But none of them made me cry.
The Matthew Herbert Big Band Album on the other hand, made me cry.
This is a rarity.
Now, let me explain, for which I need your co-operation.
Here’s the liner notes section relevant to the track in question:
One Life includes the sounds of: one beep from the alarm system of my premature son’s neonatal special care unit. Each beep represents 100 killed in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003 to October 2006. Figures based on a study by the lancet. One 10 pound note being torn in to 3 pieces, where each part represents 1 trillion dollars.
Now, go listen to the track. It’s on youtube.
Anyway, I’m going to assume you’ve taken my advice and listened, because if you have, and you’re the kind of person who gets wrapped up in emotional experiences on this level, then you’ll be crying by now.
Maybe it’s just me, and it probably didn’t help that I was reading a comic about child abuse whilst listening to the album (One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot is brilliant also).
Anyhow, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
It’s incredible that a combination of a little nugget of information (the source of the sound and what it represents) adds so much to the record. If I hadn’t read the note before (which I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t know what to expect from Matthew Herbert) then I wouldn’t have taken it in, and the high frequency whirring of that beep, underlying the entire track, would’ve been little more than static.
As it is though, that static is so much more. That static became a wall of death in between my ears and the rest of the music. I found myself wrapped up in horror at even the thought of imagining one death per beep, let alone a hundred. The scale of the impact of these kind of events, so often just strings of throw away numbers, is hard to grasp. Above a certain point numbers effectively become meaningless, only relating to anything else in terms of proportionality (we know that three trillion is three times a trillion, but we don’t really have an immediate image of a trillion of anything, it’s too vast to comprehend).
But a beep. A single beep, multiplied however many times (I can’t bring myself to look up the statistics myself) necessary to represent the human cost of a war. Then by a hundred, because the scale needs to change even when it’s been pitched up to that whirring.
That beep, brings me close to people I’ve never met, who’ve been killed in war. It makes them real in a way I can’t comprehend. Nothing has bought me closer to visualising the scale of impact of this or any other war. (Lie actually, as soon as I write that I remember a school trip to Belgium, where I looked out across a field to see a row of about a hundred white crosses in a cemetery. We were driving past in a coach, and I’d looked up at just the right moment for the front row to eclipse the rest of the field. As my perspective changed, that single row of crosses turned into thousands in a moment. All exploding out from the back of the original line. It was shocking to say the least).
Just relating each beep to a hundred people just like the ones I’ve lost in my life. Just thinking about the number of people distraught and affected by those deaths. Families of soldiers, families of civilians. Friends. Communities. All torn apart by death.
And it carries on beeping. Constant, steady, and horrifically rapid.
I’d say that from a conceptual level, it’s almost a pinnacle of Herbert’s attempts at adding political messages to music through the sounds he’s chosen and the way he uses them. He’s not just added a political structure to the piece, but he’s engaged at least one individual with that political side on a purely emotional level. And that’s even before he adds a beautiful a heartfelt song over the top of it.
And the choice of sound to represent this?
A neonatal special care unit. His own premature son’s. This sound is deeply personal to him. I imagine, for him, it represents a period of personal fear and hope. If the beep is an alarm, then that means the sound was a warning that his child’s condition was critical. There’s a deep intimacy and impact to the imagery behind that sound. It’s a warning, but it’s, I hope, a sign of hope. That child will hopefully have been kept alive by the machinery producing that sound. Something is kept alive. With hope and luck and the hard work of people. (I’m not sure if his son survived, I pray and hope so, in the way that I do).
Birth and death, combined together in one symbol. Life is contrasted directly to suffering and death. Destruction is intertwined with a device of salvation.
The imagery is beautiful, and it adds such a rich layer of understanding to a beautiful song.
And it made me cry. Which doesn’t happen often with music. In fact, aside from direct moments of grieving (funerals and the depths of grief) I can only pick out three occasions.
All in a five minute song.
As I’ve said before, music is rich and powerful and overwhelming. Herbert once again shows us that it is also political, meaningful and deep. There is room for this kind of emotional and political expression in music, and there is in all things.
Don’t let your heart harden, let your heart feel the terrible and the beuatiful things in this world. Only then can you engage with politics as a full human being, and that is what we need to really change the world. At least I hope so. Possibly we have to stop crying first, but I have yet to work that one out.
Later this week (hopefully, but I am terrible at keeping promises) I hope to look into contrasts between the disengagement of music and general escapism in culture, and my own disengagement. It’ll be one of those self help, let’s see if I can work out how to make myself better posts.
Here’s to tears and the power to feel.