W J Turner: “The Barrel-Organ in the Rain”

A scraping from the NS archive.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was music critic for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940. He was also a novelist, playwright and poet. WB Yeats wrote that Turner's poetry left him “lost in admiration and astonishment”, though today it is for his outspoken and regenerative approach to music criticism that he is best remembered. Here, Turner recalls “the most poignant music impression of my life” – hearing a barrel organ in the rain beside Lake Como. I guess barrels aren’t so useless after all. - Philip Maughan

The Barrel-Organ in the Rain

It is not always in concert-halls that one has the most delightful musical experience  - hardly ever, some would even say; but I do not go so far as that. None the less, everyone who has any instinct for music will remember chance occasions when some song or instrumental air, heard, almost accidentally, at some friend's house or, in some countries happier in this respect than our own, in the street has made a vivid impression that remains in the memory long after we have completely forgotten the recitals of an Elena Gerhardt, a Paderewski or a Kreisler.

I remember when quite a boy that by some freak of fortune Paderewski came to my native town for the first time; my mother, wishing me to hear the famous pianist, procured me one seat at what appeared to me—and for our part of the world actually was—an enormous price. At any rate, I went alone, considerably affected by a consciousness that in being there at all I was rather “going the pace.” My seat was very near to the great man, and I remember how his hands trembled and how nervously he clasped his knees. I also remember being more excited by his face than by his playing. He played first of all something by Bach—very likely a prelude and fugue—and then a Beethoven sonata; the rest of his programme I have forgotten. I do not think I was in the least moved by the music, but I returned home in a state of great excitement, and with a feeling that the concert was an event in my life that ought in some way to be celebrated, and that the presence of such a great man in our town must be brought to the notice of the inmates of the house who should not be allowed to pass away into sleep that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Accordingly, I crept round to the back of the house and rummaged about in a shed until I had found—what is unknown in this country—an old kerosene tin. Taking a stick, I then marched into the house, beating the kerosene tin for all I was worth.

Now, musically, this event meant nothing, or very little, to me. I had been often far more touched by the very same music I had heard that night, played by amateurs; and although this experience of the contrast in the pleasure got from amateurs and from professionals is not true of orchestral concerts, it is especially true of singers, for I do not remember ever hearing a professional singer before I was twenty who gave me any pleasure at all. I believe this is a common experience. It is due partly to the fact that in Anglo-Saxon (and to a lesser degree one might almost include German) countries professional singers have no feeling for music whatever. They are simply the possessers of voices that have a marketable value, and they hire out their voices to concert-givers and to music publishers who need them to display their wares. They painfully acquire the minimum of technical musical knowledge necessary to enable them to sing an average ballad, or to take part in the half-dozen oratorios that are the staple musical diet of large masses of the population. They meet the average church organist on the common ground of complete insensibility and almost complete ignorance. They are far more illiterate than the ordinary dock-labourer, and their vanity has to be encountered to be believed. These wretches—I could name a lot of them if the law of libel permitted one such an artistic luxury—are even to this day, in spite of the great improvement that has taken place in England during the last ten or fifteen years, going up and down London, the provinces and the suburbs singing and spoiling the taste of the people. Their mainstay and sheet anchor is human sentimentality—the sentimentality of people who have had no opportunity to learn to appreciate finer qualities, but who, if left alone, would perhaps get out of the trough of sloppy emotionalism in which the modern urban population wallows.

For years, whatever singing I heard worth the hearing was from amateurs, and from them I heard, before I was eighteen, nearly all Schubert's songs and a great number of other German lieder, which, until I went to Germany, I had never heard from the concert platform at all. One of my most pleasurable recollections is that of going suddenly into a drawing-room where someone was singing Schubert's “Wohin.” It was one of those exquisite moments when we are by some happy combination of physical and spiritual health extraordinarily alive, and for both singer and listener the music, though familiar, had a beauty which they had never felt so intensely before. I have never heard "Wohin" sung since either in public or by an amateur, but it is one of those melodies that I can always recall at will. The singing of amateurs is, as a whole, on a far higher level than professional singing, and in speaking of amateurs I am thinking of musical amateurs, not of the people who go to ballad concerts and buy the last song about roses to take home and strum upon the piano, although I should imagine that their interpretation by their own fireside had merits unknown to, and beyond the capacity of, the professional singer to whom the song was dedicated.

In Latin countries, however, the art of singing has never been lost by the people. I believe that of all European countries Spain is the most wonderful in this respect, but I have never been there, and English musicians as a whole know very little about the academic music of Spain and practically nothing about the popular music. As for ancient Spanish music, I do not think I am far wrong in saying that it is absolutely unknown—which is hardly surprising when we consider that 70 per cent of the works of our greatest and most famous English composer, Purcell, are unknown to musicians. His Fairy Queen, for instance, which was given at Cambridge from February 9th to February 14th, with Mr Clive Carey as producer and Dr Rootham as conductor, had not been performed since 1693. There are four volumes of his harpsichord works edited by Mr William Barclay Squire—never played except by amateurs like Mrs Gordon Woodhouse—and I forget how many volumes the Purcell Society has published, all of which, however, appear to be totally ignored by the professional musicians who give concerts. However, that is by the way, and only illustrative of how immeasurably more important the amateur in music is than the concert-giving artist who is so much more in the limelight.

In Italy, of course, you may still hear plenty of good singing, even in the streets, and I daresay it would be possible to bear today, in parts of the country, many of those wonderful old Italian folk-songs which Madame Geni Sadero has spent her life collecting. Although I once walked through a large part of Central Italy it was never my good fortune to come across any old folk-songs, but I must confess that they were not the object of my tour. I do remember, however, going into an old wine-cellar with walls about fifteen feet thick in a small town in a little frequented part of the country and suddenly hearing, to my amazement, a gramophone burst forth into the waltz from The Merry Widow. The gramophone rang the death-knell of folk-song wherever it penetrated. There are musical critics—even good ones—who have a kindly word for the gramophone, but I have nothing for it but execration.

It was, however, in Italy that I received the most poignant musical impression of my life. A friend and I had arrived one day at Como, which we had never seen before. It was a most miserable day: one of those only too frequent days among the Italian lakes when the rain pours down as if it had set in for months. In utter wretchedness we walked along the comparatively deserted streets looking for a suitable restaurant, when suddenly, turning a corner, we heard a barrel-organ grinding out Lohengrin's Narration. It is a curiously beautiful melody, hilt at that moment, pouring out into the empty town among hills and buildings almost blotted from our sight with the steady, down-streaming rain, it was simply marvellous. If Richard Wagner had been there to hear it he would have wept. For it had become part of the earth; it was in some wholly inexplicable sense real—real with that reality that all good creative art has but which we cannot always feel, and that certainly we do not feel once in a hundred concerts.

6 March 1920

Barrel organists perform in Germany. Photo: Getty Images.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was a poet, novelist and music critic, who wrote for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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