A Song for Somebody
The final note rang out, and, as I lowered the guitar, the tightly-packed room dispatched a ripple of applause. The music stand was moved aside. Windows were opened. The waiters resumed their wine pouring. The talkers talked freely once again, in rising degrees. We were launching a new concert series; the last thing I expected was to be flung four years into the past.
I spotted one of our guests advancing across the room. There was no small talk as the words poured from her: it was November 2010; you composed a piece for the chamber choir Resurgam; the programme was interspersed with performances of South African freedom songs; and were you aware that this concert took place in the same week as the Troika were in town, and less than a few kilometres away our future was being signed away?
When Garrett Sholdice and I started curating concerts and festivals together, we used to harp on about ‘relevance’, a sense that the music programmed should somehow speak to the society of its day. Music did not exist out of context, we felt, and so our choices should as far as possible reflect the present needs of our audiences.
It was a short-lived theme, however. Not because the intention itself was misguided, but because ‘relevance’ is an elusive concept, and the pursuit of it threatened to force a distorted, simplistic image, exclusive of many truly relevant musical possibilities: our lives are too full, we might have postured, so our music should be more empty.
Forgetting the audience
More consequential, the question of relevance is potentially crippling to an artist trying to create work. A particularly poor piece of advice is ‘write for your audience’. This says that ‘your audience’ is an easily defined entity, fixed in time and place, with easily summarised cultural needs; and it says that what one might create without heed to an audience would be, by rule, of no interest to any anyone.
This advice — I can hear a veteran sagely disbursing it to a roomful of young composers hungry for answers — also suggests that no audience is curious or intelligent enough to meaningfully experience your work if created without that it in mind. It works in advertising and with Hollywood focus groups, but the mind of an artist second-guessing their audience will fragment.
A good mentor in these things is the poet Frank O’Hara, who, in 1959, wrote: ‘but it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering whether you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it’.
An anthem for nomads
I was thinking about this when listening to Gram Parsons’ haunting song ‘A Song for You’ the other day. It’s a song that demands your attention from the angular guitar introduction — which seems to begin in the middle of an idea – and doesn’t let you go until the final twang of the guitar.
The song cycles the same chords and melody over and over yet still feels as though it has a distinct verse/chorus structure — it’s all about different intensities, which surely contributes to the song’s magnetism. Lyrically, the song is an enigma: taken individually the lines don’t make a lot of sense, and yet heard more totally it’s either a classic love song, or an anthem for nomads everywhere.
Whatever about the song’s intended meaning and recipient, it certainly wasn’t written for someone who will chance upon it on a Spotify playlist one morning while sitting in a coffee shop in Dublin over four decades later — someone who wasn’t even born at the time of Parson’s tragic death from an overdose of morphine and alcohol in the year of the song’s release, 1973. Did he write for his audience? Parsons wrote for his own troubled self, and we’re better off for it.
A cold night in November
That evening in November 2010 — at the wonderfully named church of St Nicholas of Myra (Without), hidden inside Dublin’s Liberties — is now a vague memory. It was the coldest November since 1985, and I recall the weather did no favours for the turnout on the night. There might even have been more singers than punters seated in the pews, which was a change from the heaving, delirious Ballintubber Abbey a few nights before.
The programme’s curation, by Mark Duley, was an inspired, if unexpected, juxtaposition of various settings of the Magnificat text — an ancient hymn that elevates values like justice and equality — with songs that came out of the fight against apartheid in South Africa (for these, Resurgam were joined by local community choirs throughout the tour). ‘The whole revolution in South Africa, and the lifting of the apartheid regime, has been described as a revolution in four-part harmony,’ Duley said in the Irish Times at the time. ‘And some of the music explores the same things as the Magnificat about things being upside down, about trying to bring in a new order where freedom and justice might be seen to be the key elements.’
The message was clear as the choir sang, again and again, ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ In a climate of real despair in the lives of many people, Resurgam sang in the spirit of celebratory protest: the beauty of the music and the choir’s joyous, dancing mass, were an affront to the injustice being played out by our masters down the road.
There’s a sort of anti-climax that kicks in late at night after a concert. It’s the point when everyone has left, the stage is bare, the equipment is transported and you’re standing outside thinking about where to wind the night down. In that quiet moment, the idle thought creeps in: what kind of an impact did the performance really have?
This week, I found out that sometimes it takes years for that effect to become apparent.