Facing Enlightenment-Blog for British Museum Website

Posted on January 15th, 2014 by


Facing Enlightenment II – Peter Sheppard Skaerved LINK TO BLOG 1

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On December 13th, I returned to the British Museum for the next stage of my adventure with the wonderful ‘Enlightenment Gallery’project page . A joy of this unique room, is that it is not only an exhibit concerning the histories of ideas, but a place in which to have ideas. As a musician, I well know that, until I spend time in a space, I cannot predict what will emerge. Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Gallery 1’.

Every time I work here, I am struck how the Enlightenment Gallery quietly shifts its visitors into a salon environment, whether they are expecting it or not! I decided to begin my salon alone. I arrived early, the harpsichord, before opening, to sit with my violin, to play, watch and listen, to see what new ideas began to flow. At various points during the day, there were changes of pace: my harpsichordist, Julian Perkins came to hang out and play a little in the morning and it was a fantastic chance to watch him respond to the architecture, the sounds (this is, after all, a room which is about people), and the objects in close proximity. We worked on the 17th century works by Walther and Matteis, and they began to change, in tangible and intangible ways, finding their way as the room found its way to them.

Playing in this gallery informally affords me the opportunity to watch my audience: some people will, without doubt, find it a nuisance (they don’t want a violinist in a museum), and that’s their prerogative, which I respect. I watch others relishing a ‘counterpoint’ between objects and music -they’ll often talk to me about it; there was great excitement that the violin that I was holding was older than nearly all the objects in the cases, and even more that this 16th Century violin is a tool which can be used, and can continue to offer new sounds, new ideas, today. Many younger people, have never been close to classical instruments played ‘live’. For generations brought up on digital recordings, there is a shock in the physical impact, the sheer quiddity (‘thing-ness’) of an ancient violin, or the excitement of a harpsichord, which clearly, for many people, is almost as weird a sound and an object, as a UFO.

A few hours into the day, filmmakers from ‘The Economist’ appeared and talked to me about the excitement of the space, and my project. They filmed me playing Torelli, which became part of an intelligent online piece about a new enlightenment spirit in today’s museums and museum goers LINK TO ARTICLE.

Late in the afternoon, my string-playing colleagues arrived, and we played composer David Gorton’s new ‘transfigurations’ of Dowland Link, a few feet from Dr Dee’s ‘Shew Stones’, with the box made for them by Horace Walpole. The ‘trajectory’ of these objects – originally Aztec obsidian mirrors, re-imagined by Queen Elizabeth 1st’s geomancer, later treasured by the high-priest of the ‘gothick’, the coiner of the word ‘Serendipity’ – epitomise the message of this room and the music we choose for it. How can we find our way to the future, through the many discoveries of the past? What tense do we choose to speak, to write in, and does it matter?

And then the chairs went in; the audience arrived. I looked out and saw, amongst all the new faces, filmmakers, craftspeople, writers, teachers and artists, a true salon, the essence of this marvellous room, and the kindly spirits who grace it – Merian, Hamilton, Delaney, Soane, the whole crew – alive and inspiring us to creativity and optimism. After the concert, it dawned on me that I had played the violin, without stopping, for 7 hours. But I was not tired, but buoyed up, invigorated by the chance to practise my craft in such company.

 

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