Magazine article The Spectator

More Quiet, Please

Magazine article The Spectator

More Quiet, Please

Article excerpt

There's too much music around these days. A lot of us actually use music to block out other music, hooking ourselves up to those little white earphones to fill our heads with a sound-stream of our own choice rather than be assaulted by what other people are listening to or think we might want to hear.

Personally, I can't listen to music on headphones. It makes me feel mad, as if the performers have taken up residence inside my head. I still remember all those years ago the first time I heard music on a Sony Walkman. It was a very new toy indeed and belonged to a dancer from the Royal Ballet who was distinctly discouraged by the idea of a future which seemed to consist of little more than inheriting Wayne Sleep's leftovers (he was of similarly diminutive stature). He would sit on the terrace of the house that a wildly ill-assorted bunch of us had rented near Siena, a small black box -- well, it seemed small then -- on the table in front of him, headphones clamped to his ears, with a dopily vacant, blissed-out expression on his face.

When I asked him if I could have a go, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Music seemed to be pouring straight into me, through a hole in the top of my head. It was thrilling but unnerving, and it seemed to dull my other senses. I could no longer hear the susurration of cicadas filling the air. The sun-baked smell of thyme and dry grass faded away, and the light seemed to dim slightly as I gazed at the olive trees climbing up the hillside's curving flanks without really seeing them.

My head is usually full of quite enough tangled-up music as it is without introducing more. Often, I have no idea why I am suddenly taken over by a particular tune, or what prompted its arrival. At other times, a snatch of rhythm, as my bicycle wheels go tackater-tackater over a bumpy patch of road, will remind me of a phrase of piano music or an almost forgotten hymn, and the next thing I know I'm singing it under my breath. And there's something about driving, particularly on a long stretch of motorway, that encourages the most irritating of tunes to slip under your guard and get themselves irretrievably stuck. Doris Day is particularly culpable in this respect.

It takes only a momentary slackening of vigilance for 'The Black Hills of Dakota' to take up residence and refuse to budge. This isn't helped by the fact that, because of the line about 'the dear old Indian country', my friend Mark and I have always, with very poor taste, sung 'Take me back to the black hole, the black hole of Calcutta.' I have to force another tune over the top and hope that Doris will admit defeat and whipcrack on her way.

As Joe Simpson discovered, and wrote about in Touching the Void, it does tend to be the more banal tunes that stick like glue. One gets the impression that it was sheer outrage at the thought of dying with the nauseating spiral of Boney M's 'Brown Girl in the Ring' gyrating in his head that got him off the death-dealing slopes of the Siula Grande in Peru.

Pictures can prompt music, too. On the same holiday as I spurned the Sony Walkman, another friend and I went to an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee in Florence. As we walked round the show, the pictures started to make us laugh with pleasure, and then we found ourselves singing them. The images seemed to provoke us into bubbly strings of sound. It was hugely enjoyable but we got terrible giggles and had to leave before infuriating the other visitors. For me, Turner's 'Fighting Temeraire' (now officially the nation's favourite) is entwined with a melody from Brahms's Academic Festival overture and Matisse's 'Snail' cut-out is Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five'. …

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