Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

‘The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times’, instruments which ‘can seem out of place in this cacophonous world’, writes Andy Morgan in the sleeve-notes to Clychau Dibon, the album that took the folk-roots world by storm last year.  In the magnificent surroundings of the Concert Room in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall the gorgeous music created by these two musicians from superficially-different cultures enthralled a rapt audience as they braided together notes and songs from each of their traditions to reveal unexpected commonalities between the mountains and coasts of Wales and the shores of Senegal.

An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps
An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps

Around 5,000 years ago a hunter sat idly twanging the string of his bow and the idea of the harp was born. Egyptian tomb paintings show musicians playing various size and style harps. and remains of early harp-like instruments have been excavated at the site of the Sumerian city of Ur (the Golden Lyre of Ur) and in Babylonia. From Egypt, the harp migrated along trade routes across north Africa and, in the form of the West African kora – an instrument with 21 strings made from the tough gourd of the calabash – gave rise to a rich musical tradition perpetuated to this day by descendants of the griots of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali – the equivalents of the Welsh bards.

The harp occupies a central place in the rich cultures of both West Africa and Wales and both nations share a bardic tradition of oral history expressed through music, song and verse.The frame harp first appeared in medieval western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries; in Wales there has an unbroken tradition of of harp playing for nine centuries. Like the West African griots, Welsh bards, accompanying themselves on the harp, sang, recited poems and narrated stories that have transmitted the legends of Wales down the generations. The Robert ap Huw manuscript from the late 16th century is the oldest written collection of harp music in the world.

A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510
A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had been brought together by Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, in 2012 in a project designed to braid music of the kora with that of the Welsh harp – vibrant threads envisaged as a multicoloured tapestry.  To begin with, the plan was for a recording on which Catrin would partner Toumani Diabate, the world’s greatest exponent of the kora. But circumstances intervened and at short notice Seckou was drafted in for the project. (You can read more about the origins of the project in Andy Morgan‘s feature for fRoots magazine in June 2013). The album, Clychau Dibon, was released in 2013 and by the end of the year had won the album of the year award from fRoots magazine.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)

The duo’s concert in Liverpool on Wednesday evening  was, we agreed afterwards, one of the best we had ever attended.  Catrin and Seckou came out onto a stage on which two koras and two Welsh harps (one concert size, one smaller electro harp) stood waiting.  The lights dimmed, and the two musicians began to develop the blissful melodies heard on their album.  The way it works in each of the pieces they have developed together is that one partner takes the lead with a tune from their native tradition, while the other fills and improvises around the edges; then, almost imperceptibly, the other musician begins to develop a theme from their own culture.  By the end of the piece the melodies are so entwined that it’s almost impossible to distinguish where on ends and the other begins, or who is playing which theme.

‘Les Bras De Mer’ (live at Theatr Mwldan, March 2013):

Writing about ‘Les Bras De Mer’ in the CD sleeve notes, Andy Morgan explains how the pair braid Welsh and West African themes to create their music:

The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.

When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)
Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)

Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in Ziguinchor, a town on the banks of the great Casamance River. He’s a descendant of one of the great West African griot families: his mother was the daughter of a griot whose lineage stretched back centuries, while his father was a Keita, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Catrin Finch, meanwhile, was born in Aberystwyth, of English and German parents, and grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

By the time Catrin and Seckou joined forces, both were recognised as among the finest players of their chosen instrument. Andy Morgan again:

Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.

Both players draw upon their ancient traditions. One song from Clychau Dibon performed at the Concert Room was ‘Bamba’, a tune dedicated by Seckou to Amadou Bamba, the early 20th century mystic and Sufi religious leader from Senegal who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism: a man who devoted his life to the welfare of others, whose deeds have been praised in numerous tales, poems – and songs by West African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Orchestra Baobab.

‘Bamba’ played at Cardiff WOMEX in 2013:

Another example of how Catrin and Seckou build bridges between Welsh melodies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the traditional music of Senegal, Gambia and Mali of roughly from the same period came with their performance of ‘Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko’.  This was a collaboration that began when Finch dug out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’ from Robert Ap Huw’s 16th century manuscripts of transcripts for harp. Keita listened and responded with a tune he named after the Manding king Nialing Sonko (famous for collecting too much tax from his people, as Seckou explained at the concert) because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Finally, Seckou added to the mix an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, ‘Kelefa Koungben’.  More history there, too:  Kelefa was another Manding leader from the time when the kora itself was born.  What’s remarkable, on CD and in live performance, is how seamless was the fit between a courtly tune from medieval Wales and the elegant dignity of a kora melody from a bygone age.

One of the most thrilling moments in this enthralling concert was the duo’s performance of the most inventive piece on their CD, ‘Future Strings’. This began in the region of European classical music as Finch explored the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz, but soon spiralled off into something almost avant-garde as Finch ran her nail down a bass string and performed a 47-string-long glissandi before knocking out rhythms on the frame of her harp as if it were a conga drum. These gymnastics were then echoed by Keita, performing all kinds of tricks on his strings beating the gourd of the kora. At one point in the piece, Finch was plucking both harps simultaneously.

Here’s an official video of Catrin and Seckou performing ‘Future Strings’ live:

Though most of the pieces performed by Finch and Keita at the concert were from the Clychau Dibon CD, they did introduce several new tunes, including two which – unlike those on the CD – included vocalisations. Introducing ‘Tryweryn’, Finch insisted that – as a Liverpool audience – we should not take it personally.  For this was a piece inspired by the construction, in 1965, of a reservoir (we’ve passed it many times, on the from Bala to Trawsfynydd) which flooded the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool. The residents of Capel Celyn, one of the last monoglot Welsh-speaking villages were forcibly removed from homes and land owned by families there for centuries.  It was the end of bitter nine-year long struggle to save the village after  a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was passed by Parliament despite bitter opposition by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs .

Protest in Liverpool attempting to stop the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Protest in Liverpool against the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Catrin spoke of how Tryweryn ushered in a period of bitter conflict in Wales during which the reservoir dam was bombed by Welsh nationalists. Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP for Liverpool at the time, dismissed the plight of Capel Celyn as something that would, ‘make some disturbance of the inhabitants inevitable…but that is progress.’ The remnants of that time can still be seen as you drive through Wales, she said, in fading Welsh Nationalist slogans.

Cofiwch Dryweryn' 'Remember Tryweryn' Welsh nationalist graffiti on roadside wall near Llanrhystud Ceredigion

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ -‘Remember Tryweryn’ – Welsh nationalist slogan on a roadside wall near Llanrhystud, Ceredigion

Welsh anger over the drowning of Capel Celyn arose again in 2005 when Liverpool City Council issued an apology for its actions: ‘We realise the hurt of 40 years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir. For our insensitivity we apologise and hope the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.

Capel Celyn
Capel Celyn before the flood … and today

Capel Celyn reservoir

This new piece was superb, and represented a quite extraordinary performance by Catrin Finch who at one point simultaneously played both electro harp and the concert harp whilst vocalising memories of the lost homes and flooded valley while Keita added a wordless, soulful vocal.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita pla ‘Tryweryn’ at WOMAD 2014

For their encore the duo returned to perform another new number with vocalisations, preceded by a short tutorial about their two instruments.  It left you with the realisation that both are incredibly complex instruments – the concert harp, for instance, as well as having 47 strings, has seven pedals (compared to the two on a piano) which each modulate an octave’s strings in three different ways.

This was an enthralling concert in which Finch and Keita successfully created a blend of two different, yet similar, musical cultures to create a joyous experience. ‘Some people spend a lot of money on illegal substances in order to attain the kind of mood this music evokes’, commented fRoots magazine when reviewing the CD.  Couldn’t put it better!

Afterwards long lines queued for the CD.  I bought one, having enjoyed the album up to that point from a download.  But here was something that made  downloads irrelevant: the CD comes packaged inside a with beautiful hard cover, 32 page full colour booklet, with photos and a knowledgeable introduction by writer and journalist Andy Morgan.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2014

This is a full concert lasting one hour – but note that the performance does not begin until the 15 minute point:

See also

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate on stage at St Georges Hall Concert Room

News out of Mali has been so dreadful this past two years that there was something extra-celebratory about the concert this Tuesday evening in the elegant, gilded surroundings of St Georges Hall Concert Room in which the world’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabate performed duets with his son Sidiki, the latest in a family of griots whose lineage stretches back 71 generations, father to son.

Toumani (who speaks pretty fluent English picked up when he lived in London for a while in the 1980s) didn’t mention the crisis that struck Mali in 2012 and 2013 when jihadist forces gained control of two-thirds of a country rich in music and ancient learning, and distinguished by a culture rooted in a relaxed and tolerant Sufi Islamic tradition.  But he was in Liverpool to play music from Toumani and Sidiki, the new album which he regards as a contribution to the healing process in post-conflict Mali.  It’s a collection of very old, recently rediscovered kora pieces which Toumani chose to give new titles, honouring people and institutions that he believes played a crucial role in preserving Mali’s dignity.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Sidiki came on stage first to play a solo piece, suggesting that already at 24 years of age, he has already absorbed much through his apprenticeship to his father. In addition to being the latest addition to the celebrated Diabate musical dynasty, back home in Mali, Sidiki is a star in his own right having  established a huge following as a hip-hop musician and record producer.  As a teenager he enrolled in the National Institute for the Arts in Bamako, taking up drums and learning digital recording techniques, and in 2013 – as his father proudly informed the Liverpool audience – he won the Malian Hip Hop Award, being voted Mali’s best beat-maker.

Like his father, Sidiki has been outspoken in defence of his country’s freedom. In 2012 he teamed up with rapper Iba One to record ‘On Veut La Paix’ (‘We Want Peace’), an all-star rap hymn to peace in Mali, released as the jihadist forces were outlawing music in the areas they controlled in the north of the country.

After performing the opening number, Sidiki assisted his father, leaning on a stick, to the seat beside him. For the rest of the concert father and son – who performed together in the UK for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall last year –  treated us to a dazzling display of virtuosity on the two koras. What we saw and heard comprises the essence of West African music and culture, as Andy Morgan observed in a great piece on their partnership in last Friday’s Guardian:

Take the bone-dry shell of a large gourd, a straight length of rosewood and a piece of cow or antelope hide, combine them with 200 years of craftsmanship and 21 strings, and you have the kora: sub‑SaharanAfrica’s most sophisticated native instrument. Then take a man or woman born to the task of reciting epic poetry from memory and picking the ripest words out of the air to praise or placate – now you have a griot: the hereditary bard of West Africa. Put kora and griot together, and you have the foundations of West African music and culture.

This is the classical music of West Africa, exquisite and delicate, and each player dazzled with cascading lines of melody. The communication between the two performers was so intense that at times it was difficult to tell that two instruments were being played. The interplay between father and son was especially marked in rhythmic passages where each vied with the other to drive the music forward.  The tunes they played were from their new CD Toumani and Sidiki, including this, the opening track on the album, ‘Hamadoun Toure’:

The St Georges audience responded warmly to each number with lengthy applause. Towards the end Toumani spoke for several minutes about being the descendent of 70 generations – ‘stretching back father to son, father to son’, while Sidiki, speaking in French and with a smile on his face, spoke of the complications of his apprenticeship with Toumani – ‘his father, and at the same time his master’.

Toumani made some sharp comments about Europe’s relationship with Africa by way of introduction to their final number – the delicate and lovely tune from the new album which he named ‘Lampedusa’, a moving tribute to the 360 migrants from Libya who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 while the album was being recorded in London.  Whilst the European media promote a distorted picture of life in Africa as consisting of no more that starvation and war, equally Africans gain an unrealistic impression of Europe as a place where there is no poverty, no one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and there are jobs for all.

At the conclusion of ‘Lampedusa’ Toumani and Sidiki left the stage to rapturous applause.

Here are two short videos from World Circuit Records in which Toumani and Sidiki talk about  recording the new album:


Dickens: Smiley’s person

I haven’t yet got my hands on the new Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin and I felt weak at the prospect of one thousand pages of Peter Ackroyd’s seminal account.  Instead I took up Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens which was in the house and clocks in at only 200 pages.

Smiley’s is not an original work – she relies on Ackroyd and other recent surveys of Dickens’ life and work – but she does provide a concise and informative account that I’d recommend for anyone in this bicentennial year who wants a fast but insightful introduction to the phenomenon of Dickens.

I say phenomenon because Smiley observes the several ways in which Dickens is extraordinary – his ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood to his career as the most acclaimed novelist of his time (‘the first true celebrity’), his boundless energy and action-packed public life, and the dramas of his personal life and relationships.

Dickens’ energy seems to have been boundless throughout his life, something often commented upon by his acquaintances.  He had the habit of taking long, vigorous daily walks (he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles) on top of all his other activities – writing to the frightening deadlines of serialised publication, amateur dramatics, active involvement with charitable organisations, travel, social engagements , and the demands of his large and continually growing family. Even in 1865, just five years before his death and not a well man, he showed great courage and physical strength when involved in a serious train crash in Kent.

The original aspect that Jane Smiley brings to her account is to interpret the intersection between Dickens’ life and his writing from the perspective of a novelist. She discusses the way in which his novels not only reflected aspects of his personal experience, but how Dickens also used his writing almost as a form of psychotherapy to overcome feelings of guilt and shame about his childhood, his father’s bankruptcy, and the difficulties of his own marriage. In putting forward this Freudian analysis, Smiley notes that Dickens was Sigmund Freud’s favourite author.

Clearly, all novelists brings some knowledge of dramatic states of mind to their writing. As Smiley remarks, if  they had no such knowledge, then they would have no business with, and no interest in, novels or drama.

Audiences and readers want something to happen, and writers are ready to portray some of the things that can happen. Often this knowledge does have its root in the experience of the artist, though as frequently it has its origins in sensitive and eager observation (both of these were certainly true of Dickens). But the experience of writing about and depicting these dramatic incidents is at least as important as their origins, because the novelist bodies them forth, comments upon them, reacts to them; he learns from them and gives them both form and meaning, rather like, in a simpler way, expressing anger in words sometimes relieves feelings and sometimes exacerbates them.

Smiley examines each of Dickens’ works from this perspective – how he drew upon his life experience, and, simultaneously, how the process helped him to come to terms with hidden or suppressed feelings:

What might have remained inchoate becomes specific through making a narrative of it in a way that is analogous to psychotherapy. The novelist, unlike the patient, defines his story as fiction and therefore retains at least some distance from it, but he nevertheless learns to interpret it. Often it loses its power over him, as Dickens came to terms with his months in the blacking factory after giving them to David Copperfield. But he may also learn things about his true state of mind that might have remained shadowy had he not embodied them.

What makes this short book particularly interesting is the way in which Smiley relates each novel to Dickens’ biography, showing how each work of fiction not only drew upon his past, but also reflected his current circumstances and state of mind:

Authors live in a dialogue with their work, and their work is their inner life made concrete. Were they not susceptible to the reality of art, they wouldn’t have become authors in the first place. They would naturally be at least as susceptible to the power of their own art as to the power of the art of others, and from the beginning of his career, Dickens’s letters attest to his enthusiasm for and belief in every novel he wrote.

Smiley also explores the way in which Dickens’ popularity and notoriety grew rapidly with each successive novel, making him ‘the first true celebrity of the popular arts’, later earning the equivalent of around £30,000 a night in a dynamic one-man act in which he performed his ‘greatest hits’ – scenes from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and so on – to the delight of rapt audiences.  She writes:

If we see Dickens as the first true celebrity of the popular arts – that is, a man whose work made him rich and widely famous, as close to a household name as any movie star is today – then we also can see him as the first person to become a ‘brand name’. For many years, his name on the first instalment of a serialization sold copies in and of itself. [… ]  Dickens … counted on his name to bring in a certain number of readers, and he felt a strong obligation toward them. He always felt his job was to please and entertain readers, not to shock and confront them, and certainly not to offend them.

Dickens was different, too, in another respect: unlike other Victorian novelists, he did not have family wealth to support him as a writer.  Instead, drawing on his deep reserves of skill and energy, he exploited his chosen modus operandi – the novel published as a serial – to the full:

The new thing, in every way, was for an author to support himself or herself through sales of his or her work, and in this Dickens was pioneer and exemplar. The form of serial monthly or weekly publication not only helped him find a wide audience (every issue sold, it has been estimated, found fifteen readers), it also helped him keep that audience interested. The analogy, of course, is to soap opera-type serials. Dickens’s exquisite natural responsiveness, combined with his amazing inventiveness, meant that a form other authors found onerous was perfectly suited to him.

Dickens, Smiley notes, had perpetual money worries.  Juliet John, Professor of Victorian literature at Liverpool University, and author of Dickens and Mass Culture, also remarked on how he wrote letters about money all the time:

When he did public readings, which were really PR tours, from the 1850s onwards, he would write to friends literally characterising the audience as pounds or dollars.

His lowly class origins were what made Dickens so dependent on earnings from his writing and, later, his reading tours (which brought him to Liverpool and the Concert Room in St Georges Hall many times between 1842 and 1869). But, argues, Smiley, Dickens’ social mobility made him unique in another respect:

Dickens found  himself in a unique position to observe all facets of British society. He was unconstrained by a classical   education, untrained, as it were, to look at English society in the traditional way. His first thirty years were, in a fashion that contrasted with that of almost everyone around him, a training in freedom – in forming his own opinions, in judging for himself, in observing the effects of one group upon another, one class upon another, of institutions upon individuals and individuals upon institutions. He differed from all of his contemporaries in that he represented no group, therefore he came to represent all. His medium, the novel, enhanced his freedom, since the novel can never work except through freedom – the author is free to write, and the reader is free to read. […] The very oddities of both the man and his work further promoted his freedom, since his mind ranged freely over all sorts of characters, ideas, and settings. And he frequently took pains to speak out against abridgments of freedom, such as the closing of shops on Sunday, the only day when working people were able to buy, and other laws restricting the lives of the poor, as well as narrow and joyless religious and charitable institutions. By temperament, by training, and by intention, Dickens was a modern man, whose essential quality was the desire for freedom of thought and action.

The issue that has fascinated all observers is the relationship between Dickens’ politics and the novels. Smiley presents a complex picture of a man whose ideas became more radical as the years went by – who supported charities aimed at the betterment of the poor and marginalised, and spoke out in favour of campaigns to improve factory working conditions to which he donated the proceeds from several public readings – but whose radicalism was not Marxism.  Explaining the sources of his radicalism, Smiley traces a nexus between Dickens’ focus as a novelist and ideas rooted in his Christian values:

The conditions that so appalled Dickens constituted the major political and philosophical challenge of his era. The novel, like any other artistic form, makes an inherent philosophical assertion – that the mental life of the individual is worth anatomizing and that the disruptions that exist among individuals and between individuals and groups are understandable and soluble through individual transformation and action. Dickens expanded and expanded his canvas because he intuited that the complexities of the social dilemmas he was interested in could not be convincingly portrayed in miniature. Other thinkers, not novelists, had other ideas about the significance of individuals and individualism, but Dickens’s chosen form saddled him with a philosophical question he tried ardently to solve, both artistically and personally, for his entire life. The controversies that arise about Dickens’s real political views, in my opinion, arise primarily from the fact that a novelist always, and increasingly, sees the trees rather than the forest, and is naturally unsympathetic to a collective solution, while always more or less in favour of a connective solution.

It was that ‘connective solution’, Smiley suggests, which was central to Dickens’ view of the social problems of his time.  In an essay about a millworkers’ strike in Preston that lasted half a year and which provided the inspiration for Hard Times, Dickens wrote:

Into the relations between employerrs and employed, as into all the relations in life, there must enter something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration … otherwise those relations are rotten to the core and will never bear sound fruit.

Smiley pursues this idea through analysis of the novels, showing how Dickens reveals the failings of social institutions through the connections between his characters.In Bleak House, for example, the overarching metaphor is the ancient and costly Chancery suit of Jarndyce v Jarndyce to which every character, highborn or lowborn, is connected.

The book charts a succinct course through Dickens’ life, subtly interweaving biographical details with comments on the novels and Dickens’ developing style.  Smiley writes that,

Dickens’s tonal and stylistic choices were always remarkable for their richness and variety. He could do low comedy, melodrama, farce, fairy tale, confession, sarcasm, lyricism, romance, extended analogy, dialect imitation. He had an ear for every sort of discourse, both written and oral. He did not always use an elevated literary style, something for which he was criticized in his time. He was not always considered to be in control of his material, but rather he was sometimes accused of being carried into sentimentality or tastelessness.

One thing about Dickens’ novels that has been acknowledged by many commentators (though not discussed by Smiley) is how well they lend themselves to being adapted to screen and stage (though Smiley does suggest how his dramatic public readings were , in a sense, the start of this). Dickens has been adapted for film and TV more than any other  novelist. Television adaptations have followed at a steady flow over the decades.  In fact, sometimes it can be hard to recall whether our personal memories of a Dickens novel derive from book or screen (I touched on this, writing about Great Expectations recently).

A few weeks ago, in Dickens on Film, a documentary shown in the BBC Arena strand, the claim was even made for Dickens as the progenitor of film.  Ever since the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1902, the programme argued, film-makers have identified all the key elements of cinema language in his work, from montage to cliff-hangers, and the importance of dialogue and cinematic pace in storytelling. Apparently, Sergei Eisenstein, George Bernard Shaw, and DW Griffith all contended that Dickens wrote in a cinematic language years before cinema. They perceived a cinematic quality to his narrative, in which chapters open with large, framing panoramic sweeps – the widescreen shot – and then home in on the particular – a household, a character, a street.

These days, as a result of over familiarity perhaps, we can take Dickens a little for granted.  Smiley identifies the significance of his contribution to the evolution of the novel, encompassing the lives of servants and masters in a way that only Shakespeare had done before him:

Dickens repeatedly pushed the English novel away from standard realism at the same time that he pushed it away from depicting the English bourgeoisie. He expanded the social and economic scope of the novel while expanding its linguistic resources with no regard for class status or stylistic propriety – he gave his narrator and his array of characters many tongues to speak in, quite a few of which were visionary or poetical, and which themselves undermined the  ‘realism’  of   the  form.  Ultimately, he required, or allowed, the reader to regard more of the life around him by allowing it to be important enough to get into a novel. He thereby expanded the audience of the novel itself.

Smiley concludes:

Some novelists plough the same field novel after novel. Others map the world. No novelist has mapped so much of the world, right at the borderline where the inner world and the outer world meet, as Charles Dickens. He has inexhaustibly delineated states of mind,  emotions,  symbols, ideas, the rational life, and the irrational life, but also London and Kent and Manchester and America and Italy and France and Scotland and Sussex and Essex and Norfolk. He is the novelist who comes closest of all novelists to delivering on that illusory promise of the novel – to tell everything there is to know about everyone, and to tell it in an incomparably fresh and delightful way.

Hamlet by Lodestar

Went last night to see the Lodestar’s Hamlet at St Georges Hall Concert Room – part of this year’s Liverpool Shakespeare Festival. It was a gripping and well-acted production, skilfully compressed to little more than two hours, and with a fine central performance by Stephen Fletcher as Hamlet. The company made excellent use of the space – performing in the round, but also making use of the stage area. An enjoyable evening – the only gripe being that the acoustics in the Concert Room meant that some lines were lost.

Here’s the Echo’s review:

Of course, this is the Prince of Denmark, one of literature’s greatest creations and a role every young actor appears, currently, to be clamouring to play. But how to be, or not to be? Fletcher answers that question in this Liverpool Shakespeare Festival production with a performance of impressive confidence. His Hamlet simmers rather than shouts, his resentment against his murderous usurper uncle more likely to be demonstrated through a tremor of emotion rather than all out rant. And it’s much more effective for it. At times his prince is schoolboy sulky (an exaggerated wiping of his mouth after Claudius’ kiss, hot tears of frustration). At others, as during the play within the play which reveals Claudius’s treachery, he’s the purveyor of slippery, sniping, smiling sarcasm.

But it’s not simply a one-man show. Director Max Rubin also coaxes enjoyable performances from the players who swirl around the play’s protagonist.he cast is packed with former Lipa students including Grace Menary-Winefield (whose Ophelia is vulnerable and strangely vampish at the same time), Laertes (Paul Moorcroft), and Tom Latham who brings real presence to the slight but vital role of Hamlet’s trusty sounding board Horatio. But the “old guard” also shows its metal, Renny Krupinski commanding as Claudius and Ian Hayles a delightfully verbose Polonius.

Swathes of text have been shorn to cut the running time by more than an hour including the sub-plot involving Fortinbras’s imminent invasion, but the play doesn’t noticeably suffer from the lack of it. Instead the decision concentrates the action within the claustrophobic walls of a shabby, inter-war Elsinore. There are a few niggles. The rapier fight is perhaps a hit to long, while the sound can be muffled depending on where the actors happen to be standing.

Lodestar was formed in 2006 as a new theatre company dedicated to innovation, imagination and to presenting great plays to a 21st century audience:

Using unique venues as the starting point of all our productions we create stunning, site-specific theatre that has a love of language and a passion for storytelling at its heart. Working only with artists and practitioners from England’s North West we have developed the inventive, dynamic ensemble performance style that marks all our work as distinctly ‘Lodestar’ and that has helped to make The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival one of the North West’s best-loved theatre events.

The Liverpool Shakespeare Festival is an annual event that takes place in unusual venues such as Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and St James’ Gardens which lie adjacent to it. The festival was introduced with a sell-out production of Macbeth in the summer of 2007. Lodestar present Shakespeare’s greatest plays as living, breathing texts for a 21st century audience with a contemporary, ensemble style and a focus on clarity . In 2008 the festival hosted Shakespeare’s Globe and their production of The Winter’s Tale on their first ever visit to Liverpool.

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and James MacMillan’s homage to Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and James MacMillan’s homage to Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared

This year the commemoration of National Holocaust Memorial Day is centred on Liverpool. We went to see a performance in St George’s Hall Concert room by 10/10 Ensemble of two relevant pieces – Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written while he was interred in Stalag VIIIA concentration camp, and Busqueda, by James MacMillan which uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass.

Joanna MacGregor with the L.S.O.

The concert featured a tremendous performance by pianist Joanna MacGregor who was joined by cellist Jonathan Aasgaard, violinist James Cox and clarinettist Nicholas Cox.

James Macmillan’s Busqueda was an ambitious production: speakers were positioned in two groups on the balcony, in addition to three sopranos, a narrator and musical ensemble. The narrator Cathy Tyson was excellent.

Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared march in a protest in Buenos Aires in 1979.

Busqueda: Composer’s Notes

Búsqueda was commissioned by the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust in 1988 with subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council as a companion piece to Berio’s Laborintus II. It uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass. The work therefore has both political and religious overtones, expressing my interest in both the secular and the sacred, the timeless and the contemporary. Búsqueda draws the audience into a simultaneous experience of the mysteries of the Mass and the turmoil of a political street demonstration. Most importantly, one encounters the private anguish of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose poems, translated here by Gilbert Markus and others of Búsqueda (Search), Oxford, express a silent, patient dread of what may have befallen their loved ones, and a growing realisation that the outspoken and indeed unthinkable has indeed taken place.

The music covers a gamut of emotion, conjuring up traditional and contemporary images, ranging from the violence of ‘Crucifixion’ to the hope of ‘Reresurrection’. The Ordinary sections of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), are used as structural scaffolding for the development of the piece. The women’s poems are full of religious allusions and are easily placed in an appropriate context. Only the beginning of the Gloria is used, and in the Credo only the most crucial sections are quoted (et incarnatus est . . . crucifixus etiam pro nobis . . . et resurrexit tertia die), this section blossoming into an instrumental and more subjective declaration of faith, highlighting the two cellists as soloists. The work begins as if emerging from a deep, troubled sleep, and the mood subsequently swings from serenity, through elegy, through violence and anger, through devotion and prayerfulness, through euphoria, grief and back to the oblivion of sleep.

– James MacMillan

Messiaen: notes on Quartet for the End of Time

In 1940, Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinettist, a violinist and a violoncellist. The success of a short trio which he wrote for them led him to add seven more movements to this Interlude, and a piano to the ensemble, to create the Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen and his friends first performed it for their 5000 fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941.

If the plain facts of the work’s origins are simple, the spiritual facts are far more complex. Messiaen’s religious mysticism found a point of departure for the Quartet in the passage in the Book of Revelation (chapter 10) about the descent of the seventh angel, at the sound of whose trumpet the mystery of God will be consummated, and who announces “that there should be time no longer.”

According to the composer, the Quartet was intended not to be a commentary on the Apocalypse, nor to refer to his own captivity, but to be a kind of musical extension of the Biblical account, and of the concept of the end of Time as the end of past and future and the beginning of eternity. For Messiaen there was also a musical sense to the angel’s announcement. His development of a varied and flexible rhythmic system, based in part on ancient Hindu rhythms, came to fruition in the Quartet, where more or less literally Messiaen put an end to the equally measured “time” of western classical music.

The architecture of the Quartet is both musical and mystical. There are eight movements because God rested on the seventh day after creation, a day which extended into the eighth day of timeless eternity. There are intricate thematic relationships, as for example between movements two and seven, both of which are about the angel; and stylistic and theological relationships, as between movements five and eight.

In a preface to the score, Messiaen commented on each of the movements:

1.Liturgy of crystal. Between three and four o’clock in the morning, the awakening of the birds: a blackbird or a solo nightingale improvises, surrounded by efflorescent sound, by a halo of trills lost high in the trees…

2.Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of Time. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and violoncello.

3.Abyss of the birds. Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

4.Interlude. Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.

5.Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, infinitely slow, on the violoncello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, … “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

6.Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece in the series. The four instruments in unison take on the aspect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse were followed by various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announced the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of added [rhythmic] values, rhythms augmented or diminished… Music of stone, of formidable, sonorous granite…

7.A mingling of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time. Certain passages from the second movement recur here. The powerful angel appears, above all the rainbow that covers him… In my dreams I hear and see a catalogue of chords and melodies, familiar colours and forms… The swords of fire, these outpourings of blue-orange lava, these turbulent stars…

8.Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. Expansive solo violin, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second encomium? It addresses more specifically the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh… Its slow ascent toward the most extreme point of tension is the ascension of man toward his God, of the child of God toward his Father, of the being made divine toward Paradise.

Source: University of Southern California

St Georges Concert Hall