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Music for a dark room

October 21, 2012

“There’s no time of day that’s not right for the Fleet Foxes.” Some hand-me-up advice from Fiona, who recently began her university career. Sound advice, too; try White Winter Hymnal – a beautifully-textured song, day or night.

In return I’d like to think I handed the Psychedelic Furs down to her. We may not absolutely agree on the best songs, but since this is my blog, not hers, you get Pretty in Pink. Obvious, perhaps, but it does have the best opening lyrics I know. (Good lyrics count for a lot: I’ll leave that for future discussion, for now merely sharing my irritation with the Crash Test Dummies’ song Afternoons and Coffee Spoons. I approve of a song which references poetry. But then it makes sure you know how clever it is by naming the poet. No-one likes a smart-alec.)

Thinking of Fiona as a student takes my mind to a very run-down house in Southampton. It was never in great shape, and its occupants were not always the most careful of their domestic environment. They (ie, we) did little to improve it, but neither did the landlord. Only a negligible portion of our rent can ever have been applied towards maintenance.

A cold, largely damp house, then, without central heating. Instead we had small, individual and undoubtedly dangerous electric heaters, only really effective if we stood close enough to them to risk scorching. Winter mornings (just after being woken every day by Barbra Streisand – Woman in Love), started with a dash from bed to the heater, then back to wait for room temperature to rise at least to a level matching that outside the window.

On the other hand, a positive recollection of that time is of my housemate, Sean. I will always associate him with Seeing out the Angel, a soft, resonant and atmospheric song which I think is Simple Minds’ best. Reflecting on it, that association must be the major part of my love for that song. I don’t know if it is in fact better than their others: I’m not sure it matters too much.

I can’t listen to it, anyway, without an image of a room dark except for candles which were partly for mood and partly for extra warmth; nor without recalling the conviction that it was touching us in a way it had never touched anyone before.

That’s absolutely true. Our experience of that music was unique. That’s basic to any art form, isn’t it? Its an emotional reflex only partly related to objective quality. We all have music that pulls that reflex forward more readily; the composer or performer (or both) has craft, skill and something beyond – call it soul – which does that. That must be the explanation for having precisely the same sense of revelation in response to Bach’s Partitas for Solo Violin.

Ok – enough of that. One of the rules of this blog is not to be a music critic. Wanting expertise in the first place, in the second place I lack the inclination constantly to invent new, descriptive (and increasingly fantastic) prose, like the worst excesses of wine criticism. “I’m getting wild gooseberries, twilight on the southern shore of Lake Como; green oak newly-hewn by a muscular swain in the New Forest; Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens…

There’s a need for music you just listen to while it does its work. Near the beginning of the Rameau’s Zoroastre, there’s a moment when the strings, which have been playing in unison, suddenly break out into parts. That always gives me a tingle. I don’t know why, and I don’t think I want to.


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  1. Very evocative!

  2. Thank you! I’ve only just thawed out. Some of that stuff was frozen into my DNA.

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