Walking is banal, everyday, inevitable. Walking is a necessary transportational utility for most people. It follows that few leave the house without headphones, myself included.
I do not mean the kind of planned crusade or organised expedition into the woods. I like to think most people can enjoy that sort of thing. I mean the obvious walking from house to class to seminar, from library to Tesco. A lame walking that simply has to be done.
When my phone broke three months ago, I felt not an ounce of surprise nor a hurry to replace the thing. It was getting old and I had been given a timely warning. My smartphone days were over and I felt a combination of relief and excitement. Then, however, came the absolute paroxysm of discovering that no phone meant no music en route. I reckoned that only a considerably valiant individual would be able to put up with this for long. I decided that I was not a considerably valiant individual. However, I did also decide to wait a while before investing in an iPod.
I recall parking myself on the staircase before having to leave the house for a lecture. This is where I would usually sit and choose the music that would suit the time span of my walk. I’m not the only music student who engages in these sorts of shenanigans before stepping out of the door! Now, no more Elton John to colour my crusade. Ah! No more could I hear the opening chord of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no.3 (third movement!) so privately in my skull-sized world, and selfishly keep it there.
I felt bemused at my situation although forlorn might have described it better. You think I am making my walks into university seem more like a divine comedy. But yeah, without music, everything felt like a right trip! A pilgrimage all the way to the train station did not feel as exciting as it had in the past.
For a while I felt restless as if my walks were an empty wasting of time. Go away, spirit of my silence! I could be listening to Brahms right now. Beremboim is right: music quickens time. When we put our headphones on we wade in sound – we rely only on seeing where we are going. I have always been told to look right and left for cars, but never to listen for them. But how funny that my very ability to see properly is dependent on light (I can, in fact close my eyes if I wish not to see), but I can never adjourn my hearing.
“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we hear it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain” – John Cage, in in his lectures and writings on Silence
Martyn Evans‘ view is in the same genre – bodily wellbeing exists in bodily silence at all, for no such thing is possible. It exists in exuberance, in song. When Cage entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1948 he looked forward to absolute silence, however later reported that he could hear one high and one low sound. Later, the engineer at the university usefully answered his questions: the high sound was his nervous system in operation, the low sound his blood in circulation.
“Inner” music is like a metaphor for, the taken-for-granted, ordinary living. Sometimes I am too preoccupied to hear my inner music. Then I walk by a friend and suddenly I hear the music again like the volume is being turned up, and I remember that life is very well. I am suddenly in tune. A less idealistic example is when I really pay attention to my fatigue or my need for an espresso. That is like a fish asking, “What the hell is water?”. With routine, like walking to a rehearsal, comes the work of choosing. It is in my power, after all, to consider a pilgrimage to the Norman Chapel in sub-zero-degrees as meaningful without recourse to Brahms to making the 9 minutes walk more somehow meaningful.
“So you have had a quiet few days so far?” my friend asked. I thought calmly about how cacophonous, noisy and overcast my week had been without my headphones. I replied (in the voice of death): “It is uncomfortable, the noise of silence”.
I began to sing out loud when I walked. I sang bits of melodies, stuck them together and also thought my own tunes up. I drove myself insane. One day I simply stopped walking, hauled my backpack against the nearest wall and took out a book so that I could read as I walked (I cannot say I would recommend this antidote).
I started noticing how extremely unpredictable inner music can be. How do I explain how ‘un-monochromatic’ it is? The same voice can ask questions and make statements, the same hands can gently touch a piano and can break open a tin of chickpeas. My feet that walk to café Capriccio are the same but different to those that run away from the rain. I can walk in different ways – I can pace or I can be a happy-go-lucky saunterer, like Thoreau’s treatise advises me to be. And these are fragments of self that I cosset in a sense.
When I walk with a disposition of presence and not productivity, I can listen acutely to what part of myself I am bringing to wherever I am going. I rarely ever bring my whole self. A part of me might be agonising over something, for example, but I have to go to the Norman Chapel and just sing. It is a gift that, like a walk will never be the same, I will never become quite familiar to myself. It becomes so important how many rainy days there are in my life.
Maybe to walk with presence is to really be where you are and not have to rely on music to rose-tint it. The wind is cold. But how dare I be on Elvet bridge if I am thinking of something other than being on Elvet bridge?
A few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail. Holding an iPod felt strange – blue, thin and lightweight. Listening to music makes me happier than I can ever attempt to say. I look forward to fantasising whilst I walk, to letting the music carry me into higher thoughts rather than being reduced to thinking about mechanically putting one foot after the other.
Despite what Kant said about music being enjoyed for itself and not for its ability to silence the noise of life, I don’t think listening to music whilst walking is a weapon against noisy platitudes. Nor is it self silencing. I think it can be those things, just like a knife can be used to murder or cut bread. Listening to music can be a way of imposing alleviation or order onto our daily worlds, but I think it is necessary to adapt ourselves to our surroundings on a regular basis. This may mean leaving headphones at home a few times per week.
My time without music reminded me that freedom is being where I am. To walk with a gallery of faces that are also crossing the road, not just beside them. Water is always there, I must simply notice it.