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After ten days alone, only The xx at Brixton Academy can make me feel normal again

Very quickly, it becomes clear that loneliness doesn’t suit me.

I’ve been on my own for the past ten days. I mean, there’s a 15-year-old in the house with me, and a 19-year-old, too, but teenagers live in their bedrooms, emerging only occasionally to announce that they’ve gone vegetarian, or want a Pink Floyd poster, so they’re not much in the way of company. And it doesn’t take long before I start to feel that I’ve become a slightly different person, that I’ve changed or reverted to type. I get a glimpse of the person I’d be if I were alone all the time.

I rattle around the house and I don’t sit in my normal corner seat of the sofa watching telly: I sit at the kitchen table instead and watch it on my laptop, and at night I creep back into the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed, refilling the impression I made last night. And like Joni said, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide”.

Ben usually keeps up a constant soundtrack in the house, which is fine by me, a perk of living with a DJ, but now I’m in charge. I listen to Roxy Music, and Solange, and Elastica, and Liza Minnelli, and then I start on Rickie Lee Jones, and remember being a teenager listening to Pirates, always with a cigarette in my mouth, and when that’s done I watch the eight-hour O J Simpson documentary, and Mean Streets, and then Catastrophe, and then I sit up late reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson.

Twenty years ago I wrote a song called “Single” in which I asked myself: “And how am I without you?/Am I more myself or less myself?/I feel younger, louder/Like I don’t always connect . . .” I wonder the same things now. There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Being in company, or with a partner much of the time, involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed off. You mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing writes about how loneliness makes people hypervigilant about social threat, always on the lookout for rudeness and rejection, which inevitably leads to lonely people becoming more isolated and suspicious. “What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact . . .”

That isn’t going to happen to me in ten days, I realise, but on the other hand I can sense very quickly the creeping isolation that comes upon you. You can feel not just odd, but invisible. As I sang in “Single”, “. . . if no one calls and I don’t speak all day,/Do I disappear?”

I don’t want to disappear and I don’t want loneliness to grow around me like fur, so after a few days I kick against it, and decide that the antidote is going out. I go walking with one friend, and have coffee with another, and dinner with three more, and then go to see The xx at Brixton Academy. It proves to be the perfect evening. Their songs revolve endlessly around the difficulties inherent in bonding with other people, trusting and believing, loving and being loved.

Everything about them hints at isolation: unshowy on stage, they look a little lost in the lights and mirrors, Romy’s guitar lines inhabit an empty, echoey space, and images of loneliness recur – “I can’t hold on/To an empty space”, “I go to those places where we used to go/They seem so quiet now/I’m here, all alone”.

They capture something specific about human awkwardness, especially during that youthful phase when you’re all elbows and feelings, but their music luxuriates in the experience, and out of it all they create a kind of desolate euphoria, so that by the end of the gig the balcony is shaking and we’re all dancing and singing, hands in the air, united and comforted, all of us alone together.

Next week: Kate Mossman

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution

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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game