Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Music, Affect and Old Fogeyness (Part 1)

There was an interesting article in Aeon in April about how our music tastes change as we age: ‘Now That Was Music’ by Lary Wallace. He says: “One grim day (when youth is over) you find that new music gets on your nerves. But why do our musical tastes freeze over?” It is something I’ve often thought of and, actually, I think I did quite well to last till I was 42. I remember it was then because it coincided with the time I left London, although I think geography was only a tangential connection. The author also lasted till he was 40 years old, which is interesting and may reflect the fact he is a music writer and, therefore, engaged in music (like the musicians he mentions who he says seem to be “immune”). Wallace actually thinks the decline of interest tends to begin in one’s thirties.

In this two-part post I will be providing two past musical experiences in order to work through my own affective responses in this regard, and two contemporary examples.

One of the key points the above article makes is that “our inability to appreciate new music” is connected to our ability to “experience surprise” and therefore a “sense of wonder”. As we age, we encounter less new experiences. I would describe it as the nothing-new-under-the-sun phenomenon. So, firstly I’d like to provide a couple of examples of the sense of wonder in regards to music from my youth. The fact I can remember them still today – and they both go back to the 1970s – means they must have had a major musical impact. Both involve me seeing these musicians on Top of the Pops for the first time.

The first was the Electric Light Orchestra’s 10538 Orchestra (1972). ELO looked, and sounded, like a rather strange and magical orchestra. I had never seen anything like this on Top of the Pops before. Although, it probably wasn’t a surprise that I would like the music, being a The Move fan previously. It wasn’t just how they looked that captivated me in that moment (although I do remember that well), but how they sounded – like an orchestra (hence the band and song title name). One of the comments under the video on Youtube echoes my own experience: “This is the track (1971 I think) off the original Electric Light Orchestra album that totally hooked me on ELO all those years ago....and I'm still playing that original old worn out vinyl...and here we are in 2015, and I'm in my sixties and still hooked...oh god that's good music....” (cogidubnus1953).

The other example is seeing Ian Dury and the Blockheads perform Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (1978) for the first time. It wasn’t just Dury in his tight white T-shirt, stretched over his thin chest, with his impractical sunglasses – although that all added to the mystique. Nor was it just his unusual way of singing-speaking, with his strong undisguised Essex accent. It was also that brilliant intro with the discordant piano riff. I really hadn’t seen anything like that before.

Also, I particularly liked the way Dury moved, which was strange and yet compelling (remember Ian Curtis from Joy Division and his strange dancing). Dury was particularly un-self-conscious. It seemed to me that he was totally absorbed in the music and, if it was a performance, it came across as something much more natural than that. He seemed blasé about his appearance and unconventional movements. He also made guttural noises that couldn’t be described as singing at all (I’ll return to this in part 2). This was probably the strangest and most captivating performance I had seen on Top of the Pops, ever!

Part 2 will look at some contemporary affective musical responses.

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