A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: January, 2013

Faraday’s cupboard is bare

Old father Faraday's cupboard at the Ri seems to be bare

Old father Faraday’s cupboard at the Ri seems to be bare

I’ve noted before that scientists – as a group – are often some of the most conservative (with a small ‘c’) people in society. They hate change. Now I am not good with change either, but I mostly restrict that to my own life. On a grander scale, I think change can be creative, ‘scientific’ and, most importantly, perhaps, inevitable.

Take those scientists involved in conservation, for example. Darwin spelled it out for us, but we seem to conveniently forget that extinction is a fundamental part of evolution. And yet the conservationists get all squirly when species become ‘endangered’. Now, an endangered species is, by definition, not doing a great job of surviving in the world. Something has tipped the scales out of its favour and it is in decline. Coming up with innovative ways to prop up a lifeform does it no favours in the long run – like subsidies in a free market, it creates false balances that then have to be maintained at all costs, which, like the CAP in Europe, prevents anyone ever being able to move back from the position, or even move on from it.

Now I get it: many species in the endangered list are there because the factor against them is us – humans. But we are a part of the ecosystem, and as much as we think we can stand back from it all and decide which species to save and which to let slide under, I don’t think it gets us very far. We are, in fact, interfering with natural selection. Of course, that’s kind of ok, because our role in the ecosystem just becomes a more complicated one and whatever we do, we are exerting some sort of balance of selection pressure on all other species but, as with the market examples, it takes more effort to artificially extend the non-extinction of a species, and insofar as it is a choice, it is the conservativism of the scientific community (broadly speaking) that interests me.

A whale

A whale

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Come on, the Upper Sixth boys are putting on a show!

I went to see The Master and Margarita (which finished its run at the Barbican tonight) a couple of weeks ago. I liked it overall, although the consistency of Theatre de Complicite‘s technique and style over the few performances of theirs I’ve seen over the years suggests rather than being an innovative company, they only ever had one aesthetic – that of the boys from the Upper Sixth putting on a show in the common room using nothing but the school furniture, the devils.

I mean, what they do is undoubtedly skillful and generally effective – the action flows beautifully – but the choices now seem to be default settings rather than actual choices. As we sat waiting for the start, the stage was set with smoke and 16 wooden chairs in a row. Wooden chairs again? Wow – you can make them into a train, a stage, a podium, a desk … chairs, even! What japes. Some elements seemed positively surplus to requirements, however, which goes against the (necessarily pretentious when you have considerable support and are presenting your work in the Barbican Theatre) ethos of only using what you have to hand – a window was indicated with a bar held by a performer/puppeteer to show whether it was open or closed but it was hard to read which way was open and it might have been better served to have used audio (as was done later to signal the opening and closing of doors (not the sound of the door/window opening/closing, but the change in ambient noise as a result, I mean)).

I went on a Monday night with a head full of cold and knowing only that Chris Goode had not liked it. I knew absolutely nothing of the novel but the adaptation gave a good sense of the chaos that seems to naturally haunt Russian novels, perhaps even Russian life. It rang true enough, the surreality of the story not too far a leap from the underlying situation. At times, I wondered what liberties the adaptation had taken – after all, sometimes the ‘scene’ has to take precedence in terms of its needs with respect to dialogue, action, form and even plot over the source text. But I got the feeling that this was faithful in general direction and in much of the detail. Of course, it is an adaptation of a book about a book which resolves itelf as a play about a book, and I wonder what is lost in not being able to read about and from an unpublishable manuscript…. Could it have been a play about an unperformable play, instead?

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Sex and composition

The piano plague: The nineteenth-century medical critique of female musical education.

Wellcome Trust blog screenshotAbout a year ago, I stumbled across the research paper with that title. I had no idea in what context the piano had been associated with the plague, but I wanted to find out.

I interviewed the paper’s author, James Kennaway, over lunch in spring 2012 and discovered that ‘die Klavierseuche’ referred simply to the rise in popularity of the piano throughout Western Europe during the 19th century. However, James had, in his turn, stumbled across the fact that several medical men writing in the 19th century were inclined to suspect the piano as an agent in the development of certain disorders among their female patients. That became the subject of his paper, and the theme led him to write a book, Bad Vibrations, about the many (asserted) associations between music and disease from that time to the present day.

Having spoken to James, I was keen to write about the piano plague episode specifically – but I wanted to avoid clomping all over James’s territory and writing about his research as if it were mine. So I wanted to explore some other angles: I spoke to a neuroscientist and a music scholar to try to understand better the context, both social and scientific, for these claims that popular music could be pathological music. The resulting feature article, ‘Piano plague in D minor’, was published in September.


When it came to writing up the piece, my memory stirred with hazy recollections of GCSE Music (I got a C, due in some part to a last-ditch vocal rendition of Bridge over troubled water) and the formal compositional arrangement of exposition, development and recapitulation. Could I adopt this musical structure for my article?

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