January 24, 2014 7:15 pm

Stirred, not shaken

‘Shaken is a process that comes from outside; stirring starts within and moves outward’

I’m not sure whether the famous instruction given by James Bond to have his dry martini “shaken, not stirred” ever had any meaning, except as a shibboleth of style. The point was that a man as suave and murderous as Bond would know exactly how to have his martini mixed.

Even in purely mixological terms, one could take issue with Bond’s preference. Shaking a cocktail is a rather violent process; spirits experts have pointed out that shaking will “bruise” a delicate gin. But Bond was prophetic: these days we prefer to be shaken – subjected to violent sensation – rather than stirred to the core of our being.

For proof, you don’t need to look further than the hugely successful generation of British artists led by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, with the Chapman Brothers and Sarah Lucas in close pursuit.

In contrast, Steve McQueen, a one-time practitioner of Britart (and winner of the 1999 Turner Prize) has metamorphosed into a fine film-maker. I went to see McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave without expectations – possibly also out of a sense of duty, not necessarily thinking I would enjoy it.

Its impact was tremendous and transformative. My partner Ching Ling and I came out almost literally speechless, able to form words but not really to make sense. The idea of going home to cook the supper we’d prepared seemed impossible. We had to stay for a while where we were, gradually letting the emotional weight of the film sink in.

12 Years doesn’t pull punches when it comes to violence but nor does it dwell unnecessarily on horror and gore. Its impact is felt most strongly in quiet passages, especially when the camera lingers on the wonderfully expressive features of Chiwetel Ejiofor. The most awful moments, perhaps, are when we see such a strong human being coming close to despair, as in his smashing of his violin or the burning of the first letter he has so painstakingly written to his family, its last embers picked out in the darkness like a distant, fading constellation.

The final scene of reunion is shattering not because of any crowd-pleasing eloquence or rhetoric but because the actors and director so powerfully convey the sense of awkwardness, of the impossibility of finding the right words to say.

To begin to attempt some definitions, you might say that being shaken is a process that comes from outside, and may well remain external, whereas stirring starts from within and moves outward. The best response to being shaken might be to put up maximum defences, to batten down the hatches as you would do sailing through a storm. The hope is to come through intact, not changed.

For stirring to work, the object stirred must allow itself to be entered and penetrated by an external force, and that goes as much for a cocktail as a human being. If an artwork is to stir a human being, it must find a way into the heart. For the recipient, that implies a willingness to be vulnerable. When we say that something is poignant, we mean that we let ourselves be pierced by it.

The other day, driving through the suburbs, I found myself stirred by a piece of music. It was music I knew well – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity from Beethoven’s string quartet in A minor op 132. I stopped the car and went on listening, and thought I had never heard the music played with more intensity or commitment, or heard it sound more poignant. Of course, the all-Jewish Amadeus string quartet knew about terrible cruelty and the survival of human dignity. They played Beethoven as if their lives depended on it because, in a deep sense, that was true. (Three of its four members were forced from Vienna in 1938 by the Anschluss.)

Claudio Abbado, the great Italian conductor who died on Monday, also played music as if his life depended on it and, in some sense, it did. He survived a series of terrible operations for cancer and continued conducting for the last 10 years of his life as a somewhat gaunt, emaciated-looking figure but one of quiet strength and spiritual authority.

I was lucky enough to attend a rehearsal at Lucerne in August 2012 with Abbado leading his handpicked Lucerne Festival Orchestra through Bruckner’s first symphony with no histrionics and, indeed, very few words. Abbado’s quiet way was to encourage players to listen to each other, to open up to each other, so that the power of the music would come through, not dictated by an arm-waving maestro, but from within. A member of the London Symphony Orchestra recalled this week that players were sometimes moved to tears during his performances; so also listeners.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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