Thomas Sutcliffe: A little music goes a long way

Share

I attended a school concert this week, one of those parental Days of Obligation that I generally expect to file away under the heading of duty rather than pleasure. As it happened, this one was surprisingly painless. True, some of the performances were best regarded as tests of parental affection, an experience to be endured with grace and a politely non-committal expression, but most of them were delightful.

There was an unexpected dividend in that the concert coincided (almost) with No Music Day, Bill Drummond's – well, what precisely? – campaign, conceptual artwork, or mere provocation? Scheduled for 21 November because the following day is St Cecilia's Day, No Music Day appears to be uncertain about exactly what it is itself. Drummond's website describes it as "an aspiration, an idea, an impossible dream, a nightmare". "No Music Day has nothing to sell," he adds. "There is no mission statement."

The site's home page makes it pretty clear that abstention is the game, though. On No Music Day, it announces, "No hymns will be sung, no records will be played on the radio, iPods will be left at home, rock bands will not rock." There's something a little forlorn about the future tense, given that these injunctions were so widely ignored on Wednesday. But Drummond, the co-founder of the band The KLF, is making some headway three years into his five-year plan (the first No Music Day was in 2005). This year, Radio Scotland signed the pledge and committed itself to a day of abstention, saving money on what radio producers call needletime by discussing music and talking about it without actually playing any.

Drummond's idea, it should hardly need saying, is driven by a love of music, not a hatred for it. What he wants to restore – in a world where music is ubiquitous and unavoidable – is the keen appetite, a bit of aural yearning for something sweet and distinctive. And that's all but impossible to achieve in a world where music is omnipresent and instantly available.

If music made you fat we'd all be obese by now, so glutted with melody and rhythm that we could barely walk. And surfeit doesn't stop us from consuming more – it only deprives us of the almost-forgotten thrill of having a craving satisfied, of feeling a lack which is then, deliciously, supplied.

The other point is that the constant snacking on music – the iPod on shuffle, the radio punched from preset to preset – effectively dulls our perceptions about what we're hearing. The palate never gets a chance to clear so that distinctive flavours can be properly appreciated. And, although I didn't rigorously observe No Music Day myself (you try watching television without being force-fed gobbets of music), I found myself thinking about that school concert rather differently because of it.

And one thought that occurred is that it isn't just the ubiquity of music that's a problem, but the smoothly professional polish of most recorded music. Because that's a kind of deformation of our listening, too, the way that live performance – with its hazards and its fallings short – has become a comparative rarity.

The studio finish of much of what we hear invariably diminishes the sense that making music well is a tricky business. And yet for most of human history, excellence in performance would have been a rare luxury, available only to the well-heeled or the well-placed. Pretty much everyone else had to make do with the home-made and the rough-edged. In fact, thinking about this has got me through quite a lot of school concerts. "This is what nearly all music was like," I think, as someone in the string section negotiates a tricky arpeggio like a pig on ice, threatening to bring everyone else down with them.

The odd thing is that listening to a very familiar piece played less than perfectly is almost as good a way of refreshing its virtues as not listening to it at all. The contours of the piece as it plays in your head stand out in relief against what you're actually hearing and generate a teasing anticipation of hearing it again in the future. But, more than that, there's a unique kind of exhilaration in hearing amateur musicians slip from an honest struggle with the score into a moment where they're suddenly in concert with it. A tempo will seize everyone present or a shared note sit just right and the effect is like the sun coming out. This is more than mere relief, I think; it's a moment when you can hear an abstract ideal reaching out to touch a compromised human reality. As well as listening to no music occasionally, we should also listen to less than perfect music if we want to know what we're not missing.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Blairites for and against a Miliband victory

John Rentoul
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before