Like it or not, Kenneth Branagh’s well-known brand of easy optimism, kindness, and generosity that characterised all of his Shakespearean adaptations (yes, even his Henry V and Hamlet) seems a thing of the past now. After Julie Taymor’s melancholy Tempest (2010), Ralph Fiennes’s butch, angry Coriolanus (2011), and the dolorous histories of The Hollow Crown (BBC, 2012) comes a positively harrowing Macbeth from Justin Kurzel, the director of Snowtown, confirming that on screen, at least, moody, depressing Shakespeare is the order of the day in the teenage years of the 21st century. (Note that the second—darker, bloodier—season of The Hollow Crown, dealing with the Wars of the Roses, is scheduled for next year). Given the star power promoting this particular adaptation, the praise at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and the enduring popularity of the play itself, it may seem strange to ask if this film is any good. Nevertheless, I find myself struggling to come up with a simple answer. This is because in the end there are two very different things at stake here: first, is this film a good piece of cinema? And second, is it a good Shakespeare? Such films as Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964), Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), or, indeed, The Hollow Crown histories stand as proofs that the two are not in fact mutually exclusive. Will Kurzel’s Macbeth join their ranks? I have my doubts.

To begin with my first question: how well does this adaptation work as a cinematic undertaking? The answer is, well enough. It’s bold, smooth, and visually arresting. The story, a taut, cynical thriller about a warrior turned tyrant, is as gripping here as it has always been, the film itself adding little to it — if sometimes cutting quite a bit. Perhaps in an effort to offer cinematic images that would match the powerful poetry of the play, the film occasionally goes beyond the customary screen realism to toy with expressionist compositions, fades to white, extreme slow motion, and erratic editing. While not particularly inspired, these moments are not too distracting either, the action and emotion remaining perfectly clear at all times. And what is clear above all is that this Macbeth is supposed to be an incredibly depressing affair. ‘Cold’, ‘brutal’, and ‘miserable’ must have been universal cues for the designers and actors alike. No one ever laughs, hardly anyone ventures a smile here. All men on screen sport the I-will-probably-be-dead-by-tomorrow expression and, this being Macbeth, most of them indeed will. The women are silent and bitter, their children endlessly victimized. Kurzel’s medieval Scotland is a bleak, barbaric world where ruthlessness is the key to survival — so it’s probably quite an accurate depiction of the actual historical moment. Shakespeare himself might have had a slightly different mental image of his play-world, as the pivotal act of regicide is described by virtually everybody in the play as an assault on the divine order of the universe itself, which in Kurzel’s film emphasizing the dog-eat-dog politics of warring Scottish clans translates into rather hysterical and improbable outbursts of moral outrage.

Such oddities aside, the vividness and consistency of Kurzel’s vision is one of the film’s greatest strengths. At his best, Kurzel shows only just enough to paint an evocative image of Macbeth’s doomed world: the common misery of the poor, the terrified court, the nameless soldiers trudging on. There are moments in Kurzel’s film that put me in mind of Grigori Kozintsev’s two Shakespearean adaptations, Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971). There, Kozintsev found room for the crowds and masses and found their role in the story. Both of his tragedies were projected on a grand scale, sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed, the displaced, the suffering. His Lear in particular used images of tramps and beggars roaming desolate landscapes to great effect. Kurzel seems to share some of Kozintsev’s sensibilities, even if he is not quite as interested in examining the fate of the society at times of political upheaval as the Soviet director was. And he, too, knows that while having horses and armies and fire is grand, the real advantage of pointing a camera at Shakespeare is that you can look closely into someone’s eyes. Yes, I thought every now and then as I was watching the film, this is how Kozintsev might have approached this play — and that I take to be a very high praise indeed.

maxresdefault (2)

The danger that Kurzel courted was, of course, the law of diminishing returns. There is only so much relentless, unrelieved misery, so much gore, so much desolation that can be put on screen before it becomes tiring, even somewhat ridiculous, and I’m afraid that for me the tedium was definitely there. Even though Macbeth is probably Shakespeare’s darkest, scariest, most pessimistic play, Shakespeare was not a brooding Scandinavian author obsessing over pain and death. That Kurzel’s film would sometimes have the viewer think so is an indication of how much the original text has been tampered with — which brings me to my second point. Is this Macbeth a good Shakespeare? Not particularly, I’m afraid, and the reason might be very simple: the filmmakers seem to have badly underestimated the text. It’s not just a matter of cutting unwanted scenes (Porter, Hecate, Lady Macduff with her son, Young Siward, etc.) and clumsy, often needless tinkering with the lines (the credited screenwriters are Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso). The responsibility lies also with the director and the actors, who made me think that what exactly the characters were saying was here only of secondary importance.

Here is what I think went wrong: anxious about adapting what is probably one of the most difficult texts in the Shakespeare canon, the creators decided to emphasise the psychological dimension whenever possible and to rely on their conception of the characters to convey, sometimes even force, meaning. Thus Macbeth was diagnosed with PTSD — just like Fiennes’s Coriolanus a few years back — and he and Lady Macbeth were loaded with the trauma of having just buried their only child (the interpolated opening scene of the film), an interpretive manoeuvre so common these days that it might soon become the most annoying cliché in modern Shakespeare productions since Hamlet’s Oedipus complex. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are both excellent at portraying this hurting couple, but the acute sense of their pain and gradual mental breakdown kept overriding my concern for the meaning of the actual words they were speaking. I could not help but suspect that someone actually believed that as long as I got the gist (‘ah, all right, so this is where Macbeth goes mad’), it didn’t matter all that much that I failed to follow the verse. No one should be allowed to get away with believing such nonsense. The text, especially in Shakespeare’s later plays, is everything. It can be complex and convoluted, sometimes insanely so, but that’s often because it’s bursting with meaning, with metaphors, puns, antitheses, echoes, paradoxes, and this must all be conveyed. If the actors lose this, they lose all that really matters.

The verses of Macbeth do not merely speak of unbearable terrors, of collapsing boundaries between the real and the unreal, the living and the dead, the moral and the amoral universe, they themselves collapse those boundaries, they themselves are unbearable terrors. If I am to appreciate the depths of this play, I need to know exactly what the actors are saying. Watching two desperate, isolated people mumbling, droning, and hissing Shakespeare’s words at each other won’t do the trick. It is possible that Kurzel and his cast simply wanted to avoid theatrics — they certainly excised any scene that would compromise the deadly seriousness of the main plot, making Shakespeare sound much dourer than he actually was. The advantage of theatricality, however, is that it can help the viewer get in. The best actors are never afraid to pause, turn head, raise voice, or make a gesture for some extra emphasis in Shakespeare. Frustratingly, only the famous soundbites tend to get such treatment here, almost as if trying to alert the viewers: here is one bit that you may recognise. The rest is sometimes bordering on tired monotony. The supporting actors are not allowed any significant liberties with their parts, either, and as they seem to have been encouraged not to stand out (most of them even made to look like one another, what with all those beards and frowns), there isn’t much to be said about particular supporting performances, despite some well-known names in the cast. To be sure, Sean Harris is a magnetic presence throughout as a seething, brutalized Macduff, and David Thewlis has an air of quiet menace about him as a not-so-saintly king Duncan, but neither is ever given enough room to steal a scene.


Many older productions of Macbeth now available on DVD hammer home just how much more complex the play can be if the production retains its odd ‘corner’ scenes and allows supporting actors to make the most of them: the appearance of the creepy Porter, the grotesque banter of the three Witches, Lady Macduff’s bitter, nerve-racking reflections before the attack, Macduff’s unsettling interview with Malcolm in England (none of these made it here). Kurzel kept his focus firmly on his star leads and while he managed to make the story suitably raw and the central couple’s fall appropriately sickening, he also sacrificed a great deal of subtlety. Yes, his film boasts a stunning cinematography and production values that make even Roman Polanski’s much admired Macbeth of 1970 pale in comparison. But those in search of nuanced Shakespearean performances rather than the grim visual poetry of slowmo gore and misty Scottish panoramas would do better to check out some of the more stagey productions of recent past. There are some excellent options: Greg Doran’s wild, vaguely modern RSC Macbeth with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter starring as the traumatized couple (2001) maps very much the same emotional territory as Kurzel’s film, with a more confident ensemble backup. Rupert Goold’s quirky, cheap-shock horror production of 2010 boasts Patrick Stewart’s powerful take on the Scottish tyrant reimagined as an ageing Stalinist dictator, with Kate Fleetwood as a chilling Lady M. And, as strange as it may sound, the shabby old masterpiece of a production directed by Trevor Nunn and featuring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (and Roger Rees, Bob Peck, John Woodvine, Ian McDiarmid…), recorded in a studio in 1979, still holds its own.

It was to Nunn’s minimalist, claustrophobic, supremely theatrical take on the play that I wanted to return to most after watching Kurzel’s ambitious cinematic adaptation. This is perhaps because, unlike the present offering, Nunn’s Macbeth is confident that as long as it delivers a good Shakespeare, it will make for a good film also, no matter how cheap the production values. Kurzel’s film sometimes seems to be banking on reversing the logic, coaxing Shakespeare out of a hauntingly beautiful film. And it makes me still more confident that Nunn’s approach is far more likely to succeed.

Jakub Boguszak

‘Macbeth’ is currently running in cinemas, including the Phoenix Picturehouse and Oxford Odeon.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

In a wonderfully energetic lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre last week, Simon Schama delivered a snapshot of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Face of Britain – The Nation through its Portraits’. The exhibition opened on September 16 to favourable reviews, coincided with the release of an accompanying book and will be followed by a five part series on BBC2. Schama’s evident intellectual investment and infectious enthusiasm for the arts, and in particular here, portraiture, added a special valour to the representation of each portrait discussed.

Simon Schama

Simon Schama

The full collection of portraits, including pictures by Henry Tonks and Sir Anthony van Dyck, serves as an affirmation of British diversity and established notions of British cultural identity. However the strength of the collection lies in a very deliberate and diligent attempt to once again capture the nation’s imagination for what it means to British. Indeed, Schama is very upfront about ‘The Face of Britain’ being a mechanism to tell the British people who they are. This is, as Schama explains, what the National Portrait Gallery was designed to show. My knee-jerk reaction to this idea was to immediately think, ‘but this is one person’s opinion of what it means to be British’. However, to focus too much on this issue risks losing the bigger picture of what Schama achieves. Through his various presentations of this exhibition, what Schama really accomplishes is bringing the visual arts and in particular art history to the publics attention in a way that few are able to today. Schama breathes new life into a genre whose relevance has been called into question by popular sensibilities, by giving charming stories and personalities to sitters represented in each of the portraits. Some stories relate to love, some to aspirations of power, whilst others present the intrepid humanitarian work of previously under-appreciated souls as emblems of British history. In this vein, Schama remarkably elegantly incorporates a notion of altruistic and philanthropic history as an important facet of British identity.

According to Schama, the potentiality of the bond created with eye contact, accompanied by the stories of each, allows for the viewer to be transported back to that particular place in time and connect with the history on an almost personal level. This imaginative philosophy suggests why portraiture has proved of enduring interest, offering a fantastic mechanism to connect with people and history perhaps better than any other visual medium. Rather than transporting people into a different time however, what the ‘Face of Britain’ enables, as a celebration of British history and identity, is sense of belonging today. By carving out what it has meant to be British and enabling the potential of personal connections and bonds to be realised with each portrait, Schama guides the audience to understanding how that history is still important today through the themes of love, power, people, fame, and self. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the exhibition invites everyone to find their own personal connection with this history. The result is that Schama’s series has eloquently packaged up an idea of British identity, quite literally given it a face and placed it squarely in the nation’s living room.

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen carte-de-visite, 25 June 1870

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen carte-de-visite, 25 June 1870

Simon Schama’s dedication and excitement for art history and the visual arts emanates from every inch of the ‘Face of Britain’. I am a firm believer in the value of art history as an educational tool and given Schama’s success at placing the arts at the forefront of popular imagination, I can only hope that there is more where this came from.

Nirmalie Mulloli

‘The Face of Britain – The Nation through its Portraits’ exhibition at the London National Portrait Gallery will run from September 16 2015 – January 4 2016Simon Schama’s Face of Britain five part series will be broadcast on BBC2 from September 30.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

The IK Tate Prize was awarded this year to Flying Object’s project ‘Tate Sensorium’, an exploration of our non-visual senses and the impact they have on our appreciation and interpretation of visual art. Currently showing for an extended run at Tate Britain, it adds another perspective to the plethora of exhibitions (such as the National Gallery’s recent ‘Soundscapes’) that focus on multi-sensory interaction, a popular subject for contemporary art. The experience at ‘Tate Sensorium’ is an exclusive one: you enter the Sensorium with only three others, after collecting your free ticket from the reception. Tickets are released in two batches at 10am and 2pm daily, but queues are quick to form. Fortunately, Sensorium proved worth the wait.

The space is organised in four rooms, with one artwork in each. A gallery assistant guides you, and I really felt I was being accompanied on a “discovery journey”. The four works on display are very different, as are the associated stimuli. From pop paintings accompanied by smells, to hand tickling before a geometric abstract work, all five senses are engaged. The aim is to help visitors reach their own interpretation, informing a personal response enriched by the contribution of other senses. The impressions Sensorium left me with are very personal — it would be fascinating to hear about what the same stimuli did to different people, perhaps written or recorded for public display once you emerge from the experience.

Richard Hamilton: 'Interior II' (1964) © Tate Britain

Richard Hamilton: ‘Interior II’ (1964) © Tate Britain

I found myself frequently reminded of random things, which often had little or nothing to do with the paintings I saw. The guide instructs visitors to allow memories to arise freely, and to create associations between those memories and what we were experiencing. The sweet fragrances and sleek design of the room depicted in Richard Hamilton’s Interior II (1964), reminded me of the film Barefoot in the Park (1967), which I saw five or six years ago. David Bomberg’s In the Hold (1913-14) called to mind my harp lessons as a child, once again triggered by the smell, which was very similar to my teacher’s fragrance.

Also interesting were instances when the perception of the painting was modified or distorted by the interference of the other senses. The tactile sensation of wind made me ‘see’ the giant black dot by John Latham (Full Stop, 1961) as a dark hole, with the help of the acoustic recreation of winds which sounded, to me, like what I might have heard in space. When the stimulus changed to raindrops and watery sounds, my attention shifted to the right-hand side of the work, where the drops of sprayed paint were more visible. At that point, I almost felt that I was touching the work, and experienced a persistent sensation of coldness. Similarly, Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape (1965) was heavily influenced by the sensorial stimulus, this time the taste of a grainy ball of chocolate. The texture led me to focus on the top-left corner of the painting, which looked as “dusty” as the sounds I was hearing. So I conceptualised the whole work as a real landscape set in the Far West. I could see it in all its elements: a gallery carved in the rock, perhaps of a mine; a cart on a railway; the tail of a horse.

Francis Bacon: 'Figure in a Landscape' (1945) © Tate Britain

Francis Bacon: ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945) © Tate Britain

The overall experience of ‘Tate Sensorium’ was compelling and exciting, and I would have little to add to it. My only concern with ‘Tate Sensorium’ was the predominance of sounds. While the other senses were present only once or twice, sounds were never absent, perhaps as they are easiest to insert into a gallery space. I would have preferred to have had moments of silence, to be able to perceive the difference between experiencing a painting with or without sounds. But the exhibition succeeds in its intended purpose, namely to trigger new and fresh interpretations of paintings by appealing to different senses, and to see the ways in which smell, touch, taste, and hearing can contribute to our appreciation of art.

Anna Zanetti

More information about ‘Tate Sensorium’ can be found on the Tate website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

‘People like us don’t get buffeted by the wind. We change its course.’

So says Celia Willbond, one of the four female scholars attending Cambridge University in Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, currently running at Oxford’s Old Fire Station. The “people” to whom Celia refers are four brave, intelligent and witty young women attending Cambridge’s Girton College, in the face of Victorian male intolerance and scrutiny. Swale’s play centres on the year 1898, and the girls’ turbulent journey towards achieving a degree-level education at one of the country’s most prestigious universities.  Above and beyond their personal tribulations, the debates surrounding whether women deserve the right to graduate as full members of the University, as their male counterparts could, set the play firmly within this ground breaking period of women’s academic history. 

Girton College, and its history of female academic endeavour, plays a vital role in Blue Stockings. Set just outside of the centre of Cambridge, the college was established in 1869 as a place for women to study. By 1898 it was home to female undergraduates, staff, and some male colleagues sympathetic to the cause of female academia. The students of Girton could attend the same classes as male students, sit the same exams — and yet were denied the opportunity to graduate. Swale dives into this oppressive, misogynistic society, and offers a glimpse of the struggles borne by these brave women, who were faced with male revulsion and the derogatory name “blue stockings” if they chose an academic path instead of motherhood and family life. Celebrating the pioneers of female equality, Blue Stockings narrates a story centred on real events and people: mainly Mrs Welsh (Helen Taylor), the innovative mistress of Girton College, Dr Maudsley (Nick Quartley), the bastion of male academic chauvinism, and the events of 1898 leading to the Senate vote on female graduation. 

Girton College Cambridge

Girton College Cambridge

ElevenOne’s production was flawless in its vivid depiction of life at Girton College in the late nineteenth century. Particular praise is due to Tracey Rimell, whose role as the protagonist Tess Moffat required not only compassion and wit, but also raw fury, passion and anger, all of which were delivered beautifully. The company conveyed very well the sense of oppression felt by women in male-dominated corridors and Cambridge lecture theatres. The odious Dr Maudsley gave a particularly vitriolic monologue to the students and the audience on female hysteria and the “wandering womb” syndrome. The uncomfortable looks on the faces of the female students on stage were reflected exactly by the ladies of the audience. It was difficult, as a female scholar myself, to grit my teeth throughout Maudsley’s diatribe of chauvinistic hate: in this way the company certainly gave modern women a sense of the alienation felt every day by those early advocates of female education. 

The motto of Girton College is ‘Better is wisdom than weapons of war,a sentiment echoed by the brave Mrs Welsh throughout the play. ‘Degrees by degrees,’ she claims, is the best way to encourage men to accept women at universities. The dynamics between the patience-preaching Mrs Welsh, and the ideas of justice and political movement espoused by Miss Blake (Ida Persson), were beautifully created and nuanced. The audience becomes party to the awful choice faced by bright, intelligent women — to become academics, and to face a life without husband and family, reviled by society — or to become a dutiful wife and mother, and forgo the joys of learning and the pursuit of knowledge. We are asked the question – what would you choose? However, to reduce this performance of Blue Stockings to a political statement on the importance of female academic equality would be to miss the humour, wit and laughter with which the performance was infused. The awkward scenes of first love played out against the backdrop of Cambridge’s streets held a charm of their own, as did the scenes of camaraderie experienced by the four students and their teachers. These moments of joviality served particularly to highlight the oppressive academic background against which the play is set. 

Despite some minor technical malfunctions, which are normal during the first night of any production, the performance had the atmosphere of a professional and very well presented company. In the final scene, it is revealed to the audience that women were finally given the right to graduate from Cambridge in 1948 — fifty years after the play takes place. We leave the theatre reflecting on the extent to which times have changed.  Are women still faced with the dilemma of academic and professional success, versus a fulfilling family life? Can we really “have it all?” We are left to reflect on the current barriers to university education, such as the debates about tuition fees, and also to consider the new frontiers for female education. The text of Blue Stockings is dedicated, in fact, to Malala Yousafzai — a direct link to the current challenges facing women all around the globe attempting to gain an education, faced with misogyny and violence. And finally, we leave the theatre with a sense of pride in these characters who fought so hard for rights which we today hold to be guaranteed. Blue Stockings should be performed on every university campus, as a reminder to students of how lucky they are to have access to university education.

Sian Mitchell

‘Blue Stockings’ runs at the Old Fire Station until Saturday 26th November. More details and ticket information can be found here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Graham Fitkin is a composer and winner of two British Composer Awards. He recently performed in Oxford as part of the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, and at the Cheltenham Festival with his own ensemble, Fitkin Band. Giles Masters spoke to Graham about his work, his influences, and his approach to composing.

Can you tell us us something about the Fitkin Wall album that launches this month?

It’s called Lost, and it started life as music I wrote for an aerial theatre company called Ockham’s Razor. They asked me to write music for Ruth [Wall] to go with their five performers, who perform on constructed sets; they’re in the air most of the time and swinging around. They don’t do tricks as such, but there’s a bit of danger to it; but on the whole it’s very slow and beautiful movements up there. [The album] was originally called Not Until We Are Lost, named after Thoreau’s phrase, “Not until we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves.” You can feel very lost generally in life, I feel, for all sorts of reasons. So [the album] explores the nature of feeling lost, whether geographically, within an environment you don’t feel part of, or even in a digital culture, loss in terms of feeling you belong to something, or a loss of a faculty, such as sight. [This creates] just slightly different perspectives on things.

That’s where I started from, and of course, it’s pretty abstract music. I’ve framed it within that idea of “loss”, which gives a certain ambiguity to the music in this particular case, which is not something my compositions generally have (so for instance in a piece like Circuit [2002] it’s pretty obvious what’s going on). This is more ephemeral, more difficult to grasp than some of my other pieces, and that’s part of the nature of it. It’s written for two different harps,  wire harp and concert harp; I play Moog synthesiser, keyboard and a few boxes and bits and pieces.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a set of six pieces for my own ensemble [the Graham Fitkin Band] that are based on disco in some form or another. I researched disco, or early disco anyway, for a little earlier in the year, and I decided I’d write six songs using some disco themes of the time. Lyrically and socially, disco was an important musical form for Hispanic rights, black rights, gay rights, and women’s rights. New York was the centre of the disco era, and there were various clubs and lofts that became open to a variety of cultures. It was an incredibly liberating dance format for many people who wouldn’t have had the chance to go to a night club — gay couples, for example — and for the first time in their lives, women could dance on their own: they didn’t have to be asked to dance by a man or a partner, they could just get up and dance. In the past, whether twist or rock ’n’ roll, you had people in pairs, attached to their partner, and I was quite interested in that.

So that became the lyrical basis, but at the same time I thought, “How do I [approach these ideas of liberation] in this day and age?” So I sort of twisted it on its head a little bit. In recent years, many celebrity icons have fallen down, people who we put on a pedestal – it could be a Tiger Woods, or a Jimmy Saville. There’s a fragility to celebrity status, and that went into the melting pot. I composed these songs and wrote the lyrics for them, and they were just premiered at the Cheltenham Festival [on July 11th]. I’m also finishing off an album with my partner Ruth Wall, who’s a harpist, and we’re touring that in the autumn.

Ockham's Razor © Stuart Keegan

Ockham’s Razor © Stuart Keegan

The physicality and social aspects of dance are not necessarily things that a lot of people would associate with classical music?

No, they wouldn’t, and I’m sure that in the Cheltenham Festival, they probably aren’t expecting it. Nonetheless, I’ve written songs that have a hint of disco about them in their vibe, in their beat and so on. It’s still my music, though, and it’s not as straightforward as just that. I have great difficulty writing in four beats in a bar the whole time, so it’s been good for me to try.

When did composing start for you?

Probably when I was seven. I started piano when I was six. My mum taught me and I was not a good pupil; I kept giving up because I was bored with scales, and she did a very smart thing — she let me give up. She never forced me back into it, but I would just go back to the piano  myself and start improvising and enjoy the silly little things I was coming up with. But they became important. I’d start to play the piano again properly, she’d teach me and I’d give up again … but I always sidled back to the piano. When I was eleven, I wrote my first written-down piano piece, and then shortly after that I rewrote Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata because, to be honest, at that age C sharp minor is a rubbish key to put anything in, so I thought A minor would be much better. So A minor it was, with slightly bluesy chords.

The piano has stayed pretty central to your work — is that because you’re a pianist yourself, or is there something about the sound that you’re interested in?

Yes. The piano is not in all my pieces, by any means, but probably at least half of them have got piano in. I do love the sound of it: the envelope of sound from attack and then starting to decay pretty much straight away; or attack and then very quick bloom of the note before it starts decaying. That’s something that I’ve worked with and I suppose I know. I also love the fact that you can hear harmony on a piano so beautifully, as opposed to multi-timbral groups ,where you hear the timbres.

How do you approach the compositional process now?

It’s different every time. Generally when I’m working on one piece, another piece will be gestating. I only ever really write one piece at a time, but I’m already just beginning to think about a recorder concerto that is coming up next year, for example. I couldn’t give you anything or tell you anything about it because it’s very, very early, but that’s in my head. What tends to happen when I properly start a composition is that I write lots of notes on a piece of A4 paper — not musical notes, text — about what I want to do with the piece, and that will be the start. It might have drawings on it, or not; it might have graphs, or not; it might have nothing on it that you could later identify in the piece, but it’s important for me.

Is there something important about getting things down on paper?

I think getting it on paper’s really good, actually. There’s something about that physicality of pen or pencil on paper that I really enjoy. There’s a connectivity to it. I can compose on a digital format but I quite like that physical thing which is there pretty much throughout the whole composition [process], to go back to. If I’m writing music and I think “this is great”, then I can look back at that piece of paper and think: “it is great, but it doesn’t really fit with that. And if we’re going to go with that, it could fit perhaps”. And then maybe I have a choice: do I go back to that initial idea and keep with that, or has it developed in such a way that it’s not so relevant, in which case I have to think again. But generally, I’m always going back to that first idea.


Which composers have had the greatest impact on you?

I love Bach: I love playing Bach and I love listening to Bach. I’d say in terms of influence, I admire the clarity of some of Bach’s work greatly. Of the Baroque composers I still really like Corelli, and I’m beginning to get into Purcell quite a bit. I love Mozart as well, but he’s probably had less of an influence on me than Bach, I think. Then you could miss out a century in influence, if you like, possibly [jump to] Sibelius, but Stravinsky is the next big one, and then you get to Steve Reich. And then there’s pop music and jazz, which was very important to me as a teenager — people like Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, even going back to Charlie Parker. Lastingly, film composers — Bernard Herrmann, for instance — and people like my teacher, Louis Andriessen, who was quite a big influence as well.

Everybody will have had the experience where somebody introduces you to something and you go “wow”, whether you like it or not. I was very lucky that a few key people in my life have said “have you heard this guy?”, and I’d listen to it and think “wow, this is something I’ve not heard before”. It was my brother who introduced me to Philip Glass. He probably isn’t my favourite composer because there’s something less rigorous about his temporal structures. But nonetheless at the time it was amazing, I’d never heard anything like it. At the same time I had a teacher at school who introduced me to Hindemith. Those things were always important.

What do you feel you’ve gained from Louis Andriessen’s tutoring?

He was very specific as a teacher. Composition is such a funny thing to learn and to teach. I’ve taught a few people for a little while but I don’t do a lot of it, it’s just very difficult to know how to teach it. I was lucky that I had two composers who taught me, Peter Nelson and Nigel Osborne, when I was seventeen or eighteen. Peter especially was very encouraging, and that’s what I needed at that time. When I got to Louis I was a little bit older so I could take criticism more easily and understand it a lot more. Encouraging wasn’t what he was going to be. He and I talked about politics as much as anything else. He would look at a bassline and say what he thought was good and bad about it, and he would be very specific, which was what I needed then, he was great for me. If I’d had him when I was seventeen I think I would have been too meek and mild to really develop my own style as much at that time. He would also polarise — I would say something, and he would say: “you can’t do that”. I would ask why, and he’d give me his reasons. Some of them might be almost comical because they were so over the top, but he was trying to make me think about the effect that certain things would have. That’s probably a useful thing at any time.

With reference, perhaps, to the influence of Stravinsky, something that strikes me about a piece like Circuit is the use of seemingly self-contained passages with clear breaks between them. How does it work for you making those blocks of material work as a cohesive structure?

Well, I suppose that’s a challenge I set for myself. I like juxtaposing blocks, which is where some of the Stravinskian influence comes from. What I like to do is this: when I’m listening to music I listen to a specific bit of music, and it’s generally framed by something else around it. Where it’s placed will alter my perception of it, so I quite carefully try and plot where certain musics will come in and feature. That is a sort of journey, if you like, but it’s a surprising journey. I like to give information to the listener, so they expect things, and it turns out not to go that way. If you mould information and change it in certain ways, then you can create tension and resolution, and that’s still quite strong in my music.

Does thinking about framing and context in terms of listener’s perception shape your approach concert programming?

I try to but I don’t always get the chance — there are so many practicalities and sometimes you have to be pragmatic. I was very fortunate to be given free rein to curate six concerts at King’s Place in London. They were called the Multiplier concerts, and I wanted just to have groups with the same timbre — so you could have four saxophones, seventeen guitars, two harpsichords, anything along those lines — and we would have three of those groups every concert. Then, you get the homogeneity of the whole thing but elements that you weren’t expecting, and I enjoyed doing that. It was a really nice format, I think — I’d like to do more of that.

Which pop artists or groups do you particularly admire?

I like pop music that understands what it’s doing (or at least pretends to). I like the Pet Shop Boys, for example, because there’s a sense of irony about what they do. It’s very difficult because sometimes you become the thing you’re trying to take the piss out of. But I liked their deadpan delivery, and I also thought the music was very clear and, just the same as classical music, I understood what they were trying to do. It wasn’t trying to do anything flowery, and I appreciated the clarity with which it achieved it. For a little while I was interested in indie bands — Wire, Swans, The Fall — then I had a moment where I thought that everything Stock Aitken Waterman did with Kylie Minogue was great. Other than that, I’m a great fan of Marvin Gaye, and I listen to Underworld all the time at the moment. [My listening] is quite broad still. I do still listen to rock and roll quite a bit, even though I don’t even like it any more. I’m working with Adrian [Utley] from Portishead [as a member of the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble], a band I have listened to in the past quite a bit. I quite like music where you know what it’s really about. With Portishead, you may not be able to describe it, but it’s very clear: it may not be clear music, but this is what this music is about.

Do you think the term “postmodern” adequately describes the eclecticism of your music? The term “minimalist” also gets applied to your music a lot — is that something you’re comfortable with or resist?

I don’t know — possibly. I never quite know where I fit in. I have been called “postmodern” but I have also been called “establishment”. I was certainly influenced by minimalism, and not just musical minimalism – visual minimalism as well. The works of Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre affected me quite a bit, I think, and my knowledge of architecture and simple forms has been influential. But to describe me as a minimalist I think is untrue, because my work is not minimal in any way. With the exception of some of my solo piano pieces, everything is too complicated. I love clarity, but I put a lot of information into things, so they can be very dense. The music also goes from one place to another, it does change; it goes from A to B via somewhere else. A lot of early minimalist music sat there and said “This is what I am all the way,” and I loved that but it’s not something that I’d really do. I think of minimalism as a movement was also very closely allied with a particular timeframe. It was then; it’s not now.

Giles Masters

For more information about Graham and his upcoming projects, please visit his website. His latest album will be launched on Friday 25th September at King’s Place; tickets can be booked here. Audio previews are available on Soundcloud.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Sensory interaction seems to be a popular theme in contemporary art. At the Tate Modern, the winning project of the IK Prize 2015 is the multi-sensory experience ‘Tate Sensorium’. The immersive exhibition presents sounds, smells, and tastes inspired by four of the gallery’s paintings, and offers the ability to measure your physiological responses to the experience. At the National Gallery they have adopted a more sombre (but equally inspiring) approach, with the summer exhibition ‘Soundscapes’. What the two projects have in common is to ask the question ‘Can senses other than sight change the way we “see” art?’.

The concept behind ‘Soundscapes’ is pretty straightforward, as the tagline explains: ‘Hear the painting, See the sound’. The curators have asked six contemporary composers to pick a painting from the Gallery collection, and compose piece of music or sound art to match it. And the results are quite astonishing.

Before the exhibition, an introductory video helps the visitor to get in the right mind-set, and to understand the project of ‘Soundscapes’ as a whole. Just about the right length (20 mins), the video overviews the six works of visual and audio art without spoiling any of the magic. It simply gives necessary context, while intriguing with an appetizer of what is coming next.

'Saint Jerome in his Study', Antonello da Messina

‘Saint Jerome in his Study’,
Antonello da Messina

The exhibition itself consists of six dark rooms separated by sound-isolating corridors. They favour the visitor’s total immersionin the artworks, and give the whole exhibition a mood that is almost meditative. The outcomes range from a brilliant piece of quirky music by Nico Muhly in response to the Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–1399), to a wildlife record by Chris Watson based on the painting ‘Lake Keitele’ by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1905). In-between are Susan Philipsz’s three violin tones, accompanying Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533), and Janet Cardiff’s & George Bures Miller’s transformation of Antonello da Messina’s painting ‘Saint Jerome in his study’ (1475) into 3D, complete with outdoor sounds. The peaceful and idyllic ‘Les Grandes Baigneuses’ by Cezanne (c. 1900) is complemented by Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack, and Jamie xx’s piece called ‘Ultramarine’ is paired with impressionist painting ‘Coastal Scene’ (1892).

The relationship between painting and music is constantly investigated and challenged, in every room. To begin with, there are more similarities between paintings and melodies than one might expect. For example, much like in the visual arts there is a perspective one can adopt, in the same way when recording natural sounds you can (and must) choose where to place your microphone, as Chris Watson explains, which ultimately affects your recording. Moreover, concepts can be applied metaphorically to music as much as to paintings. For instance, the tension between the two ambassadors of Holbein’s painting is reproduced in the tension of the violin chords that are being played (Susan Philipsz). And, perhaps a more obvious point, but still startling to experience directly: music is made up by different instruments but the ultimate result is something new, just like pointillist paintings are made up of the sum of a thousand different brushstrokes (Jamie xx).

'Coastal Scene', Théo von Rysselberghe

‘Coastal Scene’, Théo von Rysselberghe

‘Soundscapes’ also has the merit of drawing the viewers’ attention to more general thoughts, making sure there is much they can take away from the exhibition. One for all is Nico Muhly’s observation that ‘there is a musicality to everything’, from the simple objects of life, to both natural and painted landscapes; in fact, every environment is an all-sounding environment.

I loved the exhibition for both its simplicity and incredible innovativeness, and in the stimulating richness with which the topic was approached. If there is indeed a trend in contemporary art to integrate senses and synesthetically explore their interaction, then I am very curious to see what future art will look (and sound) like. Vision or hearing by themselves are great, but what they can achieve when combined is something we cannot but be excited about.

Anna Zanetti

For more information about ‘Soundscapes’ and for future exhibitions at the National Gallery, please visit their website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Bacc for the Future is a multi-organisation campaign to prevent the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) from becoming a compulsory performance measure in state schools, proposed by schools minister Nick Gibb in June of this year. I spoke to one of the campaign co-ordinators, Henry Vann, about what the EBacc means for schools, why he believes it is detrimental to secondary education, and what impact its introduction has had on the study of creative subjects.

What is the Bacc for the Future campaign?

It is a cross-arts coalition campaign involving the creative industries, businesses, education organisations and the subject representatives from music, drama, art, design and technology, dance etc. They have all come together to challenge the government’s plan to make the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) compulsory for all secondary school pupils. The key thing from our perspective is that we have been through this before, in a previous version — back in 2010 the government proposed to make the English Baccalaureate the primary measure of school accountability, and we ran a substantial campaign against that plan. They launched a consultation around the end of 2012 looking at these proposals. The casing had gathered the support of around 120+ membership bodies and 45,000 individuals, all of whom got involved and successfully persuaded the Government to change its mind. On the 7 February 2013, the government agreed to backtrack on its EBacc proposals, and Michael Gove at that point said he would introduce a more meaningful accountability measure, Progress 8 and Best 8. Performance would be measured either by progress or attainment on the basis of 8 GCSEs and 3 slots are free choice, which would mean that the arts could count towards school league tables. So that’s a much better rubric. To be honest many would love the EBacc to be gone completely from our league tables, but Progress 8 and Best 8 are much better accountability measures than the EBacc itself, which includes only Maths, English, Sciences, a Language and a Humanity. And the humanities are narrowly defined – just history and geography.

That’s where we had got to, on 7 February 2013 when the Government did a U-turn. And then, shortly after the General Election this year, the Government again announced their intention to make the EBacc compulsory for all secondary school pupils. This time around, this proposal is potentially more damaging.


Why do you think that there has been a resurgence of interest in the Ebacc, having said there would be a U-turn on it?

We honestly don’t know. What we do know is that the EBacc harms the take-up of creative subjects in schools. When the Department for Education started to introduce it from 2010, the number of pupils taking creative subjects in schools took a hit. We are now seeing the creative subjects recover a little bit from that following the introduction of Progress 8 and Best 8, which are measures which enable creative subjects to count in schools.

What we also know is that the creative subjects are crucial for getting a foot in the door of the creative industries and actually getting employment in that part of the economy. But there is no evidence to back up the list of subjects that is being put forward as the list that people need to study. In many ways, the thinking behind it simply isn’t right. There is a  brilliant piece of research by Laura McInerney … which found that there was little to no evidence behind the EBacc choices of subjects, and why those recommended subjects should count over others.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have said that the creative subjects should count towards league tables, although some in the CBI are even calling for GCSEs to be scrapped. Therefore, as McInerny said, there is no evidence beyond stated prejudice for this list of subjects in the EBacc. If you’re studying history or geography at Oxbridge, you do not need a specific combination of subjects at A-level. You don’t even necessarily need to have studied history or geography — they are stated as preferences, but are not necessities. To study a subject like music, however, you  must have studied music. (Obviously the Russell Group aren’t the be all and end all of achievement and progress, but that’s another debate for another day! But even if you think they are, there’s still no evidence to show that the EBacc will improve your chances of getting in.)

Why do you think the downturn in take-up of creative subjects at GCSE is important? Many find it difficult to justify spending time and money on creative subjects in schools where literacy levels are poor.

If somebody’s not performing well in numeracy or literacy, you might think that the obvious solution is more maths or English lessons. But the evidence doesn’t necessarily back that up at all, and certainly for music and lots of other creative subjects there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they have a very positive impact on wider attainment. They have a knock-on effect as they’re more likely to get children engaged in school and improve literacy and numeracy. Not that these should be the only reasons we promote music and creative learning: businesses are crying out for creative skills, hence the CBI saying that they want more people studying creative subjects. The creative industries are worth approximately £76.9bn to the UK economy annually. They are the only part of the economy apart from the public sector that grew throughout the recession. They account for 2 million jobs within the UK — we need these skills. And it’s not an either/or. The EBacc makes it an either/or by focusing only on certain skills. What would be more interesting is if we had a genuine Baccalaureate, worthy of the name, which actually guarantees breadth and has creative subjects valued at its core as well.

RADA movement and dance class © Jill Mead

RADA movement and dance class © Jill Mead

Even if you want to go on to university to study maths, do you think there is an argument for keeping a creative subject at GCSE?

Absolutely. Nobody knows what direction any industry will end up moving in, so the ideal mix of skills for any young person today would combine literacy, numeracy, and creativity, the skills that are currently fostered by the creative subjects and valued by the creative industries. Even if you’re going to study maths, this requires a lot of creativity. In fact, the ties between maths and music, for example, are immense. If you’re studying maths at A-level and university, why should you have to limit yourself to only maths at GCSE?

What about the claim that the EBacc promotes social justice as it levels access to core academic subjects.

What a shame it doesn’t also do this for arts subjects as well. I completely understand this argument, but if you’re at an independent or grammar school, you’re almost twice as likely to take music at GCSE than if you’re at a state school; the social justice argument works both ways.

Do you think that this attitude perpetuates the idea that creative subjects are ‘easy’ subjects?

Yes it does, and it’s very misleading. Music is tremendously difficult and combines academic and intellectual skill with creative skills, and it is a rigorous, challenging, and valuable subject to have in the curriculum. Any argument about difficulty of subjects is misleading; there has been a review of qualifications with some being removed and some perverse incentives being taken out of the system, which is welcome, but just labelling an entire subject as difficult or easy is misguided.

The ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts (far right) and (L-R) Include Design campaign coordinator Joe Macleod joined the presidents of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) in handing in a letter to Number 10 calling for the EBacc proposals to be slowed down in 2013 – which was successful.

The ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts (far right) and (L-R) Include Design campaign coordinator Joe Macleod joined the presidents of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) in handing in a letter to Number 10 calling for the EBacc proposals to be slowed down in 2013 – which was successful.

These students are not only going to be the next generation of young professionals, but also future audiences and arts consumers. What do you think the long-term effects of squeezing the arts subjects off the curriculum will be on this creative infrastructure?

We are all consumers of the arts. As well as people who are employed in the creative industries, it is a growing element of consumption. If we are not providing an education for people to be able to engage with a wide range of creative arts then there’s no knowing how far the impact on society and the economy will reach. According to a YouGov poll, 74% of British adults who expressed an opinion think that the loss of music education opportunities, as a subject at school and as an extra-curricular activity, will negatively impact the UK.

If people are concerned about this, what can they do about it, be it to support the campaign or something else?

What we really want people to do at the moment is sign up to the campaign at baccforthefuture.com, because at this stage the Government are yet to start their consultation. When the consultation is launched, we will be urging people to respond to that. This is the primary drive, we have over 10,000 supporters now, and we’d like to get back up to 40,000 again -the number that we had last time. It’s not a petition per se, but more showing support for the campaign. After the consultation has opened we will be asking people to write to their MPs as well as the later stage of the campaign. But for now, the number one thing that we want at the moment is for people to sign up to the campaign so we can keep them updated on any developments.

People also need to know that the EBacc is being made compulsory, and that it has had a negative impact on the take up of arts subjects in the past. Whilst the number of students taking music went up by 2.2% this year, that was two years after the Government backed down on the first EBacc proposals. The message to Government isn’t ‘we hate you and you’re destroying the arts’, but rather ‘we really think you’ve got this wrong, can you please ensure the arts count’. We are not specific about how this should be done: there are a number of ways, whether it’s by introducing a sixth category in the EBacc, by not making the EBacc compulsory, or thinking of some other way that the arts can be valued equally to other subjects. What we don’t want is a situation where there is a divide between those who can afford to get out there and engage with the arts, have music lessons and go to the theatre, and those who can’t afford it and aren’t getting it in school.

When you compare the British school system to other countries like Finland, who are world-leading in literacy and numeracy, the arts and creatives figure fairly highly on their syllabus.

Exactly. If we want to start comparing ourselves internationally then we have to think about keeping creative subjects at the heart of the curriculum. It’s what we’re good at in the UK! There are only two countries that are net exporters of music in the world, and they are the UK and the US. We are world-leaders in the creative industries, from video games to cinema, and we need to invest in that. What sets people up with the transferrable skills that allows them to adapt to whatever the world and jobs industry throws at them are the creative subjects.

Leah Broad

For more information about the campaign, please visit www.baccforthefuture.com, where you can sign the petition and join the mailing list for updates as the campaign progresses.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,496 other followers