Plus ça change …

… plus ça reste la même chose.

Centuries do not die.  The spirit of an age leaps generations to plant itself in another.  Music is its greatest telltale.  In particular, rhythm.  And nothing changes – it’s all been done before.  You may hear echoes of ethnomusicology bearing down on you here, but we don’t actually need to go very far up the ivory tower to find examples.  Picture this – an audience assembled in finery for a show, actors and musicians leaping in bright costumes to jungle rhythms, all strewn with lighting effects and a musical score by a popular musician.  A clash of Western showbiz and ‘native’ authenticity, propelled onto the stage by the thrill of the exotic, musical innovation, and promising ticket sales.  With a heartwarming story right at the epicentre of the spectacle, we’ve a hit on our hands.

1.  Rameau and Disney

I am describing not only Disney’s production of The Lion King, still showing at the Lyceum Theatre in London, but also Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, first staged in 1735 in Paris, and still performed in similar style.  The Western World has reacted to the Third World with the same joyous and rhythmic exoticism for centuries.  There’s no ‘copying’ alleged here – just a revelation of excitement in the primitive beating of drums, shared by the French in the 1700s and the Americans three centuries later.  The staging, the rhythm, the costumes – in both shows they spring from the same source.  And the audience came in droves on both occasions.

Take a look at the two productions.  The music and staging, but particularly the rhythm, are all virtually interchangeable:

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2.  Handel and Wonder

The ebullience of the baroque survived off the stage, too.  Master Handel’s sheer virtuosity and intense energy created one of those rare pieces of music that expresses pure joy in a form both elegant and accessible.  The piece is “Happy We”, from Acis and Galatea, written in 1739.  And who better than the BBC Proms to bring it to the ears of many, in 2007, in the recording below.  The rhythm and joy of this piece is inherited by the equally baroque and saccharine Stevie Wonder, in “Isn’t She Lovely”, written for his daughter in 1976.  In the recording below he performs live, also in London, in 2008.  Again, the underlying rhythm (listen to the electric bass in particular!), the tonal worlds and of course the sentiment, are of one spirit:

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3.  Allegri and Blake

Another ‘spirit of the age’ that leapt a few generations is the mystical appeal of a soaring boy treble.  The tale begins in Renaissance Rome, where in about 1620 the composer, Allegri, was comissioned to write the music for the Miserere, sung during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.  Such was the beauty of the music, which lasts for 15 sublime minutes, that it was declared it was not allowed to be copied and heard anywhere else, under penalty of excommunication.  They hadn’t bargained on a young Mozart hearing the piece on a visit to Rome, and then transcribing the whole thing from memory the following day …  A somewhat similar soaring high phrase can be heard in Howard Blake’s appealing 1982 music for Briggs’ Snowman, sung by Aled Jones.  Again – it’s not a question of copying, just the same inspiration being found, four centuries apart, by the simple power of a high fourth when sung by a boy treble.  Here are the two lines for comparison (adjusted), in this track:

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4.  Ravel and Mika

Something even more recent also shares a rhythm and spirit – one of the most famous rhythms in classical music – and finds itself planted within a recent pop song.  The earlier work is by Ravel, the celebrated “Boléro” (1928) – and it fits rather well both in tone and rhythm with Mika’s “Grace Kelly” (2007).  This is no copy – it is another survival of rhythm and musical forward-motion in two completely separate eras.  The underlying rhythm is entirely in common, and much of the lyricism in the overlay too:

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5. And to finish …

The real conclusion here is that the same music, the same rhythm, the same spirit, can be re-used from age to age, so long as it is refreshed for each generation.  A beat or a line will survive for centuries, preserving the atmosphere of an earlier time, like air bubbles in ice drifts, and it is not a case of copying – it is a subconscious process of renewal.  And so, some tidbits to finish.

First, a refreshment of Chopin’s Nocturne, not by sticking a drumbeat or electric guitar behind it, but by embedding it, unadapted, whole and pure, within a piece of pop music.  Courtesy of Muse – if you’re in a rush, just skip to 3:20 and listen to the end from there, to hear how the two styles are slowly mixed –

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Second, a cheeky little exercise of mine in classical counterpoint, mixing Charpentier’s “Te Deum” (1688) with Steve Stevens’ electric guitar solo in the movie theme of “Top Gun” (1986) – it almost works …

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And third, a personal favourite of mine from Kit and the Widow – with a hat tip to Jack Blumenau – comparing certain pieces of classical music to recent West End and Broadway show songs … Enjoy!

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Note: all copyright in the mixed tracks/videos rests with the original producers of the unmixed versions.  Downloading has been disabled.


Inventing the gods.

A forgotten history of curious places.  

Hidden corners of cultural & aesthetic experiment,

amid two of the greatest events in the history of Western Europe.


Heidelberg Thingstätte

Heidelberg Thingstätte

In an isolated clearing somewhere in the Black Forest, a young German sits thinking, at dusk, on a step.  Below him is arrayed the architecture of a low-rising amphitheatre, crisply and newly built.  The top steps blend into the forest, their gentle curve broken just by a small path leading away into the woods behind him, lit by soft lamps.  A tall monument rises in front of him, resembling nothing in particular. The place is peaceful, but contrived.  The young man thinks of nothing in particular, though much is on his mind.  The year is 1942, and he is sitting in a curious construction known as a Thingstätte – a “being place”.

Scroll your mental navigation bars back a few centuries.  A file of anxious-looking French boys is being led two-by-two into a large, neo-classical building, in the coastal city of Toulon.  They are told to fan out, well separated from each other, to sit for an hour, and to ponder a problem in their heads.  Any problem.  Inside this building, the walls are of perfectly flat stone, the rows of hard pews are of rigorous and logical symmetry around a central circular space, which is empty, over all of which a high lantern dome casts a dim and religious light.  Yet there is no religion here.  The boys – and the flotilla of government officials accompanying them – are from the early class of the naval college.  They have just entered a building that was intended, when construction began, to become the Roman Catholic Église Saint-Louis, serving the west of the town.  But the year is 1794, the Revolution has come, and the boys have just sat down in a freshly-minted Temple of Reason.

Église Saint-Louis, Toulon

Église Saint-Louis, Toulon

In both cases, new régimes had swept to power, clearing all superstition in their path.  Except, of course, for the natural superstition inside the people they claimed to lead.  The official Nazi state religion was that of “Gott-Glauben” – God-believing, a term so nebulous as to lose its grip on monk and atheist alike.  They built strings of thingstätte across the country.  That anyone thought a quasi-spiritual offering, a café blend of multi-sourced mythology, an abundance of burning sticks and children beating drums in straight lines, could ever replace the centuries of cultural tradition and faith, is, well, curious.  The French Revolution killed off a large portion of the ancien régime during the Terror.  Convents burned, churches tumbled; Reason rose.  Yet within two short years, they had to invent a god.  Ils ont inventé un Dieu!  To keep the people happy, an off-the-cuff deity was posited.  Not for the uneducated masses.  Not for stick-in-the-mud mystics and superstitious throwbacks.  But for the mass of the thinking, reasonable – and Reasonable – populace, who knew that something was missing from their sparkling new society.  The same in Revolutionary France as in National Socialist Germany.

And in both cases we see the common thread not just in the political, but in the aesthetic.  In France, the hard edge of cold logic usurping the conciliatory ear of a priest.  Stone walls no longer adorned by gilt-edged devotional pieces bathed in lambent light.  Superstition undealt-with: dangerous no doubt in the admission even of the most ardent of atheists.  Places of refuge, centralised.  Organic structures broken into line.  Yet a soft spirit in the poetic renaming of the months – Brumaire (the foggy one, roughly November), Frimaire (the frosty one, roughly December), Floréal (the month of darling buds, mostly May) and Pluviôse (the rainy month, mostly February), against the rigorous logic of a newly metric numbering system.  And the invention of a comforting deity, amid the merciless toppling of the churches.

The Zeppelin Field Rally Ground, designed by Albert Speer

The Zeppelin Field Rally Ground (Zeppelintribune), designed by Albert Speer

In Germany too, the thingstätte, built as places for spiritual reflection, embodied the paradox of the sharp and the soft, which collided at the heart of Nazi ideology.  The smoothly imperial geometry of a stone amphitheatre against the ephemeral watercolours of an untamed, mythical forest.  The sharp white lines of Albert Speer’s planned Berlin colonnades – and the infamous ones he did build in Nuremberg – against the deep pigment dyes of lace-skirted maidens churning butter in the high woodlands.  The idea of harnessing the calligraphic power of the flamboyant Black Letter and Fraktur, against the urge to standardise its typography.  The stark design of a hooked cross, black on white and red, against the concession to add velvet and voluminous gold tassels to the flag’s edge.  The yearning to build a city more beautiful than Paris, against the final order – mercifully ignored – to destroy it.  The mystical hedonism and exotic productions of Wagner, against the penchant for marching songs and uniformed masses.  A network of semi-secular, vaguely-mystical “being places” proclaiming the new state religion, against an ancient, sometime deeply Protestant, sometime deeply Catholic, always deeply Christian, people.

A modern use of the thingstätte at Heidelberg, on Walpurgisnacht

A modern use of the thingstätte at Heidelberg, on Walpurgisnacht

In both cases above, the places were built in the name of an extreme socialism – something for the people, the volk, the citoyens; something for humanity.  Yet it was things belonging to those people that had been cleared away, by increasingly inhuman régimes.  Sharpness, centrality and certitude in the new replaced the softness, subtlety and superstition of the old.  Except, in each case – and in every other case I can think of – they have always had to bring it back.  Not partially, not abstractly, but totally.  These places, among them the Thingstätter and the Temple of Reason, are but two curious remnants.  Remnants that serve as examples of why the intensely private, the intensely faithful, and the intensely superstitious are always more human – and indeed humanising – than the coldness and artifice of logic and reason.  They’re also a good excuse to visit two picturesque corners of France (Toulon) and Germany (Heidelberg) …

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Bound to Violence

The first great African novel!  

A revolution in literature!  

The end of colonial cultural dominance for the ‘Dark Continent’!  

So echoed John Updike of The New Yorker, Melvin Maddock of Time Magazine and many of the great literary reviews of the world.  Unfortunately, half of the novel in question was allegedly copy-pasted from a Graham Greene novel, published 30 years earlier in London.  Other parts seemed to have been taken from Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Pascal, Godard, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson.  What was strangest, however, was that no-one – not any of the great and good of Western literary criticism – had even noticed.

Birthplace of Yambo Ouologuem Bandiagara

The Birthplace of Yambo Ouologuem, Mali

It took an anonymous letter in the Times Literary Supplement in 1969, a whole year after the book’s translation into English, to point out that something was amiss.  The letter deserves to be quoted in full, for it contains an insight, which I will reveal shortly:

“On its appearance in the United States, Bound to Violence [Le Devoir de violence] was trumpeted as the ‘first truly African novel,’ a claim which now looks more than a little sick.  Or is M. Ouologuem [the writer] on to something: a style of literary imperialism intended as a revenge for the much-chronicled sins of territorial imperalists?  Yambo Ouologuem said on television that he ‘wrote this book in French but followed the traditional African rhythms and the spirit of the African past.’  It presumably says something for Graham Greene that, even before he went to a continent that later much concerned him, he was capable of effortlessly conveying its traditional rhythms.”

The critics who had previously praised the publication, now panned it, citing betrayal and subterfuge, with no small amount of bluster.  Their indignation was justified in that the book did appear to be a sequence of plagiarised passages, interspersed with fresh material.  Yet it was also unjustified, since the allegedly copied passages had, in fact, been subtly adapted.  The insight?  Ouologuem (born 1940, in Mali) had achieved what had hitherto been thought impossible: to come at his colonial target from many angles.

Graham Greene

Graham Greene

For example, in a passage describing the home of a colonial administrator, Chevalier, the text matches that of a character from Greene’s work, describing a communist leader’s lavish London flat.  But Ouologuem changes the text, creating a really quite unlikely geography inside the building: a veranda appears between the antechamber and the salon of the house.  This is quite deliberate, one assumes.  The officer’s house also overlooks a brothel, which is extremely unlikely – the servants’ quarters would be a more likely vista. Hence the revelation that he must have had a purpose other than realistic description of a Malian official’s house, or some sneaky plagiarism.  Richard Serrano, the outspoken postcolonial critic, suggests that he’s created “at once a reminder that French colonialism severely distorted Sahelian culture and that Africans by necessity remake the Western texts that their educations have made a part of them”.

And there you have it.  Perhaps a clever and cutting commentary by an African writer on the conquering colonials, by subverting their own writing.  Or a cheap trick?  Best to read it and decide.  It should be noted, however, that if he did just copy Greene and co., publishing plagiarism is still illegal, no matter how interesting you think it may be.

In fact, three things happened:

  1. Clever literary advance or not, the text was unable to be published in France until very recently, for this very reason.
  2. Ouologuem felt harrassed by the Western press, and is now reported to live almost as a recluse.
  3. Graham Greene sued him, and after Ouologuem refused to revise his text, a whole swathe of literary critics turned on him for good.

The perils of playing with famous literature – but it does make a good story, particularly for the egg left on the faces of the initial – and illustrious – reviewers …

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Principal Sources:

  1. Greene, Graham, It’s a Battlefield.  London: Heinemann, 1934.
  2. Ouologuem, Yambo, Le Devoir de violence.  Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968.
  3. Richard Serrano, Against the Postcolonial.  Oxford: Lexington, 2005.
The fabled city of Timbuktu, in Mali

The fabled city of Timbuktu, in Mali

A healthful ale

“I gave her cakes, and I gave her ale, and we was wond’rous merry!”  

—  Henry Purcell (British composer, 1659 – 1695, tune here)

On the eve of the First World War, wine was – startlingly – a major pre-occupation for the French leadership, for several weeks.  Absinthe, too.  One government minister remarked that the wine-drinking, absinthe-sipping, even ‘effeminate’ Frenchman was no match in war for the supposedly more masculine, “beer-filled Teuton”.  The British were a happy half-way house, it seemed, enjoying wine and spirits in moderate measure, but beer for the most part, and – consequently, it seemed – were a decent match for the Germans on the battlefield.

Une autre pinte, peut-être?

Une autre pinte, peut-être?

How times have changed.  The youth of France, surrounded by Médoc, Gevrey-Chambertin and Sancerre, now prefer a large measure of Kronenbourg 1664, while the youth of Britain have, apparently, been turning more to the delights – and relative cheapness – of wine.

In Britain, French drink is held in high regard; in France, British drink is exotic and appealing.  Well, plus ça change: cross-channel grass-is-greener syndrome has long been a feature of Franco-British interaction.  Steak-frites, the essence of French cuisine, is originally a British dish, from a time when France’s meat supply was mostly rotten, while Britain enjoyed exquisite produce.  Maurice Chevalier, the stereotypical Frenchman, wore entirely British fashion.  And so the pendulum has swung once more in the field of booze, too.  The French are drinking beer; the British are drinking wine (although “real ale” is a notable exception, and actually mitigates part of the problem).

Whatever one’s view of the archaic and almost comical attribution of tipple-preference to national characteristics and war prospects, quoted at the start of this article, this particular warhorse has once again reared its ugly head.  Tax on booze has been proposed in Britain, to curb binge-drinking.  This goes some way to explaining the switch away from beer to wine, à la française.  It is cheaper for the average young couple, especially in the midst of recession, to remain at home with a half-decent £7 bottle of wine, than it is for them to leave the house and attend a pub, where a pint now nudges three pounds – more than one round and you’re down on the deal.  Sharing that bottle of wine with a partner, rather than a pint with a pile of mutual mates, is becoming the norm.

This has three effects:

  1. To change the British drinking culture from beer to wine.
  2. To reduce social contact at a traditional juncture, the pub. And –
  3. To take a chunk out of the British economy.

Why the third point?  Bluntly, Britain’s a bit bloody short on decent wine of its own.  She’s far better at brewing a decent pint, an art – even a science – at which perhaps only Germany’s brewers (and perhaps the Belgians, Czechs, New Zealanders and Australians) are equally talented.  Hence the “beer-filled Teuton” of France’s despairing pre-war leadership.  This means that most of the (cheap) wine Britons drink comes from France, Spain and Italy.  Money, in short, flies out of British pockets into those of Continental vintners, both at the expense of Britain’s domestic economy, and one of her oldest social establishments.

"Well, ale be bound!"

Three foaming pints of ambrosia

A solution, then.  A tax on European wine?  No – both unimaginative (extra taxes are always somewhat of a blunt political instrument) and illegal (such tariffs not being entirely in the spirit of European co-operation).  A big subsidy on beer?  No – both irresponsible (“free beer” is one of those things a novelty political party might stand for) and, again, illegal (British brewers and French farmers should probably never appear on the same side of an argument).  A more subtle half-way house, perhaps, just as Britain’s drinking was perceived to be all those years ago before World War One.  A tax break specifically for casked pub beer – ideally focussing on ‘real ale’, perhaps coupled with a stronger ‘appelation’ award system.  This would benefit pub-goers: the same amount of alcohol consumption, since one bottle of wine or several pints would then amount both to the same units of alcohol as well as price.  It would benefit social interaction, filling up community meeting-points rather than isolating people inside their homes to drink.

There are obvious problems here, of course: any reduction in the cost of drinking is doubtful as to social responsibility.  Yet a balancing of off-licence hours and pub-closing times could partly address this very issue if done in tandem.  Another problem would be overcrowding of pubs in major centres, which are less community meeting-points, but more simply watering-holes.  A focus on ‘real ales’ would, again, partly address this, turning beer into a more appreciated tipple, as wine is, than a bland booze-content-driven effort, which ignores taste and local-sourcing awareness.  Supermarkets might get on board with a new trend in this area, which is well overdue.

I stop at this point, to invite discussion.  Perhaps it might be best to leave you with a letter to the Editor in last week’s Telegraph, which sums up the issue rather nicely.  And perhaps one day the people of Britain, neither wine-supping Frenchman, nor beer-filled Teuton, might indulge a little in a fine ale, and be “wond’rous merry” once more.  In times such as these, we certainly need it.

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Links cited: Guardian, Telegraph, Deller Consort