"Seeing is less spontaneous and natural than we tend to think... a large part of seeing depends on habit and convention." John Berger, Ways of Seeing.
Of the overwhelming number of comments on my last post, most wisely suggested that I should start by making an initial connection, a bridge between me and each alien composition I face. Joining a choir, following along with the sheet music, or asking for to a grandparent's favourites... it struck me that what we're really discussing is ways of listening. And, ultimately, whether we have lost our way from the art of listening.
So for this post, I thought I would do some time travelling back to moments when I have forged lifetime connections with a piece of music, to dissect the special nature of those listening experiences.
Music is like that, isn't it? Everyone has a song or three that sent a thunderbolt through them as soon as they heard it. From that point on it contributes to a living soundtrack to our lives: the beat to summon on a long run, or the lyrics to mutter in a traffic jam...
It happened to me at 11, cross-legged on my single bed, listening to Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone on a borrowed cassette. (A brief aside: this blog will only work if I'm entirely honest, admitting to 'mainstream' tastes or to liking 'low-brow' classical music should that prove the case. Don't get narky. It'll only frighten me off further and confirm my fears of classical's snooty scene).
What was it about the song that electrified me and still does? It didn't feel comfortable, being electrified, but it was intensely enlivening. It heightened my senses. From the moment I pressed play, things were hurling violently towards me. Piano keys pounded, words spat out: tramps, money, class, an accusatory "Didn't you?" aimed square at me in the first 15 seconds. It forced me to question my place in a rotten world in a way that words unaccompanied by music could not have done: "how does it feel?"
I'd also never know music to concertina out through time and space all at once: memoir, folklore (jugglers and clowns, princesses in steeples), social history (the 60s protest movement)... Yet always that direct message to me again: 'how does it feel?'
All of which leads me to the above clip of Stephen Fry defending the relevance of classical music.
What struck me was the bit about the concerto, which he helpfully explains is a piece of music in which a solo instrument contends with a full orchestra. He suggests a way of listening to any concerto: as an argument between an individual and the state. "It is an individual voice, crying out and trying to make a statement of some kind. And it's often drowned out by the orchestra and it fights back, and the orchestra fights back, and it fights back... And the dynamic of listening to that is like nothing on earth... It blows your mind."
Doesn't that sound like Like a Rolling Stone? An individual voice, fighting against a malign culture? So here goes... my listening experiment, without recourse to Wikipedia searches or blurb (which would spoil the whole listening experiment, wouldn't it?)
This is the first movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor and wow - doesn't that first, brutal stroke of the cello's bow push you impolitely into the centre of an emotional storm. And doesn't the cello's melancholia seem extremely, strikingly modern? Unaccompanied, it has an almost folk-like directness to rival the Dylan.
And the cello's theme: fighting against the might of the orchestra, rising then flailing, then rising again with a desperate urgency that leaves you heart-in-mouth... As a structural device, it's not a million miles away from the mounting brutality of Dylan's "how does it feel's".
This rhythm has an almost hypnotic effect. Before I knew it I was that same concertina space again, where all time, space and the universe seem to dilate in your pupil. With the benefit of hindsight and Wikipedia I can now see this may have something to do with the fact that Elgar made his first notes for the concerto while emerging from a post-operative, drug-induced haze while Dylan, safe to assume, was doing his own prescribing.
But adopting Fry's way of listening, (the idea of individual vs society), modern day Syrian freedom fighters were summoned in the imagination, then our First World struggle against the conformity of the globalised, franchised world. Yet all the while, you're aware that this music was written at the beginning of the last century: our own circumstances might be new but our frustrations are eternal.
So did it move me? Yes. It did. Intensely. In places, though not across the whole, as much as Like a Rolling Stone did that morning 16 years ago. But here's the thing. I got it wrong. Reading up after the experiment, I learnt that the piece isn't about an individual's struggle against a malign society, but about grief for and loss of a way of life in the aftermath of the First World War.
So does it matter? If you listen to a piece of music and hear something far removed from the intentions with which it was crafted, have you listened wrong? Have you not listened carefully enough, and missed key pointers along the way? That's the topic for the next blog post, where my late Welsh grandfather, a commentor on the first post and (apologies to those waiting for him) the maverick pianist James Rhodes will all meet.
And in the meantime, I leave you with a far more authoratitive interpretation of a piece of classical music. This time, Bizet's Carmen:
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