Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the end of another year - remembering 2009

I’ve had a rather long-standing tradition on New Year’s Eve of picking out a piece of music which I feel somehow captures for me my experience of the year that’s ending. It’s a bit of a self-indulgent tradition, really, but it’s one that has always been kind of cathartic. A really bad year about 14 years ago felt just that little bit more bearable when it was summed up with the catastrophic tragedy of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony; the apocalyptic fog in the air that filled 2001, with its threats of world terror and its macho flexing of American muscle, seemed to take on a new perspective when I listened to Messiaen’s intensely spiritual Quator pour la fin du Temps.

For me, 2009 has been an especially good year. It has been a year where things seem to have gone well for me on a whole range of fronts but two events in particular have made it, even by high standards, a unique year. One was the discovery, at the ridiculously late age of 50, that there is more to music than what you find in the classical catalogue. And the second was the unexpected discovery of new love barely five minutes after I had stopped looking for it.

Two of my earliest discoveries in my new music journey were Björk and Antony Hegarty. I discovered them both in different ways – Björk mainly through the encouragement of my friend Marty R, and Antony through hearing his heart-wrenching rendition of Leonard Cohen’s If it be your will at a dear friend’s funeral earlier in the year.

So it is scarcely surprising that, when the two of them came together on a track on Björk’s latest album, Volta, I would be pretty interested. But when you add to that music of stirring passion, building in its intensity and fire into something that seems to fill the entirety of space, set to the words of Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev (used, incidentally at the end of one of my favourite Russian films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker), you end up with something pretty amazing.

The Dull Flame of Desire is a song about the innocence, the passion, and ultimately the power, of love. In the hands of Björk and Antony it becomes a piece that stretches beyond the limits of the human body and reaches into every corner of the soul. The two voices – each unique in their power and vulnerability – start off almost shyly, against music that is, at first, dominated by majestic, sweeping brass. But, as Björk’s and Antony’s voices curl around and entwine one another, building upon each other, soaring, subduing and then soaring again, each voice feeding and being fed by the other, the brass slowly, imperceptibly, recedes into the background and it’s the sound of the human voice, and the primal, passionate heartbeat of drums, that fills the air. It’s an incredible experience, overwhelming in its humanity and its intensity – a hymn to the all-conquering strength of love.

When I first heard this music I was driving in my car and was so taken by it that I literally had to pull over to the side of the road and let its power wash over me. And as I listen to it again today I am reminded, even more, of why this music affected me so deeply. It’s music that captures so much of what love is all about – love at whatever level, in whatever form, we experience it. It shows how love steps forward with shy, faltering steps, but then is nourished as much by what it gives as by what it receives and, through this, grows and ultimately dominates everything. It’s an incredible piece of music from two of the world’s most original and talented artists.

I hope that some of what is conveyed with such beauty in The Dull Flame of Desire has been part of your experience of 2009, and that it will go with you into 2010 too.

Thanks especially to Marty R, Greg and Scott for introducing me to so much wonderful new music and, of course, to dear Wayne for introducing me to new love. And thanks to anyone who has been dropping in and having a squizz at this blog from time to time. Happy New Year everyone!


  1. You are very welcome my friend!!

  2. Hi Ian
    Thanks for the New Year wishes - reciprocated in spades.

    My track for 2009? How about that old fave by 1950s UK heart-throb Dickie Valentine,'Would you like to spend Christmas ... On Christmas island?' It was also recorded by the Andrews Sisters, but there's no version in Sinhalese, as far as I know.