A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul

I’ve been working on a show I’m taking to the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ is a reworking of my opera ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’ll be perfoming solo, a production that fuses the life and work of Arthur Machen with a chaotic lecture on the history of Wales. I use voice, keyboards, live guitar loops and a variety of pedals and buttons that trigger samples and noises. I’ve set up a new website for the show: www.yawnthepost.com (Yawn the Post is the production company), more details there. Click here for the relevant page in the Fringe catalogue.

 

 

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The Iliad

It took me three months to wade through Robert Fagles’ 600 page translation of the Iliad. There were days when, exhausted, like the warriors, I felt I could not go on. It is brutal, graphic and relentless in its description of how one after another of the men are slaughtered, and, as each one falls, he is named and often his family and origins recorded in excrutiating detail. Yet something compelled me on. There is Achilles, the loner, a romantic human figure among the automatons, the one whose rage begins the book. There are the gods, whose arguments change the course of the war and whose voices act like the consciences of the protagonists. There is the music of the verse, because this is epic poetry, and whether Homer was the sole author, or whether it is the work of generations, there is a rhythm to the narrative, woven out of repetition, it riffs like jazz, it thunders like techno. Phrases like ‘wine dark sea’ ‘grain giving earth’ and ‘unharvestable sea’ appear again and again, like a chant that lulls the reader into the landscape of the beached ships, the citadel on the horizon, shimmering in the heat.  In The Mighty Dead Adam Nicolson contends that the origin of the Iliad can be traced back to as early as 1700 BCE, to the ancestral homeland of Achilles, the steppes between the Caspian and Black seas. We know the Trojan Wars took place in the Bronze Age, just before the mysterious collapse of many eastern Mediterranean civilisations, so the Iliad may have travelled hundreds of years before it was commited into writing by the man we know as Homer. No other work of European literature can claim such a formidably long gestation, so it is no wonder deep and ancient tradition, a civilisation long lost, ‘floats all through the songs like dust through air.’ Fagles’ translation is stunning, and finding my way through it, continually cross referencing protagonists, place names and gods has been one of the most profound experiences of my reading life.

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Making Music

I’m not sure what I want to say here. If I was ten, and sitting in a classroom in England or Wales, two countries that have imposed a straitjacket of uniformity across its schools, I would have to know exactly what I wanted to say, probably plan it before hand, paragraph by paragraph, with a tick list of connectives and ‘interesting vocabulary’ and suchlike. Teachers too have to know exactly what they plan to teach, what it is they expect children to learn from a particular session. It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, if there’s time, most teachers I’ve ever worked with like to read to their pupils, it winds things down before the headlong rush to the school gates. But no teacher I’ve ever known ever considers what those children are learning as they listen, eyes fixed, to whatever world is created in their minds as a teacher reads aloud.  Yet, for the rest of the time many teachers subscribe to current dogma, that we must teach the curriculum, not the child. Focus on the needs of the country, or the economy, or your career, or whatever it is that is your guiding principle. But it’s rarely what the child wants.

I have two children, and I like to imagine what would have happened if, when they were not yet talking, I had created a list of what I expected each of them to learn on a particular day, what vocabulary, what things I would point at, what books we would read together, or games we would play.

Because every parent knows is that every child is very different and each one needs a radically different diet of stimulation, and it is often the child that will lead. If your son points to a flower, or your daughter to the piano, you do not ignore them and direct their attention elsewhere, as if you have a prescription for how they learn. But nevertheless this is what happens in school. We teach the curriculum not the child, and more and more the curriculum is suited to one sort of child and one vision of how the future will be. According to mainstream educational policy it involves lots of writing, maths and IT software that will be out of date before the summer holidays. We don’t know what the future holds – although many would say its a future where robots take over and we humans are left to write blogs like this, musing over the way things could be.

However. This is a blog about composing music, because I’ve done a lot of it in my time and it’s just about the best thing there is. Schools can’t afford to much of it any more. Which is just as well, as they’d probably put the kids off music for life.

When I compose music I often have no idea what it is I intend to do. I have a working method, or a few to choose from, but never any clear idea of where I am heading for. I know my route, but not my destination.  I try something, and if it works, I continue. If it doesn’t, I don’t.

What the phrase ‘it works’ means here is not obvious. It’s a sense that I’ve found something that’s meaningful, and which isn’t a cliche. I just know when its right. Like teaching and parenting, composing music is an art, not a science, there are no clear rules.

I learn just as an infant learns, I am drawn to whatever interests me.

My favourite method of composition is to construct a series of musical phrases, each one a layer of sound on sound, and each one somehow related to the others. When these phrases are amassed, I begin moving them around, seeing which goes where. It’s a bit like furnishing a room on an unlimited budget: choose chairs, sofas, table, light fittings and so on that work together, but don’t expect to know how it’ll all work until it’s all there to play around with. And then you might have to leave more space than you expected, move an armchair to the spare room, add more cushions, find somewhere to store all those books.

I like making music for this very reason. It’s a constant battle between leaving something open ended, and drawing things to some sort of conclusion. It keeps the mind alive, curious, keen. The desire towards completing a polished piece is one thing, but the process is another. It’s art, it’s alchemy, it’s great fun.

I’ve worked on ‘From Ages to Ages’ for almost twenty years, and, at the same time, experimented by creating smaller compositions, always looking for something, wanting to find that elusive alchemy.

And here are some of those pieces, created over the last five or six years, ranging from simple improvisations to complex, sometimes muddled collages of sound.

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From Ages to Ages

Back in the 1990s I had a small midi studio set up in my flat in Ealing. I’d just bought a new keyboard, and was experimenting with using an Alessis sequencer which allowed me to record layers of music, something that today anyone with an iPad can do easily, but which then was something altogether new. I’d had a series of tape recorders, but these, like the Teac 4 track, were huge machines that needed careful handling. This new set up was like a sketchpad: I could leave it running all day and wander in, listen, add a track, edit something, go back out.

I’d always thought I would start a big project at some point, and had an idea of creating something based on the work of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose fictions were set in that part of London I now lived. But despite having the idea, I could not find a way to start. Whatever I tried seemed cliched or laboured. But then one afternoon a couple of friends came over. We had a few drinks, I showed them my set up. Neither of them were musicians, but they were captivated by the sounds that keyboard, sequencer and sound modules could make. So I let them play about for a few giddy minutes. I saved what they did – a scrambled series of semi-tones. I forgot about it.

But a few days later, resuming my search for a way to begin my magnum Machen opus I retrieved their sonic doodles and listened. I cleaned it up, added a few bass notes and realised this was the beginning of something. I developed it over the next few weeks and then, perhaps because of warmer weather or work or boredom, I put it to one side.

Three or four years later I moved to south Wales, bought an Atari computer and Cubase software, a sampler, some new sound generators, and once more woke the Machen project out of its hibernation. I worked on it for a year or so, and once more, shelved it.

This pattern repeated itself over two decades. I’d buy a new set up, develop the piece, forget about it. This went on until last year when I decided to buy some studio time, and finish the thing. ‘From Ages to Ages’, a sort of three act ‘musical lecture’ (it’s hardly an opera) was eventually finished in May 2016, twenty five years after it was born in the flat in Ealing.

I lost touch with the two friends whose delightfully naive playing gave me the eerie theme I use in the opening sections, but their curious little melody weaves its way through the hour of music that is ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’m very proud of it, but have put it away now and more or less forgotten about it. It’s time to start something new.

 

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Bird Brains

In his huge, extraordinary book The Master and His Emissary Iain McGilchrist writes this:

“If you are a bird…you solve the conundrum of how to eat and stay alive by employing different strategies with either eye: the right eye for getting and feeding , the left eye for vigilant awareness of the environment. More generally , chicks prioritise local information with the right eye and global information with the left eye.”

Information from the right eye is relayed to the left brain, and the left eye to the right.  The left brain is responsible for focused attention, and the left brain for more or less everything else but particularly, vigilance.

The more focused your attention, almost by definition, the more likely you are able to ignore the world around you.

In Syracuse in 212BCE Archimedes, concentrating on the geometry of conic sections, failed to hear the approach of Roman soldiers, who killed him moments later. Concentration can block the world out. Focused thinking, particularly when we’re trying to solve a problem, obliterates everything else.

Intelligence is a measure of focused thinking. The testing and examination regime of the English and Welsh education systems rewards the focused thinker at the expense of the mind that is more open, less able to follow a line of thinking, more likely to wander off into a daydream. Yet the daydreamers are often the creative thinkers, the ones who need time, not pressure, to succeed.

Liam Hudson, writing in 1966, grasped this in his book Contrary Imaginations. He developed a series of tests to show that the focused thinker, (he used the term convergent thinker) although able to solve mathematical and closed problems, was not so able to find creative solutions. Very often, the vigilant thinker (Hudson calls these divergent) those whose brains, for whatever reason, are more likely to wander, can provide endless solutions when the focused thinker, the one on the hunt, can find very few.  The convergent thinker, says Hudson, tends towards maths and sciences, the divergent towards the arts.

Guy Claxton, in his 1998 book Hare Brain Turtle Mind suggests that the regimented learning model of recent times prevents the unconscious mind from finding answers. Creativity is blocked.  And as Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary elucidates, what is at stake is of paramount importance.

In the test driven school system, the focused thinker is the winner. In turn, these students achieve results, gain university places, the higher paid jobs.  Think of the terms ‘target’ ‘aim’ objective’ – which mode of thinking do these suggest? It’s obvious. The education system has built in prejudice.

It follows that positions of authority and power are often filled by the focused, convergent, target driven thinker, who assumes that the way he or she learnt must be the only way, and so the process is continued.

Meanwhile, the creative thinkers, the vigilant, divergent daydreamers and creators, are squashed, their talents exiled to the remote and undervalued regions of the education system. It’s a waste, and it’s damaging, and as I hope to explore in a later blog, one contribution to the growing epidemic of mental illness.

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Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult

A recent Radio 4 programme ( ‘Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult’ ) looked at a study conducted in the USA that suggests acute childhood experiences (ACEs) are a major cause of serious illness in later life.  The criteria for what constitutes an ‘acute childhood experience’ are listed here  – but briefly it means abuse and neglect.  The study showed that 50% of 69 year olds with no ACEs are free from serious disease. Of those with 4 or more ACEs only 20% are without serious disease.

This is fascinating enough. And also deeply worrying. Childhood poverty is increasing dramatically in the UK, and whilst we can’t assume that poverty causes abuse and neglect, only an idiot would imagine it plays no part.

But what the programme revealed next was even more incredible.  When the data was explored in more detail the researchers were astonished to discover that the very act of completing the ACE questionnaire reduced a subject’s likelihood of visiting a doctor the following year by a dramatic 35%.

The study suggests the importance of early intervention.  Even the most hard headed capitalist can see how early intervention will reduce costs to the health service in later years. But even more significantly the study suggests that exploring early childhood experiences with adults will decrease their need to see their doctor at all.

Stress makes us ill and for some of us talking about our lives helps us heal. How long will it take for these messages to reach the policy makers?

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Hare Brain, Turtle Mind

Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers.  Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.

Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury.  And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.

When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.

And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.

Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope.  There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s  Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.

Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.

International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic.  And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.

The system itself is failing.  There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.

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Extreme Babbulary

Wednesday June 10th: I presented a series of eight workshops at St Thomas Cantilupe School in Hereford.  Eight Babbulary workshops, one after another. It was a challenge, and one that I accepted in order to determine whether the core content of the workshop could extend across the primary age range. The answer is that, with a few tweaks, it can. The nursery pupils laughed at the silly sound effects and slapstick mime, but bobbed about to the rhythm and syllable sequences and were genuinely very nice to me. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, the Year 6 pupils were almost as keen to submit to the nonsense, and once they realised this was a joint exploration, were quite gleeful. They were happy to launch the Pencil of Destiny into the Balloon of Nastybad, and restore peace. They seemed fascinated by the presentation I gave on my favourite words – for example, the word turkey (the animal) is dinde (of India) in French, and simply peru in Portuguese. Perhaps the pupils in the middle, the seven and eight year olds, were the most reluctant to accept the lunacy of the enterprise, one child declaring, right at the end of the day ‘what was that all about?’ A question I took as the highest compliment.  I’ve always thought experience is the best means of learning anything, (how do we learn to talk?)  so I want the workshops to be sensory as well as conceptually challenging. I don’t tell the children what it is they are going to learn because each will take away something different, or, in the case of the child who asked the question at the end, go away wondering what it was all about.

There was one major flaw in the proceedings, however, and that was my tendency, later in the day, to confuse one workshop with the next (they were in thirty minute slots, one after another) so I often forgot to include something because, mistakenly, I thought we’d just done it. (Not realising it was covered in the previous workshop!) It got very hairy towards the last two sessions, when my head was beginning to spin, and the children (having spent the day in other workshops) were spinning too.

But a hugely positive experience, and wonderful, lively, interesting children.

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My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s  A Death in the Family  is the first of six volumes provocatively titled My Struggle.  This first volume deals with Knausgaard’s early youth, and the death of his father but it’s the way Knausgaaard sets about this that makes it so evocative.  He wants to include everything; and in the same way as Borges’ Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard.  Or like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world in labourious detail, so Knausgaard’s preference is to present us with the quotidian and the incidental,  but it’s the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard’s soupy universe.  There are moments when I couldn’t help but feel I was walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the disappointing parties, the dreadful bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, sometimes, certainly he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, something he occasionally does with philosophical digressions, is somehow charming.  He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision.    ‘What you see every day is what you never see,’ he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail.  It’s no wonder his writing reminds me of  Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst.  This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes without fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren’t so sensitive, he wouldn’t have produced such a fine book.  It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is.  Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I’ve read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.

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Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’

I don’t understand poetry.  But I’m not sure I know what I mean by the word understand.  Poetry doesn’t get me anywhere. I never feel as if I’ve learnt something that I didn’t know before, although I wonder what I mean by know. Sometimes a feeling is captured and held there and for a few seconds at least you think you know what it means.  This isn’t to suggest that the poet meant the same things.  The poet can only do so much.  Yet Paterson’s Rain exists in a class of poetry that does everything for me. I find it intellectually interesting but it has an emotional, almost physiological impact, it gets me in the gut.

‘We come from nothing and return to it’ is the first line of Phantom V. It’s not a particularly illuminating nor original thought and Paterson puts it quite baldly: but this thought is threaded through other poems in this collection with far more nuance and subtlety – and when his own children are the subject matter, the poetry becomes fragile, beautiful and permeated with aching grief. In The Circle Paterson’s son struggles to paint a picture, but at the same time his water jar captures an echo of the universe. In placing the child in such a vast cosmography, his efforts are simultaneously futile and colossal. The Swing touches on a similar theme – the moment of a child’s existence between two eternities:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.
I’ve never read anything so gracefully poignant. My favourite poem of the collection (The Rain at Sea) I am not close to understanding: its power is its mystery.

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