Archives for category: Music

“Life is curious when it is reduced to its essentials”

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

When leaving London, I made it my mission to pack my up-to-then life into two suitcases. It proved to be quite a feat. I had lived there for more than 25 years, and although I am not really a collector of “stuff”, I had a home and therefore furniture, clothes, and very many books.

The task was achievable, and also extremely stressful. Most of the “stuff” was donated to charity. I sold a few things, including my piano.

And I did get on the plane with just two suitcases.

I do think of some of the things I left behind (and hopefully now enjoyed by someone else) – almost exclusively books. I had an eclectic collection and I suspect that I will replace at least some of them in due course. I left behind a box of prized works for my daughter. I think she will be glad of them in due course, and I hope that she will experience a similar amount of joy within those pages.

I miss my piano, daily. I have a cello here that I love playing. But I yearn for the sublime ecstasy (and solitude) that playing Satie and Mompou, in particular, gave me.

I have been reading Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty – a gem. In the piece titled Writing That Sounds like Writing, she talks about overwriting and excesses in art. As she has gotten older, Gabbert has come to appreciate subtleties in, for example, poetry. Yet she worries that

…this is like rich people getting rid of all their stuff, the intellectual equivalent of mistaking asceticism for refinement. The Marie Kondo craze is basically the opposite of horror vacui–fear of empty space versus fear of bounty. Minimalism versus maximalism, simplicity versus complexity.

This has made me question my own actions. True, circumstance (I didn’t want to put anything into storage) was a main motivating factor. I also felt a desire to shake off the old and begin again, in a more minimalist and self-defined way–the totality of such a decluttering allowing for a simpler life, and a new way of seeing and being.

I am also aware that I am fortunate enough to, for example, replace some of the books I left behind, if I so desire.

Jean Rhys states that life is more curious when limited to the essentials. Of course, what the essentials might be is entirely subjective, and again inextricably linked to what can be afforded. Having less “stuff” – and I mean in relative terms compared to my previous existence–probably does make life more curious for me, but more than that it makes it lighter, less weighed down, less burdensome.

Perhaps, along with the casting aside of the material, I also discarded those emotional aspects that no longer served a purpose in my life.




At the weekend I attended a listening gig, ie we all sat around to hear a full length session of Radiohead’s OK Computer. A laptop connected to a super fancy speaker (part of the mission, to experience sound via this new high-tech speaker) relayed the music to the auditorium.

First released in 1997, the album is well known to me, and I frequently listen to individual tracks. But it has been many years since I have listened to all 12 in their uninterrupted entirely. I create monthly Spotify playlists, somewhere between 60 and 100 songs that I dip in and out of, depending on my mood. I very rarely listen to entire albums.

It was such a joy – and so refreshing –  to sit there and do just that. To be present to the music, and to do nothing else for that hour or so. Even at live gigs, I am usually moving around, distracted by something other than the music. The OK Computer listening session (at the wondrous National Sawdust) was one of my purest music experiences for many years.

It also encouraged me to re-engage with the album in a different way.

I went back to the lyrics after the event, reminding myself what each track is / might be about, and of course the album in its entirety.

I am still not sure what each song is about, and it is all too easy to re-interpret the lyrics as prescient and resonant with our times.

Electioneering, for example…
“I will stop
I will stop at nothing
Say the right things
When electioneering
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet”

And Let Down

“Transport, motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Disappointed people clinging on to bottles
And when it comes it’s so so disappointing”

Perhaps it does not matter. Lyrics, like poetry and art, can be what we need them to be.

I can’t quite decide on the mood or tone of Ok Computer. A sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and even desolation, emanates from many of the songs, as if life is suspended somewhere between ‘starting and stopping’, between “taking off and landing”, between hope and despair.

But I want to veer towards the more hopeful, and to my personal favorite track, Lucky, where that liminal space might just reflect the optimism of the title…

“Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

We are standing on the edge”


This Pitchfork article on the album is well worth a read.



I have just seen the documentary film Mountain, a meditative consideration of the rocky and often snow-covered peaks that loom large and magnificent throughout our landscape.

Jennifer Peedom’s shots are extraordinary from the outset, almost dizzyingly so. The camera shifts vertiginously from one sequence to the next, the act of the image-capturing itself a marvel how was it even done?!). The text, narrated by Willem Dafoe, and co-written by Robert Macfarlane and Peedom, is understated, and as such aptly complements the sublime images it accompanies. There are many silences, which facilitate a pause, a breath-taking moment to consider the majesty and beauty of what is being revealed.

The film is a 76 minute wonderment. I now realise that I have never really used the word s‘awe’ and ‘sublime’ appropriately before.

Beyond the sheer physicality of the film, Mountain left me a number of things to reflect on.

Firstly, I was struck by something Dafoe said early on:

“The mountains we climb are mountains of our minds”

I guess that this analogy refers to the extraordinary psychological challenge that those who set out to scale the highest mountains face, and one that surely matches if not exceeds the physical demands.

But the words made me think too of the sometimes near impossible goals that we set ourselves in our – non-mountaineering – lives. These ‘climbs’ and ‘scalings to the summit’ are often invisible to others, and as a result too infrequently applauded or even acknowledged.

I have never climbed a mountain, nor really aspired to. Yet I am utterly compelled by the attempts and feats of others to do so. I have read pretty much every book, and seen every film and documentary on climbing Mount Everest, for example.

I tend to seek out ‘me’, and my story, or at least components of it, in pretty much all of the fiction/biography/poetry/cinema that I experience. Consciously or otherwise, I have an innate self-selection process that draws me to stories, whatever the medium, where I might find personal resonance.

And so it is with the sublime, and the almost impossible stories of scaling the heights, of getting to the top. I am somewhere in those stories, though my climbing is psychical. The truth is that I am way too fearful to attempt the most novice of physical climbs. But nonphysical challenges hold much less fear for me. I get the adrenaline, the euphoria that these physical risk takers experience – ‘the risk is the reward’. So too for me, but in an infinitely more limited physical microcosm.

Secondly, Mountain gives us more serious issues to consider. It encourages us to question why we feel the need to control our environment, to ‘conquer’ it, to make it ours. Getting to the top of Mount Everest does not actually equate with owning anything. In fact, seeing as we do the queues lining up the ascent, you begin to wonder what exactly humans are trying to achieve. My own theory is that we struggle to cope with the unknown, the unattainable, the inexplicable, particularly as so much more is known and explored that it was, say 100, 200 years ago. Uncertainty, a not knowing, has become an anathema to humanity. And thus, we distract ourselves from such uncertainty – which ultimately equates with our eventual nonexistence – by seeking to conquer. If everything is ultimately within our grasp, perhaps mortality might become so, too. A fallacy, undoubtedly, but the illusion somehow fosters a sense of safety.

Thirdly, Mountain encourages us to consider the beauty, and fragility of all our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means and feels to be alive, to truly notice our lived experiences, and to be grateful for such awareness. There is a beautiful moment in the film when Dafoe refers to the risks that extreme climbers take on. We truly live when death becomes an almost reality – so close, we can almost feel it.

It is at that moment that we are most alive.



As I write, I am listening to Tavener’s music, some of which I have found relatively impenetrable, but much of which is sublime.

Tavener died earlier this week. He had Marfan’s syndrome, which explains his ‘ethereal thinness’, and had a long history of illness, including a heart attack six years ago from which he almost died.

Tavener recently commented that he had lived longer than anyone, including himself, had imagined possible.

He was 69.

Today, I listened to what came to be his final radio interview, which took place last month from his home in Dorset with Radio 3’s Tom Service (
In the interview Tavener, who sounded frail, spoke of his physical suffering, and also of his spirituality within the context of such suffering, which constantly informed his writing and his perception of life.
For Tavener, in the context of not knowing what comes after death, faith and doubt co-existed. Such non-knowing necessitated a humbling of the mind, and Tavener, who was deeply religious, believed that life and death, doubt and darkness, all existed alongside each other.
Illness, and particularly the almost fatal heart attack six years ago, facilitated a renewed seeing of the world and 0f Tavener’s place within it, with an enhanced clarity.
Rather than escaping from suffering through his writing, Tavener, throughout his life and career, chose to deal with issues such as death head-on. Thus, his music was informed by suffering, but, perhaps perversely, the creativity thus produced served to energise.
Of late, his music, as stated by the artist himself, became more terse and austere. He expressed a wish to be remembered as an austere composer.
God returned to Tavener in a distinctly different way following his heart attack. This was no longer an external deity, but an internal one. Since then, every piece he wrote was informed by this, and by via negativa – ‘where there is nothing, there is God’.
In recent years, as illness escalated, Tavener felt much closer to the non-knowing, and faith became more complex for him, and much influenced by pain and suffering.
Pain significantly affected his capacity to work, struggling of late to work for more than two hours at a time. Tavener believed that his last pieces were particularly important, not least because of the physical effort they involved. When unable to work due to illness, he described such times as days of darkness. When he could work, a divine darkness was alive within.
Tavener quoted Tolstoy, who believed that one had to suffer to be heard as an artist. The composer clearly subscribed to a similar view.
I was impressed and moved by the clarity of Tavener’s vision himself, and of his life and work. Tom Service commented at the end of the interview that, despite the seriousness and darkness of the topics that Tavener spoke of, the composer smiled as he spoke. Tavener concurred, and laughed at this observation…

A first experience for me, this festival, seemingly the largest european film festival, is on at various venues in London until November 17.

Thus far I have seen two great films.

Firstly, The Lady in Number 6, which introduces us to Alice Herz Sommer, who, at almost 110, is the world’s oldest pianist and holocaust survivor. She is truly inspirational. Charismatic and engaging, her optimism and enjoyment of life is uplifting. She is grateful for her life, all of it, the good and the bad, and for every day that she continues to experience. At 109, she enjoys life and people hugely, and continues to devote time and self to her greatest passion, playing the piano:

‘Music saved my life and music saves me still.’

As one of the co-producers Chris Branch stated when he introduced The Lady in Number 6, this is not a film about the holocaust, but about one remarkable person.

Secondly, Orchestra of Exiles, which was preceded by 15 minutes of wonderful live music (violin, including the very moving title track to Schindler’s List). Again, this film was much more about the good achieved by one person rather than a documentary about the holocaust. The Polish violinist Bronislow Hubermann rescued many of the world’s greatest musicians from Nazi Germany and eastern europe in the mid 1930s, facilitating their exit to Palestine, which led to the creation of the now world-famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Two things struck me while watching both films: the extraordinary goodness and kindness that exists in humanity and which can sometimes be easy to forget, and the power of music to enrich and to transform both the lives of individuals and of nations.


It has been 28 years since they last performed in London, and last night, during their current one-off tour, I saw them at the Roundhouse London.
Although it feels like I grew up in the era of the Rats, I had never before seen them live.

It was just great.
Ageing (quasi)punk rockers can still produce magic. A glorious performance of passion, talent, individuality, and anger.

The anger is perhaps a little more subdued these days. But, as I listen anew to the lyrics of the songs – Banana Republic, Someone’s Looking at You – it strikes me that anger, just like all emotions that we experience, can have a positive and creative impact.

Growing up in Ireland, anger was judged as a fundamentally ‘wrong’ emotion, to be suppressed at all times, often with tragic consequences.
Perhaps this is not unique to Ireland. A young non-Irish work colleague this week told me that he also believes that anger is always ‘wrong’ and destructive.
I contend that no emotion is fundamentally wrong. We feel what we feel. To repress or to suppress any is unhealthy. Problems arise only in how we deal with them, not in the fact of feeling them.

And so, I am grateful to Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, who used anger positively to create music and words whose meaning transcends time and nations.

From Someone’s Looking At You:

‘You may as well
shout it from the roof
scream it from your
spit it from your mouth
It could fall on deaf ears to indulge in your fears
There’s a spy in the sky
There’s a noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line
And for every paranoid’s desire…

There’s always Someone looking at you.
S-s-s-s-someone looking at you…
They’re always looking at you.’


I am so looking forward to this upcoming conference in Cheltenham November 23-24 (
Themed ‘Voice’, the conference promises to encompass ‘a mosaic of the subjective, individually complex and disparate voices that resonate within medicine’. Speakers include the writer Lionel Shriver, the psychologist Richard Bentall, the composer Eduardo Mirando who works at the crossroads between medicine and science, the poet and philosopher Raymond Tallis, poets Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion and Jackie Kay, the artist Bobby Baker… to name but a few in a very intriguing, diverse, eclectic and fascinating programme.

It promises to be great…



This play is currently on at The Tricycle Theatre London, and what an absolute gem it is.

Written and performed by Colman Domingo, A Boy and His Soul is the story and ‘soundtrack of a boy’s coming of age in ’70s and ’80s Philadelphia.’

Jay, the central character, rediscovers the vinyls of his youth in the basement of the house he grew up in. As he replays the records, each track frames a memory and a chapter in his life. The music that he was born into was that of soul:

‘My Soul Music is my sanctuary, y’all…Soul Music is my life.’

We hear music from The Three Degrees, Switch, Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, amongst many others. I have never really been a soul fan. I think I might be now.

Finding it unbelievable that his parents abandoned this music of memories, Jay queries:

‘How could they leave this music behind? A lot of albums were warped and damaged but they still had glory on their grooves.’

Against the backdrop of soul music are played out the lives of Jay and his family, and the importance of music for all of them. For Jay’s mother, Edie:

‘In an instant, with just the sound of a song, I saw my mother’s thoughts leave the modest backyard of the low-income row house…With just the sound of that song, I saw my mother leave poverty, and worry, and sadness, and hopelessness of being a black woman on welfare in 1978 with three children who makes a little money cleaning houses…’

Speaking of his pop, Clarence:

‘My stepfather Clarence is what I would call a con-negro-seur of Soul Music.’

Jay’s sister, Averie, takes control of her own words:

‘I’m a Nigga! I don’t put on no airs for nobody, I like my music loud and my men tough as HELL.’

And finally, his brother Rick:

‘My brother Rick would be in his bedroom primping for his pimping to the sound of the Isley’s.’

The script is funny, often hilarious. It is also tender and sad, and ultimately very moving, particularly towards the end, as both Pop and Edie near the end of their lives:

‘Maybe, my pop a strong black man didn’t have a way to cope with my mother’s diagnosis. Instead maybe he desperately wanted to leave this earth, before the woman that he loved grew more ill and he was left to deal with the deck that he had been dealt.’

Domingo is extraordinary. He owns the part and revels in the performance. Consequently, so does the audience. Domingo mesmerises and seduces you into his world, one that is imbued with soul, in every sense, and with hope.

From Edie:

‘Just because you wish for it don’t mean it won’t come true. Just Believe. Hold tight and hold open your hands!’


Just visiting Wilton’s Music Hall – the world’s oldest and last surviving music hall – in East London is a treat in itself.

At the same time experiencing the currently running song cycle Ten Plagues, which features Marc Almond, libretto by Mark Ravenhill and music by Conor Mitchell, is a double treat.

Ten Plagues is about one man’s survival through the London plague of 1655 that killed over 100,000 people. The song cycle consists of 17 separate pieces, all performed, wonderfully, by Almond.

A story of grief, isolation, and fear, Ten Plagues resonates far beyond 1655, through, for example, the AIDS ‘gay plague’, and to much that troubles our present time.

My experience of Ten Plagues at Wilton’s Music Hall is a very special, nay exquisite, memory.


This programme was initially broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday December 4 (it remains available on iplayer).

The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley’s life has revolved around music for as long as he can remember.

Since childhood, he has had problems with one of his ears, but which did not appear to impede his career in music. Then, in 2010, as a result of infection with the common cold virus, he lost his hearing in the other ear, and as a result he is now one of the 9 million in the UK with partial deafness.

The radio programme was primarily about Berkeley’s coming to terms with his experience of living with deafness, but it was also about raising awareness of the fact that what happened to him, and presumably to many other sufferers, was potentially avoidable and treatable in its early stages.

We follow Berkeley as he awaits the performance of one of his own compositions at the proms. He shares his anxiety that what he now hears, and what he composes, may no longer be the same as that heard and perceived by those with normal hearing. The basis of this anxiety must be impossible to prove, or disprove.

Berkeley uses hearing aids, which are technologically so much more sophisticated than those of even five years ago. Nonetheless, they too distort sound.

When he initially lost his hearing, the composer wrote a newspaper article on his experience. He was contacted shortly afterwards by an ENT surgeon with a special interest in music, who believed that with the correct treatment at the time of the event, deafness could perhaps have been prevented. Too late at this point for Berkeley, he remains determined to raise this issue, as it may benefit other sufferers in the early stages of deafness.

Berkeley stopped playing the piano when he became deaf. Confused as to whether he should trust his fingers or his ears, he lacked confidence in what he was hearing. So too, he initially stopped listening to music. The experience of it was too painful, a reminder of what he had lost, plus the renewed shock he experienced each time when listening, akin to a bereavement.

It is difficult for newly deaf musicians to be open about their loss, and there is the immediate fear that others will lose confidence in their ability to make and perform music. The reality, however, is different. Those who have heard, and later develop deafness, retain the memory, as Beethoven did so famously.

Berkeley reads movingly from a letter written by Beethoven, when he seemed suicidal, a ‘hopeless case’, as his deafness took on the appearance of chronicity, a ‘lasting malady.’ On the verge of despair, Beethoven believed that only art kept him from suicide.

Berkeley, as he himself states, is an optimist, and he claims that there may even have been some positive aspects to his deafness. He believes that he now values music more intensely, and that it has become even more precious to him. He also feels that he hears and listens better than ever, which could be explained on the basis of brain plasticity, a rewiring of sorts, reflecting the brain’s capacity to adapt.

For Berkeley, as for Beethoven, the music map was already there, and the memories had been laid, prior to deafness. Thus, hearing loss occurred for both when they were already hearing with their brains, and perhaps less so with their ears…

Berkeley’s compositions now are undoubtedly different to those written prior to the onset of his deafness, but difference does not necessarily mean inferior. If anything, he believes that his work is now more focused.

We tend to take our senses for granted. Deafness is a particularly invisible impairment, yet one which can acutely and dramatically change the sufferer’s perception of, and interaction with, the world.

There is also the sobering statistic that hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline. Keep hearing well, and you may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Listening to Berkeley’s programme, I thought of Anne Stevenson’s poem On Going Deaf, and her pragmatic approach to losing her hearing:

‘I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?

Searching myself, I find a spare.’

The poet had originally studied the cello in college, and later switched to literature. Although she suffered an acute and progressive hearing loss, her poetry comes from the sounds of music. For her, as for Berkeley, deafness has not been a place of silence.