The17
TOURS / COAST-TO-COAST / CORBY England & PORT-AU-PRINCE Haiti / Corby

WHAT IS THIS MUSIC FOR?

23 November 2009:

Sitting in Zurich airport waiting to get the flight back to the UK and this one question keeps going around and around my head. It is the question that I have used as the title of this chapter and maybe the title of this book – What is music for?

What is this pen I am holding for? Simple. Writing.

What is this notebook on my lap for? Writing in.

What are the glasses I’m wearing for? To see what I‘m writing in the notebook and everything else better.

But what is music for?

 

Before I started writing this I texted the questions to three of my colleagues. So far only one has responded. She said – ‘To make you cry’

 

Over the previous two weeks, that is before I flew out to Zurich yesterday, I have been working in a school, putting together a performance. A performance that is part of The17’s Coast-to-Coast world tour. A performance that will be twinned with a performance of the same score in a school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December.

 

In those two weeks I worked with 24 different classes. Each session was an hour long. And in each of those sessions, before I got the class to sing, I fired them with a barrage of questions. It would start with the hoped for icebreaker – ‘What kind of music are you into?’ I’ve asked this question in loads of schools over the past three-and-a-half years. I’m getting bored asking and boreder with the answers they give. I’m no longer surprised with what they have to say.

 

What has proved more interesting are the answers that I get to the question – ‘Who invented music?’ Last year I asked this question in a junior school in Derby while doing the Slice Through Derbyperformance. An answer, I got there from an eight year old girl was ‘Duran Duran’. I assumed she meant the 80s pop band from Birmingham and not the character from the 60s sci-fi TV show. I didn’t push her to explain her answer but on later reflection I wondered if her mother had told her that Duran Duran was the first music she had been into and somehow she figured at an early stage in her life that Duran Duran, must have been as far back as you can go with music.

 

In another class of school children in Derby where I had posed the same question, I asked if they had music Jesus’ time. They were all in agreement that back then there was no music.

 

‘What about when there were knights in armour?’ ‘No’ came the unanimous answer.

So when did we first have music’ one confident young lad said – ‘Not until we had electricity.’

‘Why is that/’?

‘Because without electricity you could not switch the music on.’

 

In yet another junior school in Derby, and I am trying to explore the same question, one lad says – ‘It was the cave men who invented music.’

‘And how did they do that?’

‘Well they were out on a hunt to kill a mammoth and they were scared and to make themselves feel braver, as they marched along, they started to bang their feet and sticks on the ground at the same time as each other and this started a rhythm and that was the beginning of music.’

 

And before I had time to respond to the answer a girl in the class interjected – ‘It wasn’t men that invented music, it was a woman.’ Note, singular, not womankind, but one particular woman. It was as if she had been told by her mother who had been told by her mother, who had been told by… and on it went back, to this eight year old girl in Derby’s great, great, great times 1,000 grandmother, who had been the inventor of music and this jealously guarded fact had been passed down the female line.

 

‘And how did this woman invent music?’

And without hesitation, she came back with the following clear and concise answer. ‘One night this woman is sitting in their cave with her baby in her arms and she is trying to get the baby to go to sleep. And she makes these sounds and after awhile of making these sounds the baby falls asleep. The next night the baby won’t go to sleep again, so the mum makes the same sounds with her voice again and the baby goes to sleep. On the third night she does the same again. The other mothers in the cave that cannot get their babies to sleep copy the first mum. And these sounds that this mum was making was the first music.’

 

There seemed to be no argument. A perfect answer. Women invented music. You read it here first.

 

The school in Corby that I have been working in is a secondary on (11 – 18), thus one would expect more ‘mature’ answers. Thus when I asked the ‘Who invented music?’ question to a class of 13 year olds I was surprised to get the answer, ‘Michael Jackson.’ But then one of the other kids in the class responded before I had a chance to investigate further – ‘Elvis Presley, Sir. Elvis Presley was before Michael Jackson’

 

Then in another class of 14 year olds, the answer came back as ‘At the same time as television.’ Her friend responded fast with- ‘No it was when radio was invented, radio was invented before television.’ Then another of the kids was strait in with – ‘No, they had music in the olden days, you see them dancing to it in olden days films.’ I don’t know if she meant old pre-war Hollywood films or period dramas.

 

But to be fair, in most classes there would be some bright spark who would state that we have always had music since cave man days.

 

Another question I asked nearly all the 24 classes I worked with, was – ‘If you could ban one sort of music, what would it be?’ And once I got a bit of a short list I would take a show of hands vote. Classical and rock music always came out on top of the types of music that should be banned. Sometimes they were more specific and it was opera and/or heavy metal. Third on the list to be banned was usually Rap, but that was always way behind Classical and Rock.

 

Then I would come with the question – ‘What is music for?’ This is something I had never asked before working in the school in Corby. The answers to this question were never that surprising.

‘To enjoy.’

‘To dance to.’

‘To stop you being bored.’

‘For fun.’

 

It was the fun one that got to me. Fun has always been a bit of a problem for me. I don’t do fun. It goes against the Calvinist core. I tried to push it a bit further and I asked – ‘But what is fun?’

‘This isn’t.’ Came the answer from the lad who seemed to dominate the class.

‘It is not supposed to be, but can you tell what fun is?’

‘Not this.’ The rest of the class were beginning to giggle. They seem to be enjoying the confrontation.

‘They seem to be having fun and my guess you are.’

‘Yeah but…’

‘But I still want to know what fun is?’

‘I haven’t got a dictionary with me. If you want to know what fun is look it up yourself.’

‘But I want to know what you think fun is. Not the dictionary definition.’

‘Why are you picking on me?’

‘Because you are the self appointed class leader.’ The class are loving this – he is loving it.

‘OK, it is fun to watch films; play computer games; listen to music…’

‘But you are doing nothing when watching a film or listening to music, even playing a computer game your are hardly doing anything. When watching a film, you are just watching the other people doing things. You are giving away a chunk of your life, doing sod all just so others can be doing it instead.’

‘Well that is what is happening here. We are stuck in this class doing nothing when we could be out having fun.’

Then the bell rings.

 

The trouble is I want music to be a lot more than just fun. More than something to be switched on and off. To be consumed. A product. I want the partaking in music to be part of the cycle of life. Marking the stations, the seasons. Not just something others, the validated, the experts, the geniuses, those that have been given permission, to perform for us to bow down to and passively consume. Yeah, I know we are allowed our opinions as to what we think is good or bad, trite or heavenly, meaningful or meaningless. But this is just a con. All the Free Market Economy beast is concerned with is that we make our choice and then click on BUY.

 

So what is music for? Between doing my last session at this school one week ago today, this question has been going around and around my head. Each piece of music I have heard or even thought about, I have asked this question of. Or a slight variation of – What is THIS music for? Instead of wondering how it was made or constructed, or what genre it falls into, or if it was as good as their last, or where did I hear it before, or what does it sound like, or how good the musicianship is or even if I’m enjoying hearing it – I’m thinking – What is this music for?’

 

There is often multiple answers, depending where and when im hearing it. In a bar or restaurant it is there to create the ambience that the owner want, on the radio – to fill the vacuum, while I wash the dishes or whatever, I or anyone else is doing; In film? To set a mood, create drama, heighten tension. On the X-Factor to… And I started to go through the music in my life. The music I have loved, loathed, thought about. The music that has formed and informed me. And nearly all of it, I mean at 99% has existed for the prime reason of selling records. What ever I thought I was getting from the music on these records or the musician thought they were doing it for, that music would not have existed if it could not be captured on a record and sold. From Elvis Presley to The Fall; from The Beatles to every sub-genre that you or I might have been into. None of those careers or the music they made would never have existed if they could not have sold it on a record.

 

If records did not exits, Elvis with all his talent, would have no doubt driven a truck until he was 65 and now be sharing a quiet retirement with his childhood sweetheart. Maybe just singing a few songs while strumming his guitar at family get togethers. Same with The Beatles, after a few short years rocking around the clubs of Liverpool, they would have all got proper jobs and Mark Chapman would have to have found someone else to be the target of his silver bullet. Michael Jackson would have earned an honest but modest living as a song and dance man on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

 

Once the many tentacled beast that is the Free Market Economy, found there was money to be made out of selling records, it searched the world over for music it could stick on these record things, that people would then want to buy. It being a Free Market Economy beast, people were allowed to choose what music they wanted and who they elected to be the stars, heroes or geniuses, as long as the sale of more records was being promoted. From the most ideologically sound Indie label to the global straddling entertainment corporation; they were all part and parcel of the same pyramid.

 

And all needed the same sort of music that could be recorded. Music that could stand being played on numerous occasions worked best. Music that was about time, place, and occasion worked the least well.

 

So all this music that I thought was about me and or the musicians that made it, was only allowed to exist, thus was only ever really about selling records, about feeding that many tentacle Free Market Economy beast.

 

And now that we are wading deeper into the 20th-century and we are leaving the era of records, cassettes, and CDs etc well and truly behind us. And as much as iTunes, Spotify or whoever have been touted as the saviour of the music industry, when you read this, the era of recorded music as a vital force will well and truly be over.

 

So if next to nobody is interested in spending their hard gotten gains on recorded music, the Beast will lose interest in it. Not invest the time and money. Will no longer need its mega stars, its Elvis’s, Beatles or Jacksons at the top to the pyramid, in the same way. They will be looked on as anachronisms form the 20th-century.

 

Maybe as a species we are hard wired to need heroes and heroines to keep us in place, to help the construct that is culture from disintegrating into anarchy. Once upon a time, those heroes and heroines could have been the mythical gods or distant kings. Then there were the military heroes like William Wallace or Horatio Nelson, who’s fame spread across the land, who’s idealised features were chiselled into rock and stood on the plinths around the country.  And as the 20th-century evolved, it was the stars of Hollywood and recorded music that took on these rolls with the world ruled by the Free Market Economy. These stars unwittingly promoted the ethos that you too can come from nothing and make it to the dizzying heights, at the same time as doing almost the opposite. These stars are special and different from you, they live in a strange and glamorous world where they are free to do what they want, while never failing to promote the mantra – consume, consume, consume.

 

Of course the pre-’89 communist world, which still needed icons, had to use the older methods to choose who would fit these roles. So it was freedom fighters, come political leaders – Mao, Lenin, Che. Or the young Uri Gagarin or the gold winning Olympian athletes.

 

Fuck they have just called my name out over the system. The plane is about to leave without me. And I was just hitting my stride. I will leave it there. And anyway I have probably written all this stuff before when I was writing 17 back in 2006 or something. Time to run.