Should you listen?


Life is full of ritual and repetition at the moment. Breakfasts, nappies and baths, novelty Italian pop songs and nursery rhymes for comfort, and bedtime stories. “Giraffes Can’t Dance” is intoned nightly, like three junior “Hail Marys”. The unlikely story unfolds at the “Jungle Dance”, where animals normally seen tearing each other to pieces gather instead for a friendly (but lightly competitive) boogie. Gerald the Giraffe, enormous, initially all flailing legs and buckled knees, learns to find his own personal dance music in nature’s own sounds after consulting a cricket with a violin the size of a shirt button. It’s a great story. When you read something every night, if it’s not very good it gets old pretty quick. And though its appeal to a one year old is mostly about the sound of rhyming couplets, I hope something of the message might get through.

Music and nature have always been close, the former often leans on the latter for meaning. There are symphonies of the sea and the mountains, idealised flashes of cod nightingales, “The Planets” (no link, you know at least some of it). All of this is beautiful of course, after seen as some kind of pinnacle of artistic achievement, but for these composers the raw sounds of nature themselves were a step too far. Music was about large scale structures evolving with moving parts that corresponded to rules of combination played on instruments using a man made system of tuning in order that these rules could be flexible enough to sustain the scale of its ambition. It’s not “natural” so much as people trying to formalise nature (and doing it very well let’s not forget).

Nightingales, on the other hand, were like crickets, something to sit about with, a relaxing noise. “Unspoilt”.

Look at “Blackbird” by The Beatles. What a great song about a bird. A bird that wants to be free, that also possesses a song of mind boggling complexity, a litany of obtuse angles and gritty clusters, swoops and bleeps of unimaginable dexterity. There are no familiar phrases, no repetitions (and some would say, therefore “no melody”) and tomorrow when you open your window it will be different again. And The Beatles, well, you have to give them credit,  the actual bird makes it on to the record. Just. And then the song comes crashing back in…but for a moment the two combine, and those avian psychedelic lines start dipping and diving around the earthbound chords. The song wins in the end of course, scales and arpeggios must triumph….nature, we can elevate you to art! The blackbird, “waiting for this moment to be free”, waits still. (It’s reference to the civil rights movement of the time seems even more appropriate over 50 years later).

Olivier Messiaen took the birds themselves a bit more seriously, and his attempts to capture their various songs seems an honest stab at the impossible, which then produces a kind of parallel art of almost equal complexity. Like a high end twitcher, he produced several volumes, catalogues of the stuff. It’s as if he is listening to the birds, taking instruction, a student of nature, acknowledging that in some way these animals are the original composersAs with any form of tribute, the greatest compliment is to come up with something new in response and so the birds inspire, but again are absorbed into a relatively mathematical world of post-war complexity (the “alpine chough” doesn’t actually sound like that) and western structural ambition. Again, this is transcendent music, but you can still only play it with practice and careful rote-style learning.

With John Cage, we start to see the idea that music is what we say it is. We put a frame around it, we listen as opposed to hearing. Cage is unbothered by coincidences, mismatches, accidents…he relinquishes control. He accepts whatever happens, and makes it music by the level of attention given to it. For Gerald the Giraffe, the way into music is to stop searching for soul in Scottish Reels and simply listen to the wind through the trees. (Shakuhachi music from Japan often incorporates this sound as a real musical element, as if nature envelops the notes, or rather that they emerge from it). 

I’ve had to get rid of my fair share of western music thinking just to get to something else (I also kept a bit). When I improvise, I often imagine the way elements of nature appear to interact, grass  waving against immovable mountain, a cat hiding in a bush, Incy Wincy spider making her way up the water spout. This is necessarily the same when listening, as improvising is both playing and listening in the same action. As a player, I am simply a listener who can choose to contribute, and sometimes that is to let the fingers “blow” across the keys like leaves in the wind, the body following a natural impulse, the sounds landing where they will. Perhaps if we allow these sounds to become music, something like this can be seen by more of us as a natural way of making art. Like Gerald The Giraffe, you just need to put a frame around it.

(Thanks to “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees for the above quote and photo.)