Music as a cultural badge

Choir 1964

 Is the music you listen to, in any way, part of a desire to reaffirm your belonging in certain social circles or movements, separate from anything to do with how it actually sounds? 

for Alice Zawadzki

They used to say that when you bought a new Volvo Estate, it came with The Four Seasons already loaded into the CD player. The Vivaldi validated the social step up you were supposed to have taken by buying the car… Of course music is used to affirm one’s belonging to a social group; it always has been. Consciously or unconsciously, what you play or choose to hear can define your affiliations and tastes, and your attitude to others. It can be a mating cry or a private property notice; an invitation to join the dance, or a warning to keep your distance.

In my own case… well now, you can start this sort of thing as early as you like, with moocows and nicens baby tuckoo as in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; but for now let’s  just rewind the inner tape to one day in 1963 or 64, when I was about ten. The organist and choirmaster of the parish church, tall, bald, with aquiline hooked nose and intimidating half moon specs for glaring over, swooped into my primary school, recruiting not girls but boys only for the choir. I have a vague image of several of us standing up short-trousered by an upright piano and coo-coo-cooing something- scales, perhaps. I must have been judged to be in some way satisfactory, for I was invited to join.

I remember that I didn’t particularly want to, but somehow- with a parental push, perhaps- I went along to a practice one night: and that was that. Being a choirboy in those days was a fairly time consuming- though, to a boy- well paid business: an introduction to the lure of the brown paper envelope. Ten shillings a half term, was it? I can’t recall now. There were practices for us lads on Thursday and Friday evenings- the Men came on Fridays to whine, howl, and bark alto, tenor and bass- and on Sunday there was Parish Communion at 9.15, Matins at 11.00, and Evensong at 6.00; also weddings, for which one was paid an extra 2/6d- that’s 22 and a half p in today’s money, my son- the price of an Airfix Spitfire or Messerschmitt.

spitfire      RAF or LUFTWAFFE?Messerschmitt

So on a Saturday afternoon you’d sit ruffed and surpliced, listen to Linden Lea or the air from the Water Music, stare wonderingly at these two who were actually going to Do It, sing about the olive branches round about their table, (ea sunt their future children) then get on your bike with Mendelssohn or Widor still ringing in your ears to spend your half a crown at the model shop. The rest of the day was all plastic parts and the heady fumes of polystyrene cement; we knew glue long before the sniffers-out of health and safety issues got round to banning its sale to minors.

So I got to know Hymns Ancient and Modern and the Oxford Psalter fairly well- and that was going to pay off later because they opened literature to me. But at the time it was the combination of this poetry, inane and exalted, with organ music that really seduced me. The baldly glaring organist, who, let’s not be coy about it, might not have been above a little seduction of his own if he’d had the chance, was adept at colouring the verses we sang with dramatic stop combinations; and played much of the standard repertoire of organ music as voluntaries before and after the services. It was through all this that church music (meaning Anglican parish church music and organ music) reported for duty as my personal cultural badge or label and was duly adopted as such.

But! You will object with incredulity- but surely- this was the like sixties? And you must’ve like heard the Beatles and, and the, the like Stones? Yes indeed, and the like of all the other like (Oh God) groovy bands who were comprehensively damned as long-haired groaners, moaners, and lefty corrupters of youth by all the authority figures in my life save none… I protest that I cannot be blamed… in those days, you see… Popular music- to get the pronunciation right you must purse the lips, clench the nostrils and slowly shake the head for maximum scorn- was inevitably the soundtrack to scandalous parties which meant girls or Gurls (we grammar school boys were sexual Molesworths coo gosh ur) but it was the Gitanes-throated sensuality of  je t’aime moi non plus rather than the adenoidal sentimentality of the Merseybeaters that did the trick for me. Yes, of course I liked pop music (the Cavern Club was only twelve miles away, for heaven’s sake) but I didn’t define myself by it. Or not the part of myself which I was prepared to acknowledge.

Party 1970 West Kirby

Je t’aime is, of course, primarily about fucking; as is, if we are honest, a very high percentage of (clench nostrils) “popular music” in general. As a teenager, one could and did use music as a symbol of the fucking or lack of fucking in one’s fucking life. But it wasn’t long before the straightforwardly rutting four-four analogy of copulation characteristic of the rock’n’rollers began to look pretty limp beside, for example, the athletic sado-eroticism of the danse sacrale which as it were finishes off the Rite of Spring, or the excruciatingly accurate transcription of orgasm in the closing pages of Der Rosenkavalier. One’s adolescent self could scarcely have known, but perhaps somehow dimly hoped, that there was more to sex than the two or three guilty minutes of in-out in-out-pop which Pop presented as the end of all our exploring. Thank you, Mr Eliot.

However, the Beatles did represent something to me. One of the lads in the church youth group thought it would be a good idea to spend Easter with the Iona community. I knew him quite well- he was a great party-giver, and I’d spent a ridiculous amount of time at his house drinking awful beer (“Party Seven” if you want to know- anyone remember that?) and looking hopelessly or hopefully at impossibly attractive girls and wondering how you got to Do whatever it was you Did with them- and he was also religious. More than I was, as it turned out, but that’s another rucksackful of guilt. So off we went up North, by train, boat and thumb, eventually arriving on the island in time for a retreat which turned out to be no retreat at all but rather a hell of an advance. After noticing at the Easter service that the first five notes of Now the Green Blade Riseth were the same as the first five notes of Ave Maris Stella I was into composing mode, and remember the idea of writing a violin sonata coming to me, as, on the beach, I watched three girls dance in the sea- well, watched one of them in particular. Here comes the sun, da-da-da-da: the Beatles song was on their lips, but plainchant, French Carols and Mahler’s Song of the Earth were in my head.

Iona 1970, Here comes the sun3

O Schonheit, O liebens-lebens trunkener Welt, I thought, hearing that passage from Das Lied as a tangible representation of what I was feeling or thought I was feeling at the time. Go on, look it up. Last movement.

Years later, after the Welsh Magic I mention in previous posts had got hold of me, I came back to the same archetypal image in a text for a song cycle I wrote called LLeoed (Places)

 Y Ferch Ddawnsio

Cant gwylanod: Arc! Erc!Tri chwarc am ferch
Syn canu a dawnsio yn y môr!
Neidio o lawenydd, mae hi mor llawen a’r gog!
Ga’ i ddawnsio gyda chi?
I ffwrdd a hi, fel y gwynt!

The Dancing Girl

Seagulls sing: Ark! Erk! Three quarks for the girl
Singing and dancing in the sea!
Jumping for joy, she’s as happy as a cuckoo!
Can I dance with you?
Away she goes, like the wind!

When I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist I recognised the archetype there: it’s in Faust too, of course, where the Homunculus dashes himself to pieces at the feet of Venus or Aphrodite as she’s drawn from the sea by dolphins (see Botticelli Birth of Venus) The point is, I think, that here there was a picture of the ideal feminine which, for the first time, I could get hold of imaginatively. Imaginatively, mark you, getting hold of her in reality was beyond me. This is significant, of course. The course of true love never did run smooth: but then this wasn’t true love, was it? Wasn’t love at all. It had to do with sexual energy emerging into the adolescent mind.

And so? The musical symbolism. My wretched violin sonata in E minor was not primarily a piece of music. It was a symbol of how I felt my emotions worked at that stage. A cryptic message about my emotional life. Musically it was not completely incompetent, but it was a dead end because it wasn’t really about itself- in the sense that something like a Beethoven sonata movement is self-referential. It didn’t develop. Each element of it “stood for” something else. It took me years to understand how music might actually develop- or even what development meant- and by then it was far, far too late. The ironic thing is that I don’t think I really understood how to compose until I’d given up composing- which was many years later! So it was with other pieces of music. Girlfriend trouble? I saw my lady weep. Thank you, Mr Dowland. Relationship over? … Wotan’s farewell. No, I was no Wotan, but she wasn’t much of a Brunhilde, either. Music could provide an external focus for emotion, give some kind of substance to things unseen. It could be a resonant backdrop to the stage on which the marionettes of imagination moved. And later, even as late as my undergraduate music course, David Lumsdaine’s Aria for Edward John Eyre could function as a dynamic symbol of the process of musical composition itself. I even responded to this with an orchestral composition of my own: Waiting for Rain.

So: are you prepared to let music be itself, and not recruit it as a party flag, aid to daydreaming, or an emotional prop? If you are prepared to do this- to acknowledge that it isn’t primarily about you– then you must give the music your full attention: not talking or texting, dancing or drinking, not making notes- on paper or mentally- just being open to the musical argument unfolding. Now this is only worthwhile or indeed possible if there is a purely musical/poetic discourse to follow. Obviously in some genres (liturgical music, dance music, film music) the actual sounds carry and enable non-musical meaning.  But- and it’s a big one- you actually can’t hear some music as the composer intended if there are distractions. Even visual distractions: someone in a hot concert hall fanning themselves with a programme, or a conductor who allows his beat to go “upside-down.” If the expression “classical music” means anything at all, it describes an art form whose expressive language is organised sound, and sound alone. In the very strictest sense of this definition, this omits much of what we generally think of as classical music: of course there’s chatter during opera, and audiences in the past were vocal in their approval, even calling for movements to be encored.

But then we have to accept that in the “strictly classical” music of the late 20th century the organisation of the purely sonic extended to all the parameters of sense: Stockhausen and Cage… consider Aus dem sieben Tagen or 4’33”… my admiration for these compositions is certainly “part of a desire to reaffirm my belonging in certain social circles or movements, separate from anything to do with how it actually sounds” because “how it actually sounds” isn’t the point any more. Ah well, perhaps that’s enough for one post. Watch this space.

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