Saturday, February 09, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism and the modern piano

Bashing the Archbishop of Canterbury is the sport of the moment. Or, rather, praising his intellect and then tearing apart a parody of his argument, as if theory and practice should be hermetically sealed from one another. I consider myself as an atheist and a Marxist (both awkward and slippery labels, but then all words are - that's the fun) but the Archbishop's view that what one believes should affect how one acts sounds to me like the classically Marxist idea of praxis - the way in which theoretical ideas are put into practice. The idea that people subscribe to networks of beliefs, which have complex and interconnected implications - rather than just choosing from various pop-up lists of equally irrelevant and privatized options - seems out of step with the public culture in Britain.

Tabloid misrepresentation of Dr Rowan Williams' recent speech (which is available here) is to have been expected. The level of Islamophobia in some of the responses has taken me aback, I admit - but much of this can I think be attributed to ignorance and misinformation. I am, therefore, if anything more concerned by what has been revealed about the woeful status of serious thought in this country's public debate. The Archbishop's speech is subtle and carefully argued. It is not, however, in the slightest bit woolly or obscure. It requires maybe half an hour's sustained concentration to read. On last night's Newsnight, however, Jeremy Paxman rather patronisingly said to the Bishop of Hulme, 'The paper is very thoughtful, it's very dense, it's very hard to understand in places to a layman such as myself. I'm sure you're quite clever enough to understand it ...' The Newsnight reporting gave no real sense at all of the way that the Archbishop carefully explored the nature of Sharia ('Universal principles: as any Muslim commentator will insist, what is in view is the eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants in particular; but also something that has to be 'actualized', not a ready-made system. If shar' designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualizing and applying it; while certain elements of the sharia are specified fairly exactly in the Qur'an and Sunna and in the hadith recognised as authoritative in this respect, there is no single code that can be identified as 'the' sharia.') or the fact that he explicitly rules out any possibility of a religious authority 'superseding' the secular legal system ('If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.' and 'Recognising a supplementary jurisdiction cannot mean recognising a liberty to exert a sort of local monopoly in some areas.'). Instead Douglas Murray - presented as the chairman of the laudable-sounding 'Centre for Social Cohesion' rather than the author of 'Neoconservatism: Why We Need It' - practically frothed at the mouth in his dismissal of all forms of Islamic law as barbaric and repressive.

As some have pointed out, Williams was in fact arguing through his discussion of Islam for a stronger role for religion in public life generally (though his evangelical critics who accused him of not stressing Christianity enough missed this point). He was not in any way endorsing doctrinaire fundamentalisms, but rather a greater sensitivity and public acknowledgment of the ways people relate to one another and the things they hold to be important. He was criticizing the position whereby it is claimed 'that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private and of individual choice.' Williams is not at all insensitive to the political implications of his position. Discussing - without mentioning it by name - the row over the Danish cartoons, he points out that 'offence needs to be connected to issues of power and status, so that a powerful individual or group making derogatory or defamatory statements about a disadvantaged minority might be thought to be increasing that disadvantage.' Quoting Maleiha Malik, Williams criticises the way that '[i]nstead of concentrating on the history of the individual or the origins of the social practice which provides the context within which the act is performed, conduct tends to be studied as an isolated and one-off act'.

In the conclusion to his lecture, Dr Williams acknowledges that 'is always easy to take refuge in some form of positivism'. What is really unsettling about the response to his comments (specifically that in the broadsheet newspapers and supposedly analytical television news programmes) is the way he has brought out more clearly than ever the deep-seated but ultimately shallow positivistic nature of contemporary British society, which clings to certain supposedly clear principles (such as the rule of secular law) as a way of repressing any serious discussion of the economic, racial and social vested interests which in fact dominate our society.


On Tuesday I went to hear the remarkable pianist Ian Pace give a recital in Oxford's Holywell Music Room. Apart from the five Ligeti Etudes that he concluded with (which I found pretty facile and tedious - maybe pianistically clever but musically vapid), the programme was exciting and thought-provoking. He opened with Eliot Carter's Sonata, a fascinatingly transitional work, where tonal structures sometimes gave way in priority to texture and timbre, and where the boundaries between slow and fast, continuity and disjunction, were all blurred so that one often turned unexpectedly into the other. The real highlight, though, was Stockhausen's Klavierstucke X. Beginning with immensely detailed and fast - but otherwise conventional - playing, the first forearm cluster genuinely made me jump. After that, the piece begins to alternate various types of activity with various forms of silence - or rather inactivity, for the pedal was often sustained and various resonances gradually died away. The relationship between these was fascinating. I asked Pace about the 'silences' during his post-concert talk, and he related how different they all seem. On a mundane level, some the resonances are very different (at one point powerfully rhythmic and two notes beat against one another), but beyond this Pace related how sometimes the silences seem like gaps - interruptions - sometimes they seem like the aftereffect or tail-end of the preceeding activity, and sometimes they seem (as Michael Finnissy apparently put it) like the sun passing behind a cloud: the music has been developing during the silence, we just haven't been able to hear it. This was the first music by Stockhausen I have heard live since his death and it reminded me powerfully how strong his work - particularly the early work - can be.

The other pianist I have been listening to a great deal recently is Cecil Taylor. What has struck me recently is how clear his work is. If one really listens, with a slightly disorientating mixture of total concentration on detail and abandonment to the music's momentum, almost every detail can be exciting, surprising but in no way muddled. I was inspired to this period of Taylor focus (I have one every year or two, as I do with various other musicians - Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, John Coltrane and Morton Feldman being the main reoffenders) by getting my hands on Chris Felver's extraordinary film All The Notes. With no voiceover, but just skillfully edited footage of Taylor holding forth - both vocally and at the piano - one gets a powerful sense of his musical mastery, his obstinate idiosyncracy and most importantly his joy at life, music, the tree outside his window. I highly recommend taking the chance to see it if you get one. (The DVD is available here.)


And finally - I've been loving the Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowshipcartoons in the Guardian for a while now, and I've just discovered they have a great website:

Here's a taste, anyway, in case you haven't seen the strip (click on it to make it bigger):

And finally finally, from the beautiful South Bank Show programme on John Bird and John Fortune (their sustained friendship and sustained satirical anger were inspiring and unexpectedly moving), here is their excellent analysis of the causes of the current financial crisis:

1 comment:

Alex Hawkins said...

Interesting thoughts about the Williams! I have to say, I agree with you about the embarassing level of discourse in the press surrounding this. Newsnight has always struck me as at least 75% populated with dilettantes anyway (raise that figure for 'Newsnight Review'). How depressing, especially when one thinks that in fairness, the BBC has a much, much higher standard of discourse than any other English language broadcasters Ican think of off hand.

Whilst I agree that he has been reported abjectly in the press, I have always regarded him with some suspicion intellectually. I need to read the speech you link, but from the quotes you give, it seems like his concepts (this one of 'supplementary' jurisdiction in particular) are muddled.

What is similarly depressing about this whole thing is the quite shocking extent to which academics are ignored in this country. 'Supplementary' systems, the 'sovereign jurisdiction' etc. etc. - legal realism has been around for a hundred years, and critical legal studies since the 70s. If Williams/BBC commentators/many others were aware of these things, we'd all be sitting back and saying 'old news'!