from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 9 January 2014

music as presence

'It is only when you become enraptured in great music that you begin to understand how deeply we are reached and nourished by sound,' says John O'Donohue, that much-missed Irish philosopher and poet who died a couple of years ago (just after he'd met the love of his life – tragically, and beautifully), in his little chapter of the above title*.

Music has always had a crucial role in my life. Both my parents were amateur musicians: my mum a classical pianist, my dad a folk-rock-blues-jazzman. In fact almost all of my family, including my ex-husband and daughter, are consummate musicians, some of them (my dad, one sister, my daughter, my nephew) being multi-instrumentalists – the kind of people who can pick up just about any instrument and play it immediately.

One of my earliest memories is asking my mum for 'the ice-cream record': a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (the cover of which showed a great studded door with shadows making cones beneath the studs, looking for all the world like ice creams). The Brandenburgs are still among my favourite pieces of music – they never fail to uplift me; but then, I'd say that of most of Bach's music.

Another memory is the way my dad would make a 'one-man-band' for us: banjo, mouth organ on a strut round his neck (so hand-free), cymbals between his knees, a tambourine strapped to his back and operated by a cord attached to his heel. It's through my dad that I first heard Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a number of protest singers, and my parents took an interest in the music we all listened to as we grew up.

So music has been a significant part of my life, all my life. My daughter and I still go to gigs together as our tastes are similar: classical, or gyspy-jazz-klezmer fusion, or folk-rock, especially when we can also dance.

But as a player it's rather different for me. I limp along; I can make notes out of several instruments, learned the guitar and banjo a bit, play various recorders and the flute, but none of them very well except the recorders – and am making very heavy weather of learning the Celtic harp. But it's exciting, having always played by ear, learning just a little of the theory of music: why it is that fifths as bass notes will often sit comfortably with so many other melody notes where triads won't necessarily (I think!); considering that in relation to more cosmic proportions and harmonies (and not yet coming up with an answer).

And this is the year I really am going to connect up my very good sound system, bought secondhand from a friend who was emigrating just before I moved in with TM, and currently still on the floor, five years later, in a tangle of completely-incomprehensible (to me, and also I think to TM) wires. We do have music, but it's in the kitchen which is vast and cold and it's not a particularly good system (I'm a snob about the quality of reproduction – it's crucial, to me), and since I've been here I have never once lain on the sofa in the sitting room upstairs in the firelight, and really deeply listened to a piece of music that nourishes and transports me.

It is as if, I've realised lately, I've lost a dimension from my life: a particular colour-register, almost – as if everything is dulled down just a little, like looking through muslin.

The first thing I did here was unpack my books; the second thing should have been my music. J O'D: 'Music is perhaps the most divine of all the art forms in that it creates an active, living and moving form that takes us for a while into another world. There is no doubt that music strikes a deep and eternal echo within the human heart. Music resonates in and with us... Generally we neglect almost completely the nourishment of listening to good and true sounds. The sound quality of contemporary life is utter dissonance and cacophony. We live in a world of mechanical noise which allows no spaces for silence to come through to enfold us... We are forever being stoned by dead sounds... one of the key building materials now is mass concrete. When you strike mass concrete with a hammer, the sound is muffled and dead and swallows itself. When you strike a stone an echo leaps from it; the music of the stone sings out. The sounds of our time have little inner music; all you hear is muffled hunger... in its deepest hearth the soul is musical... is sonorous, echoing the eternal music of the spheres.'

He goes on to say that music is the perfect sister of silence.

He also asks: 'Is the music you hear too small for your growing soul?'

Good music allows one to enter into a great silence; one free of the petty concerns of daily life and the ego, even if only briefly. It consoles, it uplifts, it transforms one, it deepens, it connects. My musician friends tell me that making music with others is better than sex.

I ask myself: why have I chosen to live five years without a daily bath of good music?


* Eternal Echoes – exploring our hunger to belong, John O'Donohue, Bantam Books, 2000.


  1. From Miriam, of course!

    How could I ignore this post for long, and in my sleepy postprandial state shall add a few things and hope to come back once J wakes up and I can hit the piano! 5ths in the bass sound so primitive and bare, don't they. The effect they have under melodies reminds me of hurry-gurdies or anything with, what's known as, a drone bass. It's their elemental bareness (a sort of pleasantly hollow sound), that absence of the middle note, or 3rd, that they seem to allow. Something to do with overtones, which is physics, of which I'm shamefully ignorant. (Could never retain anything more than a sketchy understanding of the science of Equal Temperament.)
    As you know, I'm very interested in the emotional/psychological effects of music and how to express these effects in words without naming specific compositions (esoteric and a bit too easy, perhaps). Interestingly, lunching with friends yesterday, the 'orgasmic' qualities of late Beethoven came up (no pun intended! and yes, for some people, they do seem to get the juices going). Three out of the four of us yesterday agreed that some music was so transcendental as to be as good as, if not better than, sex. And I do agree about the sensuality of playing. I am so lucky to have been able to play music with friends over many years. I'd love to talk much more with you about this fascinating subject – try to find some way of getting late Beethoven into your soul (I think you said he just didn't 'do' it for you – and that's fine, of course; there's plenty of music that leaves me cold.) Late Schubert's another passion and Brahms. Much to try and do with all this in my novel. Such a challenge.
    As for the harp – well, good for you to try, I've always wanted to play it, but have been discouraged by the technical difficulty. But to learn anew instrument at any time demands courage. Good luck with it. Your gift for playing by ear is bound to help.
    This may not be the only response from me on this subject!
    Thanks, Roselle. With love from M.

  2. So glad you responded, M - and indeed how could you not? And I really have to try to 'get' the late Beethoven. Trouble is it's the baroque and early music periods that I'm steeped in; I can JUST get the Brahms Requiem, but that's about it for later-than-baroque, though there is much C20th classical music - to my surprise - that I love (I mean Part, Glass, Jarrett, Taverner and a few others).

    Gosh, overtones and equal temperament - look forward to hearing more...! And I envy you playing with others. As regards sex, was the one-out-of-four a bloke? ;-)

    Love - Rx

  3. Another from Miriam:
    Forgot to say, Roselle, what a fantastically liberal and varied musical experience you had from your parents. I can appreciate how your experience of playing must feel (I'm so rusty now, I too limp more I'd like and feel ashamed); and I think J would identify strongly with your feelings. He never had the opportunity to learn an instrument but developed a love – passion sometimes – of and fascination with music from adolescence and student-days. Sad that he won't dance (he says he has no sense of rhythm – not true!) but sings heartily and rather well (he'd disagree!) round the house and when we're walking (hymns, often, which can make me laugh and join in!)

    As for 5ths and 3rds, well, it's all about the mystery of how music affects the soul, isn't it? You have to experiment with improvisation and find whatever sounds work for you. Bartok had a knack for clashing sounds that do work and thrill, I think, but they take some getting used to. We can't explain it, always; even understanding harmonic analysis doesn't explain why some music has this particular effect – different – for everyone – on the soul. This aspect of music, I think, lends itself well to metaphor through poetry, painting, weather, colour, mood – but that's a truism. All part of the challenge I've set myself.
    I wonder which authors you think can write about music really effectively in fiction? So difficult to do. Ian McEwan isn't bad and Alan Hollinghurst is excellent. Anyone else you can think of?
    Looking forward to more discussion.
    LOve, M.

  4. Vikram Seth! And what about Tremain (is it Restoration I'm thinking of?). There are others. Will think.

    You're right that it's a mystery, and should remain so - but I so love looking for all the hidden connections in apparently disparate subjects... Bartok makes my head hurt! I mean literally, because of my synesthesia (though there are 'worse' composers).

    I'll bet you're nothing like as rusty as YOU think you are!

    Thank you, as always, Miriam. With love - Rx

  5. Yes, you're right, the one out of 4 was a bloke! 'nuff said!
    M again.

  6. Sadly I cannot compete with your and Miriam's scientific discourse on music:(, but I loved your post Roselle, and we had the most wonderful gig last night: Verdi 'un ballo in maschera' - an almost archetypal story, tragedy at its deepest set into the most gorgeous sounds and melodies, sometimes simple es folk music, serene, Italian (!), superbly sung and played - it sent shivers down my spine and I could have cried for bliss!
    Love B xx

  7. B, I was partly thinking of you and the importance of music and sound in your life (your highly-tuned sense of hearing!) as I wrote that, also knowing that you are in opera season.

    So glad to hear the music's been so inspiring! - Will email this weekend. Love, Rxx

  8. Great post, Roselle! Its hard to imagine a life without music. I love the Brandenburgs - so energizing and uplifting. (Here's one of my favourites No. 5 in D Allegro)

  9. David, oh yes - thanks! No 5's my favourite. (And I have grown over the years to like 3 very much, too.) Shall listen to that version. I swither between Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood as interpreters - very different - and am always happy to hear other versions.

    I had a lover who was (is) a professional cellist once. On my birthday, as a surprise, he drove the 200 miles from London to Dartmoor early one morning to - get this - wake me with a live rendition of the Cello Suites! What a man. What a lovely man.

    If you like other music of that period (and also a little earlier) and you don't know him, look our for Jordi Savall, Catalan string-player (viola da gamba etc). I have a number of his CDs and I think they're exquisite...

  10. David, just listened - thank you - that was superb. Lovely interpretation - and right tempo! And as for the grammar in the above comment of mine! - insert the 'once' between 'I' and 'had' in the 2nd para, and exchange 'our' for 'out' in the last para! Mindful, or wot? - Rushing to get dog out, plaster veg garden with 18 sacks of seaweed, and put in my garlic before the forecast rain!


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