There was a time we always invited friends for New Year’s Eve. We asked them to bring nothing but a piece of music they liked.
Come dusk, the house would be packed; first we ate, then we sat round, listening carefully to one another’s tracks, and explaining why that music was important to us. Eventually we’d drift to bed; a few made it through to dawn. We covered a broad mix of ages – from about five to seventy – and the music we chose was eclectic. It’s over ten years since we hosted a New Year’s party, but whenever I hear one of those songs, I still remember the person who chose it, and what they told us. Because that’s how music works. It’s not like literature; musical notes don’t mean something concrete, the way a word like ‘dog’ or ‘house’ does. Music goes beyond the boundaries of time and consciousness, just as it moves beyond the boundaries of nationality and language. It speaks somewhere beneath the skin.
Which brings me to my first choice of healing music:
Satin Doll by Duke Ellington (instrumental version)
This was one of the New Year offerings, and it was brought to the party by my dad. He was extremely ill at the time, but he wanted to be there that night and he wanted to share his music – because I believe he felt it told us something important about him. My dad had been a jazz drummer as a young man and played in bands (he was forever beating out the rhythm of things on our kitchen table), and he chose this piece because it was the best warm-up for a band. Everyone gets a solo, and after that they have to work as a team, supporting one another. They leave space for the others but at the same time they have no inhibitions about claiming a place for themselves. They are both a collective and a set of individuals.
I listen to it now, and I think of Duke Ellington turning off the lights on his band, one by one. It’s the happiest-ever goodbye, but it also captures something bigger. It tells us we are not really up to very much when we stand alone, but when we look out for one another and use our skills to help one another, we really are quite something. A utopian whole. We played this music at my dad’s funeral – and every time I listen I feel incredibly happy and incredibly alone, and I know it’s okay to feel such ambiguity. There is room in the music to feel many things.
I'm Not In Love by 10cc
Sometimes, though, if you feel broken, you do not wish to cheer up. You are sad and you want to be sad. If you are going to heal, you need a piece of music that is so spectacularly sad, it is even sadder than you are. I wore out my 45 single of I’m Not In Love when I was sixteen. It got so cracked and bumpy the thing was unplayable. But did that stop me? Of course it didn’t. I was sixteen. My boyfriend had dumped me for my best friend, and she (my best friend) was wearing the blue knitted scarf I had previously worn, and I felt alone and betrayed. The only time I was happy was when I was listening to that sad, sad song.
The same happened later with Brian Wilson’s Caroline, No, and Bonnie Raitt singing Too Soon To Tell, and Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. They are all brilliantly sad songs, big enough to contain the sorrow of a small country.
Sonata No. 1 in G Minor by Bach (solo violin)
And then there is a classical piece I found when I was sixteen that I still carry round with me. One of the best healers.
The only way I could afford new music when I was a teenager was to borrow it from the record department of West Norwood library. I took out Bach’s Sonatas because I liked the picture on the cover (a woman laughing with her violin and also flicking her hair, like someone on an advert for Elnett hairspray). As you listen, you find there is room to breathe; it gives a feeling of what people call divinity, a state of serenity and tranquillity. You sense that Bach has been very lonely in his time, and very frightened, and has used his music to make peace with those feelings. It is full of poise and therefore hope.
Heyr Himna Smidur (Icelandic hymn)
I was writing The Music Shop for a long time, and whenever I travelled, I made sure I found the local record shop. This next choice came from a brilliant store in Reykjavik called 12 Tónar. It’s worth jumping on a plane to Iceland just to visit. (If you do, tell Larus I sent you.)
Larus told me that everyone in Iceland knows this hymn, so I suppose it must be a bit like The Lord is My Shepherd. (I have to come clean now and make it very clear I can’t sing. I have not one musical muscle in my body. My husband, who is a musician as well as several other things, says that is nonsense, everyone can sing, but that is because he has never actually heard me. Whenever I have to sing and he is next to me, I pretend I am so busy doing something else – like adjusting my buttons, for example, or being incredibly moved – that I have completely forgotten to come up with any sound.)
So this hymn gets me – it really gets me – because all those male voices come together unaccompanied to sing one message. Help us. It’s the diametrical opposite of an army going to war, or a man on TV telling you life is for winners. Watch a clip on YouTube: men in stiff white shirts and dicky-bird ties, standing so solemn and tall; and yet what they produce, what binds them together, is this exquisite, beautiful plea for mercy. It holds you like a hundred hands.
Avarandado by Joao Gilberto
Researching music for my novel, I came across this next track by accident, and it’s up there now in my medicine cupboard. The only prerequisite is that I have to listen to it a) with headphones and b) in a comfy place – such as bed – and preferably lying down.
This is like being sung to by something inside you. It’s so intimate and soft-voiced, you can hear him buzzing Zs and slurring Ss. I listen and it’s like being in a trance, or falling asleep as a child in the back of the car, very safe but also not really belonging anywhere except a good, dark place.
Go! by M83
Healing is not always a quiet business. My last remedy is French electro pop: Go! by M83 (though frankly Shalamar, Chic, Todd Rundgren, Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Hold Back The Night would do just as well). Because sometimes you just need to play something wildly happy. And dance.
When I listen to these pieces, I feel the world is in harmony. I hear notes travelling together, all different kinds, and I know there is a place where such a thing is possible. Whether it’s a soprano voice reaching so high that my throat fills with stones, or 10cc singing that I am right to hurt so much because they hurt too, music can give the feeling of having lived through a whole life. It reminds us – broken as we sometimes feel, or lost, or angry, or full of fear – of a place that is nothing to do with words, and nothing to do with differences. A bigger place, that holds us all.
More about the author
BBC Radio 4 BOOK AT BEDTIME from 17-28 July. From the author of the world-wide bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a new novel about learning how to listen and how to feel; and about second chances and choosing to be brave despite the odds. Because in the end, music can save us all ...
1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.
Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.
Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind ...
LISTEN WHILE YOU READ! The Music Shop is BBC Radio 4's BOOK AT BEDTIME. And you can follow these links for specially collated The Music Shop playlists:
The Music Shop playlist: bit.ly/TheMusicShopPlaylist
Father Anthony: bit.ly/FatherAnthonyPlaylist
NB This hardback edition is beautifully produced, with stunning decorated insides.