JUST as our tastes in music define us, we use our musical tastes
as a way of defining what we would like to be. Whether a novelty
record, purchased because it shows what a fun-loving person you
are, or the CD of pan pipes bought on holiday from street
musicians, so many of our music choices are made as a means of
articulating an identity.
And just as the novelty record and the CD of pan pipes end up
unplayed, so, I imagine, there are many copies of Canto
Gregoriano, the double album of Gregorian chant recorded by
the monks of Silos Abbey, which serve to remind one of personae
swiftly adopted and as swiftly forgotten.
As Richard Coles described, in Chant (Radio 4,
Tuesday), the recording sold more than five million copies in the
1990s, and was marketed as a way to de-stress in our hectic,
stressful lives. Who could refuse such a pitch, since one of the
most ubiquitous and desirable of modern self-identities is that of
the soulful individual, oppressed by the demands of the modern
Of course, neither the record company nor most consumers had the
slightest interest in what the monks might be chanting about. So it
was illuminating to hear Sisters Bernadette and Bede, from St
Cecilia's Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, enthuse about their music
not as a vehicle for relaxation, but as a source of intellectual
and religious stimulation. This is sophisticated, dramatic,
rhetorical music, much of whose meaning comes through
We are learning a great deal at the moment about the value of
musical participation, as Radio 2's Faith in the World Week season
focuses on the healing power of music. The season opened with an
edition of Good Morning Sunday, presented by Clare Balding
from Arrowe Park Hospital, Merseyside, where music is included in a
number of surgical and therapeutic environments.
If you are having an operation that does not knock you out
completely, then you can bring in your own music to calm you down.
If you are out cold, then it is likely that your surgeon will be
the one choosing the tunes - although, in these circumstances, I
wonder whether the rest of the surgical team are consulted. After
all, one man's offertory antiphon sung by the monks of Silos could
sound to the next like nails on a blackboard.
In preparation for this series, Radio 2 and local radio have
carried out a survey of the ten best tracks to listen to when you
are down or unwell; and the list appears to bear out the claim,
made in Coles's programme, that nobody thinks about words when they
listen to songs. Why else, when going under the scalpel, would you
choose Showaddywaddy's "Three Steps to Heaven", or songs with such
intimations of mortality as "My Way"?
The question of music and cultural identity came up in another
form on Friday's 5 Live Drive (Radio 5), and the story
that the Swiss are putting in a bid to award UNESCO World Heritage
status to yodelling. How a musical idiom can be equated to the Taj
Mahal is a question not addressed here; but if it means that
yodelling is restricted to Switzerland, then I think that the bid
should be warmly encouraged.