Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Musical Intrusions

Last year, the ‘Antifolk’ musician and writer known as Lach was interviewed on the Radio by Janice Forsyth, who expressed surprise at the concept of an ‘internal soundtrack.’ Ask any musician what’s going on inside their head, and they’ll undoubtedly say, “Music, of course,” – although they might not be able to identify what music it is. As a musician myself, I find the aural back-drop is sometimes so deeply embedded, I’m not even aware of it. But I know it’s there. Other times, it is (almost) infuriatingly present. Often I get Bach arias on repeat; the Walton viola concerto, or bits of early Genesis stuck for hours.

Conversely, I find the constant intrusion of music in public spaces intensely irritating, especially in supermarkets. The Co-op (or Scot-mid, as we call it here in the Central Belt) always has the music on too loud, while Morrison’s has a more subtle volume (and often, an amusingly retro choice of music.) But the thing that sets my local Sainsbury’s in high standing above its competitors is the absence of piped music being played in the shop. 

Imagine my horror when, a few years ago, as I was making my selection from the range of Taste the Difference coffees, the sound of a steel guitar came piping through the speaker-system normally reserved for customer announcements!  For a second I wondered if I was being serenaded by Ry Cooder, but it transpired that it was Charleen Spiteri trying to choose between taking a lover, or a friend. 

I was trying to choose between Kenyan or Guatemalan roast. 

By the time I had reached the till, I was wound up to the point of irritable. The loud-speakers seemed to be suggesting (courtesy of the Bee-gees) that I should be dancing.  No, I should be shopping: this is Sainsbury’s, not a 1970s disco.  Not even the appearance of John Travolta in his flared white suit would have cheered me: I was grumpy and sullen as I left with my messages. When I wrote to the manager expressing my dismay, he replied to say that, after the shop closes they play music to entertain the late-night shelf-stackers. That evening, it must have come on early by mistake; it would not happen again.

 These two episodes were the inspiration behind the next of my Cautionary Tales from Charlotte and the Charlatan. I’m greatly honoured that Lach has asked me to read at the Launch Party for his new collection, The Thin Book of Poems, which was published this week. Naturally, I will be performing this story, as well as one of the poems from Lach’s book.

The great thing about Lach is his ability to embrace and engage with people from all walks of life, no matter what music is going on in their head. Long live the Antifolk!

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales

Melodious Megan


There was never a time in Megan’s head when music could never be heard. She thought it absurd when somebody said their head was empty; there was plenty inside even if you denied an appreciation of music. You couldn’t choose it either. A person didn’t decide to have an internal juke-box playing: it just went on and on without saying.

            Megan had a constant musical babble accompanying her thoughts. Like a trickle of water from a dribbling tap, an incessant flow of sound followed her round, as if she was in her own film with a personal playlist. Her film-score came out of the depths of her mind; every kind of music played from the time she awoke to the moment she went to bed (even then, the noise continued somewhere inside her head.)

            There was no theory behind what music appeared in her mind. Occasionally she attempted to think of a melody, but she couldn’t pre-empt it: internally the music took its own course. It wasn’t a thing she could force or control, and while from time to time an ear-worm took its toll it would soon be replaced with another snatch that erased the original catch. Sometimes she would stop to greet a friend, but the music continued of its own accord, emerging subsequently on a different chord.

            Was it to do with being a musician? Megan wondered if a magician’s head was full of tricks and illusions. Did a mathematician constantly puzzle over algebraic solutions? A writer’s mind was full of different personalities, while an actor battled with voices and others’ realities? This idea filled Megan with fear: that a person cannot escape or separate their mental landscape from their profession.

            “It concerns me,” she told Charlotte, “That my internal symphony will be what others think of me.” She wondered: “Is this why people identify with what they do instead of who they are?”

            “You’re not far off,” said Lottie: “We’re judged by what we do. While most keep their inner voices hidden, others have no choice but to wear their foibles on their sleeve.”

            Megan asked, “If you believe in what you do, you should be proud of who you are?”

            “Only if,” said Charlotte, “It’s a true reflection. For most, our outer persona is a deflection of who we are. We rarely see the person behind the mask.”

            “That,” replied Megan, “Is not my greatest fear. When I look in the mirror, it’s not what I see but what I hear that riles me.”

            Charlotte gave a knowing smile: “This thing will not define you.  One day your head will play a different melody; you won’t need to explain yourself according to the tune that others think they hear. Their violence – and your fear – will be replaced with soothing silence.”

            That alarms me, thought Megan: I don’t want the noise to go any time soon. So she put Lottie’s theory on mute. And turned up her internal volume.