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Catch a Breath

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 11:02 UK time, Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Breathing got special mention in our Hear and Now concert during Listen Here. Martin Suckling's cat's breath inspired him to write Breathe. This released a bunch of ideas to thrash around within the walls of my tiny mental playground during the summer. If you read my Beethoven Nine comments, you'll have noticed that bodily functions are in the foreground. The other three pieces in that Here and Now concert also had bodily themes: Songs and Dances of Death (Clapperton), This is How it Feels (Fennessy), Submergence (Horne). I wondered if there was a theme gestating after that serendipitous conjunction. We do quite a lot of bodily functions in the orchestra...... the course of our contractual musical duties, I hasten to add. Heart beats and arrhythmia by Berlioz, sneezes by Kodaly, snores by Elgar, giant farts by Bartok, retching by Malcolm Arnold, to mention but a few. (I don't think this is the proper place to discuss the caresses and climaxes so frequently depicted by Strauss.) Depth and duration of breath secretly influence music as certainly as the moon's cycle controls the ebb and flow of life itself. Actually, if I'm right that music originated in our feelings and gestures before speech evolved, bodily functions probably have a deeper and more pervasive influence on our nice middle class music than we would want to admit. After all, it is only with the power of speech and vocabulary that we are able to compartmentalise our life, to detach ideas from the body - without that power we can only be 'whole'. But let's not dilly dally with detail. I'm not a scientist - I'm just burping up a few ideas, to hang in the air of your telephone booth until you open the door and move on. We hear our mother's breathing long before our own first breath. Our own breath will probably be the last thing we'll hear. Actually, as I write, I'm on compassionate leave spending time sitting by my mother's bed, expecting to hear her last breath, which will come soon, at the end of a very long diminuendo al niente. The sound of breath unites everyone on the planet - even the profoundly deaf - it is the sound of the inside of life.

The sounds of breath are familiar, close, giving us a glimpse into our inner self. But there's something jumping around in front of the window to our soul, blocking the view, and distracting us. Our minds - mercurial little menaces. They leap around, they leap ahead, they jump off our ox cart slow body just when we need them - they never settle, and we can't control them. Our mind doesn't do boring, or background - it has to leap to the foreground, it has to upstage everyone, and it's never fussed to finish anything before it flutters ahead. That's how the mind evolved - the most powerful survival tool. Our minds play with words, ignorant of their deep meaning, like monkeys playing with jewels. Another simile: Our mind sits at a desk, while new file after new file is dumped on top of the still unread files already lying there - each new file always more urgent than the previous. What would it be like to have no files on the desk in front of you? Just you......and nothing.....? You couldn't stand it.....quick, turn the radio on, say something, do something! Silence is unsettling. A tiny baby (I'm assuming we were all one of those once) is pre-programmed to scream for attention when things go quiet. Silence is dangerous.

I wonder if the healing power of music rests somewhere in its ability to quieten the mind, to stop it leaping around, and, for a few moments at least, allow your whole body to tune into deeper feelings, feelings that are easily damaged if you try to detach them, fold them into word packages and send them to someone else. (Of course, music can also do the opposite - I'll come back to that later.) And there are other ways to discover this quietening. During long distance swimming or running, the mind can be led to gradually and naturally focus on the breath. Then, as the breath balances itself to the body's real needs, not the needs sparked up by the fretful mind, a feeling of wholeness arises. The mind has been drawn away from that clutter of files - leaving just one, the file with the label 'Being Alive' - a very thin file containing one blank sheet of paper. Meditation practices that focus on breathing work in a similar way. The simple miracle here lies in the way those files aren't shoved off the desk or shredded, they remain, they are not magicked away, but the mind's perspective on them is changed - the desk widens and there's space to tidy them.

In sweet music is such art, / killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, or hearing die. That Shakespeare quote is carved in the lintel of the portico to the music department at my old school. Like so much Shakespeare, and other great art, there's something ambiguous and enigmatic about it - it refuses to define, it refuses to compartmentalise - which has gently prodded my mind all my life: Is it me, or my hearing, that will die, if I don't listen carefully? Also, earlier in the song, Shakespeare tells how Orpheus' music will cause trees and mountains to bow down, plants and flowers to look up - as if it were 'lasting spring'. I'm never sure if Shakespeare expects me to die, or enjoy lasting spring.

What about when we allow music to have the opposite effect? Music's power can turn on us. It can drive us forward, over-riding sensible thoughts, blotting out consideration - urging you up onto the dance floor to make contact with that girl (to spread a few genes) - urging you up onto the battle field to make contact with that bullet (to fulfil the personal myths of our leaders). If we drop our guard, music can control us. It can hijack the rhythms of our body. At every point in our life, in supermarkets and restaurants, at political rallies and in religious rituals, we allow music to manipulate us - to buy things, do things and feel things, that we would have rejected if we had sat in reflective silence.

I'm not sure where these ideas are you might have already clocked. It's the image of the cat that holds my attention. Something to do with a quality of listening. A cat sits quietly. Ears alert. In the group, but always looking outwards. Aware, but not thinking. Knowing, but without ideas. Not compartmentalising. Whole - no duality. Is that something that you and I are able to do? Maybe. But the mind has to be calmed - not suppressed or controlled. If it feels restriction it'll struggle vigorously, like a cat that doesn't want to be picked up and held, as if its very life depended on escaping. Can we listen with that feline openness? Is sensible thought possible without pre-conceived ideas to follow? Or, is wonderful wide-eyed awareness destroyed as it skids into the tramlines of an agenda? Can a critic listen in this way, if he has an 'angle' to find, and he has to create 'hooks' to capture his readers' attention? Can an academic listen like this, if he has a dissertation to create, a point to make? Can I listen like this when I am playing, when I have so much to think about, so many lines hooking my concentration (and while I'm dressed in thick sweaty clothes and forced to sit on a chair like the Albert Hall ones, neither clothes nor chair ever designed for playing the cello, or any other musical function). I think this is where I'm going: I'm a garrulous old codger, importunately pressing conversation on you as I prop up the bar, and I'm asking, "Do we, who go on and on doing all the talking about music, simply miss the point?"


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