I have spent much of the fourth decade of my life wondering about how I listen, both to music and to life in general. I have, over the years, taught myself to listen with an increased degree of attention, focus and clarity, and have taken great joy from the results this process has brought me. I make no claims to being able to listen any better than anyone else, only to fulfill my own need to experience music as closely as I can. In recent years, listening to music has become an intense, thoroughly joyful experience, a subtle balance between the analytical and the emotional, but it takes effort. Just putting on a piece of music while doing the washing up, or the ironing, or while sat on a train isn’t going to be enough any longer. A certain state of mind now seems to be needed for me to listen in the manner I now prefer.
For me, this isn’t just about limiting distractions or improving the fidelity of the sounds I hear. It is as if I need to achieve a certain state of mind to be able to fully focus. I need to feel relaxed, but at the same time fully engaged. Much of this seems to be linked to a sensation of safety, of comfort. I tend to be able to listen to live concerts in a more concentrated manner if I know the venue well, if maybe I know the people behind the bar, or if the external sounds coming into the space are familiar to me. For some probably very irrational reason this sense of belonging subconsciously allows me to engage with the music more easily, give it the attention it needs. At home I have developed ways of listening. Sitting in a certain chair with a drink to hand, hot or cold, somehow puts me in the correct frame of mind to listen, as if this particular ritual prepares my ears, my brain for what is to follow. Laying on the bed a few feet away doesn’t just feel the same. Ridiculous, I know, but that’s how it is.
Over the last three decades, with a few extended breaks, I have taken regular walks along an old disused railway line that leads away from close to my home out into the countryside. The line once linked the main lines that run through the town of Didcot in which I live, with Newbury and then Southampton on the coast. The line was closed by the infamous Dr Richard Beeching in the late sixties, slowing to carry just a small amount of freight traffic in its final years before being completely decommissioned five years before my birth in 1966. I think that on first discovering the line, upon moving to this side of town at the age of ten, the tracks had been long removed, and while some remnants of trackside signal boxes still stood, providing ample den opportunities for myself and my brothers, all that obviously remained was about a mile of a raised up section of the line, complete with bridges over roads and a twenty foot drop on either side.
It was in my late teens that I began walking along the line by myself from time to time, almost always with a Walkman of one kind or another to hand, singing dramatically along to whatever indie rock band I was into that week, stopping abruptly to act more normally if someone came the other way along the track. A few years later I began to walk dogs along the line, and did this for the best part of a decade and a half, almost every evening, an escape from the pressures of my working day, with a personal CD player, and later an iPod as my companion. It reached a point wherein the walk was not possible without music.
The disused line has not changed all that much over the last three decades. Fences have come and gone, partly to keep off-road motorbikers at bay, and in recent years a rough concrete path was added, much to my disgust, to allow this section of the line to become part of the National Cycle Route. Slowly the landmarks that gave away the line’s previous life, the signal boxes, the fences made of old railway sleepers have either eroded away or become lost under layers of dense undergrowth. If the opportunities to make dens has reduced for today’s generation of kids then I still know where they are, buried out of sight but not out of mind. I can almost trace my development as a listener through varying styles and genres of music by following the changes along the old railway line. Different times in my life, relationships, jobs, memories all have their place along the line, just as music always has. I remember exactly how far I would have to walk along the track before turning back so that My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything album would end just as I arrived back home.
The old railway line is, perhaps even more so than the chair I have come accustomed to at home, one place that allows me to listen to the best of my abilities. If alone while walking, I am instantly able to achieve the state of concentration required to completely connect with music. Whilst generally quite serene, walking along the line in the evening isn’t necessarily a completely peaceful experience. The busy A34 road, although a couple of miles away, can be heard roaring quietly. Didcot Power Station can occasionally be heard, as can the overworked railway lines on the other side of town. The wind is particularly bothersome, raised up high as the line is, there is next to no shelter from even the slightest breeze, making headphone listening a little difficult. None of this matters though. As I wrote above, it is not the fidelity or the purity of the music that matters, it is something in my state of mind that tells me its OK to listen. I could probably make my way home from the farthest point of the railway line with my eyes closed, such is my familiarity with it after so many years walking its length. Perhaps then it is this feeling of being at home, feeling comfortable, feeling safe, perhaps even feeling closer to my childhood as I turn forty that touches something in my subconscious. Why do I feel the need for this security before I can really engage with music? I can just listen to music anywhere, and enjoy it a great deal, but that sense of feeling completely connected only seems to come when I am in my own personal cocoon.
Today, when I am trying to write a review of a piece of music and finding it hard to do, I will normally grab my iPod and wander up the old railway line to refresh my thoughts on the music in question, often in bad weather, not really taking any notice of my surroundings, perhaps just rebooting my listening ability. In recent years with the advent of technology I have even taken to writing while walking, which is exactly what I’m doing right now. The final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is resounding in my ears, tingling in my nerve endings, enrapturing my mind. I should make it to the next invisible signal box before it comes to an end.
Richard Pinnell runs Cathnor Records, is the author of The Watchful Ear, and often writes for The Wire magazine. Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. He is a very naughty boy.