Prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child. Picture: Rex features
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Extended play: the world's longest Mozart festival debuts at Wigmore Hall

On Mozart 250 and Sarah Connolly in America.

When the Mozart family arrived in London in April 1765, they had been on the road for a long time. Since leaving Salzburg two years earlier, the eight-year-old Wolfgang and his 12-year-old sister, Nannerl, had performed for rulers and courtiers all over the Holy Roman Empire, as well making visits to Paris and Versailles. Their father, Leopold, had embarked on this lengthy and risky journey as way of sharing his children’s exceptional musical abilities with the wider world, with the hope that it would make them influential connections to call upon in the future – in the 18th century, being a composer was a precarious existence.

The year that the young Wolfgang spent in London was a particularly formative musical period for him. As well as playing for George III, he was introduced to the musicians Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and was exposed to the Anglo-German musical culture that had grown up in the city since the Hanoverian accession in 1714. He began to write his first symphonies, as well as vocal pieces such as the sacred motet “God is our Refuge”, which was dedicated to the newly established British Museum.

The debut concert of the Mozart 250 project (Wigmore Hall) sought to capture the musical flavour of this crucial year in the young composer’s life. Listening to Ian Page and his Classical Opera ensemble play Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, it is difficult to comprehend that this confident and technically assured composition issued from the mind of an eight-year-old. It is perhaps possible to discern a certain childish flavour in the slow second movement – is that heavy, ascending figure in the bass inspired by Leopold’s tread on the stairs, as he comes to shoo his young son away from the keyboard and back to whatever he was supposed to be doing? The care and delicacy that Page’s players take with this early instrumental music makes it possible to hear new lines in even the most familiar pieces.

The programme featured works by Haydn, Gluck, Sacchini and other composers working in 1765, alongside Mozart’s own compositions from that time. Sarah Fox produced a warm, tender performance of an aria from J C Bach’s highly influential opera Adriano in Siria, but her fellow soprano Anna Devin was less successful with an intricate selection from Gluck’s Telemaco – her brittle tone and overactive vibrato struggled against the composer’s ever-more elaborate ornamentation in the vocal line. The early Mozart concert arias included in the programme provided tantalising glimpses of the potential that would flower years later in works such as The Magic Flute and Così fan tutte.

For Ian Page and Classical Opera, this concert is just the beginning. The Mozart 250 project will track his work and influences for the next 27 years, with the intention of bringing little-known contemporaneous pieces back to our attention in the versions Mozart would have heard. It is a monumental undertaking, and, if this first outing is anything to go by, one that will be well worth following.

Leap forward a couple of centuries or so and you arrive at the very different musical landscape explored by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia. Their selection of 20th-century American compositions, including Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson poems and music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, came together into an intriguing programme for the Barbican at the Guildhall School of Music (even if they were performed in rather a strange order).

The highlight was undoubtedly the rarely performed A History of the Thé Dansant by Richard Rodney Bennett (an adopted, if not native, American). The smooth, evocative songs suited the deep tones of Connolly’s voice perfectly, transporting us to a 1920s dance hall with a foxtrot in full swing. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings provided a compelling counterpoint, the Britten Sinfonia expertly emphasising the dissonance and overlapping suspensions that mark it out as a modernist masterpiece.

The encore came as a bit of a surprise – two numbers from the American Songbook. Connolly’s usually astonishing voice sounded flat and restrained in these simple songs, and the Britten Sinfonia’s strings, so warm and rich when playing Copland, became blowsy and exaggerated to meet the demands of overwritten arrangements. It made for a striking and not altogether welcome contrast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times