On the Tube, the conductor’s announcement is so loud, the sound is fuzzy and incomprehensible. I plug my fingers into my ears and meet the eyes of other passengers. They are impassive; their curiosity at my reaction, unemotional. In the street, the shriek of the ambulance lacerates my eardrums, bringing tears to my eyes. I slam my hands over my ears. Passers-by observe me with nonplussed incomprehension.
During the Overture of West End musicals I tear up a tissue, rolling each half into a ball, and ram it into my ears. Going to the cinema has become a trying experience because the volume is simply unbearable. I began shopping for CDs on the internet years ago, because I could not stand the volume of the music in the shops. In fact, time and again, I walk into a clothes or shoe shop and perform an immediate U-turn, driven away by the loud music.
Cars zoom past with a violent metallic beat blaring out of the rolled down windows. Is the driver deaf? Or asserting his/her supremacy? He/she is exercising his his/her freedom and thereby curtailing mine. I have no right not to share his/her taste in music.
Moreover, electronic warning tones, such as mobile ringtones, laser scanning beeps at supermarket tills and doors closing on buses, are becoming increasingly penetrating. Like long, iced needles stabbing your ears, plunging into the centre of your head.
Every time I complain, my fellow-humans’ expression suggests they are not quite sure where to place me. I do not look like an alien, yet…
Is it possible that I am the only person in this city whose ears are under constant assault? With the concept of human rights being brandied about so liberally, don’t my ears have some rights not to be battered? My freedom of choice is being taken away by a dictatorship that forces me to hear and takes away my right to listen.
It is a well-known biological fact that organs develop with increased use and, if left unused, eventually become redundant, shrivel, and disappear. We live in a society where, with all the modern conveniences obtainable with the least possible effort on our part, it seems old-fashioned and too much hard work to strain your hearing just little bit to focus your attention on a sound. The sound must blast to save you any kind of effort. Are we heading for a hearing impaired generation?
Hard as I try to understand the logic or motivation behind this vogue, my mind fails to fathom it. I have no opportunity to try and fathom it. I am too busy warding off the constant battery on my ears.
I used to frequent a gym where the music (if you can call it that – I guess you have to, otherwise somebody will stand up for its rights to be called music), complete with overwhelming bass thumping was so loud, I could not hear the music on my personal stereo earphones. Consequently, I kept turning out down. Finally, one glistening, rippling muscles specimen of male humanoid came up to me and said we had to have the music on loud. “Otherwise, I can’t work out – I keep hearing my heartbeat, and it’s distracting.”
We live in a society where, of all six senses, Sight is king. Not just a king but a jealous oppressor who tolerates no rivals. Everything, from entertainment to judgments, to learning, has to go through the censorship of Sight. Everything must be subservient to Sight, to make Sight look good. Woe to anyone who dares undermine the almighty power of Sight, or even hint at its fallibility. And yet fallible it is.
More people watch television that listen to the radio. With films, you are fed entertainment with no effort required on your part, whatsoever. With a radio play, the relationship is more interactive. You actually have to do a little work and create the images, smells, sensations yourself by flexing your imagination.
After meeting a new person, we tell our friends what he/she looked like and was dressed like. How often do we report on what he/she sounded like? How often do we even remember someone’s voice, its character, its colour, or its effect on us? We forget that anyone can dress up and even mould his/her body language to fit the occasion but hardly anyone can control their voice (not even actors). The accent can be transmuted but not the essence of the individual voice. Does this person’s voice modulate? Does it rise in pitch? Does the inflexion drop? Is the voice earthy? Metallic? Warm? Hard? Velvety?
I cherish my hearing because it grants me access to what is, in my (very personal) opinion, the purest among art forms – Music.
It is the most emotional of arts. No paintings, sculptures or even words, can capture and convey feelings with the accuracy of music. It was his gift for music that helped Orpheus return, unscathed, from the depth of Hades. It was through song that the Sirens bewitched Ulysses’ sailors. In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo tells Jessica the stars emit precious music but, alas, we cannot hear it whilst trapped in our coarse bodies. Our senses are yet too blunt for such refined sounds. It is said that in Heaven, the angels sing. Renaissance paintings and Christmas cards depict them holding lutes, harps and fifes – not easels, palettes and brushes. You play sad dirges when you bury the dead and, when you rejoice, your heart sings. Music guides you to the very depths of your imagination.
Plato maintained that music can be mathematical perfection in all its glory. All you need, is to hear in action the pure physics of trebles and counter-tenors that rise up from the wooden pews of King’s College Chapel, fly up to the fan-vaulting, linger above the stained glass windows, quiver in the cold air up above, then dissolve into the stone, and yet live on forever – to know that Plato was right.
Speaking for myself, when everything around me looks overwhelmingly ugly, squalid and meaningless, it is Johann Sebastian Bach who takes me by the hand and, on our way, points out all the pockets of mathematical perfection in the world, all the hidden but undeniable instances of logic, and the eternal patterns that lead back to hope. “You see,” he says in his Leipzig accent, “life makes sense.” Then he hands me over to George Gershwin, who takes me for a ride where I am glad – in fact, I am overjoyed – to be a part of this wonderful life and world.
Next weekend, I am pampering my bat ears and treating them to a perfect example of music as a faithful conveyor of images, smells and physical sensations. They are performing Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain at the Proms. The first chords are full of peremptory pride that warns you against all doubt. This is a story worth listening to. Then the Arabic semi-tones flirt with you, lure you deeper into the gardens of the Alhambra; a night breeze of cellos whooshes past you. The piano is the voice of the fountain that trills in the middle of the Patio de los leones. The violins lament the death of princes slaughtered by the Moors, their blood stains still on the stone of the fountain. The strings section rises to the top of the old minaret above which presides the crescent of a new moon, quicksilver against the black sky, then swoops back down through the Moorish arches, where the oboes tempt you to run your fingers on the white alabaster, like sensuous semi-tones. The clarinet carries the scent of jasmine and roses that line pools of limpid water whose still surface is rippled by goldfish. The brass section vibrates like the dry heat that caresses your skin. You allow yourself to fall into the Alhambra’s embrace.
Anyone care to join me at the Royal Albert Hall?