01 July 2013

Save Our Silence

There is an assumption that everybody in the world not only loves pop music but cannot survive without it.  Any public space is flooded with the sound of pop; restaurants, cafes, pubs, hotels, shopping malls, railway termini, airport departure lounges and open air markets all resound to it, a visit to a hairdressing salon or a supermarket throws pop at you with unblinking directness and pop music has become so ubiquitous in sporting events that the two have become inseparable.  I am denied access to a gym because I can’t stand pop music blaring at me all the time, I cannot go to a sporting event because of the non-stop pop screaming at me from a sound-system which has cost almost as much to install as the arena has to be kitted out for the requirements of sport, and the only sport I can safely watch on television without having my eardrums assaulted by unwanted pop music is Formula One Motor Racing where, if there is pop (and I suspect there is), the noise of the cars effectively drowns it out.  In a straight choice between a Mercedes six litre and Taylor Swift, give me the Mercedes every time. Television programmes, be they about animals, outer space or food, are flooded with pop, and Call Centres, be they in India, Indonesia or Ilford, assume you prefer pop to a human voice when they put you on extended hold. 
When it comes to what you eat you are given unlimited choices.  I can be pampered with whatever dietary or “lifestyle” fad I may be following at the time; I can be offered alternatives to nuts, dairy products or wheat.  When it comes to what you see you have unlimited choices with hundreds of digital channels offering unlimited porn, religious devotions or various coloured paints drying all at the click of a mouse.  But when it comes to what you hear, choice is a luxury to which none of us, it would seem, is entitled.  I have to hear pop.  I don’t choose to, but I cannot avoid it.  And the odd thing is, with the ready accessibility of all kinds of music, I am surprised that we still pursue the archaic practice of swamping every public and private area with piped music.  Why are those of us who have the gift of hearing denied choice? 

Last night I went to a very fine restaurant in a quiet and outwardly respectable village in the English county of Hertfordshire.  Dining alone, I was assaulted by the chef’s loud transistor radio percolating through from the kitchen, the loud pop music emanating from the bar and the soft, irritatingly monotonous piped music in the restaurant itself.  Why if you are in the business of tantalising the taste buds, do you not think about tantalising the ear?  It’s the aural equivalent of presenting diners with a bucket of pigswill where lots of different bits of food are all mixed into a ghastly mess.    
This morning I was breakfasting in my hotel to the cacophonous wailings of a female “artiste” seemingly in the final stages of labour or, perhaps, in the ultimate moments of sexual ecstasy (it’s difficult to tell the two apart musically).  I am sure that when I get into the taxi the first thing the driver will do will be to turn on the radio to a pop channel before he starts assaulting me with his voice. 

The problem is more acute now than it was previously because the demand for wall-to-wall pop has become so heavy that a pop singer no longer needs any kind of vocal training; electronics will do it all for you.  The result is a plethora of electronically manipulated gender-ambiguous voices expunging all hint of roughness or individuality to create a bland and monotonous whine which is not so much irritating and downright offensive.
The trouble is, I don’t think people do want pop music accompanying their every action (for God’s sake, you even get it in public toilets and hospitals).  It’s simply that they have become so inured to a climate in which it accompanies absolutely everything, that they assume it is a natural and inevitable background to life.  Rather like child abuse, racial prejudice, domestic violence, horse meat labelled as beef or air pollution, we just let it pass, assuming that we have no control over it, until some activist comes along and proves us wrong.  Perhaps the time has come for some activist to show us that we can live our lives in silence.

And I do mean silence.  I love music, but I do not expect to force my tastes on others.  The first thing I do whenever I have a passenger in my car is to turn the radio or the music off.  Why subject a guest to something they may not like?  It seems like good manners to me, even if it is unaccountable behaviour in the eyes of hoteliers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers.  I am entirely in agreement with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes who writes in the booklet of his excellent new disc of Beethoven’s first and Second Piano Concertos of how, when in Brazil, he was almost driven mad by the two concertos being played in a loop in the elevator of his hotel in Sao Paolo.  Surely we are better positioned now than ever before to have a choice in what we admit to our ears; we really don’t need those ignorant, musically illiterate and ill-bred yobs who have control over sound systems in public places to force on us their depraved tastes.

But before that activist comes along and stands up for silence, let us take care.  Those who campaigned against child abuse whipped up such a manic frenzy of public opinion that it is not possible to be in any way associated with children without everyone pointing the finger and looking at you suspiciously (there’s the famous story of a paediatrician being attacked in Portsmouth because the local loonies couldn’t tell the difference between Paediatrician and Paedophile).  Activists unable to stop once they had drawn attention to the appalling injustices of racial discrimination have now encouraged any black person who walks into a bar and is not immediately served by the white waitress to see it as a racial slur (I recently witnessed a black lady, accidentally overlooked by a white bar-tender, calling the police to lay a charge of racial discrimination – and the police had to take her seriously despite the obvious injustice of her claim).  Every husband who has an argument with his wife is accused of harassment, nobody dares eat certain pre-prepared foods because the fanatics have led us to believe that all are in some way polluted, and the entire British landscapes is littered with hideous wind turbines because environmental fanatics have persuaded us that they are “better” than a hidden smock stack.

I don’t want to go there.  I want someone to allow me the right of silence but also to allow others the right of whatever music they want.  It should be easy; in the old days we called it courtesy and consideration.  So I say what is needed is a simple change of attitude; let’s silence the norm and music the luxury; that way we will all appreciate both the more.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr Marc,

    I recently experienced the reverse of this music everywhere phenomenon. While passing though Oxford, I dropped into the Ashmolean to see the Stradivarius exhibition. In one gallery are gathered almost two dozen of his instruments, from various collections, all in fine condition. Around the walls are silhouettes, photographs and projected videos of various famous musicians who played upon these instruments. After a moment it stuck me that I was watching music being performed in silence. And a very strange experience it was. Disconcerting but, for some of the reasons you mentioned, oddly refreshing. On occasion, I could identify the piece being played, and so could hear in my head the notes being played. But that is also rather perverse - to watch great musicians, and yet to experience my own rather than their interpretation, and to see some of the greatest instruments in the world, but not to hear them.

    In similar vein, perhaps one day I should visit the Louvre, so as to enjoy the smell of the paintings, or dine at a top restaurant and savour the food by touching it.

    Dr Peter