Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mandolin and Guitar, Picasso

Music, argued Nietzsche, is the purest form of art. I think I've read something similar from Picasso and a number of other artists: they would make music, they say, if they could. But they don't have the talent so they paint, write, sculpt. Why "purest"?

No doubt theorists have discussed this to death. I don't want to join them here: research definitions of art and postulate dryly. I just want to feel it. I have seen paintings that stir something physical and make me feel more alive, but music is the only art form that makes me want to dance. I love it, yet I rarely listen to it because when I do I can't concentrate on anything else.

I can't hold a conversation when there's music playing; I can't cook, or read, or write. I can clean the house, so when I remember I put my iPod in a pocket and attach headphones. I can run to music so I do get to listen, and move, to it for an hour most days. On the whole, though, I live a fairly musicless existence. Or did.

There was a time when I was a regular clubber. We lived in Glasgow for a while and there were lots of places a person who likes to dance could go. So I did. I went with a friend, she had different reasons for going to clubs, but that was fine. She would get on with her thing and I would make my way to the dance floor and stay there till the lights came on. Then I'd go home, my friend having long since found what she thought she was looking for and left. For the next few days my life as a young housewife and mother would seem less mundane. My head would be clearer. I'd feel brighter. That was twenty years ago, and it's been a long time now since I've danced regulalry. I'm not sure if that's to do with age or living in the country, there are no clubs here, no dancing opportunities. But if I lived in a city would I still go?

Three Dancers, Picasso

Probably not. In a place full of twenty-somethings I'd feel inappropriate, and as for those over forty nights my experience has been that they're full of desperate men:

"Can I buy you a drink?"
"No thank you."
"Oh go on, it's just a drink."
"It is, but I don't want one."
"You've been dancing for ages, you must be thirsty."
"It's very kind of you, but, no, I'm not."
"Are you a lesbian or something?"
"I don't think so. Do lesbians not get thirsty?"
"Don't get smart with me!"
"Do apologise."
"Come on, let me buy you a drink. Where are you going?"
"To dance."
"One drink?"
"Look," I say, waving my left hand.
"Well, what the fuck are you doing in here?"
"You're leading people on."
"A woman on her own. Where's you're husband?"
"He's at home."
"Does he know where you are?"
"Of course."
"Is he an idiot?"
"Oh, for god's sake! I came here to dance, because I like it. Dance, not drink, not chat. Now, go away."
"Fucking lesbian."
Why does a certain type of man think that's an insult? They seem to be saying: "you want to have sex with the same type of people I do, you freak!"

I do feel I'm being unfair because, in truth, those places aren't about music but about coupling, and being already coupled I don't belong. My clubbing, and thus dancing, days are over. My days of rising with music, though, aren't over at all.

I have found that being in the presence of live music, played by talented musicians who love it, utterly vivifying. I can sit still, listen, watch, and become myself. I've known this for a while but haven't had access.

A few years ago a couple of local musicians started practising on a Thursday night in one of the town's pubs. Word got round and others joined them. They gained an audience. Now on any given Thursday evening the Black Bull jumps. Musicians from far and wide come to join in, sometimes you can't get in to the room because there are so many people with instruments. Guitars, fiddles, accordions, pipes and whistles, last Thursday there was a chap with a double bass. It was fab.

I popped in after our writing class with a couple of my students, we sat in the back-room because there were no seats in the main one and one of us (let's call her Ingrid) can't stand for long. As we chatted I tried to zone out the music so it wouldn't distract me for fear of seeming rude. But once or twice I was grabbed by the sound and had to jump up and go to watch. And when I went to get more drinks I hung about listening for a little longer than was probably polite. When I went out for a fag, ditto. Then Ingrid left so Rosie and I, happy to stand, went into the main room to enjoy the full experience. She knows everyone so we chatted to a few people, but mostly we just listened, and watched. And I wondered if watching a painter paint would be just as enlivening. I'm pretty sure watching a writer write wouldn't.

At one point one of the guitar players walked past with a couple of CDs, and as I'd heard he and his musical partner had just released one, I quizzed him. And then, panning for pounds in the coppery soil of my purse, managed to scrape up the eight quid to pay for the joy of bringing their sound back to my house.

Later, when everyone had left, and I was getting my coat on, the last in the bar, Dave, who I'd bought the disc from came in and said: "Eryl, are you coming?" I thought he meant they wanted to lock up, so I wrapped my scarf around me and followed.

There was a whole crowd outside, and as I emerged they started to move off. I could see Rosie up ahead. I must have looked puzzled because a nice chap came and walked beside me and talked about the evening. On we went up one road and then another before turning into my own.
"Here it is." Said the friendly man.
There was Rosie: "I'm just going to get a CD, he didn't have any more on him."

That made sense. Dave, whose house it was came to the door: "Ah, come in!"
I hesitated, as I had no instrument, like the man who walked beside me, and I already had my CD.
"Eryl, come in."
So  I went in, and there was the double bass in the hall, and there was the double bass player making a mug of tea. And there was someone else rummaging in the freezer for vodka. And there was a glass of red wine pressed into my hand. And there was a chair by a bookcase, and a gesture made to sit.

So I sat, and for the next few hours listened to them play, and discovered what Nietzsche meant.  


elizabeth said...

Wonderful tribute to the power of dance and music.
I quite agree. I need to actually listen to music....can't bear 'background music'.
Very jarring to the senses.
Music is a bit like smell I think --it hits you emotionally before your brain has a chance to deal with it.

Gosh, clubs, sex, silly men who think.......hmmm
a lost age

The Weaver of Grass said...

Wonderful post Eryl - I really enjoyed this. I play a few instruments and for a while was a semi-professional keyboard (harpsichord and piano) player but I found the whole thing very interesting.
The art form which moves me most is - without a shadow of doubt - the written word. This is closely followed by paintings and music really comes quite low down my list in spite of being a musician. Maybe it has something to do with having poor hearing now.
Enjoy that music.

Sharon Longworth said...

I read this, turned to Philip and said, 'Oh, what a wonderful post'. then I came here to comment and saw that both the previous comments started with the word 'wonderful'.
There's something about the way you've written this that resonates so strongly, captures change, hope, frustration and then new opportunities. All wrapped up in a clear love of music. Simply splendid.

Rachel Fox said...

It's always great to get back to something that you've really loved - and you obviously have a serious connection with music. I'm one of those "music was my first love" people - never have been able to live without it and have been in love with lots of different genres over the years. And as for dancing... that's one of the things I loved about raveworld (raving was my job for about ten years...) - you just danced and danced and danced (like the 12 dancing princesses - literally till your shoes wore through). Sometimes there was coupling too but the dance came first and we took it very seriously. OK, there were drugs involved too... for lots of us... didn't make the dancing any less part of us though.

Elisabeth said...

What a fantastic post, Eryl. To think I've just been writing about Nietzsche too and not from an academic perspective, but this post is all about music and the body, that urge to dance, to listen. I can't play music while
I write. Like you, it distracts me, but one of my favorite ways of killing the pain of housework and especially the tedium of ironing is to listen to music. For me it transcends all physicality and sends me to places far away.

I'm so pleased you found such wonderful and musical company close to home, Eryl. It seems it's the love of music and the sharing of that love that's almost best of all.

Eryl said...

Elizabeth ~ it is like smell, you're right. These days I feel myself increasingly drawn to the type of music my father listened to, and the powdery smell of my mother's face cream.

Weaver ~ is there no end to your talents? Certain poetry moves me more than listening to recorded music, but for me nothing beats watching and listening as musicians play. That said, I once stood and stared at a Ben Nicholson painting for at least an hour, and then went back for another look before we left the gallery.

Sharon ~ it's so thrilling to actually find new opportunities at this age. I know I'm not ancient, and opportunities are out there, but I rather thought by now I'd have missed them.

Rachel ~ raving was your job, that sounds so exotic! I have felt your love of music in your writing, and it was you who introduced me to Gil Scott Heron. For which, I should say, I will always be grateful.

I didn't actually know quite how serious my connection to, and love of, music was until I tried to write this post.

angryparsnip said...

You can tell I am not a writer as I can't come up for a word for this most personal and absolutely, interesting and wonderful post.
I used to play music (ear buds) when I worked at commercial design at a desk in a huge workplace. Maybe art and music work together for me.

cheers, parsnip

Carole said...

Most excellent post. I am like you in way, I cannot listen to music and do anything else. I must listen. However I am not good at music, I don't sing or play an instrument and rarely listen. I often hide from my soul being laid so bare, which is what music often does for me. But if I am feeling particularly young and barefoot and free, I must get away with my ipod and my soul and let them collide.

Eryl said...

Elisabeth ~ you are, I'm sure, right: what I felt most on Thursday night, both in the pub and in Dave's house, was generosity. They love playing and they want to share that.

Parsnip ~ I know several artists, whose work is marvellous, and who also listen to music while they work. I'm just the sort who can't walk and chew gum at the same time.

Carole ~ love the idea of your iPod and soul colliding! I agree, too, that music can leave you feeling wide open, and sometimes that's difficult.

Whirlochre said...

There's always the "mp3 player and alleyway when no-one is looking" combo.

Works for me — plus the drinks are cheap.

Kim Ayres said...

I can't dance. It goes back to embarrassing school disco times when a sense of self consciousness was so overwhelming it burned the neural pathways into place. I even avoid ceilidhs for this very reason.

However, I love to play. And joining in with a group of musicians I always feel like I've got the best seat in the house :)

Eryl said...

Whirl ~ why didn't I think of that? I'll try it tonight.

Kim ~ I think you're right, when I see a group of musicians playing I always feel slightly envious.

India Banks said...

a beautiful story Eryl. Thank you for writing it. I understand about wanting to feel music. And to dance. These nights you describe at the end are like a work of art - as was your rendering of the account. I felt warm and happy at the ending - as if I were sitting there with a glass of red wine waiting for the double bass player to get started.

nick said...

I love music, it really brings me to life. Ditto painting. Books I enjoy but in a more intellectual than emotional way. I would like to have been a musician. I tried to learn piano as a kid but I was hopeless and the piano teacher gave up in despair.

Pat said...

What fun! Nothing like finding a nice group of people who share a passion and welcome you.
Re dancing don't let it go - even if you do it all alone in the garden. It's true - the adage 'Use it or lose it' and I regret so much doing that with my singing voice.
Childishly pleased to recognise the Picassos

Eryl said...

India ~ so glad to have made you feel warm and happy.

Nick ~ perhaps you should try again, with a different instrument, it could well have been more to do with the teacher than you.

Pat ~ you are so right! Use it or lose it has become my mantra, and as I was hauling logs this afternoon I was chanting it.

It's my brother's 50th birthday this year and I've heard a party is in the offing, so I may get to have a good dance then. Fingers crossed.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

My big regret in life (well...one of them) is not knowing how to play an instrument. They're fantastic aphrodisiacs. Especially guitars. Girls love guitars. I lost the love of my life to a guitar player. But musicians need an audience too, I suppose. They'd be nothing without us.

Eryl said...

UB ~ you still have time to learn. Maybe not right now, but one day.

Guitars are cool, but for me it's the fiddle that has that certain phwoar quality. Luckily the fiddle player here is a woman.

grrl + dog said...


to lose yourself in music. A big dose of dancefloor action does cleanse the soul, and reset the mind.

It's rarer too for me, but as we both like to cut the rug big time, we dance for hours.. thank goodness it happened last night.

Eryl said...

Denise ~ ooh, lucky you!