Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel


Within a couple of days, in the Adelaide Town Hall, I heard two great women singers: one described as a mezzo-soprano, the other, a singer-songwriter. They were 62 year-old Swedish Anne Sofie von Otter and 36 year-old Kate Miller-Heidke. With Anne Sofie, accompanied by piano and sometimes guitar, I was expecting a fairly traditional recital. Kate was accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s concert started much as I expected, although I hadn’t heard of Ture Rangström, Wilhelm Stenhammar or Wilhelm Peterson-Berger; all late romantic Swedish composers. She then sang five songs by Sibelius and after a piano solo (a movement of a sonata by Stenhammar, played beautifully by her accompanist Leif Kaner-Lidström), some well-known Schubert lieder, finishing with Who is Sylvia? Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice is mature and controlled, with, what seemed to me, just the right degree of vibrato.

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Anne Sofie von Otter

After interval there was a tribute to composers who died in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. It reminded me of a concert I attended just over a year ago at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), ‘Forgotten Composers’ During the war von Otter’s father attempted, unsuccessfully, to spread information that he had received from an SS officer, warning about these camps. Terezin was decked out as a ‘show piece’ and before visits from the red cross, children were fed and everything was cleaned up – but only for the duration of a visit. This segment of the concert was fittingly closed with a piano solo: J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E Minor, Komm Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death). I wish that the concert had ended on that note, with that sentiment. But instead there were songs of Abba and the audience was encouraged to sing along. I suppose the aim was to leave the audience in a happy frame of mind. There’s no way von Otter, with guitar and sometimes piano accompaniment, could replicate the mood of the famous rock band from her country. I wish she hadn’t tried.

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Kate Miller-Heidke provides a more complete fusion of ‘classical’ and pop. Her singing was amplified throughout her concert and I found it too loud.

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Miller-Heidke was born and educated in Queensland, receiving her music education from Queensland Conservatorium and the Queensland University of Technology. She has won classical awards and prizes and could have followed a path of being an opera singer. But she joined the Brisbane band Elsewhere and has won international songwriting awards. Her husband is guitarist Keir Nuttall. I thought his playing was fantastic – at times it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. The versatile Adelaide Symphony Orchestra backed most songs. At times Miller-Heidke, in a kind of ‘Bo-Peep’ outfit, played keyboards.

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I didn’t know most of the songs and they weren’t printed on the program. I particularly enjoyed some from a children’s opera, the words by John Marsden. Other songs seemed to be written from Miller-Heidke’s experience, such as ‘losing’ a friend at a pop concert when she was a teenager. Her voice is extraordinarily powerful and her versatility admirable.


Stalin's piano Ukaria Cultural Centre

Gough Whitlam spoke in BbMajor – so I learned today at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills where I was attending an Adelaide Festival event, Stalin’s Piano. The music/ creation is a collaboration between composer Robert Davidson and pianist Sonya Lifschitz. A compilation of ‘stories’ or impressions of artists who have informed public policy, politicians who have been involved in artistic projects, artists subjugated to political agendas and politicians who see themselves as artists ‘modelling’ populations as though they are clay. Robert Davidson said that hearing political speeches as music assists him in hearing meanings beyond the words – a deeper emotional communication: find the music in the speech and let the piano provide a frame in which to place the music.

Stalin's piano Brecht

Brecht as shown in Stalin’s Piano

In this 1 hour concert, Sonya Lifschitz played piano and occasionally read as film was projected to draw our attention to the speech of nineteen political and artistic leaders. These ranged through Brecht, le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright (whose speech was very dry and percussive) through Joseph Goebbels, Percy Grainger (who said that music is derived from screaming), Jackson Pollack, the inevitable Donald Trump, ending with Julia Gillard whose voice and phrasing, I discovered, is far more musical than I’d realised. One of the most moving parts of the performance was when we were reminded of Stalin’s treatment of Shostakovich; in spite of threatening the composer and stifling his voice – banning many of his works – Stalin’s favourite pianist, Maria Yudina, refused to follow the party line and continued to go to church. His favourite piano concerto is said to be Mozart’s 23rd. When Stalin heard this piece on the radio played by Maria he requested the recording, but a recording had not been made that evening, so orchestra and pianist were assembled again to produce what the feared leader demanded. (If you have seen the movie The Death of Stalin, you will be familiar with this.) It is said that when Stalin died he was listening to this recording. In a section of Stalin’s Piano, Sonya Lifschitz played along with some of that old recording made by Maria Yudina. The present-day and 1953 pianos were remarkably in tune, I thought, but the fact that they were slightly out set the audience on edge, appropriately.

Stalin's piano Maria Yudina



Eddie Ayres 1

I am a great fan of Eddie Ayres. This started when I read Cadence, written as Emma Ayres, about cycling from England to Hong Kong on Vita, her trusty bicycle taking a violin with her so that she could communicate through music to people in what most of us would regard as incredibly dangerous countries for solo female travel. (Reviewed on this blog in 2016.)

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Emma was unhappy in a female body and in Danger Music, written as ‘Eddie’, he describes his desperate need to be male. By the end of the book the first part of the transition process has been undertaken. But most of the book is about a time, still as ‘Emma’, working as a teacher in a music academy in Kabul, describing poignantly how it is impossible to gain a real understanding of a foreign culture. Music had been banned in Kabul until recently and many conservatives still prohibited it. One student had to hide from her family the fact that she was learning music and attending a music academy. Eddie describes how for the Afghani people it is impossible to come to agreement both in terms of music education and politically.

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Emma loves these children and shares their musical triumphs – which seem incredible, given the environment in which they are working; bombs thudding in the distance, and sometimes near at hand. It must take tremendous courage to work there when you’re never quite sure what is going on.

Eddie Ayres 2

The book also shows, however, how music is a means of communicating and a means of giving these young people a purpose and a sense of achievement. The music played is both Afghani and Western. It is a beautiful and honest account of that time in Eddie’s life.

eddie ayres 4

I have now just heard Eddie speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week. I think everyone in the audience was stunned by his honesty and openness. From the age of 14 to 49 he had identified as a lesbian and one reason for remaining in a female body was a belief that there should be a broad spectrum of what it is to be female. As Emma, he went to Afghanistan to work partly to isolate himself from day to day life. Even at that stage he was deeply depressed: ‘I needed to be in a place where I could think about myself’, he said. Ultimately it became clear that he needed to be in a man’s body. As he spoke, his love for the children he taught was evident – he describes how well they played, how hard they worked and thrives on their various successes. It is good to hear that he now wants to turn to doing similar work with children in outback Australia, many of whom also lack music education.


Australian composer Brett Dean has written an opera, Hamlet, which is being performed at the Adelaide Festival, following acclamation at Glyndebourne, UK.

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It is a brilliant collaboration between composer, librettist (Matthew Jocelyn) and director (Neil Armfield). I didn’t come away with the music running through my head; I came away thinking about the play, particularly Shakespeare’s language, which is used faithfully. There are no extraneous words, every word is from the play, although sometimes the sequence is changed, sometimes phrases are repeated. The very first words are, very effectively, ‘or not to be’, from ‘to be, or not to be’, which recurs as a motif later. The whole opera is captured in two acts. Inevitably some bits are cut (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being sent to England), but the essence of the play remains and is indeed enhanced by this creation.

hamlet 1

At the conclusion of a forum about the opera it was noted that there is a wave of interest in new opera and it is becoming ‘a centre of contemporary theatrical practice’. I am not a lover of the classic operas by composers such as Puccini and Rossini. But I do like modern opera. I don’t know why this is, but I wonder whether one reason is because the traditional operas seem to use the story (often flimsy) as a vehicle for the music whereas with an opera such as Brett Dean’s Hamlet, if anything, the music enhances the story and everything is melded together to create drama. At the forum, Brett Dean commented on the frequent change of time signatures in the music: ‘the pulse of the entire story is one of unpredictability … the story is full of duplicity, doubt and danger’. He summed this up as an ‘arhythmia’. Brett Dean said that he tried to capture the music that is already in Shakespeare’s language, with a conscious desire to make sure that every moment counted.

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Brett Dean, composer

It was clear that librettist and composer had worked together very closely. Indeed, at the forum Brett Dean described how they and their partners worked together for several days individually, at first, noting what they thought to be the six essential elements in the play; these were then distilled down to the elements they all agreed on as essential.

hamlet orchestra 1

The time and place for this Hamlet was described by Brett Dean as ‘a kind of now’. Time and place don’t matter very much because the play is treated as a psychological drama: a son, obsessed with Ophelia, who ‘goes off the rails’ at the death of his father … his mother, a queen, ‘in a sandwich of political need and lust’ yet desperately wanting to help her son. Cheryl Barker said she played this role thinking of how she would react if it were her own son. Act I ends movingly; the one time when the music stops and the queen, alone, walks towards a dark back stage, sobbing.

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The production is brilliant. At the very beginning, a chorus is frozen around Hamlet at the grave of his father. In Act II, the ‘alas poor Yorick’ grave scene is done by means of a set that is lowered onto the stage enabling a hole that can be dug and actors can get into. When the ghost enters, everything is turned upside down or inside out.

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The ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

Neil Armfield had directed a production of Hamlet at Belvoir Theatre, Sydney – he sees Hamlet as a manic depressive person – it is plausible for him to act violently. Matthew Jocelyn said that having ‘taken out’ the political context, Hamlet is seen more as a domestic drama, the chorus being witnesses and a lens through which the family is seen.

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I certainly took away an idea of the whole. But it is necessary to mention the excellent performances of Allan Clayton, as Hamlet, Lorina Gore, as Ophelia and Cheryl Barker as Gertrude.

In the Club, by Patricia Cornelius, Adelaide Festival


In the club 1

This play was commissioned by the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It shines a light on sexual violence associated with the pack mentality of young men, in this case, football players. All of the actors were excellent. There were aspects of this play that were moving and thought-provoking, but I came away asking myself: is it a play? Where is the drama? At times it was almost more of a kind of dance; Gazelle Twin’s electronic music creating an at times haunting, at other times ‘in your face’ atmosphere, and the actors interacting with the ever-present water on stage, which one might say is also a character, although I’m not certain of the role it plays.

There are three young women and three young men. On the whole, the men represent ‘the pack’, although through Angus, in particular, we can see how individually they want to do ‘the right thing’, but the pack mentality takes over. The play starts with each of the young women telling her story – and each is very different. As a result of being pack-raped at 16, because she was keen on the footballers, and genuinely interested in the game, Annie becomes a nymphomaniac – she seems to know no other behaviour and to be utterly unable to assert herself. I did wonder whether she represents how the footballers see such women who naively offer themselves to the strapping young players.

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Olivia is romantic and influenced by external pressures and conventions – she wants to fall in love and, although she has no interest in football, when she meets footballer Angus, she thinks, for a moment, that she has found the real thing. Total disillusionment. After glorious sex, Angus says he will be back in a moment. We are told that the pack takes over. Olivia is left lying in the water in a foetal position. Ruby reckons she can handle the men. She seeks out sex with the sleek, muscular footballers, but she is canny enough to have them one by one.

That was the play. It focused on the women, yet, if I came away with anything it was a disturbing awareness of the power of the pack. And the water, misting everything, sloshing, reflecting; suggesting something primal.

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Cybec Tianyi Lu

Each year since 2003, the Cybec Foundation has supported a program whereby four young composers are selected to write 10 minute pieces for a particular orchestral combination that is performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Each composer has a mentor, an established Australian composer, who works with them during the composition process. One of these young composers will be chosen to be the MSO’s Young Composer in Residence for 2019 and commissioned to write more pieces. The young composers attend the concert and in preparation they have been present during rehearsal to gain experience into working with instrumentalists and to have the opportunity to see how their compositions might be ‘tweaked’ to gain  desired effects.

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The first piece, Rituals of Heartland, was by Catherine Likhuta, who was wearing a beautifully embroidered shirt from her mother-country, the Ukraine. Her composition is program music – it has a story, influenced by Catherine’s 4 year-old daughter: a fairy-tale about a brave young girl from Medieval Ukraine and her puppy, lost in an enchanted forest – the puppy had to be rescued from a witch, which provided opportunity for use of the considerable battery of percussion available to these composers. Catherine had made use of Ukrainian folk dances, which are described as having ‘angular’ rhythms. The music was easy to listen to and at times playful.

Catherine Likhuta with daughter when younger

Catherine and her daughter

We then heard the work of Adelaide-based Daniel Thorpe, From Above, which took us from a clearly-outlined fairy-story to something very intimate; exploration of queer culture from a personal perspective. Of the queer body, Daniel says, ‘we have to re-learn our intuition, carve space for ourselves to understand our bodies on their own terms’. Daniel speaks of the ‘wordlessness’ of touches, and some of the music was so soft it seemed to be at the extremity of human hearing – a tiny shimmer from a harp, or magical soft bowing of strings.

cybec harp 2

cybec daniel thorpe

Daniel Thorpe

May Lyon’s piece, Ignition, is a dedication to a close friend who passed away in May 2017. The music reflected his ‘mercurial’ personality and his love of driving – he is described as having an ‘enigmatic’ character. The music was very exciting and engaging, making great use of the contra bassoon and percussion. It reminded me very much of Bernstein’s West Side Story, particularly ‘the Jets are in gear’.

cybec may lyon

May Lyon

Mark Holdworth’s L’appel du vide, (the call of the void), uses the phenomenon of suicide ideation as a framework for examining the human proclivity to self-destruct. This is inspired by consideration of ‘the declining global socio-political climate, and the pervasive depiction of violence and depravity in the media’. The piece depicts the seduction of good by evil. Influenced very much by this compelling framework, I did find it the most interesting piece of the evening. There was plenty of percussion and rough bowing (it seemed to me like scraping) of strings, use of instruments such as piccolo and cor anglais was subtle.

cybec percussion 2

cybec mark holdsworth

Mark Holdsworth

We will have to wait until the Metropolis concert in April to find out which of these four talented composers becomes the MSO Young Composer in Residence for 2019.

Jules et Jim

Why is it that this film has remained one of the most significant movies I have seen? It has been there, in the background of my life, ever since I first saw it at the age of about 20. A part of this is a sweet nostalgia for university days – I would have seen it at a late night screening on campus. But other films viewed in those seemingly carefree times haven’t stayed with me like Jules et Jim. I saw it again recently.

J et J title for the film

Directed by Francois Truffaut, the context of the film isn’t really very important. It is set before, during, and after the Great War . Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy writer from Austria, who forges a friendship with the more extroverted Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre). They share an interest in the arts. They also share women. One woman they meet at this time is Thérèse, who has an extraordinary way of smoking (so daring for those times), blowing out the smoke like a train. I believe Truffaut knew someone who smoked like that.

j et j therese being a train

At a slide show, the young men become entranced with a bust of a goddess and her serene smile and travel to see the ancient statue on an island in the Adriatic Sea.  After encounters with several women, they meet the free-spirited, capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose smile reminds them of the statue. Both men are affected by her attitude toward life. And this is what interests me. Later in the film, Catherine (accompanied on guitar by a lover) sings a song, Le Tourbillon de la vie, The Whirlwind of life, and this seems to be what Catherine’s life is like.

j et j the song

Throughout the film a narrator tells us of Jules and Jim’s thoughts, but we never get inside Catherine’s mind. She seems to have to make statements – out of frustration? She dresses up as a boy, Thomas, ‘because only men are free to do as they want’.

J et J Catherine as Thomas

And one time when the three have been to see a Swedish play together (maybe The Dolls House?), walking home the men are discussing it together when Catherine suddenly jumps into the Seine to gain their attention.

j et j catherine about to jump into seine 2

The movie is very much about Catherine. About feeling restricted by convention. Yet the title is Jules et Jim.

The two men are separated by the war and must fight on opposing sides. Each fears that he might have killed his friend. Jules and Catherine marry and have a daughter, Sabine.

J et J Catherine et Sabine

After the wartime separation, Jim visits, and later stays with Jules and Catherine in their house in the Black Forest. Things are a little awkward at first, they sit together in silence: ‘Un ange passe’.

J et J un ange passe

Jim senses tensions in the marriage. Jules tells Jim that Catherine has had numerous affairs, and she once left him and Sabine for six months. He is unbelievably calm and tolerant of her behaviour – a loving acceptance.

Catherine ultimately seduces Jim, who has never forgotten her. Jules, desperate that Catherine might leave him forever, gives his blessing for Jim to marry Catherine so that he may continue to visit them and see her. Jules seems to understand Catherine’s ‘whirlwind’ nature, he says, ‘She expresses herself in cataclysms. Wherever she is, she lives surrounded by her own brightness …’ For a while, the three adults live happily with Sabine in the same chalet in Austria, until tensions between Jim and Catherine arise because of their inability to have their own child.

Jim leaves Catherine and returns to Paris. After several exchanges of letters between Catherine and Jim, with crossed letters and misunderstandings, they resolve to reunite when she learns that she is pregnant. But then Jules writes to tell Jim that Catherine suffered a miscarriage and she no longer wants to live with Jim.

After a time, Jim runs into Jules in Paris. He learns that Jules and Catherine have returned to France. Catherine tries to win Jim back, but he rebuffs her, saying he is going to marry Gilberte. Furious, she pulls a gun on him, but he wrestles it away and flees. He later encounters Jules and Catherine in a movie theatre. Jules’s loving fondness is expressed when he gently adjusts Catherine’s scarf as they come out of the movie.

j et j Jules and the scarf

The three of them stop at an outdoor cafe. Catherine asks Jim to get into her car, saying she has something to tell him. She asks Jules to watch them and drives the car off a damaged bridge into the river, killing herself and Jim. Jules is left to deal with the ashes.

jules et jim jim AND CATHERINE IN CAR

There are hints at this ending throughout the film. Firstly, the metaphor of the bridge. Early in their relationship in Paris the three chase each other across a bridge when they seem to be ecstatically happy.

j et j metaphor of the bridge

Then, as described above, Catherine jumps off a bridge to gain the men’s attention. The ‘final’ bridge in a sense has no end – it is broken off. The music (by Georges Delerue) plays an integral part in preparing our feelings. There is a sweeping circular, very French, theme – the ‘circular’ rhythm suggests the wheels of the bicycles that the three ride from time to time and of course the wheels of Catherine’s car. When there are tensions in relationships, tensions are built into this sweeping music – slight discords, the harmonies are tinged with dissonance.

The warmly observant Jules tells Jim in a letter that after the miscarriage Catherine walked around ‘with the fixed smile of a corpse’.

Jules is left with the ashes of the two people who have meant so much to him. The narrator tells us: ‘A feeling of relief swept over him’ and the music strengthens. Truffaut described this movie as ‘a hymn to life and death’. It is far more than a failed ménage à trois : a gem of a movie.

j et j the end




This film is based on a book written by Peter Turner who had the extraordinary experience of being the lover of film star Gloria Grahame – 28 years his senior. I must admit that I don’t remember Gloria Grahame in movies; she was at her peak of fame in the 1950s, and I have seen several films she was in: Oklahoma (1955), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) but, for me, her acting wasn’t memorable. This movie focuses on the end of Grahame’s life when, in 1981, she died of peritonitis, the result of breast cancer that she refused to have treated.

Gloria Grahame 5Gloria Grahame 3

I came away from this movie thinking of the abrupt contrasts in Grahame’s life, particularly her fall from the glamour of Hollywood to occasional roles on the stage in her later years (she was 57 when she died). The film opens showing the time when, due to her illness, she doesn’t respond to her stage-call in a performance of The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster.

Annette as Gloria 1

Rather than a suite in a state-of-the-art hospital, Grahame seeks the care and warmth of Turner’s middle-class family in Liverpool.

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Peter Turner’s Liverpool family

We are familiar with the plight of ballet dancers who often can’t continue to work much after their mid-thirties, and, because Grahame’s film roles were dependent on her looks, she seems to have been unable to adjust, as some other actors have done, to cinema acting of more recent years. Vanessa Redgrave who, at 81, plays Grahame’s mother in this movie has very successfully made this adjustment.

Hollywood glamour doesn’t often support substantial, long-lasting marriages. Grahame was married 4 times – not so extraordinary for a film star. But what was remarkable was her final marriage to her step-son (the son of her second husband). Apparently she and the step-son first had sex when he was 13, and she was still married to his father (the marriage ended when the father caught them in bed together). Grahame didn’t marry Peter Turner but clearly, once again, she was attracted to a much younger man.

Gloria with husband Cy

Gloria Grahame with her third husband

The relationship with Turner is depicted in the movie as, for most of the time, passionate and fun. However, one of the best scenes in the movie concerns a stormy separation that occurred in New York. It is one of the few times that the film plunges below the surface to explore the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Grahame and Turner are staying together in Grahame’s New York apartment. She leaves early one morning and Turner finds a note saying that she is having breakfast with her agent. She ultimately returns, vague and disturbed. After questioning and receiving fiery, violent responses, Turner can only assume that she has been seeing someone else. The fracas ends with him being thrown out of her apartment and he goes back to England. The scene is then re-run from the point of view of Grahame. She had a medical appointment that morning and was told the devastating news that breast cancer had returned, it might even be too late for chemotherapy – which she refused initially because she didn’t want to lose her hair. She doesn’t want people – even Turner – to know that she has cancer and she has the delusion that she can cure herself by eating well. This whole area of denial is a fascinating one – if only it could have been explored further. I assume that the movie keeps faithfully to Turner’s book and, because Grahame wouldn’t talk to him about her illness, he doesn’t know why she very definitely does not want treatment.

In the end, after Turner has tried to keep faithfully to Grahame’s wishes of no medical intervention, he contacts her family because she is so terribly ill. Her son comes immediately from the US to Liverpool. The last Turner sees of the woman who has been central to his life is in a taxi, on a special invalid chair, being whisked away to the airport at 4 am. Apparently she was admitted to a New York hospital but died later that day. By only a matter of hours, she missed dying in Liverpool.

I wish that this film could have explored more deeply the motives and the background to the main characters – but I expect it has remained faithful to what Turner knew. The difficulty of accepting ageing, of no longer being ‘a femme fatale slinking across a black-and-white screen’ is interesting. Maybe Grahame’s attraction to younger men was an attempt to combat this; she was 36 when she married her step-son – maybe old enough to feel that her looks were fading.  Grahame  apparently hated Ronald Reagan and once said that she would like to stick her Oscar award ‘up his arse’. It would be good to know more about this, but it isn’t mentioned in the movie.

Glora Grahame 2

The movie is directed by Paul McGuigan and the acting  is excellent: Annette Bening plays Gloria Grahame and Jamie Bell plays Peter Turner – it is worth going to see them.

Annette and Jamie 2

Gloria Grahame 1

Oliver Sacks


From the time I read Awakenings – many years ago – I have been an admirer of Oliver Sacks. The two main qualities for me are his lucidity – his ability to express complex scientific ideas in an accessible way – a way that is a pleasure for a non-scientist to read. And the second quality is his vast interest and knowledge about all things; his breadth of knowledge of literature, his fascination with chemistry, botany, history of science and much more – he could even play the piano! And underpinning all of this, the boy who loved solitary work with his chemistry set, the meticulous collector of facts, turned out also to be fascinated in people: his formidable scientific knowledge and observation combines with an ability to enter into the skin of people as he writes case studies that come to life.


I haven’t read all of Sacks’s books, but I intend to read more. Around the same time as I read Awakenings, his account of the lives of people who suffered from encephalitis lethargica and his ‘awakening’ them with the drug L-DOPA, I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a particular case study of a man who suffered from visual agnosia. The story was later adapted to an opera – Sacks didn’t make fun of the condition, he laughed along with his patients, but not at them.


Recently I read The River of Consciousness, a book of essays that were dictated by Sacks only weeks before his death in 2015. The essays range from Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, to the Fallibility of Memory. I came away from reading this book with a different view of Freud – the young neuro-anatomist who studied fish. I gained a new awareness of the importance of looking back to scientific studies of a hundred or so years ago, where significant observations of phenomena such as continental drift and Tourette’s syndrome were made, and then almost forgotten. When there is a new scientific discovery we tend to eschew the ‘out-of-date’ thinking in that area, and in doing so we lose important clues and observations. The ‘river of consciousness’ examines how we think; our memories are formed by transforming and organising, which often includes misappropriation – Sacks describes instances where he did this, when he believed he had seen something, yet what he was remembering was his brother’s vivid description. Our remembering is essentially a creative process, and the ‘river of consciousness’ is not continuous, but a series of discrete experiences, more like shots in a film.


Having become thoroughly engrossed in The River of Consciousness, I was delighted to discover that Sacks’s autobiography was also published in 2015. The title, On the Move: a Life, refers to Sacks’s enjoyment of riding his motor bike – various bikes during his life – long distances. When he was living in Los Angeles he would sometimes ride 500 miles to the Grand Canyon and another 500 miles back in a weekend. From seeing the film of Awakenings, I had gained an impression that Sacks was a bit of a loner. I knew he was gay, and he would have grown up in London around the same time as Alan Turin, whose sexual orientation was so horrifically condemned in the 1950s, leading to his suicide. It was reassuring to read of Sacks’s youthful love of motorbikes and to know that he did have albeit infrequent liaisons in Amsterdam and later in the US. Ultimately, when he was in his seventies, he met his partner Billy. For most of his life he was a loner, but a loner with rewarding and absorbing friendships. There was also a loving closeness to his family of brothers and physician parents.



We learn about his inspirations, his disappointments, his achievements as he wrote his many books and scientific papers. The whole book is written in a chatty, easy-to-read style although it quite often tackles details of his extensive interests in neuro-psychology – visual perception, how we think, how we perceive ourselves.


As I read these books I wished that I could have met this renaissance man of the 21st Century. I marvelled at his legacy and thought, how sad it is that there will be no more from him.




Yesterday I went to a movie that I hadn’t seen since I was 4 years old: Walt Disney’s Fantasia, made in 1940, an innovative and extremely expensive venture (particularly given that it was just before the US entry into World War II) made in collaboration with renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski was so keen on the project that he gave his services free of charge. I expected to loathe the film – someone else’s idea of visual representations of sound. I went because the movie was being shown at my local cinema, the appropriately Art Deco Astor, and I wanted to test my memory – I had vivid recollections of scenes from the Nutcracker Suite.

fanatasia stokowski

Disney’s was a novel idea – to illustrate music, in some cases without a story line. The film comprises eight presentations, each introduced by a master of ceremonies. At the beginning and at ‘interval’ we see and hear the orchestra tuning up and, at interval, jamming. Leopold Stokowski stands on a podium with fabulous lighting of various hues. This was the first commercial film with stereophonic sound. The restored film was digitally projected. It didn’t seem to be 78 years old.fantasia toccata

Segment 1 is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Composed for organ, it had been orchestrated. To my amazement this was possibly the segment I liked best. Firstly, I usually don’t like music played by orchestra when it has been composed for some other instrumentation (in this case the organ). And secondly, as suggested above, I prefer not to have my own thoughts disrupted by someone else’s visual interpretation. But the visuals for this piece were amazing. Starting with an outline of orchestral players, the images became abstract, but related to the actual sounds being made. And the fugue part, using colour, depicted the blending of the various lines of music – very accurately, it seemed. I wished afterwards that I had thought to use this when I was a classroom music teacher.



fantasia toccata 2

fantasia toccata 3



Segment 2, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. This is a suite from the ballet, developed for the concert hall. It was the main memory from my 4 year-old viewing – the ballet segments appeal to a little girl: the sugar plum fairy scatters her mist over flowers and wakes them up, little Chinese people are depicted as red-hatted mushrooms, for some reason the Russian dance is performed by characters that look like Scotch thistles and the Arabian Dance is an underwater ballet – beautiful except cartoon fish always seem to have long eyelashes! I don’t know why this is underwater – racial reasons? Some black centaurs that were in Segment 5 were deleted many years ago because they were shown performing demeaning tasks.

fantasia nutcracker suite 2


fantasia nutcracker suite


Segment 3 is perhaps the best known: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. This was the catalyst for the whole project. Disney was making a film of this story and it was proving too expensive – the short film wouldn’t make enough money to recoup expenses, so the canny Disney decided to incorporate it in something bigger. I think this segment is quite often shown as an example of Disney’s animation. I’m sure I have seen it many times since I was 4.

Fantasia socrecers apprentice

Segment 4 is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I am fascinated that it was included in this ‘family’ movie only 25 years after its riotous first performance in Paris. The ballet is intended to depict pictures of ‘pagan Russia’ in celebration of the advent of spring. This includes circles of stamping dancers and a young girl is sacrificed by dancing herself to death. At the first performance there was derisive laughter and those members of the audience who stayed drowned out the music with their shouting and thumping. Disney used the music to describe the formation of the planet, volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, the emergence of primitive water creatures and dinosaurs who ultimately succumb to drought. We do not know exactly how homo sapiens developed and the mystery is respected. The story, whilst different from Stravinsky’s intention, fits appropriately with the ‘primitive’ theme expressed in the music.

fantasia rite of spring 2

Segment 5 is Beethoven’s 6th ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Beethoven had a ‘program’ in mind when he wrote this symphony, the full title of which is: Pastoral Symphony: Recollections of Country Life and this is described in the headings of each movement, translated as: Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country (this would be the countryside around Vienna), Scene by the brook, Merry gathering of country folk, Thunderstorm and Thankful feelings after the storm. Disney’s countryside is in a mythical Greco-Roman world of centaurs flirting with ‘centaurettes’, cupids and fauns. To some extent Beethoven’s program is followed – the merry gathering is Bacchanalian, there is a storm, everything settles peacefully after the storm. It reminded me rather of Bambi and I found it hard to reconcile this interpretation with the music I know so well.

Segment 6 is Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. By this stage I was a bit sick of laughing at fat hippopotamus-like creatures and flirtatious ostriches (the film runs for a bit over 2 hours).

Fantasia dance of the hours

Segment 7 is Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. A terrifying devil summons a dance of evil spirits, and restless souls arise from their graves – white pliable skeletons. Ultimately the angelus sounds and everything is calmed – but when I was four, I am told, I screamed so much at the sight of the devil that Mum had to take me out.

fantasia night on bald mt

Segment 8: everything is at peace with Schubert’s Ave Maria.

fantasia ave maria

I enjoyed seeing this movie far more than I expected. I wondered whether the last two movements were intended to reflect the war raging in Europe at the time and hope for a world of peace – probably not.

Even when some of the Disney characters seem incongruous cavorting around to Beethoven, the animation follows the music with almost pedantic accuracy. Fantasia is well worth seeing.

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