In the beginning we were told that retraining was the best option. This was never going to work: this is not a case of swapping the printing press for the digital domain, or the book for the e-reader. This was not an evolutionary step where the medium of communication changes, but a suggestion that the thing itself, music, was somehow superfluous. This is replacing therapeutic sound with a deadening silence.
Music is a great profession, an even better hobby and, more and more it seems, a trifling distraction open on a spare window to make “real’ work more bearable. It floats on air like a smell. We forget it’s origins. We forget who is doing, who has done, the work.
On the other hand, we have more than enough music to last us, there’s already so much of it. Can’t we just stop making new stuff and live off the old? It’s all available for ten quid a month anyway. Who needs more? Let’s face it, Charles Ives was an insurance agent, Prince was a bin man and Miles Davis read horoscopes for money (one of these statements is true). Can’t musicians just get another job and carry on their hobby without burdening us?
I don’t think so. I think we need to witness music making in its live, living form to appreciate it. Records, streaming, all of that, are a kind of reminder of the experience in person. We imagine that it is made immortal by preserving it in digital amber. It is no more immortal than a stuffed moose head on a Trump lover’s dining room wall. Reminders are not enough. I am not against electronic music, ambient music, any music at all. Music that is determinedly artificial can reveal secret emotions in the zeros and ones: but it doesn’t pretend. Hologram Frank Sinatra is an interesting sidestep, but a little goes a long way. We must not be fooled into thinking what sounds live is.
If you play the trumpet, you have to play long notes for two hours a day just to keep in shape. The body is altered. Real life musicians are little athletes of the fingers and thumbs, the mind and hand, the heart. And after a year indoors, you can’t quite jump as high.
I am a pianist and I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to make music and send it into an illuminated rectangle, down the internet pipe and gushing out into the waiting homes of those who choose to listen. My neighbours don’t mind too much. My wife has been a big help in keeping it publicised. The piano can give you the whole anatomy of a tune on its own…so far so good. But I’m on my own.
It’s like writing this blog. This is not a conversation. This is not socialising. This is not making me feel connected to other people as much as I’d like it to (although being an introvert, I won’t go too far the other way).
And for some people, music is the main way they do this. I prefer a bandstand to a crowded room (and by crowded I mean more than two or three people). The government’s initial talk of “retraining” was more like re-wiring, or, more sinisterly, re-programming. The equivalent of sending your son to Summer Camp so he can “like girls”, it’s taking a tree and removing the bark, the sap, the branches and trying to make a rabbit out of it.
It seems a long time ago that Sunak first implied that music was a transferable skill, that we would all be dancing between job sectors like a ballerina on a hot tin roof. This isn’t true. Music isn’t my job, it’s my life. That isn’t melodrama, it’s just science, so don’t @ me as they say. Music, we must remind ourselves, was here long before governments were, and arguably before humans themselves.
We are lucky to be musicians, but for me that means being lucky enough to have found a way to deal with that bright glare of “the real world”, the blinding lights of small talk, networking and a million other interactions. Music making eases the strange tightness in the body that sometimes accompanies these everyday moves. (If something breaks in our flat, I will basically try and cack-handedly take the whole building apart before asking advice from a “helpline”. Strangers on a phone, who’s idea was that?) It’s….medicinal. You wouldn’t let me out without my pills would you?
So for some, music is the actual world we inhabit. When we talk about saving the world, I am thinking as much about that metaphysical one as the physical world, the one where I am lucky enough to get out of this car and buy food, facing the stranger on the checkout so we don’t die of hunger.
My gigs online are archived here:
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