Rasping the Silence

For a long time I would hardly have dared agree that my father and I had anything in common.

And yet one of the unlikely features of the eclectic bookshelves at home was a large collection of Aldous Huxley. Several rows of Chatto and Windus hardbacks, filled out with one or two older editions and a few paperbacks of some later works including Doors of Perception and Island. I must have started with Brave New World but when I ventured further afield I must have been a little surprised as I was introduced to anarchism, Buddhism and the possibilities of psychoactive drugs, none of which have I ever associated with my dad.

He must have first read them in his early twenties. Over the years, I’ve asked him several times what attracted him to Huxley. After all, no other author is so generously represented in his library. And he does seem an odd choice for someone with a strong patriarchal disciplinarian streak. But he could never answer. He’d just fob me off with a shrug and change the subject.

Recently he has re-read them. Now in his late eighties, he is still within Huxley’s spell. He still can’t say why, although he did say that while he enjoyed the books while he read them, he soon forgot almost everything about them, as if they are a special place, safely adrift from the rest of his life, where alternative passions can thrive a while without guilt.

But then he stops. There is something. And before long he is talking about the title essay in Music at Night. Huxley is listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on record. ‘It would have been a ’78’ then, of course. And when the piece finishes, he has this lovely way of describing it.’ And my dad quotes from memory, word perfect:

With a stupid insect-like insistence, a steel point rasps and rasps the silence.

‘All those ‘s’s,’ he says. ‘It’s almost onomatopoeic, isn’t it?’ And he repeats the line, cherishing every syllable, momentarily lost in deep appreciation.

It then struck me that at the core of my dad’s love of classical music – he’s an obsessive collector and cataloguer of recordings, many of them taken from the radio – is not, perhaps, the music itself: the composition or the performance. What absorbs him most are the – largely domestic – rituals of listening. Maybe this is why he finds so precious those moments of transition, that take him away or (in this case) back to the world he has absented himself from.

Whatever the reason, we now share a favourite sentence.

The Problem with ‘Screen Time’

‘Ban under-threes from watching television, says study.’ This is how the Guardian reported the findings of a recent article – ‘Time for a View on Screen Time’ by Aric Sigman – that reviews evidence on the effects on physical and mental health of watching television and using computers.

Watching TV by Jay Parker.

Articles like this – that grab attention by tickling the guilt to which so many parents are susceptible – always annoy me. It often turns out that the scientific research arrives at much more qualified conclusions than the journalist allows. And in any case the possibility that there might be considerable disagreement on the issue in question – among scientists – is not always made clear.

Here, though, the summary appears to be broadly accurate, helped by the fact that the original paper ends with specific recommendations. Furthermore it quotes Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, who argues that Sigman’s paper is not ‘an impartial expert review of evidence for effects on health and child development’ and points out that Sigman ‘does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic.’ Most importantly of all: ‘His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.’

Some of these remarks are beside the point. The article doesn’t claim to be anything more than a summary of existing research, and the author’s ability to do this is surely not dependent on holding an academic or clinical position. But, as reported, the article does seem insufficiently aware of an obvious objection: we know that long periods of physical inactivity are probably not good for you, especially if it was not accompanied by social interaction. Surely it is this, rather than specifically ‘screen time’, that would help to account for increasing obesity and heart problems in children or their compromised intellectual and emotional development.

But what is also problematic (and this is my main concern here) is the assumption that ‘screen time’ is incompatible with physical activity and social interaction. It seems to me that ‘screen time’ covers a highly diverse range of activities – watching televisio; playing games; solving puzzles; following instructions; listening to music; conducting conversations via text, email, messaging or social media; reading and writing anything from status updates to full-length books; making video calls; editing and mixing sounds and images; and so on.

Furthermore, even the traditionally most passive of these – watching television on your own without the ability to change channels or adjust the volume – is often far from mindless consumption. When I walk in on my five-year-old watching a programme, the chances are that he’s commenting out loud on the action, anticipating dialogue, answering questions, expressing surprise or delight, laughing, belting out a song that is playing or – in the case of Tree Fu Tom – standing up, striking poses and trying out moves in imitation of someone on screen. And once I’ve joined him, he’ll ask me things, or draw my attention to something that is happening or about to happen. Sometimes we’ll laugh together in appreciation or pour scorn on something badly executed.

I was intrigued enough to read Sigman’s original paper. Could it really be so uninterested in the nuances and variety of so-called ‘screen time’? It would appear so. I even checked out two or three primary research papers that he cites, curious about the methods they used. Typically, data about ‘screen time’ seems to be collected by asking individuals (or their parents) to complete diaries or questionnaires indicating the number of hours they spend watching television or using computers each day. Thus:

The average time spent each day (weekdays and weekend days combined) in screen time (TV, video, computer, and video game usage) was assessed from parent-reported values. Time spent watching TV was defined as minutes spent watching TV, videotapes, or DVDs. Computer use was defined as minutes spent using a home computer or video game. Screen time was computed by summing minutes spent in TV viewing and computer use. (‘Associations between sedentary behavior and blood pressure in young children’, p726)

In at least one case this data was derived from devices attached to participants’ televisions and computers which would record when they were in use, together with a programme of incentives to ensure different levels of usage in the groups being compared. This is worth quoting at length, as it requires a degree of domestic surveillance that takes us into the realm of dystopian science fiction:

After completing a telephone screen, families attended an orientation, and, if interested, parents read and signed the informed consent and then completed a questionnaire that assessed the numbers of televisions, television video game units, VCR and DVD players, and computers in the home. Approximately 1 week later, a TV Allowance was attached to each television and computer monitor in the home by a research assistant […] who recorded the numbers of televisions and computers and their locations in the home. The TV Allowance is an automated device that controls and monitors the use of televisions or computer monitors, including television, video game systems, DVD players, VCRs, and computers. The appliance was plugged into the TV Allowance, the plug was locked in, and the device was plugged into the wall. To turn on the television or computer monitor, each family member used an individually selected 4-digit code. To protect against the participating child watching television or playing a computer game on other family members’ time, the participating child was not informed of the codes of other family members. If the child learned the codes of another family member, these codes were changed. The TV Allowance sums the minutes of use for each code to objectively determine use of that device.

Baseline television and computer use was measured during a 3-week period. Seventy families met eligibility criteria and were randomized into intervention and control groups [….] Families were recruited in cohorts, were stratified by child sex, and were randomized by the study statistician […] in blocks of 2 without replacement using a random number generator limited to 2 numbers. Group assignments were provided to the project coordinator [….]

Study staff [… ] set the weekly time budgets for television viewing, computer use, and associated behaviors. Budgets were reduced by 10% of their baseline amount per month for children in the intervention group until the budget was reduced by 50%. When the budget was reached, the television or computer monitor could not be turned on for the remainder of the week. Study staff could set different amounts of time for each child in a household, if desired, to reduce conflict if another child was not on the program. Parents and non-participating family members could use their code to watch television or to use computers without being on a budget.

Children in the intervention group earned $0.25 for each half hour under budget, up to $2.00 per week. Parents were instructed to praise the participating child for reducing television viewing and for engaging in alternative behaviors. Decreases were also reinforced by a star chart. At each home visit, a study staff member reviewed the star chart and praised the child for the number of stickers earned. When the child reached the 50% decrease at 6 months, the star charts were discontinued, and changes were supported through monthly newsletters and by parental praise for behavior change. The intervention group received ideas for alternatives to sedentary behavior, a tailored monthly newsletter with parenting tips to reduce sedentary behavior, and information about how to rearrange the home environment to reduce access to sedentary behavior. Children in the control group were provided free access to television and computers and received $2.00 per week for participating, independent of their behavior change. Control families received a newsletter to provide parenting tips, sample praise statements, and child-appropriate activities and recipes. (‘A randomized trial of the effects of reducing television viewing and computer use on body mass index in young children’, p240).

But as far as I could tell, no tests made any distinctions finer than that between one electronic device and another.

Why collect such bland information? It is as if one set up controlled clinical trials to establish whether eating sandwiches was bad for you, or swallowing pills, or going out at night. It is of course perfectly possible that, after quantifying this data, you find that doing more of one thing was probably doing you more harm than less, and to recommend that we cut down on one or other of them. But – even if we accepted the results of these tests – we might think, before making recommendations, to investigate whether it was certain types of sandwiches (with high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat, for example) that was the main case of harm and if so it might be more effective to recommend reducing our consumption of these sandwiches rather than others. And of course the dangers of going out at night must depend a great deal on what you do: attend an evening class, cycle on busy roads, play bingo, babysit for a friend, deal drugs, or drink alcohol and smoke solidly for twelve hours.

So why don’t these finer distinctions come into play here? One reason must be that it is much harder to quantify ways of watching television or using computers, as opposed to simply calculating the time spent engaged in these activites. Having resolved to model one’s research on clinical trials, the appropriateness of this mathematical model is taken for granted, even though it just may not be possible to make the distinctions thought necessary.

But another reason must be the fairly widespread – but hardly ‘scientific’ – antipathy towards television and its successors, an antipathy that is directed at an easily identifiable target – a product or an industry – that feeds on a simplistic moral division that sets technology against apparently more wholesome forms of activity such as reading and social interaction, a rhetoric that dominates Sigman’s article. Researchers more wary of this ‘common sense’ might have devised methods that tested these assumptions more thoroughly, and Sigman might have challenged them to do so.

The problem here is that both reading, painting, writing, social interaction are not distinct from ‘screen time’ but overlap with it. Many people now prefer to read ebooks than bound books; a good deal of creative design is now accomplished on a laptop rather than with paper, pens and brushes. Social media are so-called because of the, er, social interaction they permit (and demand certain standards of etiquette), although what they herald is the possibllity of increasingly polyphonic conversations already implicit in email, sms and instant messaging services which were originally largely one-to-one.

Until we can find ways of identifying different ways of engaging with computers and televisions and mapping these against certain standards of physical and mental health, we are not likely to learn very much.

First Things

 

Có a dh’ éireas anns a’ mhadainn
‘s a chì ròs geal am bial an latha?

(Who rises in the morning
and sees a white rose in the mouth of the day?)

Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean)

Of all our lost times, early mornings are perhaps the most elusive, half-lived in the stupor of reflex. I wonder if we can win them back by trapping something of their singular configurations.

For a long time I went to bed late. That had to stop. I am much more alert in the mornings and – in theory at least – can make better use of my time then. Last night I was up past midnight, so I set my alarm for 6.30 instead of 5.30. Or so I thought, but the referee of habit must have over-ruled the linesman of decision, and I didn’t even realize the mistake until I had already got yanked my legs over the side and made it to the bathroom.

So I shuffled into a dressing gown, made my usual pot of coffee and climbed into the sleeping bag on the sofa, for, like yesterday, there was a tickling chill in the air. It was too dark to read in bed, but here, in the living room, I had a good lamp, and a handy table. Waiting for me, as yet unopened, was Ghost Works by Daphne Marlatt, and I settled down to enjoy the first few chapters.

I bought it last year, after being intrigued by the discussion of it by Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund in their Mobility at Large as an example of an experimental travel narrative. It tells its story almost in slow motion, dwelling on the small details of sensations and thoughts. In the first chapter, the sentences tend be short, but the links between paragraphs – laid out on the page so that each one begins directly below where the last one ends – give it a train-like flow, while in the second, the impressions follow as successions of long clauses, joined with ampersand after ampersand.

My thoughts began to drift. I kept having to go back a few lines and re-read, sometimes aloud, to keep my concentration aloft. Occasionally I looked up to see the outline of the building opposite – chimneys, dormer windows, TV aerials – take shape against the sky, at first a pale grey, and then – suddenly, it seemed, though half an hour had passed – arrogantly blue, embossed with neat strokes of cloud.

Also on the table was a world atlas. It was useful when I was reading the book I just finished – Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana – because many of the Indian placenames were unfamiliar to me. Now I found myself tracing Marlatt’s journey from Mérida to Progreso.

At around 7 o’clock and on cue the man with Tourette’s – a familiar figure round these parts, unmistakable with his briefcase and signature fedora – became audible, shouting insults and obscenities as he rounded the corner and made his way down the street below my window. ‘Arseholes!’ I heard, just before he merged into the now mezzo-forte rumble of traffic on the main road.

The next time I paused, I realized it had taken me two hours to read 22 pages. Car doors slammed, shutters released, footsteps hocketed on the pavement and on the floorboards above. Water started to gush and squeal in the pipes. He’d be getting up now, I thought. His mum would be making his breakfast and packing his lunch-bag, despairing, perhaps, at the length of time it takes him to get his socks on.

The phone rang. It was not a number I recognised and I didn’t answer it. The caller hung up halfway through the recorded voicemail message. Heaving myself back on the sofa, I knocked over the coffee, and cursed. I wiped up the mess with a discoloured scrunched ball of paper towels still lying nearby from an almost identical accident two days ago.

This time I took it through to the kitchen and disposed of it properly. And while the bath ran I returned to my nest and picked up a philosophy book I borrowed from the university library. It was The Persistence of Subjectivity, a collection of essays by Robert Pippin on post-Kantian philosophy. I began the chapter on ‘Gadamer’s Hegel’, picking up the argument here and there, but much of it sailed past me like a convoy of buses heading back to the depot.

He’d be heading out to the school bus – walking down the hill today, because his scooter was here, ready to assist his more strenuous voyage in tomorrow. Meanwhile the chatter and laughter of schoolgirls began to fill the street as they ambled past reminding me the water must be ready for my dip.

I closed my Pippin, rolled up the sleeping bag, and prepared to make my appearance on the balcony of the day ahead, already planning what I was going to write at the laptop on the table when I emerged from the steam.

Language Games

My son started school the other week and he’s bring home some unusual words and phrases, seasoning his familiar speech with brògandeargbuidheuainesuidh sìosmadainn mhaththa mi duilichgabh mo leisgeullceart ma-thà. What is going on?

He has, of course, begun his immersion in Gaelic Medium Education, in his case at the Glasgow Gaelic School. We were told that our children would pick up the language very quickly, even if they hadn’t been exposed to it before. The challenge was always going to be for the parents who hadn’t. And they were right, although I hadn’t reckoned on it becoming manifest so soon.

My parents are English, although they did holiday frequently in the Highlands and Islands. I’m told I was named for Sgùrr Alasdair, the highest peak on the Isle of Skye, and the first trip I made that I faintly remember was in a van that famously broke down in Beauly in the early hours of a Sunday morning on what was then a day and half’s drive from Lancashire to Assynt.

My father’s bookshelves amply testify to an interest in Scottish history and topography. He also tried to learn Gaelic, subscribing to the newspaper Sruth for a while, and even took his primitive portable tape recorder (one that looked like this) along when he was invited to spend the evening with Mr McLeod, who lived a few miles down the road from the cottage we used to rent near Achmelvich, delighted to capture a three-way conversation between him, his wife and – unexpectedly dropping in – the postman.

I was introduced to several languages at school – Latin (all but forgotten now), German (surviving at elementary phrase-book level) and French, which I was much more determined to master when I fell in love with Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I’ve continued to read French to the point at which I can get through a novel in less than twice the time it takes to read one in English, though my conversational skills are fairly limited. I can understand instructions and ask for what I want, but I’d be struggling to engage in interesting chat.

For a long time Gaelic didn’t interest me beyond a mild fascination with the way English versions of Gaelic placenames often appeared to be attempts to find English morphemes that vaguely approximated to the Gaelic pronunciation rather than translations. Thus Àisir Mòr became Oldshoremore. But when I started working at the Scottish Music Information Centre in the early 1990s, I found myself having to read out Gaelic titles or names over the phone, and, to avoid embarrasment, began to teach myself the language following a course devised by An Comunn Gàidhealach.

The course was one of my dad’s, consisting of a boxed set of ten LPs with a booklet. According to the date on the records, it was already ancient, but – if the even older language materials passed on to me were any guide – it seemed to differ significantly from the reprints of text books from the turn of the last century: dry, systematic, technical, lacking illustrations, and introducing a vocabulary suggestive of a rural frontier life (man, woman, fire, smoke, wood, saw, cave, hill, cairn, calf, eagle, rat, berry) that has remained locked in time.

In the 1960s, though, change was in the air, and from the first lesson, we are invited into a defiantly suburban home, with a three-piece suite, a standard lamp, a cake stand, a foot-stool, and – most dramatically of all – a telebhisean.

My enthusiasm did not last. Four lessons in as many months and I gave in. Then nearly twenty years later, with a child at an age where decisions had to be made, his mother suggested we put in a placement request for the Gaelic School. I wasn’t keen at first – remembering my eternal disappointment when my own parents shovelled me off to a posh grammar in a neighbouring town rather than the local one where most of my friends went. But I slowly came round to the idea. I attended some evening classes, and though I missed too many of them, I eventually began teaching myself the language again in earnest.

During the summer I found myself advancing on two fronts. On the one hand, there was Gaelic in Twelve Weeks and its accompanying CDs, which I transferred to my smartphone, and I have studiously applied myself to the exercises, refusing to move on to the next lesson until I felt I had truly mastered the previous. On the other, there was a DVD set of the first series of Speaking Our Language, the TV programme that first aired in the late 1990s and the books that went with it, which I watch with Jack several evenings a week.

With the book, I listen to the CDs and follow in the text. Then I try to write down what is being said, without referring to the book. And then I try and translate from Gaelic from the English in the text. In between times, when I’m out and about, I listen to the recordings as many times as it takes for the individual words and phrases to take shape and be recognizable, while repeating them to myself to improve my pronunciation. Only when I feel I can do all this without thinking too much and not making many mistakes do I allow myself to move on to the next lesson. After about four months, I’m about ready to tackle lesson four. So much for twelve weeks.

The television programmes are a gentler way in. We’re three-quarters through the first series on our second run. Programmes are organised around topics (greetings, goodbyes, telling the time, travelling, instructions and orders, and so on) and you learn a series of useful phrases (often in dialogue form) without being required to systematically learn all the forms of a pronoun or preposition or tackle the rules governing lenition. Jack loves watching these programmes, especially the soap opera Aig an Taigh embedded within them. With the help of the books, I jot down some of the key points to help me remember them, and some of them stick, though by the second half of the series, a lot of them just vanish as soon as the credits roll. I think we’ll have to watch some of them yet again, before we get Series Two.

When I think of how long it took me to absorb enough French for me to make a decent stab at writing something like this post in that language – and even now, I’d have to consult a dictionary at least once a sentence – the task ahead is daunting. But each time I feel ready for something new – conjugating verbs, the names of the seasons, another round of prepositional pronouns – a shiver of achievement makes it all worthwhile. One day I might even talk to a stranger.

The Hall is Full of Noises

Over at Disquiet, since the beginning of the year, Marc Weidenbaum has been issuing a challenge each week. Every Thursday night he invites anyone who feels so inclined to record a short composition in accordance with a set of simple instructions, which they must upload to SoundCloud by the following Monday.

The Disquiet Junto is a remarkable project which has so far prompted over 1200 contributions from over 200 individuals, involving the manipulation of live performance, field recordings, computer-generated sounds and pre-existing sound-clips. The results are often astonishing, beautiful, strange or amusing, and always unpredictable, no doubt surprising the creators themselves as much as their listeners. It has given rise to an amazing community of sonic enthusiasts, enterprising, friendly and curious.

I’ve been inspired to throw together a few submissions of my own. And recently, the challenge entitled Sounds from Silence (issued on 26 July) got me thinking of another. Here was the brief:

This week’s project deals with the concept of silence — specifically recorded silence. We will take a segment of audio that is intended to signify silence, and then from it make an original piece of music.

Step 1: Select a segment of recorded sound that would generally be perceived as silent. Examples include: the gap between tracks on a tape cassette or vinyl record, the noise your laptop’s headphone jack emits when nothing is playing, the quietest moment in an MP3, a radio signal when nothing is supposed to be heard.

Step 2: Amplify or otherwise magnify that supposed absence of sound until it makes a perceivable noise.

Step 3: Compose, perform, and record a new original piece of music that takes this sound as its sole source material. You can manipulate the original audio as you see fit, but you can’t add other pre-existing audio elements to it.

As it happened, on the Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was also celebrating John Cage’s 100th birthday with a concert at City Halls, Glasgow Had I been more prepared I might have entertained the idea of recording the performance with the intention of reworking some of the ‘silences’ together along the lines suggested.

But I arrived straight from a party in honour of another birthday – that of my younger niece and nephew – and didn’t have time to go home and pick up any equipment. In any case, the custodians of the hall might not have appreciated the finer points of my plan had they caught me in flagrant delicto and I didn’t want to be escorted shamefully from the premises.

Still, it affected the way I listened to the concert, which presented a wide range of works including the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951) (soloist: John Tilbury), ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983), Atlas Eclipticalis (1962), and the (somewhat notorious) Child of Tree (1975) in which conductor Ilan Volkov, alone on stage, plucked and prodded a selection of amplifed cacti with what looked like a cocktail stick.

Although they were composed at very different stages of his career, all the pieces struck me as written sparingly. They were dense in places, but never very loud or busy. The music – like a diaphonous fabric – allowed the ear, as it were, to breathe. It reminded me of the frustrations I felt as a teenage listener of Radio Three’s Music in Our Time in the mid 1970s that seemed to settle into an orthodoxy of delicate, precious, shimmering clusters of notes, harmonics and gilssandi that never really got going, never quite managed to set the body a-tingle. It was all so damned cerebral.

You can imagine, perhaps, my glorious sense of relief when I first heard the jerky cacophony of free improvisers Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Paul Lytton when they played to an audience of less than a dozen in a small room above the Art Shop in Blackburn, Lancashire. A door opened on other worlds and I thought I would never look back.

This time, there was no frustration. I became fascinated by the way the relatively low volume afforded no cover for the audience’s compelling need to make noises. In the absence of loud passages in which to bury coughs and sneezes or substantial changes of posture, these semi-voluntary spasms and twitches were forced into the open, requiring inventive – but still quite audible – modes of suppression, modulation and camouflage.

A woman behind me couldn’t resist the temptation to zip and unzip her boots – producing an intermittent rasp of metal and squeak of leather. I detected the occasional scratch of nail on fabric and flesh, an intriguing showcase of murmurs, sighs and snorts, air vibrating in nostrils, the inadvertent contact of feet with bags or clothes on the floor. I began to make out the ticking of a watch or two. Now and again, a door behind me winced apologetically. From somewhere high up came the distant squawks of Glasgow’s seagulls.

But the musicians themselves also became part of this army of incidentalists. There is an attractive arbitrariness in the performance of works that rely so much on non-standard sources of sound (the pouring of water, the tearing of paper, the interference of piano strings with metal and rubber) when musicians try hard – as they are trained to do – to make their un-scored movements (replacing drum-sticks on a table, turning pages of music, repositioning chairs) as quietly as possible.

Improvisation III (1980) required the performers to occupy seats in the auditorium and operate portable cassette players. One of them (I recognized him as Nick Fells) was just ahead of me, depressing the play, stop and eject buttons and removing and inserting tapes as unobtrusively as he could, but – my attention focused the way it was – these machine sounds preoccupied me more than the recordings projected by the speakers.

In another context, this kind of listening would have been wilfully perverse. But at a Cage concert it is almost obligatory. I came away rejuvenated but with no clear idea how I might tackle the Junto, and the deadline passed before I could think any more about it.

Then, a week later I found myself with half an hour to spare one evening and decided to try and recreate the ‘silences’ at home, using what materials I had to hand. I set up my digital recorder and stereo microphone and gently placed plastic salad servers on the sideboard, opened doors, moved chairs, tried different kinds of muffled coughs, played with zips, crossed my legs, walked carefully up and down the bare floorboards (but not in knee-length boots), tinkered with my old cassette deck and – last but not at all least – breathed in and out.

Editing the file, I created a dozen samples, and mixed them together crudely, looping some of them, bringing them all one by one into the melting pot and then out again. And here it is. The sonic residue from the concert – its smoke and ash, if you will – not preserved, exactly, but reinterpreted. A cover version of what will almost certainly be carefully excised from the recording of the performance when it is broadcast by the BBC later this year. Headphones essential.

 

Unwaving the Flag

I have never been greatly interested in the Olympics. It is partly because most of the sports I enjoy watching are either not represented (cricket, at least not since 1900) or peak elsewhere (football, cycling); and partly because of the ways in which the games have been increasingly suffocated by political corruption, commercial sponsorship and militarised security. So I made no special effort to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012 the other week.

But I didn’t miss it completely. On Twitter it was hard to avoid, as several dozen of those accounts I follow commented on the unfolding spectacle on their TV screens. Many of them I expected to be cynical of what was surely going to be a state-sponsored festival of Britishness: monocultural, jingoistic, Conservative. But this was not the case, and no one was more surprised than the tweeters themselves who (rather grudgingly) admitted that the performance delighted them.

That the ceremony found fans as different as Richard Williams in the Guardianand Tim Stanley in the Telegraph suggests that Danny Boyle managed to achieve what many progressive cultural critics have been dreaming of for years: that the Left reclaim Britishness from the Right. Even the notorious tweet by Aidan Burley MP (‘Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!’) might have been scripted by Boyle, given the crucial role it played in reinforcing this new consensus. Of course the Daily Mail disagreed – but even they were forced to tone down some of their fanatical remarks.

I’m still not sure, though. I’ve never felt particularly at home with the idea of Britishness. The soundtrack of my childhood was not television but the Third Programme, now Radio Three, BBC’s flagship classical music station. As I absorbed the standard repertoire (all those B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok, Britten…), it soon became obvious that the British contribution to that canon was modest, to say the least. And maybe that nurtured a cosmopolitan spirit that deepened as I got older.

Of course, there was always the Home Service – later renamed Radio Four – which remains tied to a certain notion (a very English notion much of the time) of Britishness, even while its borders are becoming more elastic. And when I began to buy books and records of my own, there was a pattern that suggests that I was caught in its gravitational pull. I was an avid reader of World War II classics such as Reach for the Sky and enjoyed fiction like Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The first album I bought was Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeiishaped my adolescence even more than ‘Carry On’ films. (These titles are – like God Save the Queen – all choriambs. I wonder if there is something in that).

But by the time I was doing my ‘O’ Levels in 1975, I was clearly venturing further afield. I had begun working my way through Dante, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in my dad’s collection of black-spined Penguin Classics (by definition, not originally written in English). I pestered my local bookshop for Ginsberg and Kerouac, and was amazed to find some introductions to Buddhism, and hardback volume of Whitman on the shelves at home. From a lyrical passage in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn I followed a trail to the early twentieth-century modernisms, especially Dada, which – soon to be revived in the ethos and aesthetics of punk – framed what passed for my intellectual horizons in my last year at school.

This isn’t in itself an argument against the Opening Ceremony. It’s not even saying that embracing Britishness prevents you from appreciating ‘other cultures’. I found my own discomfort liberating: it opened doors, made me more curious to seek out things that teachers and television presenters ignored. But if I’d been more patriotic, would I never have discovered the pleasures of U-Roy or Francis Picabia as a teenager?

I felt Jenny Diski struck a chord when she confessed her lack of enthusiasm for ‘collective joy’. And I shared something of her scepticism towards the Ceremony’s alleged achievement. But despite the criticism of the nostalgic, backward-looking character of the pageant, I got the feeling that she still believed in the possibility of a radical Britishness that really would make a difference. If only it had been a bit more confrontational, visionary, utopian…

And for this she was rebuked by Norman Geras who thought she burdened the event with unrealistic expectations:

It is hard to imagine how an opening ceremony for the London Olympics could, just in itself, have transformed the politics of this country, so that the morning after, all the objectives that Jenny Diski favours would have been hugely assisted or brought forward. This wasn’t, mainly, a political event – a campaign, a set of reforms, a new party programme or movement.

And he detected

a subtext here according to which for people simply to enjoy themselves is somehow not enough if there’s no political payoff. Shall we watch ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ tonight? Ooh, I’m not sure – what would it do for the struggle? Hey, why are you singing a love song? There’s surely still stuff we need to protest about, and songs can do that too, you know. And so on.

But for me the problem is not that the ceremony did too little, but that it did too much. It seems a little disingenuous to compare it to a Hollywood musical. After all, when almost all the commentators felt obliged to read the event as the latest contribution to the century-and-a-half series on ‘the condition of England’, its political implications can hardly be trivial.

The thing about Britishness, though, is that however multicultural, it is still a notion tied to a nation state that goes to great lengths to keep people out. The United Kingdom is not alone in being defended by stringent and discriminatory immigration controls, and excessive powers to detain or expel those defined as outsiders or monitor and restrict the movement and activity of those who even look like outsiders. But ‘Britishness’ must take some responsibility for the way in which the right to belong here and make full use of the opportunities on offer is predicated on a sense of national identity, an allegiance to a required – if heterogenous – set of affective or ideological ties shared with everyone else in the country.

Would radicalising Britishness undermine the racial discriminations on which the kingdom seems to thrive? Would it do anything to stop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from bearing the brunt of what – in a triumph of spin that masks its fundamental difference from, say, wartime rationing – is blandly called ‘austerity’? Would it even have helped the 182 cyclists who were arrested on the monthly ‘Critical Mass’ ride as they passed close by the Stadium during this apparently ground-breaking ceremony? I doubt it. Whatever its content, ‘Britishness’ is a fungal infection that we ought to stop feeding.

Local and regional identities don’t have anything like the same power to exclude others. They certainly don’t have the same purchase on social policy or the criminal justice system. Being Scouse or Geordie is not about common values or ancestry but something that emerges from the shared experience of inhabiting the same space and perhaps a way of speaking. And even nation-states don’t need their citizens to identify with it in order to function. Look at Scotland. The SNP’s case for independence (such as it is) is being made not on cultural grounds (appealing to those who feel Scottish, think of themselves as Scottish more than anything else) but because an independent scotland would be fairer, more democractic, more accountable, dare I say more modern place to live.

The opening ceremony did not have to be a celebration of ‘Britishness’. It could have simply celebrated sport (perhaps allowing itself a little dig at the Olympic grandees by dwelling on some activities – like rugby or karate or women’s canoeing – it does not yet recognize). (Maybe even a bit of Indian Dancing). Or it could have created a series of tableaux that represented all the previous games – with its controversies (the black power salute in Mexico 1968) and tragedies (the massacre at Munich in 1972) as well as triumphs (Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936). Criticizing that would have been puritanical.

The Playparks Project: A Proposal

Again: the toddler’s favourite word. For, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, children are much more inclined to repetition than imitation. And so, with little more than a chiastic reversal of the vowel sounds, what would happen if we turned the Arcades Project into the Playparks Project?

Walter Benjamin never visited Scotland. But he was aware of its existence. In his Small History of Photography he applauded the work of David Octavius Hill, who famously depicted the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland. And for one of his radio talks he chose the subject of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Of Glasgow, however, I have found nothing.

Yet my gamble is that if it is possible to shed important light on the 19th Century through a thick description of the shopping arcades of Paris, then why not try to capture the secret of the 21st by dwelling in Glasgow’s playparks?

Part of the attraction of the arcade for Benjamin was its academic marginality: it suited well his belief in the redemptive power of the overlooked and unfashionable. Now that Benjamin is well-known, and has posthumously acquired more than just the academic post that so eluded him during his lifetime, the lowly objects of his study are lowly no more. I’m an arcade, get me out of here, I can almost hear it scream.

So it’s time to upgrade, and set our sights on a phenomenon still neglected by the trendy cultural theorists. Indeed the whole realm of childhood and childcare seems largely to pass them by, happily consigned to psychology and social policy. If it is now permitted for Benjamin’s flâneur to be a woman, we are still waiting for studies of the wandering parent – the prâmeur if you will – who probably botanises the asphalt more than anyone.

While Benjamin may not have been much of a ‘hands on’ dad – and he probably saw even less of his son after his divorce in 1930 when Stefan was twelve – he actually took a keen interest in children. He collected (and wrote essays on) toys and children’s books. He wrote two memoirs of his own early years in Berlin, collected his son’s opinions et pensées in a journal, and his work in general is sprinkled with remarks on the distinctive sensibility of the very young. Gershom Scholem wrote:

It is one of Benjamin’s most important characteristics that throughout his life he was attracted with almost magical force by the child’s world and ways. This world was one of the persistent and recurring themes of his reflections, and, indeed, his writings on this subject are among his most perfect pieces.1

His radio talks for children have been the subject of a book by Jeffrey Mehlman.2Howard Caygill has suggested that it was Benjamin’s reflections on the child’s experience of colour that prompted him to question Kant’s philosophy and elaborate his own, alternative, speculative critique of experience.3 And, according to Susan Buck-Morss, ‘what Benjamin found in the child’s consciousness, badgered out of existence by bourgeois education and so crucial to redeem (albeit in new form), was precisely the unsevered connection between perception and action that distinguished revolutionary consciousness in adults.’4

That’s my excuse anyway for stepping out and daring to offer some dispatches from the ludic archipelago in Scotland’s largest city.

Notes

  1. Gershom Scholem, ‘Walter Benjamin’ in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J Dannhauser (New York: Schocken, 1976), p175.
  2. Jeffrey Mehlman, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  3. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp83-85.
  4. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), p263.

History

One of the final touches to the flat before flinging it open to the unsuspecting property-vultures was to replace the floor covering in the kitchen closet. This is what was underneath the old linoleum.

These are pages from a newspaper from September 1915, not long after this tenement was built. I don’t suppose whoever put them there intended to let them fester until they resembled a Kurt Schwitters collage, and if they did they left them too long to be able to claim to have invented Dada a year before Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara got together at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Given the date I was expecting details of a military campaign but instead the news is dominated by the recall of Konstantin Dumba, the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, following accusations of espionage.

I was not familiar with this episode of the First World War and had to look it up. I couldn’t find any link between Dumba and Glasgow, but when I told someone the story at work, I was surprised to learn that before the war the Austro-Hungarian empire was represented here by the famous shipping magnate and art collector William Burrell who held the post of consul until 1906, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

It seems unlikely the two ever met (Dumba was serving as Minister to Serbia at the time) and Burrell’s acquaintance with Central Europe may not have been extensive, if the recollections of an encounter in 1932 are to be believed. This was on the occasion of the first visit to Glasgow by Béla Bartók who was a guest of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (himself sometimes compared to Bartók as a modernist who drew extensively on the idioms of his country’s folk and traditional music).

Chisholm’s wife, Diana, recalled:

When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was – language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an ‘English-cum-Hungarian’ dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of ‘English-cums’). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked ‘foreign’, and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók’s arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

‘Luck’, I thought, ‘this lets me out’. So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

‘Well’, I said laughingly, ‘you’re the official representative so you can get on with it.’ But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow’ s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul’s face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, ‘Bartók is my name’. After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.1

Whether Sir William was still the Consul at that time I have been unable to confirm. I don’t know a word of Hungarian either, although I did find something else when I was clearing out the flat. I had not opened my copy of Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins in more than thirty years.

In a fit of insanity I disturbed my violin out of hibernation. The downstairs neighbours must have been grateful the episode was very brief.

Notes

  1. Erik Chisholm, ‘Béla Bartók: The Shy Genius’, available for download from the Erik Chisholm website.

Pop Videos of the Future

What if field recordings became popular?  You know, like pop songs?

In a piece on a field recording posted in tribute to Ahmed Basiony, killed in the Cairo uprisings in January this year, Marc Weidenbaum asks a similar question.  The recording, made by John Kannenberg, is one of a series of museum recordings, all lasting exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds – a duration in tribute, of course, to John Cage.

Weidenbaum continues:

It’s no doubt something of a pipe dream among those of us who enjoy field recordings, but should the act of recording the sound of a place ever become nearly as popular and common as is taking photographs of places, it’s imaginable that 4’33” would become a if not the standard length of such an audio document, the same way that there are standardized dimensions for photos.

This may be true. And indeed I have made some 4’33” recordings of libraries, other places of relative silence, that might appeal to our inner Cage.

But if 4’33” is one standard (equivalent perhaps to an album), then one minute is another (the seven-inch single of the field recording world, we might say).  Think of the Quiet American’s One-Minute Vacations or Sound and Music’s Minute of Listening project (to which I have offered some contributions). Sixty seconds is also the (approximate) length of the sonic postcards that are emerging from the City Rings venture.

Whatever. But if these became hits, one thing they would need is a video.  What would a field recording pop video look like?

Well one thing they wouldn’t look like are those videos on YouTube that document people making field recordings (usually to create sound effects) or offer tutorials in using field recording equpment.

More promising is a Vimeo group that goes by the name of, um, Field Recording.  John Kannenberg himself has a A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum here, which displays a floor plan and indicates where in the building the different recordings were made as they play.  South Bank Skate consist of a sequence of still images taken of a skate park, while the soundtrack appears to be a continuous recording of people skateboarding there.

There are some films of musical performances which, while they make full use of the acoustic space (and one, Notturno, recorded in a working steel foundry, is actually dominated by the ambient sound) still offend the purist in me, who doesn’t want to call these field recordings.

But probably the most common approach found here is to present long takes from a static camera, positioned close to where the recordings were made.  Among my favourites is this clip of Zurich airport at night by Made for Full Screen:

I like this sequence too, animate structures #4 by John  Grzinich, exploring the aeolian effects of strong winds on the landscape and the built environment in the hills just north of San Francisco:

Also interesting is Transplant – 06/07/2010 by Keir Docherty, a close-up of foliage, with the movement of motor traffic on a busy road beyond, which dominates the soundtrack, part of a ‘series of short videos which capture simple moments of everyday life from a very particular perspective.’  The point being to demonstrate that while trees and plants are often introduced to conceal roads from the eye, they are much more effective at masking the visual rather than the aural, even though they do dampen the sound.

These are all fairly close to what I imagine a field recording pop video would look like. The long takes, the static camera, the relative absence of movement within the frame, all help to draw attention to the soundtrack, and yet allow a certain tension between sound and image, given that there will always be a mismatch between what you hear and what you can see (like noises originating off-screen, but also events on-screen that, perhaps unpredictably, cannot be heard). And it is a tension that doesn’t tend to exist with photographs which do not carry the same (if any) sonic expectations.

The makers of such films have sometimes found it useful to work to a set of rules. Made for Full Screen drew up guidelines for a Vimeo group called The Pictures Don’t Move:

1. No camera movement (zoom, pan, …)
2. No editing (cut, time manipulation, …)
3. No performance (acting, dancing, …)
4. Original sound (no music, …)
5. At least 30sec long!

Two years later with over 400 videos, the principles have clearly struck a chord. Despite frequent flagrant (and sometimes spammy) disregard for these rules, there are some great films here.  But after watching a few, my growing feeling was that they were visually too busy.  Or at least that their creators were more interested in what you see rather than what you hear.  Perhaps at some level they were trying too hard not to be boring.

That’s never been a problem for me. Long fascinated by constrained writing, I have been experimenting with a set of rules of my own. Unaware of The Pictures Don’t Move until a few weeks ago, mine are similar, but in effect add more conditions, namely (1) the films must be exactly one minute long, and (2) the source of most of the sounds must be off-camera (to insist on all would be one step too far, I think).

  1. One minute because, as I suggested, it is becoming one of the standard formats for field recordings, but also because producing a series of works of this length (which could be joined together to make a longer film made up of identically-sized segments) help to sharpen your awareness of this – often merely rhetorical (‘just give me a minute’) – unit of time that we take for granted. I suppose my gamble is that this rule can help produce something that makes a minute seem much more precious and longer-lasting than we often allow.
  2. I think a key to this stretching of time is to encourage the viewers to listen as intently as they watch, and to point the camera away from the source of the sound is one of the best ways of doing this. And there is no better way of slowing you down than imposing a rule that breaks the ingrained habits of almost everyone who makes and watches videos.

One video in the Field Recordings group that obeys this acousmatic principle is Geijitsu Mura Koen by Brown (also an active member of The Pictures Don’t Move group).  It is grotesquely long – almost two minutes – but repays repeated … I was going to say listening, but what we need is a word that combines listening and viewing (with more of the former than the latter).  Listiewing perhaps.

My own efforts have been focused on a project that is bound by even more limitations: Scottish Minutes. The plan is to produce sixty one-minute videos in accordance with these rules, but with the additional objective of covering a wide variety of locations in Scotland (rural, urban, maritime, etc) at different times of year and times of day. In the last eighteen months I’ve made five.  It may take some time.

It almost goes without saying that these rules favour those with fairly unsophisticated equipment.  They could be made quite easily using a smartphone. I tend to make things more complicated for myself. Used to making sound recordings, I normally use binaural microphones with a minidisc recorder for the audio, and a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Back home I transfer the recording onto computer, choose the segment I want and attach it to the matching segment of film (replacing the original audio taken by the camera).  Of course, since much of the sound is off camera, precise matching of sound and image is not usually required.

Here’s an example of a non-Scottish minute. A Short Film About Flying, made at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.  You will notice that not only are these videos done on the cheap, I don’t even bother to clean the camera lens properly.  How rock’n’roll is that?

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he ‘brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. “If there were no captions for these pictures, you’d think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany,” he informed one New York Times reporter’ (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which

he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, ‘Malcolm X, the Family Man.’ Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).

During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers ‘by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs’, apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 ‘featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels’ (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.

Here’s another picture of Malcolm holding a camera. And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable’s biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot’s remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but ‘behind the camera’. You can – if you’re lucky to get a good connection – stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a – very distinctive – verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes ‘portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).’

Looks like a good place to start.