Archives for posts with tag: Music


From Adrian Tomine’s New York Drawings

I have been thinking about silence a lot this week, partly inspired by a wonderful piece on the subject – “Listening for Silence With the Headphones Off” –  in Pitchfork.

There is much to reflect on in the article. My favorites include a quote from the poem “Self Portrait at 28” by David Berman:

“All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.”

And also this:

“Music can both drown out the noise of living and fill an uncomfortable absence.”

The writer of the piece – Mark Richardson – mentions that silence can be both an expression of power and of powerlessness, and suggests that it might be framed as listening to listening. The latter intrigues, and I continue to ponder on this.

My own fascination with silence began at the moment when I acutely “lost” (a ridiculous word for describing something for which I had no culpability) hearing in one ear. Nerve deafness, from which there has been no recovery. Since then I struggle to locate sound, and my perception of music has of course changed. But I am pretty used to it now, even the tinnitus has become part of who I am. There is much noise in the world that I can selectively blank out. If I lie on my hearing ear side, I imagine that I am listening to silence. I have come to cherish such moments.

I am also exploring a different kind of silence – the quietening of my mind through Buddhist meditation. This is a challenge, and will be a life-long one, if even ever achievable. But the process itself is a hopeful one. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the topic, he states:

“There’s a radio playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life…”

Thich Nhat Hanh aspires to “Noble Silence”, the kind of silence that is also a presence, to a being there that is therapeutic and healing.

Other types of silence can be destructive, and perhaps stem more from a imposed – self or other – silencing.

“There was silence in the room for several minutes and this silence felt like a kind of suffering to Gustav.”

from Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

I have spent many years in therapy, which has been a transformative experience. Those years of weekly sessions were akin to a stepwise and cumulative breaking of a life-long imposed silence.

For me, walking into the analyst’s room comes from a place of stillness. When we are born, we exit the silence of the womb and a lifelong cacophony of noise ensues. When we die, we return to a place of stillness, or so it seems. The therapeutic space is a liminal one, a microcosm of a lived life, bookended by silence.

Words are critically important to me, but I have come to see both them – spoken and unspoken – as inextricably linked to silence. Even if not acknowledged as such, sound depends on its counterpart for its existence. Music cannot be heard without the pause that precedes it. Silence is part of everything that we say, and as implicitly part of our communication as the words that emanate from it.

Alexander Newman considers that:

“There can be no psychotherapy except on the basis of silence – even the ‘talking cure’ presupposes silence.”

Similarly, from Gregory Ala Isakov’s song, Caves:

“Did I hear something break / Was that your heart or my heart / Like when the earth shakes / Then the silence that follows”

I am not sure that I agree with Wittgenstein’s statement “All I know is what I have words for”. Having spent my life living in words, I am now increasingly curious about, and keen to explore, the wordlessness of silence.

“For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.”

from Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet








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.



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.


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.


I was really struck by something Lord David Puttman said at yesterday’s symposium on The Experience of Illness and the Arts (

The director shared clips from five of his most memorable films within this context (more on this later), one of which was The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. The clip he shared absolutely reflected the essence of what the book and the film was about, a ‘seeing’ of the sufferer’s experience through his eyes, or at least to the extent that any such thing is possible. In the clip, a nurse enters the room, and as she leaves switches on the TV, the cartoon channel. The sufferer, with ‘locked-in syndrome’, is utterly powerless and is unable to communicate that no, he absolutely does not want to endure listening to cartoons. The nurse’s action was not one of intended cruelty, most probably a moment of non-thinking. But it felt thoughtless and cruel nonetheless.

Lord Puttnam commented on the universality of the importance of what we choose to listen to. Thus, what our hearing senses are exposed to at the time of dying should be a critical component of how we die. He is right, it is important, even essential, on a very fundamental and human level, and it should require little effort, ‘mere’ thoughtfulness, to make happen. But I am not sure how often, if ever, this issue is addressed.

I am as yet undecided on my top 5 (unsure why I choose 5, must be contemplating the final 15 minutes or so…).

But, to kick off, one I am considering is Bob Dylan’s Workingman’s Blues (from the Album Modern Times):

‘Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

You can hang back or fight your best on the front line

Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues’


I have just spent the weekend at my Alma Mater, UCC, Cork (

The event was a thought provoking and enthralling symposium, which covered many diverse aspects of potential interactions between Illness and the Arts.

Music and poetry, including live performances and readings, visual art, fiction, social media and film, in the context of the experience of illness, were all explored in innovative and refreshing ways. Personal stories of the experience of illness were shared, and were both moving and enriching. We also heard about new models for exposing medical undergraduates to the humanities.

A very imaginatively curated art exhibition Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art is currently on at The Glucksman Gallery, UCC (until March 2013). It is so worth seeing.

Much to consider, and hopefully to follow on from the symposium, including a book in 2013.

I was particularly proud that, firstly, I was able to contribute to this landmark event, and secondly, that it took place where many years ago I first set off on the road that has led me here.


The Irish Film Festival is on this weekend at The Tricycle cinema, and I was at the screening of Ballymun Lullaby last night.

The film had its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival last March, and has been released in Ireland. This was its first screening in London, and appropriately it happened in Kilburn. We were also treated to a flute duet by Ron and Tara (both in the film) beforehand, and a Q&A afterwards that also included the director Frank Berry.

The film opens with archive footage from RTE on the history of the Ballymun estate. The estate, ‘Ballymun flats’, was built in Dublin’s Northside as a solution to the acute housing shortage of the 1960s. The area suffered many social problems, particularly drug-related in the 1980s, and, as Ireland’s only high rise flats, became synonymous with deprivation, a label that it has never shaken off. Today, it is an area of regeneration, with most of the tower blocks demolished and replaced by houses.

The film centres on a music project, led by Ron Cooney, which has been active in the area for over 15 years. Ron’s mission has been to bring music into the schools and lives of the children of Ballymun. Passionate and charismatic, Ron tempts them into a world they would not otherwise experience. We follow Ron and the children as they prepare for and perform music specially composed for them (subsequently released as the CD Ballymun Lullaby) by Daragh O’Toole, who incorporated lyrics written by the children themselves.

Amazingly, just the director Frank Berry and a single cameraman shot the documentary, the making of the CD and its aftermath, without any funding initially, which only came through when filming had finished. The entire project comes across as a labour of love by all those involved.

As Ron commented afterwards, ‘Art is’. In many ways, the documentary highlights the fact that the music project is not just about the music itself, but more about the possibilities of what music can do, how it can add something, often indescribable but certainly meaningful, to lives. It is also about the people, the community of Ballymun who supported and encouraged their children to enter a world they never experienced themselves. Most notably, it is about Ron Cooney, who is extraordinarily committed and kind and funny. The kids love him, and now we do too.




This work has been on the periphery of my consciousness for ever. Last night I heard (and saw, as it was accompanied by a video installation) the piece performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Purcell Room, Southbank.

Inevitably, one thinks of the premiere of this work over 70 years ago, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, Barrack 27, Germany, January 1941. Messiaen had been captured while working as a hospital orderly (his poor eyesight precluded joining the army) during the German invasion of France in 1940. Fortunately, a music loving German guard supplied Messiaen with pencils and music paper and facilitated the composer creating his work undisturbed.

There was a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners, and he initially composed a trio for them. He later added a further 7 movements and piano, and this now constitutes Quartet for the End of Time as we know it.

The premiere was probably one of the most unusual and unique of its kind, performed in a Barrack on a freezing January night, to fellow prisoners as well as prison guards.

Of the event, Messiaen said:

‘Never have I been listened to with such attention and with such understanding.’

The story of the premiere inevitably lingers in any listening. Yet, the music itself is so hauntingly beautiful that any performance can stand alone as a sublime experience in itself. Thus it was last night. I was seduced, enthralled, and utterly moved by the music.

Messiaen was deeply religious, a devout Roman Catholic. The title of the quartet reflects its connection to the Book of Revelation:

“In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'”

The end of time, or as Messiaen later clarified, the end of all time, appears to have a double significance here ( Firstly, it had a specific musical meaning for Messiaen. He no longer wanted time as dictated by the 1, 2, 3 of a drumbeat, but rhythms that ‘expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks’. Secondly, the end of time means the end of life and the world as we know it, presumably triggered by the experience of living during WWII, as well as Messiaen’s deeply rooted religious beliefs. The work is divided into 8 movements, the 7 days of creation followed by the final day of eternity and timelessness.

The work is not apocalyptic in the sense that we usually use this word descriptively. Rather, it is ethereal, emotional and emotive, it surprises rather than disturbs, although it entices you into a world that is almost distressingly beautiful.