Mary Midgley

 

Are You an Illusion?

The celebrated philosopher Mary Midgley was born a year after the guns fell silent in The Great War, so it is safe to say that she brings a lifetime of empirical nous – and common sense – to what it means to exist.

Are You an Illusion? is described as an impassioned defence of the singular importance of our own experience in life, that namely there is much more to our selves that a matrix of brain cells.

Her view is that modern cognitive scientists and psychologists – Richard Hawkins, for example, in all but name – in a bid to make their studies as forensic as possible, chose to deny the rich variety of the individual’s imaginative life.

Midgley, as clear a writer as she is a thinker, sets out to show that science’s denial of the self does not make sense and doesn’t look at the big picture, which is that the subjective sources of thought are every bit as necessary as the objectives ones.

Examining the beautiful feathers of the male Argus pheasant, Midgley asks whether there is not something condescending about scientists presuming to doubt whether these original designers (the birds) are capable of the ‘almost human degree of taste’ that is needed to appreciate their work.

Midgley takes the good fight against scientific arrogance: ‘Our own thoughts and feelings too, the constant flow of inner activity by which we respond to the life around us, also affect the world as well as our outward actions.’

Before teaching at Newscastle University, Midgley was part of a remarkable group of women philosophers at Oxford in the 1940s which included Mary Warnock, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

In her first book, Beast and Man, published in the late 1970s when she was 59, she postulated that people have more in common with animals than may be thought, which was viewed as anti-behaviourist.

In Are You an Illusion? Midgley argues cogently that we cannot afford to eliminate purpose from the natural world: the aim of scientific positivism was to produce a world of objects without subjects, which, she concludes, “is really not an intelligible idea at all.”

 

 

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Tim Garland

Songs to the North Sky

If a symphony in essence is a composition arising from more than three movements, Songs to the North Sky by Tim Garland measures up, and by any definition this 15 track recording is a superlative opus which had me purring with pleasure.

Songs to the North Sky, one half of a double CD (Lighthouse), for classical strings (the Royal Northern Sinfonia Strings), jazz and classical percussion (Asaf Sirkis, John Patitucci, Neil Percy and Magdalena Filipczak), reflects a decade of association by Garland with north east England.

It is akin to a musical translation or adaptation of the legendary The Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes and Fay Goodwin: from the profuse and bounteous The Road Into Night, you can decipher how Garland’s world is his own.

The poet Don Paterson, who in Landing Light writes as lyrically as Garland’s horn, supplies an effusive precis behind the genesis of Songs to the North Sky, citing a spiritual affinity in which Garland plunders from the inside.

And, undoubtedly, as noted elsewhere, both the superb Patitucci and the string ensemble shape themselves around Garland’s fluid and articulate reeds like an incoming tide under a full moon.

There is too an air of nostalgia, and after repeat revisiting of numbers like Dawnbreakers and Shapes Over Northumberland, I sensed a connection with Vaughan Williams’ pastoral The Lark Ascending, which I can only attribute to the achievement of Garland in capturing technical ingenuity with effusive spontaneity, without the honey coating.

While Williams had George Meredith’s poem as a primer, Garland’s Songs to the North Sky come from a reservoir skulking in his soul, but what a resource.

The finely intelligent breathers of the several interludes aside, Garland as a composer has the vision of a Coleridge or a Bronte and you will discover (Storm Over Kielder, Lullaby of the Road) how his saxophone gifts onomatopoeic representations of his landscape to the listener.

This is classical terrain. Occasionally music sounds different if it looks different – a strange idea – but Songs to the North Sky also work as the self portrait of an artist, with a superfluous cogency.

 

Marius Neset & Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

 

Lion

Lion is an epic undertaking: originally conceived on stage, most of the eight tracks were impeccably burnished in the studio for this ACT recording, yet the immediacy of what is fresh is omnipresent.

The eight numbers are a combination of commissioned material and rearrangements from earlier outings – Birds and Golden Xplosion – though I might have been tempted to open Lion with Interlude, which comes in under a minute, followed by Weight of the World, which I would exchange with either the new version of Golden Xplosion, or Lion.

Why? Interlude features the most sumptuous of sax solos, like a flame lingering, and is instantly addictive: imagine Gustav Metzger’s liquid crystal experiments transmuted as music. Neset places it as an entr’acte, but it stands on its own two feet. Weight of the World is the flip side of the coin: a composition for a small orchestra.

Just 29, Neset is a restless composer, always seeking new turf to explore, and he has this commendable and selfless knack of composing pieces to challenge and bring out the best of individual musicians within the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.

With this in mind, Weight of the World epitomises the juxtaposition which filters through earlier tracks, particularly Lion, with exclamatory exchanges between Neset and, I guess, Peter Fuglsang, with a bloody good beat from Petter Eldh on bass and Gard Nilssen on drums.

With a flick, Neset can change the mood from glad to almost sadness, and the atmospheric Raining is a gorgeous ballad, cinematic in its reach, driven not by any of the four sax musicians on show, but by a delicate onomatopoeic piano from Espen Berg, an afternoon lullaby for lovers, brought to shore by Fuglsang’s clarinet. Exquisite.

On Lion, the second longest composition, the orchestra swings in turns and roundabouts, Neset making full use of the brass components, paying homage to his early devotion to percussion, feeding noir jazz-inspired punctuation into his busy rhythm-pattern layering.

As a composer, Neset has the technique of making a single saxophone sound like two or three (Lion features soprano sax, tenor sax, alto sax and baritone sax), changing tempo in the space of a phrase, and as such the individuality of the musicians is not lost in the tidal sweep of a big band.

With Lion, Neset’s intention was music that is energetic, wild and colourful, but it is also at times frankly gorgeous and always surprising: cue Eldh’s bass which switches Sacred Universe into another gear, with blustery almost late Coltrane-like notes from Neset, and a brilliant coda, a glorious outpouring of warmth from the ensemble.