Arthurian aliens in A Message From Mars. Photo courtesy of BFI Images
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Beware air pirates, be nice to Martians: lessons from the dawn of British sci-fi

Critics Notes by Mark Lawson.

In 1989, Martin Amis published a novel, London Fields, set ten years in the future in a world on the brink of a nuclear war. But the Berlin Wall fell as the book appeared, lessening the terror of millennium Armageddon, while another aspect of Amis’s 1999 – the restriction of mobile phones to a small super-cadre – also suggested an anti-Cassandra. While all art gambles on being overtaken by time, science fiction is most likely to lose the bet. Yet there is a fascination in predictive stories that have become historical period pieces, such as the two futuristic movies, more than a century old, screening in the BFI Southbank’s “The Birth of British Sci-Fi” event this month: Pirates of 1920 by David Aylott and A E Coleby, released nine years before its title date, and Wallett Waller’s A Message from Mars (1913).

Although, in the term “science fiction”, the second word qualifies the first, it’s tempting to tot up the success rate of guesses and Pirates of 1920 scores well. The silent, black-and-white short
imagines “air pirates” who use balloon-driven vessels to bomb ships, with the lofty brigands then sliding down ropes to take hostages. Within three years of the release date, there would be a world war in which the Germans used airships against ships, although this prophecy was not entirely the film-makers’ – H G Wells, the begetter of so much in this genre, had published a novel, The War in the Air, in 1908, anticipating the elevation of the battlefield.

The movie did show its own prescience, though with a longer perspective. The attackers from the earth’s atmosphere are a kind of hijacker and, in this sense, the film foresees a tactic of terrorists between the 1960s and, with a mass-suicidal-homicidal twist, 9/11. Modern viewers may also reflect that, with tighter aviation security in the 21st century, sea piracy and hostage-taking were revived as weapons of terror. The scenes in which the invaders threaten the captain eerily resemble those in a movie released more than a century later, Captain Phillips, with the exception that, whereas Paul Greengrass’s camera rarely stops moving, Aylott’s and Coleby’s hardly starts.

More substantial, at about an hour, A Message from Mars has also drawn on Wells, most obviously his 1897 Martian drama The War of the Worlds, although oddly combining that fantastical line with the social comedy of his earthbound books such as Kipps. Apart from a prologue and a coda set on Mars, where aliens dressed like Arthurian knights scrutinise events on earth through a goldfish bowl, the film takes place almost entirely in Edwardian London, where a Martian, having somehow broken the etiquette of the red planet, has been despatched to redeem himself by persuading Horace, an obnoxious, selfish boor, to be nicer to people.

In this element of an extraterrestrial on a mission of redemption, it combines the tenets of sci-fi and Christianity in an early example of a genre that would later include Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?; Chris de Burgh’s song “A Spaceman Came Travelling”; Steven Spielberg’s ET; L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology; and, according to recent reports, some modern school nativity plays in which aliens and angels are apparently largely interchangeable.

Though few scientists now believe that, if life exists on Mars, it will wear chain mail, capes and veils and be prone to camp hand gestures, A Message from Mars proves – as does Pirates of 1920 – that crystal-ball fiction can still be worth watching once it’s a dot in the rear-view mirror. Both films will be shown at the BFI, as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, on 7 December with a live piano accompaniment, and A Message from Mars will be available to stream from 12 December on the BFI Player and BBC Arts Online.

Curators’ eggs

In most sports, the 30th birthday is a sign that the best years are over. Some have suggested that the same measure might apply to the Turner Prize. Many of the earlier winners – Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George – and even one runner-up, Tracey Emin, have a name or an artwork known even to those with little interest in art. But recent recipients – Susan Philipsz, Martin Boyce – are more of what you might call curators’ eggs, their impact contained within gallery walls.

This is again the case with the 2014 winner, Duncan Campbell. The Turner’s high profile was created by media debate; it helped to have an image (Hirst’s shark, Gormley’s Angel of the North) that was easily reducible to headlines. Campbell’s winning entry is a 54-minute film reworking a 1950s French documentary, with sequences co-created with the choreographer Michael Clark. Few visitors to the Tate Britain exhibition (until 4 January 2015) can be expected to watch it in full.

Like Hollywood, the Turner favoured showbiz-savvy creators with a grabby pitch but struggles to get recognition for art-house films. Channel 4’s live coverage suffered from sound problems but even if it gets the microphones right next year, the Turner is having trouble being heard. There’s no obligation on artists to become popular but, having gone from a period in which they did to one in which they don’t, the trophy named after Mike Leigh’s latest protagonist is in a difficult transition. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.