Pockets of Light

Responses to my piece on The Stone Roses last week got me thinking about ageing and about the ever-evolving role of music in our lives.

Why do any of us love the music we love? How does our relationship with music change as we age? Is it possible, ever, to fall for a song the way you did when you were fourteen and everything was up for grabs?

I am not the first person to wonder about this.

I think, for the record, that the answer to the last of those is Yes – though I’d be surprised if a song ever transformed things again like ‘Tame’ did in April 1989. When you’re 41, the days of songs inducing seismic upheavals in your sense of self are over, you’d hope.

So, I had great intentions on Saturday night of posting on this subject.

What ended up happening, though, in a pattern that I’ve been repeating for 25 years and more, is that rather than complete the task I’d set myself, I listened to loads of music.

Not too constructive, but it felt constructive on Saturday, as it did throughout college, when I would sit up to 3AM with textbooks sprawled, ostensibly cramming but, in fact, devoting all my attention to AMC’s Engine.

(Quick aside: how great a track one side one is ‘Big Night’? The day I don’t get a shiver from its steadfast forlorn devotion – “When time peels off your statue skin, I’ll still be fooled by what remains / Yeah, whatever’s left of you will be my dream” – is a day I will have a stern word with myself.)

In an attempt at salvaging something from Saturday, I made a playlist, which I called Pockets of Light, after Lubomyr Melnyk and Peter Broderick’s beautiful 2015 piece on the wonderful Erased Tapes label.


I started on this playlist because it occurred to me that if the pieces I love right now have anything in common, it is a transcendent quality.

I don’t mean sacred as such – though the oft-religious output of the Louth Contemporary Music Society has heavily influenced my taste in the last half-decade, and there is Russian choral music on the playlist, which would have nonplussed the 1989 version of me.

What I mean is something in the music operating at a level I don’t understand, that’s visceral, usually involving sheer beauty, and makes me happy and sad and yearning and centred at the same time.

It’s something about the quality of emotional focus the piece induces and it has an addictive feel. How I know this is happening is that when the song ends, I miss the feeling, and I have to put it on again, like Dave Fanning used to compulsively replay MBV’s ‘Sometimes‘.

There’s a neurobiology of musical emotion here, possibly involving delta waves, that a more biological psychiatrist than I could explain. There are certainly enough fMRI studies.

I’m not sure how much these transcendent songs have in common.

I think the description applies to Nick Drake’s ‘Place to Be‘. I think it applies  to Jon Hopkins’ and Natasha Khan’s ‘Garden’s Heart‘ and Ergodos Musicians’ ‘Ladrang mugirahayu‘; to Squarepusher’s ‘Tommib‘, John Cage’s ‘In A Landscape‘ and Sufjan’s ‘The Owl And The Tanager‘; to Ghost Culture’s ‘Glaciers‘, Guided By Voices’ ‘Chicken Blows‘ and Arvo Part’s ‘Da Pacem Domine‘. The compulsive thing alluded to earlier means that as I type those names in rapid succession I want to hear them all, like now, and all together if necessary. At times like this paragraph I feel a rush of gratitude to these people.

If one way you recognise transcendence in music is the profundity and inexplicability of the effects it induces – in your stomach, in your suddenly dry throat, in a fluttering of your heart that you weren’t expecting – then ‘Os’ by Slow Moving Clouds is transcendent.

This band is completely new to me. I came across them just on Saturday night, through Fractured Air, though I know Seti The First, the wonderful band belonging to Slow Moving Clouds’ Kevin Murphy.

Slow Moving Clouds are Finnish and Irish and I have to assume that ‘Os‘ is sung in Finnish. It’s one of those songs that you don’t understand and you completely understand. The confluence of Aki’s strong, brittle baritone, the restraint replete with emotion, Danny Diamond’s keening fiddle and Kevin Murphy’s sweeping cello, and what I read and hope may be a nyckelharpa – it’s quite something.

I’ve listened to ‘Os’ twenty-five times in a weekend. I’ve played it five times writing this piece. I need to stop, and I will, but not now.

NC 30/11/15