My guest in this podcast is Zoë Anderson, ballet critic of the Independent and author of The Ballet Lover’s Companion, recently published by Yale University Press. Zoë’s book traces the history and development of ballet as an art form by focusing on 140 works in the repertoire: classics, revived rarities and modern masterpieces. Sarah Crompton, reviewing the book in the Sunday Times, called it authoritative and praised its ‘crisp ability to convey an affection for ballet and a clear-eyed view of its oddities’.
My guest in the most recent podcast for Le Monde diplomatique was Ed Emery, who is an ethnomusicologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and also the presenter of Ed Emery’s Revolutionary Radio Show.
Ed wrote a piece for Le Monde diplomatique in which he described the regular visits he and fellow musicians make to Calais to talk to and make music with Kurdish people who have fled from Syria and hope to gain entry to the UK: what he calls ‘musical solidarity work with migrants’ as part of a wider Kurdish songbook project. In this interview he told me more about the project and plans for the reconstruction of the devastated Kurdish town of Kobane.
“Schubert had a response to words that is quite extraordinary. It’s the way that the interaction between words and music – which in a sense gives the song its own life – takes place that interests me. Josef von Spaun once wrote very perspicaciously that Schubert writes a poem on the poem, [by which he means that] the song is a commentary on the poem. And how and why it is a commentary in detail is what really interests me.”
– Graham Johnson
I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with pianist Graham Johnson earlier this year and had the opportunity to talk to him about his abiding love for Schubert, the art of accompanying Lieder singers, and how he has managed to develop as a writer, while at the same time holding down the day job at the piano keyboard. The result is an in-depth, two-part portrait of the artist, the first part of which is above. Part two is coming shortly.
Here’s an extract from my introduction to this podcast:
“Graham Johnson was born in 1950 in what was then Rhodesia. He came to this country in the late sixties to pursue his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the city which has remained his home. In the mid-seventies, he formed The Songmakers’ Almanac to explore neglected areas of piano-accompanied vocal music. Before long he had developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest vocal accompanists, and although he has a deep knowledge of the English and French art song traditions, and has recorded and published on both, it is with German Lieder and in particular the music of Franz Schubert that he is most closely associated.
In this first part of our interview, we talk about Graham’s early encounters with Schubert and the German language; his association with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears; his decision to specialise in accompanying vocal music, and becoming a writer under the mentorship of Eric Sams.”
Next month, renowned art historian Martin Kemp publishes Christ to Coke, a richly ilustrated exploration of how eleven images, from the face to Christ to the Coke bottle, have become icons. Along the way, he also investigates the stories of the cross, the Mona Lisa, the double helix and Che Guevara, inter al.
1. When I interviewed Martin about the book, I began by asking him to define what he meant by an icon. [Click here to listen to extract.]
2. Next I asked him to sketch out the process by which an image turned into an icon. [Click here]
3. How, I wondered, did he select the eleven images that he features in the book? [Click here]
4. Why was Christ the first image he selected? Did that mean the ancient world didn’t produce other icons with staying power? [Click here]
5. The image of Christ had to overcome obstacles in order to become an icon. Martin Kemp explains these here. [Click here]
6. In many instances, the icon draws some of its power from its backstory. How does this work? [Click here]
7. What part do chance and accidents play in an image becoming an icon? [Click here]
8. Martin Kemp reflects on the great emotional power invested in the Stars and Stripes as an icon. [Click here]
9. All the icons in the book share at least one common characteristic: their ability to retain power. [Click here]
10. In our image-saturated visual culture today, does Martin Kemp think it has become harder for an image to make the transition to icon? [Click here]
11. In terms of subject matter, this book marks something of a departure for Martin as a writer. He explains this here. [Click here]
12. From the world of modern science, Martin Kemp chose two icons: the double helix and ‘e = mc2’. Does the great complexity of science mean that it is much harder for it to generate icons? [Click here]
Today we begin a new series of guest posts in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of 2010.
My greatest pleasure this year came from reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Read selectively, randomly or straight through (I did all three, in order) it is a wonderfully intelligent and lively journey through the landscape of the imagination between the wars.
Harris informs but also has huge fun with the creativity, fantasy and sometimes spectacular self-indulgence of the period. I’m delighted to see publishers producing such visually beautiful but serious books to compete with e-publishing. It was announced yesterday that Harris has just won the Guardian prize for a first book.
My second choice is more sombre: Six Weeks: the Short but Gallant Life of a British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel. This intimate history is taken from the letters and diaries of very ordinary young men. These are, in the main, not poets, not heroes, just soldiers buying expensive uniforms, being brave, bored and scared, doing their duty and trying (and often failing) to survive. They are also very young: there is one poignant account of a dying subaltern asking his puzzled corporal to tell Uppingham (his school) that he did “all right”. Lewis-Stempel proves there is still more to know about that most terrible and most studied of conflicts.
Finally, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre maps a personal and national biography on to one tiny piece of land in Yorkshire. About spirit of place and passionate attachment to land- it is memoir, history, and exploration of identity in one.
Andrew Kahn is University Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford in Russian and Classics. His scholarly research draws on his wide-ranging interests in European literature, most especially Greek, Latin and French.
In addition to writing about Pushkin, whom he talked about on Podularity in programme 21, “In Pushkin’s Library”, he works on Enlightenment literature in Russia and Europe, on the history of ideas, the comparative reception of European culture in Russia, travel writing, the history of translation, and twentieth-century poetry.
Here are Andrew’s three favourite books from the last decade:
The contemporary of Milosz, and somewhat overshadowed by him in the West, Herbert seen in the unity of his poetic creation is one of the most biting and elegant ironists of the twentieth century. His alter ego, Pan Cogito, ranks with Kafka’s K. as a haunting witness to oppressive systems. Yet many poems convey Herbert’s acute visual imagination and his flair for dramatic monologue. A great classic of modern poetry.
This collection of Said’s essays on music and performance shows him at his lucid, elegant best. A masterful close reader of texts, he is also a close listener who has the rare gift of explaining the ideas of music and music of ideas in words. The essay comparing Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Magic Flute is a particular revelation, but every page here has fine observations on classical music from the classical period to the post-modern age.
The publication in English for the first time of this complete, restored version of Solzhenitsyn’s literary masterpiece is an event. A novel in the grand tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, packed with ideas and an epic cast of characters, it is also a political thriller. The chapters on Stalin must rank as one of the greatest and most chilling studies in the mentality of tyranny.
Steve Lake is a producer for the Munich-based jazz and classical music record label, ECM, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, and co-author (with Paul Griffiths) of a book about the company, Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007). He has written about music for many international magazines and newspapers, and about literature for Germany’s Akzente. His recent record productions include albums with saxophonists Evan Parker
and Roscoe Mitchell, and with singer Judith Berkson, whose ECM debut will be released in 2010.
Touching memoir of Sussex singer Shirley Collins’s personal and professional alliance with Texan folklorist Alan Lomax, and of their revelation-packed collecting trip through the American South in 1959.
In Como, the then-unknown Fred McDowell walked out of the Mississippi forest to dazzle them with his bottleneck guitar playing. In Virginia their tape reels captured the rippling clawhammer banjo of Wade Ward. On the Parchman Farm prison camp Lomax recorded work songs (which would resurface –half a century later – on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack). They taped singers on the mountains, on the railroads, in black churches and white churches…
A year on the road together would strain Collins’s relationship with Lomax to breaking point, but what an inspiring preamble to a life in folk music.
Phil Lesh had already been an orchestral violinist, jazz trumpeter, classmate of Steve Reich and composition student of Luciano Berio before being drafted, in 1965, to play bass guitar for the embryonic Grateful Dead.
His undimmed enthusiasm for music – from blues to the avant-garde – drives this book, just as it powered the Dead’s improvisational flights though more than two thousand concerts. “Music can define life itself, and it has indeed defined my life. In life, as in art, there are recurring themes, transpositions, repetitions, unexpected developments, all converging to define a form that’s not necessarily apparent until its ending has come and gone.”
You think you’ve got problems? In 2003, Albert Ellis, nearly 90 years old, was hospitalized for major surgery to remove his colon. At the time, he was also isolated by increasing deafness, his girlfriend of 37 years had just left him, and members of the psychology institute he founded were voting to remove him from its board of directors. Against this challenging background, Ellis did what he had done so often before: wrote a book to help others, with stoicism and gruff humour intact.
All of Ellis’s books (there are over seventy) are worth reading. This one, with its confessional tone and clear-eyed self-criticism, can be considered part of an important late trilogy that also includes The Myth of Self-Esteem (2005) and The Road to Tolerance (2006).
“In Russian music you have a very different portrayal of Russia [from the one you find in literature], which has very strong rhythms, very festive images. It’s very bright, very colourful, very, very different from the melancholy Russian soul.”
Writing of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar after its premiere in 1836, one Russian critic boldly predicted that ‘Europe will be amazed’. Surely Europeans would now want to ‘take advantage of the new ideas developed by our maestro’? Yet this opera, which is regarded as the very foundation of Russian music in its home country, is little known abroad, its composer (the ‘great father of Russian music’) merely another name in the long list of half-neglected nineteenth-century Russian composers.
Marina Frolova-Walker, a Russian-born musicologist now based in Cambridge, set out to do something much more ambitious than explain the neglect of certain Russian composers. She wanted to examine the whole notion of ‘Russianness’ in Russian music, a story which starts with Glinka. What did Russianness consist of? How did it come about? What changing ideological purposes did it serve?
This last question becomes especially acute when she leave the nineteenth century behind for the more politically dangerous waters of the twentieth. In the era of Stalin, writing the wrong sort of music could have dire consequences, so the issue of what was appropriately Russian music for the Soviet Republic was not an academic one. Music was also a key ingredient in providing an escape valve for nationalist feelings in Russia’s Asian republics without them boiling over into serious dissent. The book, Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin, is a fascinating exploration of a topic which is little examined in the west.