Music That Murders Silence

You cannot escape it can you? That loud over-powering pulsating beat! We have gone to a bar cafe for a late Saturday lunch and all we want to do is enjoy the meal-we know the food to be good- and have a chat. But you cannot escape the noise that is pretending to be music. How is it conceived that this is something customers want? Yet it seems not to bother them. There they are all dressed up in Saturday ostentation that declares that though this is afternoon the night they are going to enjoy starts here, chattering as if to chat with that deadening beat in the background is as normal as chatting over the fence with their neighbour.

This all came to mind as I read this from Joseph Conrad’s superb novel Victory. Set on an island in the South Pacific a travelling band of musicians is doing a concert for hotel guests including the hero Heyst who has unwillingly joined the audience.

The Zangiacamo band was not making music ; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses and giving no signs of distress, anger or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural spectacle of their indifference.

Joseph Conrad Victory 1915

“Murdering silence” is a good way of putting it. The thump of the “music” is designed to dominate, to desensitise the auditors . You are not in fact “listening”: listening involves choice and you have no choice, just as you have no choice if a helicopter flies low overhead or you have to walk past as an electric drill breaking up the road. You are a victim.

So to Heyst the other guests seeming indifferent is unnatural. The word “unnatural” reminds me of a passage in D. H.Lawrence- also about so-called music: a singing class in a school in the industrial Midlands:

Standard Five girls were having a singing lesson, just finishing the la-me-do-la exercises and beginning a “sweet children’s song”. Anything more like song, spontaneous song, would be impossible to imagine: a strange bawling yell followed the outlines of a tune. It was not like savages: savages have subtle rhythms. It was not like animals: animals mean something when they yell. It was like nothing on earth and it was called singing.

D.H. Lawrence Lady mChatterly’s Lover 1928.

Murdering silence”, “vulgar, ferocious energy” a “strange bawling yell”; yet something it is assumed we should accept as normal or natural. “Unnatural”: in the Lawrence passage the “bawling” indicates a lack of sensitivity to what the song requires; in the Conrad it suggests an audience desensitised to what music might be.

Too late on that Saturday afternoon bar visit we recognised the mistake. The bar music was in fact aimed at its clientele. Its aim was to get them in the mood for an ongoing period of pleasure stretching into the small hours. Noise deadens sensitivity; it lowers inhibitions; voices are raised just to hear; drink is constantly needed to keep up the conviviality. As Conrad puts it “ferocious energy” is needed. The music helps to shape you into being a true party participator; bludgeoning the mind into acceptance of what the party demands……..

If the frantic, fervid quality of modern pleasure is unnatural the noise of its music murdering silence is integral to what it requires.

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