Friday, 13 February 2015

The Spy's Choirbook


Petrus Alamire's gift to Henry VIII

One of the most beautiful musical manuscripts in the British Library came to life at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

EARLY 16th-century Europe typically consisted of educated men who excelled in several professions - from merchants to engineers, musical composers and scribes. With such an abundance of talent and crossover of jobs, daily business often times became intertwined amongst so many different individuals and places. It all paints a very lively picture of the times. There was also a man who once could proclaim to be one of the leading musical writers of his generation, among many other trades. But, as with all great dramas of fiction and reality, his history rose to the highest of highs, only to abruptly end with the classic fall from prominence. Such was the life of Petrus Alamire. A careful diplomat, scribe and a musician, protected under the patronage of royalty and religious order, he served under Cardinal Wolsey as a spy for Henry VIII in his early years as king. Like many spies at the time, they were able to play the dual role of agents of secrets and men who plied in respectable trades such as book sellers and artists. Having the ability to travel across Europe as a cultured individual was paramount to their success. While in the courts of other rulers and monarchs, these talented characters were able to deftly collect as much information as they could, only to return home and reap the rewards of their secretive services.
     And there we discover the folly of Alamire, who found himself in dire straits after his devious attempt at being a double agent, as the relaying of vital information to both Henry VIII and the English pretender Richard de la Pole - via Louis XII - proved costly. But this is not the story of Alamire's fall from grace or his life as an educated, cultured, back-room dealing fellow. It is the tale of his great legacy, not as a man of court intrigue, but rather as the talented creator of one of the finest musical manuscripts in the British Library: the Royal 8.G.vii; or more aptly named, The Spy's Choirbook, performed for the first time in centuries this past Sunday in London.
     Richly illuminating, Alamire's masterpiece contained the finest French and Franco-Flemish repertory of the time and was most likely given to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1516 as one of several musical gifts to the famous king. It contains 28 latin motets, along with six works on texts from Virgil's Aeneid by some of the best European composers of the time. Among them were Josquin Desprez, Heinrich Isaac, Jean Mouton, while more than half of the compositions were anonymous - though just as incredibly enriching, if not better. Most have never been played in modern times.
     The group responsible for giving life to this forgotten collection is none other than the appropriately named Alamire ensemble, who have some of the finest consort singers in the world, under the charismatic directorship of David Skinner. Celebrating it's 10th anniversary year, Alamire was started by three friends in 2005, all early music experts: Rob Macdonald, Steven Harrold and Skinner. The group is mainly inspired by the works of the medieval and early modern periods between c.1400 and c.1700. As their own website explains, Alamire "expands or contracts according to repertoire and often combines with instrumentalists, creating imaginative programmes to illustrate musical or historical themes." They gathered up the contents of the manuscript a few years ago and through Obsidian Records in October 2014, gave the audience of the musical world a chance to once again experience Alamire's rich gift to an infamous king.
     Alamire's performance of the Spy's Choirbook last Sunday at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the south bank of the Thames in London was mesmerising, enchanting and fantastic beyond words. The ensemble performed in the recently finished dim and candlelit playhouse that stands adjacent to Shakespeare's Globe. Constructed using the layout and style of the Jacobean Blackfriars Theatre of the 17th-century, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was the ideal indoor facility to bring the Spy's Choirbook to life. Sitting in the crowd, breathing in the wax infused air of the playhouse, one could not help but feel a sense of connection with a century long gone. Together in collaboration with the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Alamire proceeded to perform a selection of the best pieces from the collection, interwoven with insightful tales of the book's history given by David Skinner himself. His short anecdotes were informative, with a light touch of humour that was welcome by all. What Skinner pointed out early in the afternoon performance stood out prominently. When we think of Henry VIII, his famous portrait of portly distinction and authority comes to mind. A man approaching fifty and famously needing assistance in all aspects of his physical mobility. However, the man who received the musical gift from Petrus Alamire in 1516 was a youthful king in his twenties; strong and athletic, charismatic and full of life. A Henry VIII of vigour and music.
     As the performance drew to its inevitable conclusion, there was comfort in the fact that more enchanting medieval melodies by Alamire awaited the musical audience of the 21st-century. Their next project will be the Anne Boleyn Songbook (Royal College of Music, MS 1070), due to be recorded in the spring of this year.
     Petrus Alamire's story is intriguing, delightful and very much interesting. Leave it to others to dig up the details, surprises, the why's and who's of the truth. For now, I shall only venture to enjoy the extraordinary, exceptional music.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Nature of Human Violence

Analysing violence in all its complexities

Professor Gwen Adshead explores one of humanity's most destructive behaviours

AN uncomfortable, delicate topic at the best of times, the perpetuity of human violence is an issue all too real in today's society. Enduring, destructive, and certainly unavoidable. Blessed are those who have entirely circumvented it's damaging impact through a lifetime; a number far too small. Undoubtedly, a most highly anticipated Gresham College free lecture awaited the thoughts and ears of those sitting in the Weston theatre at the Museum of London only a few nights ago. It's topic was most certainly human violence.
     Gwen Adshead, visiting Professor of Psychiatry, was very open and frank about the sensitive issue of violence in this, her first of three lectures this year as part of the Gresham College free series. However, she made no qualms about directly presenting the information and perspective she had on violence, involving her close research, work and beliefs. Adshead particularly focused on her exploration of today's conceptualisations of violence, using criminological, penal and psychological perspectives. What stands out most, she noted, was that violence appears to be falling around the world. What had to be determined was why. The second issue of note was whether or not all forms of violence are the same. An intriguing question. Finally, the relationship between violence and mental disorder must also be considered. Is it normal? Or rather something unnatural that cannot be controlled in the end.
     Professor Adshead's initial focus was on violence in a more general way, particularly how we understand it. The two main facets she specifically chose to look at were homicide and suicide. Grim points of discussion to say the least, but reality in today's world nevertheless. That directly links to how we perceive violence. As people, we are appalled and frightened by the suffering that it brings, the deliberate infliction of pain. Yet, it also interests us. Many point to our keen regards for violent sports, aggressive fighting championships or automotive collision sports such as Nascar racing. Of course we do not condone violence, but it is still something that captivates our attention from the first moment we know of its existence. But is it normal? Adshead's definitive answer is yes.
     She traces her explanation to the high rates and volume of violence in the world, from ancient history to today. However, different countries do have different rates. It is not the same throughout the world. First world countries tend to have much lower rates, for many obvious reasons and some not so much. What strikes the audience the most is that of the ten leading causes of death that the Professor listed, homicide and suicide are prominent - as is unintentional violence. The other point she considered is how violence affected different age groups. Homicides generally tend to occur with under-15 year olds and extends to later life, whereas suicides begin after the age of 10 and are more common.
     Yet for all the negativity and morbidity surrounding such statistics, the fact is that violence rates seem to be decreasing - particularly for young men - but not women, oddly enough. Female violence is still far lower than the male equivalent but the rate has not changed in recent years. In all global cultures around the world, 80% of violence perpetration is made up of men. Except between the ages of 10-14. How did that happen? Overall it seems that the young are the perpetrators and victims. Nevertheless, something has been changing in the United States and across Europe with the falling rates over the years. Why? These questions all point to the other main point of Adshead's lecture: The study of human violence is a complex, multi-faceted enigma that is not simple to explain or even understand fully.
     Other big influences in the perpetration of violence include ethnicity, income inequality, culture and masculinity. Professor Adshead also produced an astonishing diagram outlining the use of different weapons that most commonly assist in the conducting of violence. Not surprisingly, firearms stand out particularly, but as do cutting/piercing weapons. Groups of homicides exist as well. There are three different motivational groups since violence is not all the same when you look at it in detail: Criminal relational (gang related, intimidation), socio-political, and killing others for what they represent. There are naturally different meanings and communications with each and it is important to understand the meaning behind every homicide and whether the perpetrator communicated what they wanted to. As Adshead put it, "Has the job been done?" What's frightening is that violence and murder can be done by nice people as well, not just psychopaths, drug dealers and inebriated individuals. For example, the medical staff who committed euthanasia - murdered for all intents and purposes - on countless patients in the 1930s were all competent, intelligent, middle-class people. Understanding violence is thus intensely complicated.
     The final focus of the evening revolved around Professor Adshead's central study involving her experience and research with a group of Florida juvenile offenders and her attempts to comprehend the reasons why they became violent men. She asked them about their childhood adversity and found a startling but understandable result: the more types of childhood adversity each offender had (four or more) directly increased their chances of becoming more vulnerable to violence and risk. From a medical perspective, it is the neural pathways (frontal lobes) or the social brain with its sense of responsibility and choice that are most affected when subjected to childhood adversity. The earlier the child is affected, the more chance they will have of developing poor drinking habits, violence and a penchant for drug use - eventually dying early. These are isolated children who experience physical abuse, neglect, watching their mothers treated violently, among other dreadful experiences. What struck the audience deeply was the fascinating image of a brain scan shown by Adshead, revealing two brains side by side. One was normal sized and healthy, while the second displayed a brain that had been abused. The temporal lobes had clearly not been developed. Neglect is the most toxic thing you can do to a brain. According to Adshead, 40% of the penal inmates were abused or neglected.
     Ultimately, each act of violence is complex. There are many questions that certainly require much thought and further study. Why do politics affect the need to commit violence? Or why is gender important? We need to look at it all systematically and with a multifactorial approach in order to understand it better; then be able to do more in the long run. On the bright side, while fielding questions after the lecture, Professor Adshead did touch on the fact that it is possible for peoples brains to change and improve for the better as they get older. This, again, depends on the severity of the psychological damage, among many other factors.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Did God Evolve?

An evolutionist's speculation about religion

Professor Steve Jones looks at the careful relationship between science and religion

THE quiet, sometimes boisterous speculation and contemplation of God and His scrutiny by science has been a fairly regular occurrence over the ages. Tonight is no different. As a slight chill in the air envelops the passersby making the climb up the stairs towards the Museum of London for the latest Gresham College free lecture, the anticipation is already very apparent. For those many gathered in the Weston Theatre within the museum itself, the promise of an insightful and entertaining talk by the secularist of the year, Professor Steve Jones, seems a certainty.
     A naturally outspoken man, Professor Jones dives right into his perspective that ideas and beliefs evolve as much as bodies and brains - with the two processes being very similar in some ways. Indeed, his survey of religions throughout history aims to show some insightful consistencies - most notably, a clear connection between levels of belief and degree of social inequality. However, Jones's overall focus revolves around the point that, like Darwin's view on bodies, specific faiths have been driven by demographic success. According to him, one in particular seems safest and fittest to progress into the future, championing its cause over the atheists: Christianity.
     Jones's initial premise at the outset is that he doesn't know if God exists, but rather focuses on the fact that religion does; particularly, how we are affected by it and its future existence, as it is also part of evolution. He thus begins his lecture by telling us affectionately about a bronze statue of a chimpanzee that stood - and still stands - in a niche on the main staircase of the Zoology Department at the University of Edinburgh. It stares at a human skull in its fist, while also sitting on a pile of books - one of which has the name 'Darwin' written on the spine. On yet another book are inscribed the words: "Eritis sicut Deus". These words are from the third chapter of Genesis and refer to the moment when the Serpent convinces Eve to take the forbidden fruit, thus saying: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Jones himself reflects on this episode in his book, 'The Serpent's Promise', when he writes: "Scientists are no more qualified than anyone else to comment on those two abstractions, but they have gained insights into the physical world rather more dependable than those of the Scriptures. Science (unlike the Serpent) has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises." The Professor's viewpoint is to focus on religion itself, not at the particulars of the bible. Today, he points out that more science with evidence is emerging in the analysis of religion and, naturally, Darwin is Jones's champion in the arguments he puts forth.
     Fascinating scientific observations linked with religion help to further the analysis. Jones discusses how questionnaires are effective in measuring the religious beliefs of people - another example of science and its application in the study of religion. He also notes that 15% of autistic people are atheist, seeing as they are more inward thinking; analytical people apparently don't believe in God. Gender also has a role to play. According to Jones, the Y chromosome carries the atheist gene. Here we see biology's correlation with religion. One other very interesting point that the Professor also touches on is the idea that the claims of visions by many people do not need to be related to divine messages. Rather, they can be linked to migraines and scotoma. Lewis Carroll's own experiences of the symptoms are reflected cleverly in his 'Alice in Wonderland': feelings of falling into a black hole (the rabbit); the universe feels like it is spinning, body stretching (Alice growing). Truly, religion can be seen and better understood through science.
     Which brings us to Jones's final analysis of religion and its correlation with science in this intriguing lecture. Mainly his view that demographic success will determine the future health and survival of global religions. He fairly points out that the most dedicated religious people reproduce more and are more fertile. He mentions the Amish as a clear example and their population explosion. Nevertheless, it is sub-Saharan Africa that has the greatest growth rate - sometimes seven or eight children per woman. India and China stopped their numerical progression in this field rather quickly. This all naturally has genetic effects. For example, skin colour changing over time. Jones concludes that it is indeed sub-Saharan Africa that has the greatest belief in religion. And this, combined with their high population growth leads the Professor to conclude that Christianity - through Africa and their strong Christian beliefs - will lead the divine way in the future.
     A stimulating evening that beckons endless debate and postulation, at the very least with a scientific mind and perspective. One can only spare Mr. Darwin one more moment to reflect on his words from 'The Descent of Man': "False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."
     Not quite so simple when religion and human beings are involved.