Transformations and Conversions across the Arts and Sciences

Image by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 –1934). Cajal was a neurologist who made many beautiful pictures of neurons and other aspects of his scientific work on the brain and nervous system. This image is from the book Butterflies of the Soul.

The 2012 Arts & Humanities festival is all about metamorphoses. My own research concerns the way in which knowledge and human understanding gets transformed and converted in the process of travelling across disciplinary boundaries, as well as within disciplines themselves. I am doing a PhD which investigates the connections between the neurological revolution of the late nineteenth century, psychological medicine and self-representation within modernist literature. The transformation involved in modernism is well known and documented; inner experience became the chief vehicle of narrative rather than the external world. The neurological revolution was transformative for different but related reasons. The key figure in this revolution is perhaps John Hughlings Jackson. Jackson traced the origins of mental experience to the interaction of more primitive neurological, proto-mental operations. “Dissociation”, “repression”, “suppression” and dreamy states were credited with new importance, and the intellectual legacy of Jackson underpins much better known areas of innovation within psychology, for example Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis.

This involves thinking not only across disciplines within the arts and humanities but also in relation to the sciences and medicine. My work is part of a research centre at King’s called The Centre for the Humanities and Health which contains many researchers thinking about similar connections and conversions.

I also run the London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group which often meets here at King’s. This group brings together speakers across the arts, humanities, sciences and medicine to discuss a shared topic. Our most recent discussion has been about transplantation. We had four speakers – an artist, a historian, a philosopher and a doctor – and then had a discussion with the audience who were from mixed backgrounds. Such an interdisciplinary discussion inevitably involves thinking about the ways in which ideas and concepts metamorphose as they travel between various disciplines. To find out more about the discussion group and to watch a film of the most recent discussion please see our website.

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Madness, Magic and Ecstasy

Jane Chapman concert

Described in the Wall Street Journal as ‘one of Britain’s most distinguished classical harpsichordists,’ Jane Chapman is equally passionate about baroque and contemporary music, and is involved in cutting-edge collaborations with ground-breaking musicians and visual artists, exploring innovative approaches to performance.

In the second week of this year’s Arts & Humanities festival, Jane will be leading a concert of early music called The Transforming Power of Music: madness, magic and ecstasyperforming four unique pieces.

Joseph Kuhnau  (Bach’s predecessor at St Thomas Church, Leipzig)  paints a vivid and dramatic picture of Saul’s restored peace of mind from a state of melancholia and madness, through the magic of David’s harp playing in his Biblical Sonata. The harpsichord becomes a giant musical box in Walzing in the Ether by Stephen Montague. Philip Glass’s Metamorphoses, composed originally for a staging of Kafka’s work, induces an hypnotic trance, and Handel’s ornately decorated Air and increasingly virtuosic variations from Suite No.3 transforms a simple chord structure.

In this short podcast, Jane talks about her recent concert and symposium, held in the Strand Campus Chapel on Friday 18 May. Performing with her harpsichord, she played musical pieces from William Hamilton Bird’s Oriental Miscellany (1789). The publication was the first collection of Indian music transcribed from live performance into Western notation and adapted for harpsichord. Jane also explains that the Oriental Miscellany is a cross-section of art, culture and music and dance performance practice in late 18th and early 19th Century India.

Full details of this event and the many others that make up this year’s festival can be found on the King’s College London website. To book tickets, please see our Eventbrite page. But be quick: some events have already sold out!

Adapting Parade’s End

One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires many metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another – audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, the new technologies encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.

Adaptations of literary works for the screen have become ever more prominent; not only in television scheduling, but in the teaching of literature. They are among the metamorphoses that feature most often in the working lives of academics and students in the Arts and Humanities. So they might well feature among the topics to be discussed at the Festival’s opening panel.

The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me for the last month is the BBC2 version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by the British novelist Ford Madox Ford, and dramatized by Sir Tom Stoppard.

Parade’s End (1924-28) has to be one of the most challenging books to film. It’s a classic work of Modernism: with a non-linear time-scheme that can jump around in disconcerting ways; dense experimental writing that plays with styles and techniques. Though it includes some of the most brilliant conversations in the British novel, and its characters have a strong dramatic presence, much of it is inherently un-dramatic and, you might have thought, unfilmable: long interior monologues, descriptions of what characters see and feel; and – perhaps hardest of all to convey in drama – moments when they don’t say what they feel, or do what we might expect of them. Imagine T. S.Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, populated by Chekhovian characters, but set on the Western Front. Continue reading