Richard Porch reflects on the power of music in cities to transport the listener to other places
Two summers ago in Italy my wife and I were walking back to our holiday apartment having dined al fresco in the balmy Florentine night. Opposite from where we sat in the street was an off license that sold wine by the glass to passers by and which had seats outside. People walking past could stop and buy a glass of their favourite drink, consume it in a relaxed way and carry on towards their destination.
Perhaps they were just having an aperitif before a meal or just whiling away 10 minutes before home and bed. There were no pools of vomit or pee stains on adjacent buildings nor graffiti, it was just a quiet thoroughfare where civilised people could have some light refreshment or a nightcap before moving on. We finished our meal and set off back to the Piazza Dei Duomo and bed.
As we passed through an undistinguished covered lane we could hear gentle laughter escaping from an open window above us. The space above was seemingly a rehearsal room and a choir or choral group were meeting. We could hear brief snatches of music that would come to an abrupt halt and then an exchange of voices followed by soft laughter. Gentle musical airs and human gaiety floated down to us out of the night sky and grazed our lives as we walked beneath. It only took a few seconds to experience and then it was gone forever. Ahead of us and framed by the walls of the lane rose the vast illuminated curve of the Duomo which was guiding us back across the city to where we stayed in the coolness of its marble-clad shadow.
Cities give us intangible moments such as these. What they mean and why we cherish them as memories is impossible to explain. They just do. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the occasion in Florence – its gentleness, the brief intersection of lives on other trajectories, the admixture of a full belly, a warm night and the proximity of great architecture that worked a temporary magic. Was it the music that made us alive to the moment? Whatever it was it created a momentary bubble of experience of such a transitory nature that even a photograph that I snapped quickly in the moment could not capture it. The fleeting magic was all in the experience and music was the trigger for it.
Music in the city is like that. Every day as I walk through the centre of Swansea to buy my lunchtime sandwich I pass a group of South Korean evangelicals. Three of them stand there in all weathers proffering their religious tracts to the susceptible passer by, most of whom don’t spare them a glance. There’s nothing wrong in this – this is the way in cities. A fourth member strums an acoustic guitar and sings songs of a gospel character. He tends to repeat the same ones and one lyric sticks in my mind – doubtless as it is supposed to. Every day, he sings The blood of Jesus. An American gospel hymn, written in 1876 by Robert Lowry, it contains the lyric Who can wash away your sins – nothing but the lamb of Jesus. His guitar is not amplified and as a consequence his brand of religious minstrelsy carries barely a few hundred yards from where he is standing. Less if he has competition from buskers – not that he seems to mind. But his music is there and somehow ornaments the street and enhances my experience of it.
He is an island of religious belief in a street of secular indifference and no one apparently listens. Why should they? Significantly there is no upturned hat on the pavement to receive gifts of coinage as one sees with buskers. He is not panhandling for your small change. He is singing for your soul – not your money. He sings enthusiastically in a voice heavily accented by his native Korean. Hence Who can wash away your sins becomes Who can whoosh away your sins. Nothing is lost in meaning despite the slightly surreal pronunciation.
None of this matters of course. What his voice does is to fill the street with sound and somehow give it another dimension. The power of music, in this kind of situation, is that of being able to psychologically ‘transport’ the listener whilst leaving them physically in situ. I think it works by triggering emotions that somehow only a tune or melody can unlock. That it can do so without us having to consciously think about it is music’s special magic. Interestingly, recent research into the brain, behaviour and mental health has indicated that music is important in accessing long-term memories. To this end dementia support groups use music and singing to help people with failing memory.
Music in public can also work its magic when it is deliberately used to attract an audience and make them stop and listen. Again in Florence I saw two examples of a more organised use of music in the city. The first came to my attention as I crossed the Piazza della Signoria on my way to goggle in the obligatory way at Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi Gallery. This big L-shaped public square is perhaps one of the most well-visited in Italy and always thronged, but this day it was even busier as one corner of it was clogged with people. A small orchestra was playing to an attentive crowd who ignored the nearby copy of Michelangelo’s David statue and the architectural splendours of this most public of public spaces. They stood in the vast shadow of Arnolfo di Cambio’s Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) with other huge statues by Giambologna, Donatello and Cellini gathered about them. Even the soaring 94-metre high stone tower of the Palazzo Vecchio visible from all over the city was being ignored in favour of the music.
After paying homage to the glories of the Uffizi I retired slightly drunk on culture to its rooftop cafe to enjoy a cappuccino in some early autumn sunlight. Wafting up from the square, the music enhanced my view across the city and somehow added to its completeness. I am convinced that to have sat there in silence would have been a diminished experience.
So what am I saying? Does the presence of music in a street create a soundtrack for the city? Still in Florence, we were walking back from another evening meal when we happened upon an opera being performed in a small piazza at the Loggia Del Mercato Nuovo. There were collapsible seats defining and surrounding a small performance area with standing room for many more. In an inner courtyard surrounded by buildings a diva was singing an aria and some limited stage lighting together with the warmth of the Florentine night drew you into the music, whether you liked opera or not. You could stand in the street and let the sound wash over you or just keep walking past and get just a sidelong waft of it. Anyway, it was there and up to you how much or how little you wanted to sample.
Given that Florence is where opera was invented it is entirely appropriate for it to be its native soundtrack and also to hear it not in some cultural venue but freely available to the tourist, native Florentine or humblest street dog. This is almost like hearing the very soul of the city singing. Normally this completeness of experience is only attainable cinematically when specific images are married to a musical score. The philosopher Friedrich Von Schelling once described architecture “…as music in space, as it were a frozen music”. Hearing opera performed in the street in Florence is as close as one can get to experiencing that observation. To hear the notes bounce back off the same stones that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci knew, in this city where perspective was invented and which was the beating heart of the Renaissance is to realise that music and cities should be inescapably intertwined because they so clearly enhance one other. One is experienced as a time-based art form, the other a spatial one. Put them together successfully and the end-product can haunt your senses for ever. The scale that it takes place at – as I discovered in that lane in Florence – is irrelevant. This said, we need to encourage more music in our towns and cities. And I don’t mean by simply festooning buildings with loudspeakers that blare out radio channels… I mean live music.
In Britain we normally only hear live music in the streets when bands play carols at Christmas, at some charity fundraiser or by itinerant buskers. This is a shame. As Walter Pater put it in 1877: All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. Perhaps we should paraphrase that so it reads: All cities should constantly aspire towards the condition of music.