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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 08:28 UK time, Saturday, 26 September 2009

A blog ago, I suggested that your mind (well, mine as well) might be guilty of toying with words like monkeys toying with jewels - tossing them around for fun, enjoying the glint and glitter, but unaware of their value. That idea was a half-muffled snarl from something big that's been restlessly rattling the bars of my brain for ages - an idea spawned there years ago by reading George Mackay Brown's An Orkney Tapestry. The idea: Words grow in places. Like flora and fauna, they evolve in a single geographical locus. The sounds of the place shaped the sounds uttered by our human forebears living there. Over thousands of generations, these sounds matured into words. Human migration carried these words to new places, and the new places continued to shape them. If you were able to make a sound that 'said' danger, or delight, you were more likely to get lunch than be lunch. The emotional response to those sounds, be it fear or joy, became fused into the sound itself - like an emotional halo around the sound. An aura, as Mackay Brown might call it. Sounds that 'worked' survived into what we might now call language. Sounds lacking that power would be of little use, because they needed to carry meaning, and that meaning lies only in the emotional response evoked. So our ancestors learnt to communicate - now they could narrate stories, and plan actions - a powerful step forward. They could use these sounds to describe their world, and in doing so they found they had the power to trigger feelings in their companions - the feelings that had been fused into those sounds. Even if there wasn't a cause, a sudden danger for example, uttering that special sound that signified sudden danger triggered excitement, which in turn triggered a feeling of being alive, feelings of a remembered experience, a familiar sequence of events - then you would feel meaningful, feel that you belonged to the group, feel part of shared experience........Show Business had arrived, and was here to stay.

Obvious? It might have been to you. Significant? Is it? Here's what Mackay Brown actually said: It is a word, blossoming as legend, poem, story, secret, that holds a community together and gives a meaning to its life. If words become functional ciphers merely, as they are in white papers and business letters, they lose their 'ghosts' - the rich aura that has grown about them from the start, and grows infinitesimally richer every time they are spoken. They lose more; they lose their 'kernel', the sheer sensuous relish of utterance.

At the time he was putting together Orkney Tapestry Mackay Brown was working for newspapers, and he feared the way newspapers aimlessly scatter words. The words are plucked away from the soil that nurtured them - they lose their lustre, they are stripped of their aura. Now that we've left those early stages far behind, have words become mere codes that we only need in order to get things done? Do sounds and words still grow in their own unique soil - is this ancient process still continuing? Have you ever wondered why inner city accents become so harsh, or why the Hebridean accent is so subtle and mellifluous? Does it matter what language we use? Is language just computer software, like Word or Excel - a tool for a job - mere digital signals to be plucked from cyberspace, even to be mindlessly mangled in Google's computerised translations (something Mackay Brown didn't live long enough to witness)? And, just in case you're thinking I've abandoned the orchestra, or my senses, and gone off on an anthropology expedition, has this got anything to do with music? It has, but you'll have to wait another paragraph.

There was a programme about George Mackay Brown the other day, after I'd started this blog. It sent me scuttling to Amazon to buy a copy of An Orkney Tapestry - my original copy having long gone to Oxfam in one of my periodic book clearances. It was published 1969, the year I joined the band, and I read it after our first trip to Orkney in 1978, a trip which had left me thoroughly infected by the Orkney virus. This same book had had a powerful effect on Peter Maxwell Davies - which resulted in his moving to Orkney, then co-founding the St Magnus Festival with Mackay Brown, which then led to us being one of the first orchestras to visit the festival. On re-reading it, I'm stunned. I remember one or two ideas that struck me, but I wonder if I could have realised how several themes, explicit and implicit, were going to inform my thinking for the rest of my life. He seems to have launched me on a trajectory - but I didn't know that at the time. (Perhaps I should just stop writing now, and urge you to go and read it for yourself.) For instance, his insight into the collapse of the Rackwick community, executed with a few pen strokes, is as penetrating as anything in Thoreau's Walden (the bible of alternative thinking). Or try this, on music: Nowadays our western art is autonomous, private, a cold lonely kingdom. It presents us with the human condition but makes no claim to do anything about it; being cut off from labours and hungers; being the preserve of sophisticated people, a small priesthood who can appreciate and understand, they alone. (My underlining.) I don't remember reading that bit thirty years ago, but it's at the heart of most of my recent blogs. The young players of the Simon Bolivar orchestra certainly aren't cut off from labours and hungers - and that's just the bit we can't imitate, and the bit that gives them such radiance. However, I'm not saying we need to leave our comfy bungalows to go out and experience those labours and hungers before we can make real music.......or am I? This is where I get back to music.

I was listening to Hilary Hahn playing Bach violin partitas (you should do that), and the question in the title dumped itself on my lap: Why does one string of notes mean something, and another not? How is it that a particular player brings meaning to that string of notes, and another not? The patterns of notes follow the shapes appropriate for the instrument, and build conventional harmonic sequences, as they do in the cello suites which I know inside out. So what's the deal? Reger and Bloch also wrote solo cello suites in a similar style to Bach - good composers, good music.....are they in the same league as Bach? What is it that Bach taps in to? What is it that Hilary Hahn, then a fifteen year old American girl, can bring to these notes that other soloists can't, apart from breathtakingly beautiful playing? Is it that she can imbue them with Mackay Brown's 'aura'? I should quickly add: I'm certainly not suggesting that there is such a thing as a definitive performance - that's a stultifying fallacy. The miraculous stature of Bach's music is in the way it seems to bottle up so many different personalities, each a genie to be coaxed out by a different approach, or by complete rearrangements like Busoni's or Jacques Loussier's. His music seems like a corral of mustangs, each pounding the ground and snorting to be free. And when free......with the right rider......see it exalt! But is there a scary corollary wriggling under this stone? Sounds, words, notes.....are a continuum. Am I, or are we, in our broadcasting fervour, ever merely scattering notes, like Mackay Brown's newspaper words, uprooted, stripped of their meaning, infinitesimally devalued every time they are heard? To use his words: Do we erode the language with our daily poundings? ....Decay of language is always the symptom of a more serious sickness.

As listeners, you or I can choose to listen, or choose not to listen. We're free to like it, or not like it - and never worry over the hows and whys a performance grabs us. But if you're a performer, life is taken up with constant analysis - practising, thinking, striving, honing - to make the performance more telling - to find the best way to grab our audience. As an orchestra we sometimes struggle with conductors who know what makes the difference but can't show it with their hands, or who can make the right gestures but don't seem to know the music. We know what's right when we hear it, but we have to struggle together to discover it. All of us, including you, know what's right when we hear it. You don't need any musical training to know what's right - in fact, I'd say that it's better not to have that training, and so be unable to encroach on that preserve of sophisticated people. The Leeds piano competition is on at the moment. Why - exactly why, note by note, in technical detail - why is one performance so much better than another, given that the notes are so perfectly played by each competitor? We want to find that secret - and be able to repeat it. As professionals, our livelihood depends on it. How do we transform our notes from being mere ciphers, and discover that rich aura that has grown about them, or discover the sheer sensuous relish of utterance? How come Hilary Hanh can, and I can't?

We're giving you a free concert next week: 'In Tune', live at 5.00 on Friday 2nd October, and we'll be playing Maxwell Davies' universally popular A Farewell to Stromness. What strings are resonated inside us when we hear this piece? When he wrote it, or when Vaughan Williams wrote his Tallis Fantasia, or Fauré his Pavane, could they have known how effective and successful their piece was going to be? (We'll be seeing a lot of Max when we celebrate his 75th in November - I'll ask him.) Some composers write a piece that makes them very very rich, but which soon disappears into obscurity, like Ketelby's In a Monastery Garden heard on the Last Night of the Proms, or Van Biene's Broken Melody. Other compositions, like Fur Elise, Ave Verum, or the three mentioned above, endure, and seem to grow infinitesimally richer every time they are spoken. What's the difference between the one that lasts and the one that fails - the sounds that work, that carry meaning, and those that don't? I catch a whiff of one of those intractable mysteries here - but not as intractable as the String Theory of cosmology.

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