Here’s my little experiment for 2022. It begins with classic piece of music from the middle of the last century. On Friday 9th October 1959 four players – Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins – went into a studio in Hollywood. Some time between 2 pm and 6 pm they laid down a new performance of Ornette’s tune Ramblin’. It became the first track on the Atlantic LP Change of the Century, Coleman’s second for the label, released in 1960. They had been playing the tune live – there is a more generously proportioned recording from a session with the pianist Paul Bley from the year before. But in the studio they took just six minutes and thirty four seconds.
A suburban schoolchild five thousand miles away in South London – me – was unaware of this small artistic gem when it was created. I heard it, I think, in the late 1970s, on this old LP, a small selection from the extraordinary series for Atlantic collected later as Beauty is a Rare Thing.
I loved it immediately, and have listened to it regularly ever since. There’s a video somewhere on YouTube of a guy in a phone booth singing Ramblin’, nailing every note in every solo. That could have been me, though the singing would be worse.
I’m a listener, not a musician – I’ve accumulated a modest list of instruments I’ve failed to learn how to play with even basic competence. Yet I am mildly obsessed with music. For the last half century many of the best moments of any year, when I look back, have been musical ones. Some are unrepeatable highs in performance. Some are ones I can replay at the touch of a button, like the ones in the 394 seconds of Ramblin’.
Over that half-century I’ve developed a few feelings about this: especially, endless gratitude for the fact that music is so great, and for the people who make it; and a long-marinaded curiosity about one of the smaller mysteries of the human condition. Why does nearly everyone love music? Even people like me, who cannot make music. Even though it has no obvious use. There are a few individuals who are genuinely tone deaf, who lead perfectly normal lives. Yet every culture ever recorded has had music of some kind.
My question has evolved a bit. There are elements too of how? And over the years, I’ve logged quite a few answers, often emerging from new research in a bunch of disciplines. Some are personal, historical or cultural. Some come from archaeology, psychology, neuroscience, ethology, or evolutionary biology.
Time, I think, to see how well they work.
Last year, I diverted myself by writing a music-lover’s notes on individual tracks, often lesser known ones, that have stayed on my personal playlist for years or decades, one each week from Jan to Dec.
This year, I think I’ll do something more speculative – inverting that, sort of. I’m going to stick with the one piece of music. Each week I’ll think about one piece in the mosaic of explanations of why music speaks to humans, and particularly to me – then see if I can apply it to Ramblin’.
There’s a stack of books here, some already read, some notes on recent research papers, new and old, and leads I’ve yet to follow. I have, really, little idea whether this will work. I’m thinking that makes it more fun (for me) to give it a go. If these posts fade away in the middle of the year, no matter. But if I keep to the weekly post, it may add up to something at the end of the year. Or it may just be a collection of bits produced by one person, you know… rambling.
But I, anyway, am curious to find out. First instalment follows: think I’ll start by trying to be mainly descriptive, then see where that leads.