Tag Archives: Culture

Writing on the Wall

The pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Berlin, now creased and frayed at the corners from heavy leafing, are helpfully demarcated by a spectrum of colour. Each district of the city has been allocated its own shade. This colour-coding proved invaluable for my recent trip to the city, as my boyfriend and I attempted to soak up every area (and, of course, multiple beer steins) within the confines of a long weekend.

Yet, however pragmatic Lonely Planet’s layout decisions may have been, presenting the city as a collection of colours, as a fragmented whole, seems to me entirely appropriate for a place that is so kaleidoscopic. As we enjoyed the famous Burgermeister burgers served from a disused toilet block under a railway bridge in Kreuzberg, it was as if we were in an entirely different city to that of humming Potsdamer Platz and KaDeWe’s glitter, which only that morning had put the best of the West on display.

Burgers from a toilet

Burgers from a toilet

Despite the fall of the Wall, Berlin remains a dynamic hodgepodge. Socialism meets neo-classicism, slick steel meets graffiti, sushi meets sausages. The city appears to sit snugly in a state of in-between, all physical barriers between East and West crumbled away, but the essential character of each still remarkably traceable to the flow of dwellers and tourists moving at liberty between the two. Total amalgamation cannot be felt, but this vibrant state of broken togetherness seems to be the desired condition. And nothing epitomises this more than the East Side Gallery.

Stretching 1.3km parallel to the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is the world’s largest open-air mural collection, with over 100 paintings decorating the last standing chunk of the Wall. From psychedelic faces to kissing politicians, dragons to the faces of Germany’s greatest intelligentsia, the Gallery showcases the translation of global optimism into art by a gathering of international artists. In the blinding midday sun, the Wall’s shade provided for us a space of retreat. Once a symbol of oppression, the last remaining bricks have been transmuted into a source of free thinking by a mere brush of paint.

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I was struck by the variety of images that we met. Some artists were able to correlate their artwork to what the original Wall had stood for, with murals offering clear political commentary or aphorisms hoping for a better mankind. One read ‘Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen’, and through painted representatives of diverse nations, stressed the importance of dismantling barriers. Others were less straightforward to interpret: a grinning chimp, a herd of crawling babies. At first, these cryptic illustrations tempt the viewer to try to disentangle some hidden political aspect from beneath their colourful surfaces. But the further down the Wall I wandered, the more they seemed to reflect upon the problems of representation itself.

Germany's big thinkers

Germany’s big thinkers

 

The unprecedented politics of the Wall and its brutal, blank facade makes aesthetic responses to it particularly knotty. How is one to place it within a value system that can communicate to those beyond its confines what it really stood for, when there is nothing to which it can really be compared? The arbitrary cartoons scattered along the stretch demonstrate that using political structures to respond to Berlin’s past is not always satisfactory or appropriate. Indeed, perhaps interacting with the Wall through such language and insignia perpetuates its dark, historic identity, reminding us of division and tyranny. Arguably, however, the very existence of the East Side Gallery in the first place keeps that stony divide alive.

On closer view, the surfaces of the murals are etched with graffiti from passers-by. Restoration efforts in 2009 indicate that for some, these autographs and scribbles were regarded as acts of vandalism. And yet, as viewers and residents continue to leave their marks, the Wall is clearly still undergoing an important global interpretative process and is yet to be relegated to the pages of library books. As Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued, the self is produced by its own history. The moment we try to do without the past, we deny an important element of our identity. Berlin’s history is still very much a part of its present. As the dark bricks of the Wall were torn down in 1989, man’s relationship with it became one of freedom. It is the aestheticisation of the final remaining stretch by the Spree which indicates that this freedom continues. To interact with the Wall in this artistic way is to truly tear it down. Bulldozers and sledgehammers are obsolete now.

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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.

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The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.

Dickens

Dickens

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Picture Perfect

Some day I will go to the Aarus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eye-lids,

His pointed skin cap.       (The Tollund Man, Seamus Heaney)

‘Can you all get in a row please? Quickly, before the sun goes in!’. These words shape my family holidays. My mother has always had the photography bug and passed it on to my sister. As technology has advanced, so have the number of my mother’s cameras, and with that, the number of family poses, the number of print envelopes and the number of weary smiles. Every snapshot moment is recorded in three, fragmented across digital, film and mobile phone mediums with the latter resulting in a picture message sent to my brother so that at his office desk he too can partake in the moment as the shutter clicks. She is almost weighed down by her apparatus as various cameras clink together around her neck like a couple of Gok Wan ‘statement’ necklaces from a more futuristic age.

As we walked through the Terra Nostra botanical gardens on our family holiday on the island of San Miguel in the Azores last week, cameras were predictably clicking all around me, but the ways in which my sister and mother recorded each moment were startlingly different. As the latter arranged us in cereal-box, sunny, family poses in the tree ferns, my sister hurriedly frolicked from plant to plant. She was only interested in snapping forensically detailed pictures of moss, beetles and bark and crouching in the shrubbery with a high zoom to capture the skin of a strawberry.

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To me, both of these photographic tributes to the garden seemed to fragment its reality somewhat, either by glazing it with a layer of artificial neatness through my mother’s lens, or physically anatomising the garden into its composite pieces via my sister’s camera. The moment was no longer a whole, but remembered in parts. A photograph can never encapsulate the essence of a place or person in its entirety, but just a glimpse of an expression, the fall of light, the flick of a branch in the breeze, a put-on smile. In this way, can it ever truly immortalise an occasion? Does it just break apart the truth and emboss memories with a sense of something staged, printing one tiny moment onto fragile paper so that it is vulnerable to fade, to crinkle and to tear? Or are these papery traces of the past a fitting reminder of the way that time decays us? Just as material fragments dug up at archaeological sites become valuable jigsaw pieces to understand the past, perhaps photographs, even though they are constructs, can put back together a moment that time has decomposed.

On May 8th 1950 on the bogs near Silkeborg, Denmark, a peat digging family came upon the body of a man. Unearthed from under 2.5 metres of peat,  his dark, leathery frame was almost perfectly preserved, with the whites of his fingernails still visible, his chin still grizzled by stubble and his forehead creased and lined as if squashed up against a pillow in slumber. This remarkable find became known as the Tollund Man, a conserved relic of Iron Age life and practices that has fascinated not only archaeologists, but artists, writers and poets, inspiring Seamus Heaney’s words above for example. Snapped from every angle, we imaginatively and emotionally engage with his foetal fragility and lifelike expression, but in the same instance we cannot help but recoil. Around his delicate neck, a muddy noose is wound, and it severs us both temporally and culturally from him just as it severed his life.  The majority of photographs of the Tollund Man skim over this problem, instead working hard to emphasise his humanity and similarity to us, with the zoom angled towards his furrowed brow, his soft lip, the curve of his clenched fist and minute detail of his hand. Aestheticism and emotion shape the photographers’ purposes, as they soften the focus at any suggestions of trauma and torture, sacrifice or murder. Even Heaney’s poem, less dramatic in many respects than a raw photograph, processes the Tollund Man’s body in a series of fragments. Heaney breaks his face and frame into pieces to make it more manageable, emphasising the tiny human details rather than the alien and unnerving whole.

Tollund Man

The lifelike face of the Tollund Man man is remarkably preserved

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A very human detail

A very human detail

Does the eye’s desire to view this body in parts bring a sense of subtlety and delicacy to our curiosity, as we tentatively and respectfully approach a figure fossilised by mud in his dying moments? Or does it romanticise, creating an artificial image that inadequately represents the Tollund Man’s whole and skims over the darker potential of his death?  Karin Sanders’ book ‘Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination’ explores some of the ethics of photographing archaeological finds and convincingly argues that photographing specific body parts from various angles does create something falsely emotive, but still sets up a reverent distance in seeming to photograph the Tollund Man twice, regarding his whole face before shifting the focus to his lip, eye or leather cap. For her, just as the ‘age-old dark room of the bog’ has preserved him, so can our photographs. Now as I remember my groans and jaded smiles in the Botanical Gardens, I feel a little foolish. As the Tollund Man’s example has shown me, even if images are only pieces and parts of a greater whole, they can carry a past moment into the present. We are not simply trying to work against time’s passing in photography, but work with that passing, reflecting upon its powers of fragmentation and decay in the mere flickers and hints of moments that we manage to capture on film.

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The 2013 Vintage

‘Definitely something you could wear on a winter’s day at the races’.

These were the words my boyfriend said to me as I pirouetted in front of the speckled mirror of a vintage shop last weekend, balancing a felt trilby poked with a pheasant feather upon my head. I dismissed his enthusiasm with some comment about frivolity and expense as I ran my hands over and through the whirligig of silk scarves near the counter. The shop had that very vintage feel, brown carpets, brown clutter, brown counters, an array of brown leather bags and tortoiseshell aviators. The shopkeeper had done very well to make it say ‘old’. The only thing that was missing was some schmaltzy jazz crackling on a gramophone and perhaps I would have been endeared to purchase my trilby and step boldly from the door, ready to turn heads.

A typical vintage array

A typical vintage array

‘Vintage’ is a term that we have adopted to cover a loose range of essentially bric-a-brac concepts. Clothing, quaint tea rooms, Bakelite kitchen appliances, cars, cake stands, jewellery, notelets, cosmetics. The Victorian chemist in Haworth, Yorkshire is one particular example. Beautiful and frou-frouey as it is, lit with soft light and staffed by ladies in crisp white petticoats, it is difficult to imagine Emily Brontë popping her head round the door at the peak of her consumption for a scoopful of lavender bath salts. ‘Vintage’, like any other word, is drained of signification when overused, a process not too distant from economic hyperinflation. As its value has been manipulated, it is increasingly becoming an equivalent term for ‘shabby-chic’, ‘pre-loved’ or simply, ‘second hand’. ‘Vintage’ in the sense of something being an old model or style, particularly of a vehicle, was first coined in 1920s. Surely then its proper application as a term should be to art deco items and beyond. And yet we seem to appropriate it to a much greater timeline.

Writing my dissertation this last term on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, an elegiac sequence written to commemorate his wife, my thoughts have been deeply preoccupied by how we process memory, time and time’s passing. It is interesting how much a moment in the past can mutate with each day. In retrospect, memories seem to change, to become resurfaced with a gloss, with a strange new emphasis. For Hardy, this emphasis is disturbing, awakening feelings of guilt and remorse, a failure to value and understand the then present when his wife was living. In a vintage shop however, the effects of looking back only seem positive. As we hold a pair of 70s sunglasses we are flooded with feelings of nostalgia. Putting a felt trilby on your head gives a rose tinted reflection in the mirror. Drinking tea from an ornate teacup as you sit in your lounge done up with chintz seems to transform the little ordinary details of our lives into something romantic, golden, perfected. Or does it? Originally coined for a year’s crop of wine, one of ‘good or outstanding quality’, ‘vintage’ is meant to label the very best of the best. But we have absorbed it as the buzzword to talk about anything pre 2000, be it sparkling or shabby.

The real vintage?

The real vintage?

I attended a talk recently at Pembroke College by Martin Rowson, a political Cartoonist for The Guardian and The Independent. As an English alumnus, he had ploughed his way through my syllabus, digesting the greatest works of literature week by week. It is what he did with all that he had read later however, that I found most intriguing. As well as his work on newspaper cartoons, he has spent considerable time transforming Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s The Wasteland into graphic form, dredging up the famous narratives of the past and sketching them with the same thick black lines of a modern day political satire cartoon. As a satirist, Rowson said his job was to break things up into smaller particles in order for us to process them more easily. The awful was in this way made more bearable. What was remarkable was how well the graphic form suited Sterne’s rambling and boisterous tale. Perhaps the people of the past that we look back at with dewy eyes didn’t think very differently to us. Sterne and Rowson certainly seem to have the same sense of humour. Through Rowson’s adaptation, a satirist of the present and a novelist of the past work in symbiosis to create something utterly novel. It seems that the past should not endlessly impose itself upon the present in the form of dress shops stuffed with fur, pearls, beads and Bakelite and old fashioned tea rooms decorated like a scene from a home front documentary. Instead, we should work to see how the present can enter and redefine the world of the past, be it through modern film adaptation, theatre or graphic novels.

Martin Rowson's book cover

Martin Rowson’s book cover

On my coffee table sits a chunky graphic edition of Vanity Fair, a Christmas gift that I am yet to fully peruse. But as I flick through the pages, the story is punctuated with punchy black and white illustrations drawn in the style of a superhero comic. Personally, I feel this manner of delivery suits the novel’s intrigue perfectly without marring, changing or romanticising the original story. In this way, unlike the somewhat synthetic concept of ‘vintage’, past and present can collaborate so that re-visioning the past works as a ‘seeing again’ but not a ‘seeing again’ that manipulates what was ordinary and everyday then into a false ideal now.

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The Mozart Effect

When my Aunt was pregnant with my cousin, she was every bit the conscientious first-time mother, equipped with a state of the art pram and a seemingly unending wodge of dribble cloths in a range of gender-neutral tones. However, what particularly interested me were her reports that she had been listening to classical music in an attempt to make my growing cousin more intelligent. This rather pleasantly arty hypothesis has become an internet phenomenon, guiding tentative expectant mothers to indulge in some cultural bonding with their imminent bundle.

The idea that listening to classical music can somehow increase the intelligence of a developing child is an extension of what has been simply named ‘The Mozart Effect’, a term first coined in 1991 by Alfred A. Tomatis, who claimed that Mozart’s music had the capacity to heal and encourage brain development. Later in 1993, psychologists claimed that it had been shown to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. And with the Austrian composer’s oeuvres stirring the concert-goer and the scientist in equal measure, it came as no surprise that websites were set up for eager parents to download Mozart tracks to nurture the neurones of their developing offspring. Indeed, according to the website www.babycentre.com, a Governor of Georgia, no doubt inspired by the laboratory hype, mandated that a CD of Mozart’s piano sonatas should be given to all new babies on their leaving hospital.

‘The Mozart Effect’ has since been dismissed, with mother-baby websites instead promoting Mozart’s work as merely mood music, as a means to soothe the fretful baby and introduce it to the classical canon from a young age. Nevertheless, whilst it may not manifestly increase a child’s intelligence, the intriguing scientific and psychological potential in music suggests it may have something to teach us about human nature.

This prompted me to think about the way that we listen to music today. Whilst in the past our desire for music would have been satisfied by a maiden at a harpsichord or a trip to a velvety concert hall, we can indulge our ears today with whatever tones we yearn for, whenever we yearn for them. You Tube and Spotify have opened up vast empires for auditory exploration, conquerable by a few taps on a keyboard. And this is a privilege that we must cultivate. Just in writing this blog, I have listened to a miscellany of melodies that I have accessed with minimal effort, filling my head with sounds that invariably syncopate the steady metronome of my typing. At this late hour, I find myself believing that music can stimulate the brain’s creative capabilities.

However, with such a diverse portfolio of music available to us, perhaps we are all too ready to choose music moulded to our mood, rather than letting ourselves be moulded by music’s own powers. Indeed, I recently came across the website www.stereomood.com, a site that allows you to enter your mood into a search bar and have melodies matched to your current temperament. Mood categories ranged from ‘dish washing’ to music to ‘snuggle’ to. Whilst Buddhist chanting might be requisite for yoga, the notion of mood music can surely become too dictatorial. Music is, after all, an art form and the way that we react to aestheticism is always driven by subjective impulses. Classical music of the Romantic Period was written to emote. And emotions are unpredictable, personal and private. It is our individual response to music that makes listening to it in a group or community so valuable and interesting, and is certainly a way to support public performances.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the premise of ‘The Mozart Effect’. There is some value in listening to music neutrally and experimenting with its effects, allowing people to enter the imaginative world of a piece and read it, as one would a book or poem. My ongoing study of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poetry sequence of 1912-1913 for my dissertation drew my attention strongly to the fundamental link between music and poetry. As a keen musician himself, Hardy frequently employed ballad and hymnal forms to structure his work. Responding to the tones and textures of a piece of music is like reacting to the details of language in a poem.

I am organising an event in my College of Jazz and Blues music to brighten up the notorious work slump that is ‘Week 5 blues’ in the Cambridge term. Some of us might associate such instrumentals with chill-out hour, others with the glamour of Gatsby’s parties. Frank Zappa once said that ‘Music, in performance, is a kind of sculpture. The air is sculpted into something’. It is the diverse ways that we respond personally to music as an art form that makes it such an interesting canvas on which to learn about humanity, whether in the whitewash of the laboratory or the plush comfort of the theatre row.

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A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.

cosette

Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.

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