Music as an adventure playground

A talk on the nature and value of music given yesterday at a community music event in Gateshead

Parliament of dreams

Music: What is it good for?

In the 1970s, at a time when we were less anxious about many things than we are today, there was a vogue for adventure playgrounds in which young people could scramble about, get dirty, build dens and invent games with only minimal adult supervision. It was a good idea, I think: we all need a bit of freedom and wildness, if we are to grow. Most of the adventure playgrounds have gone or been sanitised to meet the standards of today’s more fearful culture. Music, though, cannot be tamed. It is one of our very best adventure playgrounds. Music. What is good for? Playing.

To read the full text of this talk, given at the 2014 Sage Gateshead and Sound Sense community music event, click on the link below.

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Misguided visionaries and rigid minds

From My Life is the most ambitious Regular Marvel so far, and it is already testing some aspects of the model. The issue, as so often in the arts, is money. My other projects have averaged about £10,000 including production costs, though Where we Dream cost more. It was possible because there was just me and the artist: I couldn’t pay either of us much, but the work’s interest (and ties of friendship) made people generous with their time when I couldn’t be with cash. The independence and freedom this brought has been central to the whole idea and more than compensated for the rocky parts of the road.

But From My Life is conceived on a much larger scale. It involves musicians, composers and other artists who need to be paid the normal rates (though they aren’t much to get excited about). Working between London, the Midlands and rural Aberdeenshire imposes unavoidable costs. So the budget is about £30,000, and, for the first time with a Regular Marvel, I’ve had to apply for funding. Three applications were submitted and now all have been refused. Of course, the lack of interest is disappointing, but it raises larger questions about From My Life and the Regular Marvels concept itself.

Without feedback, I can only wonder why three different bodies concerned with funding classical music saw no value in an idea that everyone I’ve spoken to about it has thought original and worthwhile. It is in the nature of artistic innovation to believe in the importance of what you’re doing, just as it is to be expected that others may not recognise that importance precisely because it is new. The problem is that you can’t tell whose judgement is right. Do you press forward in the face of indifference or opposition? Or do you listen and change tack? There are far, far more artists who have doggedly stuck to their vision and been proved wrong than there are visionaries, like Van Gogh, whose worth has finally been recognised. It’s just that no one has heard of the millions who thought they were the next Van Gogh, but weren’t.

I still love the ideas that From My Life explores. Like most people, I’d prefer to do what I believe in even if no one else does, than cut my ideas to suit the fashion of the times (especially these times). But I might need to rethink how I work on them and find a way that’s not so dependent on external funding.

Food for thought, but while I think, The Light Ships is progressing well: its dedicated website will launch on 1 May. So here’s a May Day painting in anticipation…

Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902 by Anna Richards Brewster
Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902
by Anna Richards Brewster


Restless meanings

Classical music is as important as photography in Terence Davieselegiac film about the people and city of Liverpool in the last century. Archive film of labouring lives, in streets and homes, factories and docks, are underscored by great washes of Mahler, Brahms. Perotin and Tavener. It’s almost always the slow movements and their juxtaposition with the images of hard lives is very moving.

The meaning, though, is ambiguous. The music is one artist’s addition to pictures filmed by other artists with their own, perhaps complex, intentions. Does its introduction signify the essential dignity of people struggling to make the most of the mean hand they’ve been dealt? Or does it inspire sadness at the waste of human potential produced by industrial society? Perhaps it’s like the Last Post, simply a requiem for what has been lost.


The music itself cannot have been familiar or valued by many of those over whose faces it plays, if only because poverty will have kept them out of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra‘s concerts. Even radios will often have been beyond their means, at least before the 1960s. And that is before the question of taste. There’s a short burst of the Hippy Hippy Shake to introduce a brief (and refreshingly unsentimental) appearance by The Beatles, then Davies explains that he lost interest in popular music when Presley arrives, turning entirely to classical work and his ‘beloved Bruckner’. But that was not the experience of most of his fellow Liverpudlians, who followed The Beatles into liberating new worlds, and it is hard not to feel that Davies is reclaiming his city’s soundscape for the music that he values.


But ambiguity is one of art’s – particularly music’s – great qualities. It keeps real art alive, restlessly shifting between possibilities, between interpretations, between meanings. So the uncertainty of Davies’ intentions (to me, not to him) is central to this film’s power. With its other qualities – its formal beauty, its passion and bitterness, its narrative subtlety – this ambiguity is part of what makes you want to watch Of Time and the City again, even as it ends. It’s one reason why the film can speak in its intensely local accents to people across the world, and one reason why it’s likely to be watched long after the pleasing but forgettable films made the same year.

Without the music, the film would be less moving and less interesting, easier to understand, but less meaningful.

‘Every day in life is beautiful’

‘Music is in the first place of art. It brings us on an island with peace, beauty and love. Music is a dream!’

These are the words of Alice Herz Sommer, whose story is told in The Lady in No.6, and whose death was announced today. At the age of 110, she still played the piano every day, from memory, as she had throughout her life, including the two years she spent with her small son in Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the film, she says, ‘I knew that we will play; and I was thinking, when we can play, it can’t be so terrible. I felt that this is the only thing which helps me to have hope.’

Everything that need be said, Alice Herz Sommer says in the film. There’s more joy and truth in this short trailer than in whole libraries of reports about the value of the art, and the film itself is a treasure. It’s worth a few minutes of anybody’s time.

Alice Herz Sommer

Born Prague, 26 November 1903

Died London. 23 February 2014

‘Every day in life is beautiful, every day that we are here, that we can speak about everything. It’s beautiful.’

Alice Herz Sommer 2


Music matters

A quick post to highlight a radio programme called The Folklorist, about Izzy Young, who was central to the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a wonderful conversation between Young and the English musician, Seth Lakeman, enriched by  other voices and music from the archives. Apart from its own insights and delights, the programme demonstrates – if that were needed –  music’s resilience and its influence in the world. It should be available for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer.

Izzy Young and Seth Lakeman
Izzy Young and Seth Lakeman

The  black and white photo by Krister Kleréus  is borrowed from his 591 Photography Blog and shows  Young in his Stockholm Folklore Centre – listen to the programme to find out how that came about.

A Chorus of Solidarity

‘Pete Seeger’s great work was not just singing the songs, but getting everybody else to sing them—getting his audience, us, to sing.’

John Wiener, The Nation

Columbia Records (CBS) must have produced many odd records since 1888, but Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits is certainly one of them. The blacklisted singer had not been heard on radio or TV for more than a decade, so concerts and records were his main outlet.

Pete Seeger 1975 (LA Times AP/Richard Drew)

Greatest Hits is a ragbag of old songs (We Shall Overcome), new songs (Little Boxes) and his own songs (Where have all the flowers gone?), mostly recorded live. It came out in 1967, when Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper dominated the airwaves, so the music must have seemed positively old-fashioned, even naive: Seeger accompanies his high tenor on the banjo, a strummed guitar or sings a capella.

But it’s the live nature of the recordings that matters because they catch Seeger’s rapport with audiences and the  collective nature of his music. He stands there, not as an entertainer but as a facilitator. On his tongue, the chorus of a song is what its name suggests: an occasion for choral singing. So he tells the audience the words of the next line, in case they don’t know it—the song can wait while they catch up.

This is ancient stuff. Seeger’s audience is like the Chorus in classical Greek theatre: an enactment of community, expressing its collective values. It is solidarity sung.

It is also powerful stuff, as Seeger knows, To be part of the ‘mighty wind’ produced by thousands of vocal chords can be thrilling. Marching for civil rights in 1960s Alabama, in front of hostile crowds and troopers, took real courage: singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ together gave you control of the space and sucked freedom into your expanding lungs.  In the late 1980s, the Estonian people literally sang Soviet troops out of their country in the Singing Revolution.

‘I guess nobody who’s never actually faced one of those policemen can know exactly how much bravery it takes to be just this gay and cheerful in the face of all kinds of things.’

Pete Seeger, Carnegie Hall NY, 6 June 1963

There’s a welcome growth in choral singing  at the moment, in TV reality and in actual reality, but its character is  abstract and skill-based. It’s community art without politics, shanties without work. Pete Seeger held no auditions: he knew that what mattered was community among an audience with shared values.

Are there imaginative artists in popular music willing to reach across the profitable barrier between stage and stalls to  make their audience co-creators in a new  music? The ancient power of singing together is only sleeping.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)


Phil Ochs’ tribute to Woody Guthrie applies equally to Pete Seeger, whose integrity made no distinction between his art and his life.

Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore
But so few remember what he was fightin’ for
Oh, why sing the songs and forget about the aim?
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same

Phil Ochs Bound for Glory (1964)

The story of the story

‘What is this shit?’

The opening words of Greil Marcus’ 1970 review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait have become a meme: the only thing that many people know about the record, if they know anything at all. It was certainly a startling way to open an account of the latest album produced by one of the age’s most influential artists. But Marcus is a great writer on American music and culture and it is unfair that his complex and clever 7,500 essay on Self Portrait should have been reduced to this.

Dylan in Woodstock (john Cohen) 2

That the album merited at 7,500 word review in a national magazine is itself part of the point. In 1970 rock music mattered in a way that it just doesn’t today. It was the frontier territory in which Western society was reimagining itself. Each new record was a despatch from the front, and Bob Dylan was for many the most interesting, Insightful, and important correspondent. Self Portrait’s seemingly careless gathering of syrupy country standards, covers of lesser artists’ songs, instrumentals, and concert tapes stood in the sharpest contrast to the electrifying music Dylan had made during the 1960s. Hence the question raised by Marcus’s friend, and reported in the review:

‘Were we really that impressionable back in ’65, ’66? Was it that the stuff really wasn’t that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records so powerful, or what?’

Although the record sold quite well, for many of Dylan’s admirers it marked the start of a period during which it was hard not to hope too much and then feel guiltily disappointed by each new record. Actually, Dylan’s pursuit of his vision has often disconcerted fans who had invested in the idea of him as a particular kind of artist, and his records sometimes sound better to people after a passage of time.

Another Self Portrait

In August 2014, Bob Dylan released volume 10 in the Bootleg Series of archival recordings. Entitled, in a gesture some reviewers found almost provocative, Another Self Portrait, it offered 35 previously unheard recordings of songs that appeared in very different style on Self Portrait and the following album. The often-sparse arrangements create a very different impression, both of the music, and of the artist’s intentions. The reviews have been as consistent as those of 1970, but completely different. They have been brief, because a saturated cultural press now sees even a few hundred words as generous, but they have been universally positive. Uncut and Mojo both picked the record as their reissue of the year, and accolades which clearly pleased Bob Dylan’s people, who added the articles to his official website.

Bob Dylan Studio

So why the change? Of course, the new music is different, its acoustic settings both in tune with the fashion for ‘Americana’—itself part of the rehabilitation of country music since 1970, when its redneck, conservative image seemed to many just what the counter culture was against—and with the folksinger authenticity of Dylan’s earliest records. But the key difference is not musical but contextual.

Music in context

Self Portrait mattered in 1970. It was a field report, a bearing, in relation to which many people, Including other musicians, sought to position themselves. Rock music was not entertainment like the commercialised corporate product of the pop world.

In a characteristically self-referential move, Dylan’s office invited Greil Marcus to contribute an essay to the ‘deluxe’ edition of the new album package. It’s short and not especially interesting, compared to the 1970 review, but it maintains the baby boomer’s belief in the seer’s authenticity of vision,

‘The voice is so clear, so convincing, so plainly the voice of someone who has weighed life choices and made his, that it shames your own compromises.’

But in today’s eclectic, postmodern world, where values are more often worn as fashion statements that as guides to action, rock music has become little more than a decoration for most people. Indeed, for the generation of baby boomers whose sensibility it shaped, the work of archival conservation and repackaging in ever more luxurious formats have reduced rock to an exploitable form of heritage fast becoming the responsibility of the National Trust.

National Trust - John Lennon's Childhood home

That so many of the reviews of Another Self-Portrait—and his own 2014 essay—referenced  Greil Marcus’ puzzled question of all those years ago underlines the distance we have come. Another Self-Portrait exists not just in relation to its predecessor, but to the writing and rewriting of the shocked reaction it first provoked.

This process is an inevitable part of the evolution of culture. The shock created by a new artistic statement fades and mutates into the story of the shock. Experiences become memories, memories become narratives, and before long we are remembering the memory not the event.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is famous because it did shock, not because it can shock. Daniel Auber’s opera, La muette de Portici, was powerful enough in 1830 to trigger the revolution that brought about the Belgian state; it is rarely performed or recorded today, and the idea that doing so might cause even a murmur is absurd. But we remember that it did.

Like all art, music’s meaning is only partly inscribed in the score. Its reception changes everyone’s understanding of a work (including the composer’s own) and its story becomes, in part, the story of its story.

Another Self Portrait

The music appreciation society

Snap, crackle and pop

The sky was all you could see from the music room’s high windows. Blue, grey, white, opalescent—variations on a theme. The teacher didn’t talk about colouration, though. His instruction was more basic, and I wasn’t introduced to synaesthesia until I read Rimbaud, Huysmans and Boris Vian ten years later. No, for now, his mission was simply to get us to recognise the instruments of the orchestra and the sounds they make. It was just another opportunity to acquire some cultural capital in primary school.

Record player

Long-playing records, still a rather new and valuable technology, were treated in class as ritual objects. They’d be allowed to slip from the paper sleeves that protected them in their cardboard covers. There was a special way of holding them, with one finger in the central hole and a thumb at the edge, slightly sharp where the vinyl had been moulded. After a wipe with the anti-static cloth, they’d be placed delicately on the turntable and the stylus was carefully lowered into the spinning grooves.

The expectant silence would fill with electric crackle, quieten as the needle went home and then—ta-ta-ta-ta-dah!—the first notes of  The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or Peter and the Wolf.

It was better than maths.

Inform, educate and entertain

the third programme

In the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC’s Third Programme was a route to cultural capital for many British youngsters. I know people with distinguished careers in the arts who still speak with feeling of how the radio opened windows onto worlds unknown in their subtopian bedrooms. And there was much to admire in its Leavisite, Arnoldian ideal of bringing ‘the best which has been thought and said’ within reach of all—though also much to question.

By the time I wanted to learn about classical music, many post-war certainties had gone (including, I fear, the state’s commitment to democratic meritocracy). ‘The Third’ had become Radio 3, competing with entertainments undreamt of in the Fifties. Still, the BBC’s commitment to its founding ideals of informing and educating, as well as entertaining, remains extraordinarily intact. Radio 3’s tone and accessibility may be different from its sometimes-idealised predecessor but it remains a wonderful and free resource to anyone who wants to learn about classical music and the high points of European culture generally.

Building a library

Nowhere is that more evident than in programmes like Composer of the Week or CD Review, whose knowledgeable presenters offer authoritative music lessons for grown ups.

Composer of the week

This morning, the writer Jessica Duchen considered the relative merits of different recordings of Chopin’s Ballades—four innovative works for solo piano composed between 1835 and 1842. She elegantly negotiated the challenge of describing the narrative aspects of music that has no words but which is said to have been inspired by the poems of Adam Mickiewicz, even if no one can agree which ones. And she explained with great sensitivity what she admired and found less successful in a range of recordings.

She spoke of atmosphere, of story structure and drama; of gorgeously translucent, delicate, almost sepia-hued tones; of an astute long line feel for structure and pace, sharp edges and phrasing that sings but also speaks; and a great deal more besides, illustrating her points with extracts from performances recorded over more than 80 years. It was a masterclass in musical explication, and as I listened, I had the habitual illusion of understanding what was being said.

But, of course, I didn’t—or at least not beyond a vague, non-communicable and instantly forgotten impression.

The paradox is this. In order to describe what is happening in a piece of music and why, you have to understand it first. If you do understand it—at the sophisticated level required to speak on Radio 3 or teach music to schoolchildren—how can you understand what it sounds like to those, like me, who just don’t? Not knowing what it’s like not to understand, those who do tend to rely either on technical terms, such as ‘an extra octave doubling below the trills’ or on metaphors, such as a ‘skittish account that seems to run away with him at times’. Neither is very helpful to me.

Outside, listening in

There is another paradox, too, one that may have some bearing on the relationship between classical music and the great majority of people today. It is this.

The effort to explain what Tessa Jowell once called ‘complex culture’, as exemplified in broadcasts such as Building a Library, implicitly divides the world into those who know and those who don’t—those who, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, hold cultural capital and those who don’t. In trying, with the noblest intentions, to overcome an inequality of knowledge and power, music educators risk reinforcing that very inequality. Like shamans or priests, they can seem to hold special knowledge to which they are willing to induct those who show commitment, aptitude and loyalty. But the bar of understanding is such that many will fail to get over it.

To some extent, that is true of all human knowledge and, despite centuries of radical experimentation, formal education remains structured by the division between those who know and those who want to know. But my science and maths lessons were not like my music lessons. I didn’t find the subjects easy, but I believed that effort was all that was necessary to acquire them. When my music teacher told me I couldn’t be in the choir because I sang flat, I learned that the failure was essential to my being, like being long-sighted.

How many people learn young that classical music is not just something that takes effort to understand but also that it demands something—an aptitude, a sensitivity, a social background—that they don’t have and cannot acquire? How many, lacking the type of intelligence that makes music’s language feel like home, simply come to believe that the classical music world has nothing for them and no interest in them, except on its own terms? And how many who do possess a music intelligence, like Radio 3 presenters, understand how the rest of us respond to music?

Can you hear me now?

There is a long-standing joke that the British abroad try to communicate with those who speak other languages by speaking s l o w l y and LOUDLY. The joke, in so far as it’s funny at all, is that they don’t understand the disdain with which the perfectly intelligent citizens of other lands regard their well-meaning condescension. It sometimes feels like an accurate image of the problems of communication that exist between those for whom music is a mother tongue, and those who have acquired it, more or less proficiently, in the classroom.

BBC Fawlty Towers

Making sense of music


Do you remember the first time you heard the true sound of your voice? Not the familiar sound inside your head, but what you actually sound like to other people. If you’re under 30, the answer is probably no, because technology has become so ubiquitous that some loving parent probably videoed your third birthday. But when I was young, sound recording was only just coming within reach of ordinary people. I remember my first sight of a reel-to-reel deck, soon replaced by neat little cassette tapes. And I remember the first time I heard my voice as others hear it.

It was horrible. Not because it is, objectively speaking, a specially irritating voice, but simply because it wasn’t what I believed I sounded like. And if you can’t know what you sound like to other people, what can you know about yourself in the world, in relations to others?

That problem is hugely amplified (pun intended) if you are a musician. Most musical instruments require such close physical contact that they resonate in and through the body. A violinist, drummer or flautist feels their performance in their bones, lungs and body cavities. That’s one reason why Evelyn Glennie can be, as a deaf person, one of the world’s leading percussionists. Unlike dancers, who train in front of wall mirrors, musicians simply could not know what their playing sounded like to others before the invention of sound recording. They could hear what other musicians sounded like, of course—but how does that help you know how you are performing in comparison?

Recording technology and the ability to make music with digital technology are, between them, rewriting some of those rules. It is now possible to hear oneself play (though not easily as one is playing) and to make music with no more physical contact than fingertips on a computer keyboard. But for most musicians, what they hear inside during those daily hours of practice and in performance, is different to what others hear as they play.

Gills and lungs


I love music. It is one of the great companions of my life: rock, blues, reggae, folk and, in the past 15 years or so, classical, especially chamber music. There are genres I can’t easily appreciate (lounge jazz, Wagner and some hip-hop spring to mind) but I love hearing something new, open to making a discovery.

Over the years, I’ve become aware that my relationship with music is different to that of the musicians I know. They understand it from the inside. They feel it in their bones. To them, the difference between F# and B minor is meaningful. They understand—if they’ve had the training—sonata form. To me, these are terms like transistor, diode or valve: I’ve heard them, I know what they relate to, but no more. As a writer, my technical concepts are different (and probably equally obscure to a musician or an engineer).

And that recognition has led me to wonder about something else: what if, without realizing it, musicians and non-musicians actually understand music itself quite differently?

It is obvious that having a musical intelligence gives a person a particular relationship to music, one that is not available to someone like me. I understand that: it’s always easier to recognize the abilities one doesn’t possess than those one does. So what if those who have always swum in the water of music don’t understand what it’s like to be a land creature? Can a fish imagine how a hippo relates to water? (I know, I’m stretching this metaphor to breaking point.)

From My Life – a new Regular Marvel

Ligeti Quartet (absent)

I’ve been puzzling about these things for years, and now I have an opportunity to think about them in a more structured way—and crucially, to work with people on both sides of that divide to explore our varied experiences of music.

‘From My Life’ is the next project in the Regular Marvels series. It’s named after a string quartet by the Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana. It was written after Smetana had lost his hearing: it is, therefore, one of those miraculous internal creations that was never heard by its composer in the way I have heard it. The quartet is also a meditation on Smetana’s life, a programmatic work whose music is intended to tell a story. But how do you tell a story without words? (That’s a writer’s question, of course, not a musician’s.)

The work thus symbolizes all the differences between a musician and a non-musician that intrigue me. How do we each respond to this creation, from either side of the shore between land and water?

This new Regular Marvel will be a partnership with the wonderful Ligeti Quartet, who will work with me to commission new short works from composers around the ideas sketched out here. At the same time, we’ll work with Woodend Music Society, in Banchory, to explore how people who enjoy music as listeners feel about it. The work will come together in a special concert at which the new compositions will be premièred. That will allow for further discussions and reflection, and the whole project, as usual, will be documented here as it goes along and in a book, with a  concert recording included.

It is the most ambitious Regular Marvel to date, in all sorts of ways, and there’s a long way to go. The first task is to raise funds for all the artists involved, and to begin the process of commissioning new works. It’s daunting, but hugely exciting.

A gift

Ecclesall Piano

Yesterday evening, Kaoru Bingham gave a piano recital at Ecclesall parish church, where Sheffield edges into the Pennines. There were perhaps a hundred people, mostly sitting close round the piano. I don’t remember such stillness at a concert before: not a cough or a shuffle. You could have heard a page turn, but there was no need: the programme of Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Satie and Chopin was played from memory.

I met Kaoru late in the process of working on Bread and Salt, so her remarkable story does not figure greatly in the book. (But that’s true in varying degrees of all the artists I spoke to, so rich is particularity of each life. This recital was my first chance to hear her extraordinary gifts as a musician. I’m not competent to give a critic’s account of Kaoru’s performance, but I had a wonderful and memorable evening.

Classical music is not usually associated with what arts policy calls ‘cultural diversity’. But diversity was everywhere last night. Here was a Japanese musician settled in Britain and playing work by composers from Germany, Poland, France and Austria to an audience with evident variations of culture, age, background and so on. We had gathered in a late 18th century building imitating a 13th century style thought suitable for a religion rooted in Palestine and Rome. And we listened, among other pieces, to a Mozart sonata that imitated the musical styles of the Turkish forces that had besieged Vienna a century before its composition.

Diversity was everywhere and completely ordinary, not worth commenting on, even here, except that it is so often made into a problem. But last night, as so often in everyday life, it was what we shared as human beings that brought us together around that piano: a gift and a regular marvel.

Kaoru Bingham recital