Antithesis is pleased to welcome a new blog contributor: Harriet Cunningham.
Harriet Cunningham is a freelance writer, journalist and musician best known as classical music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. She is currently studying for a DCA at the University of Technology, Sydney, writing a collection of short stories inspired by the archives of Dartington International Summer School of Music. In a previous life she was a copywriter, arts administrator and arts marketing expert and has been known to play the violin.
We hope you enjoy Truth and Fiction and Archives.
I’ve been working with the archive of the Summer School of Music, a festival held at Dartington Hall since 1953. My father built the archive from the ground up, from public and private collections, and now I’m sitting on the floor in his study, surrounded by boxes, story-hunting. Examining this archive is a rich experience because Dartington is a big part of who I am.
Every summer my family would spend four magical weeks there. The photos and letters drip with significance and I am here to coax some stories out of this archive. My first story is set in 1957, the year when Igor Stravinsky – one of the great iconoclasts of the twentieth century – came to visit. I’ve found some wonderful resources: autobiographies and a gossipy diary; photos showing the great man sporting sunglasses and a beret; programs and running sheets and even a shopping list. I find myself hearing conversations with the angular, ascetic chords of Stravinsky’s music in the background. The words pour out onto the page, and it’s colourful and rambling but something is not quite right. Why doesn’t it work as a story?
The answer lies somewhere within the torrid relationship between archives and historical fact. I must step back and observe how the archive affects me and how that conflicts with storytelling.
First up, my response to the period-feel of many elements in the archive. The contrast between then and now is, simply, beguiling – all those 1950s fashions and the ever-so-English speech. Does this fondness for the past, however, become an indulgence? Is my inclusion of period details adding a zing of period-colour? Or is it just historical point-scoring? I think it’s the latter.
Second, a narrative is more than a collection of facts spliced together. It needs to be curated. I have already made up conversations, attributed emotions to characters for which I cannot possibly claim a documentary source. I can, in fact, I should leave things out for the sake of the story. It’s time to kill some darlings and not just words.
Third, I need to be honest about the voices which I am splicing together. The many anecdotes are only moments in time, captured and packaged and retold from a distance. So, too, are the photos – intensely evocative, full of clues, but just another captured moment. My narrative is one more layer of artifice.
My starting point was naive fascination. My endpoint, I hope, is to bring some meaning to what I’ve found. It’s time to step away, to stop stumbling on the detail and instead hear the overarching message. I go to Stravinsky’s music and, in particular, the music that was played in the summer of ’58, which included a staged performance of The Soldier’s Tale. It’s a work close to my heart with its catchy, jagged rhythms. I can still feel that shiver down my spine as the devil enters to claim the soldier’s soul. So now I listen to the music. I listen to Stravinsky’s voice as recorded by his assistant, Robert Craft. I begin to hear a story.
It’s not the story of a soldier who sells his soul to the devil. It’s the story of an artist and a man, living in troubled times, torn between art and reality, between beauty and truth. Stravinsky does not suffer fools. He tells it how it is. And yet he is an artist, filtering reality through his imagination to try and make something beautiful, something meaningful. It’s that juxtaposition between beauty and truth that I will try to capture in my story – what might have been and what was. The story has moved a long way from dog-eared photos and jolly anecdotes. It makes no claims to contain the whole historical truth. But there are shards of truth tucked in there, all wrapped up in what I hope is a rattling good yarn.