Monday, 28 February 2011

Why I like classical music...

In a previous post, I've shared some thoughts on why music's so important. My favourite bits of classical music are truly great works of art. My definition for that is something whose pleasure and significance with repetition. Something you can live with for life and still find new things in it.

At this moment in time, these make the final cut of my top ten musical works are:

Richard Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser
I love the cascading strings, the march that comes in, the solemnity of the trumpets. It has such power and provides me with inexhaustible pleasure.

Handel: Messiah
Mozart once said, “Handel understands effect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.”  That’s quite a complement. Handel has such control - knowing when to hold back because  restraint is important, and when to turn up the power of the music to full notch.

He works to the utmost to convey the emotion of a text and his word painting is part of that.
Perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted example of the technique is in, "Every valley shall be exalted", the tenor aria early in Part I of Messiah. On the lyric "...and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain". The notes climb, descend and alternate together with the text.

I also really like Serse - Accompagnato: Frondi tenere.

J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion shows human achievement at its greatest and most humbling. I also really like the cello suites

Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
There is something so very English about The Lark Ascending. The softness and warmth of the French horns coming in evoking a delicate pastoral scene. The violin has a whimsicality and complete sense of freedom. Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis comes a close second.

Mozart’s Requiem, Mass No. 19 in D minor, Sequenx: Lacrimosa

Mozart's Requiem is one of the most personal, impassioned and profound of his works, despite the fact that the composer died leaving it unfinished.

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor
It was as a prodigy on the violin that Bruch began jotting down ideas for his First Violin Concerto at age nineteen. It was nearly eleven years, however, before the piece was finalized in the form published in 1868 in Wiesbaden. The resulting work, in the words of American music writer Jonathan Kramer, “is a virtuoso's dream...dramatic, fiery, and melodic.” 

Gustav Mahler’s 2nd symphony – The Resurrection Symphony.
Mahler’s second begins with doubt and ends in massive optimism. The grand choral finale is outstanding.

Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture
The Hebrides Overture captures the restlessness of the sea perfectly. It conveys a sense of excitement with danger lurking. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Midsummer Night's Dream are also pretty amazing too. The Fingal’s Cave overture of the Hebrides symphony holds a special place in my heart though as its the home of my ancestors.

Allegri Miserere
The unaccompanied choral setting of the Miserere ("Have Mercy on Me, O God") from Psalm 51 is truly beautiful. It was composed for the Sistine Chapel in the 1630s for the Tenebrae Holy Week service, as candles were extinguished one by one, leaving the faithful in darkness. More than a century later, Mozart marvelled at it. The sound of a boy treble, soaring to a top C, is near miraculous. It’s so beautiful that the Vatican even banned it at one point.

Piazzolla’s Milonga Del Angel
There is a languidness and playfulness about Piazzolla’s Milonga Del Angel. I particularly love the version by Yo-Yo Ma. The Libertango is also pretty amazing too.

No doubt there are gaping omissions in this list, but it’s a good start for a desert island long list!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Why I like Brancusi...

Today would have been Constantin Brancusi’s 135th birthday so I thought I'd post up a few quick thoughts on why he's so great.

Brancusi (1876-1957) was one of the founding figures of modern sculpture and one of the most original artists of the twentieth-century and one of my favourite artists. His groundbreaking carvings introduced abstraction and primitivism into sculpture for the first time, and were as important as Picasso’s paintings to the development of modern art.

Brancusi’s serenely simplified sculptures are widely acknowledged as icons of modernism. His choice of materials including marble and limestone, bronze and wood, and his individual expression through carving, established him as a leading avant-garde artist. He was a close friend of both Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Duchamp, and his work has inspired sculptors from Barbara Hepworth to Carl Andre and Donald Judd.
Brancusi was born in Romania in 1876.
His parents were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labour, and from the age of seven he herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers. At the age of nine, Brancusi left small village and went to work in bigger and larger town.
At 18 his grocery store employer was so impressed by Brancusi's talent for carving, he financed his education in Craiova. Brancusi went on to study in Bucharest. His masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.
In 1904 Brancusi moved to Paris (legend has it, on foot). He washed dishes, enrolled at art school, and got himself a job - briefly - as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. Shortly after that Brancusi made a stone carving he called The Kiss.

Of course, there was a precedent. A decade before, Rodin had made a stone sculpture, now very well known and loved, called
 The Kiss. Its pair of over-lifesized figures grapple mightily on a Promethean rock, bodies surging with Michelangelo muscle. And what is Brancusi's reply? An object about a foot high, in which two little cuboid figures are pressed together in a childlike hug, face flat to face, arms wrapped round each other's backs.

It is a critique of Rodin, certainly. It eliminates all trace of Rodin's muscliness. It stands opposed to Rodin's production methods. Rodin had done the modelling of his sculpture in plaster, then had assistants copy it in marble. Brancusi's sculpture is ostentatiously a piece of true carving. The square block of stone it was made from is still visible, hardly transformed at all, in the shapes of its compacted huggers.
More than a critique, Brancusi's simple, sweet  lovers are a joking riposte to Rodin's inflated and theatrical clinch. Beside the Rodin, the Brancusi looks absurd and crude. And beside the Brancusi, the Rodin looks absurd,  grandiose and explicit. Which is sublime, and which ridiculous, is a matter of taste. The two embody quite irreconcilable ideas of sculptural seriousness.
And Brancusi's is a very serious, beautiful, transfixing and uplifting art - and at the same time it is a comic art. It works with all the tricks of comedy: bathos, caricature, the pun, the anticlimax.
Bathos - the comic comedown - is a favourite Brancusi effect. He insisted, crossly, that his work was never abstract. "They are imbeciles who call my work abstract." The subject is vital - a human head, a torso, a bird, a fish, a turtle. But there is always a gap between Brancusi's subjects and the objects that depict them.
These objects are so emphatically objects: pieces of raw stone, wood and metal, shaped into basic geometrical solids, cubes, ovoids, hemispheres, cylinders and half-cylinders. Brancusi's sculpture holds a tension between the handmade and the unhandmade. His figures involve a sense of distance, a jump, a jolt, between the animate organic subject, human or animal, and the inanimate geometric or mechanical entity to which it is reduced. 
Brancusi's art is a kind of impressionism: in the mimic, not the Monet, sense of the word. It knows its creatures from the inside. It empathises. The rising yearning appetite of Young Bird - you feel it straining greedily out of the nest - is captured perfectly in a shape that might be mistaken for a fingertip and fingernail.
The barely awakened consciousness of The Newborn is created from a minimally transformed white marble egg. What he represents is not the look of things, as much as a bodily sensation, a state of mind, a gesture, a movement, a sound. 
The Cock
 is nothing much like a cock to look at. Its zigzag edge rising to a pointed tip suggests, but can't really be read as, the cock's comb. What it summons up is the cocky stance of a cock, and the jagged piercing cry of a cockcrow. Which way is it pointing? The sharp point at its apex; do we take that as the creature's raised head, or the tip of its stuck-up tail feathers? Or both? 

Bird in Space
 is the supreme example of an ambiguous object. What does this swelling vertical boomerang evoke? The flying wing of a bird? The upright stance of a bird? The trajectory of a bird's flight? Soaring, or touching down? Windswept motion? All of these things at once. And it's a piece like Bird in Space, so breathtaking, so piercing in its sudden shimmering presence. Bird in Space. The whole point of this sculpture is that it almost isn't. It teeters on the brink of being just a shaft of upright stone. It soars.
Brancusi's art offers an answer to Bergson's theory. Bergson saw matter as "dulling the outward life of the soul, petrifying its movements, and thwarting its gracefulness". But in Brancusi the inanimate achieves a transcending gracefulness. His works propose that highly purified material forms are nearer to pure spirit than a living body is. But to Brancusi's credit, that is not the whole of the story. He doesn't just seek to transcend.
The sculptor's great monument is his Endless Column, in Tirgu Jiu, Romania. Nearly 100 feet high, it rises like a vertical string of beads, a tower of identical lozenges, of alternating hips and waists, in a shallow zigzag, in and out, upwards, indefinitely. It just goes up and up - and at some height it must simply end. As it does after 15 whole lozenges, and at a hip, not a waist, opening out, not closing...
You can take this end as a mere material limit to a form that continues spiritually, invisibly, all the way to heaven. But stick to the visible facts, and it's an abrupt and arbitrary halt. The whole point of Endless Column is that it's an anticlimax. Comedy has the last word. We rise. And we just stop.
Happy 135th Birthday, Constantin Brancusi! 

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Why I love the British Museum...

I love the British Museum. It houses seven million objects documenting the story of human culture from its beginning to the present day. 

Established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, the museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1887.

When I’ve travelled to places like Egypt, Greece, Greece and Turkey, there is always a sense of guilt when the tour guides say, “and this particular beautiful thing is a copy, the original is in the British Museum.” Debates whether to repatriate those objects rage on. In the meantime, we have such a enviable collection of objects that tell stories about some of the most momentous periods in history.

By comparing between ages and objects you make inferences about how mankind’s beliefs and attitudes have changed.

My favourite objects in the British Museum are the:

Rosetta Stone – which is such an amazing icon of understanding. The work that went into decoding the script and the insights that then brought about Egyptian and Greek society are quite incredible.

Statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II – I work in public relations and have a general interest in how leaders create and manipulate their own image for immediate political and personal reasons but also to create legacy. This sculpture shows a "desiny politician" at work.

Elgin marbles – Some pieces from the Eglin marbles are incredibly beautiful. I love the horses in particular.

Tomb of Halikarnosos - The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, designed by the sculptor-architects Pytheos and Satyros, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The workmanship and artistry are amazing.

Portland Vase - This is most famous cameo-glass vessel from antiquity. The scenes on the Portland Vase have been interpreted many times with a historical or a mythological slant. It is enough to say that the subject is clearly one of love and marriage with a mythological theme. I just can’t believe it was made so long along - perhaps from Rome, Italy, about AD 5-25 – and is so finely worked. No wonder it went on to inspire Josiah Wedgewood in the 18th century, one of our great ceramicists.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

My favourite children's toys

This was a really easy list to write. Without question, no debate or any further ado, my top ten children's toys are:

Giant jenga
Space hoppers
Connect Four

And I don't think that needs any further explanation. I did almost include Monopoly but I've always found that a bit dull to be honest.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

My favourite poems...

Two more of my favourite poems...
There Was a Child Went Forth
HERE was a child went forth every day; 
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; 
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years. 
The early lilacs became part of this child, 
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,         
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf, 
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side, 
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid, 
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him. 
The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;  
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden, 
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms, and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road; 
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen, 
And the school-mistress that pass’d on her way to the school, 
And the friendly boys that pass’d—and the quarrelsome boys,  
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls—and the barefoot negro boy and girl, 
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went. 
His own parents, 
He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him, 
They gave this child more of themselves than that;  
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him. 
The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table; 
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by; 
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust; 
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,  
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture—the yearning and swelling heart, 
Affection that will not be gainsay’d—the sense of what is real—the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal, 
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and how, 
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks? 
Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?  
The streets themselves, and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows, 
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves—the huge crossing at the ferries, 
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset—the river between, 
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off, 
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide—the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping, 
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself—the spread of purity it lies motionless in, 
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud; 
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.
Walt Whitman

I love the way the child in this poem absorbs everything he looks upon in a day and in a lifetime and it becomes part of his being. The universe is full of life (‘the song of the phoebe bird’) and meaning (‘the curious whether and how’). Whitman offers this sparklingly brilliant composite of impressions – ‘flashes and specks’ – so that we might open ourselves to experiences.

To Whitman, all the objects and memories are how we become ourselves, by truly connecting with our own experience, by realising, I am that child that went forward.

On Children
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Kahlil Gibran
The thought of children being the product of "Life's longing for itself"...the instinct for survival is an amazingly powerful one. The poem is about how children will strive and thrive no matter what if we give them a stable environment in which to grow up.
I think these poems pair well together...and I like them both immensely.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

My favourite poems

I love the way poems are published on the tube in London, giving sustenance for the soul for the hundreds of thousands of commuters on the network each day. I saw this yesterday and it particularly struck me as a particularly lovely thing:

The way the red sun surrenders 
its wholeness to the curving ocean
bit by bit. The way curving ocean 
gives birth to the birth of the stars 
in the growing darkness, 
wearing everything in its path
to a comic smoothness.

The impulse of the stones rolling
towards their own roundness.
The unexpected comets of flying fish. 
And Forest-Great-Breathing-Spirit,
rooting to the very end for the life of the planet.

Grace Nichol, From the Life of This Planet. (b. 1950)

Grace Nichols is a Guyanese poet which perhaps makes her reference to Forest-Great-Breathing-Spirit particularly poignant. Guyana is the home to prime rainforest which is under threat, just like the Amazon further South.

Although it's not a focus here, the oceans drive the winds, the winds drive soil erosion in the Sahara and that very iron-rich soil from the deserts feeds the nutrient-hungry rainforests of South America. A while back I read how climate change is threatening the currents, winds and those vital dust deposits so it's a poem that made me stop and think. 

In my very first post I talked about loving the way the sun suddenly disappears like a tuppence below the horizon which is particularly noticeable at sea. In many ways, it's a really lovely poem.

“Poems on the Underground” celebrated the 25th anniversary last week. Every season, the British Council Art Group selects six poems. This season’s selections address the value of the written word and include the well-known opening lines from John Keats’ “Endymion.” A good choice for the “gloomy days” of winter:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health,
And quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

“Lines to a Movement in Mozart’s E-flat Symphony” is a rare, hopeful poem about spring and love from the usually dour Thomas Hardy:

Show me again the time
When in the Junetide’s prime
We flew by meads and mountains northerly!–
Yea, to such freshness, fairness, fullness, fineness, freeness,
Love lures life on…
Show me again just this:
The moments of that kiss
Away from the prancing folk, by the strawberry-tree!–
Yea to such rashness, ratheness, rareness, ripeness, richness,
Love lures life on.

The Council also selected "Riddle” by Gerard Benson, a fourth-century translation of “Loving the Rituals” by Palladas, and a Seamus Heaney translation of lines written by Colmcille, a sixth-century Irish saint. Heaney and Nichols, notably, were also featured in the very first set of London Underground poems.

"Poems on the Underground" has inspired similar programmes on public transport in Dublin, Paris, New York, Vienna, Stockholm, Helsinki, Athens, Barcelona, Moscow, St Petersburg and, most recently, Shanghai and Warsaw. It's a great thing and long may it continue.