Archive for September 2013

A Voyager I Playlist: ten tracks for interstellar space

This week, there was a piece of news which filled me with a rare wonder: Voyager I, that bravest and loneliest of vessels, has finally left our Solar System.  As that craft ventured further out among the stars, I sat and had an evening drink with some old friends; and, after a few pints, I decided that I would draw up a playlist of music which Voyager I could present to the first lifeforms that it encountered, music which would introduce much of the majesty and tragedy of our world.

The sharp-minded among you will note that Voyager I left Earth in 1977, and so there’s no way of that space-faring traveller, our world’s foremost ambassador, ever getting hold of my mixtape.  Those technicalities aside, I propose the following ten tunes as the tracks which, were they to be heard by whoever might be beyond any of the skies we can see, might give them a measure of what it meant to be human.

1. “Pie Jesu” – Hayley Westenra:

A song that soars.  The youth of Westenra’s voice lends the song the greatest sorrow: her tone is at once innocent and knowing.  The lyrics – a lament to Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world – resonate from the many church services with which they closed, and both the funerals and memorial services that they graced.  As openings to any playlist go, I can’t think of a more moving one.

2. “Pata Pata” – Miriam Makeba:

What more can I say about Miriam Makeba and this tune?  From the joyful swagger of the opening chords and that scat-style delivery of the first few lines, this is a winner.  Just a triumph.  This is probably one of the top five dance tunes anywhere in this or the next ten neighbouring galaxies.

3. “Zombie” – Fela Kuti:

If there’s a single track that could claim to greater dancefloor pomp than “Pata Pata”, it is “Zombie”. There are few other places that you could get this blend of elite musicianship and caustic social comment, and on hearing this the aliens would hopefully reel in awe.

4. “Harlem River Drive” – Bobbi Humphrey:

Bobbi Humphrey, one of the finest flute players, is here at her best, accompanied by blissful keys, a gloriously haunting all-male choir and the most elegantly understated of rhythm sections.  New York may have had more famous tributes, but this – an apparently simple hymn to “baseball lights shining in the night” – is for me the most compelling of them all.

5. “Wu-Gambinos” – Wu-Tang Clan:

“Wu-Gambinos” would not necessarily be any rap fan’s favourite tune, but I think that it captures the golden age of hip-hop at its most thrilling moment.  Over a relentless piano loop, the Clan – and especially the RZA, who for me steals the show with what’s almost a triple-time flow – lay their unique blend of bravado and intellect, they who could tell a thousand stories in the space of a thousand bars.

6. “Sun In My Mouth” -Björk:

“Sun In My Mouth” is, in my view, the emotional peak of Björk’s best album, “Vespertine”.  After several hundred listens, I can confirm two things: first, that I am still unclear entirely what these lyrics mean, and secondly, that I am bewildered that someone could fit so much soul into just three minutes of music.

7. “Sinnerman” – Nina Simone:

Nina Simone, whose vocals evoked the pain of countless lifetimes, produced this astonishing performance, where she effectively sang Dante’s Inferno.  It’s fitting that this music should travel where no human has gone before, since its brilliance is otherworldly.

8. “I’m Still Waiting” – Diana Ross:

My second-favourite love song (by a very narrow margin).  When aliens hear this, I fully expect them to burst into their equivalent of tears, and then, sniffling into their cosmic hankies, to ask each other: “Did Diana ever find love? Did she ever find love?”

9. “La ritournelle” – Sébastien Tellier:

My favourite love song: I don’t think I’ll ever hear a better one, either.  If the aliens are really smart, they’ll notice that Tony Allen is the only human to appear twice on this playlist, his drums also having featured on Fela Kuti’s “Zombie”.  In fact, of all the songs here, it’s the one that I would recommend Voyager I to keep on constant repeat as it makes its way across those unknowable heavens.

10. “Expansions” – Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes:

I am sorry Radiohead, this could have been “Idioteque”; I am sorry Curtis Mayfield, this could (and maybe should?) have been “Move On Up”; I am sorry Jimi Hendrix, since this could and probably should have been “All Along The Watchtower”; but no song I know would be a more fitting epitaph for the Voyager than this.  This is the ultimate hymn to the betterment of humankind, which is why in my view it must close this playlist.  Time to post it out there; and, to paraphrase Spock, may you play it long, and prosper.

On Hong Kong, atheism, and remembrance

Last December, I went to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. Despite the great distance between us, we’d maintained a decent amount of contact since law school; but, all the same, I was moved that he had invited me to a relatively small affair. That’s probably why I arrived in somewhat contemplative mood, and over the next few days the natural beauty of the outlying islands lent themselves well to further reflection.

A boat trip to one of those islands, Cheung Chau, provided an unexpectedly poignant moment. Standing by one of its cliffs, looking out over the South China Sea, this was the furthest that I had ever been from most of my friends or family, and I felt a curious sensation of freedom, stillness and loneliness all at once. After an hour of walking, I had found myself in the Cheung Chau Cemetery, a succession of vast, semi-circular tiers of stone, with hundreds of gravestones standing there like silently expectant fans in the terraces. Each gravestone bore a photograph of at least one person, and sometimes two in the cases where a couple’s ashes had been placed there together.

Looking at the pictures, I saw the faces of people for whom the withdrawn sands and alleys of Cheung Chau had been almost all of what they had known. This was where so many of them had been born, had loved, had lived long, and lost. It will remain one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, and I felt oddly privileged as I walked slowly and quietly through its carefully-tended heights.

Several months later, back in England, I had a similarly affecting experience. I was catching a train from Essex to Stratford, and shortly before I drew into East London I passed a graveyard, low to my right. As I looked over that field of marble, I finally realised why that afternoon in Cheung Chau had moved me so. It was that, whether we spend our lives travelling half the world or just a few intense miles from the warmth of home to work, this is all that I believe that we have: this life, this brief slice of light between two vast stretches of darkness. So few of us emerge from the void, and to the void we return. In between our arrival and our departure, if we are fortunate to have the slightest measure of opportunity, we must, I think, live with the fiercest urgency that we can.

Some might see this as a bleak vision of our place in the cosmos. At times, I admit that I find it overwhelming; typically, that’s when I remember those former classmates who passed away suddenly, shockingly, long before the void had any right to reclaim them. Ollie Broome, perhaps the best Number 10 I saw in schools football, whose long-range shooting was a thing of rare anger and elegance; Tom Fenwick, a journalist of the kindest pen and keenest attention to detail; Richard Eagle, the most humble and lethal of attacking midfielders, bearing down on the opponent’s area as stealthily as a fox after dusk.

It’s overwhelming, for a short time, to think of these three; it is a melancholy which, though I do not exactly welcome, I calmly accept. It’s my way of beginning to acknowledge just what was lost when they left us. I’m not a religious man, and so I don’t think I’ll see Ollie, Richard or Tom again, in any shape or form. But what I can do is try to live with that little bit more vitality, in some form of tribute to them.

I am not sure if the position that I have articulated amounts to atheism. If it indeed does, then this is my philosophy, not that it matters to anyone other than myself: to be as proactive as possible in making the best of myself and in helping others as best I can, in the belief that there is no karma, no grand settling of accounts where those who wronged others are finally brought to justice by an unfathomably great higher power. As I see it, there is just us: and, both frightening and exciting as that may be, that must for me be enough.