24 December 2012

Silent Night

It's Christmas Eve, and on the radio, a solo choirboy is singing the carol Once in Royal David's City - the traditional start to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  The opening notes are a particularly exquisite sound coming out of the hush beforehand.  

The sudden presence of his voice is mesmerising, just as other unexpected flourishes of sound can be - a note, a trill, a thrum, a chord on a piano, even a loud body-jangling open E from an electric guitar.  For what is remarkable and special about sound is, of course, its contrast to the silence that precedes it.

A few weeks ago, John Humphreys of Radio 4's Today programme, had a rant about how noisy our lives have become.  He's got a point.  It's not just aeroplanes and traffic, but the muzak in lifts, concourses, restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shops.  We actually abuse music - using it as a cover, a gauze, a medication to manipulate mood, allowing it to speak for us or even create our personality, like getting fixated on the make of car we drive, and proclaiming to the world - as if it actually needs to know - this is the kind of music I listen to.  

On the recent X Factor final, a show I dip into because I am genuinely interested in the way the singers handle their material, I nearly went demented with the constant stream of noise. There were never any moments of quiet - just an incessant parade of loud commercials, followed by musically-accompanied back stories of the contestants.  When the finalists came to their actual performance, the impact had been lessened by the burbling hum that had been continual throughout.  There was no differentiation.

On a music course I attended a couple of years ago, an inspired teacher called Radha did not only remind us through group singing how organic and in-the-moment music can be, but also the importance of really listening.  As an exercise she asked us to bring a favourite piece of music - either a song or an extract lasting no longer than five minutes.  We arranged ourselves in a circle on the floor as, one by one, each person took a turn to play the chosen music, simply said his or her name and then went quietly to sit in the centre of the circle.  There was no explanation, no preamble, and no distraction.  The rest of us simply lay there with our open ears and quietened minds, truly absorbed in what we could hear.  

Five minutes of listening in this way was nourishing, and incomparable with five hours of walking as an automaton through unceasing soundscape.

So when I wish you a Silent Night this Christmas, it's only so that you can truly enjoy the sheer delight of sound as it arises out of peace and quiet, a rediscovery of the fresh impact of voices, the suddenness of harmony, the surprise of dissonance, perhaps the unexpected jingle from Santa's sleigh flying overhead...