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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor