I should start by preparing fans of medieval military history for disappointment: I shall not be talking about siege weapons. Well, not in any conventional sense, though the Old Testament would like you to believe that city walls can be breached using only members of a modern orchestra’s wind section (though I believe some supernatural interference may also have been involved and the events portrayed are not supported by the archeological record).
In the modern world, music is rarely used in civil engineering and almost never for demolition. However, it does have a strangely powerful effect on human emotion, if not on masonry. It can intensify your current mood or transport you into a completely new one. I’m guessing this is culturally conditioned – you learn the difference between major and minor – rather emerging from the womb with all the basics of the tonic scale pre-installed (the gin scale, I believe, has to wait for puberty).
Music can take us to quite dark places: I well remember a quote about the final movement of Shostakovich’ String Quartet #15 which I used in an Open University essay a few years back. It was described as being able to “do no more than thumb disconsolately through the album leaves of a deranged life”. At the time, I was in no position to check this statement, but now with Spotify I was able to listen to the movement as part of the research for this post. I’ll agree that it isn’t a barrel of laughs, but I didn’t find it that depressing. Then again, I was in a rather positive mood having re-read TMA04 (the essay in question) and been positively surprised by its quality (to the extent that I can’t really believe that I wrote it).
However, a mere 300 words in, I can exclusively reveal that this post will be about the ability of music to bring joy (of the unconfined kind) into my life. This can come in many ways, for example a semi-competent vocal performance of a piece of serious music by the author works (though I suspect in this case that the joy is limited to the author), but I shall actually be talking about the fun to be had from the live musical performance of others (let’s face it, GofaDM is more than sufficiently me-centric already).
Of all the splendid musicians I have seen in recent months at the Art House café, two groups particularly stand out in the joy stakes: in that it is impossible to listen to either without my face being parted by a grin. As it transpires they share a common drummer, though I don’t think he can claim all the credit.
The first would be The Madcap Ponderlings (previously known as The Skull Kids) who describe themselves as “waltzing a fine line between carnival cabaret, whimsical psychedelia and alternative rock” (which is far better than any description I could generate). The second, who I saw on Friday, are Threepenny Bit who are a folk/ceilidh band, though this description doesn’t entirely do them justice. For a start, I’m not convinced that either the saxophone or the electric bass would count as traditional folk instruments – though I feel the accordion and fiddle are probably on much safer ground. As so often, I nearly didn’t go: associating folk with sandals, beards and a degree of po-faced seriousness. I’ll admit there was one very fine (and familiar) beard (I am slowly discovering how the bar staff of the Turner Sims spend their time off), but I didn’t spot a single sandal or any visage reminiscent of the gazunder (a word which seems to have been appropriated by the darkling world of estate agency, if Google is to be believed). I find it hard to believe anyone else had more fun than me last Friday night.
It was during that Friday evening that I discovered the hybridisation of musical genres has gone even further than I could have imagined. One of the group had spent time in France with a band that mixed Breton folk with death metal – and it seems such folk-metal crossovers (le metal celtique) are quite big over la Manche. Among the more standard instrumentation of ‘death metal’, this band included the bombard: an instrument whose very existence could make one appreciate a neighbour who has taken up the drums or violin (because it could be so much worse). If I did need to find a woodwind instrument that would give me a fighting chance of bringing down a city’s walls, I think the bombard might be my choice: if only because the city’s denizens may demolish their own walls to escape its plangent song. Perhaps luckily, it requires a lot of puff and so it can only be played in short bursts: rather less luckily, this issue is resolved by pairing it with a form of the bagpipes. This traditional bracing (known as Sonneurs de Couples) is, having sampled a short snatch, even worse than you are currently imagining. This is weaponised folk music and a very good reason never to upset the good people of Brittany. Despite this view (which you should feel free to check for yourselves, but don’t then come crying to me: you were warned!), today’s title was posed as a serious question with a view to augmenting the musical forces (very much in the sense of ‘armed’) available to Threepenny Bit. The vast majority of the band, very wisely IMHO, demurred.