Monday, July 09, 2007

Brain music


Art works in public spaces, and my photos show 'Homage to Thomas Browne', a site-specific artwork that was installed here in Norwich last week. The controversial installation was created by the French husband and wife team of Anne and Patrick Poirier, and there is a musical connection. William Alwyn's Fifth Symphony was first performed in Norwich, and is dedicated to the memory of Sir Thomas Browne, with each section of the symphony headed by a quotation from Browne's best known work, Urn Burial.


Physician, philosopher, botanist and writer Sir Thomas Browne lived in Norwich, close to the site of the sculpture, from 1636 to his death in 1682. Among the authors influenced by Browne's writings are R.D. Laing, W.G. Sebald, E.M. Forster, and Jorge Luis Borges. Browne's major works are notable for their extensive references to America less than 150 years after Christopher Columbus' voyages of discovery.

In 1658 Browne published his Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial. Inspired by Bronze Age burials in Norfolk this discourse reflected on funerary customs of the world, and touched on a 21st century preoccupation, the transitory nature of earthly fame and reputation. Among the writers expressing admiration for Urn Burial were John Cowper Powys, James Joyce and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the same year Browne published The Garden of Cyrus which examines the quincunx, a five-pointed diamond shape which he believed existed throughout nature.


This quincunx pattern determines the geometry of the artwork, with the marble eye and brain, which are seen in my photos, forming two of the points of the diamond. The work comprises twenty pieces of sculpture and twenty-two lights, and the sculptures are designed to be sat on, touched and used as furniture. Anne and Patrick Poirier are internationally renown both for their gallery installations and their public works, and they have also worked with composers of electronic music.


Composer William Alwyn was born in 1905, and lived in Blythburgh, near Aldeburgh, from 1960 until his death in 1985 . His musical style was a unique mix of romanticism and modernism, he used dissonance extensively and developed his own Indian inspired alternative to serialism which divided the twelve semitones of the scale into two groups.

Alwyn's Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the Arts Council for the 1973 Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival, where it was premiered with Alwyn conducting. Although the symphony is dedicated to Sir Thomas Browne and quotations from Urn Burial are used in the score the work is not programmatic. It compresses the traditional four-movement into a concise one-movement work lasting just 16 minutes.

We are very fortunate to have Anne and Partick Poirier's 'Homage to Thomas Browne' here in Norwich, and we are also fortunate to have a first-class recording of Alwyn's Fifth Symphony in the catalogue. It is available in Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra's 3 CD set (audio samples available via that link) of Alwyn's complete symphonies on Chandos. Producer Brian Couzens captures remarkably vivid sound in All Saints Tooting. This Chandos Alwyn set is highly recommended, as is the Lyrita recording of his opera Miss Julie. For budget buyers, Naxos also have Alwyn's symphonies in their catalogue, and their new release of his chamber music and songs has been well reviewed.


Now follow this path for more evidence that art works.
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3 comments:

Pliable said...

One of Thomas Browne's strongest critics was the prolific writer and controversialist Alexander Ross.

Hydriotaphia said...

Yes but whoever reads Ross these days, he was a jealous reactionary whereas Browne has influenced many writers and is experiencing a Renaissance of interest. Poirier's sculptures are good but pity the City Council never bothered to spell check before delivery. The city now has spelling mistakes quite literally written in stone as it appears Poirier consulted a shaky French edition of Browne's works.

Hydriotaphia said...

Browne also wrote some pretty amazing prose about music suggesting he loved listening to music, for example - "it (music)unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself and resolves me into heaven,"

"for there is a music wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion.... for even that vulgar and Tavern music which makes one man merry, another mad strikes in me a deep devotion and a profound contemplation of the first composer".

I lent my CD of William Alwyn 'Hydriotaphia' symphony out and it never returned but after only 2 hearings it struck me that Alwyn really created a mood-atmosphere which suitably reflected the funereal gloom of the Discourse. Now to get another copy !