On weekend nights in the early-80s, we would walk down the street to an Irish pub. A long, rectangular shaped place, musicians would be seated halfway down one side; the ballads and airs and reels were heard with the utmost attentiveness by those gathered. The fiddler, who one moment was laughing and joking with friends while drinking his glass of stout, became transformed by the sounds he played, suddenly lifted out of time and space to somewhere different, somewhere that was not Manchester on a wet weekend in wintertime.
The music transfigured those who played and those who listened. Men with faces lined from years working on the roads, men from scattered townlands far from Dublin who had left behind first loves to travel to England in search of a living, became inscrutable, silently deep characters whose expressions told of stories and histories passed through the generations.
Dermot Bolger’s “Tuning Up” captures the moment when musicians are transformed:
In kitchens and pub corners and concert halls
Musicians gather. They open instrument cases,
Tune up, exchange greetings, gossip and jibes
Until, gradually, the noise of everyday life ceases.
At some unspoken moment they become someone other
Than who they were when walking through the doors.
The seconds in which the transformation takes place are ones in which a silent agreement between the performers and the listeners is reached; when both concur that they are about to move from everyday life to something different.
In Dermot Bolger’s description there is a moment to which every performer must aspire: the suspension of reality, the putting aside of all the stuff people carry with them. The music does not work if it becomes no more than aural wallpaper; the actor’s lines fall flat if the audience are not present with him there in the room; the poet becomes no more than a person standing on a stage reading words if those words are not heard with meaning.
Bolger’s moment is found in places far removed from pubs and theatres. The powerful role sporting events play depends on spectators assigning to their favourites roles far more significant than just participants in a game: the joy and the despondency the ecstasy and the violence are irrational to onlookers in the outside world, but silences and songs and anthems transform players from athletes to warriors, personal champions locked in mortal combat.
In times past and now all but lost, the church could capture such a sense of the moment being different, of those present being other. Now we seem to have no more power to transform a moment than has a bag of chips with salt and vinegar on the Oxford Road on a Saturday night.