Orwellian might be the most abused literary adjective in use today, but George Orwell remains one of the most prescient writers of his age. He had an opinion on just about every topic, but when one considers the many, and often bizarre, ways in which his writings continue to resonate in 2013, the 110th year of his birth, his thoughts on music do not immediately spring to mind. But arguably they should.
In his essay ‘Pleasure Spots’, Orwell suggested that in the future music – and it will be ‘the same music for everyone’ – will be omnipresent – a persistent, insidious background hum ‘to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound… that might otherwise intrude.’
If Orwell had lived a few decades longer he would have lived to see his vision come true: how he would have hated the experience of shopping, or visiting a restaurant, or waiting at an airport today. In these places music operates on the edge of your consciousness, imposing somebody else’s globalised, commodified, cynical cultural values on your day and conjuring a sense of urgency in all you do. It is carefully selected, the result of meticulous market research, to cultivate the perfect consumer climate. Would Orwell have been likely to remain on hold on the phone to his bank were he subjected to the opening of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for ten minutes on loop? In his book The Clergyman’s Daughter, an austere sign hanging in a classroom reminds us: ‘Silence is Golden.’
St Peter’s Church in East Blatchington, Sussex, is the latest institution to tap into Orwell’s contemplative ideal: their 30 minute recording of the ambient sounds in the 800-year-old parish hall has proved a top seller, with people from as far a field as Ghana eager to transport themselves, with the sounds of footsteps, the squeaking of pews, and the occasional hum of traffic, to the fulcrum of this rural English village. The implication is that this is a particularly wholesome mode of silence: the Buxton Springs to your Southern Water.
The use of ‘silence’ in music is of course nothing new. John Cage’s thought provoking 4’33” springs to mind, particularly given recent attempts to install it as the Christmas number one. There is an earlier precedent in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, where the composer instructs a five minute pause following the onslaught of the epic first movement. Sadly, conspicuously few recordings, or even live performances, honour his request.
Composer Alvin Lucier offers perhaps the most eccentric take on the idea of experiencing a sense of ‘place’ through sound. His work I am Sitting in a Room features a recording of the composer speaking a few short sentences, repeated ad nauseam until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves to the extent that his voice is reduced to a wash of sound. The recording is available on YouTube, so the next time you are bored in the library take a moment to listen to a few excerpts (the entire thing is 45 minutes long) and transport yourself to another place.