Once in a while, you come across an artist whose work, in whatever field that happens to be, resonates in a way that goes beyond simple liking. So it was for me recently, when I came across Icelandic jazz pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs. But although music – or any art - can have a profound effect on us, attempting to rationalise why we respond to certain music in the way that we do probably isn’t a particularly useful thing to do. Even if we get to an answer, it’s unlikely to be ‘true’ in any meaningful way – just a made-up theoretical rationalisation - and anyway, even if I do manage to come up with an explanation, so what?
Nevertheless, the question still bugs me. The penalty, I suppose, of having once been a scientist, of having a mind that habitually looks under the surface for explanations of things. Plus this particular response is rather special. More than just liking – this music seems to speak a language I naturally understand. It’s the kind of music I’d like to think I’d create, if only I were that good. Which obviously I’m not.
It was Steve Lawson who introduced me to Sunna’s music, via Twitter. Steve is a tireless ambassador for other people’s music; by his own admission this publicising almost certainly leads to more sales of others’ music than of his own. I’ve learned to trust Steve’s recommendations - they’re always worth listening to. (Which isn’t to say I’d always rush out and buy them. But even the weird stuff - of which, if judged by conventional attitudes, there is plenty - is good weird stuff!) So without knowing what to expect, except that it would be interesting, I clicked the link in Steve’s tweet.
Half way through listening to the title track of ‘The Dream’ for the first time, I knew I was going to buy the album. No question. Even at that very first hearing, it made sense.
That might seem an odd thing to say about a piece of music. What stood out wasn’t that I liked the tune or the motifs (which I did), or admired the musicians (which I also did) or enjoyed the soundscape (yep, that as well), but that it made sense. The musical ideas develop and flow in a way that just seems ‘right’ and therefore deeply satisfying. The harmonic movement, the way the instrumental lines weave together, the pace, all feel natural – there’s plenty going on, yet I don’t have to struggle to keep up. The multi-layered patterns in the music seem in some way to match patterns in my brain.
Overall, the effect on me – and this is of course a very personal response – is invariably energising, buoyant; this is music to listen to when I need a lift. It’s not that it’s superficially happy, but it seems to have a deep optimism. I’d like to think that’s Sunna’s personality showing through. In some mystical, magical way I come away feeling a boost in confidence. In a word, I feel more centred, as though part of me is finding self-expression simply through listening. Curiously, the only other piece of music I can think of which has quite this effect in such a personal way is one which has a lot in common with Sunna’s music. That’s ‘Little People’, from Gwilym Simcock’s ‘Blues Vignette’ album.
The scientist in me would love to know what’s going on in my head as I listen. It’s a very active form of listening; this music messes with my brain – in a good way. I wonder if it is making neural connections that somehow mirror the neural patterns of those positive feelings?
In the end though, all the rationalising in the world dissolves into nothing once the music takes flight. Never mind the whys and wherefores – I’m simply grateful that Sunna’s music is. And I have a strong sense that so far we’ve only had an introduction, an aperitif. There’s a whole banquet yet to come.
Especially resonant tracks for me:
A Garden Someday