“In Ukraine, since the beginning of a full-scale Russian invasion, a common feeling among different music communities was that we don’t listen to music now,” writes Ivan Shelekhov, in this month’s Global Ear column addressing the reaction of artists to war in their country. Ivan’s piece reports about the network of creative musicians across Ukraine, and how their connections are being used to maintain cultural resistance across a partially fragmented country that is now being stretched even further by internal migration.
The sense that music is irrelevant is hard to shake with the stories on the news right now. And the feeling of helplessness is shared elsewhere, including by many of The Wire’s contacts in Russia, who are sickened by the unprovoked killing carried out in their country’s name, and know that their own liberty is in the balance too.
Music can be powerless but musicians are not, as Ivan’s feature makes clear. Time and again, the narrative breaks from the art the musicians once created to the actions they are taking now, whether that is moving across the country, securing their families, or keeping channels open with other parts of Ukraine. These two sides of the story are thrown together, against their wishes and expectations.
The tumultuous times bring into sharp relief just how platitudinous music about peace can sometimes be. Whether it’s coming from a jungle MC in a rave or a hippie blessing the crowd after a cosmic jam, pleas for peace and love often come across as little more than good manners or niceties appropriate to that social situation. To be in a position where you have a platform to safely make these kinds of pronouncements is a kind of privilege in itself, and something rarely afforded to people in areas of conflict.
When I was trying to get some peace of mind from music in the last month, I went back to Alice and John Coltrane. Their music had to respond to many different types of tragedy, not least John’s premature death. Alice’s 1968 debut album A Monastic Trio was an explicit response to the latter loss, and also included the turbulent “Atomic Peace”, responding to a more globalised tragedy.
What’s notable about the Coltranes’ music is how hard won any sense of tranquillity is. “Atomic Peace” begins becalmed but minor chord harp notes gather like dark clouds, and the rhythm section of Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison respond with a thicket of uneasy shuffles and plucks. “Serenity”, from one of John’s greatest achievements, the posthumously released 1977 album First Meditations, begins with an enigmatic saxophone line that goes forward and backward as if it is trying to crack a code. The pressure builds and is only released at the very end of a turbulent climax with a saxophone line that seems to offer just the faintest degree of resolution.
In their music, respite is always earned through some kind of spiritual work and journey. When it concludes, there is no satisfying tonic or complete coda – the same disturbing forces are at play, only subdued and sublimated for now. Half a century on, it comes over like a kind of peace that’s authentic and respectful of the difficult world we live in.
One of the most poignant moments in the Coltrane catalogue is a version of “Alabama”, a studio performance included on 1964’s Live At Birdland album. A tribute to the people and children killed in a white supremacist bombing in Birmingham in 1963, after two and a half poignant minutes the piece meanders to a halt, only to pause a moment and begin again. It’s the result of melding two separate takes in the studio together, but nonetheless impossible to hear and not think of the musicians reflecting on the tragedy, and wondering if they had anything to say that might possibly be equal to the violence of it. This moment of brief respite hints at what the true value of peace might be. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 459 May 2022 £5.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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