THE ARTS CULTURAL DINNER
The moving and special Remembrance Day Service was followed up by a hugely successful Cultural Dinner at which the contributions of boys and staff were commemorated. Unusually, the event took place at the Art School, a very appropriate space in which to stage this annual event. Special thanks to Mrs van Zuydam and Mrs Salamon for the food, décor and ambience that these two worthy women were able to create.The Art school with its space, different levels and artworks proved to be an inspired choice of venue and allowed for movement and performers to operate with freedom. The guest speaker was Patrick Harty, no stranger to Hilton College or to culture and he spoke quite beautifully about why one needs culture in a school and in the world.
A delicious 3-course meal with a distinctly Eastern influence was interspersed by various cultural interludes. Nthato Padi got the ball rolling with a rendition of Hometown Glory which was beautifully performed. After the main course, just to show that the staff are also adept and gifted in their fields, new Music Teaching recruit, Michael Tonkin entertained the diners with his song……. After the dessert, Siphe Sibiya and Stuart Hagger then performed a piece from Johnny Boskak to rapturous applause from the enthusiastic diners. All the different components of our cultural fields were on display during the evening: Public Speaking, Visual Arts, Dramatic Arts and Music. The event was a fitting conclusion to a hugely successful year in the cultural realm of the school. I would like to pay tribute to all the teachers for their huge input in the cultural domain and to the matric leavers who were this year quite extraordinary. They leave behind a legacy which will be a hard act to follow.
A copy of the address by Patrick Harty
This is a cultural evening, so let’s think briefly about what culture is. And then let’s give some thought why culture, or the arts, can be regarded as important at school and in the world at large.
There would appear to be two uses of the term if one excludes the petri dish in the biology laboratory.
- Broadly the customs, institutions and achievements of a particular group, people or nation
- The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement
The second is what we are concerning ourselves with tonight.
What is it about humans and the human activities we broadly call the arts? No other creature on the planet does these things. We talk of birdsong and birds of paradise performing elaborate mating dances but these terms are merely useful for us in describing what is in fact purely instinctive behaviour. Singing, either on its own, or accompanied by instruments, is, on the face of it, a bizarre form of behaviour. It’s certainly not necessary to the efficient discharge of our daily existence. But can one imagine Cardiff Arms Park without Cwm Rhondda, church without hymns and songs, a shopping centre without Boney M treating to us their own special take of Mary’s Boy Child at Christmas (actually, imagining a shopping centre without Boney M is a situation one can only devoutly wish for, but I digress). Can one imagine a country without its national anthem? It seems that group music making – we can think of the gamelan orchestras of Bali, the Chopi xylophone ensembles of Mozambique (which accompany elaborate dance drama rituals) and the extraordinary development of the symphony orchestra – is a widespread human phenomenon.
Activities which we would call art or culture are what identify us as human and they go back a long way. The Europeans get very excited about their paintings in the caves at Lascaux in France which are about 17 000 years old. But right here in S Africa (where, after all, the human story began) in the Blombos cave on the S Cape coast, ochre geometric patterns on rock have been discovered which could be as old as 100 000 years, and represent the earliest example yet known of human artistic activity. Interpretations of similar paintings around the world, together with discoveries of artefacts such as prehistoric bone flutes, all suggest early groupings of humans developing and participating in rituals involving music and dance and the growing ability to think metaphysically. When one thinks of a hunter- gatherer group performing rituals of music, dance and drama before the hunt or prior to an attempt to repel the unwelcome incursion onto their turf of a rival group, a sports stadium where two opposing teams line up to sing their respective anthems in front of a chanting, singing, flag- and Mexican-waving crowd seems validly analogous. All this ritualistic music, dance and drama demanded from our ancestors what has evolved into another human characteristic – that of co-operation. Despite our lamentably warlike history we are also an intensely social species which has developed an extraordinary capacity for co-operation – the glue which enables our various societies to exist. A large Romantic symphony orchestra may comprise 90 individuals who come together in a spirit of utter co-operation despite being highly skilful individuals in their own right. The evidence would seem to suggest that artistic activity is genetically hardwired into us
We all know that the world is changing at a rate faster than ever before and that this change is led by the digital revolution. The digital revolution is wonderful – Mr Durnford called me regarding this evening on a cellular telephone; I typed this talk on a word processor and was able to print it out; while typing I could simultaneously flip into a truly extraordinary world called the internet to check virtually instantly on the age of the Lascaux cave paintings … and on and on it goes. Change is good – the opposite is stagnation. The only constant in life is change. But this change is proceeding exceptionally quickly when compared to other great revolutions in human history such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The agricultural revolution changed humanity irrevocably and set it on its modern trajectory but we were still essentially tied to the natural slow cycle of the seasons. 10 000 years later and the industrial revolution has pushed us forward at a previously unimaginable rate over the last 300 years albeit with terrible social consequences. Millions were forced into cramped, unsanitary conditions in factory towns and most of humanity has been permanently wrenched from the slow rhythms of agriculture. But the digital revolution puts both these in the shade with regard to the speed with which it is unfolding.
There is no doubt that this has had some negative consequences for society. Let’s think about you at school in 2016 as opposed to those of us of more mature years who were at school in years past. It’s true that puberty and the awkward hormonal changes of teenage years remain the same. But there is no doubt that the pressures of school and social pressures compounded by social media platforms have greatly intensified the levels of stress faced by contemporary teenagers. There are researchers who attribute at least some of modern humanity’s manifold psychological problems to the disjunct between our modern lives where things happen so quickly – from information retrieval to international jet travel – and our internal evolutionary state which is still matched to much slower natural cycles.
However, if humans have been artistically expressive for 100 000 years and quite possibly longer than that, tapping into this legacy and enabling people to practise this human trait could very well be very good for us. I heard a radio interview the other day in which the interviewer asked a musician just what it was that drove him musically. The musician professed not to know but simply recognised that it was an integral driving force in his life. Mrs Moira Lovell, recently retired head of English at TWC, who lived in McKenzie House for many years - her husband was housemaster and subsequently second master – is about to have her fourth anthology of poetry published and often speaks about the imperative to write. Why is an artist itchy-fingered at the sight of a clean white canvas or sheet of paper? Why do so many people find themselves unable to keep still at the sound of music? What made Igor Stravinsky, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, to create a ballet around an ancient pagan Russian rite marking the arrival of spring, every year, after the merciless Russian winter? The extraordinary score produced by Stravinsky which used pounding, irregular rhythms as a structural basis horrified Parisian audiences in 1913 but soon worked its way into human consciousness where it has been atavistically welcomed ever since.
The arts slow us down because they require time. Expressive arts such as music and drama exist in the medium of time and unless one is prepared to set aside the time they require they cannot exist. There is no quick fix to playing the saxophone. You can download How to Read Music and The Alto Saxophone for Dummies in an instant but the only way you’ll ever become a half-reasonable player is going to entail hours of solitary, dedicated practice over years. A play must be rehearsed again and again as the word rehearse suggests until it is ready for performance – there is no magic wand for getting a production stage-worthy. Michelangelo spent four years on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Practice of the arts grounds us and draws us back in some way to the rhythms of the cycles of the universe which formed us. Surely, therefore, practice of the arts must be a healthy and natural activity.
I could tell you why the practice of music, for example, is good for you – it’s mathematical, it’s an international language, it opens up one’s own cultural history and cultures foreign to one, it’s physical education with all the fine motor demands it makes on performers. And all those things are are true. But that’s not why musicians make music – musicians and painters and sculptors and writers and dancers all practise their arts because they just feel driven by some fundamental imperative to do so. That’s why culture at school and in the world is important – it evolved as something quintessentially human and anybody denied a cultural experience at school is hugely unfortunate – indeed, tragically disadvantaged.
I was a boarder at Maritzburg College in the early 1970’s. Life was bleak – the place was essentially culturally barren. In my matric year Wykeham School asked College to collaborate in a musical production – the first which had happened at the school in 20 years. When I arrived to teach at Hilton in 1986 a few colleagues hastened to assure me that had I been at Hilton as a schoolboy at that time things would have been not much different.
But the leading schools in SA have changed and much for the better. I remember meetings of the Drama committee here at Hilton where staff scrabbled for places on the calendar to produce plays – so healthy was drama at the school that it was relatively easy to motivate the construction of the Theatre behind the Centenary Centre. Arts programmes are unfortunately expensive – music is nearly always a loss leader in schools. Today, however, none of the top-ranked (for which read wealthy) schools in SA could seriously market themselves without respectable art, music and drama programmes. And even if the covert motivations for this are to attract pupils, and are therefore economic, the effect remains beneficial. So you are fortunate to be here at a school like this one.
Perhaps you’ve grown tired of hearing at school how much you ought to be grateful – all that ‘of those to whom much has been given, much will be expected’ stuff – but that doesn’t make any of it less true. Please remember that the vast majority of S African schoolchildren are denied almost any meaningful participation in the arts at all. I can think of four high schools in a rural valley not far from here where the poverty of any form of artistic expression is dire. Not even do choirs, which need only that cheapest and universally possessed musical instrument, the voice, exist.
So be thankful. Be grateful for the opportunities to participate in cultural activities which are a fundamental part of our humanity. And thank you to all of you who through those activities are entertaining us so well this evening.