The Listening Post

The Listening Post


Creative Director, #ConcertLab

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. So said Frank Zappa once upon a time - or it might have been Elvis Costello, or Martin Mull. No one seems able to decide now, but it doesn’t matter too much: the gist is, music can’t really be simplified into mere words. It’s about emotions, feelings, personal stories, memories and hugely complex, nigh-on intangible reactions. It just doesn’t translate. 

Only, that might not be quite right. And before you click the back button, thinking this to be a dull defence of music critics or musicologists, the real protagonists here are those from whom the music comes from; the magical few among us whose brains create the notes and rhythms and harmonies. 

For hundreds of years, words have been crucial in developing the music that surrounds us today. As tempting as it might be to imagine the genius composer sitting alone, single-handedly plucking our favourite pieces out of thin air, the reality is that - like anything tricky in life - it takes a huge amount of time, effort, support and communication. 

In the case of Ralph Vaughan Williams, over 5000 of his letters survive today. Amazingly, they’re available to browse online, the composer’s scrawled handwriting having been deciphered into legible text.

A thank you letter from Vaughan Williams to Gustav Holst

Granted, a very good proportion of those letters centre around mundane logistics, just like the emails we all send today around about arranging meetings (or sending that great YouTube link / GIF / suggestion for lunch). But in amongst them are some real, real gems that show composers certainly aren’t afraid to write about their music, or that of their friends. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without writing about music, we’d have a lot less of it today - and it would be a whole lot less interesting. 

That’s what our upcoming #ConcertLab project at The Postal Museum explores: the role of the humble letter in shaping the music and lives of composers, starting with Vaughan Williams and his circle of friends.

Southbank Sinfonia violinist Vanessa Chan performs some Vaughan Williams at Mail Rail 

Amongst them we have Gustav Holst, the life-long ally whose words and ideas probably had the greatest role in shaping the music of Vaughan Williams (and vice versa). The two met at college in London, and would at first share ideas and feedback on each other’s music in a Kensington tea shop. When the real world beckoned and the need for a job pulled them apart geographically, their chats swapped to letters, and their written words of criticism, support and philosophical debate shaped their entire way of working. Without them writing about music, I don’t think we’d have The Planets or The London Symphony or any of their other much-loved masterpieces, or at the very least not in anything like the same form. 

There’s also Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy, who enter the scene many years later as students of Vaughan Williams. (Both Grace and Betty, by the way, are composers well worth getting to know better. History has cruelly sidelined them, but RVW was far ahead of his time in championing two female talents he felt were among the best of the next generation). Again, classroom teaching swaps to nuggets of advice and suggestions via letters - influencing everything from the instruments they picked to write for, to motivating young artists to keep on persevering. 

And it’s not just words directly about the music that are fascinating. This archive of letters shows lives evolving, relationships intertwining then drifting apart, careers made and broken, and a social history of the first half of the 20th century unfurling. All this shaped the sound of British music; now we get to hear these composers' works framed by the lives that created them.

What’s hugely exciting about The Listening Post is where it’s taking place. For much of the last century, a little-known underground railway was the beating heart of London’s postal service. Running for 6.5 miles under the capital’s streets, a labyrinth of tunnels helped ferry letters from sorting office to sorting office. It opened in 1927, meaning it’s almost certain that a number of the letters Vaughan Williams and co. were sending would have reached their addressee via this network. Mail Rail - indeed everyone involved in the Royal Mail, and its predecessors over the centuries - has played a crucial, unsung role in shaping the world’s soundtrack.

Post being loaded on to a Mail Rail train in 1927 (Credit: The Postal Museum)

Today, under Mount Pleasant Sorting Office remains the old engineering depot where the miniature trains of Mail Rail were maintained. Tracks run across the floor and intriguing-looking industrial equipment still adorns the walls, heavily worn from decades of service. This will be the first concert held in the space, happily now given a new lease of life by The Postal Museum, its vaulted brick ceiling promising an incredible, cathedral-like acoustic. 

As well as a theatrical concert experience that’ll feature actors including double Olivier Award-winner Henry Goodman and Southbank Sinfonia’s musicians, you’ll also have after-hours access to the Mail Rail exhibition and see how the postal railway evolved over the years, drink in hand from the pop-up bar. 

And while you’re there soaking in the industrial architecture of one of London’s secret spaces, maybe it’s worth having a quick boogie. Perhaps that’ll prove as compelling, vital and - I’ve no shame in admitting it - straight-up cool as writing about music.

Find out more about #ConcertLab: The Listening Post here
Find out more about Matt here