Context in music is incredibly important. It might seem like an obvious and odd statement to make when opening a blog post but it’s true and worth remembering. The intention, the subject matter, the inspiration are all vital components when experiencing music and allowing it to affect you. For example, the likes of David Guetta make music for people to dance to, to jump up and down and have carefree fun to. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect to be played during a funeral or mass and doing so would feel incongruous to the artist’s intentions.
We mention this as while listening to the new Oh Wonder song today we found ourselves profoundly moved. In isolation “White Blood” is a beautiful and elegantly simple track that entrances the listener. Listening with knowledge of the context of its origin and inspiration is something else entirely.
As explained by the band, this is the context:
”Earlier this year we had the pleasure of meeting Steven and Wendi, our fans – and now friends, from the US. They are both remarkable people – generous, warm-hearted and so spirited. Steven is a doctoral student at MIT, and after a voluntary academic scan he discovered a baseball-sized cancerous brain tumour, which was successfully removed after a 10-hour awake brain surgery. We are humbled to have collaborated with Steven on the artwork for our forthcoming single, ‘White Blood’. The image is a very zoomed-in image of part of his brain tumour, photographed under a microscope by the man himself!
We wrote ‘White Blood’ to explore the idea of needing immunity from disease, sadness, hopelessness or fear, not only in the physical form of white blood cells, but also with simple human love and support. This song is for you, Steven and Wendi, and for anyone else out there that is dealing with difficult physical or mental health circumstances. We are all here for each other.”
Having read that statement, we pressed play and were immediately lost. Lost in emotion, in a heady world of pain, anguish, heartache, hope, despair and love. There were goosebumps, there were tears and we were quite literally rendered motionless as we just sat and listened. Then we listened again, and again. Not once did the feeling diminish, not once did our eyes cease to wobble as we sought to hold back the trickle down our cheek.
The spaces in the piano arrangement are as potent as the notes themselves, the lyrics evocative and heartfelt. The feelings within us rise as the soft vocals reach out like a hand to be held, and then there is the echo. That quiet wave beneath the surface that sounds like a shell held to the ear, a sound that would usually provide happy memories of childhood games and summer on the beach. Here though context takes us on a different journey and that echo sounds instead like something clinical, like mechanical ventilation and those feelings that were on the rise overflow in a torrent.
We’ve spoken before, a number of times, about the power of music, about its capacity to change and affect your state of mind and outlook on life, but we’ve been quiet about the importance of context. Sometimes though, context is everything and right now, alongside this remarkably emotive and powerful song from two incredible songwriters, it has brought us to our knees.
Artwork photo credit: Steven Keating, Dr. Choi-Fong Cho, and Dr. Sean Lawler. Surgery completed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.