Nick Coleman on music in a pandemic



VOICES: 2/ Melancholy

Belshazzar's Feast: "Home, Lad, Home" (Unearthed, 2010)

"I can feel it", a friend said only last week, "but I can't name it – and I'm not used to that. Normally I'm very good at naming it and seeing it for what it is. But not now. I can't see it. I can't name it. I can't trace its path. It's just… here. I can't seem to say anything about it at all really." She fell into silence, as if silence were the best statement she could make in the circumstances. "I have… no vocabulary."

She was struggling to talk about a condition that has visited more than a few souls over the past few months of the pandemic, despite the persistent demands of more pressing matters out there in the world: a feeling so abstract and unstable that it defies our ability to describe what it is.

It's perhaps easier to say what it isn't. It isn't depression. It is not the grating snag of old familiar anxieties suddenly exposed. It is not a consequence of outrage, not solely. In fact, one of the few things that can be said positively about it is that it isn’t a feeling we recognise from our stock of prior experiences. It's as if a trapdoor has been opened in the cellar of our emotions to reveal another cellar we never knew existed before, and it's too dark or cloudy in there to see what may lurk – or even if there's anything in there at all. We are aware that the door to the void has opened, but do not possess the means to shine a light into the cavity, let alone the strength of mind to drop an exploratory rope ladder…

So how do we address it?

Pre-modern medicine might have tapped its nose and pointed a gnarly digit at Melancholia and its associations with the "humour" of excess black bile and its accompanying symptoms of sleeplessness, agitation, brooding and loss of appetite. Dürer might have set to work on an enigmatic engraving on the theme, festooned with the symbols of both rational new thought and the occult. And it's true that this new feeling does feel archaic, atavistic even. Perhaps it isn't new at all and is in fact an old feeling we have forgotten how to feel; a feeling that is almost a mood, a tone. There are mornings now when I come to from a night's fitful drowsing and am only conscious that I have never felt so uncertain about, well… everything.

This is the mood of pre-science, of pestilence, of unsafety, of creepingly inevitable horror. "How close? How soon? How long for?" These are its signal queries. It is the tone of a society terrorised by plague, as well as by its rotten institutions, its privileges and the suspicion that no-one knows how to manage their own vulnerability, let alone anyone else's. It is the distillation of melancholy.

That's how it feels to me, anyway.

So how to meet this feeling?

Not with prescriptive or inspirational words, that's for sure – but certainly with music.

Another friend has announced that the only way to deal with the new-old feeling that has entered his bones is to listen to Lester Young – and not any old Lester Young either but late Lester Young, when the venerable saxophonist's tone and fluency had atrophied a little. At the time, the jazz-critical eye was fixed upon more pressing matters elsewhere and The Prez was allowed to slip quietly into his twilight. Yet his late-Fifties sound – economical, halt, stripped bare, defiant – is meaningful to Angus now in ways that may seem elusive to critics still.

I, by contrast, take refuge not in stripped, economical voices but in firmly melancholy ones. I love the reparative incantations of the Swan Silvertones almost above all things but their ecstasies do not reach me in the place I find myself today, peering at the hole in the cellar floor. Nor does that other reliable uplifter, Al Green, get to me in the way I need to be reached. In normal circumstances Green can be counted on to bring some jaunt to my emotions through his own dogged soul-wriggling, but he's way too untethered for me at the moment. I need form. I want structure.

So this morning I find myself in thrall once again to the reedy baritone of Paul Sartin.

Who is Paul Sartin? Serious folk fans know him as a constituent of the rowdy folk jamboree Bellowhead, as was, whom I do not lament particularly. I have no feel for jamborees. The same fans will also be familiar, you would hope, with two other Sartin projects of relatively recent vintage, the buoyant Faustus and the downright humorous Belshazzar's Feast, a duo in which our man sings, plays oboe, cor anglais and fiddle and cracks jokes alongside the piano-accordionist Paul Hutchinson.

They aren't always funny, though, Belshazzar's Feast, and sometimes their music is trenchantly beautiful in a way that brings shape and lustre to melancholy. These pieces are formal, tidy, reaching, strenuous yet tethered as fiercely to melody and tone as a haywain is to a heavy horse. They do not graze or kick over the traces when they are being beautiful. They find focus and work hard.

So Sartin is a folkie, but he's also a former Oxford choral scholar, and that gravity of vocal bearing brings delicate heft to “Homeward”, a poem by one Cicely Fox Smith, written some time during the First World War with a pen dipped in the colours of sunset, soil and the blood of the fallen. The poem is one of those sentimental but affecting structures that braces a golden vision of slow-departing agrarian Hampshire with the harsher girders of war poetry, in which horse flesh finds new parity with man flesh: "And the lads all sitting sideways and singing as they go."

It ain't TS Eliot (or even AE Housman) but it isn't dross either, not by any means.

So listen to Sartin sing it against the subtle haze of Hutchinson's harmonic shiftings. (Is that Messiaen, I hear, or Poulenc? It matters not – think only that it is Hutchinson.) Belshazzar's Feast call their setting "Home, Lad, Home", as if to further animate the bond between horse and man, and perhaps to sound a toll. It's a poem of survival through trauma and a song of connection, and Sartin's voice dignifies its simple tropes with the unaffectedness of a boy treble who has lived – survived – into manhood.

Whether consciously or not, he is remembering hymns when he sings like this and the ritual procedures of expanding the lungs, deepening the breath as verses and refrains spool by, lengthening phrases and supporting the column of air as the language pulls towards its final refrain, the sound broadening and enriching its texture as it goes. Breathing with technical purpose, of course, but also breathing because he can.

Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.