Music Recording: Schubert, Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major

Music Recording: Schubert, Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major

A recording of Schubert’s Imromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major.

This feels like a distinctly unsummery piece of music, so perhaps an odd choice for a July recording. The hardest part always seems to be getting into the right mood before starting — my favourite recordings (such as Mitsuko Uschida’s) have a sense of unearthly stillness in the opening thanks just to the way they play the first three notes. I always feel like I struggle to pull it off.

The structure of the piece is, on its face, fairly simple. There’s an opening “A” section in G-flat major; a “B” section that moves through multiple keys; a repeat of the “A” section, in G-flat major again; and a “Coda”, also in G-flat major. ABA+Coda — not pushing the boat there; this is an extremely common structure.

The simplicity of the structure isn’t necessarily apparent, however. While the A section is fairly easy to keep track of — featuring extremely regular, periodic phrasing and frequent cadences — you can get quite easily lost in the B section. (This is true whether you’re a performer or a listener!) And the piece is texturally entirely homogenous. The quaver-arpeggio accompaniment is constant throughout, providing a forward momentum that seems to pay little regard for key change or phrase endings.

The B section, from around 1:34, is extremely expansive, featuring multiple subsections — and the divisions between the subsections are not always precisely defined; there are often linking passages of 2-3 bars that don’t seem to belong precisely to the preceding subsection or the following subsection. The modulations in this section are unending: the B section begins in E-flat minor, but moves through C-flat major (2:02), E-flat major (3:10) and (briefly, sort of) A-flat minor before returning to G-flat major for the recapitulation of the A section (3:44). The modulations are all highly dramatised: the B section feels as though it spends more time “between keys” than it does in any single tonal area.

The Coda (5:02) is straightforward from a composer/analyst’s point of view, but that makes it one of the more difficult passages to pull off. There’s an incredible simplicity — almost naivety — to the melodic line, and it’s tricky to know quite what to do with it as a result.

Apologies for the sound of some pages being turned — hopefully they don’t distract too much from the music!

It’s True – Out Of The Blue Just Aren’t as Gay as They Used to Be

It’s True – Out Of The Blue Just Aren’t as Gay as They Used to Be

The following clickbait investigative journalism was originally published by The Poor Print on 23/12/2017. Featured image by Out Of The Blue.

Out Of The Blue’s recent Christmas single, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, is as fun, frivolous and festive as ever. And yet, watching it, I couldn’t help feel as though there were something missing. Namely: where did the gay go?

Out Of The Blue’s music videos have a proud tradition of homoeroticism, but their Christmas single videos have always stood out from the rest. Yet their latest, at first watch, seemed hardly homoerotic at all. Was I correct in thinking so? Or was I just imagining things? I turned to hard data (no pun intended) to take a closer look (also no pun intended).

Trawling through Out Of The Blue’s Christmas music videos, I assigned each second in each video a homoeroticism rank from 0 to 4. Each ranking was defined as follows:

0 No homoeroticism
1 Mild homoeroticism: Slightly ‘camp’/homoerotic lyrics; low-level physical contact between members; extremely camp dance moves; etc.
2 Medium homoeroticism: Extremely camp/homoerotic lyrics; suggestive physical contact; explicit flirting; etc.
3 High homoeroticism: We’re talking shirts off

The results of my somewhat dubious data gathering can be summarised in the below chart:

Waygood - OOTB article chart 1

As we can see, after the success of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, the boys decided to go all out in 2015 with ‘Santa Baby’, a video in which the majority of seconds in the video feature content that is at least slightly homoerotic. Moreover, ‘Santa Baby’ started off a three-year streak of Christmas singles with involving shirtless OOTB members (content marked as ‘highly homoerotic’ in the chart).

And yet, and yet… one shirtless scene does not a homoerotic video make. As we can see from the chart, although ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ have a greater proportion of shirtless scenes than even ‘Santa Baby’, it’s almost as though Out Of The Blue were paying lip service to homoeroticism without fully committing. Both singles in fact featured a greater proportion of seconds with no homoerotic content than 2014’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. And it looks as though it’s getting worse: the proportion rose from 75% in 2016 to a frankly shocking 78% in 2017. Meanwhile, 2017 also featured the lowest proportion of seconds featuring ‘medium homoeroticism’. Those few shots of JJ Gibbs’ chest are pretty much all you get, lads.

As a way of summarising the total homoerotic content of a video in one value, I created the Total Homoeroticism Metric (THM). The THM gives 0 weight to seconds with no homoerotic value; single weight to seconds with mildly homoerotic value; double weight to seconds with medium homoerotic content; and triple weight to seconds with highly homoerotic content. It also adjusts for the fact that the singles were of different lengths by dividing by the total number of seconds of the track in question. The results were as follows:

Waygood - OOTB article chart 2

As we can see, ‘Sleigh Ride’s’ relatively high proportion of seconds with no homoerotic content is offset in this metric by its also relatively high proportion of highly homoerotic content. But the trend line is still negative overall – surely a worrying sign for all OOTB watchers.

The Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient between the two variables is -0.33575522, indicating that the two variables are fairly weakly correlated. Yet any correlation at all is frankly unacceptable. And this is just comparing Christmas singles (for the sake of like-for-like content). Include such fare as 2014’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, and the correlation would surely be far stronger.

Out Of The Blue are just not as gay as they used to be. Sad!

Readers with too much time on their hands can download the full data as an Excel spreadsheet here.

All Out Of The Blue singles mentioned in the article were raising money for Helen & Douglas House hospice – read about the work they do here.

Oriel News: Michaelmas 2017

Oriel News: Michaelmas 2017

Originally published on The Poor Print (Oriel College Newspaper) on 27/10/2017.

I read the minutes, so you don’t have to.

Welcome to ‘Oriel News’, The Poor Print’s new roundup of everything big that’s going down in college.

As the rust has been scraped from the gears of the Oxford machine and Oriel life has restarted, students could be forgiven for thinking that it was a whole new Oriel they’d come back to: new freshers, a new JCR, new signs and – most importantly – new lunch trays. The bar has also seen its fair share of renovation, with a student project still underway to decorate the sliding doors using Sharpies. (Like all great artists, they have dismally failed to keep to their deadline.) In foreign affairs news, even the Fishbowl Common Room has apparently been redone, much to the annoyance of has-been Facebook meme page ‘Humans of JMH’. (Do they even go here?)

Turning now to politics, the JCR distinguished itself with a characteristic flurry of activity in the opening weeks of Michaelmas. The first open meeting of term saw an introduction from our new Junior Dean Serenhedd James, bringing with him a reminder that if we continue to steal at such a prolific rate then the tuck shop will be closed. Sadly the message seems yet to have sunk in: further items to have since gone missing include the newly bought tablet PC purchased for playing music in the bar and (bizarrely) a large number of yellow and black Sharpies.  Controversy and confusion reigned over an unexpected (and short-lived) 30p hike in laundry prices, caused by an improper application of the college subsidy. (Prices have since returned to their usual extortionate rate.)

Second week saw yet another Bar Rep by-election, as Dan Strachan resigned for the 394th time from the role he created for himself. Best of luck to Francis Judd, our new Bar Rep, who saw off strong competition from Jack Blowers. Meanwhile, a charity motion plunged the JCR into constitutional crisis, as the bar’s best and brightest grappled with the question of whether it would be legal to give money to a body that was technically-not-a-charity-but-kind-of-was. Money was more successfully pledged over the first two weeks to the Pool team (£20, ‘to be converted to 20p and 50p coins for the use of the team’s games and escapades during the year’) and the Amazons Drinking Society (£74, for a freshers’ drinks event).

Vapers beware: the House Committee has recently decided that the smoking ban will be extended to cover e-cigarettes on account of the lingering odours left on room furnishings and overexcitable fire alarms. In other domestic matters, the JCR was alerted to two upcoming redevelopments over weeks one to three. The Doll’s House is due to be re-rendered this Trinity term, but examinees fear not – scaffolding and noise should be minimal. Mores substantial in impact will be the Brewhouse Project: a major redevelopment of Oriel slated to take place in a few years that may mean that Oriel students will have to eat Hall meals in a marquee in second quad for three to four years. (Plans for the project are currently on display in the High Street Building.)

In nature news, The Poor Print is sad to report (courtesy of the porters’ lodge) the passing of the beloved Oriel duck over the long vac, tragically hit by a car in Oriel Square while posing for a photo. This stalwart of Oriel – who even met the Queen in 2013 – will be sorely missed. Thankfully no such fate has befallen Beary McBearphace, who after a period of disappearance seems to have returned to us – washed, nonetheless. Second Week’s Open Meeting saw a motion passed endorsing the principle that the naming of ‘Beary’s friend’ shall somehow raise money for charity, in a manner to be decided at the discretion of Charities Rep Priyanka Nankini. And nature lovers will also no doubt rejoice that Open Meetings will be delayed from Fourth Week onwards, in order to allow us all to watch the new series of Blue Planet. Open Meetings will, for reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time, also commence with a short synopsis of the episode just broadcast, relayed to us by motion proposer James Somerville.

Moving on to arts affairs, the coming term holds a variety of excitements in store. Tuesday of Fifth Week will see Oriel Choir decamping to Temple Church in London to promote their forthcoming album of Christmas music in a special concert. Fifth Week will also see The Lieutenant of Inishmore – a Northern Irish black comedy by Martin McDonagh – being put on at the O’Reilly Theatre, with substantial involvement from Oriel’s very own Georgia Robson.  And Robbie Boswall is rumoured to be running a museum trip at some point in the near future, which has potential for entertainment in more ways than one.

A third of the JCR has apparently already died in Entz’s game of ‘Human Assassin’ as of Sunday, and by my reckoning the other two thirds have come down with fresher’s flu. But hey, if anyone’s left to read this, the only thing left to say is to keep buying tickets for Oriel Ball!

What Happens on Tour…

What Happens on Tour…

A diary from Oriel Choir Tour 2017. Featured image supplied by Matthew Hull.

Tuesday, 27 June

Far too early Wake up. Persuade myself that, yes, I did need to set the alarm this early. Lie in wait outside the bathroom so I can use the shower. There’s a queue – Lizzie kindly hosted several of us the night before, since she lives close to Heathrow and that seemed like a good enough excuse for a party. Will Pickering seems to be taking hours. When I get out, Will McDonald tells me I seemed to be taking hours.

Still far too early There’s bad traffic on the M25. Three different SatNav devices are giving us three different time estimate. Implausibly, we arrive on time at 8:15 and meet with the rest of the choir.

10:25am We’re off. I have a window seat – but it’s cloudy enough that the world below is completely hidden until we land. It’s a short flight; I spend the time reading various newspapers and listening to music. The battery on my noise-cancelling headphones has died.

1:25pm CET (12:25pm BST) We land in Milan. Giampiero Innocente, the local choir director who invited us here and organised the tour, introduces himself. He’s well-dressed, wears glasses, seems nice. We’re promptly bundled onto a coach to be transported to the nearby town of Lodi. Apparently, to our surprise, that’s where we’ll be staying (I ruminate that this is what happens if you fail to read an itinerary that’s been pushed at you for several months now).

C. 2pm Lodi. We arrive at the secondary school where we’ll be staying. Staff are quite literally waving WiFi passwords at us as we come through the doors: welcome, but slightly surreal. The rooms are nice – we each have our own bathroom and balcony.

4-7pm Collective fatigue has taken hold after the early get-up and flight, but it’s rehearsal time. There’s no other option – our first concert is the following day, and rehearsal time for our tour programme was limited in Trinity by the two-services-a-week choir schedule.

We sound terrible, and we all know it. I try to convince myself that we sounded this bad at the beginning of last tour. I’m not sure we did.

7pm Pizza and beer for all – welcome. A few of us head out for a walk to explore Lodi a little after supper, before heading back to the school and drinking obscenely cheap wine in the corridor with the others.

Wednesday, 28 June

7am A few of us who enjoy inflicting pain on ourselves set out early for a jog before it’s too hot to do so. The advantage of Lodi over Milan is that you quickly find yourselves in the countryside, and we discover an attractive 10K route through crop fields and along the river. Several of the fields contain wheat, which still feels slightly rebellious after General Election ‘17.

8:30am Breakfast. An incredible array of inedible items – rock-hard bread (sans butter); ‘juice’ cartons (with c. 50% juice); undrinkable lemon tea (which many make the mistake of putting milk in); something that professes to be ham. Luckily the coffee is good, and is served in a huge vat with a ladle.

10:30am-2:30pm Short rehearsal in Lodi, then a coach to Milan, followed by lunch, which is provided free of charge at the university in Milan (the venue for tonight’s concert). We get a short amount of free time, but not enough to do much with, so a few of us have a wander through Milan – we get within eyeshot of the Cathedral before having to turn back. Multiple sopranos are told how beautiful they are by a street vendor – unless they refuse to buy that bracelet, in which case they’re ugly, and, apparently, evil as well.

2:30pm Rehearsal in the university’s concert hall – our first rehearsal with the string players, which is exciting. We’re starting to sound half decent: a relief. A massive storm breaks outside during the rehearsal.

Our itineraries have ‘Drinks for all the people’ suggestively scheduled in between our rehearsal and the concert, but this time it turns out to be just pineapple juice. Probably for the best.

9pm Show time. Much stressing over clothes in the run-up beforehand. (One button undone, or two? Should Will McDonald wear trainers, or walk on in socks?) Will also forgot to buy himself a black shirt before coming, so has to dash out beforehand to buy one (sans coat, in the middle of the storm). He comes back dripping. Luckily, there’s time for him to dry himself off before the concert.

Much pomp as our first concert begins. Giampiero appears to be giving an extensive history of Oriel College in his introduction, lasting for 15 minutes or so – we pick out the name ‘Newman’ amongst the stream of Italian. Choir concerts usually seem to be, for me, an exercise in clinging onto a ridiculous amount of music for dear life. (I’ve checked on the YouTube videos since, and, yes, it does look like I’m about to drop my music at any moment.) Regardless, the concert goes pretty well – we’re still not sounding as good as we could, but there are several yet to come.

C. 11pm Coach back to Lodi. Much drinking. We discover there’s an Irish pub near the river called Bridge…

choir in front of bridge
Photo: Will Pickering. Left to right: Ellie Juckes (soprano); Alexander Walls (bass); Matthew Hull (bass); Will Pickering (bass); David Maw (director of music); Malcolm Kittle (alto); Alex Waygood (bass); William McDonald (junior organ scholar); Charlotte Anstey (soprano); Marcel Stolz (bass)

Thursday, 29 June

Itinerary: ‘Free day, free time’.

We divide into several groups: those too hungover to do anything; those who want to do proper sightseeing in Milan; and two groups who want to visit the lakes. I and a few others decide to head to the small town of Stresa, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, but take a slow route with a long pause in Milan to avoid high train fares. Happily, we discover on the train from Milan that our ticket is invalid, despite having selected the route from a list of options on a ticket machine in Lodi. Since no one in our group really speaks Italian, we decide it’s probably best to pay up rather than risk getting into a fight with the angry ticket inspector.

Stresa and Lake Maggiore are beautiful, but our timing is unfortunate to say the least: after a sunny train ride there, storm clouds emerge shortly after we disembark. We swim tentatively for a little while in the lake, but most of the rest of the afternoon is spent running between the lakeshore and the train station – the only place we can think of to find shelter. We end up having to picnic in the train station. Mamma mia.

Most of the choir meets in Milan for a meal in the evening, followed by a brisk walk back to the train station in a fruitless attempt to catch a train – except for Alexander Walls, who, being a little more drunk, runs a little more recklessly. We watch him being taken away back to Lodi, fingers pressed against the glass, helpless to help us.

Much drinking in Lodi when we eventually get back, this time on the roof – much more atmospheric.

Friday, 30 June

7am Another 10K morning run – but I’m hungover, so Matthew Hull has to drag me out, delaying us until 7:15. We have the morning free, so those of us who make it to breakfast resolve to Do Something rather than hang around in Lodi all day (our concert will be in Lodi this evening). We settle on going to Cremona – the only interesting town we can get back from in time for our rehearsal. A Telegraph article describes it as having ‘striking’ architecture.

Cremona. We arrive at Monteverdi’s birthplace. The train station isn’t particularly striking. In case we didn’t know it’s Monteverdi’s birthplace, there’s a sculpture of a violin just outside the train station that plays the opening of Orfeo on loop all day. (Bizarrely, the extract has no violins in it.)

The architecture does indeed, however, become ever-more striking as we approach the centre. We climb the clock tower – the largest of its kind in Europe, while its clock face is at 54 square metres also the largest in Europe. Rory unexpectedly gets to use his Japanese at the top; we need (obviously) to ask a tourist to take our picture. The view is staggering.

After descending, we decide to have a stab at busking in the square. ‘Stab’ seems to be the right word to begin with: after discovering that we are all men, Alexander Walls and I attempt the soprano lines in falsetto, with results you could describe as decidedly mixed. We quickly resolve to take the soprano lines down the octave, and actually end up sounding pretty good – we earn €7 between us. Less than the minimum wage; but hey, we had a good time.

4:30pm We get to our rehearsal late after failing to grasp the subtleties of Italian trains. It goes well though, and after dinner so does the concert. We’re now making a really nice noise – especially the soloists. ‘Drinks with all the people’ are helpfully scheduled in our itinerary for after the concert. These are alcoholic…


Saturday, 1 July

Breakfast We’re singing in Crema in the evening, but don’t need to rehearse until around 4pm. Rather than hang around in Lodi for most of the day, a group of us instead decide to head to Crema early – there look to be some nice riverside walks nearby. Cue a vast amount of time spent attempting to get to grips with the subtleties of Italian buses.

We eventually make it to Crema, and the walk and picnic are worth it. After we get back to Crema, we head to the wrong church, and struggle to find the right one – but Giampiero turns out to be two minutes away, so rescues us and buys us all ice cream.

The rest of the choir arrives by coach, and the rehearsal again goes well, though the choir as a whole seems to be pretty tired by this point. The Great Game after rehearsal is to find ‘thank you’ cards for David (our conductor) and Will McDonald (our organ scholar). ‘Thank you’ cards don’t really seem to be a thing in Italy, but I find two cards with the inscription ‘you are the music to my soul’. It seems fitting.

Our last concert goes really well – we’re sounding just as good as we did the night before, and in a much less cavernous acoustic. Giampiero throws us a party afterwards next door (Crema is his home town). More drinking follows on return to Lodi – this time in the cloisters, since partying on the roof had apparently disturbed other guests. Malcolm and Will Pickering managed to find two 5L bottles of wine with the helpful label ‘ROSSO’. It’s actually not half bad.

litre of red wine.jpg
Photo: Alexander Walls. Left to right: Malcolm Kittle (alto); Will Pickering (bass).

Sunday, 2 July

Tour barely feels like it’s begun, yet it’s already the last day. Fewer days and more concerts have led to an intense atmosphere, while a distinct lack of beaches has created a very different feel to last year’s chilled tour in the Côte d’Azur. Yet it’s been awesome fun all the same – and probably no bad thing that we’ve done more singing this year.

We’re not quite done, though – we still have a mass and several motets to sing at a midday service in the Basilica in Milan. Half the choir are losing their voices by this point, but it seems to go pretty well all the same. We’re quickly bundled into a coach after the service and taken to the airport.

Back at Heathrow, saying ‘goodbye’ takes far too long – as it always does. Somehow, tour always feels like an extension of term – so this is the point when we’re saying ‘goodbye’ to Oxford for the summer. There’s also the fact that many of the choir won’t be returning next year – some we might see again; some we might not. It becomes apparent that none of us really know how airports work: we end up saying our goodbyes far too early, creating a long, awkward period post-goodbyes when we’re still walking in the same direction.

Chapel choirs are fairly strange, as social groups go. Oriel choir contains a diverse mix of very different people, spanning a wide age range and an array of very different subjects. (Who knew so many engineers sang in chapel choirs?) You see each other regularly over the course of a year – but rehearsals contain little time for talking. (Most of the time, your mouth’s already open for, well, singing.) The main bonding experience occurs at the end of the year, in the form of choir tour – right at the point when half of the choristers are about to set off to whatever new choirs the future may hold.

Best of luck to them.

Choir 2016-17 (fun, cropped).jpg
Oriel College Chapel Choir 2016-17. Photo: César Manivet

More on Oriel Choir Tour 2017

The official write-up of Oriel Choir’s 2017 tour can be found on the Oriel website here.

More information on Giampiero Innocente and his choir – the Collegium Vocale di Crema – can be found here and here.

The full collection of images and videos from the tour can be found on the Facebook page and YouTube channel of the Collegium Vocale di Crema.

Oriel Choir’s official website can be found here. More information on the choir and music can also be found on the Oriel website here, and further information on Oriel Chapel in general can be found here.

This piece was originally published by The Poor Print on August 4, 2017.

OK Computer at 20

<i>OK Computer</i> at 20

‘We hope that you choke.’ On the reverse side of my CD of OK Computer, just below the track listing, you can find these words in small, red type. It summarises the album pretty well. 20 years old this week, Radiohead’s third album is now celebrated by critics as one of the greatest in the history of rock – and it’s worth revisiting why.

Over the course of 53 minutes, OK Computer paints a picture of complete and total alienation – from society, from relationships, from life itself. Yorke’s singing style – often indistinct and mumbling – is dramatically different from Radiohead’s previous effort The Bends, creating a sense that the lead singer himself is being excluded from the album’s texture.

And the album’s texture is often oppressively thick. Although OK Computer was nominally self-produced by Radiohead, this owes a huge debt to recording engineer Nigel Godrich, now one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. Numerous echoes and other effects are layered on top of one another to create a musical soup that at times feels almost impenetrable.

My favourite track has always been ‘Let Down’. The song begins immediately after what it is arguably the most crushing point of the album. The hopes and dreams of the lovers depicted in ‘Exit Music’ have been destroyed in catastrophic fashion, and Yorke closes the track by singing purely, almost psychopathically, those words on the reverse of the album sleeve. Over and over again. ‘We hope that you choke’.

‘Let Down’ begins utterly simply, with a single guitar line: a repeating line that is almost like a lullaby. But more and more lines are progressively added – each line in a different time signature, so that until the drums enter at 00:13 it is almost impossible to feel any kind of a beat. The complexity and intricacy of the arrangement is overwhelming; it is all too easy to become lost in a sea of swirling counterpoint. Yorke, meanwhile, progressively layers more and more vocal harmonies onto the track with each verse, increasing the thickness of the texture but also the vocal pitch at which he is singing. By the time the track reaches four minutes in, the emotional anguish of Yorke has reached breaking point: but here, unlike in ‘Exit Music’, it feels cathartic rather than nihilistic.

Conventional wisdom holds that ‘Fitter Happier’ – perhaps the strangest track on the album, with lyrics read by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application – divides the album in two. I’ve always felt as though OK Computer could equally be heard as existing in a tripartite division: three parts that each carry the listener in a journey from a state of neutrality to an emotional abyss. The abyss is reached three times: at the ends of ‘Exit Music’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’.

‘The Tourist’, a gem of simplicity, acts as the perfect album closer. Working at a tempo far less than any other track on the album, it acts as a semi-ironic comment on all the content so far – testament to Radiohead’s underappreciated sense of humour. ‘Slow down,’ Yorke entreats himself. ‘Idiot, slow down.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 26/05/17 (not online).

High Life

<i>High Life</i>

Originally published on The Poor Print on 05/05/17 as part of a series of music articles released on a daily basis to celebrate Oriel Arts Week 2017

For a man who has a lot to say, Brian Eno doesn’t always say that much. High Life, his 2014 collaborative album with Karl Hyde, is relatively verbose; Eno is nowadays best known for his pioneering albums of ambient music, beginning in the 1970s. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the lyrics to High Life online.

Perhaps the lyrics don’t really matter that much. Eno’s distinctive singing style is vitally important to the album’s aesthetic, almost completely without vibrato, creating a drone-like quality. The singer becomes merely another instrument among many; the sustained melodic lines and mumbled articulation seamlessly blend Eno’s voice into the texture.

The influence of Eno’s experience in ambient music is evident throughout. None of the ‘songs’ utilise structures that can be likened to those of a standard pop song, instead using additive processes that create a static temporal state. ‘Return’ may employ full sentences in the lyrics, but harmonically the song simply oscillates between two chords as the texture continually thickens over a period of nine minutes. ‘Time to Waste It’ is simply built on a one-bar groove, and the lyrics are entirely meaningless (as far as I can tell) – a collage of phrases thrown together by intuition. The method is a speciality of Eno’s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Eno were at the centre of High Life. ‘Cells and Bells’, the perfect closer, is serene enough to have easily come from an Eno solo album and, despite their incessant pulses, neither ‘Return’ nor ‘Lilac’ is exactly a dance track. But High Life as a whole is far more varied – ‘Time to Waste It’, with its heavily processed Soul samples, feels like a ‘70s groove that’s been cut into tiny pieces and reassembled by a 21st-century robot with no clue what to do. ‘DBF’, meanwhile, is furiously aggressive: a frenetic instrumental track that melds West African influences with 21st-Century electronic music. (The album’s name is almost certainly derived from ‘Highlife’, the name given to a genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged in the 20th Century.) Karl Hyde’s guitar signature guitar technique is the glue holding the album together, providing a driving rhythmic force and blending the texture throughout.

The standout track of the album is ‘Lilac’. The texture begins simply – just Karl Hyde’s guitar and electronic percussion – but grows; the soup thickens with each iteration as new lines are added to the mix. Especially noticeable are Eno’s vocal harmonies, which are slowly layered onto the track as it progresses. Absent over the central instrumental section (beginning at 4:35), their return at 8:50 feels colossal: a sea of Brian Enos bearing down upon you.

‘Lilac’ is mostly supported by an oscillation of G major and D major chords. The effect is to lull the listener into expecting nothing more, creating an extraordinary lift in mood when a stray C major chord is struck – the simple made radical. Nine and a half minutes are carried by only two lines of text, an aphorism blissfully repeated over and over ad infinitum. ‘The door between us is lilac. Made of something like light. But not.’

Fantastic Trumps and Where to Find Them: on Fantasy Tropes and Political Narrative

Fantastic Trumps and Where to Find Them: on Fantasy Tropes and Political Narrative

The exhibition currently showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures, documents the human fascination with the animal kingdom. Combining depictions of real-world creatures with those of myth and dream, the collection stands in marked contrast with much of the rest of the pictures on display at Christ Church. A horse, reduced to barely a few lines on paper, feels as though it moves before your eyes; a sketch of a lion hunt overwhelms in a cacophony of colliding bodies and spears. The beasts on display are alive: many are depicted in scenes of epic battle where confusion of lines prevails but the spirit is captured. The immediacy and mess of these pieces (primarily pen, pencil or chalk on paper) could not be further apart in some respects to the stylised intricacy of the canvas paintings on display elsewhere in the gallery.

A special in-focus display case gives information on the seminal British animal artist Francis Barlow. Subtly exaggerating the key aspects of the animals portrayed, his work lies on the border between naturalism and caricature. A trio of treetop squirrels is lovingly sketched as they call to each other, with special attention (naturally) given to their tufty ears and bushy tails. As with the rest of the exhibition, the emphasis is on the movement and vivacity of the natural world – the innate beauty and strangeness of the creatures around us.

The timing of the exhibition, naturally, comes as no coincidence. It doesn’t take a sleuth to suppose that the topic of the display (running from 18 February to 29 May 2017) was chosen to coincide with the latest film from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In many ways, the collection of pieces has most in common with the original 2001 book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the inspiration for the development of the recent film. Taking its name from a textbook mentioned in passing in the original Harry Potter book series, Rowling’s spin-off tome took the form of a catalogue of information and drawings of faux-fauna from the realm of Harry Potter – detailing both those mentioned in the series (such as Hippogriffs, Flobberworms and Kappas), and also newer inventions such as Chizpurfles and Lethifolds.

The newer film finessed the original material by adding a backstory (including a mandatory love-interest) to the writing of the book by the renowned magizoologist Newt Scamander. Yet the emphasis on the wonder and quirkiness of Rowling’s world was retained – a welcome relief from Harry Potter films that all-too-often seemed to sand down the magic and charm of the books into something ultimately far too boring and serious. (Where is Peeves, the parodying poltergeist? Why do we never get to see the Weasleys battling with their garden gnomes? What happened to SPEW, Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare?)

Rowling’s creatures in the film are often wonderful works of the imagination in their own right, and frequently feature her trademark intertextuality. The Thunderbird, a huge North American relative of the phoenix that generates maelstroms merely through flapping its wings, has its originsin the folklores of North American indigenous peoples such as the Algonquians, the Menominee and the Ojibwe. Meanwhile, the Occamy, a winged serpent that has the ability to grow or shrink to fit the available space, has clear roots in the dragons of East Asia that can shrink to the size of a silkworm. In a Chinese legend about the Zen Buddhist sage Huineng, a fierce and destructive dragon is tricked into shrinking small enough to fit into his rice bowl[1]  – a scene that has an uncanny echo in Rowling’s film.

An extraordinary world, populated by creatures that stretch the bounds of reasonable belief, is fundamental to the definition of fantasy – a nearly facile observation when you consider that ‘fantasy’ shares its etymology with ‘fantastic’. Key to the definition of the genre is an inherent escapism – in the best fantasy works, the plot itself is often incidental; the author draws you in through the sheer intricacy and originality of their imagined world. (By the by, in my opinion this is probably why fantasy and science fiction are often undervalued by traditional literary critics.)

Yet, walking out of my first viewing of Fantastic Beasts, the creature that struck me most was neither the Thunderbird nor the Occamy, but the amorphous Obscurus. The writhing clouds of dark smoke, that Newt describes as an ‘unstable, uncontrollable dark force’, represent the latest manifestation of another key fantasy trope: the inherent, unexplainable evil.

The classic example here is Tolkien. Sauron is evil, because… well, because. In such an extraordinarily long and detailed saga, you’d think there would be some time to probe this a little. But that would be missing the point. The beauty of the fantastic escapism is a fundamental simplicity to the conflict at hand. There’s no need to probe such pressing questions as whether orcs have rights (or quite why the tyranny of the kings of Gondor is better than the tyranny of Sauron) simply because the story is better without fussing over all that. The conceit of the inherent evil is so successful because, well, shades of grey make our heads hurt – it’s a conceit that the reader is fully willing to engage with.

The Obscurus – shapeless and unreadable – is a particularly elegant employment of this trope. The trope works best when the Inherent Evil has as few human attributes as possible: whereas humans have motivations, reasons and purposes, the Inherent Evil by contrast is unexplainable, unreasonable and purposeless. It is the Unknown, the Other. The Evil that has no meaning behind it, and sins for sin’s own sake.

Hence the prevalence of masked and mutilated villains. Star Wars’s Darth Vader is effectively faceless; his ‘humanity’ is only restored to him after he finally returns to the good side of the force at the end of Return of the Jedi. At this point, his life-support unit is symbolically removed, revealing a human face beneath. G. R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire is a series that seems to specialise in shades of grey and set out to pour scorn on this trope. Yet even Martin cannot avoid the allure of the unknown horror: his White Walkers (who are at times even referred to as ‘Others’) are described as having ‘flesh pale as milk’; ‘faceless, silent’, they have eyes that are ‘blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice’[2] .

The Inherent Evil frequently works through human counterparts: unseen and working from afar, yet manipulating the whole of Middle Earth through his servant Saruman, Sauron is far more terrifying. Sometimes the dynamic is inverted. Voldemort, Rowling’s villain in her original series, was never entirely successful simply because he was ultimately far too human. The Dementors, however, who eventually become his servants, are truly terrifying: faceless, voiceless and cloaked, they feed on fear; in a similar way, Fantastic Beasts has both a motiveless Inherent Evil (the Obscurus) and a human antagonist with a purpose (Graves/Grindelwald). In Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, the villain is ostensibly the robber Capricorn. Far more frightening, however, is his slave The Shadow:

Sometimes he was red as fire, sometimes as grey as the ashes into which fire turns all that it devours. He leaped from the ground like flame flickering up from wood. His touch and even his breath brought death. He rose up at his master’s feet, soundless and faceless, scenting the air like a dog on the trail, waiting to be shown his victim[3].

And yet – I wonder if problems don’t arise when these tropes are applied to real life.

Fantastic Beasts – with its frequent allusions to Grindelwald’s dreams of ethnic cleansing, and with the populist political propaganda that is in the background throughout – carries clear reference to the fascist movements of the 1930s (the period in which it is set). And the Second World War is frequently depicted in just the same way as a fantasy conflict plays out: a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. The below poster – an anti-Japanese US poster – is representative of the way the fantasy narrative of an inhuman, intrinsic evil was employed in propaganda at the time. Even now, the Second World War is often remembered as the last ‘simple’ conflict – when you knew who was in the right and who was in the wrong. I’m not questioning the horror of the Nazi atrocities or trying to be an apologist for the Axis regimes in any way – but it’s worth remembering that most soldiers in the War were, at the end of the day, just fighting for their country, and atrocities were committed on both sides[4] .

It’s hard to talk about the 1930s nowadays without discussing the current political climate, and to an extent this tendency is fair enough. The parallels between the two periods are clear: far-right parties are on the rise across Europe; the US have recently voted in a nativist, isolationist president; and supranational unions such as the EU seem increasingly fragile. Fantastic Beasts, whether it was intended or not, can’t help but seem as though it is making reference to current regimes in Hungary, Poland, and the US.

To look at a lot of political rhetoric at the moment, the fantasy narrative of Good vs. Evil also seems as though it is being employed in just the same way as it was in the 1930s.  Trump has become an image of Evil Incarnate for many, with Democratic activists – despite their political impotence in Congress and state legislatures – determined to obstruct and resist at every turn. A Poor Print article in November spoke of the need to ‘fight against the darkness and coldness that people like Trump and Pence bring’. To an extent, I agree.

Yet the issue is that the great works of high fantasy usually climax with an epic battle, such as the culminating scene in The Lord of the Rings; or the great battle against the forces of the White Witch at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

This is where the metaphor can no longer be applied to reality. Bernie Sanders, the hero of so many left-wing students, is no Aslan. Neither he nor any other Democratic politician is ever going to lead a cavalry charge against the Trumpists of the US.

As politics grows ever-more divisive, liberals (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word) increasingly appear to be fighting arguments on the basis that to disagree with the liberal point of view is already a moral sin. Too many liberals no longer appear to  try to persuade those of differing opinions. Political campaigns are focusing more and more on increasing voter turnout by railing against the Other Side rather than attempting to convince naysayers; more and more activists appear to be complaining that they’re ‘tired of making the same arguments time and time again’. The implication is that when those who disagree are just wrong… why should we have to engage?

That’s no way to win this war. Political battles are won in a different manner to those of folklore and fable. Far from annihilating a horde of alt-righters, instead the end goal must be to change the minds of the horde. To rewrite the Tolkien narrative, the orcs of Mordor have to be persuaded to vote for Aragorn (…or whatever 2020 Democratic challenger comes closest). Shouting at Trumpists will only get us so far. Calling those of differing opinions a ‘basket of deplorables’ will never persuade them to your way of seeing things. The righteous indignation of a political minority is utterly useless.

It’s easier said than done. Changing minds is hard – Confirmation Bias is strong, meaning people will always more easily agree with something that chimes with existing beliefs than with something that fundamentally change their outlook. Social science research shows that reasoned argument generally has no effect on people’s outlook when it comes to polarised issues – and indeed, it often causes a ‘backfire’ effect that causes people to dig in deeper into their preconceptions.

But people’s opinions can, and do, change – even on polarised issues. The steady increase in support for same-sex marriage in the US – from 31% in 2004 to 55% in 2015-16 – is testament to that. The rapid change in attitudes on this issue – both in the US and across much of the West – is incredible.

The roots of the liberal success on the same-sex marriage argument are complex, but nonetheless contain lessons for political campaigns on other issues. Key to the increase in support was a steadily increasing number of people coming out as LGBTQ to their family and friends – causing the issue to become normalised; causing people to learn more about the issue; and creating a multiplier effect by encouraging others also to come out. In a similar way, some advocacy groups have reported that open, non-confrontational discussions with people on doorsteps have far more persuasive potential than conversations where activists actively try to change views. The idea is that these generate less hostility and may be more successful in normalising arguments. (Thorough research on this is currently inconclusive.)

Many will find the takeaway here slightly depressing. Though I’m not endorsing fake news, facts are somewhat useless when it comes to changing minds on divisive issues, since our moral reasoning[5] is rarely based on evidence in these situations. Rather, it is more usually dependent on the opinions we perceive to be acceptable among our personal social group. The crucial year in the same-sex marriage debate in the US was in 2009, when for the first time support for same-sex marriage started rising among Republicans at the same rate as among Democrats.

The real mystery, however, is why so many mainstream political candidates still struggle to grasp this. Remainers can cry foul at the conduct of the Brexit referendum all they like, but the truth is that the argument had been lost long before the referendum campaign even started. Whereas tabloid newspapers and UKIP had unfailingly screamed at Europe for decades, pro-Europe politicians had been notably timid. No debunking of false facts on Brexiteer buses was ever going to make up for the years of silence, or the failure to create a convincing Europhilic emotional narrative. The fantasy narratives have one thing right – much as G. R. R. Martin’s ‘Battle for the Dawn’ is repeated every few millennia, the battle of ideas is never truly won. Political success is rarely permanent; liberal arguments must be repeated again, and again, and again.

So rather than shouting at the alt-right and bemoaning the end of the world, the lessons for liberals are clear. Don’t give up the argument. Don’t be disheartened where you fail to persuade – we have to be in this for the long run. However much you hate their opinions, try to restrain your gag reflex when dealing with those with whom you disagree. And an emotional narrative is crucial. Facts are important – but don’t rely on them to make your case.

Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures’ is showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery until 29 May, 2017, and free of charge to students at Oxford.

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is no longer showing in cinemas, but can be bought on DVD from Amazon for £10.

The Trump presidency has a forecast expiration date of 20 January, 2021.


[1] American Museum of Natural History (2016), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them. Sterling Signature, New York. Adapted from an exhibition curated by Laruel Kendall & Mark A. Norell, with Richard Ellis and the American Museum of Natural History Department. See an abbreviated version of the book’s contents online here.
[2] G. R. R. Martin (1996), A Game of Thrones (prologue). Great Britain: Voyager.
[3] Cornelia Funke (2003), Inkheart (Chapter 40), trans. Anthea Bell (original title: Tintenhertz). Chicken House publishers.
[4] Incidentally, Tolkien always denied that The Lord of the Rings was intended as a metaphor for the War, arguing that ‘if it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied’. [J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Lord of the Rings (Introduction). George Allen & Unwin publishers.] As a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, it seems far more likely that his Dark Lord was inspired by monsters in ancient myths such as Beowulf, an epic which has innumerable echoes in The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Jonathan Haidt, 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Originally published by The Poor Print on 28/04/17.