Sounds Outside

I’ve been finding that as I’ve been isolating, sounds have started to take on heightened meanings. A cough in the street, a cry from a neighbouring house, an ambulance siren: in the first week sounds like these became especially poignant, even harrowing, the sounds of a world in pain, fractured into remote, isolated bits.

Yet two kinds of sound have done more, for me, to dispel that sense than any number of Zoom meetings, phone calls or YouTube workouts. One can be heard at the front of my house, the other at the back.

The one at the back is particularly apparent at the weekends. It is the sound of Victorian terrace gardens in the sun. But as though one has time-travelled back to, say, the 1950s, a time when ambient mechanical noise is all but gone: no planes, few trains, hardly any cars. A time when the soundscape is almost entirely organic: produced by insects, birds, people and air. I made this recording on my phone on Sunday afternoon:

This sound is a living palimpsest, every species occupying its own sonic biome, a phenomenon that can be heard in much greater complexity in a rainforest, and that was introduced to me by the ‘Arboreal’ movement in Richard Barrett’s Life-form for cello and electronics. Without the broad-spectrum filters of trains and traffic hum, every layer of that soundscape can be heard clearly once more. As with the air, particulates and pollution are dropping away. Sound and breath both arrive in higher fidelity. This week, British seismologists have noticed that the ‘cultural noise’ of the earth has started to quieten too. As the ‘anthropogenic din’ of vehicles and machines subdues, they say, their equipment will be better able to detect small tremors throughout the UK and further afield. Even as we draw ourselves inward, it seems, we become more widely connected.

The birdlife seems more active than ever too – a product of the time of year – every bird marking its territory, calling for a mate or just shooting the avian breeze. And every person is at home, rather than making costly excursions in the hope of running down another Sunday afternoon. The sonic imprint of every family can be heard: the young children banging pans two doors down, our elderly neighbours making lunch, the dogs, the teenagers, the DIYers, the gardeners and the chatterers, all of us sounding and being heard.

If that’s all a bit R. Murray Schafer-esque nostalgic, I wonder what he would have made of the second sound, the one at the front of the house, the one that happens every Thursday at 8pm. #clapforourcarers has quickly become a national ritual of solidarity, gratitude and emotional release. For several minutes, everyone opens their front doors and claps, whistles, cheers, rings bells, bangs saucepans, makes all kinds of noise (this week someone on our street was blowing a horn of some kind) in recognition of the extraordinary work of NHS staff at this time. I’ve never experienced anything like it: a pure prayer, sent out loud into the air. The relief it produces is immense: for me, staying strictly indoors, it is the only moment in the week when I really feel part of something bigger than my immediate family. To stand outside my front door and see the faces of my neighbours left and right is very treasured. Even more is to hear the glorious noise of grief and longing, celebration and defiance.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 3

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

For this weekend’s listening, I’ve collected together the (small but growing) number of composer-chronology playlists I have been compiling over the last six months or so. So far each of these has been created in response to a piece of writing on my desk related to that composer, but I have a couple more partly ready that don’t relate to anything much yet; I’ll add them to this post in due course.

Richard Barrett

George Benjamin

Oliver Knussen

Liza Lim

Original post here. This list now includes Axis Mundi for bassoon, and the extraordinary Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, from this newly released and essential CD.

Luigi Nono

Original post here.

I’ve also added a new playlist to this collection, for Krzysztof Penderecki, who died last weekend. Judge for yourselves the degree to which his later (post-1977) style was prefigured in his earlier works, or not. It’s a chance, too, to listen to some of his overlooked very late works, which exhibit a simplicity and clarity rarely encountered in his earlier music. Missing from the list – because recordings aren’t available – are the operas, the early electronic works and a handful of occasional pieces. I haven’t bothered to include many of the arrangements that Penderecki made of his own music.

 

Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933–2020

I heard the news about the death of the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki yesterday evening. He was 86, and although one of his carers had recently been diagnosed with Covid-19, there was no suggestion that his death was related. He had been ill for a long time.

Penderecki’s music was once very close to me. A couple of decades ago, when I was contemplating starting a PhD, his name emerged, along with those of Kurtág (whose music I had already studied for my masters thesis), Górecki (subject of an ardent youthful passion), and Ligeti as a possible case study for a wider investigation into East European new music during the Cold War. In the end, it was Ligeti and Penderecki who formed the two pillars of my dissertation, with numerous of their Polish and Hungarian colleagues clustering (ahem) around for support. I collected countless reviews of Penderecki’s music in British journals and newspapers; I wrote a substantial analysis of the St Luke Passion, tying its particular soteriology to a quasi-Schenkerian analysis of its pitch centres (including a novel explanation for that work’s outlandish E major ending, one that probably doesn’t bear all the weight it needs to, but felt satisfying at the time). I wrote a less satisfying analysis of Anaklasis too, although that didn’t make the final cut post-viva. St Luke in particular is a work I lived with for several years and although I can’t say I ever loved it wholeheartedly – although I found that you could probe very deeply into its construction, it never quite rewarded those investigations with the sense of a revelation gained – it was nevertheless very important to me. And when I had the (now rare) opportunity to experience the piece live for the first time, a couple of years later, at Canterbury Cathedral, it was an unexpectedly moving experience. There was a great sense of personal fulfilment, but the work too made a much greater impression on me in the flesh than I had anticipated. That ending, by the way, makes so much more sense live than any recording possibly could.

So moved was I that on my way home I phoned the arts desks of every paper, asking if they would like a review. None of them did, although I was eventually able to place something in the very conservative magazine Musical Opinion, where it was completely out of place and probably barely read (I gave it away, too). For its concision it remains one of my favourite pieces of writing. I reproduce it below.

Because of my PhD, Penderecki has shadowed my career ever since. Some of my first BBC programme notes were on his music. My first pre-concert talk was at the Barbican, on the occasion of the UK premiere of his Eighth Symphony, a sort of eco-aware Pastoral Symphony on the subject of loss and environmental destruction. The Eighth is a work before its time in some ways, although in Penderecki’s hands one human catastrophe was much the same as any other. It is one of his better late works, I believe, but there’s little in the music that distinguishes its themes from many other pieces of his.

Yesterday, as I thought about it for the first time in a while, Penderecki’s music felt very distant from me. I clicked through some tracks on Spotify to add to my Twitter response: surely a composer so preoccupied with death would have something appropriate to say at this point? The best I could come up with was the Lacrimosa from the patchy, but occasionally inspired Polish Requiem.

I think part of the problem is the morbidity of Penderecki’s music. Those deep, mumbling choirs, portentous cries and clanging gongs, tearing strings, and lamenting, descending chromaticisms, leave no room for redemption and light (even in the St Luke Passion, where salvation is supposedly the driving force of the entire work). The sonic and emotional spaces of Penderecki’s music always seem to be collapsing inwards and downwards. It is, when it is at its best – in Threnody, the Dies Irae, Utrenja, and the First Symphony – powerful stuff; some of the most emo music in the classical canon. But it is not suited to all times: the death of its composer apparently one of them; the unfolding Covid-19 crisis perhaps another.

I wonder what piece Penderecki would have written about all this, in a year or two’s time, had he had the chance to? No doubt he would have done: he was never afraid to tackle a big subject. Listening to his music now, though, as I am, it feels just a little close to the bone; and also, missing the curious mix of anxiety, passivity, intimacy and remoteness that seems to characterise the Covid-19 experience (for those of us fortunate enough to have so far avoided its worst effects). What we crave are open spaces not infected air and indoor surfaces; whispers and closeness not shouts across the void. Penderecki’s music spoke to and of a particular time. But maybe not this one.

Incidentally, Keith Potter was my supervisor for that PhD. I am proud to see that he was also the Guardian‘s chosen obituary writer for this occasion.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Penderecki

Canterbury Cathedral

The Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989 were about culture as much as politics. Penderecki, Poland’s musical memorialist, played his part in the 1980s, but it is still the cult success of his St Luke Passion of 1966 that exemplifies his knack of combining religious awe, musical freedom and political stridency. This giant oratorio has become a much rarer bird since its first performance in Münster and this revival, conducted by the composer in the sort of space for which it was first written, attracted a capacity audience to Canterbury.

It was not without risk, however. St Luke’s eclectic mix of pseudo-chant and avant-gardist noise has long attracted controversy, its religious fervour can seem anachronistic, and the pacing suffers badly in slow, indulgent performances. Which way would Penderecki’s conducting instincts pull him? Within moments the prospects were good, as the Polish orchestra unleashed an overwhelming, almost profanely sensual bass. Their sonorous power did not waver until the shattering E major conclusion 90 minutes later. They were matched in commitment by the combined choirs and, in particular, Jerzy Trela, whose spoken Evangelist was easily the most heated I’ve heard.

Has St Luke stood the test of time? Its dissident impact is now irrelevant and its religious symbolism seems crude. But although it was an important precursor to the late 20th century’s revival of large-scale religious compositions – from Górecki to Golijov – it is mercifully free of cheap platitudes. It is a deeply flawed piece, but this performance was the most convincing argument in its favour one could imagine.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 2

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m going to be revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

The second of my weekly playlists was a real monster when I first posted it in 2012. After updating it this week it has more than doubled in length, to a whopping 63 hours.

This is Mode Records‘ ongoing Complete John Cage Edition, which now extends to more than 50 volumes. Not everything in that series is in the following playlist – some volumes have been released on vinyl only, or as DVDs – but the list is currently as comprehensive as it can be.

Now, much as I love Cage’s music, I don’t expect anyone to listen to this list in its entirety. Rather, I place it here as a testament to Mode’s remarkable achievement in sustaining this edition. Think of this playlist as a sampler, and a reason to buy the original recordings from Mode themselves.

This is also a good time to mention that Mode – who have been releasing exemplary recordings of new music for thirty-five years – are in desperate need of funds in order to continue. You can find their fundraising page here. The good news is that if they reach their target of $9,500 dollars, this will be matched with a further $10,000 by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation. The bad news is that this total must be reached by the end of March, just a few days from now. However, they are less than $2,000 dollars short of this target, so please give generously if you can. With new music already so stretched in the current climate, it would be wonderful if we could save something too.

 

ICE and Music on the Rebound to present Pauline Oliveros’s The World Wide Tuning Meditation

The following press release just landed in my inbox. This looks like a terrific idea – I might see you there – and I’m pasting it here without addition:

International Contemporary Ensemble and Music on the Rebound
Present Pauline Oliveros’ The World Wide Tuning Meditation
Hosted by Ione and Claire Chase

Live on Saturday, March 28, April 4, 11, and 18 at 5pm EDT 

Tune via Zoom. No music experience necessary.

www.iceorg.org

New York, NY (March 25, 2020) — On four Saturdays – March 28, April 4, 11, and 18, 2020 at 5pm EDT – the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Music on the Rebound present The World Wide Tuning Meditation. Ione and Claire Chase lead a global performance of the late Pauline Oliveros’ The Tuning Meditation, a sonic gathering with a legacy of bringing communities together through meditative singing. Anyone from anywhere in the world is invited to join in via Zoom to sing together from their personal phone or computer. No music experience is necessary.

Oliveros’ The Tuning Meditation consists of four steps:

  1. Begin by taking a deep breath and letting it all the way out with air sound. Listen with your mind’s ear for a tone.
  2. On the next breath using any vowel sound, sing the tone that you have silently perceived on one comfortable breath. Listen to the whole field of sound the group is making.
  3. Select a voice distant from you and tune as exactly as possible to the tone you are hearing from that voice. Listen again to the whole field of sound the group is making.
  4. Contribute by singing a new tone that no one else is singing. Continue by listening then singing a tone of your own or tuning to the tone of another voice alternately.

Claire Chase says, “I remember with deep admiration how Pauline handled the devastating moments after 9/11, immediately calling on artists to come together, to create renewed kinds of community, and to make music more purposefully and more generously than ever. In these confusing moments over the past weeks as we have found our lives and work upended by the public health crisis, many of us have again turned to Pauline, and even though she is no longer physically with us, her music, practice, and the ever-widening spaces of inclusivity and listening that she engendered in her lifetime are very much with us. The Tuning Meditation is perhaps her most inclusive composition, as it invites any number of humans to listen and sound with one another over any distance, and I can think of no greater salve for our souls right now than the gathering of a thousand self-isolated people to share in music making across all kinds of real and imagined borders. I am so grateful to my colleagues at ICE, to Raquel Klein and Rebound, and to IONE and Pauline for their extraordinary collaboration in this. As Pauline always used to say, ‘Collaboration is a community of effort.’ When there are so many forces at play to divide us right now, we need every effort to stay together, in all of our complexity and all of our beautiful difference, in all of our suffering and all of our hope.”

Of the project, Ione says, “‘Call it listening out loud.” Pauline said once about The Tuning Meditation. I listened as the 500 members of the audience at St John’s Cathedral, Smith’s Square in London received comfort from their own rising sounds after hearing Pauline’s simple instructions. She stood at the front of the vast crowd, hands clasped, head slightly bowed, listening. It was June of 2016 and the news of the positive Brexit vote had just stunned an enormous number of British citizens. A sense of extraordinary community was palpable in the room as the singing concluded. Pauline, very aware of a political climate that might shock and separate us, intended to present The World Wide Tuning Meditation again to meet upcoming new challenges. I am so grateful to Claire Chase, Raquel Klein of Music on the Rebound, and Ross Karre and Bridgid Bergin of the International Contemporary Ensemble who are bringing Pauline’s score to us again in its worldwide form. It has the effect of a healing balm to unite us as one community.”

Music on the Rebound is an online, interactive music festival designed to bring people together and support performing artists affected by the COVID-19 crisis, streaming March 25-30, 2020 featuring music across genres from esteemed artists such as Claire Chase, Paola Prestini, Ganavya Doraiswamy, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and more. Donations will go directly to the artists featured in the video or to an emergency arts fund. New concerts are released at 7:30pm EDT each day of the festival.  

Program Information
The World Wide Tuning Meditation
Saturday, March 28, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 4, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 11, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 18, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Tickets:
Free. RSVP Here to receive Zoom call-in information.
Information Link: https://www.musicrebound.com/pauline-oliveros-tuning-meditation

Performers and Administration:
Raquel Acevedo Klein – Music on the Rebound Festival Organizer
Ione – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Bridgid Bergin – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Larry Blumenfeld – Advisor, interviewer
​Claire Chase – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Boo Froebel – Producing Advisor
​Ross Karre – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
​Erica Zielinski – Producing Advisor
​International Contemporary Ensemble – Host, Tuning Meditation

Social Media: 
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/musicontherebound/
Hashtags – #musicrebound #reboundrecover

Isolation Chamber: Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real

Circumstances change how we hear things. Our ears, connected to our minds, connected to our bodies, moving through the air, touching and being touched, penetrating and distancing, hear differently in different situations.

This was clear to me today as I listened to Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (1990), the first in a series of weekly free downloads offered up by Cologne’s Ensemble Musikfabrik to help us all through the Long Distancing of 2020. The late afternoon sun streaked through my open window; my children were playing in their bedroom: their laughter, through my study doorway to my right, mixed with birdsong, traffic noise – still – and the occasional train to my left. In between, from my desk, Lucier’s distillation of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, played by pianist Ulrich Löffler.

This charmingly, disarmingly simple piece is one of my favourite of all Lucier’s works. It is, like so much of his work, a piece about resonance and location, space and sound; its relationship to Chambers (1968) and I am Sitting in a Room (1969) is clear, but Lucier makes two capricious tweaks in Nothing Is Real to the analytical stance of these pieces. The first is the already mentioned use of John Lennon’s melody for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, attenuated by Lucier into a series of slow, monodic phrases that hover on the edge of abstraction, rather like the semi-disjointed sentences of I am Sitting in a Room. It is a credit to Lennon’s songwriting (and no doubt one reason for Lucier’s selection) that despite this rarefied state, the original song, with all its baroque psychedeliary, is present in our minds too.

The second is a humorous, theatrical gesture that is nevertheless what makes this unmistakably a Lucier piece: the addition of a china teapot into which a miniature playback device is inserted. For the first half of the piece this records the solo piano music; for the second, it plays it back, from inside the teapot, like a mystic genie, or the tannin remains of an afternoon with cake and crumpets: an image that Lennon himself would surely have enjoyed. By opening and closing the lid, the pianist can create roars and whispers and entirely new tunes out of the overtones, seemingly by magic. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is reconstructed across an entirely new, yet strangely sympathetic sonic landscape.

I am waiting for the official confirmation letter from my GP, but today I begin twelve weeks as one of the 1.5 million of the UK’s most vulnerable individuals. Twelve weeks during which I am advised not to leave my house except where absolutely essential. I’ve felt this or something like it coming for some time now, and I’ve been pre-empting the government’s advice for ten days already, since I left hospital last Friday. Until now I’ve permitted myself trips outside to run or cycle, along the Thames path only, avoiding all contact, but now it seems even these are to be avoided. I have been acclimatising myself to the new chamber that is my house: how I move through it, what I touch and don’t touch, how I connect with members of my family and the world outside, how I construct a temporary, new version of me. In these circumstances, Lucier’s piece acquires an entirely new and unforeseen set of resonances.

Playlists for the Long Distancing

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m going to be revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

Love and art are what will get us through, so keep your families close, and use the time to listen to some great music.

To start with, a run-down of playlists made to mark International Women’s Day between 2011 and 2018. I hope that you find some things you like.

2011: Music by Lockwood, Rehnqvist, Weir, Tian, Neuwirth and more

Original post about this list is here.

2012: Music by Chambers, Monk, Lim, Berberian, Bång and more

Original post about this list is here.

2013: Music by Lockwood, Weir, Mamlok, Jugend, Hodkinson and more

Original post about this list is here.

2014: Music by Amacher, Spiegel, Canat de Chizy, Z, Fullman and more

Original post about this list is here.

2015: Music by Payne, Rylan, Mundry, Polli, Westerkamp and more

Original post about this list is here.

2016: No list for this year. (Sorry.)

2017: Music by Oliveros, Z, Ali-Zadeh, Walshe, León and more

Original post about this list is here.

2018: Music by Iannotta, Pritchard, Joyce, Norman, Gísladóttir and more

Original post about this list is here.

Sparrows in the hedge

The most striking things I heard today were the sparrows. Most of them live in the hedge at the end of our garden, where it backs onto the railway, but there are some under the eaves where our house joins our neighbours’. Last year there were two broods born in the hedge, and this year around fifteen birds are flitting above, or dotting the hedge’s new, highest shoots like pricks on manuscript paper.

We’re south of the river here, so these aren’t the cockney sparrows of folk sayings. These are more like midweek teenagers, throwing chips by the bus stop and teasing each other to try their luck in the off license. They hang out in gangs, drawn together by nothing more than accidents of birth. A robin has tried to make his territory here – on the fat balls, the greedy bugger – and I can’t always tell who has the upper hand, he or they.

When I went out mid-morning today I was hit by a wall of noise. Every sparrow, chirping at once. Not the usual rising and falling, filigree counterpoint of spring birdsong, but a sheet of sound, rectangular and opaque. It would all stop at once, then start again. In between they span around the air just above the garden, sounds like shards. There’s something about the spatialisation of birdsong, how it draws your mind out of your skull and stretches it across the sky. We’re used to placing sounds or sound-making objects within our field of vision: when a noise startles us we immediately turn to where it is. Sounds behind us or to the side act very differently. Set up a noise, like boiling a kettle, then turn your back on it and feel the hairs rise. It speaks to a primal need to be connected, sonically, to space in some way – the need of a hunter and a prey. And it seems to do us good to use those skills and to touch those feelings from time to time.

One last thing: a starling, stood in the gutter, squawking like a parakeet.

Sent to hospital – by Symkevi!

[NB this post was begun around ten days ago, while I was still in hospital. I’m out now, and have been for a few days. I haven’t bothered to change the tenses though.]

I’m back in hospital. I’ve got an IV line in my arm, a ventilation machine by my bed and an antibiotic drip that comes round three times a day. I’m supervised by physios, dieticians, nurses, doctors and pharmacists. When I get out, I’ll have been here a week and half, and then there’ll be few more days at home with the antibiotics.

Yet my position isn’t as bad as it sounds. Normally when I’ve been here I’ve been ill – chest infections catching up on me, that sort of thing. This time I’m here because I’m doing quite well. The treatment is much the same, though, like a modern-day version of that scene with the doctor in Blackadder 2: leeches for everything.

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The author (r)

Two months ago I started on a new CF drug called Symkevi, a relative of Orkambi, which was approved for use on the NHS last October after a long campaign by the CF Trust, MPs (in particular Ian Austin and Sarah Wollaston), and CF patients and parents. The day of the news was one of huge celebration. Unexpectedly, I was in Ibiza when I heard the news. Away from Pixar films I don’t cry much, as a rule, but I did that day. A lot.

With several thousand eligible CF patients in England in the line to start the drug, rollout of Symkevi was slow and steady. (According to Twitter some cystics are still not through the process.) I started on 21 January. The medication arrived at my door the day before, and I unboxed it with the same sense of wonder and excitement I used to get tearing the cellophane wrappers off CDs on the tube home from teenage trips to Soho record shops. I played with the clever cardboard packaging. I took in the design. I read every word on the box. I took the first tablet at 9am the next day – sunshine yellow for the morning dose, cool blue for the evening – with awe and trepidation. To be granted something that you have desired for so long; into which thousands of people have invested money, time, brilliance, ingenuity and real blood; that your loved ones hope and believe will transform you; and that you cannot be sure will even work. All the while, scrutinizing everything your body is doing, to an information-warping degree.

The response from my body was almost immediate. Hours after that first tablet I had a spell of dizziness and nausea just as I set out to collect my son from school. Strange, I thought. Did Peter Parker feel the same thing when the radioactive spider DNA started to work through his body? In the following days, the headaches began, and a general sense that I was coming down with something. My cough got worse, and more productive. Over the first weekend I had to cancel appointments, including a Riot Ensemble Trustees meeting, because I felt so washed out. Yet I wasn’t worried. I knew that this was all relatively normal. Symkevi works on such a fundamental, cellular level that it inevitably comes with a range of side effects, from headaches to insomnia to bowel trouble to liver function. What I was experiencing was normal.

I drew great strength from the online CF community. One of the upsides of so many of us starting on the same drug at roughly the same time is that people were reporting their symptoms and side effects on a daily basis, sharing tips and advice. Was what I was feeling normal? A few minutes on Twitter confirmed that yes, it was. As I went through those first days, I took great encouragement from things like @NormalLife’s Symkevi diary of his first week on the drug. I empathised with Kate Eveling’s anxieties. I scoured the #symkevi hashtag for every snippet of information or perspective I could find as though it was the morning after seeing a life-changing gig.

After that first weekend, the side effects calmed down a lot. I had a few days when I felt really good. The headaches and the productive cough were still there, but in between I felt better than usual. It felt like the last day of a heavy cold: when you’re not out of the woods, but you can feel the virus leaving you. I went back to my Couch to 5K programme. After a winter away from running I started back at the beginning, but I was excited to see what difference Symkevi was making to my aerobic fitness. In the event, I felt almost no different. Hard to tell any effect at all; but I was so out of shape anyway, I told myself, maybe that was asking too much.

Gradually, though, I became less and less aware of any benefits to Symkevi at all. After three weeks I was still feeling under the weather, and I’d picked up a mild cold as well, which wasn’t helping. Nevertheless, I went to my regular clinic appointment on 18 February – my first since starting Symkevi – in an optimistic frame of mind. Even before I’d started I’d posted an unusually good lung function result (64% of expected FEV1), and I had good hopes for improving on that, or at least maintaining that high. When I was weighed and was found to have put on an unprecedented 4 kilos since December, a mad part of me even saw 70% as a possibility just over the horizon, somewhere I’ve not been since my early 20s.

What I wasn’t prepared for was a drop. Certainly not a big one. Of three tests, the best I could blow was a measly 55%. My overall lung capacity also fell off a cliff, from 88% expected in December to 65%. These were numbers that would ring alarm bells, I felt sure. I waited for my consultant with dread.

I love Dr J. I have had several consultants in my time at the Brompton, and he is one of a few I trust absolutely. This is important. When I explained my disappointment he wasn’t fazed, and I was enormously reassured. (Three weeks later and I am still drawing on his reaction.) It’s not unusual, he said, for people’s lung functions to dip after starting Symkevi. Really? I thought.  No one is talking about this on Twitter. Everything there is sunshine and light and 10% bumps in lung function. Yep. Because the way Symkevi works is that it loosens all the mucous that is stuck to your airway walls. In my case, there is a lot of it, and it is sticky. It’s attached to my airways like concrete render, with such a tenacity that you almost don’t notice it having an effect at all. (At least superficially.) What Symkevi has done, in my understanding, is take a jackhammer to all that render, and now it’s swilling around all over the place, getting in the way. Hence the increased level of obstruction showing up on my spirometry.

Lung function is not the only measure we can use, said Dr J. It’s not even the most important one – which was news to me! He pulled up the x-ray I had had done that afternoon. For the first time in a very long time, it showed noticeable improvements. Even my untrained eye could see: the right upper lobe was markedly clearer, and overall there was a sense that the thick spidery whiteness that covered the rest of the picture was a layer or two thinner. This was very encouraging.

So, said Dr J., how about we bring you in for a few days? Since the Symkevi is doing its job loosening everything in your airways, how about you come onto the ward for some intensive physio, to make the most of this moment? OK, I said, I see the logic. Presumably I won’t need an IV while I’m there? Oh no, we’ll put a line in anyway. Might as well get some antibiotics in you as well, to help the effort. But I’ll be able to come home? Yes, after a few days.

And that is why I’m back, on Foulis Ward, surrounded by equipment. Symkevi is working well: let’s step on the accelerator and give it all we can.

Always on brand

Update since drafting the above: I’m now back home. I came back in a taxi on Friday, four days ago, scrunching an alcohol wipe in my hands all the way. Being in hospital while the coronavirus outbreak spread everywhere outside was frightening. But I’m home, I’m staying home, and I feel relatively safe. I feel lucky in a way: a week later, and I would have been terrified to make that journey. And at least this way I’ve been put into the best possible shape for whatever there is to come. I’m going to be home for the next few weeks at least with lots more time to write. For the time being, this blog may become as much a diary of that time as it is a place for me to share thoughts on contemporary music. No doubt it will be a bit of both, and me being me they will leach into one another anyway.

Take care everyone, and speak to you soon.