Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche

The Wedding-Feast of Cupid and Psyche by Guilio Romano.

All the evidence suggests the Italian painter Guilano Romano (1499-1546) was one the earliest artists who can be defined as Mannerist in creative outlook. Romano's The Wedding-Feast of Cupid and Psyche (1532) includes subject-matter of a mythological nature, its staged in a highly theatrical setting and uses unusual perspective as well as eroticism; all of which are characteristics associated with Mannerist art.

The Wedding-Feast of Cupid and Psyche was also painted by Romano's teacher, Raphael. It is however only one of several fresco's painted by Romano on the walls on the Palazzo del Te at Mantua in Italy. The lively and highly-stylized marriage-feast includes nymphs, fauns, satyrs, a drunken Silenus figure and what were at the time, rare and exotic animals, namely a camel and an elephant, both of which are centre-stage in Romano's fresco.

During the Renaissance new sources of myth such as Ovid's Metamorphoses and Hygenius' Fabulae became available to artists. It’s in the The Golden Ass by Apulieus, the sole surviving novel of the Roman-era, that the earliest literary source of the marriage of Cupid and Psyche can be found. Written sometime during the 2nd century C.E. the protagonist in The Golden Ass narrates upon his transformation into a donkey. The reader subsequently shares a donkey’s tribulations and perspective upon life which culminates during a ceremony of the cult of Isis, in which the donkey-narrator eats a bunch of roses, resulting in his becoming human once more.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Horacio Vaggione

Today’s the 70th birthday of the composer Horacio Vaggione (b. Cordoba, Argentinia 21st  Jan 1943). Vaggione is a composer of  electro-acoustic music who uses the very latest technology to explore the many shapes and forms of sound itself. Vaggione studied composition at the National University in C√≥rdoba and the University of Illinois USA and has been Professor of Music, University of Paris since 1994. Using compositional techniques such as granular synthesis, microsounds and micromontage, Vaggione creates sound-sculpture of intricate beauty and startling originality.

Like Rock music, electro-acoustic music’s embryonic beginnings can be traced to the 1950’s. In Paris, pioneer Musique Concrete composer Pierre Henry (b.1927) experimented with natural sounds such as a door creaking, then editing the recording through a variety of means, including tape-splicing, loops, backwards and filtering. Pierre Henry’s Voile D'Orphee  (Veil of Orpheus) of 1953 remains a work of staggeringly early originality and inventive process given the equipment available at the time. Henry's approach to electronic music-making seems to be have been advanced in Vaggione’s own unique sound sculpture. Both composers have for many years been resident in Paris.

I’ve had an interest in electronic music ever since acquiring Deutsche Grammophon vinyl recordings of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik (1966) and Hymnen (1967-68) in the early 1970’s. Stockhausen (1928 - 2007) was one of the most influential figure’s in the development of electronic music and was at times notoriously uncompromising in his artistic agenda to the point of gross insensitivity on occasions. His Gesang Der Junglinge (1955-6) uses both electronically-generated sounds along with recordings of a boy singing text from the Biblical Book of Daniel chapter 3 where Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace. Miraculously they are unharmed and begin to sing praises to God. Such thinly-veiled subject-matter suggests Stockhausen,  throughout his creative career was willing to use his music as a means to open the door for his audience to approach unpleasant aspects of the psyche. Stockhausen's Kontakte (1960) remains a landmark in electronic music. His large-scale work Hymnen (1966-67) lasts some 112 minutes and includes samples of National Anthems to illustrate world-scale historical events and their consequences. It’s a work which though dated, can be hard-hitting and revelatory; its also music which is very much of its time, being a psychedelic and apocalyptic vision.

Far more approachable is Stockhausen’s Telemusik (1966). Composed during a visit to Japan and using sounds recorded from temple rituals and ceremonies, the soft-focus tonality of this short work (17 mins.) reveals it as delicate and gentle work. Stockhausen interested the songwriter John Lennon (1940-1980) enough to ensure that the German composer appears on the background of the Pantheon of credited influences and admired people of the Beatles album-cover Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (1967). Much to the rest of the band’s alleged protestations, Lennon subsequently went ahead and insisted that his own electronic montage Revolution no. 9 was included on the subsequent White album (1968).

It was also during the late 60’s that the Moog synthesizer was invented. It’s previously unheard-of, seemingly magical abilities were showcased in the phenomenally popular album Switched-on Bach (1969) in which the music of J.S. Bach and it's contrapuntal nature can be heard with each voice/line sharply delineated. Carlos’s music received even greater exposure when featured in the controversial Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange (1971).

During the 1970's Horacio Vaggione visited all the major studio's with electro-acoustic composing facilities  in Europe. In many ways the 1970’s decade was the Golden era of electronic music and quite distinct from avant-garde acoustic-electronic music of the era, numerous rock and pop musicians developed electronically-generated music. The seminal albums by Kraftwerk, thematically shaped by the experience of motion via cars, trains and rockets (Autobahn (1974) Trans-Europe Express (1977) Man Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981) along with the less rhythmically-orientated and stronger in melodic content electronic music of Parisian Jean Michel Jarre (b.1948) Oxygene (1976) Equinox (1978) and Magnetic Fields (1981) demonstrated the new protean abilities of the electronic medium through advances in technology in the hands of the creative musician. 

Vaggione’s La Maquina de Cantar (The Singing Machine 1978) in step with the latest trends in music of the decade, uses loops of sound, not unlike Terry Riley’s ground-breaking A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) or even Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973). However, the heavily phased hypnotic, repetitious pure electronics such as by the German band Tangerine Dream in Phaedra (1973) and Rubycon (1976) which use large-time scale canvases became unfashionable for its excesses in the 80's. Such music-making soon tires the listener. In comparison Steve Reich’s Music for 18 musicians (1976) which lasts an hour, holds the listener in thrall,  its short phrases are skilfully juggled among members of an ensemble, Nor can one overlook the influence of early, so-called ambient music such as Brian Eno's Music for Airports (1978) while the aquatic soundscape of Jean Michel Jarre’s Waiting for Cousteau (1990) now seems to have become a classic of large-scale ambient minimalism. 

Vaggione’s latest release Points Critiques (2012) includes compositions dating from the 1990’s and the first decade of the 21st century including Nodal from 1997. There's a free download of Vaggione's 24 variations (2011) available at itunes. (Youtube clips of both titles below).

I remember a stunning performance of  well-amplified electro-acoustic music at Norwich cathedral in the 1970’s. Most listeners were amazed at how the combination of the acoustics in historical buildings with the extraordinary sound palette available to the modern composer using electronic equipment and transformed recordings sounded in such a setting. I also remember here at Norwich, the University of East Anglia once had, not only a school of music with studio recording facilities, but also visiting electronic music composers and a series of concerts devoted to the performance of electro-acoustic music. All now extinct, sacrificed upon the altar of pecuniary expediency.

Whether the appreciation of such sound-structures as Vaggione’s is an acquired taste from training the ear or simply the product of being able to listen without prejudice or preconceptions remains debatable. I quite like this statement made on Youtube about Vaggione’s music

The more art is abstract, the more it challenges the consumer. Consumers who are empty inside cry for forms and shapes. They have to, otherwise they are lost. Nothing is more telling about a person than the way he/she reacts to abstract art.

What is certain is that a rich variety of tonal texture and engaging demonstrations to the listener of how sound can be transformed in exquisite detail can be heard on Vaggione’s Points Critiques (2012). Each electro-acoustic composition is exemplary of granular synthesis and a fantastic listening experience. 

Happy birthday to Horacio Vaggione, grandmaster composer of electro-acoustic music.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sun enters Aquarius

Celebrating the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Aquarius for the fifth billionth time. 

It was the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung  who stated -  'As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in them the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods," as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character'.  [1]

The archetype of  the zodiac sign of Aquarius the Water-Bearer is said to symbolize humanitarian idealism, self-sacrifice and service to others. However, C. G. Jung  chose to devote several years study on its adjacent sign Pisces and its relationship to Christianity,.

Aquarius is one of the four signs of the Fixed Cross of astrology; the other three being Leo the Lion, Taurus the Bull, and the Scorpion (substituted with an Eagle, perhaps because the insect was unknown outside of Europe). These zodiac signs were adopted by Christianity, perhaps as early as 400 CE by Saint Jerome as emblems of the four evangelists with Christ's sacrificial role represented by Taurus, Royalty by Leo, an all-encompassing view of humanity from a great height by Eagle/Scorpio and the combined human and angelic form of Aquarius. The Christian tetramorph is a superb example of how symbols can drastically change over long stretches of time.

In his essay on the Paracelsus, C.G. Jung sketched the psychological element of the Zodiac thus-

'He beholds the darksome psyche as a star-strewn night sky, whose planets and fixed constellations represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity. The starry vault of heaven is in truth the open book of cosmic projection, in which are reflected the mythologems i.e. the archetypes. In this vision alchemy and astrology the two classical functionaries of the psychology of the collective unconscious, join hands'. [3]

Jung was a learned and erudite scholar of comparative religion who, far from debunking astrology observed- 

The sought-for Mercurius is the spiritus vegetavius , a living planet, whose nature it is to run through all the houses of the planets i.e., the Zodiac. We could just as well say through the entire horoscope, or, since the horoscope is the chronometric equivalent of individual character, through all the characterological components of the personality. [4]

 Jung interpreted the human psyche's relationship to nature thus-

'All the mythologized processes of nature, such as summer and winter, the phases of the moon, the rainy season, and so forth, are in no sense allegories of these objective occurrences; rather they are symbolic expressions of the inner, unconscious drama of the psyche which becomes accessible to man's consciousness by way of projection - that is, mirrored in the events of nature'. [5]

In Nature, the water-bearing cloud and the magical transformation of water into frost, snow and ice can be considered as representing Aquarius. 

In the arts, numerous writers, often with a humanitarian and social reforming agenda, such as Charles Dickens for example, are represented by the sign, as well as the downright eccentric, such as Lewis Carroll, also exhibit Aquarian traits. The music of the composers Mozart, Schubert and Delius, along with Philip Glass and Frank Zappa all have strong Aquarian traits, as do the curious triumvirate, all of whom were born on January 27th, each possessing strong positive and negative Aquarian psychological traits, namely, Lewis Carroll, Mozart and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. 

Due to its ethereal nature, Aquarius is said to be as much prone to mental illness as experiencing flashes of inspirational genius. Aquarian interests may be said to include anything unusual or odd, such as electronic music, for example. Humanitarian and secret societies are also said to be under the domain of Aquarius, as is the central nervous system, along with the realm of psychic phenomena and the esoteric in general.

One dictionary of symbols defines Aquarius as follows-

All Eastern and Western traditions relate this archetype to the symbolic flood which stands not only for the end of a formal universe but also for the completion of any cycle by the destruction of the power which held the components together.....Consequently, Aquarius symbolizes the dissolution and decomposition of the forms existing within any process, cycle or period; the loosening of bonds; the imminence of liberation through the destruction of the world of phenomena. [6]

Another source defines Aquarius thus-

The inner substance of this zodiac type is fluid, light. ethereal, volatile, limpid, transparently spiritual and, so to say, angelic. It comprises the gift of indifference to self together with serenity and self-sacrifice, friendship and concern for others. [7]

In world political affairs it is also often when the sun is in the zodiac-sign of Aquarius that the Presidential Inauguration of the American President, as well as the delivery of the President's State of the Union Address occurs, along with World Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th.

The archetype of Aquarius is that of the herald who proclaims a new world order based upon the principle of a united humanity. The best and worst aspects of Soviet communism can be seen in introducing and implementing such an idealized society. In modern times the archetype of Aquarius continues to exert a living influence upon the human psyche in new forms of communication in mass society. Television and the computer-age are good examples of Aquarian developments of science and technology. Nuclear and Atomic energy may also be interpreted as resultant of the Aquarian archetype.

A fine example of religious symbolism and the study of comparative religion, in conjunction with a description of the glyph for Aquarius, occurs in Sir Thomas Browne's highly-compressed essay of hermetic phantasmagoria, The Garden of Cyrus.

he that considereth the plain cross upon the head of the Owl in the Lateran Obelisk, or the cross erected upon a pitcher diffusing streams of water into two basins, with sprinkling branches in them, and all described upon a two-footed Altar, as in the Hieroglyphics of the brazen Table of Bembus; will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality in them. [8]

It is of course impossible to definitively list all the psychological traits and characteristics associated with each of 12 quite distinct zodiac archetypes of the human personality. Perhaps in the future, the zodiac sign of Aquarius will revert to a mundane, rather than an esoteric meaning. If, or more likely when, the world's resources are even less secure than at present, maybe the simple act of freely sharing the life-giving element of water, without discrimination towards unknown others, viewing all life-forms as complete equals, may  hopefully be realized in this archetype.  


[1] C. G. Jung Collected Works vol 12. 246
[2] Aion : Researches into the phenomenology of the self - C.G.Jung  Vol. 9 i pub. 1959 RKP  
VI.    The Sign of the fishes p. 72 -95
VIII.  The Historical Significance of the Fish p.103
XI.    The Ambivalence of the Fish Symbol p.118
X.     The Fish in Alchemy p. 126
XI.    The Alchemical  Interpretation of the Fish  p.154
[3]    Essay on Paracelsus CW 15
[4]   CW 14: 298
[5]   CW 9  i  7 
[6]  A Dictionary of symbols   J.E. Cirlot
[7]  Dictionary of symbols Penguin  ed. Chevalier
[8] Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Egypticus 3 vols. 1652-56 includes an engraving of the Bembine Tablet of Isis is alluded to twice in The Garden of Cyrus  pub. 1658 .

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hewitt plays Beethoven

I recently attended a concert at the Theatre Royal in Norwich of Angela Hewitt (above) accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia, performing not one, but two Beethoven piano concertos.

Established over 20 years ago and based in Cambridge, the Britten Sinfonia are now the foremost chamber orchestra of the East Anglian region. The evening's performance was a first for several reasons. Departing from her usual repertoire of Bach, for which she is justly famed, it was not only the first occasion in which Angela Hewitt performed and conducted a Beethoven concerto, but the programme itself was a first, for myself at least, of hearing two piano concerto's on the same evening. By performing Beethoven's early C major concerto on the same evening as the maturer G major concerto, one could hear the vast development made by Beethoven in his composing of piano concerto's.

Although it opens with a typical short heavyweight balletic flourish, the influence of Mozart's piano concerto's is detectable throughout Beethoven's second concerto. Indeed, Beethoven admired Mozart's D minor concerto (K.466) enough to write a cadenza for it which is still performed today.While Beethoven's second piano concerto (in fact his first due to the timing of its publication) was distinctly imitative of Mozart's piano concerto's in both scope and emotional expressiveness, the fourth, in contrast is a fully-fledged mature work by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Composed in 1805-6 at the same time as Beethoven was also working on the Fifth symphony, the Violin Concerto and the first version of the opera Fidelio, critics have described the Concerto number four in G major opus 58 as one of the most beautiful piano concerto's in the repertoire and as a tone-poem of rare delicacy and feeling. There's an extremely enigmatic theme in   the first movement which is haunting and unforgettable upon hearing. The second movement of the fourth, which Ms. Hewitt in a generous pre-concert talk earlier in the evening described as Beethoven's 'Orpheus' moment, alternates between a harsh, strident opening phrase in the strings and a gentle phrase by the piano. The strings and piano's dialogue, which is likened to Orpheus pleading with the forces of the Underworld for the return of his Eurydice, resolves in a calmed, pacified mood. However, on this particular night of performance it was somewhat marred for those sitting at the rear of the Circle by an elderly women who erroneously imagined Beethoven had scored her voice to utter the words, 'Wonderful thing'  long before the eventual tranquillity of the music had died away.

Speaking of audiences, 99% of which did behave in a manner acceptable to the concert-hall, I could not but notice that although the theatre was almost full, there was hardly  anyone to be seen under the age of forty on the evening. In an age of instant gratification and short attention span, few young people these days seem able to either embark upon training the ear to listen to classical music or have the discipline to sit still and listen for more than a few minutes. This is tragic for several reasons. The music of masters such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is the spiritual inheritance of Western civilization which contains a wealth  of profundity, grief and deep joy. The ability to sit and listen  in order to understand emotions expressed by the great masters bodes ill for present-day society for several reasons, not least in nurturing empathy for other's feelings, as well as appreciating the emotional sensibility of past era's.

There's a certain precision, lightness of touch and expressiveness in Ms. Hewitt's piano-playing which makes hearing her perform a constant delight. Her playing in the lively final movements of both the second and fourth piano concerto in the evening's programme exemplified these qualities. Like her Canadian predecessor the maverick Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt is famed for her interpretative insight of Bach's music on the piano. I remember the revelation of hearing her perform a Bach concerto on her favoured Italian Faziola manufactured piano at the Norwich Festival many years ago. Angela Hewitt has now successfully added further strings to her bow, both in repertoire and interpretative insight, in her conducting the Britten Sinfonia. 

There were two shorter pieces of music in the programme, both of which I was unfamiliar with. Both worked as effective back-drops in mood to the Beethoven piano concerto's. Although the music of Wagner seems to have influenced almost all composers following him including Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Sibelius, try as I might I have never really enjoyed listening to this composer. Wagner's instrumental work Siegfried Idyll however came some way towards redeeming the composer to my ears and there was some fine French horn playing in the short work. Although well-acquainted with large chunks of the repertoire for orchestra, I had not heard the Sibelius Scene with Cranes before either. Scored for strings and two clarinets the interlude was typical Sibelian fare. Elegiac and slightly gloomy in Nordic mood, the two pieces accompanying the Beethoven piano concerto's were well-suited in framing an overall atmosphere to the evening and showcased the Britten Sinfonia's abilities.

One last grievance. Although Norwich prides itself on its cultural treasures, it does not have a designated concert-hall, hence the evening's performance was held at the Theatre Royal. Norwich has an important place in the history of music-making in England, its now annually-held Festival is the oldest surviving music-festival in the country. However, given both the current economic climate and the lack of interest in Classical music by most aged under forty, I cannot see how this lamentable lack of concert-hall facilities can change in the foreseeable future. The Theatre Royal certainly does work as a host for a chamber orchestra the size of the Britten Sinfonia, some thirty-odd players, but not for many more musicians on stage. However on the evening the  music-making of the Britten sinfonia and  the wonderful piano-playing Ms. Hewitt fitted each other like hand in glove.  All in all  a most enjoyable evening of music, an imaginative programme and an opportunity to hear a performer of World-class calibre.

There are numerous video clips of Angela Hewitt playing Bach. This is just one of many to be found on Youtube.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus cylinder has been housed at the British Museum in London since its discovery in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in 1879. Adopted as a symbol by the Shah of Iran's pre-1979 government, it was on loaned display in Tehran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy. 

The baked clay tablet which measures 22 centimetres in length has an Akkadian cuneiform inscription upon it is disputably the first ever declaration of human rights which includes the lines-

I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world.

Cyrus the Great, the ruler of ancient Persia who lived circa 580-529 B.C was the first Zoroastrian Persian Emperor and the founder of an empire without precedent— a world-empire of major historical importance.

The Persian King who defeated the Greeks is praised in the Bible and by the Greek historian Xenophon in his Cyropaedia, an idealized account of his education. To the Greek historian Xenophon (circa 431-355 BCE) writing over a hundred years after the death of Cyrus, King Cyrus was a model ruler and an ideal 'philosopher King' who possessed the triple merits of Warrior-Ruler, Priest and Philosopher.

The religious tolerance of Cyrus is demonstrated by the fact that under his rule he freed the Jews and allowed the temple at Jerusalem to be re-built. He is mentioned in the Biblical books of Ezra, Ezekiel and Daniel, but it was the prophet Isaiah who developed the role of Cyrus as a messiah-figure. In Isaiah 45: 1-4 one reads-

The Lord has chosen Cyrus to be king! He has appointed him to conquer nations;.... to Cyrus the Lord says "I myself will prepare your way...I will give you treasures from dark, secret places, then you will know that I am the Lord, and that the God of Israel has called you by name. I appoint you to help my servant Israel...I have given you great honour, although you do not know me...I will give you the strength you need, although you do not know me. (Good News Translation).

Cyrus is the only non-Semite in the Old Testament to be called the Lord's Anointed and the Lord's Shepherd. A more prosaic reason why Cyrus liberated the Jews may simply be because as a follower of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrian he was naturally sympathetic to the monotheism of the Hebrews.                                                              

Few literary critics have ever asked this question - why was Cyrus of such significance to Sir Thomas Browne as to entitle his 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus after the Persian shah? Remembering historically that in 1649 Oliver Cromwell had ordered the execution of King Charles and abolished the rights of Kings, Royalists such as Browne believed England to be devoid of true, enlightened government; Browne's nomination of Cyrus to entitle his Discourse represents his own ideal of the perfect Ruler and is a thinly-disguised critique of Cromwell and his proto-Republic. To Browne's deeply-held Christian faith King Cyrus was a Redeemer figure who restored tolerant, God-given rule and freed those oppressed from the rule of tyrant or unjust government. This is the primary reason why Cyrus, alongside Solomon, the patriarchs Moses and Abraham, Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus are named in The Garden of Cyrus  - as examples of the archetype of 'the wise ruler'. For Browne, living in the uncertain times of the Lord Protectorate of Cromwell, (1649-1658) King Cyrus embodied the ideals of the enlightened ruler. Thus the garden of delights rapturously discoursed upon by Browne is one which anticipates the return of an enlightened, humanitarian government; an aspiration which many in British society hold at present.

The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is in many ways a highly experimental and unique literary work. Among its varied motivations is an attempt to demonstrate the existence of the archetypes. Indeed one of the first examples of the word 'archetype' along with 'prototype' in English language can be found in the Discourse.

Alchemical authors such as Browne often found inspiration and amplification of their proto-psychology through Greek and Roman myths. In fact the very opening page of The Garden of Cyrus cites an alternative Creation myth to the Bible, the Greek myth of the Creation as recorded in the Fabulae by Hyginus.[1]

That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may passe for no blinde apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbes, and shooting rayes, of those Luminaries.

Astute scholars of comparative religion such as Browne constantly stressed the shared common heritage and harmony which originally existed between world-religions. Though little acknowledged Browne was in fact the first western author to make note of the religion of Zoroastrianism. There can be little doubt that the Cyrus cylinder would have fascinated the worthy Norwich physician-philosopher, both as an archaeological discovery and as a significant artefact of world religion. In addition to strictly adhering to its tenets, Browne, as his highly original proper-name Biblical symbolism suggests, recognised the Bible as a rich source of psychological and archetypal material. As C.G. Jung reminds us-

We must read the Bible or we shall not understand psychology. Our psychology, whole lives, our language and imagery are built upon the Bible......The statements made in Holy Scripture are also utterances of the soul....they point to realities that transcend consciousness. These entia are the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Books consulted

The Bible and the Psyche - Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament by Edward F. Edinger 1986 Inner City books

Xenophon - Cyropaedia Forgotten Books 2008

Jung quote cited by Edinger from 'The Visions Seminar'  vol. 1 p.156

[1] 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue page 13 no. 35  Hyginus Fabulae Paris 1578

Wiki-Link  Cyrus Cylinder

Translated text of the Cyrus Cylinder