The first thing that struck me entering the Burton-Taylor Studio for Yesterday, a new musical written by students Stephen Hyde and Katie Hale, is how at home it felt within its often maligned venue. The 50 seat black box theatre is repeatedly praised for its versatility, with shows spoken of as having ‘transformed’ the space, as if its bareness were an embarrassment to be obscured. Yesterday, however, didn’t so much transform the space as inhabit it. With the addition of just a couple of hanging filament bulbs and a touch of red curtain, not to mention a three-piece band, you might be forgiven for mistaking the Burton-Taylor Studio for a smoky club in the basement of a chic London bar. The music greeting the assembling audience may have been jazz, but the atmosphere was electric.

If the design could be described as stripped-back, the same might be said of the production itself. Here the choice of venue again was particularly apt — playing next door to the Oxford Playhouse, which this year has hosted a bevy of blockbuster musicals featuring full orchestra pits, heightened the stark contrast offered by Yesterday’s combination of keyboard, cello, drumkit and unamplified voices. The excess of the former suddenly seemed needless in comparison to the perfect simplicity of the latter. Jazz drummer Ben Varnham deserves especial recognition; his evocation of the rush of an oncoming train through an extended drum solo was exhilarating.

Georgia Figgis, Jemimah Taylor, and Joanna Connolly

Georgia Figgis, Jemimah Taylor, and Joanna Connolly

Whilst outshining beleaguered productions of more traditional student fare (such as Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown), Yesterday admittedly does have the benefit of having been written in a post-Sondheim world, and the musical wears its influences on its sleeve in its style and structural experimentation. The latter was particularly effectively employed to deal with the same themes of time, memory and relationships addressed in Merrily We Roll Along and The Last Five Years, with surprising originality. The score and libretto are both excellent, and certainly unparalleled amongst student writing.

Three actresses played three women all connected to one man who never appears onstage. Instead, across their three different timelines (which all converge despite beginning at different stages of his and their lives) ‘Alex’ gains the substance of any of those depicted onstage, yet remains elusive and fluid in a way that enables Hale and Hyde to create a complex and believable (if not always understandable) human being. The stand-out performance came from Jemimah Taylor as Anna, the girl who Alex turns to after the deterioration of his marriage to Sally (Joanna Connolly). Perfectly cast, though somewhat predictably dressed in white, this charismatic actress carried the most compelling of the three stories with a truly infectious energy. Her quiet and touching delivery of the line “I would spend my life with you” particularly sticks in the mind long after the actual melody has faded.


Georgia Figgis

The narrative structure, unfortunately, does somewhat short-change the character of the wife, leaving Connolly with the difficult task of making a compelling character of someone whose storyline is effectively resolved by the mere inclusion of Anna. However, this problem did not seem to affect Alex’s mother, Julia (played by Georgia Figgis), a character whose storyline began even further in the past. Instead, it was refreshing to see writing that explores a mother-figure whose life extends both before and beyond the mere fact of birth.

Despite uneven performances, Yesterday was undoubtedly the best production of any musical, student-written or otherwise, that I have seen produced by students in my three years here. An appropriate end to the Trinity season of student theatre, I sincerely hope to see it performed beyond the student environment that Hale, Hyde and their team have clearly outgrown.

Luke Rollason

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Iain Pears’ intricately plotted, highly intelligent and very enjoyable novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, explores the troubling and problematic side of the historical movement labelled with the smug term ‘The Enlightenment’.

Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad. The end result is that you simply don’t know the real nature of the plot’s events once you have finished.


Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader. Innocuous and, to the narrator, unimportant revelations completely overturn the earlier version of the tale. The result is at times confusing and exasperating, but always nail-biting and exciting. For a reviewer, however, it is hard to discuss the plot in detail without revealing things better left for the reader to uncover, so I will tread carefully with a wariness for spoilers.

This tangle-thicket of a plot would, of course, be undone by bad writing. Fortunately, Pears writes superbly well. He is able to use the trope of a foreigner in a strange land to introduce us deftly to Oxford of the 1660s. True, he cannot resist the old joke about continental attitudes to British food and Shakespeare, but, to be fair, who could? His protagonists explore our city at the dawn of an intellectual revolution, rubbing shoulders with Boyle and Locke, but also at a time of stifling, smug religious orthodoxy; of secret, suppressed heresies and of political tension. This is a world where a man can jump in one sentence from being a highly analytical and insightful mathematician to a paranoid bigot thinking that all papists can be nothing other than duplicitous and sinister ne’er-do-wells scheming to bring down the kingdom. Pears portrays the unease of this society expertly. For all that the aristocrats are bullying and convinced of their superiority, for all that pompous priests feather their nests, we are always aware of the cataclysm of the wars fought a generation before and the threatened ‘world turned upside-down’. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.

Iain Pears

Iain Pears

Pears’ characters are deliberately a ‘mixed bag’. The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment. The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot. At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity. This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. The reader can only take so much of this, however, and I was certainly relieved when the baton was handed on to the historian Anthony à Wood, the fourth narrator. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic. He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot. By the time we come to his section, however, we are disinclined to take anything at face value, let alone Mr Wood’s rather peculiar account.

A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself. All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily.

Christopher Finn

‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £9.99.

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Sorana Santos is a composer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist. She is currently touring her self-produced album Our Lady of Stars and its corresponding book of poetry, Books of Hours. John Wadsworth talked to Sorana ahead of her concert in Oxford on Thursday July 30th, part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series.

How do Our Lady of Stars and Books of Hours overlap?

I wanted to make a multimedia work that explored the relationship between music and language; they always felt like very similar things. When we look into this relationship at a deeper level we find that they are related at evolutionary, developmental, and neuroscientific levels, and so therefore they are linked at creative levels too.

When I came to explore this relationship in the making of Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I wanted to do so in a less obvious way than just having the poems of the book be the lyrics of the album. I had wondered for a long time whether the techniques used to create either song or poetry could be imposed upon the other medium and began to experiment with this back in 2006. From then on this was largely how I built both my literary and musical works.

Eventually, what I decided to do in this instance was to link both the music and the poetry at a structural level instead of at a purely aesthetic level. Both the book and the album apply contemporary music techniques to traditional structures in songwriting and poetry. This transforms the material into something altogether different from its starting point.

Thematically, they’re not devotional works in and of themselves, as I am not a practitioner of the Christian faith, but they are intended to be a commentary on the similarities between devotional worship and romantic love. I decided to present the works based on the beautiful geometry found in the devotional rituals of The Book of Hours, The Seven Sorrows and The Stations of the Cross. Using these structures as frameworks for the pieces enabled me to build in even more links between the book and the album, such as illustrations in the book corresponding with sound design elements in the album.

Sorana Santos

Do you take different creative approaches to poetry and lyric writing, and if so, why?

I think we’re sensitive to the feel of words differing between text and speech, which is why we’re so careful with the wording of emails and text messages compared to how easily we get someone’s gist when we’re talking face-to-face. Since music shares so much with language it has that same inherent difference built into it too.

I first came across this phenomenon when I was growing up. I ritualistically bought an inordinate amount of music. One of my favourite things to do was to open album inlays on the bus home from the record shop to see which lyrics read well as poetry on the page. Then when I got home I would listen to the song I felt had the most poetic lyrics to see how they felt when lifted off the page and coupled with music. I was often disappointed to find that the lyrics that scanned so well as poetry lost some of their verve when sung, while lyrics I’d overlooked as they didn’t seem so strong on the page could suddenly stand out. I slowly began to realise that lyrics and poetry were not necessarily the same thing and I became mindful of using a different approach to each one.

It’s easy to think poetry and lyrics are almost the same medium as they both deal with rhythm, tempo, tone, structure, expression, and so on – as does music – but bringing music into the equation definitely alters the feel and quality of the words as there are suddenly two mediums at play and it can be hard to strike a balance. Lyrics can be more direct than poetry, for me, and have other considerations that poetry doesn’t, such as how it is placed inside the voice so that it sounds natural when sung, how certain vowels come across better in certain parts of the voice than others, and how to gracefully place lyrics so that they sound like the same ‘ending’ or ‘beginning’ the music is suggesting.

That said, I think Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are two excellent examples of songwriters whose lyrics can look as strong on the page as they are when sung. Another great example of this is found in Portuguese Fado (also known as Poemas Cantadas, or ‘sung poems’) and in other Hispanic songs, for example, Violeta Parra’s ‘Gracias A La Vida’. The successes of these types of songs and songwriters really inspire me, and were very much my focus when I was writing ‘Ruth’.

I think where my lyric-writing and poems find each other is in the subject matter. I love reading about archetypes in psychoanalysis and consequently have delved a little into researching the occult. I also have a fascination with what Clarissa Pinokla Estés calls the life-death-life cycle. Much of my lyrical and poetic content is structured around the symbology of these archetypes, and how in or out-of-touch each song’s character is with their own medial nature.

You studied Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Do you think that this classical training is reflected in your music?

Definitely, and in quite an obvious way too, especially in Our Lady of Stars where every song in the album is based on the essence, structure, or technique of a Contemporary Music work. For example, every musical element of ‘Mary’ has its own isorhythm, ‘Salome’ is derived from a Stockhausen tone row, ‘Sophia’ (sorry for the spoiler – this is the hidden track!) magnifies Reich’s phase shifting technique as, and the form and chord progression of ‘Sarah’ was constructed using the Fibonacci series. I don’t think I would’ve developed a deep enough understanding of Contemporary Music, or creativity itself for that matter, without Diana Burrell’s input. It was pivotal.

Because I’ve always loved singing and piano-playing so much I’ve often berated myself for keeping voice and piano as second studies during my time at Guildhall. Everyone who knew me in my school days was really surprised that I had taken this route, but I felt that while a good voice or a strong piano technique is always nice thing to hear, in the long term the quality of a song or composition is what stands the test of time – I think this is true whether someone is a trained musician or not. I wanted to be the best possible composer I could be and I’m glad I stuck with it. What I learned most was that all the music I loved most struck a balance between heart and mind.

Sorana Santos

How has session singing and your voiceover work informed your own music?

Doing session and voiceover work can make me find areas of my voice I’ve not explored yet. When I first stood in for Florence Welch [after replacing Welch as the lead vocalist of the band Ashok] it was some of the hardest vocal work I’d ever done – constantly belting notes right on my break gave me great stamina and forced me to expand the range of tones I could make with these pitches. When I came back to my own material it definitely changed my outlook towards writing for my own voice and I was prepared to play it less safe.

I studied the Estill Method with Lynda Richardson for over a decade and it completely transformed the way I sang, giving me lots of choices vocally. In the Estill Method you learn the techniques of different singing styles and it means that whether I want to sing as more of a rock singer in ‘Sarah’, the church choir in ‘Jezebel’, or the more Classical plainchant in ‘Hannah’, I can alter a few positions here and there to allude to the sounds I want to make while still hopefully sounding like myself.

As for voiceovers, that happened completely by chance but it seemed to tie in with my studying Estill Method and also the bank of impressions, voices, and characters I’d built over the years with my friends and siblings.  I used to feel very nervous about talking – a remnant of English not being my first language – and consequently had an uncomfortable speaking voice that never quite sat right in my body. Then one day I realised that must have changed because I was put forward to audition for ITV by Fiona Neeranjohn – I believe this was due to my work with Lynda and the Estill Method. This led me to getting a foreign voiceover agent, which keeps me on my toes linguistically and feeds back into my creative practice. I have Hispanic heritage and enjoy singing Portuguese Fado and various Hispanic Folk Songs; at the moment I am thinking about writing in my original languages.

When it came to making Our Lady of Stars / Books of Hours, I made an audiobook component to Books of Hours as a further comment on the differences between written and spoken poetry. My work in voiceover enabled me to find the characters, tones, moods and voices for reading both the traditional poems and the more contemporary ones, which were a challenge to voice.

Our Lady of Stars

You have written for The Guardian and elsewhere about the costs involved with being a professional musician. Why do you feel this is such an important issue to discuss?

How we measure value and where we place value in our society fascinates me. Personally, something is of value to me based on whether it divides or unites people, whether it creates a win-win situation for both the giver and the provider, and whether it has the potential to bring joy to the individual and/or society. Music definitely fulfils those criteria, and is more beyond: music is an art but it is also a language, performed with a sportsman’s mentality, based on the laws of physics, and when analysed mathematically, the balance and geometry are simply astonishing. It has numerous proven benefits in both developing and improving cognition, co-ordination, communication, and as if that weren’t enough it also brings people joy. So by my reckoning (and bias) it is greatly undervalued.

Given the amount of value music brings to those learning, performing, and listening to it, I would argue that its value proposition was high. However, this is at odds with how it is viewed in our society where the true benefits of the arts aren’t seen in quite the same way on the whole, and seem to be viewed almost as an appendage luxury item. Consequently the level to which musicians train is not necessarily reflected in their career progression or salary, which isn’t standard practice in most professions.

I also think that there’s something around the subject of music and money at the moment, particularly since the music industry’s model has changed so much in the past decade or so. I have a few connections to the creative startup scene here, and while there are many companies and academics researching how to monetise the music industry, the general advice is to run a mile from trying to solve the problem of monetising music in the digital age. I’m convinced it can be done, though; music has gone through many other such shifts in its time: the shift from printed to recorded music and the introduction of radio playing music for ‘free’ to name but two. I think human problems have human solutions. We just haven’t hit on a good enough solution yet.

What can the audience expect to hear at your Warneford Chapel concert?

We’re playing trio at Warneford Chapel; just Joe Wright [saxes/flute], James Maddren [drums] and I. Joe has done some unbelievable things with this project. For one, he made a vocal microphone out of a tin can and processes the sound that comes out of it.  This not only makes a few of the songs come alive, but actually enables us to play them live! As well as playing his saxophones and a couple of other homemade instruments he’ll also working with Max MSP patches and doing some sound processing too. You’ll also hear James being the genius we all know him to be. And then there’ll be me, being the most me I can possibly be at my magic piano!

John Wadsworth

For more information about OCM’s forthcoming events, please visit their website. You can listen to Sorana’s music on Bandcamp here.

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Swift and Lindop are the UK’s leading contemporary horn and harp duo. Their debut EP, ‘The Forest’, inspired by the pair’s shared love of nature, demonstrates just how effective and complementary this underused instrumental combination can be. John Wadsworth talked to the duo – Esther (Swift, harp) and Jennie (Lindop, horn) – ahead of their concert in Oxford on Thursday July 16th, part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series.

Please could you tell us a little about the aims of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series?

These concerts form part of OCM’s education and outreach programme, presented in collaboration with Artscape and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. Lunchtime concerts are held for patients and staff and there is also a concert in the evening open to the public. Entry to the evening concert is a recommended £5 donation to Artscape, who co-ordinate a programme of workshops and commission new artworks across the NHS Trust to enhance the hospital environments. Within the chapel’s small acoustic setting, contemporary music can become more accessible. Performers have the chance to discuss their music, as well as take any questions alongside performing in Warneford Chapel’s intimate setting.

You have often stated that your music is inspired by nature; how do you approach translating the sea and the forest into sound?

The sea and forest are already full of very complex and diverse sounds and rhythms, the difficulty is in pinpointing the sounds you’re particularly interested in or that you feel would translate well onto your instrument; rather like making a poem about a blade of grass or one tiny moment or thought. We first try to simplify the sound or rhythm to its most basic form and then improvise around that to see how best to vary or build on it. For example, we looked at the sea’s constant perpetuating motion almost as a lullaby. In contrast, we also looked at the amplification of any tiny sound in a thick dense forest, whether it be the scuttling of a woodlouse or a crow flapping by, or even in the blanketed silence itself.

Displaying JennieEsther262.jpg

Esther Swift and Jennie Lindop

Beyond the soundscapes you create, how does your emphasis on nature affect the way in which you play your instruments?

Our instruments are both acoustic and have been made by nature. We like to use the wood and air around them to create as many textures and colours as possible, and use their physical shape to experiment with grand gestures, sweeps and movement; as in nature things are always moving and changing. We like to approach our instruments in the same way you might approach the sea or a forest; as a physical journey from start to finish, each piece a short story. This we also see as part of the bigger picture, rather like a photographer will photograph a bird mid-song or flight.

Esther – Do you think that harpists such as Joanna Newsom and Serafina Steer, who are influenced by classical music and folk but produce music that can be broadly described as indie, are changing the instrument’s reputation?

I think that both Joanna Newsom and Serafina Steer are great musicians and have done some interesting things on the harp, and it’s great that they popularise the instrument, but there are others who have done more to change the instrument’s reputation and push its boundaries. My old teacher Catriona Mackay has been a massive influence on my career, as well as Savourna Stevenson, Rhodri Davis and Park Stickney, who, though they are perhaps lesser-known, have developed their own individual technique and incredible skills, using the full voice of the harp in folk, jazz, roots and contemporary music. The harp should be a very physically demanding instrument because of its size, and a lot of power and energy can and should be used to give it its full voice, but this also makes it extremely diverse. I think it’s very exciting thinking about future techniques that could be developed on the instrument that are still to be discovered.

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The instruments of Swift and Lindop

Jennie – Many consider the French horn the most difficult orchestral instrument to play. Would you agree, and how would you encourage more musicians to take the horn up?

The horn is such a versatile instrument, which can blend with brass, wind, strings, and even percussion. I was drawn to play the horn because of the beauty of the rich, warm tone you can make. To a certain extent I would agree that it is a difficult instrument to play, as you have to hear the pitch before you play it; each valve combination can result in a number of different pitches sounding. You need breath control and physical strength and it can take a while to get past beginner level, compared to some other instruments, such as the piano. However, playing the horn is much like singing in many ways; the horn is almost an extension of your voice, and if you approach it from this angle, it makes learning to play much less of a challenge. I have always felt that the horn, of all instruments, most closely replicates the voice of the musician playing. Once you experience playing your first notes on the horn, you get such a buzz you may be unable to stop playing, as happened with me!

Why do you think that horn and harp duos are so rare, and what are the advantages of the combination?

Creating balance is a challenge; the horn is naturally loud and the harp quiet. Also, there has not been much music written for this pairing. One of the things we are aiming to do is encourage composers to write for the instrument and show them what a beautiful, intimate combination this is. It is very much a duo, unlike horn and piano, where the horn is usually accompanied. The contrast between the resonance of the harp and the pure tones of the horn, as well as the spiky staccato notes playable on the harp and legato quality available on the horn, help make the instruments both complement each other and come together in a very unique way. There’s still lots to discover!

John Wadsworth

For more information about OCM’s forthcoming events, please visit their website

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When writing about theatre, one of the most difficult problems is bridging the gap between the vivacity of a live performance, and the more detailed concerns of textual analysis. In academic writing and histories of theatre, this issue is particularly acute. If you focus primarily on a text, how do you situate the interactions between the text and its concomitant community? How do you account for those people who make up the life of the theatre — namely, audiences?

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi’s new book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre, attempts to inhabit the space between textual- and performance-based histories of theatre. Beginning with the coronation of Elizabeth I and concluding with the coronation of Elizabeth II, the book spans over four hundred years of British theatre, looking at the relationships between plays and their audiences. As a theatre critic and cultural geographer respectively, Sierz and Ghilardi’s approach combines textual analysis and cultural critique, situating the scripts and productions within their socio-economic contexts.

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi

One of their devices for dramatising the past, and conceptualising a changing theatre demographic, is through the creation of “guides” for each chapter. As the time-travelling title might suggest, each of these characters is representative of an audience member from each of the eras that the book covers, from Elizabethan to “Modern” theatre. Speaking at MCS Arts Festival last week, the authors’ attachment to these characters shone through: Sierz commented that he “fell in love” with Gabriel, the guide to Regency theatre, and that he finds particular affinity with the Elizabethan guide’s tendency to “get lost in detail”.

Throughout the talk they revealed tantalising snippets of the book’s contents, from anecdotes about “buccaneer entrepreneurship” in early dramatic enterprises, to speculation about the introduction of electric lights changing audiences’ behaviour in the theatres. Tales about ingenious ways of circumventing censorship abound: this is without doubt a history of theatre that places high value on entertainment factor.


But perhaps most provocative was their discussion of the future of British theatre. Staying with the time-travelling theme but moving beyond the scope of the book, this demanded a direct engagement with the current state of British theatre and its audiences. State funding and drama education played a central role, touching on previous government cuts to theatre subsidies, and the proposed installation of the EBacc in all state secondary schools.

Regular readers will spot a theme following on from my review of Jonathan Jones’s art and civilisation talk earlier in the week, Sierz and Ghilardi offering a similarly negative view of removing performing arts from the curriculum. Ghilardi expressed despair at the attitude towards the arts that underlies this decision, asking where future actors and theatre audiences will come from if drama is excluded from schools. Combined with reduced funding, which stops theatres from taking risks in terms of programming, staging, and casting, it undermines what Ghilardi termed the “artistic ecology” of the theatre. Assuming that these proposals go ahead, the future of British theatre (particularly outside of London) that Sierz and Ghilardi envisage is bleak indeed.

The talk was engaging, lucid, and entertaining, with the authors conveying their passion for both contemporary theatre and the historical events that constitute the material for their book. Clearly, Time Traveller’s Guide intends to draw in a readership who are not regular theatre-goers, as well as more established dramatic veterans. Perhaps it is through projects such as these, dramatising the theatre’s rich history, that future audiences will find their route into drama.

Leah Broad

The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre is now available to buy, RRP £12.99. For more information about MCS Arts Festival and upcoming events, please visit their website.

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Since winning the BBC Young Musician in 1994, cellist Natalie Clein has performed with eminent orchestras and conductors such as Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, and was invited to join the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme in 1999. She is currently embarking upon a Bach project that involves performing the entire cello suites, and brought her to Oxford in both March and June. I spoke to her before her June concert about the project, teaching, and artistic collaboration.

Your Bach project is taking in a few cities, not just Oxford. When did you start planning this idea to do the complete Bach cello suites in a series of places, and what inspired you?

I’ve always planned to play all six suites. They’re one of the big pinnacles (if you can have more than one!) of the ‘cello repertoire, and I’d played four out of the six for many years but not tackled the E flat, which was no. 4, or no. 6, the D major, so that had kind of stopped me from putting on all six in one go. Then finally I was invited to do all six last year in a festival in London, and I thought ‘now’s the time, really’, and so I’ve started, but this is certainly just the beginning of a journey. Famously, Pablo Casals studied and rediscovered the pieces as performance pieces at the beginning of the 20th century, and he discovered them when he was 12, and it took him until he was 30 years old to dare to perform them in public, and then he did so for the rest of his life. When he was 96, he was still playing them, so they’re the Bible for us, really. Now that I’ve started, I think I’m quite hooked, I get really excited. I haven’t done that many [performances] yet, this is only the second time that I’m playing the 6th suite tonight. It’s so exciting, because even though I’m alone on the stage, it’s sort of like a conversation with all these voices, with all the counterpoint, with all the ideas that Bach has, with all the technical innovations and exciting, unique, genius ideas that he has with these pieces. It’s definitely not a start and finish project, it’s the beginning of a journey with them.

Natalie Clein © Sussie Ahlburg

What do you think is unique about Bach as a composer for the ‘cello?

Well, there’s one thing that’s unique, which was that he was the only one that did it. Until the 20th century, he was really the only one, as far as we know, who wrote these kind of masterworks for the solo ‘cello. And we all will agree that he’s not just one of the greatest composers, but greatest geniuses of anything who ever lived, so we’re really lucky as ‘cellists that we have this repertoire. It’s astounding really, because he’s writing for a single voice most of the time. We can’t play chords as well as a violin, even, and we certainly can’t play chords in the way that a keyboard can, and we certainly aren’t an orchestra, or a choir, or a chamber ensemble. Yet he manages to create a completely homogeneous and complete world where we don’t miss anything. We don’t miss the bass line, we don’t miss anything in the middle, and this is all done through suggested, implied harmonies a lot of the time. So you’re carrying these ideas along in your mind, ‘oh, I’m in C major’, and suddenly he turns a corner and he’s in D major. It’s music that’s understandable for everybody, from a person that doesn’t have much musical education but simply loves the sound of the suites and the emotional weight of them to music scholars. Everybody finds them fascinating, and of course cellists find them fascinating on many levels, including the physical, technical challenge of them.

You mentioned Casals — with the legacy of people like him and [Mstislav] Rostropovich, do you listen to those recordings?

I listened to Casals, though I haven’t for a long time. I’m not a big fan of Rostropovich playing Bach — for me, it’s dated. I admire his huge approach, but for me there’s not enough articulation, there’s not enough historical context, and there are other cellists who I much prefer playing Bach. But of course, you know, the historic and famous occasion on which Rostropovich played sitting in front of the Berlin Wall when it was coming down, and he played Bach because it feels universal and it feels human on a grand scale.

Is that legacy daunting or inspiring?

It doesn’t really affect me, I think. I take the pieces as they come, look at the score, I do that with everything. I look at the score and have my own [interpretation], that’s all I can do. Casals isn’t there playing next to me, I’m there. I’m in the hall by myself, playing this Bach for people who want to hear it live. Casals unfortunately is not around anymore to do it, so I’ve got to do it! And I’m really very grateful that that’s the case, that I have the chance to share this music with the hall here, in the Sheldonian. It really is a privilege.

How historically informed would you say your approach is?

I think I’m on a journey with it, and I think it’s definitely a fluid approach that I have. It does depend a little bit on the hall, the size of the hall, the acoustics of the hall. Last night I was playing in an incredibly dry hall and found myself using more vibrato than I’d like to, but I understood [that] I had to because the hall was so dry, and it was simply a way to find an acoustic. I play on steel strings, partly because I was touring the Dvorak concerto last week and I can’t change so fast, but I am very interested not least in the articulation and the phrasing possibilities available with Baroque bows and with gut strings, so again it’s an open ended journey. If there’s a general direction I’m moving in, it’s generally towards [historical] performance practice rather than away from it.

Could you tell us a little about the Bach projects you’ve done with people like Jeanette Winterson and Carlos Acosta, and maybe how those projects came about and whether it changed anything about your role was as a musician?

I played the the Suite of Dances with Carlos Acosta dancing, and that was really interesting. The interpretation there was to do with Jerome Robbins, who was the choreographer, a very famous choreographer, and it was his interpretation of Bach. So some things were perhaps a little bit slower and slightly different from how I would imagine them myself because he was putting dance steps to them, but I could find my way through with that. And it was a piece of chamber music, it was very interesting, I had a lot of fun doing it. It was a conversation between the dancer and the ‘cellist, and I really enjoyed that. With Jeanette Winterson, it was an experiment with words and music: to be repeated, I hope!

Carlos Acosta

Carlos Acosta

One of the other things that’s coming up this year is your Purbeck Chamber Festival. What is the history of that, and how did it come about?

Well, it’s really fun to have my own little festival, and it’s really in its infancy, but I hope it’s going to grow. It’s a kind of canvas where I can experiment with programmes, and hopefully the audience will trust me and come along with me. This year, actually, there’s a lot of Bach, and some jazz, and inspiration, so that kind of covers everything possible! We have Bach, of course, lots of Bach, including the Goldberg Variations played by Mahan Esfahani on the harpsichord. And then we have jazz inspiration: Ravel Duo and Anthony Marwood, and Schulhoff Five Pieces for String Quartet. There’s also jazz improvisation, including a couple of amazing colleagues who will be doing overtone singing and improvising on Bach. I think it’s going to be quite wild, some of it, and I think it’s going to be interesting. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll bring a programme or two to Oxford some time!

You mention someone like Anthony Marwood, I guess there are certain people you often come back to working with. What qualities in another player or person make those relationships work?

I think with Anthony, what I really admire about him apart from his instrumental skill, which I find very inspiring, of course, is his seriousness and his approach to a score. That’s what I always get inspired by, someone I can really learn from as a musician.

Anthony Marwood © Sussie Ahlburg

Anthony Marwood © Sussie Ahlburg

Linked to that, then, you’re doing some masterclasses and teaching as part of this project. What do you get out of that, and how do you try to be the best teacher that you can?

I’m passionate about teaching, and have been for many years. I remember when I was 18 years old and I went to listen to masterclasses as well as playing in them. I was really interested not only in learning how to play myself, I was already listening for how to teach, and what would that master say and why. I found it really fascinating then and I still do. I think that, selfishly speaking, teaching helps me become a better musician because I have to articulate what I really mean, and I have to articulate how I feel something could be closer to the score and closer to a performance, and I really enjoy the interaction with students who are alive and open to learning. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was a student, but unfortunately, with each year that goes by, it’s further away. But I feel I can still relate to students and what they’re going through, and yet I have so much experience behind me that I feel I’ve genuinely got something to give, and I enjoy giving that. It’s a kind of selfish giving, if that makes sense, because the more you give, the more you get back, somehow, from teaching.

You’ve had some eminent teachers, people like Heinrich Schiff. What made him such a special teacher?

He is passionate about teaching too, and I think he probably felt very similarly to me. He’s devoted a lot of time and energy into teaching his students. In fact, he’d often teach us instead of practising himself. He took us to lots of concerts that he was conducting, it was kind of like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, which is very rare and very precious. He is one of the great musicians of the world, I think, and it was an unforgettable time.


If you could go back to when you were 18, what advice would you give yourself?

I think I felt kind of in a rush, I felt like I had to do everything, and I think if I could go back, I would say ‘don’t worry, there’s time’. I felt very pressurised and stressed was I was 18 or 20, and I think what people didn’t tell me is that it is stressful, because I think as a performer when I was 18 or 20, I was viewed as the next “hot young thing” and that was stressful because that actually didn’t sit well with me. I think I was more serious, a long-distance runner, I’m not a quick sprinter. I think what would have been nice is for someone to say ‘look, it’s ok, you’ll go through this, but when you’re 25 or 30, you’ll realise that life stretches out in front of you in a way that is serious’. That would have been a relief, because lots of people were giving me bad advice, saying ‘you have to take it all now or it won’t come back’. I didn’t take it all now, and I’m glad I didn’t.

Do you think that some of that pressure was from winning [BBC] Young Musician?

I’m absolutely sure that a lot of it was. But not all of it, I think the pressure is there regardless if you’re an 18-year-old. It’s there if you’re talented and picked up, it’s there in one way or another. I think it’s there for everyone, for everyone at university as well. If I say ‘what are you going to do when you leave?’, I’m sure you feel there’s this great pressure to know what you’re doing next. I think one has to be serious about decisions, and make decisions based on integrity. But there’s a lot of time still between 22 and 30. You shouldn’t waste it, but there’s a lot of time, everything doesn’t have to be finalised at 18! But then, you have to work really hard.

Giles Masters

For more information about Natalie and her forthcoming concerts, please visit her website.

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The role that art and culture play in society seems a particularly pertinent question at present. Last fortnight, Minister for Schools Nick Gibb announced that the EBacc is set to become compulsory in secondary schools, a qualification that includes English, Maths, Sciences, History or Geography, and a Language. The performing arts are conspicuously absent, not being ‘sufficiently important to justify reducing the time available for the existing subjects in the curriculum’, according to Gibb.

This is quite a different perspective to the one offered yesterday evening by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones. Speaking at the MCS Arts Festival, he argued that the creation of art — and the study of it — is a prerequisite for a civilised society. In a talk that spanned artworks from the Renaissance to the 2008 Fucking Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman, he concluded that you ‘can’t have art that isn’t civilising’, and that the transmission of cultural values is a basic tenet of civilisation.

The lecture was prompted by the imminent BBC remake of the 1969 series Civilisation, originally presented by Kenneth Clark. The presenter of the new series has not yet been announced, but Jones, as author of books on Renaissance art and art critic for the Guardian since 1999, is acting as a consultant for the series. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Jones seems to have a similar view of “civilisation” as Clark: namely, a Western, liberal, democratic ideal. In making the claim that art is a civilising force, he did not stop to clarify whose idea of civilisation he was referring to, taking it as assumed that this ideal could and should act as a model for all. Judging by the questions at the end, this seemed to be something of an oversight and a miscalculation of his audience. Both this, and his grandiose statements that art should have a “powerful moral undertone” and that we are currently living in the “most civilised civilisation” ever seen, rightly came under scrutiny from various audience members.

Within these constraints, however, Jones’s talk was thought-provoking, asking what it means to say that art is a civilising force. He argued that the greatest works of art encourage the viewer to contemplate both the Dionysian (physical) and Apollonian (mental), using Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as examples. Both, according to Jones, contain elements of the “savage”, an element which offends the reigning moral mores of the time in which the paintings were created. Titian’s mythological lovers are framed by satyrs who hold aloft the severed legs of goats, their bestiality counterbalanced by the symmetry and elegance of the characters to the left of the canvas. Les Demoiselles caused outrage when it was first exhibited in 1916, due to both its content and style. Depicting a brothel scene, the prostitutes are shown in a contorted and angular fashion, a brazen challenge to the established conventions of the day. On the other hand, the blue drapes at the back of the scene reference the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco, and the careful composition of the painting clearly lies within an established tradition of Western art.

Picasso 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'

Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’

To be able to recognise something as art is, Jones argues, a profoundly civilising thing. To evaluate, talk about, and admire even art that is seen as questionable or offensive is indispensable for Jones’s conception of civilisation. Integral to this, then, is the centrality of education. According to Jones, art is both symptom and cause of civilisation, and if you want to learn about a society, you turn first to their culture. He used the example of parents taking their children to art exhibitions — in doing so they are being taught about the values of a society, and perhaps more importantly, how to question and challenge them. In light of this, I asked Jones if he considered the move to eliminate the arts from a compulsory curriculum as an uncivilised act. His answer came back, simple and clear: ‘Yes’. Pause for thought indeed.

Leah Broad

For upcoming events at the MCS Arts Festival, please visit their website.

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