August 05, 2004

Only disconnect

I was at the Barbican last night, to hear the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, perform Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in memory of the late Edward Said. The Beethoven was gripping, the Tchaikovsky a little less so - perhaps because Tchaikovsky always meanders a bit, perhaps because a young orchestra finds it harder to maintain their performance all the way through a longer piece, perhaps because it was a sweltering evening and Barenboim himself was forced to mop his brow with one hand while conducting with the other, and occasionally leaning back against the support at the back of his podium. For whatever reason, I lost concentration about halfway through and never got it back until the encores. (It's a measure of how little I know that the second of these encores was known to me by no title more accurate than "the music from the Stella Artois ads"!)

But it's also true that I'm never really able to keep my concentration any more, not during a symphony, not during a film, not during a game of chess. Thoughts break in, angry thoughts more often than not, or just thoughts, imaginary conversations, or conversations with myself. If Tchaikovsky meanders, so do I, from one subject to another and on to a third. There is no emptying of mind, not for music and not for silence - I used to have the same experience even when I used to meditate, my mantra leading to a series of internal discussions rather than the clearing of all thought from the mind and the subsequent contemplation of nothingness. It's partly the inability to disconnect, and partly the tendency to do precisely that, to find it impossible to keep to the subject, or to keep off a subject, or to keep to only one subject at a time. It's sometimes as if I were a record that were intermittently jogged, so that the needle came down someplace else, carrying on playing at the same speed as before but singing another song entirely. I lose myself, because I cannot let myself go.

There is a quality of not being entirely there, which we usually employ, as a phrase, about people who are far more disconnected from reality than I am, who chatter to themselves or who give answers wholly unrelated to the subject of the question they were asked, something we usually ascribe to drugs. But that isn't really what I mean. What I mean is a certain awareness, a certain feeling that other people fit in but we do not - and that, for this reason, we are not, really, entirely there. That we do not go entirely observed. It is a feeling of translucence rather than invisibility. A feeling of being muted rather than being unheard. A feeling of being at an angle to the rest of the world. To be always entering and leaving at a different place, and in a different way, to everybody else.

I once saw a documentary about Syd Barrett in which the figure that seemed to me most striking - most striking in so far as he reminded me of myself - was not Barrett himself, but Robyn Hitchcock, filmed in what appeared to be the beer garden of a country pub. I don't know anything more of Hitchcock than the name and the fact that he is a musician. I know nothing of what he has done, what he has experienced, what travails he has survived. But he had something of that same somewhere-else feeling about him, of having crossed a line or two and left something of himself behind each time - just a little, just a little certainty or self-confidence or self-esteem or just the quality of concentration, barely perceptible but perceptible nonetheless. And I could imagine him - or, more likely, imagine me - sitting in a lot of beer gardens on a lot of afternoons, always thoughtful but always a little bit distracted, a certain sort of white middle-class Englishman who had lost his bearings and was never really going to find them again.


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