Music on the margins

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Here’s my top ten pieces of ‘Music on the margins.’ But please let me know your own suggestions. The list is not fixed!

Music may be included as marginal for several reasons. It may be written by or performed by people who may be considered ‘on the margins’; it may be about people on the margins; or it may be music which is marginal in the sense that it is particularly odd, experimental or unusual. Ideally, it may combine elements of all of them. I also look for some sense of transformation or redemption.

  1. John Cage: Four minutes, thirty-three seconds.  

This piece, at least at its first performance in 1952, fits well into the esoteric category. Composed for any instrument or combination of instruments, the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. This noise is in most cases likely to be the ambient noise made by the audience itself. It plays on concert convention – where else could one easily get an audience of a thousand or so to sit in silence for four and a half minutes? For me, the piece suggests that silence – which might be thought of as being in the margins – can be every bit as powerful as sound. It also appeals to the Quaker in me.

2.Rachmaninov: 2nd Piano Concerto

One of the best presents my father gave me as a child was a boxed set of ‘The world’s most famous concertos.’ The one I loved the most was this one. I would lie on the floor and allow the music to invade me. It had an impact I couldn’t explain, but it invariably took me into a deeper place. I now know that it was written after Rachmaninov’s first symphony had been derided by contemporary critics, though it is now considered a significant achievement. He fell into a depression that lasted several years and this piano concerto confirmed his recovery from clinical depression and writer’s block. It was dedicated to the doctor who had done much to restore Rachmaninov’s self- confidence.

3. Joshua Bell playing Bach in a Metro station.

Joshua Bell, one of the best concert violinist in the world played for free, for 45 minutes, on a violin worth $ 3.5 million at a subway station in Washington DC. Over a thousand people passed by him. Only seven stopped to hear him play, including a three year old boy, and only one person recognized him. He earned US$32 and a few cents – significantly less than the average $100 people had paid to hear him two nights earlier at a sell-out performance in Boston.

The question is whether we perceive beauty in a common place environment at an unexpected time? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we notice talent in unexpected places?

One possible conclusion is that if we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, how many other things are we missing? Would you appreciate or even notice a Turner watercolour if it was stuffed in the corner of a restaurant you were eating in? Or stop to watch a great Godard movie if it came on one of those screens in Piccadilly Circus? And if you didn’t, does that make those experiences anything less than great art?

Concerts are turned into unforgettable experiences by a communal act of listening, the magical and illusory creation of an oasis of silence in which the music can speak. Concert halls are designed to make us silent, to force our attention on to the centre stage, the performer. But sometimes – just sometimes – perhaps the real preformance is elsewhere, on the margins.

4. Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Musak

We are all used to ‘background musak’ being played in the background – or margins – of shopping centres, hotels, restaurants, waiting rooms, airplanes and while waiting for responses to call centres. In this piece, Sam Kidel plays his own music down the phone to the Department for Work and Pensions and other Government departments, not speaking, but recording the recipient’s responses.

Based partially on his own experience of working in a call centre, he’s not making fun of them but highlighting a dreamy melancholy and detachment in their tedious roles and tortuous, Kafkaesque systems. They work on the peripheries of organisations – easily disposed of, even though they are critical to the customers’ experiences. Sam Kidel developed this piece while studying Sound Art at Oxford Brookes at the same time as I was studying Social Sculpture. He placed an old-style phone on a dull and dreary office desk. We were invited to pick up the phone through which we heard the piece – imagining the while that we ourselves were in a call centre.

5a. Beethoven Symphony No 5 played by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Written in 1804, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘symphony of destiny’ or ‘fate knocking at the door’. Perhaps the best-known symphony of all time, it was written when Beethoven was in his 30’s and troubled by increasing deafness: the loss he feared would afflict him for life. It was also the time of the Napoleonic Wars and political turmoil in Austria.

An early review by E. T. A. Hoffmann in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the music with dramatic imagery:

Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

The West–Eastern Divan Orchestra is a youth orchestra founded in 1999 by the Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said. It consists of musicians from countries in the Middle East, of Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Spanish background.

The orchestra is named after an anthology of poems by Goethe which were, in turn, inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz. The work is a symbol for a stimulating exchange and listening between Orient and Occident. The phrase “west–eastern” refers not only to an exchange between Germany and the Middle East, but also between Latin and Persian cultures, as well as the Christian and Muslim cultures. As such, it is based on the margin between different countries, cultures and religions.

5b. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony played by the Recycled Orchestra

“The Recycled Orchestra” is a group of children from a Paraguayan slum who play instruments made entirely of garbage. music starts 1 minute in)

7. Katie Melua: Driving me close to crazy.

I first heard this song years ago while on a residential course over 10 days: one of the most intensive but also transformative experiences I have had. The song was often played and I identified with being close to that point of being on the margin of sanity and insanity.  It opens with some of the paradoxes of love:

standing strong and yet feeling the air beneath your feet; happiness feeling wrong while misery is sweet. The final line gives the connection between craziness and love.

8. Aaron Copland: Fanfare of the common man.

This piece was written in response to the US entry into World War II.  It was originally suggested that the title be ‘Fanfare for Soldiers, or sailors or airmen’ or  ‘Fanfare for Four Freedoms’. Copeland, however, suggested the actual title based on  a speech by U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace, in which he proclaimed the dawning of the “Century of the Common Man”. Although originally written as a celebration of ‘common’ people – such as those working in the mines – it is now used for Presidential inaugurations. For me it invariably conveys the image of a spaceship moving beyond the margins into a new world – perhaps linked to its being played in connection with several Space Shuttle flights

9. Tchaikovsky: 4th Symphony.

Tchaikovsky started writing this shortly after he had met Nadezhda von Meck, his patroness, and completed after his disastrous marriage to Antonina Miljukova with whom he felt suffocated.

The composer wrote to Meck that the fanfare first heard at the opening (“the kernel, the quintessence, the chief thought of the whole symphony”) stands for “Fate”, with this being “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness … There is nothing to be done but to submit to it and lament in vain”. As the composer explained it, the first movement is—”roughly”—that “all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness …”. He went on: “No haven exists … Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths”.

10. REM: ‘Everybody hurts  

This touches me every time – the lyrics speaking of isolation, loneliness and potential suicide: it has been used in advertisements for the Samaritans amongst others. The music video (directed by Jake Scott, son of movie director Ridley Scott, and filmed on Interstate 10 in San Antonio, Texas) shows people’s thoughts while stuck in an apparently endless traffic jam. While the song says that ‘everybody cries’ and that ‘everybody hurts’ there is a sense of redemption in the last line: ‘You are not alone’.