the importance of Stories

Metaphors are extremely important to us – they’re the language of our imaginations, motifs that we can recognise, embedded in our very chaotic perception of the world. Borges wrote once that the whole of humanity is the endless repetition of a very few metaphors.

It’s easy to believe, because they can embody our experiences in an extremely profound way. Think of the Biblical metaphor for coming of age: discovering yourself, losing grace and discovering awkwardness, being ousted from the Garden of Eden. Likewise the Epic of Gilgamesh documents those existential pangs of early civilization – abandoning the animal kingdom, and searching for meaning in a cruel world. Myths and legends are elaborate metaphors, which embed human experiences in narratives that we can understand.

Storytelling of this kind isn’t just for fun: when we listen to a fairytale or a nursery rhyme, Aesop’s fables or the Panchatantra, we’re being given cultural information. The story is a metaphor for something, some piece of experience, which we know to look out for. We learn behaviour from stories, about good children being kind like Jesus, and what happens when you’re lazy, or cry wolf, or go away with the fairies.

In this way we learn to navigate by stories. We need films, books, poems and celebrity gossip to compare to our own lives and where they might lead. We need metaphors to describe ourselves (I’m wandering in the desert), and stories to offer us hope, to show us through the desert or the dark wood.

Eating a poisoned apple has a strong niche in our unconscious: from Eden to Snow White, it’s a powerful image. This apple is a nest of contradictions, truly bittersweet: hard seeds and soft fruit, snowy flesh and crimson skin, delicious fruit, poisoned.

Isaac Newton was knocked on the head by the same fruit that gave Eve self-knowledge. It’s a story we all remember for that very reason. And poor Alan Turing died just like Snow White, eating an apple that he had poisoned with cyanide. We’ll never know whether it was on his mind, but it moves us at least in part because it resonates so strongly with that story. We navigate by metaphors: they’re stars in the night of our unconscious, and they can pull us into their orbit.

We’re lucky if we can make songs, pictures and poems our stars, and this is why it’s so important to have them and even make them ourselves. If we draw a picture or a poem we’re sketching the co-ordinates of our souls: we’re free to make the metaphors work for us, free to journey as we need, free to write our own stories.

30.3.17

 

the caption of this article is taken from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. the symbols can be seen as spiritually significant metaphors 

 

Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor

You walk a little way along the valley through the moors – the landscape is coarse and somehow ancient, guarded but not unfriendly. The little valley is carved out through rolling hills, which are yellowish with scrub and grasses and the dark-and-yellow dots of heather. Through it the river sparkles, mirror-black and musical.

About half an hour and over the stye, and you come to a small copse of twisted dwarf oaks. With their gnarled trunks and wyrd, splayed out branches these trees look unusual, though not out of place on these moors. Rightly they seem odd – this kind of stunted oak grows in only three places on Dartmoor and in the world.

The forest floor is a rough sea of granite boulders, which the trees grow amongst: lichens and mosses cover every surface, every rock and trunk, hanging from branches in great cumulus veils. Wistman’s Wood is nimbly navigated, ducking through the dwarf oaks and over rocks and the odd, spidery shadows.

Amidst these eerie trees and the strange luminosity of the mosses, it’s easy to see why oaks were sacred to our druid past. Sacred doesn’t have to be cherubs and sweetness: earth and mystery are sublime, profound in their silence. Wistman’s Wood is suffused with its great age: you feel only a footstep away from those celts who called this enchanting place holy.

27.3.17

a Poem: what we are is Memory

What we are is memory
The rest, is food for grass;
The sun sets on our absences,
And yet, though we but pass
An eye blink of the universe
We hold a weight as rare
As the tombeau of a sparrow
In the hands of whom we care.
Can we disturb the universe?
No, change a smaller world
Through the mind and breath and fondness
Of a heart in friendship held.
And that must be our universe,
Our landscape and our home,
Our cage, perhaps, and garden
Of an Eden’s own.
We are of a Eden’s own,
We flourish, love and die,
And what becomes of either of us
Either you, or I?
What we are is memory,
When we are growing grass,
And I remember fondly
That time for us did pass.

Copyright Sam Brown 2015 
Filmed by Duncan Appleby  

 

 

 

us and technology

When the printing press rolled out people whined it would be the death of conversation, storytelling, chitchat, but like always human interaction subsumed the new technology and made it good.

But whereas pencils dance to the tempo of the hand and the brain, iphones call the tune. The magic box creates more and more easily what it took lifetimes to pick up: impeccable handwriting, for one. Thinking becomes auxiliary to the device rather than manipulating it, and it sodoing transfigures articulation to txtspk. There’s an analogous translation of music to beats.

We can’t turn the tide on technology – newspapers and record players in their way assimilated small bits of human experience – and apps will shape our thinking yet into short, sharp, immediate blocks. We will, and already do, think differently and experience differently, in some ways for the better.

But the value of crayons and instruments remains intrinsic, and the sensation of creating sound or shape with the fibre of your skin and bone will endure in us. They command discipline, which gives muscle to our expression. They conduce a pleasure more lasting than mild clickbait surges of dopamine. We’re right to whinge that kids spend their lives on screens but more crucially we might practice those things which bring better. Dance classes, fearless cooking, grade 2 piano, anecdotes and jotters. It means to keep that space alive and thriving which makes us better than screen addicts – or rather, which addicts us to healthier things.

The caption from this article is a picture taken from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

discipline and music

It’s almost a slogan that, to get anywhere in music, you have to discipline yourself. Of course it’s true, but I think we tend to confuse it with that quasi-military, “I WILL overcome, I WILL succeed” type of discipline, the one that pushes you past 20 or so pushups.

When we’re flirting with somebody we like, it’s incredible how positive we become. We’re positively anxious to say nothing offensive, scanning sentences to scrub the callouses from our talking. In fact, we’re disciplining our conversation, which makes us more attractive.

I think it’s this type of discipline that we’re closest to as musicians. We regiment our fingers not because we’re conquering the strings, not because we’re bodybuilding, but because we’re madly eager to please, to make a beautiful sound. It’s as though we’re flirting with life, through our instrument.

The caption for this snippet is from Baekdamsa monastery in South Korea. Balancing stones in this way is a marvellous practice of deliberate action, a similar kind of positive self-restraint.  

February 2017

Nairobi

The city is crazy in many ways. The first fact is that everyone on the road acts like a caffiene-addict schizophrenic. Black smoke billows out of rickety matatus, and people transport anything up to and including sofas on the back of a motorbike. Nature is everywhere, underfoot, overhead; ibis, gangly storks, pretty purple trees, forested skylines, all meandering inbetween concrete and roadways. The beer is great.

People are friendly, I thought there was a real deep goodness and positivity. Counterintuitively, you drive past swathes of the city that are shanty town – wooden lean-tos covered with plastic and corrugated iron. You have a real laugh – and also cause for a sad pause, too: nightmare stories about children unable to scrape together pitifully small school fees, rampant poverty and rampaging corruption. Everyone wants to get on, do well, get along. I hope that they do.

November 2015

co-ordinates for the soul

Mostly we live by trails that wend their way along the ground. Often they’re the beaten track. But for whatever reasons we look up, and make our way upwards, orthogonal to the road… then, we steer by the stars.

The danger for anyone who makes their journey skywards, is losing anchor. Norms are the grooves entrenched by sheer belief and repetition: living by these we might never turn our head skywards, they are so sure. Small wonder those changes imposed by a turning world, globalisation and technology, bite so – they ask us to abandon our familiar road.

Steering by the stars is only the first choice for those stung by the earth. Often they’re castaways. Sometimes they leave us co-ordinates – art, philosophy and mythology, libraries: these delineate another’s journey through inner space, map references for the soul. They let us know that it’s okay to think and feel outside of norms. And they might also give us the courage to wander heavenwards.

The caption for this snippet is a bollard from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. The cloud design gives us the illusion that, as we take the staircase into the temple, we are ascending into the sky. 

Alfred Schnittke

The caption for this article is a photo of Schnittke’s gravestone. The musical symbols are (top to bottom) a fermata (sustained or prolonged), a bar’s rest (silence, no playing) and triple forte (very, very loud)

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music is definitely a creature of the later 20th century: often dark, vitriolic and strangely seductive. A pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, he pushed harder against the Soviet establishment, writing music full of dissonance, m170px-Alfred_schnittkeordant sarcasm and absurdity. His mature pieces are often “polystylistic”, stitching together disparate styles (playing catch-me-if-you-can through musical history). Good examples are his first Concerti Grosso and the ballet score Labyrinths.

Latterly, after a series of strokes that left him gradually paralysed, Schnittke resorted to a more tonal, and somehow more bleak, style, such as in his Requiem. His music is a great companion when we’re dealing with the absurd side of life, living with idiot political systems or bureaucracy, or wondering where the point is in it all…


Tango from Life with an Idiot, beautifully interpreted on ice by Peter Tchernyshev and Xenia Alferov. Listen out, the moment at 2.13 where the music “dissolves” is classic Schnittke  

I talk about Schnittke in a previous article (The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain). The portrait above was painted by Reginald Grey in 1972  

March 2017

a souvenir from Budapest

Half of the city owes itself to the absurd grandeur of imperial Europe, and the other half is a clod of bitter Soviet concrete. You gasp down Andrassy boulevard to the Heroes’ Square, which reminds you that Magyars were raiders with horses, furs, clubs and an expression of noble and lung-bursting rage. In front of you is a castle, a replica from one of those crenellated Transylvanian jobs you imagine sprouting like weeds over central Europe. People are kind, the Advent markets are built out of tinsel and look like a Christmas cake, the food warms you through quite. The best inheritance from its Turkish days are the wonderful bath houses, which leave you feeling boneless and amphibian.

The twin city leaves you with an aftertaste of snow, ballrooms, and goulash. From above, on Buda-side, it’s a confectionary spun with golden lights and filigree architecture. 
Below, we waltzed quite literally by the blue Danube – there, the city looks a blur of grander days.

December 2015

music and words

We get a bit put off by classical music, because it seems daunting and full of codes and facades, perhaps a little illegible. I don’t know the first thing about football, I haven’t kicked a ball for years: where would I begin, with all the teams, players and chants, home stadiums, famous games? Where would I begin with orchestras, great performers, composers, and famous symphonies?

Despite the facade, music brings so much good, when we get to know what we’re looking for. Then it feels like an old friend, a great mine of solace and fun and wise advice. It can help us feel understood in our problems, whatever they are – and help us feel bright through it all, and find hope. All we need is an introduction.