A dangerous music

Taken on Cap Corse in 2010

We were watching Stanley Tucci’s cookery series on TV last night and at the very end of his visit to Sardinia and after sharing a rather grisly starter of cooked sheep’s blood and mint with a group of shepherds they barbecued the lamb- basted with the bitter honey of the Strawberry Tree – and began singing the traditional shepherd songs of the island. We’d heard that sound before on Corsica; every bit as lovely in its rather chilling way. It’s called polyphonic music; a highly textured interweaving of voices. This kind of music appears all over the world in different registers between high culture and folk song- we were in Barcelona some years ago and next door to the Museum of Contemporary Art there was a sound installation where the forty parts of Tallis’ motet Spem in alium were each given a loudspeaker, the whole arranged on stands in a circle which we were free to move inside. We were transfixed with tearful joy. At a less exalted level, there are many traditions of circle singing around the world; some, but by no means all, associated with Psalms. What these traditions all share is the complex interweaving of a single phrase being sung in something like a round by singers following different intervals.

Shepherd music, though, is less associated with loosely organised religion than it is with various forms of independence struggle. We were on Corsica on Bastille Day, for instance and not a single firework was let off. Most Corsicans don’t give a toss for the French government. Similar song forms exist in Finnish and – closer to my heart – in Wales.

But this isn’t going to be a technical discussion. The point of it, for me, is that polyphonic song is powerfully spiritual, visceral in its intensity. One of the things the lower voices do in Sardinia seems to be very similar to Tibetan throat singing; the bass sings a very rich fundamental along with its harmonics. Even the single note at the bottom would be incredibly difficult for most singers to reach; but to allow the overtones and harmonics to develop around it takes the song to a different level.

I often talk about the absolute necessity of shared community values if we are to flourish, because the whole purpose of this blog is to find ways of being fully human while living in a culture that strips us of any vestige of humanity if we aren’t careful. Singing, we are encouraged to believe from infancy onwards, is (like art) a difficult and rare skill that few of us possess – which is a pernicious lie because it cuts us off from a turbo charged source of spiritual food. Look at a shepherd choir, a folk band, a string quartet, a circle of singers and watch them as they watch each other while they make music. There’s a wild and passionate engagement with one another as we make music, which breaks down the barriers between us and allows us to experience our own wholeness in, and with others. As I often said in my old day job; “if they knew what was going on here they’d tax it or ban it altogether”. When you join music with a shared culture, a shared memory or aspiration then it takes on a scary power.

What’s the first thing a colonial power does to subdue a culture? It takes away its language, its shared memories, its art, its poetry and its songs – and so singing, remembering and celebrating become a countercultural act. I’ve never forgotten a retreat I went on at Emmaus House in Clifton. There we were, a bunch of complete strangers, and we were invited to take both hands of the person next to us and behold them. You simply wouldn’t believe what a deep experience that was because it involved a profound letting go of boundaries. Singing does that too, but on steroids!

But I wouldn’t want to forget that these humanising experiences are additive. Add singing to a shared meal, a bit of drama, (carrying in the haggis, beating saucepans around an apple tree, a bawdy mummer’s play – you get the picture) and invisible threads are woven like cat’s cradles around the participants. So in answer to the question –how can I feel more alive? more human? get down off your solitary dung heap, stop crowing like a preacher, get your head out of your arse, lose all those inhibitions, eat your dinner together and sing as if your life depended on it – because it does!

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