Some years ago, I found myself stranded in a guesthouse in the Scottish Highlands after an unexpected storm put an end to my hiking plans. As I buttoned up my coat by the door, the lady who ran the establishment asked me where I was headed. I’d intended to find a fireside drink to salvage the evening, but she shook her head and told me that it was more or less a dry parish, and it was at least an hour’s trek to the nearest pub. I sighed my way back up the stairs to my room, stopping at the bookcase on the landing and borrowing a handful of novels, took them inside and locked the door. For a few moments, I thought about returning and asking her what she had meant by “more or less” but the wind was rattling the window, so I settled in for the night.
Three of the books I’d lifted happened to be written by Honoré de Balzac; a blind spot in my reading up until that point. Though I soon found myself lost in the worlds of The Black Sheep and Lost Illusions, it was the third book, Louis Lambert, a stranger, slighter book full of outdated yet interesting pseudoscience, that stayed with me. In one scene, the young narrator is walking through the French countryside with the slightly older boy of the book’s title when they suddenly gaze down upon the Château de Rochambeau. Even though they have never set eyes upon the castle before, Lambert claims, “Why, I saw this last night in a dream… If the landscape did not come to me—which it is absurd to imagine—I must have come here. If I was here while I was asleep in my cubicle does not that constitute a complete severance of my body and my inner being?” Reading this passage, I was reminded of the curious déjà vu periodically felt when traveling to previously unvisited places. I also remembered a time when, like all children perhaps, I had somehow felt able to transport myself elsewhere in daydreams with the assistance of books, maps, paintings and, above all, music.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d been lucky enough to work on a succession of projects around Europe and Australasia, and the hope, or rather temptation, was to assume that the world would continue as it had been going. It didn’t. In times of disruption, stasis and loss, people turn to music for solace. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding my relationship with the artform had changed, now that I was living in an eerily quiet and seemingly empty metropolis during lockdown, with all familiar routines in suspended animation. Since my teenage years, music had been almost entirely a cinematic soundtrack, either in an epic sense or as background incidental music, accentuating what was happening in life. Now that nothing was happening, bar illness and grief, music began to feel more like an escape route again, something I decided to consciously embrace.
At first, I spent many nights listening to Radio Garden, a project that provides access to digital radio stations all over the planet. It is full of surprises—the apparently wildest of places can have the most conventional of radio stations and vice versa—yet it is by its nature ephemeral and heavily reliant on chance in terms of finding treasure. Seeking a more consistent escape, I turned then to Smithsonian Folkways records, a deep and multifarious archive of vernacular recordings: “Street Cries and Creole Songs of New Orleans,” “Tea House Music of Afghanistan,” “Bedouin Music of Southern Sinai,” “Transylvanian Wedding Music,” “Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico,” “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” and so on. Here was a resource both global and local, with songs sung by soldiers, slaves, lumberjacks, mothers, and rebels; songs sung in playgrounds, churches, trawlers and silk routes; songs from places like Lamu, Tierra del Fuego, Amami and the Solomon Islands.
One of the great strengths of this series, going back to 1948, is that it portrays the world, and each part of the world, as a complex patchwork of different cultures rather than subscribing to the great flattening binaries (West and East, developed and developing). It includes classical music within this, making its various movements and styles part of a vast constellation rather than the daunting unapproachable monolith it can falsely appear to the layperson. To find classical music through a route like this is like discovering a secret entrance to a castle.
Given the circumstances of lockdown, the forms of classical music I found myself drawn towards were tone poems and programmatic works with narratives woven through the scores. Music, in other words, that led elsewhere. This has always, of course, part of the function of classical music. In the years before rapid mass transit, it was a transportational artform, allowing the listener to cover vast stretches of space, if only in their minds. Unable to go much further than the local neighborhood for months on end, I could try this method to “bring” the now-distant world closer.
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The first destinations were relatively local. The clifftop ruins of Tintagel Abbey, Cornwall, with Arnold Bax’s music billowing and bursting around them like the wind. The echoing sea-caves, lonely islands and basalt columns of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture. Ghost choirs singing in the long-vanished Nonsuch Palace in Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium.”
Gradually, they moved further afield. The surging swaying of “La Mer” by Debussy. The marble carvings, naiads, sirens and tritons of Rome’s fountains, brought to life by Respighi’s music. The epic exploration of the mountains in Richard Strauss’s “Eine Alpensinfonie.” The steam and piston roar of the “Pacific 231” hurtling through the night, to paraphrase the notes to Honegger’s score. Shostakovich’s forests, William Grant Still’s “Africa” triptych, Rachmaninoff’s crag, the villages, rivers and mountains of Wang Xilin, the “Appalachian Spring” of Copland, Delius’s fin-de-siècle Paris, Ruth Gipps’s seascapes, the pampas of Alberto Ginastera, Alexander Borodin’s steppes.
Dreams would occasionally turn into nightmares, yet these too were of intrigue—the deathbed visitations of Sibelius’s “Valse triste,” César Franck’s cursed huntsman being pursued through the wilds and his Djinns blazing through the night sky, witches gathering on Mussorgsky’s Bald Mountain, skeletons dancing in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre,” Lizst’s “Hunnenschlacht” where “all instruments must sound like ghosts,” and the mirage of a cathedral in the Himalayan foothills that would host the performance of Scriabin’s unfinished “Mysterium,” culminating in an end of the world that thankfully never came.
Occasionally, symphonic poems would lead into orientalist fables, nationalistic calls to arms, fairytale phantasias, and romantic kitsch, which only emphasized the feeling of travel, albeit as much in time as space. Many of the composers were already doing that themselves; Charles Ives’s “Central Park in the Dark,” for example, is “a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.” Given their semi-fictional quality, it is no surprise that the journeys would stray into the realm of fantasy and numinous, the “mysterious mountain” of Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, the Romantic “Harold en Italie” by Berlioz, the celestial enigma of Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic.”
With the eventual lifting of lockdowns and physical travel now possible again, the need for escapist music would presumably fade away. Yet life had other plans. One evening, after a walk in the woods, I noticed a small spider bite on my knuckle that had become inflamed. After a while, my hand became swollen and tender. Deciding to ignore the problem until it went away, I went about my business, but gradually I started to find it difficult to breathe and sure enough, after bolting through London traffic, I ended up in the emergency room. I was seen with worrying immediacy. Twenty minutes after treatment, I could breathe with some ease again but had an immense sense of fatigue, nausea, and the beginnings of a fever. After sleeping for an ungodly number of hours, the feeling had not shifted, and it would take weeks on courses of steroids and antibiotics before I felt anything like myself again.
Faced with illness and inactivity, I once again felt the need for escapist music. It seemed a natural desire. After all, tone poems had been written by composers in various states of ill health—Holst, for example, was convalescing in Algeria when he heard the sounds of the Street of the Ouled Naïls and ended up basing his “Beni Mora” suite around one particular flute tune he kept hearing throughout the night as a procession passed.
Yet the music I’d listened to—and relied upon—in lockdown now jarred me. All I could bear was gentle, almost ambient music, like Satie or choral works like Arvo Pärt’s “Da pacem Domine” and “Salve Regina.” It could have been simply a desire for soothing and meditative music rather than busy and insistent adventures. Or there could have been something deeper in the idea of music as a healing force. In Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale claimed, in regards to the impact on patients, “wind instruments, including the human voice, and stringed instruments, capable of continuous sound, have generally a beneficent effect–while the piano-forte, with such instruments as have no continuity of sound, has just the reverse. The finest piano-forte playing will damage the sick, while an air, like ‘Home, sweet home,’ or ‘Assisa a piè d’un salice,’ on the most ordinary grinding organ, will sensibly soothe them–and this quite independent of association.” Studies are ongoing into how music acts upon the human body and its maladies. It certainly seems to exert a significant influence on our minds and thus our bodies through that, if those things are even separate. You do not need to be mystically inclined to believe that the music is more than just the vibrations of air.
In a sense, my new aversion to escape was down to the fact that illness can be, or can feel, inescapable. Yet there was something about music itself that was also at work. Arvo Pärt has spoken of the healing potential of music, as well as its potential to damage. He has also spoken of the importance of silence, which would seem paradoxical for a lifelong composer but makes sense when silence is perceived as a meditative state of grace. “On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed,” he told NPR. “But on the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak—silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.”
While ill, I found myself increasingly drawn to music that edged towards silence, in the sense of quietude but also in this more spiritual dimension of Pärt’s. It might be that internal silence is impossible, just as John Cage suggested external silence is in “4’33”.” Yet it seems something worth aspiring to or reconciling with, to stay intrusive thoughts, doubts and ego. Perhaps silence is the wrong word. Perhaps wordlessness is closer, a place or state beyond language or representation. However wondrous or fanciful the journeys of tone poems are, they are still a distraction. Illness brings us down to earth from our reveries, just as the arrival of adulthood once did. The child learns with regret that they cannot teleport somewhere else, however convincing the imagination can be. And yet this points to an extraordinary capacity of music, for tone poems are not the places they claim to represent (the map is not the territory after all); rather music is a world in and of itself, created in all manner of forms on a planet hurtling through time and the silent vacuum of space. Music reminds us in the most miraculous of fashions that we are already, wherever we are, living in the elsewhere. ¶
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