Leonard Nimoy, Captain Spock, Dies at 83

Leonard Nimoy, the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut “Star Trek,” died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.

His wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, confirmed his death, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (Read More)

Bland Brit Awards 2015 reflect how boring life is for most people today

By Mike Jones, University of Liverpool

So, Madonna fell over at the Brit Awards. If you weren’t watching last night (and if you were, why?) then no doubt you know by now. The tumble has been gleefully reported from all quarters – something that says a lot about how dull the Brits Awards are. The other option is to talk about how Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran won accolades. Who cares? The answer will always be, the UK music industry, because this is their celebration.

The 2015 Brit Awards is a significant event in the UK music calendar. But probably only if you are in the industry. As we all know, such awards ceremonies are simply marketing exercises – with the Oscars as their template, they draw media attention to the successes produced by a particular industry.

The problem is that word “industry”. Musicians need companies to consolidate and increase their own efforts in establishing (and monetising) fan-bases. Because they do, they work on the terms and conditions of the companies whose investment they need. On this basis, the Brit Awards are a celebration of the type of person and the type of music that companies make successful. So the exercise is always a self-congratulatory one – and that often makes for difficult watching.

The Brit Awards always plays safe, to the extent that one year blurs into another – a procession of lairy rock lads swagger up, giving and receiving laddish banter as they tuck away another endorsement for their safe, essentially middle-of-the road music. Occasionally a female face, and less often a black face (rarely a female one) makes an appearance, but all are bound by the strict rules of “celebrity” culture. Along the way, music gets lost.

The faces of 2015.
PA/PA Wire

So where do you find the music that is musically innovative and distinctive in any one year? It could be argued that the Mercury Awards is the arena for evaluating and celebrating musicality, yet the flaw to that argument is that the acts that tend to come to the attention of the Mercury judges are industry successes in the first place, albeit they come from across a wider range of genres than Brit Awards nominees tend to be derived from.

It was frustration with the Brits that provoked the creation of the MOBO awards. The MOBOs celebrate black talent and artistry. It would take an article longer than this one to identify just why the Brits finds it so hard to engage intelligently with all of the music that generates interest and excitement in the UK but perhaps switching to a formula that tracks downloads and streams might help to open up the Brits to genres beyond the safe and familiar ones they are preoccupied by.

Yet, somehow, this narrow preoccupation is just as it should be. What music industry produces is a symbolic good, a commodity. Music at its core, but it is sold as a composite of the way a musician sounds and the way that he or she looks and behaves, and articulates and inserts themselves in contemporary value-sets. Musicians act as lightning rods for popular culture and, if popular culture goes on being expressed through soaps and reality TV shows and football and gossip and scandal, then the Brit Awards is about celebrating which musicians are most efficient at producing the soundtrack for such a culture.

If there is a lack of diversity in the types of musicians celebrated it is because the types of music made by those musicians are the ones that fit most readily with the expectations of general audiences. Or, perhaps more accurately, the musicians awarded are the ones who help people negotiate a way of life they do not control by providing an escapist, celebratory soundtrack for an idealised escape from daily life – which raises the question of why the need to escape is felt so strongly by so many.

“Control” is the key word here, earlier popular music scenes – folk, rock, punk rock, the rave scene – were very much about young people expressing and embodying “alternative” values. As opportunities to enjoy careers have contracted, so too, in a perplexing way, has the belief that there are other ways of existing; other ways of realising the self – and pop music was always particularly good at articulating and focusing this.

“Daily life” for many people in the UK is an increasing struggle: the collapse of community attendant on the collapse of manufacturing industries has forced individuals to become “self-marketers”. It should be little wonder, then, that singers who sing wistful ballads of vulnerability and self-struggle – among them Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran – should prove so popular. And when community is recomposed at the level of football and partying then nominees such as Mark Ronson and Duke Dumont provide the EDM and House soundtrack for those “mad for it” collective occasions.

The Brit Awards is about celebrating music’s contribution to popular culture. Its lack of diversity reflects a lack of diversity in the experiences for the majority of, especially young, people in a “free-market” economy.

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Be open to the impossible: Alice in Wonderland turns 150

By Rebecca Ciezarek, Victoria University

The star of Melbourne’s White Night 2015, held last weekend, was Alice. Tributes to her adventures were colourfully projected across buildings along Flinders Street, and formed a fantastical animation on Flinders Station, while the façade of the State Library had a sliding showcase of artistic interpretations of the story, including John Tenniel’s original illustrations.

Alice in Wonderland, 1903.
Paul Dalgarno

Entering the rabbit hole (actually, the library doors), a 3-D dreamscape was created on the Dome’s ceiling, set to an electro-pop soundtrack. And the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) showed a film adaptation from 1903, a sophisticated production at approximately 12 minutes running time.

Considering “wonderland” is such a key term for describing the White Night experience, it seemed as if Alice in Wonderland was the perfect partner – and this year the partnership was perfectly timed.

2015 is the year we get to celebrate 150 years of Wonderland. It was 1865 that Alice’s adventure was first published for the general public, having started as an oral tale in 1863, told to entertain three young sisters.

An illustrated page from the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
Wikimedia Commons

Carroll first wrote the story down in 1864, as a keepsake for his child-friend, Alice Liddell. The story was then called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and with publication, this was changed to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

150 years later, Wonderland is no longer simply a children’s story. It is films, theatre productions, songs, video games, and theme park rides, and forms the spine of thousands of literary adaptations, printed in more than 170 languages.

I can’t remember the first time I encountered Wonderland, but the story has been with me from a young age, in various incarnations.

Disney’s 1951 film had as strong an impact on me as Carroll’s original story. Looking to my experience, it is likely one which parallels the experiences of other readers and viewers of Wonderland.

Trailer for Alice in Wonderland (1951).

Wonderland moved out of copyright in 1907, which means writers and illustrators have had over a century in which to create new versions of the story and characters. It is now a part of our collective memory and cultural history, even for those who have never engaged with the original text.

Adaptations are now such a substantial part of the world of Wonderland that the story stands as one of the most adapted in literature.

The original story, with its fantastical world and characters, lends itself to flexibility. Wonderland has remained popular with readers, and a result from this combination of fantasy and enduring popularity, is that the story has remained a similarly popular choice with adapters from all mediums.

The cover of the Nursery Alice.
Wikimedia Commons

White Night 2015 showed how fixed Wonderland is in popular culture: that the organisers of the event knew enough attendees would feel connected to the story for them to cast Alice in a new leading role. It also showed the brilliant form celebrations of Carroll’s story can take.

The diversity of these tributes testifies to not only the creativity of their creators, but the extraordinary story Lewis Carroll created. What a thrill then to see what will come next.

For those interested in keeping track of global celebrations, two of the largest Lewis Carroll Societies are working alongside Carroll scholars and enthusiasts to track events scheduled throughout 2015. Some 91 events are planned so far, and over 100 publications, not counting the new literary adaptations publishers are planning.

For Melbourne, surely the next major celebration will occur as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, in May, and the Melbourne Writers Festival in August, (hint hint).

Alice in Wonderland as street art.
Céline/Flickr

To calculate the contribution Carroll’s story has made to English literature and popular culture would be a mammoth undertaking, as Wonderland grew roots which moved the story into unexpected places. It can seem almost impossible to believe that this children’s story can be positioned behind only the collected works of Shakespeare and the Bible as the most widely quoted book in the Western world.

One impression the Alice books left on readers however, is to be open to the idea of the impossible:

“I ca’n’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Ca’n’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

My current research is on Alice and some of the literary adaptations which make up such a large component of the Alice industry. This year is exciting for me, but for so many others as well. This anniversary provides all of us who love the story, a space to talk, read, see, and marvel at what Wonderland has become.

What Lewis Carroll created deserves to be celebrated. Here’s to Alice!

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Back from The Dead: Spider-Man’s Girlfriend Is Now A Kick-Ass Superhero Spider-Gwen

Spider-Gwen is a weird title for the newest heroine to swing through the Marvel Universe. Technically, she’s a Spider-Woman. But the ‘Gwen’ part of her moniker highlights the most potentially exciting aspect of her: she’s an alternate version of Gwen Stacy, a character most famous for how she died.

Forty-two years ago, Spider-Man lost a girlfriend in a brutal battle with the Green Goblin that ended in a cruel, twist ending. The final pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #122—in which the wall-crawler snags Gwen with webbing after his archenemy knocks her off the George Washington Bridge—went on become an iconic part of comic-book history. It was a collective loss of innocence for an era of fandom, which dared to present a story where superheroes can’t always save innocents. (Read More)

Seeing the unseen: the stories that comics help us recognise

By Golnar Nabizadeh, University of Western Australia

In the month since the the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the significance of visual representation has been a topic of much discussion. Political cartoons have the potential to reinforce problematic stereotypes – and also to challenge them.

Relying on basic materials such as pencil and paper, cartoon and comics artists can readily respond to political and social issues; at their most impressive they draw out worlds that tend to remain unobserved.

At the same time, our easy access to visual images can, at times, encourage a superficial consideration of their impact. While there is an ongoing tradition of photographic works serving to inform their viewers, the repetition of particular images can also to stereotype its subjects in problematic ways.

In other words, seeing, by itself, is not enough. How and what we see is also at stake. I’d like to draw attention to two comics that encourage readers to engage with stories of difference: Epileptic (2005) by David B. and The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan.

Epileptic

Originally published in six volumes as L’Ascension du Haut-Mal (1996-2003), Epileptic is the English translation of David B.’s memoir of his experiences growing up with an older brother, Jean-Christophe, who suffers from epilepsy.

© 2011, David B. & L’Association
L’Association

Rendered in black and white, B.’s lyrical, confronting, and meticulous drawings access the anger and grief that Jean-Christophe’s condition provokes for the narrator, his family, and for Jean-Christophe himself. B. does not excuse any of the characters, including himself, from scrutiny, and indeed this intimate portrait of a family life is what makes the book so compelling. The book also reflects on the privileges and pitfalls that accompany vision.

For example, in one passage, we become aware of the transgressive potential of “looking”. While on a family holiday, Jean-Christophe suffers a seizure. The authorial caption recalls: “[a]ll the tourists rush up, eager to enjoy this new diversion”. The narrator, David, grapples with his own desire to disappear from this scene, before deciding to stay.

© 2011, David B. & L’Association.
L’Association

Engorged with excitement, the onlookers’ distorted eyes and bodies swarm the main action. The tension here is elevated when we notice Jean-Christophe’s body, which now takes up the entire width of the middle panel. By playing with the proportions of these different bodies B. conveys the claustrophobic impact of the crowd’s attention on B. and his family.

In turn, this scene also encourages us, more generally, to consider the ways in which we regard Jean-Christophe throughout the book.

Through the use of panels, comics offer windows into alternate worlds that the reader must digest individually, and as a whole. In doing so, readers possess a high degree of involvement in the story, amplified by the operation of the “gutter” – the space in between the panels – that provokes us to draw connections between the panels (or refuse to do so). Moreover, the physical arrangement of the panels across the page, their composition, and content, creates an interpretive pulse that orients our navigation of the text.

Finding a home

Shaun Tan – The Arrival.

These features are also apparent in Shaun Tan’s remarkable, and widely celebrated book The Arrival, which depicts the story of “the migrant”, who flees his homeland for a new place. In this place, he meets other individuals, many of whom also furnish stories of displacement. In one encounter, the migrant recalls a fearful memory from his place of origin with a new acquaintance. In response, the latter gestures to himself as the panels zoom towards his eye.

The last three panels in this sequence emphasise the commencement of the man’s story, positioning us to regard the upcoming narrative through “someone else’s eyes”. The double-page spread overleaf then plunges us into his memories. The size, shading and timing of the panels all contribute to our involvement in the story, and encourage our consideration of the characters we meet alongside the migrant.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Lothian Children’s Books, an imprint of Hachette Australia, 2006.
Hachette

In his introduction to Joe Sacco’s Palestine(1996), Edward Said recalled the fervour with which he consumed comics as a young reader, explaining that comics:

seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures.

Comics encourage their readers to see again, and see differently. In a world that offers, on the one hand, an abundance of things to see and, on the other, frequently limited perspectives on what we see, and how our vision is framed, comics offer a modality that encourage seeing differently. This is particularly important when it comes to depicting marginalised individuals and cultural groups.

In cultures where appearances often count for more than they should, comics create new ways of seeing the world.


Editor’s note: Golnar will be answering questions between throughout the day on Friday February 20. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

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Fifty Shades of Grey and the legal limits of BDSM

By Thalia Anthony, University of Technology, Sydney

Christian Grey knows exactly his hard limits in sadomasochism and he may also know a thing or two about his legal limits. The Dominant character Grey in the fantasy fiction Fifty Shades of Grey is bent on alluring his coprotagonist, Anastasia (Ana) Steele, to become his Submissive in a BDSM – Bondage & Discipline (BD) Domination & Submission (DS) Sadism & Masochism (SM) – relationship.

The layers of coercion, consent, pleasure and pain are as complex as the acronym itself and defined by the participants themselves. The cinematic account of this fiction – released this past weekend – illustrates some of the problematic demarcations in the law of assault in the real world.

When Grey informs the innocent Ana about the unnegotiable “hard limits” he sets down in a contract governing their BDSM activities – including no fire play, cutting, piercing, bloodletting, gynaecological instruments, scarring, permanent disfiguration, breath control, defecating/ urinating or use of electric current – she is confounded (probably with a blush and the cautious words of her subconscious). The law is a bit confounded too.

“Hard limits” – in the BDSM arrangement between Grey and Ana – are those activities excluded from the pair’s BDSM arrangement as a safety precaution. “Soft limits” – such as caning and flogging – are more negotiable: Grey does not regard them as a safety issue but they’re left open for negotiation on the grounds that they may cause unbearable pain.

So what does the law have to say about legal status of the sadomasochistic acts?

A legal perspective

For criminal lawyers, for humans in general, the hard limits described above may look a little bit like assault. The offence of wounding or grievous bodily harm with intent – which includes where there is permanent disfiguration or serious harm – attracts a maximum sentence 25 years imprisonment.

In Australia’s Northern Territory, mandatory prison sentences apply to first-time serious violent offenders. This may include acts involving cutting, scarring, whipping or caning. But the legislation does not prescribe the nature of violent activities or whether inflicting pain in the name of sexual pleasure is permissible.

In principle, if the participant suffering the harm consents to the violence, this would legalise what would otherwise be deemed assault.

In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey’s relentless pursuit of Ana’s consent before engaging in BDSM was well-advised, as consent provides an important pillar in nullifying assault claims – but it’s not the only pillar. There are, it seems, at least 50 shades of grey when it comes to the application of the laws relating to consensual bodily harm.

The law on consensual violence is cobbled together from a small pool of legal cases. The parameters are rarely tested, given that consenting and willing participants are hardly going to complain to police and press charges. Cases are often brought to the attention of authorities when something goes wrong or evidence emerges during an investigation for another crime (such as video tapes found during a drug investigation).

Demarcations of acceptable harm, beyond which would constitute serious assault, appear to hinge on the participants. In cases of “rough but innocent horse-play” in heterosexual relations, or manly violence inflicted in boxing or prize fighting, courts have refrained from convicting participants of assault due to the presence of consent.

Consent also legalises bodily harm arising in the normal course of surgery, contact sports, ritual circumcision, tattooing and ear piercing. But the law has been less accommodating with similar acts and similar levels of harm in different contexts.

Beyond consent

Courts have condemned consensual acts of gay sadomasochism or Indigenous law punishment. The Northern Territory Supreme Court in the 2004 bail case of Re Anthony held that it could not condone the offender being let into the community to allegedly have Elders in the Tanami Desert community of Lajamanu spear him in the leg and hit him with nulla nullas.

The Court regarded that it was immaterial that the offender consented to the spearing, on the grounds that it would restore relations and remove the curse of his offence, because the serious nature of the harm meant it was not in the community’s interest. In the 1994 case of R v Brown, the House of Law found that consensual sadomasochistic activities involving a group of gay men was illegal.

This case was brought to the House of Lords to determine whether proof of wounds or harmful assaults in the course of sadomasochism required the prosecution to prove a lack of consent. The majority held that the gay sadomasochistic assaults were unlawful “because public policy required that society be protected by criminal sanctions against a cult of violence which contained the danger of the proselytisation and corruption of young men”.

It also regarded the availability of code words that the participants could pronounce to discontinue the act as insufficient evidence of ongoing consent. This may be news to Mr Grey, in Fifty Shades, who sets down safewords (“Yellow” for caution and “Red” to stop) for Ana to use when the violence becomes unacceptable.

Permissible harm

Apart from courts relying on morality and colonial jurisdiction to set limits for lawful bodily harm, there is a spectrum of permissible harms in the context of consensual force (at least as far as BDSM and Indigenous law is concerned) that does not extend to wounding or serious harm.

The law may differ in other settings, such as permitting wounding in a tattoo parlour or through an elective caesarean. In R v Brown, where the House of Lords considered the legality of harm in gay sadomasochistic acts, it prohibited genital torture, violence (including beating) to the buttocks, anus, penis, testicles and nipples, branding, bloodletting and wounding with instruments.

The majority described these acts as uncivilised, involving the indulgence of cruelty by sadists and humiliating and degrading activities such as defecation. There is a lack of legal precedent on whether public policy would grant heterosexual couples with greater latitude to exact consensual sadomasochistic harm.

The excluded “hard limits of harm”, such as bloodletting and permanent disfigurement, in Christian and Ana’s arrangement is a sensible legal precaution (and naturally speaks to Christian’s high romantic ideals).

For Ana, however, it is the soft (more negotiable) limits inflicted in the punishment process that terrify and upset her they most. They include flogging, spanking, whipping and caning to maintain Grey’s control over Ana as part of their Dominant and Submissive relationship.

The punishment not only applies to Ana’s defiance in the Playroom (aka Red Room of Pain) but also contravening Christian’s decrees on her eating, exercise, sleep, dress, grooming, relationships and forms of communication. Ana is reluctant to offer her consent to the acts of punishment.

However, even with consent, it is unlikely that the acts would escape lawful punishment based on the level of serious harm and the intimidation that underpins the procurement of Ana’s consent.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens up a minefield on the issues at play in consensual acts of violence and their legal status in and out of the pleasuredome.

See also:
Violence dressed up as erotica: Fifty Shades of Grey and abuse

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If you think newspapers are losing their credibility, take a look at fashion magazines

By Josephine Collins, University of the Arts London

Peter Oborne’s dramatic exit from his role as chief political commentator of The Telegraph has sharpened the focus on editorial credibility. While his resignation and the reasons for it have caused a storm of shocked comment from across the media, the issue is not a new one for the consumer fashion media sector.

As London Fashion Week reaches its climax, it’s a good moment to think about the insidious shift in power from editorial teams to advertising brands. Today, those brands appear to call the shots on a significant part of the product-based editorial offer in all kinds of consumer magazines.

Responding to the Oborne controversy, veteran newsman and editor Harold Evans was exercised by two aspects of the problem. First he talked about the editorial credibility of the media outlet. His view was that the very credibility of editorial content was what sold ads. He was also concerned about the development of native advertising – what we used to call advertising features or advertorials.

What Evans highlighted was the trust that exists between an editorial team and its readers. Readers have loyalty to publications and websites because they are trusted to select relevant information and edit in the interests of the readers and users. While the loyalty is perhaps now diminishing, it is part of the ethical behaviour of trained journalists to behave in a trustworthy manner.

You wonder what fashion magazine readers would think about the credibility of their trusted editorial teams if they knew that front covers were sometimes paid for – that is, the cost of the shoot, not as an advertising rate – by an advertising brand. That same brand would have input into the location, the model, the grooming and the garments. Inside the fashion magazines, stylists now have to make up creative ideas for the storytelling of an editorial shoot – the garments used are frequently dictated by the PRs of the advertisers, often head-to-toe outfits.

Do advertisers call the shots when it comes to fashion mags?.
urbansheep, CC BY-SA

I recently flicked through a fashion mag where the exact same garment combination was used in an ad for a brand and in the so-called editorial shoot. Even in a media world where there is an unwritten deal that advertisers are always covered editorially this seems a step too far.

It is virtually a badge of honour for newspaper fashion writers to be banned from catwalk shows after a bad review for a designer, but the situation of those writing for fashion magazines is different.

Fashion and lifestyle brand advertising revenue is the lifeblood of commercial success for fashion magazines, particularly in an environment of falling circulations. Never able to be critical, consumer fashion mags used to show their disapproval of collections by not including them in their catwalk reports, but now advertisers demand inclusion as part of the “deal”. The threat to withdraw advertising is a strong incentive to make editorial decisions, and readers might find this disconcerting if they knew about the backroom negotiations.

The internet has not helped matters. The number of bloggers who declare their relationship with brands via sponsored posts is increasing. But there are still many who effectively hoodwink their readers into thinking they are giving an objective judgement on product when they have either been gifted product or even been paid for coverage. You’d think the web would improve transparency, but this is far from the case.

Advertisers have always been cherished and “looked after”, so it was perhaps predictable that their power would increase as audiences fragment and readers get used to getting information for free.

Evans’s view may now be considered an old-fashioned one. News UK has, for example, recently set up a division solely to facilitate native advertising across its titles and websites. And guess what? Rather than being lead by someone from the ad team, former Sunday Times Style editor, Tiffanie Darke, takes the helm.

So while commentators continue to chew the cud on the Oborne resignation, fashion writers covering London Fashion Week will be contemplating how critical, if at all, they can be about a collection they hate while anticipating the negotiations ahead on which garments they will be allowed to feature.

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Katy Perry and others popularizing an explosion of wearable tech

Wearable technology means Google Glass or Apple Watch to most. But for a few designers and fashionistas — including Katy Perry — it sometimes refers to skirts, dresses, handbags and suits. Perry became a client of a brand called CuteCircuit after her stylist saw an exhibit featuring its LED-illuminated Galaxy Dress at the Museum of Science… Continue reading

Music teacher sentenced to 11 years in prison as abuse film Whiplash prepares for Oscars

By Ian Pace, City University London

Philip Pickett, a very prominent conductor in the early music world, has been jailed for 11 years for sexually attacking two pupils and a young woman. He carried out the assaults in sound-proofed practise rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abuse in music education is an issue that also currently features in a very different sphere – the Oscars race. Whiplash, nominated for Best Picture at this year’s awards, is is set in the fictional New York Schaffer Conservatory, the setting of which is undoubtedly based upon the Juilliard School (and where the classroom scene is shot). We follow a student jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, as he is driven to the edge by tyrannical teacher Terence Fletcher.

Despite relying on two-dimensional characterisation and implausible scenarios, the film makes some very pertinent points about bullying and the pervasive power games that conservatoires promote.

Recent cases

Abuse of students by teachers is a real problem in music education. The Venezuelan massive music education project El Sistema, once hailed as a social program, has since been described as “a model of tyranny”. In March 2013 Michael Brewer, a former music teacher at Chetham’s school of music was jailed for 6 years after abusing a student who took her own life during the trial; a further teacher at the school (my own conducting teacher there) was jailed for 8 months in September 2014 after admitting to sexually assaulting a student when she was a child.

Various other cases involving teachers from the school await trial at the time of writing. A series of women have come forward to attest to their abuse at the hands of former Director of Music at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the late Marcel Gazelle, while many men came forward too with horrifying stories about the late Alan Doggett, the major conductor for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and former music director at Colet Court School, following investigations by myself and The Times.

I have been involved in as a campaigner and researcher on the subject of abuse in music education for several years. I have chronicled many cases coming to light both before and after the Michael Brewer trial. I am aware of many other allegations, sometimes against very prominent musicians, throughout UK music education but also in the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Russia and elsewhere.

What I have seen, overwhelmingly, from having gone through an elite musical training, working as a professional musician, and also from a large amount of information disclosed privately to me, is a systematic pattern of domination, cruelty, dehumanisation, bullying and emotional manipulation from unscrupulous musicians in positions of unchecked power, of which sexual abuse is one of several manifestations.

Pure fiction?

Compare Whiplash. Terence Fletcher is very much a cartoon villain. He physically assaults and publicly humiliates his students, and fires off homophobic and anti-semitic insults like an unintentional parody of Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese film, or anything scripted by David Mamet.

All of which he justifies (at least outwardly) by the old lie that he is pushing students to get the best results. Any individual acting in such a blatant manner in a US or UK conservatory today would almost certainly face severe disciplinary action very quickly (in Russia or China it might be a different matter).

Few could deny that Fletcher is a vicious bully. The fact that he is a jazz rather than classical teacher, and as such less bound by conventions of bourgeois respectability, may make him superficially more plausible, but I have found that bullying musicians are often more subtle and insidious.

A more devastatingly incisive rendition – the most realistic rendition of the culture of the conservatory I have yet seen on film – is Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of the monstrous Erika in The Piano Teacher. Erika is a bitter and twisted woman utterly unfit for teaching. She uses the language and rhetoric of musical discernment and sophistication to undermine the confidence and sense of self of those she resents and envies.

Despite being somewhat caricature-like, the nature of Fletcher’s power is portrayed with insight. Although his methods might be exaggerated, such abuse of power does regularly occur and the film should not be dismissed as entirely fictional.

Classical conservatoires

It is important to note that the conservatory environment portrayed here belongs historically to classical musicians. While jazz has occasionally been taught in such institutions ever since the first course in Frankfurt in 1928, it has remained marginal until quite recently. Juilliard, for example, first offered jazz courses in 2001 and few big names in jazz – such as Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, both mentioned in the film – had this type of musical education.

Conservatories are still strongly weighted towards classical music, and a large amount of bullying is found in this field, though it is often less obvious than that of Fletcher. Fewer volleying barrages of insults. Instead, I have found that frequently students’ inferiority is insinuated through assertions about their perceived emotional maturity or even level of sexual prowess, on the basis of their playing.

Some use personality stereotypes, based on just a few tawdry attributes, to demean and humiliate the student and flaunt their own power. In earlier times these might be overtly based upon the student’s ethnicity or social background; the difference now is simply that this is implicit rather than clearly stated.

Whiplash’s Fletcher knows just how vulnerable and desperate fledgling musicians are. He exploits this situation. Relationships, friendships or other trappings of a normal life disappear under the weight of naked ambition; other humans matter only to the extent they can further one’s career. The pressure to act in such a manner is very real in advanced musical education.

Budding musician.
Sony

Those who lose out

The rather hollow “victory” achieved at the end of the film by Neiman (in a tour de force of filming as well as playing) could be argued to have legitimised Fletcher’s treatment of him. But the lasting message is not optimistic.

We find out that a former student, Sean Casey, likely hanged himself in response to his treatment by Fletcher. This is far more striking than some of the other implausible and melodramatic plot devices. But Casey was successful, at least in the terms set out here, having found a place playing in Marsalis’s museum-piece concerts.

More important, and ignored in most portrayals of musical education, is the fate of those who do not find success. These people have sacrificed everything else in their lives. Institutions teach significantly more students than could ever find available work. And so alongside the rosters of starry names brandished in conservatories’ publicity material, their legacy is equally to be found in the other alumni who are left bereft and disillusioned.

I know of many cases, some involving those I knew at school or college, in which the legacy of such study has been chronic depression, difficulties with relationships, drink and drug abuse. This is often prompted by the terror and paranoia engendered by repeated psychological, physical or sexual abuse, as well as the cripplingly low self-esteem that can result.

For those of us lucky few who have been able to devote our professional lives to music, many factors beyond supposed talent or natural selection are involved, often beyond one’s personal control.

This throws light on the real inadequacies of both the teachers and the institutional culture. Better results, both personal and musical, could be achieved by a teaching culture founded upon co-operation and mutual support rather than aggressive competition. The learning needs of students must be prioritised above the reputations of teachers. Educational breadth is needed to enable students to flourish as whole people, not just performing machines.

But this will only happen when the musical professions take real steps to reform a brutalising and dehumanising range of practices and attitudes, the justifications for which are no more convincing than those of Fletcher.

At the star-studded Academy Awards, remember that the essence of what is portrayed in Whiplash is very real and has profound effects upon many young musicians.

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