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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

“Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the moment last…” So sang Simon and Garfunkel on the 59th St Bridge Song, or ‘Feeling Groovy’ as I think of it. Whatever the title, it’s not one I’d suggest as a sound track to the present moment. I’m on a Virgin train from Glasgow to Euston.

On Peter C’s train to be precise. Peter and I are not feeling groovy. Peter deserves an award for his fabulous efficiency, an efficiency I might add that’s not matched by the internet connection. I shan’t go into details as he can’t reply here, but even if he wanted to help he couldn’t, being constrained by computer algorithms that don’t allow for genuine human error. But my companions and I have just lost our faith in humanity as I’m sure has Peter and the situation could do with some oil poured on troubled water. Or some wine.

In the absence of the drinks trolley, maybe music might do the trick, something that will plug us in to how it feels to live in a time when we were free to make decisions based on what’s in front of us, when the great muddle of humanity didn’t have to be strained through the 0’s and 1’s of computer code.

On this train right now, we need the kind of feeling you get listening to Shirley Collins sing, a reminder of our common humanity that’s rooted in tradition, wherever we’re from. It’s the opposite feeling to the one we get from the barrage of stuff from computers and phones and apps and algorithms and card machines that bombard us all the time we’re on-line with our fake lives and forgetting too how to be nice to each other in real life.

We’re also forgetting how to be nice to ourselves, dangerously widening the disconnect between our online perfection and the empty drudgery of the daily grind. Shirley’s voice suggests a calm pace of life and a place where we might belong and might be. And recently I’ve heard music that connects us with who we might be.

It’s generative music by Brian Eno. Creating musical elements, he feeds them into a software programme so that those elements constantly combine and re-­configure in new ways that never repeat. It creates an overall sound that Eno himself couldn’t have imagined, so the artist is not present. There’s no barrier between the sound and the listener, no extra-musical baggage to direct your thought.

So we’re drawn into this slowly evolving sound world where each moment is uniquely defined and it pulls our attention inward. The music draws us to contemplation in and of each moment and frees us from the stressful onslaught of daily demands.

Peter and I need that right now. To be reminded of our best selves. But instead Sean O’Sullivan turns up with the drinks trolley as Peter exits left. Cheerily dispensing hospitality in an old-fashioned perfect-host, feeling-groovy kind of way. His generosity and that of his colleague, the aptly named Odette Angel, suggests freedom. They restore our faith in human kindness, if not our relationship with technology, not so much by pouring oil on troubled water, as building a bridge over it. [Oh dear…Ed.]

Elizabeth Kinder


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