Here’s a creative thought experiment for you:
Go to this page on the official Orbital website, scroll down and hit ‘play’ on the track ‘Halcyon + on + on’.
Listen to the music before you read the rest of this article. Once you’ve listened to it, stop and consider each of the questions in turn before you move on to the next one.
What did you think of that?
Obviously, your response will differ depending on whether you’re an Orbital fan, or whether you like techno, but just notice how the music sounds and what thoughts and feelings you get from it.
Now consider the word ‘Halcyon’. What does it mean to you? What associations does it have?
Have you heard of the drug Triazolam, marketed under the brand name Halcion?
It’s a prescription benzodiazepine drug, usually used to treat insomnia. But because of the serious psychological side-effects it produces in some patients, it has been banned in the UK and Brazil, and some psychiatrists have questioned whether it should remain on the market in the US.
Does that change the associations of the music for you?
Did you know that the band Orbital is a duo consisting of the brothers Phil and Paull Hartnoll? They have said in interviews that ‘Halcyon’ is dedicated to their mother, who was addicted to Halcion for seven years, and suffered severe side-effects.
How does the track sound now?
When I heard the story behind the track, it changed the meaning of the music. It wasn’t just a monumental dance classic – the uplifting melody and beat was laced with sadness and anger, making it bittersweet, nostalgic. Heartbreaking.
Now some people will say that a work of art has to stand on its own two feet, and appreciation shouldn’t depend on knowing about external circumstances. In this case, it’s perfectly possible to appreciate ‘Halcyon’ without knowing the backstory, but for me at least, it adds an extra dimension to the music.
Other cases are less clear-cut. To pick a few examples from my own art form:
The poems of Keats and Shelley have a aura of Romantic pathos that is missing from those of Wordsworth and Coleridge, because we know that the first two poets died young, while the other two grew old, went bald and fat, and wrote later poetry that was less inspiring than their youthful effusions.
And it’s hard to imagine reading the poems of Wilfred Owen without knowing anything about the First World War, and nearly as hard to separate our judgment about the poems and their literary merit from our feelings about the war itself.
More recently, some critics have argued that Seamus Heaney’s poems are over-rated because he deals with the ‘big’ subject matter of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
What Do You Think?
How did your impression of ‘Halcyon’ change when I told you the backstory?
Can you think of other examples of artworks whose meaning changes when we learn more about their context?
Do you think context adds to our appreciation of a work of art, or that we should focus on the work itself, and not let external factors cloud our judgment?