The Heartbreaking Power of Context

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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?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. Subscribe to Lateral Action for free articles about creating remarkable things. For bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Brad Weaver says:

    Nice post Mark, I immediately heard sadness in the track underneath it all when I learned the backstory, the idea of ongoing suffering but hope at the end. The idea of “if we could just get off this cycle life would be so much better.”

    And this holds so true for wordsmiths but also for visual artists, especially contemporary painters and sculptors. Context is everything, otherwise the untrained eye begins to say “my kid could do that.”

    • Thanks Bill. And good point about contemporary art, especially conceptual art. I used to wonder why artists didn’t draw ‘proper pictures’ any more, but when I learned a bit more about the history of art I understood why some of them want to try new things, even if that means leaving some good ones behind.

  2. I’m very familiar with the work of Orbital, but I never knew any of their backstory. I’ve just been a happy consumer of their music. As I went farther through your experiment more layers of meaning were applied to the song. For me it added a depth to the track that is usually missing from techno in general.

    Fantastic exercise. This really got me thinking.

  3. In 2007, the Washington Post did a social experiment with virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell and his $3.5 million Stradivarius. He showed up in a subway in jeans, t-shirt and a ball cap and played some classical masterpieces during morning rush hour.

    He made $32.17, including $20 from someone who recognized him.

    There’s been an email circulating about the story, which earned a Pulitzer prize for feature writing. The email is somewhat less noteworthy (to put it mildly), but it shows the power of context.

    Should a work stand on its own? Can it? I think we’re a bit foolish if we depend on an over-scheduled, information-bombarded society to find the extra time and consciousness to discover every piece of great art without creating an environment that allows people to truly see it.

    It would be lovely if that wasn’t the case, but wishing it were so doesn’t change the reality we all have to deal with.

    Context matters.

  4. I found the music to be hypnotic and rather dizzying- an experience of drifting without being relaxing. A bit unnerving- I listen to a lot of brainwave music which has an entirely different effect on me.
    When I read the back story, I felt like I had been given an opportunity experience the kind of not-awake-not-asleep experience that might be the halcyon experience the mother might have been having. The back story gave me a context for deeping my experience in connection with that of an imagined other. That creates a shift from a sense of individual experience to a sense of human experience…

  5. It’s a matter of layers. Art in any form first works on its own, regardless, otherwise it isn’t art. The thing about context is, it is not a passive thing. It is sought or provided, but only consumed if the audience desires an enhanced experience. If somehow that curiosity is tickled into wanting more. But that desire adds layers of discovery to the original piece. That desire is what drives collectors, and appreciators, and audiences. Connoisseurs and curious cats. Don’t we all want the inside scoop, the texture that deepens the story, or creates a bit aha and meaning? If it doesn’t engage on its own though..that dialogue, that hunt…doesn’t even begin. There has to be a question in every quest…IMHO. πŸ™‚
    I happen to like knowing the backstory and history on The Moderns, the Paris Street Scene that spawned a huge sea change in all the arts that came after in all genres. Rich rich rich. πŸ™‚ And the Harlem Renaissance…Poetry, Jazz, art exploded in an urban fertile struggle…I could go on and on…LOL I am reading New Art City at the moment just to try to be a fly on the wall in New York when everything was changing even more..
    Thx Mark for this. Don’t you get more of the “how” and the “why” of your work, knowing more context?

    • The thing about context is, it is not a passive thing. It is sought or provided, but only consumed if the audience desires an enhanced experience.

      Good point. And one of the great things about a really rich body of work is that there’s always more to learn about it, if you want to delve further. Some of it’s just geeky curiosity, but some things can really enhance your experience of the work.

  6. I think that most art needs to be capable of appreciated when standing on its own or with only a general knowledge of the cultural context.

    But context can and should deepen our appreciation for artwork, even if sometimes we need to hold two opposing thought in our head at the same time for that to work.

    I saw a display of modern aboriginal art at the Museum Ludwig last weekend (haven’t blogged about it yet though) and it was enjoyable to simply see the pictures. More so, to recognize the lines made of multitude of dots, knowing that dots are a characteristic feature of aboriginal art. And even more so to read the booklet and placards about the artists and how this set by this artist over here is a representation of the dreaming and this artist over here is too young to be permitted to depict it but is using some of the common visual language in a different but related way to show her own ideas.

    As much as I love backstory, I don’t always want to learn it for a particular genre or piece. It’s good to be able to just take it in. But I’ve also, in other circumstances, been drawn to discover the backstory because of the impact of the piece itself.

    I also agree that sometimes an inescapable backstory can make it hard to judge or fully appreciate the context free aspects of a work.

    • Yes, if the work doesn’t stand up on a first impression with little or no background, it’s probably not interesting enough to want to learn more about it. There are different kinds of appreciation in a naive encounter and an informed one.

      And a really sharp critical mind is one that can still experience the work as-if-at-first-sight, even after learning all the background, scholarly interpretations etc.

  7. Mark this is great.

    An example of the power of context would be the success of Britain’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle. If it weren’t for her story of coming in as the ugly duckling, she wouldn’t have taken off like she did.

  8. When I was reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, it was almost impossible to ignore the fact that the author took her own life shortly after the completion of the novel.

    There, the dividing lines between the art and the artist, her life and her creation, and her actual death and the death-wish implied in the novel, start to blur.

    Her whole life seems to appear like not only the CONTEXT of the novel, but also the prelude and the epilogue of her own art work. One might even question:

    ‘Was her life, in fact, a part of her art?’
    ‘Can artists’ creations be separated from their lives? ‘

    Also Mark, you mentioned Keats and Shelley!!

    To me, ADONAIS seemed like a long, long, long poem (as many others in the same period)

    but hearing that Shelley wrote this, immediately after young Keats’ death, his tears mixing with the ink, the last three lines suddenly COME ALIVE AND HIT MY HEAD:

    Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
    The soul of Adonais, like a star,
    Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

    See, the POWER OF THE CONTEXT to my sleepy mind!

    But then, I’m also aware of the argument that the ART TRANSCENDS THE CREATOR OR CREATOR’S LIFE!

    Both true, I think. It’s not one-or-the-other. We can happily have both arguments!

    It’s the spirit of the Win-win!

    • Yes, Plath is definitely in the category of hard-to-read-without-thinking-of-context. It’s also hard to read Yukio Mishima’s last novel without remembering that he committed seppuku just after finishing it.

      And thanks for reminding me of Adonais. I haven’t looked at it for years, but it’s got some amazing passages:

      Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
      Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
      Until Death tramples it to fragments.

  9. And don’t you just love knowing that Mary kept Shelley’s heart until her death? Gruesome, but some kind of passionate. That whole flurry of poets has incredible context. Nice to see those excerpts on a Monday..or anyday.

    • Hmmm, maybe someone should have mentioned to her that you can have too much of a good thing!

      I like the story about T.S. Eliot and his widow. Every night, before he went to bed, he wrote a message to her in the top card of a deck. Every morning, she would turn the card over to read his note.

      The day after he died, she didn’t turn the card over… And she still hasn’t. So the card is sitting there face down, with an unread message from him to her.

      • I could not leave that card unturned. Of course that context made me go look her up. Now I want to know even more. Rather devilish of you. I should be working, not chasing poets… although, this could possibly be…work related.. muses and masters come from all sorts of places.

        As far as Mary Shelley is concerned though, I think someone who conceived and wrote Frankenstein, wouldn’t listen to rational arguments against keeping a spare body part or two. πŸ™‚

  10. Wow!

    Mary’s keeping Shelley’s heart (thank you for the great info, Janice!) warm in her pocket (figuratively speaking),

    and Eliot’s widow keeping his last note undisturbed, still waiting for Eliot’s return from his big night’s sleep!

    These contexts are really like poems themselves!

    Poems being acted upon!

    Poems in action!


    Thank you Mark!

  11. It may be possible to separate the art from the artist from the message, but I almost always prefer not to. I felt a much more significant connection to the artist knowing the backstory. And for the artist, wasn’t the backstory the point? Art is essentially a human communication medium, same as speech and body language. How sad if we miss the point because we have no idea what the artist is attempting to communicate.

    Listening to the music for the first time with no context I suspect my experience was more like the addict’s — peaceful and yet out of control (getting something good and losing something good at the same time–hard to explain). After reading the backstory and listening again I suspect my experience was more like the artist’s, more like helplessness and compassion, a very deep sadness that I didn’t get the first time.

    I guess I’d say the art must stand on its own two feet if the artist thinks it must. Such a thing can also be completely irrelevant. πŸ™‚

    • And for the artist, wasn’t the backstory the point?

      Maybe, to a certain extent. But I think artists are more motivated by wanting to make something – to create something new and see it come alive before their eyes – than to tell something about their own story. Pygmalion rather than Pepys. πŸ˜‰

      And even when the backstory is the point for the artist, it’s not necessarily so for the audience. I doubt Picasso’s collectors look at his paintings the same way he did.

      Thanks for the great description of your response to the music!

  12. An interesting exercise. For me, as a non-techno fan, when I listened to the sample, I heard a minor-key melancholy. Learning of the back story step by step on this blog post as instructed, it did not sound any different to me at all. I suspect I may be more immune to the human back stories behind art than some people. I prefer for the work to stand alone. The stories of Beethoven’s deafness and emotional volatility don’t really affect my reaction to his music (not even his late works, composed when he was completely deaf, amazingly). Nor do stories about mental illness, depression, poverty, political activities, or other such details. The same goes for my appreciation for the achievements of athletes or scientists or actors.

    We human beings like stories that seem to imbue everything with a purpose and meaning. Marketers know this, hence the use of ads to conjure up stories, and the narratives that go with selling jewelry, clothing, wine, cars. Poems with catchy titles or symphonies with nicknames always end up more popular than “sonnet number 102” or the like. I find this human weakness to be annoying or endearing, depending on my mood.

    • A piece of small rock behind the glass case.

      Grey, unremarkable, boring.

      But when the context is known, that this is a piece of meteorite that has survived the immense journey through the space before entering the earth’s atmosphere,

      you might look at the stone very differently.

      You might linger in front of the glass case for a while, thinking about what could this little stone have seen while travelling through the space. ‘How long has it been floating in the universe?’ ‘Did it see other galaxies?’

      The small grey stone, suddenly becomes quite an object, stirring your intellectual curiosity, stimulating your thoughts and undoubtedly, emotions.

      This is the power of CONTEXT.

      The context has made the encounter an interesting, richly rewarding experience.

      Of course, the context alone does not achieve this. It’s our faculty of associative imagination and whether you deem it annoying or endearing, it remains in existence. Thank God it does.

    • As usual, I can see both sides. πŸ™‚

      If I had to choose though, I’d probably say the work needs to stand up on its own. If it doesn’t there’s no incentive to research the context (or reward from doing so).

  13. Really interesting question and some great comments. I’ve listened to Orbital for years as a way to relax and knew a little bit about them, but never really dug into the stories behind individual tracks, so the context has definitely changed the meaning and effect of the tune for me.

    There’s a couple of perspectives on content – the idea that it stands alone, and that any meaning is that which is derived by the person receiving it (that the writer/artist/creator loses any possession over it once it is shared). And that personal inferred meaning can be tremendously powerful – it can also be quite upsetting if you then find out the original artist had a different meaning in mind…

    But generally, I think both can co-exist, and that context often helps frame what the creator intended, whilst the meaning you get as the receiver can still remain.

    As for other examples – I think any work will change in some way if the context behind it is revealed, even if the context turns out to be banal or everyday. Plenty of bloggers can create added meaning if they reveal their latest writing has been churned out while they sit at their kitchen table in their dressing gown, giving a different impression to that of someone working in a brightly-lit office block, or someone blogging from a beach in Thailand…

    An alternative question/perspective is when the same circumstances and context produce radically different artistic results – for instance, Wilfred Owen’s war poetry may have a more solmen and respectful melancholy, whereas Siegried Sassoon went for more of a black comedy approach with a jolly tone almost hiding the inevitable tragic payoff. And at the same time, one of my favourites, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, is more of a triumphant celebration of the bravery and fearless immortality of youth…

    • it can also be quite upsetting if you then find out the original artist had a different meaning in mind

      I remember reading somewhere that Joy Division deliberately didn’t print the lyrics to their songs, as they didn’t want to close down the meanings for listeners who (mis)heard different words on the recordings. It seemed a bit odd to me, given how good Ian Curtis’ lyrics were, but I guess it avoids the problem you describe.

  14. The external factors are everything.

  15. Gary Monbozia says:

    Very interesting article, thanks.
    I think that in this case, the back-story only really refers to the song title and not specifically to the artistic content of the music. The decision (for the song title) was most likely an arbitrary one, after the piece was completed.
    Perhaps the artist felt the music reflected his feelings on the matter? We can never really get inside that process and ultimately we find our own context regardless. Such is the subjective nature of our experience.
    I think Darrida is often quoted as saying ‘There is nothing outside of the text!’

    The films (and TV) of David Lynch greatly appeal to me as I believe he demonstrates an intuitive understanding of this reasoning!