Thursday, September 30, 2010

Editing the World: an evening with Granta editor John Freeman

John Freeman and Maarten Asscher at Spui25, Amsterdam
John Freeman, editor of literary magazine Granta, was invited to give a talk at Spui25, the literary-cultural centre of the University of Amsterdam, on 29 September. The event was moderated by Maarten Asscher, the director of the Athenaeum Boekhandel, an excellent pluridisciplinary, multilingual bookshop in the centre of Amsterdam. 

Freeman is a journalist, book critic and writer from the US, and has written a.o. for the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. Freeman became editor of Granta in 2008, after six years on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He is also the author of The Tyranny of e-mail published in 2009, a book about the challenges of over information and a plea for slow communication.

Maarten Asscher announced in his introduction that the event was, next to a presentation of the magazine's history and its editor's vision, a celebration of issue 112: Pakistan
"It's weird to be here as a guy born in Ohio, who grew up in California, speaking in the Netherlands about a British literary magazine on an issue about Pakistan!" says Freeman, adding how wonderful he finds that the windows of the Athenaeum Boekhandel are full of Granta magazines

The first issue after its rebirth in 1979 (Granta was founded in 1889 by Cambridge students) was on New American Writing. Since then, explains Freeman, Granta has been a cultural space where writers can explore, "We want to publish a piece that doesn't fit elsewhere." When asked why Pakistan? He simply answers "why not?" Granta has already focused on places in past issues: London, Russia, Australia, Chicago... "We are looking for new writers all the time" says Freeman, "and there are many in Pakistan at the moment." 

The cover of the Pakistan issue was painted by bus and truck artist Islam Gull from Karachi. His work was commissioned with the assistance of the local British Council office in Karachi (well done colleagues). 

Freeman very much believes in the magical experience of reading a book, and this experience, he explains, is even stronger today that we are constantly connected to a machine: cell phone, e-reader, computer, TV... But he also mentions that having a print edition actually isn't commercially profitable, "we lose money." Freeman very much acknowledges the necessity of online communication tools to engage with their readers, but seems a strong advocate for print, "bringing an e-reader to bed is just like bringing any electronic appliance to the bedroom, it just doesn't feel right to me. But if people like it, I'm not going to argue against it of course." 

Freeman has a clear vision of what he wants Granta to be: "We need to expand the idea of what a magazine is," he says, "Granta isn't about culture, it is about creating culture." He emphasizes on the important role of editors as advocates for writers and the existence of Granta "to capture the world and present writers who have something to write, a story that only they can write and that rips blood to get published." 

When asked about writing his own book, Freeman confesses "I do miss the research and writing," telling anecdotes about his researches at the New York Public Library. Would he write for Granta? "No, I want to find the best writers in the world" he says passionately, "I don't even write introductions. I want the magazine to sound like a score, with no prelude." 

Economically, Granta can exist thanks to publisher and philanthropist Sigrid Rausing who bought Granta Publications in 2005. When talking about sustainability, Freeman gives marketing strategies as examples, "if it will help us get readers, we do need to think about ads too." However, Asscher does point out that, when compared to Dutch literary magazines that circulate between 300 and 1100 copies, Granta's 55000 is an astronomical number. 

What about the future? Will the digital beat the print version of Granta? "The most likely scenario is that it will be hybrid; some will read the print version and some will read the digital one." Today is a celebration of the print version with its beautiful cover and printed on a quality grained paper, but above all, it is the celebration of good writing. And it is inspiring to listen to such an enthused editor, who is more concerned about the quality of writing than of the format or tools on which we will read good writing now or in the future. 

In the next issues, Granta will have a focus on several themes including: feminism today, the best Spanish speaking writing, aliens, ten years after (9/11),... 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Value the Arts: a National Campaign in the UK

I may not live in the UK, but I do work for a UK organisation and I do manage projects to enable artists from the UK and the Benelux to present their work, and I do facilitate relationships between arts professionals working in these countries and sometimes beyond. And above all this, I love the arts and I believe in the importance of the arts in our lives. I therefore strongly support the Campaign "I Value the Arts", which is run by The National Campaign for the Arts. As it is explained on their website: "The National Campaign for the Arts decided to run this campaign after being approached by members who were concerned that the public had no way to make their views on support for the arts heard." You can find all the necessary information here
Cuts in the arts is not only a huge issue in the UK at the moment but in many other countries including the Netherlands and Belgium. This campaign may be a good example we should all start copying if we do value the arts. This is one way of making one's voice heard, if you have other examples, please do share them. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Early Music Festival in Utrecht

Utrecht just had an intensive ten days festival of French Baroque music during the OudeMuziek Festival. A most wonderful experience if you like early music especially in such an authentic city as Utrecht. Stepping out of a church/concert hall you still feel in the 17th century walking among the canal houses and on the cobbled roads. The music still in your head, you just ignore all the cars and all the modern day things that surround you (yes, okay, you ignore it all and just daydream basically, but the setting helps enormously). 

At the head of this beautiful and the world's largest Early Music Festival is Xavier Vandamme. I know Xavier from BOZAR, when I used to work there a press officer and Xavier was deputy director of BOZAR MUSIC. His programme was already most ambitious and original back then, and I could only but trust his choices for Utrecht. He explains in the introduction to the year programme that the Utrecht Early Music Festival "holds the ambition and the responsibility to be the premier stage for research and creativity in [the] field". He also tells about his focus on French Baroque: "The case of French repertoire - still undervalued or even unknown outside its native country - and its many talented performers is one that Utrecht takes on his pride".

Pandhof, Utrecht
I had the chance to listen to four concerts last Saturday. 

I started the day with La lanterne magique de M. Couperin, a performance by harpsichord player Bertrand Cullier, accompanied by images drawn by stage director and actress Louise Moaty and projected with a magic lantern. Lighted by a few candles, Cullier plays François Couperin under a screen shaped as a moon where Moaty projects her stories: Les Tours de passe-passe, L'Arlequine, Tic-toc-choc, Les Ombres errantes...  and together they created a wonderful dialogue between music and images. 

Jacobiekerk, Utrecht.
This most dreamlike performance was followed by a concert at the Jacobiekerk with Les Agréments, in a programme of opera arias directed by Guy Van Waas and sung by baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot.

Later in the evening was the highlight of the day, with Jean-Marc Andrieu leading his choir and orchestra, Les Passions & Les Eléments, in Gilles' Requiem, inside the Utrecht Dom.

Outside the Dom, Utrecht
The night ended in the Pieterskerk with Swedish soprano Susanne Rydén performing Lalande's Leçons de ténèbres with Paulina van Laarhoven on viola and Karl Nyhlin on lute. They ended their performance most unusually with a contemporary creation. Unfortunately, the programme didn't mention this new work so I can't write its title or even the composer's name (if you happen to know, please leave a comment). 

More Early Music throughout the year
The Festival has ended today, but the concert season of the yearly programme will start in October and run through May 2011, with Early Music concerts in churches, castles and concert halls across the Netherlands and Belgium. My personal highlights are Les Ombres Errantes in November with Ensemble Ausonia, J.S. Bach: Kunst der Fuge in January with Il suonar parlante, including Lorenzo Ghielmi and Fahmi Alqhai, The harpsichord players of Louis XIV with Aurélien Delage in Februari, the Trio Hantaï in March and Gustav Leonhardt in April. 

More information can be found on