MUSICAL CHAIRS

Rovers PianoGiven the date, I suppose some horror-themed piece is appropriate, but I’m of the wrong generation to invest much interest in Halloween. ‘Trick or Treat’ was an imported Americanism that was imported too late for it to have constituted part of my childhood, with my only awareness that such a tradition even existed back then coming via a ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon; those early animated outings for Charles M Schultz’s creation tended to premiere around the time of prominent US holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween etc. – and consequently the occasion formed the backbone of the storyline. Once we were into autumn, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night meant far more over here than Halloween, though both seem somewhat diminished now; the one-time excitement surrounding the latter has been subdued by increasingly tighter restrictions on the sale of fireworks, whereas the former seems to have vanished altogether.

Such a consumerist cash-cow is Halloween today that the carnival is perhaps the major pre-Christmas excuse to go on a bender in fancy dress – though anyone who lives in a student neighbourhood will know it doesn’t take much to encourage that kind of activity. There are probably those – Goths, quite possibly – who take it much more seriously and no doubt mark the event by holding black mass ceremonies in graveyards at midnight, but for most it’s just another children’s festival extended into kidulthood. Obviously, the unique situation of the past eighteen months means any occasion reminiscent of what pre-pandemic life was like is desperately seized upon with even greater fervour than before, so expect social media to be awash with images of Halloween parties and piss-ups. I don’t remember anyone ever really taking photos of bonfires back in the day, and there was certainly never any photographic record of the pranks committed on Mischievous Night – which is a shame, for some of the things I can remember getting up to as a kid were worthy of being preserved as photos. Now it’s possible to document one’s entire day and share it with the world, it’s sometimes easy to forget the vast majority of experiences at one time were only recorded in memory.

Travel back maybe a century and-a-half and we arrive in the last period of history before it was possible to preserve an event in ways we take for granted today. Photography and then moving pictures revolutionised the documentation of the human experience, but just as innovative was recorded sound. I read a piece by Kierkegaard recently in which he expressed his love for Mozart; I considered the date that the renowned Danish pioneer of existentialist philosophy passed away (1855) and realised he shuffled off this mortal coil just two years before the earliest known recording of the human voice, which was made by Parisian Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. I thought about how lucky we are in the oh-so sophisticated early 21st century with how we can satisfy our craving for instant music compared to that of Kierkegaard and not just his own generation, but all the generations that had come before him.

If Kierkegaard wanted to hear a particular favourite by his favourite composer, he either had to wait until an orchestra was in town and hope the piece in question would be in their set-list, or he’d have to become accomplished enough to play it on the piano himself, and perhaps accompany a few friends who were competent on stringed instruments to the point whereby they could play said piece simply in order to hear it. Mind you, chances are he’d know enough people competent on stringed instruments to make assembling such an ensemble nowhere near as great a task as it’d be today; even roping someone in to make a vocal contribution wouldn’t be that difficult – after all, numerous adaptations of Jane Austen novels over the years have familiarised us with the fact that a post-dinner tradition was the accompanying of a pianist with a song; it was part and parcel of a social gathering in the same way that a contemporary equivalent would see the host simply sticking on some recorded music to play in the background. If this type of musical ‘turn’ was part of the middle-class evening-in for generations, the appeal of a singsong round the Joanna was no less strong lower down the class chain, and if not in the home then certainly in the local hostelry.

The presence of a piano as a commonplace item of household furniture may have long gone now, but it was still a lingering fixture during my parents’ 1950s childhoods from everything I’ve heard; the ‘public house’ upright piano was just as obligatory in the standard working-class residence as the middle-class one well into the halfway point of the 20th century, at least up until the modernist social housing revolution that created streets in the sky and dispensed with all the archaic furniture associated with the past. Being in possession of a modicum of musicianship wasn’t regarded as a novelty prior to that; I would imagine the majority of adults could bang out a tune on at least one instrument, which is maybe why the mid-50s demand for guitars from schoolboys inspired by Skiffle was treated as a natural phase by parents who forked-out the HP payments with no awareness whatsoever as to how they were acting as midwives to the cultural revolution of the 1960s by default. Today, the only children who can pick up an instrument and play it are largely those fortunate to attend a school where music lessons aren’t regarded as a luxury – and most adults probably know more people who can’t play an instrument than people who can.

With the actual playing of music one of the most accessible ways of hearing it, it’s no wonder record sales charts didn’t really capture the public imagination until the late 50s, when the sales of vinyl discs began to exceed those of sheet music for the first time. Sheet music had been a necessity for a century where those seeking to hear their favourite tunes were concerned, but the mass availability of said tunes on disc negated the need to replicate them and therefore negated the need to learn how to play them as well as the need for an instrument in the house to play them on. And almost 70 years after the first singles chart being published in the New Musical Express, we now don’t even need our music on a physical object.

It’s so easy to take for granted that when you undergo a sudden craving to listen to a specific piece of music today, you know you can access it within a minute of that craving; you can pull out a CD or LP from your own personal collection or you can go online and access it via Spotify or YouTube. Before recorded sound made all that possible, you would’ve been faced with no choice but to submit to the aforementioned means of accessing music that had always been in place for all of history up until that point. Yet even with the innovation of radio in the 1920s, playlists were still in the hands of the broadcasters; if you wanted to hear a particular favourite tune on the wireless, you’d have to write in to a programme to request it – and even then there was no guarantee they’d play it. Of course, you could go out and buy the record, but it wasn’t possible to buy every record you wanted; they could cost quite a bit, particularly LPs – hence the taping of the Sunday teatime charts onto a cassette, something that gradually evolved into a ritual for more than one generation.

As a teenager, one tended to listen to a good album or single with a dedicated intensity absent now, probably because it was the only record one could afford for a month or two and therefore it was played to death in the absence of choice. If lyrics were available, they were memorised, as was the whole package – sleeve, label and all. When you can instantly access any music you want, that level of commitment is simply not there. It ceases to be quite so valuable, and you can’t really care in quite the same way when it’s all on an iPod. Oh, well; such is progress. And I’ve no doubt Kierkegaard would’ve taken it. Not arf, pop-pickers!

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4 thoughts on “MUSICAL CHAIRS

  1. I suppose there is a parallel with Quentin Crisp’s famous saying, “For flavour, instant sex will never supersede the stuff you have to peel and cook”. So it probably is with music too but, if you’ve only ever experienced the instant type, do you appreciate it as much?

    I mourn the loss of the Mischief Night of my youth, harmless pranks but broadly tolerated for that one night only and such impish, puerile fun to do.

    With the imported Halloween, I mourn for good parenting demonstrating moral values – this American aberration simply teaches young kids about the power of threats and blackmail, that simple phrase ‘Trick or Treat’ is one of the most negative messages given to youngsters, even worse than most religions manage. Oddly, no kids ever call round to my house with that disgraceful approach . . . . .

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    1. I seem to remember Mischief Night always being the night before Nov. 5th, or my memory could be playing tricks. I think the last time I recall it being a thing was in the early 80s; me and a mate went out to commit various ‘crimes’ and the walk around my parents’ estate saw us pass dozens of kids with the same idea, walking off with For Sale signs, coating windows in eggs, shoving stink bombs through letter boxes etc. It was like everyone in the neighbourhood between the ages of 10-15 was out that night. Brilliantly entertaining chaos of a kind that would have been rewarded with endless ASBOs a few years later and would probably be regarded as a ‘terror incident’ today. We’ve lost something along the way there.

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  2. Halloween has become a bit like ‘Comic Relief/Red Nose’, with the contrived wackiness. But I did like all of those Charlie Brown cartoons, with the music of Vince Guaraldi (‘The Great Pumpkin Waltz’, to name one piece) being the perfect backdrop, as you mentioned the piano.

    Having access to virtually any recorded music at any time (or indeed live streaming) would have been the envy of previous generations, I’m sure. Though I feel what’s been lost is that sense of music as an ‘event’. You’d hear a record on the radio in another room, and then rush in to catch it, hoping to catch the title. With ‘listen again’ and catch-up, there’s not the same sense of excitement.

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    1. It’s remarkable thow swiftly the instant accessibility of music has become the norm. At one time (that doesn’t seem so long ago) I’d have to visit second-hand record shops, spending hours trying to find obscure singles from the 60s or 70s that I could now find online in a matter of seconds. I remember buying the first Velvet Underground LP in the 80s simply on the strength of constantly hearing them being referenced in the music press, and I had absolutely no idea what they sounded like. There was no other way of finding out other than tracking down the record. I don’t necessarily miss that, but I think the absence of effort does diminish the impact of the music.

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