Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Life's Soundtrack

Having portable recorded music as we do has created a phenomenon unknown in the days before the invention of sound recording and cinema. I'm talking about the way a piece of music can become the soundtrack to life. The other day I was sitting by the sea in the Welsh village of Borth y Gest. A number of sailing boats were anchored close to where I sat. In the distance, across the estuary, I could see the ornamental lighthouse that marks the western-most tip of Portmeirion. I was listening to some music by Michael Tippett. The location and the music seemed to fit together in an uncanny way.

Was it simply that I was listening to a piece of music I like in a place that I like? It certainly helped, but it is also the case that mid-20th Century British music often reminds me of the sea. A lot of it was written with the sea in mind: Britten's Peter Grimes, Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony and so on. Then there are all the black-and-white British war films (The Cruel Sea, for example) set in the Atlantic with scores written by the likes of Alan Rawsthorne. (You know the sort of thing: officers on the bridge in their duffle-coats, scanning the horizon through their binoculars for U-boats in between swigging from mugs of tea).

I had a similar musical experience about a year ago, at the seaside, not far from Dover. I was standing at the top of a cliff, looking out over the Channel. The light had an enchanting quality about it: the tankers and freighters in the distance seemed to be floating in a luminous blue pool. I was immediately reminded of Debussy's La Mer and then realised that Debussy had in fact written that quintessentially French work in Eastbourne, a short ride down the coast from where I stood.

How does the mind associate what we see with what we hear? Of course, the process can be very straightforward: the association of our surroundings with a particular piece or style of music can simply arise from past experience, or common usage, as with any other mental association. Hence, I associate The Velvet Underground with Manchester and Bebop jazz with Scottish mountains. However, I find when driving on the motorway that if I listen to say, the structurally repetitive music of Steve Reich, it draws my attention to the repetitive structures of the road. Listening to Beethoven, on the other hand, draws my attention to organic structures, such as the trees on the side of the road.

If this experience is typical, then our brains are clearly interested in the structure of music in time in much the same way as they are interested in the physical structure of our environment in space. Goethe seemed to think so, and went so far as to describe architecture as “frozen music”. In the 20th Century, the Greek mathematician, architect and composer Iannis Xenakis actually produced buildings which were precisely that. Or were his pieces “thawed out” architecture? I suppose it depends which way you look at -or listen to- them.


The Solitary Walker said...

Interesting piece, Dominic. I go through periods of listening attentively to 'serious' music (of all kinds) in the car (tho' I can't do this too often, find it too intense - something like R2 or R4 remain my default background buzz).

Strangely enough, I've never felt the desire to ipod on my long walks. I know someone who aurally fuelled his tramp up the whole Pennine Way with trad jazz classics and old recordings of Hancock's Half Hour - but that sort of thing ain't for me! I prefer the unmixed, simple pleasure of the view, and the idle meanderings of my own inconsquential thoughts.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interestingly enough, in today's Times Burt Baccarach says that when he is in the house the only music he likes is silence.
It is easy to associate certain pieces of music with certain places = for example gregorian chant with, say, Mount Grace Priory but I do rather agree with Solitary Walker - silence is golden for me (proably because, being deaf I find music distorts.)

Dominic Rivron said...

I couldn't stand the thought of walking with an ipod either. There is so much to hear, silence included.I tend to listen to music in the car, though, especially when not working. In term time I do so much music I tend to prefer Radio 4. Also, my tastes aren't as unremittingly "serious" as the post perhaps suggests.

shrimplate said...

Suzanne Langer proposed that music involved the creation of "virtual" time, just as the art of painting created "virtual" space. So analogies between music and architecture seem somehow quite apt to me.

Though I have a musical education I sadly know nothing of Tippett, except that Naxos has available many recordings of his music. My spouse will surely be glad to know that I must once again supplement my music collection with a large infusion, as soon as possible!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Dominic. I do tend to think that music is too readily availble to us these days. I just don't want to go down the iPod route at all. I admit that I listen to too much music already and find myself not really paying enough attention to it. On the whole, if I'm out of doors I just enjoy the sounds of the environment - the wind, birds, even cars and lorries - although I can imagine times when particular pieces of music might enhance the experience. When driving I usually just listen to talk radio like Radio 4 or 5 as I enjoy the human voice but on long distance drives I have found that the rhythms of things like Kraftwerk or some Drum n Bass can make motorway driving actually seem almost a pleasure.

Good to see you are a fellow WFMU fan!

I will link to your excellent blog, if you don't mind.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Shrimplate: At the risk of sounding like a classical music snob, if you're interested in listening to some Tippett, try his Second Symphony - the recording conducted by Colin Davis, not the one conducted by the composer. Tippett's own recording was made live, and the string writing is so hair-raisingly risky they play safe and play it too slow! Colin Davis goes for it. Alternatively, there are recordings of his string pieces: the Concerto for Double String Orchestra and the Corelli Fantasia. Stirring stuff.

Singing Bear: WFMU is brilliant, isn't it? It's often on here, streaming through this machine.

Thanks for linking!