Category Archives: culture

Out and about in Kealkill: Ireland 2017 (Part II)

I spent the first 24 hours at my Kealkill cottage relaxing and recuperating from the long drive. I didn’t really need all that time, but the whole point of the trip was to get rest and rejuvenate after a tiring and holiday-free period at work, so I lay around, watched the chaffinches outside at the feeders, admired the view from my porch, and played video games. Then I realized that I could do all those things at home (though, admittedly, the view is not nearly so spectacular), and I decided that I’d had enough lazing about and was ready to explore. After all, you don’t come to Ireland to not go out and enjoy Irish things.

I decided to start small, with the three points of interest in Kealkill itself: two stone circles and a castle. Kealkill is a very small place and seems pretty quiet most of the time, but it was particularly empty on the Sunday afternoon when I drove in to deposit my car so that I could hike between sites and not have to worry about parking (which, word to the wise, is negligible at most of the sorts of remote heritage spots I was interested in). I left the car outside a preschool, and either that building or one of the others in the vicinity had a high-pitched security alarm that was going off the whole afternoon. The fact that such an alarm could wail for hours on end without any investigation or concern tells you a lot about Kealkill.

The view during my walk

My route took me through the outskirts of the residential part of town before bearing left up a winding, narrow country lane. As I walked past one house, a Jack Russell terrier came barrelling across the yard at me, barking furiously; he stopped just short of the split-rail fence that edged the property, glared at me as I made friendly noises at him, and then proceeded out into the road to defend his territory even more emphatically. This wouldn’t have been very interesting except that the owners had erected a mini white picket fence under the larger fence, but it only stretched for a few feet on either side of the corner. The dog could have run around the little fence to access me, but instead he jumped over it. In other words, the owners had installed a completely unnecessary tiny second fence that did not act as a barrier to their short dog, and, even if it had, did not actually stretch the length of their yard in order to achieve this function. So why was it there? Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m genuinely curious; I have been wondering if there are other terrier-sized objects throughout the house, paralleling those used by the humans, but in miniature—you know, just to let the dog know that he’s one of the family and he’s not any less important just because he’s short. Anyway, he did not want to make friends, so I moved on.

I was worried that the Kealkill stone circle would be difficult to find, but it—like many other seemingly forgotten but surprisingly well cared-for ancient sites in Ireland—was very helpfully signposted, and there was even an informative placard at the entrance to the field. Most of the sites I visited, and probably most of these sites in general, are located in farmers’ fields; the national government owns the artefacts themselves but the farmers own the land through which you walk to access them. For an American, this is an extremely uncomfortable concept, because we are pretty intense about land rights and privacy in the US; however, having lived in the much more communal UK for quite some time, I now feel less uneasy about trespassing. Upon approaching the entrance to the Kealkill stone circle site, I realized three things. First, I was all alone with the stones, which was pretty awesome. Second, Irish stiles are very different to (and, frankly, much better than) British ones. Third, Kealkill is much closer to the coast than I’d originally realised.

Irish stile: so much less awkward
Looking towards Bantry Bay from the Kealkill stone circle

The whole reason I knew to look for the Kealkill stone circle was a delightful guide that I purchased called Antiquities of West Cork, by Jack Roberts. Roberts is an author and jeweller who produces amazing local maps and booklets that he has created himself after extensive research and ground truthing. He is very blunt about how little we understand these ancient structures, and he says fantastically crotchety things like, “the age of destruction has been with us for some time” when bemoaning how much history we have likely lost and will continue to lose as a result of development. (I don’t disagree with him, by the way; I just find his turn of phrase amusing.)

This is what Roberts has to say about Kealkill (original typos fixed by me, because I can’t help myself):

This is the most well-known of the Complex sites in the area. It consists of a 5-Stone Circle, an alignment of two stones and a good example of that most curious type of monument, a Radial Cairn. It was excavated in the 1930’s by Prof O’Riordain, who re-erected the tallest stone of the Alignment and confirmed that it originally stood over 17ft. As we see it now it is worth remembering that it is about 6ft / 2m short of its original height.

Kealkill stone circle, standing stones, and cairn

Kealkill is no Stonehenge, but it is still pretty darn amazing: ancient, massive stones in a clearly well-thought-out arrangement, perched on a vantage point surrounded by wind-swept craggy mountains and looking out to the bay. I will share with you another of Roberts’ gems: “The circles are part of the landscape and their locations within that landscape are critical and precise.” I am by no means an expert, but I agree wholeheartedly with his suggestion that you cannot fully understand each circle until / unless you have experienced and taken into account the environment in which it is situated. I did some reading about sacred stones so as to better understand what I was encountering in Ireland, and these sources only served to solidify a suspicion that was probably seeded many years ago when I was a young girl first visiting (and falling in love with) pre-history sites: Although we are drawn to these places now because we like to see the ruins and feel the connection with our ancestors, much of the emotional impact of the visits stems from the place itself and from the interaction between the geography and the history; the builders chose those locations because they contained some collection of characteristics that made the spaces feel meaningful, and unless enormous environmental changes have taken place since then, we can often still see and feel the power of the landscape, and would do even in the absence of the artefacts. Or, to put it another way, early humans had a good eye for real estate.

Right around the corner from the Kealkill circle is another one called Breeny More. It is completely unmarked, does not have a handy access gate, and is located a stone’s throw from the house of the farmer whose land it’s on. Even though I technically should have been allowed access given that the circle is open to the public, I just couldn’t bring myself to brazenly hop the fence and traipse through someone else’s pasture. I got as close as I could and stood on my tiptoes to see as much as possible, and that will just have to satisfy me.

My new friend was a little shy

I have to admit that I was slightly relieved to have an excuse not to approach Breeny More, since it was in a field that was occupied by cows at the time of my visit. I used to consider cows (other than bulls and wary new mothers, obviously) pretty harmless, but I have had some unsettling experiences during my strolls through the Blackdown Hills; it’s weird enough to have an entire herd staring intently at you in unison, but when they start running towards you and jumping around psychotically, you realize just how large they are and it makes you think twice about casually strolling through their ranks. Maybe I just need to learn more about cow body language.

My final port of call was back down the hill, at a bend in the River Ouvane, along St Finbarr’s Way (a pilgrim path running between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra). This was Carriganass Castle, the name of which derives from the original Irish meaning “castle on the rock of the waterfall”, which, indeed, it is.

Carriganass Castle, which is a bit of a fixer-upper

The castle was one of many belonging to the O’Sullivan family, and dates to the 16th century. It is now in ruins, which just makes it all the more picturesque. There are tiny slits for windows on the more vulnerable terrestrial sides, but larger gaps facing the water, from which side attackers were less likely to approach. One of the towers had little recesses built in to the top to act as a dovecote, which obviously is a feature that I will now demand in any house I may own in the future. The castle features in the poem “The Revenge of Donal Cam”, which describes how the hero (full name: Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, commander of the Munster forces) avenges his wife’s death at the hands of the Englishman St Leger. Supposedly, Donal Cam disguised himself as a holy man, convinced the increasingly repentant St Leger to confess his guilt, revealed his true identity, and then threw St Leger from the tower into the river below. This probably didn’t happen in real life (though all the characters were actual people), but one should never let reality get in the way of a good piece of literature.

Another view of Carriganass

Having walked a few miles and taken in several points of interest, I felt that I’d made a good start on my sightseeing and could be permitted to return home, resume relaxing, and make plans for leaving venturing beyond Kealkill the following day in order to see what else west Cork had to offer.

Heading to greener pastures: Ireland 2017 (Part I)

If you look at a map, Ireland looks so close to England. Yet, depending on how you travel and where you’re coming from, it can be a long old haul to get there. Still, it’s Ireland: “a timeless land of enchantment and mystery, breathtaking scenery, peace and tranquillity”, as the brochure says. I was also promised “uncrowded roads and lazy rivers, rugged mountains and crumbling castles and…mild Gulf Stream air”, which would “combine to make [my trip] an unforgettable experience”. Nature, ruins, and scarcity of people? As far as I’m concerned, those are definitely worth the journey, no matter how arduous.

I’d set my heart on Ireland because I wanted to go on a proper retreat in a destination that was not near home but also not too far away (travel time and money being critical factors). I wanted a place that was beautiful and relaxing and inspiring in its own right, but also that provided access to hiking and sites of historical interest. Also, green; I wanted to be surrounded by green. And where else but Ireland do you think of when you think “green”?

Quintessential Ireland

As I poked around online, I was spoiled for choice. There were spots near lakes and rivers, others on the coast and halfway up mountains; places near interesting towns and cities and others so remote I worried I might become Jack Torrance (a particularly troubling vision given that I’d pictured myself doing some writing during the trip). It was difficult to find the perfect balance between solitude and access, a decent journey time at the start of the trip and ability to take short day trips throughout, scenery that was gorgeous to look at and habitat that could actually be interacted with and enjoyed. I settled on the southwest of Ireland because it seemed to have it all: access to beautiful and dramatic terrain, trees and bodies of water, ruins and gardens. It was only a few hours’ drive from the ferry dock in Rosslare, which itself was a mere four-hour crossing from Pembroke, which was but 3.5 hours from Exeter. A negligible trip, really. Only 10 hours, at night, at the end of a long work week. The perfect way to start any vacation.

I am joking, of course, because that sounds awful and sometimes I do ponder my sanity when I pause for a moment of reflection. Despite appearances, I did actually conduct research and consider the itinerary carefully. I investigated flying and renting a car versus hopping the ferry to Dublin versus taking the ferry to Rosslare, and no matter how I looked at it, the most logical option in terms of timing and cost was the one I selected. And it worked out! It was a bit of an adventure, but that just made it exciting and interesting, and, by god, if I ever get to the point where I am not willing to try something new, then I do not deserve to be alive.

The ferry was scheduled to depart Pembroke at 2:45am, so my original plan was to leave Exeter around 8pm in order to leave plenty of time for the drive itself and for any emergencies that might crop up along the way (including the possibility that I would need to pull over and take a brief nap). However, as the week went on I began to get nervous about this because I was feeling particularly tired and worried that all the caffeine in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep me awake that late at night. I decided to leave right after dinner instead so I could get to the dock while maximally alert and then nap or read while waiting until departure. On the evening of my trip, however, the motorway suffered extreme congestion and portions of it were briefly closed, so Plan B went out the window and I reverted to Plan A so I could avoid the traffic jams. I drank two cups of tea and packed a third in a travel mug before hitting the road. Two mice dashing cross the road in front of me, and one fox lounging on the shoulder later, and I arrived in Pembroke.

I’d been worried about what sort of situation I’d find at the dock because, really, what woman traveling alone wants to go to a dock after midnight? I’d read all the Irish Ferry FAQs and even exchanged emails with friendly but unhelpful staff, and I still couldn’t visualise what I would find when I arrived; in particular, I couldn’t figure out where I would wait, how I would queue, when queuing would begin, and, most importantly, whether there would be facilities where I could use the toilet and buy another dose of caffeine.

I just had to trust that it would all make sense when I got there and, of course, it did; the company has been making this journey back and forth for years, and they know what they are doing. I pulled in around 12:00am and there were already several dozen cars lined up in rows outside the gate; those were the folks desperate to exit the ferry first on the other end, but they must have arrived at least an hour before I did and only bought themselves maybe 15 minutes at Rosslare, so I’m not sure the sacrifice was worth it. Once I had parked, I could run into the terminal, which looked just like a small airport and had toilets, a café, and plenty of seating. The entire area was lit by floodlights, so even though I kind of felt like I was in the middle of an emergency military operation, I also felt much safer than I’d imagined.

Enjoying the delightful weather at Pembroke Dock

People with vehicles could check in at 12:15am; this involved driving up to a kiosk, getting boarding passes, then going through a gated checkpoint into another parking lot where we again lined up in rows. This is where we would sit until 2am, when we would drive onto the ferry. I had anticipated setting my alarm and dozing until boarding, but I hadn’t counted on getting hungry again. Nobody packs snacks as diligently as I do, but somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would of course be hungry five hours after my last meal; it’s just not a thing you really associate with a time of day when ordinarily you would be asleep. After I’d visited the café and eaten, I only had time for a quick power nap before it was time for the next phase. Oh well; who needs sleep?

Boarding itself was pretty easy, though the official did have to stop me and ask me to turn on my headlights. That had happened also as I was passing through the earlier checkpoint, and it surprised me both times. The entire area was so well lit that I didn’t need headlights to see, plus I assumed that the ferry staff would prefer not to be blinded by the beams; I guess they just want to be extra careful about safety. Once the official waved me up the ramp onto the ship, there were no more staff until I was actually on the ferry, which freaked me out a little because there were no signs and about eight lanes and I suddenly had this feeling that I’d meandered off course (which would be practically impossible to do in the 200 or so meters that I had to cover, but give me a thing to do and I will worry whether I am doing it right). I was eventually waved down the far left-hand lane and was the very first car in line. You can’t stay in, or visit, your car during the journey, so I grabbed the essentials—which included a pillow and blanket—and headed upstairs to the passenger area.

Driving onto the ferry (full disclosure: this is actually the return trip)
Entering the parking deck of the ferry (full disclosure: also the return trip)

I am not sure what I was expecting of the ferry, but it was definitely not what I found when I alighted at the entrance / welcome area of the boat. It looked like a cross between a hotel check-in, a small casino, and a cruise ship. I guess I have spent so much time on more stripped-down vessels like Scillonian III and the little ferries that run between Falmouth and St Mawe’s, I had forgotten that a boat journey might be somewhat more posh. I hadn’t been able to get a berth for the trip, so I poked around the public seating area until I found a nice corner where I could curl up on a cushioned bench and try to get some sleep.  It feels a little weird to just bed down and nap in public, but when everyone else is doing the same thing, you just go with it. I woke up a couple times but was otherwise able to get pretty decent sleep (all things considered) until dawn. Just before 6am, a couple of boys ran by to look out a nearby window and one of them whined, “The sun’s coming up but we still have a whole hour to go!” I am not sure why (delirium from lack of proper sleep?) but that struck me funny.

Passenger deck on the ferry; this is the return trip but the guy in the right corner is sitting where I slept on the trip out

I rose shortly afterwards because my circadian rhythms refuse to allow any change in routine, no matter how tired I might be. I took the opportunity to stroll around a little and investigate the ferry. I wandered down to the restaurant for some tea and immediately noticed how much more you could feel the movement of the sea, and the ship, there at the prow; I grabbed a to-go cup and retreated to the safety of my original seat, which was positioned close to the centre where things felt much steadier and less sickening.

Once the ferry had pulled into the dock, we were given the all-clear to return to our cars, where we had to sit with our engines off until waved forward by the staff. I was at the front of the second-to-last row to leave, so I got a good view of proceedings while I waited. While looking in my rear view mirror, I saw a local bus approaching and had a little chuckle to myself thinking about a bus journey that also involved a ferry ride. I assumed it was just being delivered from the factory after a repair or something but, no, as it drove past I saw actual passengers sitting on it like it was the most normal thing in the world to hop on a bus in one country, drive onto a ferry, and then disembark in another country several hours later. Maybe that is normal, but it seemed a little surreal to me.

Waiting to leave the ferry after the crossing

After I’d been greenlighted, all I had to do was clear immigration and I was free to begin my cross-country journey to Cork. The guard asked my nationality and, for the first time ever in an official capacity, I declared myself as a British citizen. He waved me right through and I hit the road, which was extremely empty at that time of day. I briefly was stuck behind the world’s slowest tractor but otherwise had no issues thanks to the fact that I was getting a strong GPS signal and had useful directions to follow. I noticed that all the other drivers were extremely careful about driving exactly the speed limit, so I felt compelled to also be a very diligent driver.

Maybe it was the excitement of the adventure, maybe it was my amazing selection of music, maybe it was the lovely countryside, but the drive was very relaxed and enjoyable; it didn’t feel like a long and painful slog despite how little rest I’d had. I stopped briefly in Waterford for some breakfast, which I ate at the Granville Hotel because a) it was an obvious choice right across the street from the car park, and b) it reminded me of the Granville I used to visit in Ohio with my parents. Appropriately enough, this one was packed with an American tour group gearing up to visit the Waterford crystal factory that morning. I did not dally for any sightseeing, but hit the road again so I could make it to my cottage by lunch.

I stopped again outside Cork so that I could purchase groceries at a decent-sized supermarket with lots of options. I was shocked at some of the prices (€5 for a punnet of grapes??) and was glad I had packed all my own pantry items in order to save money; a full stock-up might have bankrupted me. My checkout guy was a true performance artist who scanned and handed things over with extreme flair and panache, all while maintaining a very stern demeanour; I had a hard time keeping a straight face while packing my food.

Not long after I hit the road again, I finally diverted onto the smaller routes that wound in through the hills to deliver you to secluded places like my cottage. Although the scenery had always been pleasant, it became much more so at this point; there were lots of rolling green hills with big jutting boulders, and stone walls dividing sheep fields, and, occasionally, glimpses of the coastline. The speed limit was generally 100 km/h (60 mph), which was absolutely insane given how curvy the roads were; even if you knew the route well and felt safe driving that fast, you would not have a comfortable journey if you did so. I opted to take the slow and steady approach, which not only avoided whiplash but also allowed me to appreciate the views.

I had worried that my cabin would be difficult to find, but actually it wasn’t—though the owner had given me directions from the opposite approach, so I had to drive past to the nearest town and then retrace my footsteps so that I could follow her instructions. From Kealkill, I drove approximately 3 miles, found the big white farmhouse, took the next right, and drove about a mile up a narrow, winding track until I arrived at my home away from home for the next week.

Home sweet home
The view from my cabin window. Not bad.
One of three species of tit that visited the feeders outside my cabin
Many chaffinches kept me company at the cabin

Stay tuned for the next post to find out more about my Irish adventures…

#366daysofmusic

Near the end of 2015, I read a couple of articles about people who set themselves a daily challenge for the year. One woman crafted a miniature chair; one man sought out and consumed a different flavour of taco. I had previously completed a year of collecting one-second video clips each day and was looking for a new creative but bizarrely obsessive way to mark the passing of time, so the idea of doing something a bit more engaged and therefore challenging appealed to me. So, while other people were resolving to spend 2016 reducing energy consumption and producing less waste and becoming more active in charity efforts, I pledged to listen to, and review, a new music album each day of the year. We all give back to society in different ways.

Throughout the year, people who were aware of my quest kept asking the same question: Why are you doing this? This is, really, two questions: First, Why have you decided to spend the year doing a particular thing each day? and, second, Why is the point of this thing? There are many answers to the former: I enjoy being creative, it feels good to set and achieve a goal, having a routine helps keep you motivated on days when you’re feeling lacklustre, doing this ensures I will have at least one thing to blog about this year, and so on.

I originally thought that the latter question was simpler, and had only a single answer: I have a ridiculously large music collection and this will a) justify my ownership of all those albums and b) encourage me to finally listen to things that I’ve never even played once. Almost immediately, though, I began to realise that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface. I had hoped to encourage brand new musical adventures and the revisiting of albums I didn’t feel had received sufficient attention, but I found myself pushed and pulled towards particular songs/albums/artists/genres on particular days or in particular situations. My head might say, “You should listen to the Frazey Ford you’ve never heard,” but my heart would say, “Nope. I want to wrap that Loreena McKennitt around me like a warm blanket.” Some days I could barely force myself to listen to anything at all, but on other days I had a near-continuous soundtrack from my first cup of tea until I turned out the light at bedtime. I thought perhaps there might be some sort of deep and fundamental truths I could unearth by reflecting on all this more systematically, so like a good little scientist I began to collect data. Let’s take a look, shall we?

One of the very first things I noticed–also commented upon by friends who followed the progress of my project on Facebook–was a consistent generosity in my ratings:

ratings-frequency

Over the course of the year, my ratings averaged out to 7.5 out of a possible 10, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 (not that I gave too many of either of those two extremes). The most common rating, also the median, was 8. Obviously my sample here was biased, because I was predominantly listening to music I already own–which, given the amount of research and sampling I typically do before committing to an album, probably meant I was pretty fond of the record itself, the artists, or both, by the time I made the purchase. On top of that, despite my initial interest in exploring the neglected corners of my music collection, I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards albums I knew and loved; I was cherrypicking the best ones and, for the most part, avoiding the stuff I’d deemed unworthy. Finally, I tend to be relatively generous whenever I give marks to anything, so in addition to focusing on the best of the best, I am probably guilty of inflation caused by over-enthusiasm. I know all of these things are true, but I prefer to think that I just happen to own really excellent music.

Despite the biases mentioned above, I did actually try to facilitate diversity and variation in my listening. When I’d had too many top-ranking albums in a row, and especially when I kept choosing the very same score again and again, I would deliberately select something I was less familiar with or that I’d previously dismissed as substandard.

Quality over time

To some extent, you can see this reflected in my listening pattern over the year (above). Although the bulk of ratings are clustered in the 7-8 band, you can see regular peaks and troughs, especially after a little plateau. There was more variation right at the beginning of the year, in early April when I did my painful survey of Cat Power albums, and then in early September when I was short on time while traveling and therefore chose albums predominantly based on their length (where shorter = better) rather than their quality. Basically, I think this graph shows that, despite my best intentions, I was fairly consistent in prejudicially choosing tried-and-true albums throughout the year. [It’s worth noting that the “0” towards the end of the year is actually an “n/a” associated with a novelty album. I don’t think I own anything atrocious enough to merit a real 0.]

I do feel guilty about failing to explore certain overlooked albums. When I started #366daysofmusic, there were specific records that I wanted to listen to; Joan as Police Woman’s “The Classic”, Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, and the aforementioned Frazey Ford all spring to mind. I listened to none of them. I also feel guilty about inconsistencies in my rating methodology. On the day that I picked a particular album, I might listen to it once or multiple times, after either having never heard it before or heard it many times previously; sometimes I already knew the artist and was predisposed to be positive, but other times I was unfamiliar with the performer and probably more likely to be skeptical. I knew it wasn’t really fair to consider all of these listening experiences equal, especially considering that many artists, and even entire genres of music, provide an experience that needs to be repeated and pondered–nurtured, even–before you can be fully appreciative. All those albums that have, or might have, grown on me over time were given short shrift in #366daysofmusic. Given that it wasn’t a full-blown scientific study, I think I can forgive myself, but the point remains: It pays to be a patient listener who doesn’t dismiss things too readily.

I am also all in favour of being open-minded when it comes to genres. I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic listener. There are certain genres I don’t own in droves or listen to routinely, and, on the flip side, others that I strongly prefer. I like all sorts of styles, however, including those that blend elements from different periods and disciplines and cultures. Did #366daysofmusic reflect that variety?

genre-frequency

To the best of my abilities, I assigned each of my chosen albums a genre, and the resulting graph (above) shows that I do, indeed, listen pretty widely across the musical spectrum. When people ask me what my favourite genre is, I tend to default to “Americana” because it is an easy way to summarise that I like earthy-sounding stuff that draws from predominantly country, folk, bluegrass, traditional, and early rock influences. Basically, I like what my voice sounds good singing; I am also a sucker for the haunting sound of melancholy melodies and eerie reverb. Harmonic, moody music.

I find myself groaning in aural pain every time I turn on BBC Radio 1, so I never would have guessed that I listened to so much music best categorised as “pop”; then again, “pop” is short for “popular”, so I suppose its prevalence kind of makes sense. The peaks associated with “indie” and “rock” also caught me off-guard because I though that I dislike those genres.  I suspect the mismatch results from the fact that I am inordinately fond of, and own all the albums by, certain artists within those genres–Alt-J, for example–but view those as exceptions to the rule. There are many ways to be “rock” or “indie”, after all, and it is possible to like the decor within a particular room but not like the overall style of the house in which those rooms are found. Or something.

In order to see whether my ratings were kinder in some categories than in others, I produced the following graph that breaks at least a half dozen data analysis rules:

Rating by genre

At first glance, this suggests that there is a slight gradient across the genres, with some getting consistently more favourable reviews than others. I’ve left off the label of the bottom axis because it’s a riot of words, but the genres towards the left, more favourable, side are things like “folk”, “soundtrack”, “pop”, and “indie”. The ones towards the right are things like “reggae”, “hip hop”, and “electronic”. There may be kind of a legitimate pattern here: The genre with the highest average rating is “traditional” and the genre with the lowest (discounting the “blues” outlier driven by a particular album I really dislike) is “jazz”; I do, in fact, really love traditional music and really dislike jazz, on the whole. But, as I said, this particular sample was generated by very biased data gathering techniques, so further music listening would be required to explore this pattern further.

The last graph I made looks at whether I exhibited any temporal patterns in terms of what genre I listened to when:

Genre over time

I randomly assigned each different genre a number between 1 and 22, so what you’re looking for here are clusters of neighbouring lines of the same height. For me, the most noticeable trend is that I started off with admirable variety over the first few weeks of the year, hopping from one type of music to another as I made my way through my collection. At the end of the year you can see a little cluster of genre 20, which was “holiday”. In between, you can see groupings of similar genres interspersed with brief forays into something different. As with the plot looking at quality over time, I can’t help but interpret this as evidence of a tendency to retreat into a comfort zone that I have to consciously work to prod myself out of for the sake of exploration and variety. I’m just relieved to see that there are peaks and valleys, and that I do sail off into new and uncharted waters occasionally. I hate to think that I may be missing out on something amazing simply because I’ve fallen into a rut.

The graphs are an amusing way to visualise my #366daysofmusic adventure, but they fail to capture the most interesting and important things I learned. I found that my mood really influenced what type of music I was willing to listen to. If I was feeling stressed, I wanted some soothing classical piano or Loreena McKennitt. If I was bummed, I was drawn towards Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver. If I was feeling energetic, I might play Lady Gaga or The Black Keys. I noticed that my choice of music could either reinforce how I was already feeling or help me actively combat it: Wallowing in some lugubrious Lera Lynn is perfect for savouring a sensation of gloom, whereas Mark Knopfler is balm to a suffering soul. Singing along always made the listening experience more enjoyable, and dancing around further augmented the happy mood. Even though I might not want to crank up the trance when I’m in a grump, I discovered that it’s likely to do a lot more good than drooping around with some Carla Morrison or Chelsea Wolfe (however much I may like their albums).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of my favourite places in my hometown is Hoffa’s music store, which I photographed for a blog post about the things that make Athens most dear to me.

I also noticed that I continue to have very strong associations between certain songs/artists/genres and particular memories and sensations. Once your mind has established links between specific tracks and specific people–especially people you’ve been in a romantic relationship with, and especially especially people you’ve broken up with–I think it must be nigh on impossible to erase them. I’ve gotten to the point where “The Sound of Silence” is no longer ruined by its connection to the ex-boyfriend who first played it for me, but I still can’t play it without having at least a fleeting thought of that idiot; how annoying. Country music always reminds me of summer, and hearing it makes me picture driving down a midwestern US highway with corn fields on either side. The soundtrack to The Matrix brings back scenes from my high school track meets, and “The Electric Slide” will always time-warp me to middle school dances.

If you’re lucky, you begin to know yourself better as you grow older. You refine your tastes and you hone your abilities to pinpoint exactly those experiences that will bring you the greatest pleasure. Part of this probably has to do with growing wiser, and part of this probably results from necessity: You have to spend so much time and money doing super-important grown-up things, you have to figure out ways to avoid wasting precious seconds and pennies. On the one hand, this means you can accurately predict that if you like Artist X or Album Y, you will also like Z (increasingly intelligent algorithms also help with this). On the other hand, you risk becoming blinkered and missing out on those joyous moments of unexpected discovery. It is a tricky balance to strike, and I was surprised by how reluctant I sometimes was to strike out on a little auditory adventure. If music is a microcosm representative of the rest of my life,  I will obviously have to be ever-vigilant of my feet-dragging tendencies.

The final lesson I learned is that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing–even music. After obsessing over my daily selections for the entirety of 2016, I hit a wall in 2017. I needed silence. I needed birdsong drifting in through an open window. I needed the music produced by my own instruments and not somebody else’s. I needed to focus on thoughts rather than noises. I needed to seek enlightenment and enjoyment through some other medium (hence #poetic2017). This abrupt desire to take a hiatus may have been unrelated to #366daysofmusic; I did also overindulge on the La La Land soundtrack shortly after Christmas, and perhaps that was the last straw. Regardless of its origins, the need for silence was strong and lengthy and I am only just returning to normal. I have gained a deeper appreciation for people who review music for a living; I do not know how they manage to listen as widely and deeply as they need to for their jobs without going crazy from lack of peace and quiet.

Piano
When I was young, I spent many hours at various rehearsals at Ohio University’s School of Music

What I haven’t gained a deeper appreciation for is music itself, because that would be impossible. Even when I wasn’t listening to it recently, I was still playing it (as in, on my instruments), and reading about it, and buying tickets for concerts. I don’t remember the time before I learned how to play piano, and some of our earliest family films feature me singing fearlessly and with great aplomb right into the lens. Lasting friendships have sprung up with fellow music performers, not just because of a shared excitement about particular genres and artists, but because there is a special sort of bond that develops when you join together to create beautiful sounds and rhythms using your own bodies. Music has provided a soundtrack to my life that has augmented my very highest moments and helped to rejuvenate me and fill me back up at my very lowest and emptiest. It provides a sort of spiritual sustenance.  It has been a constant companion, not just for the 366 days of 2016, but also for the approximately 12,700 days that preceded it. However many more thousands of days are left to me, I hope that they, too, are days of music.

Further reading

  • By happy chance, Susan Maury curated Real Scientists during #366daysofmusic. She has some amazing wisdom to share about music psychology.
  • Music is more portable than ever, and some researchers are looking at the role of music in daily life.
  • I’m not the only one who loves music so much. Scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent in human cultures.
  • If you want to become a better listener to music, you might want to read this article.
  • Do you have a particular fondness for the tunes of your youth? Blame your neurons for that musical nostalgia.