The Tingle Factor.

A recent newspaper report suggested that “if music gives you goose bumps your brain might be special” (The Independent). The report said that “those who manage to make the emotional and physical attachment to music actually have different brain structures to those that don’t”. Everyone who listens to music regularly knows what that means, so I thought I would look back on 10 pieces of music that give me the ‘tingle factor’;

‘Nubian Sundance’ Weather Report. The first time I heard this funky tour de force I wasn’t really sure what was happening. The clattering percussion, crowd noise, and the soaring voices, Joe Zawinul’s keyboards and Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone weaving in and out of the mix make this one of my favourite WR tracks. It is from their 1974 album Mysterious Traveller.

‘Snow in San Anselmo’ Van Morrison. Again, the strings and the boppish jazz sections are tremendous. The way that Van repeats the line “my waitress” three times, then there’s the choir! Very ethereal. This song is from the album ‘ Hard Nose the Highway’ from 1973. ‘Autumn Song’ from the same album is a close second in the tingle stakes!

‘I am a Town’ Mary Chaplin Carpenter. “I’m a blur on the driver’s side”, an evocative picture of roads winding through small American towns. MCC could sing the telephone directory, if you forgive the cliché! From one of her best early records ‘Come On, Come On’.

‘Let it Be’ The Beatles. Gospel tinged piano and Macca’s voice. Something about this song seems to reach out beyond itself to speak of something deeper. Although the version that was on the album of the same name is great, check out the original on the ‘Let it Be…….Naked’ album from 2003.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ The Beatles. Can a piece of music be literally indescribable? It is possible to go into the minutiae of how this song was created – Ian MacDonald’s amazing book ‘Revolution in the Head’ does this for the entire Beatles canon – but the sound of this song still amazes me. Jonathan Gould describes this track in terms of a “sonic headwind” in his book ‘Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles, Britain and America”. There is nothing else on Revolver that prepares you for the sheer onslaught of this track with its dense percussive backing, sitar drone and backwards guitars and Lennon’s heavily compressed vocal. In my opinion more ground-breaking than the album that followed……….. “Listen to the colour of your dreams”!!!

‘Heatwave’ The Blue Nile “the rivers in the distance must be leading somewhere”. My wife Heather introduced me to the Nile and I thought they were Australian! But Messrs Buchanan, Moore and Bell hail from considerably closer. This song is from their first album A Walk Across the Rooftops’ from 1983 and the title track was a moderate hit. Heatwave is a fine piece of electronica with a heart, Harry Partch meets Steve Reich if you like, simple guitar figures played off against percussion and synthesizers and a ravishing vocal- they have made just four records and each one is a masterpiece. And singer Paul Buchanan’s solo album Mid Air from 2012 is great too. He has one of those voices… the right mood it brings tears to my eyes!

‘Cottontail’ Ella Fitzgerald. Great voice, a rhythm section running like a well-oiled machine…. Messrs Webster, Kessel, Mondragon, Paul Smith and Alvin Stoller….peerless. From her ‘Ella Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook’ from 1957.

‘Love and Affection’ Joan Armatrading. I saw Joan on the telly the other night on the Old Grey Whistle Test retrospective (hey kids remember that programme from the good old days? Cue the joke “I may be old but I got to see all the great bands”). Don’t ask me why but this song and the album it came from remind me of evenings spent in The Railway in Heaton Mersey in Stockport! Memories aside this is a powerfully erotic love song, Joan’s lovely guitar, soaring saxophone from Mel Collins and backing vocals from Clarke Peters…he played the detective who made the doll’s house furniture in ‘The Wire’. Although primarily an acoustic player she got into some fearsome and bluesy electric playing on her later records.

‘Suite; The Beauty of All Things/ The Dance/ Prayer for Mr. Davis’. Kurt Elling. This is an extraordinary piece of music. The first movement inspired by some words written by Benedictine monk and poet Thomas Merton about people in their ordinary routines “walking around shining like the sun”. Then there is the evocative Eastern sounding dance in the middle and the concluding threnody for Miles Davis. Apart from Kurt’s voice (now that Mark Murphy has died surely the best jazz vocalist around!), there is Laurence Hobgood’s ever inventive piano and Orbert Davis’ warm flugelhorn on the closer. “In hundred coloured tones you could hear sacred stories” indeed! Magnificent!! From Kurt’s album ‘The Messenger’ from April 1997.

‘Long Promised Road’ The Beach Boys. Light years away from ‘Surfin’ USA’ this, along with ‘Disney Girls’ and the concluding duo of ”Til I Die’ and the title track are the highlights of ‘Surf’s Up’ for me. There was a time when I never thought I would own anything by this group, but those voices and, on ‘Road’ the terrific lyrics and Carl’s heartfelt vocal. Terrific!

I am indebted to Gordon Mitchell for the link to the article from the Independent that started this particular hare running! Thanks y’all!

Fantasy and the power of the imagination……

Fantasy and the power of the imagination……

At present I am almost all the way through Ursula le Guin’s ‘Earthsea Quartet’, four novellas that follow the Wizard Ged on his journeys from his life as a goatherd on his home island of Gont to Archmage and teacher. As a long-time admirer of le Guin’s fictions I am ashamed to say that I am only just discovering the delights of Earthsea and these tremendous stories have led me to reflect on the role of fantasy and the importance of imagination. I have felt for a long time that reading fuels imagination more than other media; for example, as much as I love the Peter Jackson films based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ I have thought that they tend to ‘flatten out’ the stories whereas imagination restores other necessary dimensions.

It is possible to argue (as John le Carre has done with regard to his own fiction) that the book is the book and the film is the film, but these stories are meant to be read and it is the connection between the imagination of the writer and the reader that the alchemy takes place. It is true that film and other media add further dimensions but the power of film can unseat other interpretations because of the sheer power of carefully crafted images. I have written before of Terry Pratchett’s assertion that the best version of LOTR is the one playing in your head – and that is because of the act of reading itself. To return to Earthsea, le Guin’s writing is so fresh that the ‘commonplaces’ of fantasy (wizards, dragons, magic) are given fresh power and intensity. I would like to think this is because of le Guin’s talent as a writer. Perhaps it is also to do with the fact that these stories have never been successfully   adapted for the screen – except for a misguided attempt some years ago that ignored the fact that Ged’s skin is copper brown and his good friend Vetch is black- casting white actors in all the roles!

I recognise that this may be splitting hairs and that imagination is sparked by many different things but I still want to argue for the primacy of reading. In my opinion reading stimulates the imagination whereas film often does a lot of work for you and despite the way that for instance the Harry Potter books have increased the appetite for reading, I think that a case could be made for more books and more reading!! Personally film has often sent me back to the literary sources, from Lew Wallis’ novel ‘Ben Hur’ to Harry Potter, sometimes to reflect on the choices adaptors make ( a fascinating subject in its own right!) but also to see what pictures the text summons up in my head. This can be tricky but is always rewarding, after the film versions of Rings I wondered if I would ever read the book again without seeing Ian McKellen’s Gandalf or Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn but I did and the book was richer and more nuanced – I am convinced that this was because I returned to it as an older reader, and not only as a passive watcher.

So, if reading is primary in this argument, what is the place of other adaptations? In my opinion, as long as adaptations pique the interest of the reader enough to send them back to the original text, and then in my opinion the circle is complete. Many may not make that connection and that is fine, it is a free country after all, but for me reading is the thing. It is the text and my imagination that makes the stories live; other adaptations will always be second best, no matter how faithful they are. I believe strongly that imagination is under threat these days, not only from the depredations of social media but also from the growth of virtual reality – after all who needs imagination when you can put on a headset and have it all there in front of you? Imagination demands some effort in understanding and comprehension. Sometimes this is invited explicitly, for example there is a strand of history called ‘counterfactuals’ which invites the reader to imagine what it would be like for example, if the Spanish Armada had not been defeated, or if Germany had won the Second World War. This approach is not without its critics but it has some strong advocates (‘Virtual History – Alternatives and Counterfactuals’ (Picador 1998) edited by Niall Ferguson is an excellent primer for this approach) and I find it stimulating because it invites the exercise of imagination.

Similarly, techniques for reading the bible that come from the Ignatian School of spirituality invite the reader to imagine themselves present in Bible stories. I have used this technique myself and found that the exercise of imagination has enhanced my reading and made the stories live! Here the contemplation of the story engages the mind and heart and locates it in the experience of the reader. This is not just time travel but an attempt to learn what the story might mean in the readers present experience.

In a recent survey reading more difficult texts was encouraged for teenagers as a way of “understanding exams questions, tell (ing) fake news apart from real news and getting informed and involved in society” (Professor Keith Topping/ the full article can be found  on The Conversation website). This is in response, in part, to the increasing digitization of society, and it seems that reading will never lose its place as a primary carrier of information and as a way of stimulating the imagination. Or as the American writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it in the 1930’s; “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading”.

Two writers……