In 1943, John Culshaw – a young radar instructor and later a classical music producer – played a recording of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony to a bunch of RAF cadets on the island of Trinidad. When he gathered their feedback, their dominant reaction was a powerful feeling of nostalgia. But what were this bunch of 19-year-olds nostalgic about?
The music was unfamiliar and had been written in 1907, and none of them had a personal connection to Russia. Yet somehow, the melodies and orchestration evoked in them a yearning for a past they had never personally experienced. Like the overwhelming sense of déjà vu you sometimes get visiting a place you categorically know you've never been before, the neurological impact of the music was to stimulate a collective false memory.
Rachmaninoff's ability to predictably trigger certain emotional responses has led to his music being dismissed as overly sentimental. In Grove's 'Dictionary of Music' from 1954, the 2nd Symphony was disparaged as being 'artificial and gushing,' but we now understand that an audience's reaction to it is more about biochemistry than musical snobbery. In fact, there are countless other famous examples of music conjuring what philosopher Immanuel Kant called the sublime – where a piece of art evokes a consistent and objective emotional response that goes well beyond any subjective appreciation of the thing itself.
One area where we now have extensive scientific research on the link between music and the brain is the role music plays in encoding memories, particularly in the developing brains of teenagers. Like some sonic Proustian madeleine, the thumping bass line of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Relax' predictably transports me to a Thursday-night youth club at Renfrew High School in the early 80s. If I close my eyes, I have a vivid multi-sensory immersion experience, complete with the smell of disinfected linoleum, visions of scuffed brown walls illuminated by low-power disco lights, and a distant echo of the anxiety I felt asking a girl to dance who was clearly above my social caste.
This research also provides hard evidence for the standard intergenerational whine that music isn't as good as it used to be. Researchers at the University of Leeds have shown that, between the ages of 12 and 22, during 'the emergence of a stable and enduring self,' hormone-driven neurochemical reactions hard-wire music to emotional memories in a way that doesn't happen when the brain is fully developed. These musical tags become part of the durable and emotion-centric implicit memory system that lies outside our consciousness, rather than our more transient explicit memories.
So, as teenagers, events with high emotional content (both positive and negative) get permanently tattooed into our memory, and music often provides a tightly-coupled soundtrack. This musical annotation is now being deployed to treat Alzheimer's and dementia patients, as familiar songs from their youth can provide memory anchors for those cast adrift on the sea of their own lives.
While most of the academic research focuses on the link between music and memory, I've recently been experiencing an interesting variant that involves an imagined present rather than a reconstructed past. I've written before in these pages about my love of The Blue Nile, a passion firmly rooted in the band's ability to evoke the Glasgow of my teenage years. Even now, I only need to hear the opening bars of 'Tinseltown In the Rain' to be transported to Byres Road circa 1986.
One day about a month ago, some work procrastination led me to pull on a YouTube recommendation thread, and I found myself listening to a cover version of The Blue Nile's 'Downtown Lights' by Blue Rose Code, a Scottish band I'd only vaguely heard of. Having lived in exile in America for the best part of 15 years, my window onto the Scottish music scene is limited to friends' Facebook posts or the occasional artist that blows up to the point where they make it to the pages of Rolling Stone.
What followed over the next few weeks was me disappearing down a Blue Rose Code rabbit hole – obsessively listening to everything I could find on iTunes and YouTube, ordering a bunch of CDs from Amazon (I still don't fully trust the Cloud with my musical crown jewels), and joining a private fan group on Facebook to dig a little deeper. It's been a long time since I've had this type of musical crush, and just like any sort of infatuation, it feels slightly embarrassing. But with a little reflection, I've recognised that I'm just like those RAF cadets in Trinidad, with my neurological buttons being pressed in just the right order to engage me in ways that I didn't understand at first.
Blue Rose Code is in fact just a vehicle for Ross Wilson, a Scottish singer-songwriter who surrounds himself with an evolving troupe of supporting musicians and collaborators, and who has been favourably compared to both Van Morrison and John Martyn. The music itself is eclectic, spanning a whole series of genres from steel guitar-inflected folk and country, through jazzy instrumentals to straight-forward pop. But somehow, despite the genre hopping, it all still feels distinctively Scottish, in no small part due to Ross's rich tenor. It's a warm lived-in voice, filled with aching emotional honesty, and he uses it to breathe life into his self-described 'Celtic lullabies and Caledonian Soul.'
Having listened compulsively over the last month, the arc of Ross's music tells the often raw and emotional story of a journey, from a tough childhood in Edinburgh to struggles with drugs and alcoholism in London, through rehab, the break-up of his marriage, and now a return to Scotland with a more optimistic view of the future. Beyond his authenticity and musicality, I've also realised that part of my emotional connection is that Ross's voice and story summons vivid memories of a long-dead close friend who took his own life after returning to Scotland and struggling with depression.
While all the albums have their high points, Ross has clearly matured musically and lyrically to the point where his latest, 'The Water of Leith,' has multiple moments that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up (and I'm clearly not alone as it was nominated for Scottish Album of the Year). The clear highlight for me is 'To The Shore,' which transitions from an nine-minute piano/bass/trumpet instrumental into a cinematic string-driven epic that combines both a physical and emotional homecoming to Edinburgh, underpinned throughout by the throbbing of a human heartbeat. It's not technically complex music, but it's got an arresting directness and candour that has clearly got inside my head and pushed the right buttons.
I've also recognised that part of the attraction is the connection the music gives me to a Scotland I don't really know. It's ironic that Ross is shortly going out on tour with Deacon Blue, who like The Blue Nile, evoke in me a nostalgia for mid-80s Glasgow. In contrast, Blue Rose Code has been generating in me a yearning for the Scotland of the present. I'm very happy with my life in America and it's now my home, but I still miss Scotland, my friends, my family, and a culture that I still think of as my emotional home.
Although I get back to Scotland three or four times a year, it now often feels like I'm viewing the country through a keyhole, and that I've lost my instinctive feel for the ebb and flow of the culture. The alchemy of Ross's music is that it opens a door that gives me a more expansive view and a deeper understanding of Scotland through his eyes. Maybe it's the empathy with (or jealousy of) someone who left, and then returned, and can express what that means in beautiful words and music. But unlike the cadets Rachmaninoff bewitched in Trinidad, my connection feels highly personal and context specific. Despite being a passport-carrying American, I've never had this type of reaction to Billy Joel or Garth Brooks, and doubt I ever will.
I know like all crushes it will wear off with time, and I'll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. I'll drift from listening to Blue Rose Code obsessively, to regularly, to occasionally, and the music will eventually recede into the canon of 'the good stuff.' But for now, I'm still enjoying being deep in the rabbit hole and feeling a little bit more connected to Scotland through the artistry of Ross Wilson.
Click here for Blue Rose Code's version of 'To The Shore' (BBC Quay Sessions, 2017)