My life has always been suffused with music. I’m sure yours has been too. Perhaps everyone’s is, in one way or another. These days I pay more attention to birdsong that accompanies every walk I take, even though I live in the centre of London.
I listen avidly to an Indie Music radio station, which also has funk and pop shows. It’s not just the music I love, it’s the way the DJ acts as a cultural archivist and historian. In fact, one show even dedicates half an hour to reading through decades-old copies of music newspapers, sharing and reminding, making connections and tracing genealogies of the artists. I love all of that cultural history, and pop music of various kinds has always been a kind of foil to my interest and career in art.
Art, or ‘Fine Art’ as it distinguishes itself, continues to be a slightly more esoteric realm and a place where artists’ decisions might be more rigorously conceptualised and considered, but then, it’s hard to make any comparison between Fine Art and popular music that really does both sides justice and feels accurate.
Popular music (I’ll try again) might seem less controlled by conceptual rigour etc. (though again, none of these generalisations ever fit and cover everything), but it also allows for and encourages a different range of emotional expression.
Personally, I’ve often felt quite torn between the two fields and have done some work in recent years to heal the rift. When I was younger I often felt thrown from one to the other in painful ‘either/or’ periods of indecision. As I got older I realised that conflict per se is the thing to be avoided and that achieving peace in your mind, heart and soul is actually more important than either side of any complex decision.
Now, I’ve written about growing up with music in certain essays, memoirs and chapters of books. That helped to, as I say, bridge the divide. I’ve made my own music all my life, but I’ve never made any income from it really, and, whether you like it or not, what generates income for you ultimately has to become your profession.
Luckily the arts are plastic and elastic enough for me to be a professional arts lecturer and writer, who pursues music as a kind of ‘hobby’ now, and yet I am still always testing to see if I might still be able to integrate ALL of my interests into one identity without feeling anything is in conflict, being left out, or that anything is incongruous. Again, it also comes down to those evaluative descriptions of Fine Art and popular music, and trying to work out just why and how these things are the same and also so different.
I am passionate about the vinyl records and CDs I have collected over the years. Actually, there are not that many but they all feel formative and are definitely ‘classics’ for me, in that I can go back to them again and again and love them anew and find things in them that I hadn’t noticed before. I sometimes wonder if my own music could ever be like that to others, and somehow doubt that it ever can.
This week, I had a certain song on my mind and so I pulled out the vinyl record and put it on the turntable. The song is called ‘Snow in San Anselmo’ and its by one of my favourite artists with a long and rich history, named Van Morrison. I think he is a real artist as he has always taken so many creative risks and made so many miraculous discoveries. At the same time he is a kind of jobbing musician and songwriter who never stops working and doesn’t get caught up the music biz celebrity thing that can ruin both music and musicians.
This song is from one of his early albums. It’s hard to define the genre, as is often the case with Van Morrison’s best songs. As well as his usual excellent band, on this song he surprisingly enlisted the help of a choir. I always think that it is their ethereal high voices that represent the tone and texture of the snow in the title.
The lyrics tell you that the song is about the fact that, presumably while on tour, Van Morrison was in San Anselmo California on a day when it snowed for the first time in over 30 years. That is all that happens, and the song simply describes the town on that day and the fact that it snowed. But it’s a great tribute to the singer and songwriter that he can turn this small incident, and so mysteriously, into the subject of a song and that he can give a series of simple observations such a great sense of charm, magic and import.
It’s another good example of how an artist can make great work out of anything, any moment, any event, any place and any material.
I hope you can find and listen to this song, and read its lyrics. Listen 2-3 times, until it hooks you in.
I guarantee it will enhance your day and maybe your life.