You’re right. “Love” is perhaps putting it strongly, as is the comparison of contemporary music with the bomb in that Stanley Kubrick film. But at least it no longer makes me ponder in despair how many innocents I must have beheaded in a previous life to deserve such punishment.
I was lucky enough to have an intensely musical upbringing. A privileged and intensely musical upbringing that sometimes involved being held captive and fidgeting in the audience of countless concerts, a number of which featured orchestral music by contemporary composers. After years of being bludgeoned about the ears by modern classical music I couldn’t even begin to understand, it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t trying to understand. Didn’t want to understand. Maybe I didn’t even want to TRY to understand because it alienated me and made me feel as thick as two short planks and it was altogether easier to avoid the stuff – instead swapping it out for those delicious predictable breadcrumbs scattered by mainstream radio stations, which lead to a predictable gingerbread house, baking predictable listening habits.
Having spent 26 years on this planet feeling generally thick, however, something happened. Maybe I ran out of planks? Anyway, A. and I found ourselves at a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank to see the Stabat Mater performed by the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta. This particular Stabat Mater was composed by a bloke called James Dillon, of whom we had never heard and who, it transpired, has a magnificent head of steely ringlets and the moustache of a slightly unscrupulous 20th century magician with a conscience burdened by more than a few knife-throw acts gone wrong. We knew not what to expect. Upon exiting the concert hall later on, we learned that as the poster in the main atrium of the concert hall had helpfully (but slightly too subtly) forewarned us that it would be “(un)easy listening” and the concert’s tagline had likewise forewarned us of “a powerful setting of suffering.” Fair play.
The lights dimmed and the musicians took their seats. And in fact the lights carried on dimming until they were no longer dim but completely off, the bare bones of the room’s detail picked out by only low-level stage lights and the burnished strips across the top of the music stands. It seemed to me that the people of the black-clad and skeletally silhouetted Sinfonietta were taking an unusually long time to tune their instruments… until the penny dropped. The piece had begun. Ho hum. We girded our loins and rooted our decidedly apprehensive backsides firmly into the black leather seats and wondered what exactly we’d got ourselves into.
The Stabat Mater is a hard piece for any composer to justify a happy clappy rendering of. If you read a translation of the poem from its original Latin, you’ll find yourself groping for the Kleenex as it delves – verse after verse – into the abject misery of a mother watching her son perish slowly oh so slowly atop a crucifix. Hats off, then, to Dillon’s version, which milks dry the teat of musical misery. There is not a single drop of desolation left to be coaxed from the udder. The only thing that could more emphatically have conveyed the text’s sentiment would be if the wind section had cast aside their oboes and pummelled each other into unconsciousness with crowns of thorns and bottles of vinegar.
It was with this thought crystallising in the dusty recesses of my rusty imagination that the real art of (un)easy listening came into focus. It was a paradigm shift in perspective, where I fell flat on my face and realised that music has value beyond simply making you rap your fingernails with pleasure on a hard surface. Just as a dystopian film can transport you to another world, so can music, and all the more intimately for giving you nothing visual to work with, because the scenes you conjure up within the four walls of your head are entirely your creation. Soundscape escapism demands that we lose ourselves in a world less pleasant than the immediate cosy cushtiness of the ranked seating’s padded thrones in a warm, safe space, resigning ourselves mentally to an evening spent somewhere far far far away from where we feel at ease.
But it’s not all bad! Bedded deep into these tortuous mental forays you’ll find intense moments of orgasmic masochism. Atonal music drags you kicking and screaming through ten minutes of aural bracken and suddenly – mercifully – a dissonant chord resolves into something harmonious and a ray of light bursts through battered eardrums, or the fucking cow bell finally stops being battered with a chainsaw while the chainsaw-wielder takes a breather. Music’s towering dominatrix grants you brief respite with a lull in the whipping, only to resume again with renewed fervour a few seconds later. The audience lives for those few moments. For a total of perhaps 30 seconds in the entire hour and a half, your mistress dedicates herself to the sole purpose of your gratification.
And if the S&M angle doesn’t quite do it for you, the last bastion of respite is the fact that music of this ilk reminds us with a slap in the ear just how bloody lucky we are to even have the ability to hear stuff at all. The ability to discern minute detail, to differentiate between the bellow of a bass saxophone and the rumble of a kettle drum, to form opinions about what we do and don’t like, and to argue about the respective merits and demerits of opposing artistic approaches. Just as applies to the rich tapestry of human senses in its entirety, hearing is a gift – one that those who are fortunate to have been bestowed with have a habit of taking for granted.
I won’t lie; when I say I stopped worrying, this is true inasmuch as I stopped worrying about why I had so far in my life failed to understand or enjoy difficult music, but the worry returned with zeal when I feared that this persistent Stabat Mater might actually never stop and I would in fact die in this imaginary prison of bereavement and bloodshed. Thank you, Dillon, both for curtailing the supply of planks and for giving me a whole new appreciation of silence when the curtain finally fell.