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The concert last night — given by the Ensemble Intercontemporain in the Canterbury Cathedral crypt –was…one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life.

Words can only gesture toward what happens when players at the top of their form engage with music sublimely suited to the place and time. People all around me were crying. I was crying. Nancy and Hamish were there. I saw Nancy at the interval and she said she had a struggle not to cry in the first bars of Debussy’s … — and that was only the first piece!

The silence in the Cathedral crypt  always crackles. It seems to hold everyone’s thoughts and emotions, somehow turning it all, like a big ship, back upon us. The silence washes over in waves.

This was music of course that privileges silence.  I’ve always found the contemporary/modern music of French composers such as Messiaen and Boulez resonant. It’s an aesthetic not far from R’s, and not far from my own, at heart. Lots of space, breath, and a sense of elevation, suspension. Where the quality of pure sound, the sound of sound, if you like, is valued. (Or so it seems to me. I realise I am quite the pleb when it comes to musical analysis…)

But I sort of digress. I suppose some of what I’m saying is that I was up for it. As was the whole audience it seemed. The clarinetist Alain Damiens and the cellist Pierre Strauch, well. It’s difficult to say without seeming mad, but I wanted to climb inside their instruments and live there. I wanted to be in that, all day every day. I thought, in another mad moment, keeping in mind that this was in a church — so I probably prayed it — just let me always hear this, be there, and I will never be without joy. I wanted it to last forever.

The final piece was Messiaen’s astonishing Quartet for the End of Time. After the last, almost inaudible strains of the music finished, the audience did not clap for perhaps 20 or 30 seconds. It was as if everything we knew had stopped in its tracks. And we were waiting for some sign, any indication of where to go next, what to do. Waiting to be reborn. Which never came. Because we had no choice but to return to our lives. And clap.

I feel particularly quiet today, like I’ve been through a crisis and must recover. I don’t know how we are to carry on after a night like that. The transience is almost too much to bear.

The programme:

Claude Debussy Sonata

Gerard Grisey Charme

Tristan Murail Les Ruines circulaires

Olivier Messiaen Quatour pour la fin du Temps


Thank you, Sounds New.



From January 2010, my new blog is Waving and Drowning


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Who am I?

A writer born in Texas, who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (yes, like the song), and who's been living in the UK since 1988. I've published two books (see below), and teach creative writing at the University of Kent. I'm married to a composer, and we have two young children. See About for my full profile.