Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What makes music special?

I have met people over the years who are only to pleased to impose whatever degree of instrumental talent they may possess on anyone within earshot. They will do this in any place and at any time and although. My own response is always akin to having witnessed them spit in a railway carriage (which used to incur a £25 fine) or fail to clear up after their dog on a public footpath (£100 and climbing). But I realise that many do not share my opinion and actually enjoy the experience, at least for a short while.

Secretly I wish I were more thick-skinned. I envy these transgressors their opportunity to practise at any time in any place, even on the most shrill of instruments. Some become very good and, needless to say, uninhibited performers. For my own part I need to be asked to play in public, the request implying permission. Even then I must suppress the knowledge that, whatever the feelings of the majority, someone at least will be wishing I'd just shut up. And that is the person for whom I have most sympathy.

As the teaching season draws to a close the opportunities to perform have increased to fill the void. July is a time for village fetes and other outdoor events but the most recent spate of gigs for the Eastern Straynotes kicked off at Blackfriars Hall in Norwich, playing at the graduation ceremony for Norwich University College of the Arts. The building, once part of a mediaeval friary, has a wonderfully flattering acoustic – "like singing in the bath" as one of our number put it. It has wooden flooring, presumably laid on stone, stone walls and a high, steeply pitched wooden roof all contributing to the reverberant sound that survived filling the room with excited, champagne drinking graduates with their friends and families. This was just as well as we had been asked to play without amplification.

On Saturday, as well as playing at the first fete held by Norwich Steiner School in their new premises, the Straynotes performed in the wonderful Plantation Garden. I have mentioned this in previous postings but, being 'built' in a former quarry it seems to mirror the towering, century old gothic, Roman Catholic cathedral next door. We played at the far end (from the entrance) and again the acoustic was very supportive. A walkway climbs out of the hollow through flint-faced terraces that create a reflective semi-circle behind the 'stage' (a patch of grass on this occasion). A very singular acoustic, only enhanced by birdsong. The other band, a duo called Solto SueƱos, comprised Spanish guitar and a woman who sang beautifully in Spanish and the flint backdrop, along with steep sides of the garden, helped her voice carry to good effect.

On Sunday we played again at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. Another high-ceilinged venue but one in which the sound always seems to disappear into the distance to be lost without trace. In spite of a sensation of playing into cotton wool, that takes some getting used to every time I play there, it is a real privilege to play in such a wonderful building in the presence of so much, and so much variety of, great art from all times and places.

So what makes music special? What all these places have in common is a sense of being somehow sacred and of being places in which, I hope anyway, only the incurably gauche would venture to play unbidden. Blackfriars Hall has existed for several centuries and began life as part of a religious community. The Plantation Garden, although one Victorian gentleman's vision and passion, has come to mean a great deal both to those who have helped restore it and to those who visit for the very real peace it brings in the middle of a city. And the Sainsbury Centre, also a place visited for reflection and the calm it retains regardless of school visits or other events, plays hosts to artefacts that have been deeply significant to people in ages past. All these factors have a bearing on the way I play.

For me, to be invited to add sound to such places is very special indeed. For all the mistakes I might make performing in these venues, the music sounds far better than a perfect rendition during a rehearsal at home.


  1. No-one knows. My personal view is that people probably sang before they spoke. That intonation and rhythm conveyed emotions, long before words added detail to the interchange. That music calls to us from our ancestral home, to remind us of who we are at heart.

  2. It was, of course, a rhetorical question but your eloquent answer is full of truth. I love the idea that early humans sang first and developed speech later. It makes perfect sense. And music remains one of the key elements that all humans share and understand.