Motorways And Music

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station next to the A453 Remembrance Way. Photo by Crep171166, Wikimedia Commons (colour original).

By Kate Romano

It’s 4pm on a grey, rainy Thursday in November. I’m heading north, alone, on the M1, listening to Brahms’ 4th Symphony. As I drive, zipping under concrete arches, cantilevers and interchanges, Brahms’ symphony starts to do something extraordinary. The running quavers are a river of asphalt, sweeping us all – cars, vans, lorries – along the same trajectory into the foreboding night. Fanfares signal danger and triumph…overhead cables carry the sound of a million troubled voices along a crackling, fizzing highway of super-power…the eight gigantic cooling towers of Ratcliffe Power Station rise up like dystopian monsters. We are all cogs in a vast symphonic machine.

This happens every time I drive and especially on the motorway. Day or night, Brahms or Berio, Schnittke or Schumann…it doesn’t matter when or what I am listening to. Driving with music makes my imagination run wild…a waking dream in which a new quotidian fiction occurs. I hear things I have not heard before, I make new connections and I have strange ideas. In this semi-fictional state I’m somehow able to stay alert to the road whilst closing off the present and being ‘in the story’. It’s a potent phenomenon and one of the most liberating kinds of listening I know.

Are my trippy, cinematic adventures in the car simply the product of an overactive imagination? Or is this a modern, valid way of listening that might be useful to understand?

Motorways…mundane, in-between non-places. Stretching over the landscape like an urban welt, the motorway is the relationship between a here and a there. It has no edges or boundaries. We move within it in a small steel bubble (the car) experiencing a contradictory sensation of being sedentary (sitting driving) within a place that must involve constant movement in order to remain in it (the motorway). I love the anodyne, anonymous solitude of this ‘non-place’, and the illusion of being somewhere that is simultaneously tiny and intimate and part of a vast, global scheme.

For Margaret Morse, motorways (or freeways in her book An Ontology of Everyday Distraction) are ‘a loss of touch with the here and now’. Morse suggests that freeways facilitate a fluid exchange of unconnected – even incommensurable – facets of life in different dimensions. She cites language, images, and the built environment as examples. These unconnected things start to work together, she says, in a ‘liquid system of mutual reinforcement’, each benefitting from the others strengths. ‘In the time spent in-between’ she writes, ‘a miniature idyll with its own controlled climate and selected sounds is created’.

David Brodsly, author of LA Freeway, calls driving ‘detached involvement’ – an awareness of the outside environment mixed with an intensely private world within the interior of the car. He disagrees with New Yorker writer Christopher Rand who claims that driving on the freeway is ‘time lost’. It is not, says Brodsly, it is a scheduled opportunity to do nothing, like an urban form of meditation bookending each day.

So it seems plausible that the idea of listening to music, alone, in this ‘non-place’ could be a distinctive and unique experience. It’s not the same as listening alone in your house (a known place) and quite the opposite of a Concert Hall (a destination and a shared experience). House and Concert Hall might have beautiful, comfortable or familiar surroundings in which music is placed, but the motorway provides a setting of inertia and emptiness for music. Without a more conventional setting for music, our imagination is able to create spaces and places in which to put it, conjured up by the banality of the roadscape. It is this duality of environmental emptiness and imagination catalyzed by it that makes it so easy to slip into other-worldly spaces of the mind.

These are personal fantasies. Safe from communication with other people, my car-world sanctuary is a place to imagine and dream, uninhibited. The fantasy-worlds are powerful enough to be quite divorced from what I might already know about the music through performance, study or previous listening; at most, any existing knowledge is reduced to a hazy dream-like nod to its origins. Musical ideas leak from César Franck’s Violin Sonata and run beneath the surface of the road in a constant state of metamorphosis, bursting through the tarmac in the shape of orange light pools, glittering steel, sinuous distant trees…Britten’s Sea Interludes is huge pebbles dropped from bridges, each one causing centrifugal ripples across the vast radial network of motorway lanes and interchanges. Motorway-listening tells us far more about ourselves than about the music itself.

I was pleased to discover that it wasn’t just me that did this. You can find descriptions of the emotional component of driving and this kind of detached experience dating back to the 60s when motorways were first introduced. Complex relationships between drivers and cars were examined by Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who saw the car-plus-driver as cyborg figures – a conflation of car and person. In 1963, Roland Barthes recognised that it was ‘no longer the car’s forms and function that call forth human dreams but, rather, its handling, and before long, perhaps, we shall be writing not a mythology of the automobile but a mythology of driving’. Mimi Sheller has noted that feelings and emotions about driving are instinctual but also bodily and collective; they are not to be dismissed as the feelings of one person, ‘but have real substance and might have historical worth’.

It’s hard to explore these fleeting, ephemeral feelings. Motorway-listening only occurs whilst driving and the fantasies take place in the moment and quickly vanish. Early morning on the A1M in Bedfordshire, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a majestic paean-to-the-earth; it is the song that rises up through the wind turbines in the flat fields, their giant arms outstretched, slicing through low-hanging mists. But back in my study again, the wind turbine fantasy seems clumsy and foolish; Palestrina’s Mass has retuned to its status as a masterpiece, a sublime Renaissance marriage of words and music.

If wind turbines are new structures in old views, motorway-listening is old music in new horizons, ones that are created by the habits and routines of our daily lives. It’s an encounter that skirts around things we often find uncomfortable, asking us to value our sensitivity and intuition and open these up to explore ourselves. Perhaps most interestingly of all, motorway-listening is a shift away from history and iconography and towards the ears of the listener. Experiencing music in this way is an untrained faculty; spontaneous, accidental, spur-of-the-moment, thrilling. It democratises scholarly ideas about music by allowing it to seep into everyday life. How are we hearing? What do we hear? Might we hear differently? Motorway-listening transforms the idea of listening from that of a receptive vessel for music into an act that is constituted by everyday life itself.

Kate Romano is the CEO of Stapleford Granary. She is also a clarinettist, producer and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3.