Much more than just grey matter

"Brains: The Mind as Matter" at the Wellcome Collection

Unassuming wisps of words allude to a homely traditional headache remedy, but their tendrils surround something a great deal stranger than an old wives’ tale: a brain emanating from a gloomy abyss like a deep sea creature, striving towards a hopeful light atop a lengthy spinal cord. In many ways, Helen Pynor’s Headache, a ghostly glass-mounted image, encapsulates the tone of the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition as one that seeks to reconcile the idea that we know so little about a piece of tissue that provides us with so much, and one which explores an organ that has catalysed dark practices and dogmas, but also harbours huge potential as a force for good.


The curators’ intention was to explore the “importance of the real object”, and it is in this vein that Brains presents the organ in every form imaginable: there’s much more on offer than just your standard wax models (lifelike though they are), with 3D films, technicolor digital micrographs, artistic impressions, even an MRI scan with a QR code (smartphone compatible) scattered throughout the space. There are also references to the brain’s astounding capacity: a brain wafer (paper thin mouse specimens laminated on tape) contains as much data as the whole of Google Earth when scanned to a high resolution, and a magnetic resonance imaging video by Daniel Magulies and Chris Sharp shows the fluctuating brain activity of a subject who listens to Stravinsky whilst digesting Kant’s Critique of Judgement.  


Our objectification of the brain tells the story not only of the development of neuroscience, but also shows how our continuing attempts to understand it shift according to cultural and historical conditions. As guest curator Marius Kwint says, “what goes on between brains is as important as the content of the brain itself”.  The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the fact that brain research has been used to inflict notorious agendas and doctrines, namely that of eugenics in Nazi Germany, where the murders of disabled children and adults were often passed off as pneumonia and subsequently corroborated by Hitler’s efficient bureaucratic state machinery. But the brain has brought out the best as well as the worst in humanity: a newspaper cutting from the 1920’s asking “Have men more brains than women?” is placed, almost triumphantly, next to the brain of women’s suffragist Helen H Gardner, and the research papers of surgeon Burt Green Wilder are on display, documents which led to resolutions on equal opportunities and state schooling for black Americans.


Although there are four sections, the feeling is less one of abrupt divisions between them but complete freedom to wander at leisure. Indeed, the exhibition’s designer Calum Storrie wanted to encourage visitors to make “accidental connections”. Windows and doorways opening up into other ideas pepper the space, almost mirroring the structure of the brain and its infinite network of synapses.


Despite the range of objects and artifacts, it’s not just a brain collector’s paradise. There are subtly sensitive elements which are as emotive as they are aesthetically intriguing: the incredibly moving self-portraits of William Utermohlen convey a man rendered hopeless by the onset of dementia, his final work portraying a face tragically collapsing as the self is lost. Yet this sense of despair is tempered by Ania Dabrowska’s photos and accounts of three people who wished to donate their brains to scientific research. It all makes for a thought-provoking journey. Brains goes beyond just a visual feast, and quietly adds to the sense of gravitas with which we approach our most mysterious organ.

"Headache" by Helen Pynor. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and GV Art
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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State