A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 15 November 2013

Music And Silence

I love music and can't imagine life without it. It's in my family: my father was chapel organist, my spinster aunt played songs from the Sankey hymn book rambunctiously on an out-of-tune piano with yellowing keys and built-in brass candlesticks, and sang along in a mellow contralto voice. From a young age I took piano lessons. I studied music at school and sang in the school choir.

In my mid-teens I embraced the rock and roll revolution: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and the music of the American West Coast hippie scene: Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, the Byrds, Jackson Browne, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead. And soon, after undergoing a Damascene conversion on hearing the fourth movement of Brahms's First Symphony, I was devouring classical music: Bach's Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy.

Live music transported me most of all: the Bach Passions in Lincoln Cathedral, a touring Fairy Queen by Purcell, the keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson sticking knives into his synthesiser during a memorable performance of ELP's much-maligned Tarkus at Sheffield City Hall.

Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen live. Folk and jazz clubs in the UK and Ireland. Keith Tippett and Julie Driscoll in a tiny underground club in Frankfurt. Thin Lizzy during a drugs bust. Breton roots music in a French village. A lone Scottish bagpiper in a remote Scottish glen. Nigel Kennedy playing demonic violin in Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall. Lots of memories, lots of events — too many to mention.

And yet . . .  and yet . . . the older I get, the more I'm drawn to silence. And the more I prefer real, live music to canned, digitised, homogenised music. Yes, I do listen to the radio, and I listen to CDs and MP3s and watch YouTube. But I'm always glad the 'off' button is there; and when I press it, it's usually with relief.

You see, I just don't believe that music should be a permanent backing track to our lives. Or I don't want it for my own life, at any rate. It's inexplicable to me how we have to endure music not-of-our-own-choosing in restaurants, lifts, taxis, shopping centres. And I find it unfathomable how many people can't walk, jog, do exercise, sit on a train, drive a car or wait at a bus stop without constantly being plugged in to an endless shuffle of musical fodder.

Yes, give me the silence — or rather the near-silence, for silence is never completely silent. There's always stuff happening, which somehow defines the silence — rather soothing things, like the drip of a tap, the cough of a passer-by, the creak of a gate, the wind in the trees, the river running over stones, the world slowly turning on its axis. Ok, and the sound of the cat being sick too. All music to my ears.


Friko said...

Having permanent muzak dripping into my ears is my idea of hell.
Music must be chosen, suit the mood of the moment, when one is open to listen with heart and soul, not just ears.

And yes, how much more often I now want to listen to nothing but silence; the human voice chattering away to no purpose is quite as bad, and unwanted, by the way.

Ruth said...

Yes. Yes!

My background in music is a lot like yours. Mom was pianist and piano teacher, choir director, etc. Lots of music in our house. But I prefer silence, and have most of my life.

Love the post, especially the last paragraph, with its evocative sounds. I was outside the other morning, it was dark. I heard at least four different kinds of birds waking up, chirping. Cars driving by. Wind in the bamboo. Cat trying to get into the hot tub with me, scratching the surface of my consciousness.

Bonnie said...

........ :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Mine too, Friko! I agree profoundly with all you say.

Ruth — oh, those ordinary, day-to-day sounds, listened to with mindful awareness. You can't beat it.

Thanks for visiting, Bonnie!

Nick said...

The only place I ever came across real silence was in the evening in the sand desert in southern Arabia - and it was incomparably beautiful. It spoke louder than music.

Loren said...

Maybe that's why I loved 5 day backpacks in the wilderness (and resented the sound of jets flying high overhead so much).

I never use headphones when walking outside, but for some reason find them necessary when walking around a short track at the club.

Dominic Rivron said...

I've just been blogging on a similar theme - of how we hear more music, probably, than we used to, but that we tend to actually listen to less.

I think there is a time for silence and a time for music. For the last year or so I've consciously embraced silence. Since my job is about making music I decided that, when not working, I wanted more in the way of silence. Having spent a year or so taking this approach, though, I've gone back to listening to (as opposed to just "hearing") music more. I thought a period of more silence was doing me good - it probably did, but I've recently decided I'd missed listening music more than I'd realised.

George said...

A great and insightful post, Robert. My strongest complaint is against the recorded music that I am forced to bear as I wait on the phone for another human being whose services I need.

My favorite time of the day is early morning, just after sunrise, when I sit in the stillness of a quiet room with nothing but a cup of coffee, my dog, and perhaps a book of poetry. Often, I leave the book untouched and simply bask in the silence, knowing that what I need to hear is best heard here, far from the jingle jangle that will soon envelop the day.

The Solitary Walker said...

Lovely comment, Nick…

… and thanks for your observations, Loren…

Dominic: yes, I've read and enjoyed your recent posts. I like your distinction between 'listening to' and 'just hearing' music.

I couldn't agree more about muzak over the phone when you're 'on hold', George. Your final paragraph prompted my latest post.