gallery. A key theme of this section is the process by which, over the last two centuries, individual paintings have been attributed, reattributed, and even de-attributed, or at best demoted to ‘workshop of Botticelli’ status.
We found the whole exhibition enthralling and thought-provoking, and as I was interested in exploring the controvery which the exhibition has stirred up, I’ve looked at no less than 12 different reviews online, all from reputable publications with paid reviewers, rather than from individual bloggers like myself. What I found revealed, I think, something significant about the state of criticism today, and it isn’t pleasant.
The single biggest exhibit in Botticelli Reimagined is a huge video installation, The Path, by the great American artist Bill Viola. Now, such is the complexity involved in setting up Viola’s large works that any chance to see one of them is an event, even in the crowded London art scene. And The Path is one of his most engrossing and moving works, easily the best thing in the whole exhibition, apart from the handful of indisputably authentic Botticellis. So I was interested to see what my clutch of critics had to say about this masterwork. Nothing. Nada. Not a Word. The one honourable exception was Time Out which devoted just 10 words to it, but at least described it as ‘mesmerising’, which it is.
I can think of three explanations for this mysterious omission: 1. They missed it. Such a large video installation does, after all, require a room to itself (though that room is right at the start of the exhibition). 2. They don’t rate Bill Viola. Such unanimity on his lack of importance, however, seems highly unlikely. 3. It didn’t fit the shared paradigm. This, sadly, seems to me the most likely explanation. Both those critics who loved the exhibition, and those who hated it, based the bulk of their reviews on the same crude idea of a progression from the valueless clutter and kitsch of the present day to the calm and purity of the 15th century Renaissance. The profound, meditative calm of Viola’s video completely disrupts that false paradigm. Support for this explanation comes from the similar omission of other works in the contemporary section which are also thoughtful and quiet in tone, and demand time to experience, such as that by Michael Joaquin Gray .
I think there’s a more profound failure underlying this omission of any reference to the Bill Viola work: a failure to grasp why this exhibition is not at the Royal Academy or the National Gallery, as might have been expected, but at the V&A, ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’ (my italics). This is not an exhibition about art history but about cultural history, and of the twelve critics I surveyed only one, Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian, got that right and, guess what, she’s a cultural historian.
Botticelli Reimagined explores the idea of ‘Botticelli’ as a cultural ‘meme’ (as Richard Dawkins would put it), which lay dormant for three centuries after the death of the artist with that name, only to resurface and begin an extraordinary journey through both high and low culture, having effects (like any cultural meme) that have been both beneficial and adverse. Even in his lifetime ‘Botticelli’ was, as Hughes puts it, ‘a brand’, where the hand of the artist himself may have done no more than draw an initial cartoon as the basis for a stream of devotional images produced by his workshop assistants. If that sounds like anyone today, it’s Jeff Koons or the late Andy Warhol, both, of course, included in the exhibition.
The cumulative failure of these critics to address the true complexity of Botticelli Reimagined in favour of simplistic soundbites seems to me a real trahison des clercs. It’s not a good time for professional critics. Shrinking newspapers are shedding staff while the Internet enables pretty well anyone to publish their views on pretty well anything. The question is often asked: do we really need paid critics? My whole background would have inclined me to shout ‘Yes!’ but now I’m not so sure.
My favourite podcast is Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live. Mark Kermode recently published an entire book, Hatchet Job, trying to defend the role of the professional film critic. It’s a good read but it smacks of desperation. After all, even Kermode himself often has to admit that reviews which listeners have emailed to his programme are more articulate and insightful than his own contributions. Some of those contributing listeners are not yet in their teens.
In my younger days I produced many paid and commissioned reviews for the Glasgow Evening Times, the Glasgow Herald (as it was then), Scotland on Sunday, and even BBC Scotland. Now I use this blog to write unpaid reviews of art, film, books, music and theatre. Setting aside the advantages brought by 40 years experience of working in the arts, blogging lets me discuss subjects at greater length and in greater depth than was ever possible all those years ago in the mainstream media. Sure, these blogs may only be read by a handful of people, as opposed to the thousands who read (or, more likely, skimmed) what I used to write for national media. But perhaps that’s a healthier model—a dispersed series of critical conversations as opposed to a fiat delivered de haut en bas from the elevated status of a national newspaper. We’ll always need people like, say, Mark Cousins, to educate us in the deep history and breadth of an artform like film, but perhaps the role of paid daily or weekly ‘reviewers’ is truly being replaced by technology, and will one day seem as quaint as those ‘explainers’ who used to stand by the screen to tell the stories of silent films, and whose remit was swept away by the coming of sound.
© Robert Livingston May 2016
Last week Judith and I were in Perthshire for the wedding of Judith’s cousin at the remarkable Fingask Castle . The weather was perfect, the experience was magical. And as we were staying over in the neighbourhood, we decided the next day to make a detour into Perth on our way home.
Living as I do in the Highlands, I find that Perth is often an ideal mid-point for meetings with Central Belt colleagues, either at the excellent Concert Hall, or in the very special surroundings of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s offices in the Fair Maid’s House. And as Perth Museum and Art Gallery is close to both those buildings, I usually try to drop in, especially as there’s almost always at least one interesting temporary exhibition to catch. So I suppose I’ve called at the Museum once or twice a year for many years now.
Well, this time there were no less than three fine exhibitions to enjoy. First, a handsomely presented display about the archaeological finds at the very important site of Forteviot, mounted in collaboration with the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. This really needed a visit all too itself, there was so much to take in. Then there was a selection of delectable paintings by the late William Littlejohn, this time in association with the Royal Scottish Academy, and nicely linked to a selection of prints from the Ukiyo school. Finally, ‘Life in Miniature’ was a clever and intriguing mixed show from the Museum’s own collection. Plus, Judith hadn’t previously seen the superb permanent display of studio glass, telling the remarkable story of Monart .
Add to this the fact that the entire interior was looking fresh as paint (and maybe had indeed benefitted from some recent major redecoration), and we had a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable experience. All by ourselves. I think we saw one other visitor the entire time we were in (which was about an hour). Now, sadly, that’s not been an unusual experience for me at Perth Museum and Gallery. I’ve quite often been, at best, one of just two or three visitors.
We stopped on the way out to tell the receptionist how very much we’d enjoyed our visit, and asked about the lack of visitors. Numbers had been dropping steadily, she told us sadly. But don’t they have lots of school trips, we asked (the displays were very well suited to provide teachers with suitable teaching material)—no, apparently not. The costs of transport, the difficulties of getting permissions. School trips, too, were dropping off.
We then went on to the J D Fergusson Gallery, splendidly located in the former Perth Waterworks. The interior was looking all of its 25 years (ie rather tired), and Fergusson is not a favourite of mine—I’d have exchanged all of his paintings for the one exquisite Cadell that was also on show. Nonetheless, again, the displays were very well presented and the staff were friendly and welcoming, but we were the only visitors.
This is surely not sustainable. But I find it hard to pin down the cause. In my travels I’ve seen many local museums—both Council-run and independent—that are so tedious, out of date and in dire need of TLC that I’m not surprised that their visitor numbers are alarmingly low. But that’s not the case in Perth. Handsome and imposing buildings, in good locations, housing impressive and enjoyable displays. What’s not to like? Why have they become, effectively, hidden in plain sight for the people of Perth, and indeed for those visiting the city?
I can’t help contrasting our Perth experience with what we see when we visit the refurbished McManus Museum and Gallery in Dundee, which is always busy whenever we drop in. Is it just that the McManus, like Kelvingrove in Glasgow, has a long history of ‘belonging’ to the local population, a kind of loyalty which Perth, for whatever reason, has not achieved? Like many Scottish Councils before them, Perth and Kinross have only just outhoused their Cultural Services—including the museums– to an independent trust, Culture Perth and Kinross . When the Highland Council set up the similar High Life Highland some years ago, that shift rejuvenated Inverness Museum and Gallery, which has to overcome the handicap of being in a truly ugly and unsuitable 60s block, so unlike the elegant classical buildings in Perth. Perhaps the advent of Culture Perth and Kinross will achieve a similar sea change, and Perth Museum and Gallery will finally be brought out of hiding.
We had the good fortune to spend New Year in Edinburgh this year, thanks to the loan of a New Town flat, and among the many cultural delights which we enjoyed was a visit to the National Galleries’ current exhibition Modern Scottish Women . Truth be told, we found the exhibition overall quite disappointing, but among the revelatory highlights were a number of sculptors whose names were previously unknown to me. Most impressive of all was the work of Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams, who, together with architect Robert Lorimer, created Paisley’s War Memorial, The Spirit of the Crusaders, which must be one of the most imposing of all UK War Memorials, fit to stand comparison with Charles Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park.
In my Regional Screen Scotland role I’ve been doing some work with contacts in Paisley, so when I was in the town for a meeting last week, I took the opportunity to see Meredith Williams’ masterpiece ‘in the flesh’. It’s even grander and more powerful than the exhibition photographs, and the plaster maquette, had suggested. Yet I imagine that most Paisley folk pass it on a daily basis and never give it a second thought. Like so much public art of the past, it’s effectively ‘hidden in plain sight’.
But as I stood at the base of the memorial and looked around me, it occurred to me that Paisley as a whole was also ‘hidden in plain sight’. The assemblage of grand architecture before me, from the 14th century Abbey to Victorian civic buildings, is truly exceptional, and only partially marred by some truly horrid 60s and 70s infill and a number of very poor quality shop fronts. Just round the corner are three grand churches in a row, one of them housing the Wynd Centre, which includes a handsomely equipped small venue, with retractable seating, lighting and sound equipment.
Paisley is of course bidding to be UK Capital of Culture 2021, an ambition that I can imagine being greeted in some metropolitan circles with disbelief, even ridicule. But those imposing buildings are testimony to a long and rich history, even if that history has become largely invisible to the rest of Scotland. With a population of 75,000, Paisley is considerably larger than Scotland’s three most recently created cities, and as I’ve been finding, there’s a creative energy in the community that, whatever the outcome for 2021, demands that Paisley achieve a more prominent place in Scotland’s identity.
It could be argued that it’s not just Paisley, but Scotland’s towns in general that are ‘hidden in plain sight’. After last week’s meeting in Paisley I took a train back to Edinburgh that avoided me having to change stations in Glasgow, but took a roundabout route through Motherwell, Wishaw, Carluke and Carstairs. Now, in my various professional capacities over the years I’ve visited very many parts of Scotland, including such remote spots as Barra, Unst, and the Mull of Kintyre. But I don’t believe that, in all of my 61 years, I’ve ever visited any of those four towns. Yet they have a combined population almost as large as that of Paisley, and each has a distinctive history and culture.
I also visited Dumfries last week, and in the bizarre world of Scotland’s rural transport system, I could get there from Edinburgh much more quickly by taking a train to Lockerbie, and then a bus to Dumfries, than by training it all the way. So I set foot in Lockerbie for the first time. Like Dunblane, whose own sad history was being commemorated last week, ‘Lockerbie’ is a name that has become forever associated with a single atrocity, only mentioned in the media when inextricably linked to the word ‘bombing’. The reality, today, is that Lockerbie is a neat country town, with, as far as I could see, a pretty full complement of High Street shops, a piece of modern public art in the central square that should make anyone smile, and, as I waited for my bus, what seemed to be a cheerfully interacting community. But for the rest of the world the ‘real’ Lockerbie is hidden behind a single moment in history in which the town was only the victim of collateral damage.
Much the same could be said for the much larger town of Dumfries, which usually only comes to national attention as a result of one of the Nith’s frequent bouts of flooding. Dumfries is a special place for me, as, at the end of my first year as a University Drama student, we took over the Georgian Theatre Royal for a three week summer school—a period of sheer, unalloyed, unforgettable pleasure. So I’m delighted that the theatre is now the subject of a major restoration project .
The more time I spend in Scotland’s many and various towns, and the more opportunities I get to work in places as diverse as Banff, Aberfeldy, Cowdenbeath, Galashiels, and Campbeltown, to name just a few that I’ve been involved with recently, the more convinced I become that, as Nicholas Crane argued in his TV series, towns are the future. Yet, despite the best efforts of bodies like Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Can Do Places it seems to me that Scotland’s towns, as a whole, are Hidden in Plain Sight, too often the subject of neglect, or the butt of humour. Deprived of proper political representation, yet home to almost half of Scotland’s populations, Scotland’s 500 towns deserve better.
Do you like Westerns? Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The schedules of the only two TV channels were dominated by long running Western series, from ‘Davy Crockett’ and ‘Wyatt Earp’ for children, to the more mature ‘dramas’ of ‘Wagon Train’ or ‘Bonanza’. Westerns then were even more ubiquitous than US cops shows today, and at least as pervasive of UK culture—especially if you were a boy under 10.
Of course, in the movies, the Western genre has led to many great peaks, and the first film I was allowed up to watch all the way through, on our black and white TV, was John Ford’s masterpiece ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. It was a formative influence, though I was an adult before I realised the original film was in colour. And Ford’s achievement was matched by directors like Howard Hawks (‘Red River’, ‘Rio Bravo’) and Anthony Mann (the series of 50s Westerns with James Stewart, such as ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘The Far Country’).
But those pinnacles were atop a mountain of other Western movies, stretching all the way back to ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903. And a lot of those Westerns were ‘B’ movies. We all know what a ‘B’ Western looks like, don’t we? The good guys wear white hats and the villains black. There’s a saloon with a honky tonk piano and a good time girl with a heart of gold. There’s a dipsomaniac doctor who patches up the gunshot wounds (usually, conveniently, in the shoulder). Oh, and ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. And the whole thing would have been filmed on the studio lot or, at best, in the nearby Hollywood hills. Well, if you think that, then you saw too many episodes of ‘Gusmoke’ as a nipper. The truth is both richer and stranger.
In recent weeks I’ve been exploring the more distant reaches of the Freeview schedules, and have come across a range of little known Westerns, none of which I have any memory of seeing before (not even on a wet Sunday afternoon), and all of which depart from the usual stereotypes in almost every respect. They range from just after the Second War until the late 60s, when the influence of spaghetti westerns was beginning to be felt in Hollywood.
The first is ‘Canyon Passage’ from 1946, starring Dana Andrews, and directed by the great (and still undervalued) Jacques Tourneur, just after his collaboration with producer Val Lewton on the great run of horror films that included ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’. ‘Canyon Passage’ is immediately unusual in opening in a downpour. This is because it’s set in Oregon, among the mining community, and Andrews plays a very untypical Western hero, a man trying to make his fortune in business, through running mule trains of supplies from the coast up to the miners. It has a detailed sense of realism. Men stick their guns in their trouser belts, rather than in tailor-made holsters. There’s a fantastic sequence of a house-raising that must have influenced both ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, and ‘Witness’. And the characters are complicated and uncliched, with no straightforward heroes, and only one outright villain, whose actions place him beyond the bounds of this emerging ‘civilisation’. It’s as rich as a novel, and the use of the unusual locations, in saturated Technicolor, is outstanding.
Coincidentally, my next example is the last film produced by Tourneur’s collaborator Val Lewton, before his early death. If, with its generous running time and big stars, ‘Canyon Passage’ is perhaps not truly a ‘B’ movie, ‘Apache Drums’ is the real deal. No big names (the lead is Stephen McNally, good enough to deserve being better known), and a taut running time of just 75 minutes. But there’s the same unusual choice of location, this time among a Welsh (!) mining community in New Mexico, so all the buildings are made of a rich orange adobe, which positively glowed in the good print that was screened. The bulk of the film tells how, after an Indian attack, the survivors of the town, and of a cavalry patrol, are besieged overnight in the adobe church by marauding Apaches. It is a genuinely original, chilling and tense half hour of screen time, which must surely have been a big influence on John Carpenter’s seminal ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, not to mention ‘Zulu’. In fact there’s one sequence, which I won’t spoil, that makes the ‘Zulu’ link certain.
‘The Last Frontier’ is from just four years later, 1955, and is one of the astonishing long run of Westerns directed by Anthony Mann that began with ‘Winchester ‘73’ in 1950 and ended with ‘Cimarron’ in 1960, just before he switched to epics and made the greatest of them all, ‘El Cid’. Mann’s Westerns are often called ‘psychological’ because the drama so often turns on flaws and quirks of character, rather than external plot devices. ‘The Last Frontier’, probably the least known of the set, is very much in this vein. Victor Mature gives a career-best performance (yes, really!) as a scout who’s been brought up as a ‘child of nature’, and Robert Preston is the career-driven Army officer who leads his command to destruction. Oregon is again the location, far from most of the normal Western stereotypes, and Mann uses the landscape as imaginatively as his namesake Michael Mann (no relation) would do on ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, a film surely indebted to this older Western
My last movie is a much later example. On the face of it, ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, (1968) starring those two Western stalwarts Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, shouldn’t really be considered a ‘B’, but the director, Jerry Thorpe, mostly worked in TV and will never be called an ‘auteur’. The film shows the influence of Sergio Leone’s then popular movies in being set in Mexico, and the high body count certainly mirrors that of the average spaghetti western. But something odd is going on: Ford, ostracised by the community as a former gunslinger, never actually shoots anyone in the course of the film. Instead the film traces the descent of Kennedy’s character, from ‘man of peace’ to ruthless killer, with pitiless detachment.
For all their differences, and the time range of over 20 years, these films have a surprising amount in common. I’ve already alluded to the unusual settings, and the complexity of the characterisation. But the biggest contradiction to the stereotypes of such films lies in the treatment of Native Americans. In all four films the ‘Indians’ are shown as being brave and resourceful, with a rich culture, a strict honour code, and legitimate (and often very explicit) grievances against the ‘white man’ . Even in ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, where the plot requires them to be both renegade and dangerous, there’s a remarkable sequence where the Apaches are shown carefully collecting their dead after a shoot-out, whereas their white opponents walk off, leaving their dead companions where they fell.
The female characters, too, are often strong, individual, and self-motivated—no mere props for the male heroes. The community in which each film is set, from mining town to cavalry fort, is lovingly realised, with a wealth of ‘bit part’ characters of real individuality. Fight scenes are often surprisingly realistic in their clumsiness, brutality, and ultimate failure to resolve anything. And all four films, short or long, tell their stories with great economy and subtlety, relying heavily on visual narrative, or on dialogue that is spare and distinctive.
If we want to find a present day equivalent to films of such richness and depth, we have to look to TV, to ‘Games of Thrones’ perhaps, or the revisionist Western series ‘Deadwood’. In Hollywood, the studio system that produced these little gems is now locked into blockbusters, sequels and franchises. So my recommendation is, study your Radio Times carefully—with a magnifying glass, if need be—as there are treasures to be found at 9.30 on the morning on 5USA, or 3.00 in the afternoon on FilmFour. And if, as I do, you record them, they make a great distraction while doing the ironing!
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A recent TV interview with Clive James—dying, but still remarkably chipper—prompted me to get down to what I’d been planning to do for some time, and start re-reading his magnum opus, ‘Cultural Amnesia’. At just short of 900 pages, this could be a daunting prospect, but first time round, just after it was published in 2007, I devoured this inspiring, engrossing, infuriating book in just the three weeks of a standard library loan. Indeed, it’s partly because I raced through it so enthusiastically the first time round, that I wanted to go back for a more considered second encounter.
There are many areas of the arts in which length can be a serious drawback, especially in literature: crime novels, thrillers and SF were all much better when the novels were, on average, half the length they are now (see my earlier blog on Michael Gilbert). And that’s not just true of literature: blockbuster movies, ‘event’ exhibitions, prestige TV series, even, some might argue, operas, can all suffer from the inverse ratio that, the longer (or bigger) they are, the less effective their impact (often due to sheer exhaustion). Initiatives like ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’ have shown how much time-poor audiences can be attracted by something short and pithy.
But I make an exception for certain kinds of books that focus on history and culture. Here’s a list of some of those I’ve had no trouble in getting to the end of, in the last 10 years or so:
Norman Davies: ‘The Isles’ (1220 pages) and ‘Europe’ (1364 pages)
Orlando Figes: ‘A People’s Tragedy’ (922 pages; the story of the Russian revolution)
Christopher Clark: ‘The Iron Kingdom’ (777 pages; the history of Prussia)
A N Wilson: ‘The Victorians’ (738 pages)
Diarmid MacCulloch: ‘A History of Christianity’ (1216 pages, and one of my favourite books of all time)
Tony Judt: ‘Postwar’ (960 pages, a history of Europe since 1945)
Simon Schama: ‘Landscape and Memory’ (652 pages, and one that definitely repaid a second read)
Peter Watson: ‘The German Genius’ (964 pages)
Kenneth Roy: ‘The Invisible Spirit’ (542 pages; a history of Scotland, 1945-75)
Amanda Foreman: ‘A World on Fire’ (1040 pages, Britain and the American Civil War)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: ‘Civilisations’ (636 pages)
Sorry, that can’t avoid looking a bit like boasting, but I’ve drawn up the list to make what I think is an important point. What all these books have in common–apart from the fact that they’re well written, of course—is that they are each a truly immersive experience. By the time I had finished each of these books, my mind was in quite a different place, and I would never be able to think in the same way again about, say, the history of the British Isles, Prussian ‘militarism’, or ‘Victorian values’.
Short books can of course also have a similar impact. Richard Holloway’s ‘Godless Morality’ is a slim 164 pages, but I don’t think anyone with an open mind could get to the last page without having that mind altered in significant ways. But that’s a work of ethics and philosophy. When we’re talking about history, or cultural history, there is something about the accumulation of significant details, about being drawn into a complex web of themes, narratives, personalities and events, about living intensely with the subject, for the weeks (or even months) that it takes to navigate through such long books, that is essential to the process of true learning, the kind of learning that changes minds.
Of course, no-one is going to retain all the detail contained in any of these books, not even after a second, third or fourth reading. But what I find is, that the knowledge that that detail exists, that these complex webs of connections have been mapped, that the author’s conclusions—should they choose to come to any—have been arrived at only after years of living with and sifting through this mass of material, is essential to the process of absorption and understanding.
In the age of the sound bite (or byte), of the shared item on Facebook, of 15 minute TED talks, this is not, perhaps, a popular view. But maybe it’s a necessary one. I didn’t know, when I started any of the books listed above, how reading them was going to change my view of their subjects, or of the wider world. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t pick them up with the intention of reinforcing already entrenched views. In many cases, these books surprised me (as a convinced atheist, perhaps most of all ‘A History of Christianity’) and often encouraged me to read further, or to enter into debates less dogmatically. Take Norman Davies ‘The Isles’, for example. His policy of referring to the British Isles, and their constituent nations and regions, only by the names by which they were known during the particular period he is writing about (eg Britannia, Alba, even made-up names for prehistoric eras) is such a forceful demonstration of the contingent nature of history that I’ve never thought the same way about nation states since. As Davies’ other great book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, forcefully demonstrates, nation-building has never been a teleological process.
It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who first famously said that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Perhaps if British and UK politicians had had the chance to read William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’ (608 pages) they would have thought twice about once again becoming ensnared in the troubled history of Afghanistan but, sadly, that book was published too late to make that possible. But even if it had been around to influence the policymakers, back in 2001, would any of them have thought to read it? John Major’s favourite bedtime reading is apparently Trollope, and if that includes the devastating critique of society in ‘The Way We Live Now’, then that’s no bad thing, but I don’t see many of our present leaders, or their advisors, as serious readers.
But, just maybe, instead of investing the 80 hours it takes to watch the five seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, we put a similar time into a bit of serious reading, we might be better placed to challenge the policy-makers in terms they’d find hard to ignore. Which brings us back to Clive James, who pondered the book that became ‘Cultural Amnesia’ over a forty year period, as a defence of Humanism, and a celebration of diversity of thought. If he can spare forty years to write it, perhaps we can spare as many hours to read it.
What are we listening to when we listen to music? That may seem tautological, but bear with me. The question was prompted by listening (courtesy of Spotify) to a remarkable recording of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, performed by the South African-born, London-based pianist, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, hitherto unknown to me.
Though I’d grown up with the named sonatas like the Moonlight, which my mother used to play, I only got to know all 32 Beethoven sonatas—the so called ‘New Testament’ of the piano—back in 1990, when our friend Gustav Fenyo performed complete cycles in a series of concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Gustav has always seemed to me an under-appreciated musician, and his playing, especially of those sonatas I’d not previously encountered, was a revelation. Across those 32 incredible works he revealed an imagination and an energy at work that has few parallels in any art form in history.
More recently I’ve been enjoying Paul Lewis’s complete recording, for its clarity, its sense of structure, and its intense musicality, but I only had to listen to one of Pienaar’s performances to know that this was music making in a different league.
A great deal of ink has been spilt, in the world of classical music, on the subject of interpretation. There are those who favour the approach of, to take an extreme example, a Glenn Gould, who so impresses his own vision on a score that it effectively becomes ‘Gould’s Beethoven’, or Bach, or whoever. At the other extreme is a pianist like Alfred Brendel, famed for his fidelity to the score, and the modesty of his own personality, musically speaking that is. Daniel-Ben Pienaar fits neither of these stereotypes. There is nothing remotely objective about his playing, but nor is it wilfully idiosyncratic. For me, it’s like cleaning an Old Master—as if he’s stripped away layers of accretion to reveal what Beethoven originally intended. A dangerous claim, of course, and perhaps a foolish one.
So I began to think about why his performances were affecting me so strongly. It was Goethe who apparently first called architecture ‘frozen music’, but, according to some sources online, the full quote should be ‘music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music’. The first part of that statement is what I want to focus on. As we listen to music we experience it as flow, as duration in time. But, in something like a Beethoven sonata, we also—if we already know it—hold in our heads our awareness of its overall structure—its architecture—or else, we come to understand that structure retrospectively.
The best performers, and, I would argue, the best listeners, need to hold this contradiction in balance, to understand and experience the music as simultaneously flow and architecture. This is what I think Pienaar does consummately. Listening to the variation movement at the end of Op 109, one of the ‘late’ sonatas, it seemed to me that Pienaar was unfolding the music as a fine jazz pianist develops an improvisation—like Keith Jarrett’s famous ‘Köln Concert’—and, like Jarrett, even as he gave the impression of spontaneously discovering the music’s direction, so he was all the time holding in his head that crucial sense of its destination. Beethoven, after all, was famed in his lifetime above all for his improvisations at the keyboard.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Western classical music, it’s equally true of jazz like Keith Jarrett’s, or of non-western traditions like Indian ragas. And this is where, finally, we come to Erwin Schrödinger and his infamous thought experiment, involving putting a cat in jeopardy. Schrödinger was attempting to illustrate the paradox that an electron can be simultaneously thought of as both a wave and a particle, and so you can never be certain, at the same time, of both its location and its velocity. He envisaged putting a cat in a box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter records an emitted particle, it smashes the bottle and the cat dies. As quantum theory claims that we only ‘collapse’ a particle into a specific state by observing it, we’re faced with the paradox that we only know if the cat is alive or dead by opening the box and that, until that point, it could be said to be both alive and dead.
So, a truly gifted musician will resolve that paradox. He or she will be able to present the music—from a composer’s score, or as they improvise it–as both flow and architecture, or, to pursue the metaphor, as both wave and particle. When that resolution is achieved we, the listeners, may have an extraordinarily heightened experience; as when, even on a recording, the last movement of Op 109 can reduce me to tears. This is why, of course, it’s so important for those presenting new and/or unfamiliar music to tell audiences how long it’s going to last. How we respond to music we don’t know will be entirely different according to whether we expect it to last five or fifty minutes. Imagine being sat down to a Bruckner symphony without knowing what was coming.
I think this also applies to other artforms. A couple of weeks ago I saw the latest double bill from the wonderful Scottish Dance Theatre. I was very glad indeed that the programme gave the durations for both works. The incidental gestures, interactions, and set pieces all fell beautifully into place as I anticipated them moving towards each work’s conclusion. Flow and architecture. This is perhaps the main reason why I find e-readers so unsatisfactory. There’s something very pleasurable about glancing at a book and seeing from the location of the bookmark how far you’ve gone, and how much pleasure—or effort—still awaits you. A digital notification that you’re on ‘page 92 of 483’ just doesn’t do it for me, not least because they’re not real pages!
On the other hand, too great a familiarity with duration and structure can be a drawback. If the average TV cop drama is always an hour long (give or take adverts) then you always know when the villain is about to be unmasked. You may experience the pleasure of anticipation, but not the greater stimulus of complete surprise.
So, to come back to where I started: what I think I’m listening to, when I listen to Pienaar’s Beethoven, is an extraordinarily sensitive response to that crucial need to hold flow and architecture in balance. Or, to use a quote attributed to another great German thinker, Gottfried Leibnitz: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’.
© Robert Livingston, March 2015