The Books Interview: Nicholas Humphrey

Solving the problem of consciousness.

Most of the Critics section in this week's issue of the New Statesman, out today, is devoted to a philosophy special. The philosopher and writer Raymond Tallis reviews two of the latest contributions to the burgeoning science of consciousness, Antonio Domasio's Self Comes to Mind and Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust. Humphrey recently spoke to the New Statesman about his new book.

Can you explain the title of your new book, Soul Dust?
I'm arguing that consciousness is like a kind of fairy dust which turns everything it touches into gold. "Dust" means matter too, but what I also want to do is reintroduce the soul as a respectable issue for evolutionary psychology and philosophy.Soulfulness or spirituality is a major achievement of natural selection. It allows us to live in this extraordinary ecological net which I call "soul land".

What's distinctive about your approach?
Philosophers and scientists have assumed that consciousness must be giving us some new skill or faculty of cognition. Then they get verypuzzled, because it doesn't seem to. I argue that consciousness changes our psychology in terms of our attitude toward the world we live in, rather than giving us a new skill.

Why do you want to make the idea of the soul respectable again?
My position as a natural historian of consciousness is to take seriously the way consciousness affects people's outlook on life. They may, for example, have the Christian idea of the soul, with all the baggage that comes with it.But spirituality and the belief in the soul actually came before religion, and religion has been parasitic on them. I don't agree with the view, now rather common view among evolutionary psychologists, that religion was evolutionarily adaptive.

How do you account for the emergence of religion then?
It emerged for cultural reasons. It's an extraordinarily powerful "meme", if I can use that word. But memes don't have to serve the interests of the hosts who carry them. I'm not arguing that religion is a bad thing in terms of the consequences it has. My point is that people had a spiritual side before religion took advantage of it.

You describe consciousness as a "magical mystery show" that human beings lay on for themselves. Why do we do that?
Sensation didn't have to have the qualities it does. They seem to have been elaborated by some really clever things going on in the brain. The question is why we have evolved them? My answer is that they change our relationship to the world and make it seem a more mysterious and magical place, and make us, as the enchanters of the world, see to be extraordinary, almost supernatural beings.

Indeed, you point out that we are tempted to treat consciousness as something "out of this world".
It seems to be something that is beyond explanation in terms of what we know about the material world. That's a claim which many people, religious believers and philosophers, always make.

So do you see your job in this book as breaking the spell that consciousness puts on us?
I don't think I'm breaking it. I'm drawing attention to it, and marvelling at it. Of course, I'm also trying to give a material explanation for what looks like magic. But the emphasis is on the fact that it does look like magic, and the questions I go on to ask are about what purpose it's serving.

What about animals which are conscious but don't, as far as we can tell, feel so special?
There may be varieties of consciousness which have at least some of the psychological effects I described and which we could recognise in dogs or chimpanzees, say. We should be able to see signs of it in the playfulness and the exuberance of an animal, in the way it delights in being itself.

Your background is in experimental psychology rather than philosophy. What do your more empirically minded colleagues think of what you're doing?
I'm waiting to see. The challenge will be to "prove it". If I am doing this in the name of science, then I ought to come up with predictions. But that is a tough order. I just hope that the ideas are taken seriously and that people who are much cleverer than me will realise that this could haveinteresting and testable consequences.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Nicholas Humphrey's "Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness" is published by Quercus (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser