Tales of the Unexpected

Imagine you’re on a train. You set out from the centre of a city somewhere in the North of England and now you’ve reached the urban hinterland. There’s a sewage farm, a yard stacked with rusty containers and old, boarded-up commercial buildings. Beyond them you glimpse a garage and, beyond that, a busy road. Between them are rough, disused green spaces with, here and there, rusty wire fences. No-one is left to remember what they were intended to keep in or keep out. You cross a bridge over a canal. There are fewer buildings now.  You find yourself looking down into a succession of small fields. There’s a horse and a field containing a few ramshackle jumps… There’s a Mexican folk band…

You are surprised. You blink, raise your eyebrows, look around you. Did you really see that? The train has moved on. The fields are empty now…

It strikes me that as well as such obvious encounters with the unexpected, we sometimes encounter people whose stories are equally surprising and who as time passes, can quickly vanish from the worlds we move around in. Unlike the Mexican band, they may not stand out in a hypothetical photograph or startle anyone by their mere presence. The element of surprise lies in the story they carry with them. When, later, you recall them you wonder, did they really tell you the story they told you, the way you remember it? Were the stories others told you about them true?

I bought my first double bass from an old Belgian man, Mr G——. He lived not far from us. He had played the bass for years, first in an army band (he carried my bass on his back through the trenches) and later in cinemas during the silent film era. As well as buying his old bass, I mowed his lawn in return for help with my schoolboy French. One afternoon, during my tea break, he confessed to me how he’d killed the xylophonist, Teddy Brown.

 

 

As you can imagine,  I was all ears. He told me how he’d been performing with Brown at the theatre in Wolverhampton. They’d had a disagreement about programme. Mr G—— had usually had a solo spot during the show and was unhappy that Brown, a visiting star performer, wanted to play during his solo spot instead. The disagreement became heated and ended, the old man told me, with both men obstinately performing their solo routine at the same time. Teddy Brown was beside himself with anger and dropped dead.

I took the story with a pinch of salt. Clearly, it had not lost anything over the years in the telling. The years passed, the internet came along and one day it occurred to me to do a bit of research. I was mildly surprised to discover what I did. Of course, there was no mention of an argument, but the facts, though less dramatic, were not far removed from Mr G——‘s story. My guess now, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the two men did argue and, human nature being what it is, Mr G——  had had to live with the fact that the man he argued with was so ill the slightest thing that day might have caused his health to deteriorate. What I didn’t realise as a teenager was, despite the fact that he laughed it off, what a burden the story might have been to the old man over the years.

*

None of us in our form at boarding school had ever had a teacher quite like Tristram Yelin. He was larger-than-life, fierce, charismatic,  and determined that we would all learn to speak French like a native. My mother told me how the first day he taught us I came home (I was a dayboy by then) and threw myself on my bed in floods of tears, terrified at the thought of returning to school. By the third week of term, almost all of us idolized him. Once, when looking out the classroom window he saw a police car draw up in the street outside. He immediately jumped under his desk, shouting ‘They’ve come for me! They’ve come for me! Don’t tell them I’m here!’

Yelin was exacting and expected us all to give our best but he was also a past master at acting in loco parentis. He was thoroughly decent, clearly remembered what it felt like to be a schoolboy and talked to you as if you (and the things that mattered to you) mattered.  When, in the afternoon, we all had to walk the quarter mile down to the school sports ground, everyone wanted to walk and talk with “T.Y.”

Recently, I found this account of a (the?) Tristram Yelin in an account of life at Clayesmore School in the 1930s by Gavin Maclean:

The head boy was Tristram Yelin. He overwhelmed me. He was a perfect (sic). He was not
only academically gifted, he was musically talented and captained all the Clayesmore
sports teams. He was rumoured to be the son of an Indian/Russian marriage, the wife
being a princess. When I spoke to him on the telephone just before he died in the early
eighties, I asked him if this was so and he said ‘No’, but offered no other alternative.
He was a Marxist and read me long tracts, I don’t know why – maybe it was apparent
that I was going to have an interest in Politics. I heard nothing of him after that first
term (when he left), until he stood as an Independent candidate in the General
Election of 1979 for Scarborough. It was then that I managed to find him but it lead to
only one letter and a phone call.

I like to think they were one and the same.

 

 

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More Milhaud

I included a piece by Darius Milhaud with in previous post. Here’s another!

When I “got into” classical music in my teens the era that drew me in was the twentieth century. The music of that century is often difficult and dark. I like a lot of that, too, but I’ve always been fond of the music of Les Six. Although it can be dark and difficult, it can be many other things, too.

Milhaud wrote hundreds of pieces. They should be played more often. This isn’t his easiest: I share it because it’s one I find myself coming back to…

 

 

An Ordinary Day

 

I wake early. My headphones are still in my ears: I’d fallen asleep the night before  listening quietly to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the internet, a programme on feathered dinosaurs. It feels like Sunday morning but it isn’t. In fact, I have to get going earlier than usual. I have a lot to do but as I feel I’ve got the measure of it there’s no need to rush.

This morning, like most mornings, my route takes me from the high ground where we live along the ridge of of a hill that drops slowly down into the Vale of York.  You can see for miles, details fading into the haze without which I’m sure you would be able to catch a glimpse the sea. You get a great view of the sky from here. Sometimes the clouds jostle with each other, forming chaotic shapes and I find myself thinking how exotic a planet the earth is. Occasionally, the sky is clear and the Vale below blanketed in a sea of mist that laps against the hillside, washing round the trees. More often, the sky is merely an unbroken grey, the landscape muted, shadowless. This morning, an eerie silvery white light falls on the top of an otherwise grey bank of cloud that fills the sky to the South.

The view over the fields makes me wonder when we don’t all have small, personal airships: we could fly as the crow flies, over the walls and hedges, choosing our own ways.  Perhaps a balloon just big enough to allow you to almost take off but not quite? If you had something like a gardener’s leaf-blower pointing down at an angle behind you it might lift you off the ground and propel you forward. You could go for miles. I see few people: three or four, perhaps, in cars that pass me at irregular intervals on the nine mile journey. Sometimes when I get to the crossroads at the bottom of the hill, ten or more cars can come out of nowhere, disappearing into nowhere seconds later. Randomness clumps, as they say.

To put on the radio or not to put on the radio? The world is silent, or seems so: the mind shuts out the constant drone of the car.

Later, when I go back to the car park where I left my car, a team of gardeners are at work under the trees with leaf blowers.

This afternoon, we dropped into the Sip coffee bar in Richmond, as usual. I drove back through Swaledale. Interesting how a place can trigger the same thoughts: there’s a point on this road where I always find myself thinking how lucky we are. I think it’s the view, although the double shot of espresso coffee might have something to do with it, too. Work never takes me along this stretch of road. People come on holiday here and, if one can maintain one’s equilibrium, day-to-day life here can feel like a holiday  a lot of the time, even when there’s a lot to be done.

Astronomy Begins at Home

However you look at it, the recent discovery that insect life on earth seems to have declined by eighty percent  over the last thirty years is bad news. It fits in with all the other things we read about the mass extinction that seems to be quietly underway on planet earth. (It’s not long since I read that seabird populations have plummeted by seventy percent over the last sixty years).

I don’t need to be convinced that we are contributing in a big way to the catastrophe we’re facing. There are things we should be doing but either we’re not doing them or we’re not doing them enough. We also -and this perhaps applies more to some cultural traditions than others- are not well equipped to see the nature of the crisis we’re facing for what it is. Many traditions have taught people to see humans as set apart from and superior to other species and to think of the earth as being specially created for their benefit. Although these views hold less sway than they once did, the attitudes they fostered can still be ingrained in our outlooks, even if we decide to reject them. We tend to treat the rest of life on this planet as a resource, a source of food, clothing and raw materials. We sentimentalise animals – just as we tend to sentimentalise all that we subjugate. One minute we’re stroking them and taking them for walks, the next we’re eating them or turning them into coats or -literally, here in the UK- into five pound notes.

As our concern for the future of life on earth has grown, so has our desire to find extraterrestrial life and planets orbiting other stars. We need to know we’re not alone and we’re intrigued to discover if there are other planets in the universe humanity might inhabit.  Steven Hawking is currently working on a scheme to send a probe to observe an exoplanet and has said that humanity should seriously consider emigrating from earth.

Although I tend to be in favour of our efforts to get into space and explore exoplanets, I have one or two misgivings about us attempting to emigrate. If conscious, intelligent life is to be found throughout the universe, why should we? What are we seeking to preserve? There is no conscious continuity from one generation to another. It may be, as someone famously said, that death is the one thing in life we don’t experience: when I die, for all I know, the rest of life on earth might have died with me. On the other hand, Blake might have been right when he wrote

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense  world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

What we prize as individual consciousness might prove to be perennial.

Either way, it could be that we underestimate our connectedness to the earth. We like to think we might survive wherever our ingenuity makes it possible for us to survive but if our descendants were to populate another planet would they be truly human? If this sounds an odd question, consider the idea that the first humans on earth might themselves have been immigrants from another planet. The idea seems crazy to us. However, we’re free to imagine and we might reflect on the hubris of their alien ancestors if they thought that by sending frozen embryos, perhaps, to the early earth they were preserving the species that inhabited Planet X. Planet X? We are Earthlings!

Also, if consciousness is perennial and evolution of complex intelligent life more-or-less-as-we-know-it relatively common, why do we need to emigrate at all? It strikes me that to do so in such circumstances is to  be thinking not unlike the historical Europeans who thought they’d “discovered” America. We talked for centuries about “discovering” America before it was commonly realised that the people who already lived there had “discovered” it at least thousands of years before. If someone light years from here is sat writing a post on his, her or its blog (for example), I might as well sit here and accept the fate of my species with equanimity, safe in the knowledge that what I am is just a part of the rich complexity of everything.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do whatever we can to maintain the earth as a habitable place; we certainly, obviously, should – and for all the life that lives on it. It is no bad thing, too, to explore and search for extra-terrestrial life. Knowledge of it would bring a reassurance with it. We would know that if life were to end on earth one day, it might be the end of the world but it wouldn’t be the end of the universe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Picture

When we reach the end
there’ll be no credits rolling
as the music of the spheres
plays out: no-one to perform
the autopsy. Without
a body, so they say,
there can be no murder.

It will be as if
we never were. Time passes:
cause and effect set
the record straight, conceal
the evidence. Probes
from deep space find
nothing definite,
ascribe a name or number
and move on.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017

 

 

Making Existentialist Waves

Perhaps I’m misjudging her but I find it hard to imagine Virginia Woolf in a black, turtle-neck sweater, smoking a Gitane. I also think Jean Paul Sartre might have raised an eyebrow or two at  her preoccupation with the servant problem. However, rereading The Waves (published in 1931) as I am, and having read  Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938) relatively recently, I was struck by the similarities of theme. Simone de Beauvoir said that Sartre was influenced by the use of stream of consciousness by Woolf and other Modernist writers but does it run deeper than that? And could one usefully describe Woolf as an Existentialist novelist? I’ve had these thoughts at the back of my mind all the way through The Waves. The passage below is one of several where, for me, the issues came to the fore. The characters in The Waves are said to resemble specific members of Woolf’s circle. The character Rhoda is said to be based on Woolf herself and the state she describes herself as being in bears more than a passing resemblance to the “nausea” described by Sartre’s character, Roquentin. The emphases are mine:

There were lamp-posts,’ said Rhoda, ‘and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still. But I did not hide behind them. I walked straight up to you instead of circling round to avoid the shock of sensation as I used. But it is only that I have taught my body to do a certain trick. Inwardly I am not taught; I fear, I hate, I love, I envy and despise you, but I never join you happily. Coming up from the station, refusing to accept the shadow of the trees and the pillar-boxes, I perceived, from your coats and umbrellas, even at a distance, how you stand embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together; are committed, have an attitude, with children, authority, fame, love, society; where I have nothing. I have no face.

‘Here in this dining-room you see the antlers and the tumblers; the salt-cellars; the yellow stains on the tablecloth. “Waiter!” says Bernard. “Bread!” says Susan. And the waiter comes; he brings bread. But I see the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. How beautiful, standing at a distance immobile at midnight against the railings of some square! Behind you is a white crescent of foam, and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.) That is the circumference that I try to grasp as we sit together. Thus I must undergo the penance of Hampton Court at seven thirty precisely.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

Listening to Haydn (4)

Tristram_Shandy_First_edition_spines

*

Sooner or later, any discussion of Haydn’s music gets round to his “sense of humour”. The Farewell and the Surprise symphonies are the famous examples of this which are often discussed. I’m sure, when I was at school, we were told that Haydn was simply a jolly chap who liked amusing and alarming his audiences and, though this is probably true, I think there was a lot more to it than that.

I won’t repeat the famous story behind the Farewell  Symphony. However, one only has to listen to it to realize there is a lot more going on than mere leg-pull. It is an intense, serious piece of music and the phased departure of the musicians towards the end only serves to intensify it further. It puts one in mind of the kind of theatrical approach to musical form Modernist composers such as Ligeti or Kagel might have employed.

I was pleased to discover that I was not the first person to find myself thinking of a resonance with the work of the 18th century writer, Laurence Sterne. In fact, a parallel was frequently drawn in Haydn’s lifetime and, I discovered,  Haydn himself had Sterne on his bookshelf. And just as echoes of Haydn can be found in the work of Modernist composers, so the work of Sterne -in particular, the novel Tristram Shandy- influenced Modernist writers. The similarities are part influence and part a matter of a common sensibility: the relationship between the work of both men has been written about at length by David Wyn Jones in his book, Haydn.

“Shandean” is a term often used to describe work that reflects the spirit of Tristram Shandy. Sterne himself said of his writing: “”I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humoured Shandean book…” Tristram Shandy is famous for its twists, turns and digressions, which Sterne light-heartedly writes about in the book itself and even illustrates:

I am now beginning to get fairly into my work; and by the help of a vegetable diet, with a few of the cold seeds, I make no doubt but I shall be able to go on with my uncle Toby’s story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line. Now,

 

Tristram_Shandy_Plot_lines *

These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes (Alluding to the first edition.)—In the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being this:

squiggle

 

By which it appears, that except at the curve, marked A. where I took a trip to Navarre,—and the indented curve B. which is the short airing when I was there with the Lady Baussiere and her page,—I have not taken the least frisk of a digression, till John de la Casse’s devils led me the round you see marked D.—for as for C C C C C they are nothing but parentheses, and the common ins and outs incident to the lives of the greatest ministers of state; and when compared with what men have done,—or with my own transgressions at the letters ABD—they vanish into nothing.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most Shandean of Haydn’s symphonies, in my opinion, has to be No. 46, especially in its final movement with its ts eccentric formal changes of direction (during which it seems to come to an end more than once!). To quote Wikipedia:

The opening  [of the fourth movement] is a typical energetic theme in the violins which is rapidly taken up and developed, with the horns prominent in their high register. The music rushes on only to break off suddenly, interrupted by the closing passage of the minuet [the third movement], followed by the repeat of the whole of the second half of the minuet. The horns then burst in again with the main finale theme, but fade away and the music stutters almost to a halt. Then, on an underlying pedal on the horns, the strings take the movement and symphony to a rapid and abrupt close.

 

 

What is the point of all these digressions and dislocations? In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the main character, Roquentin, is researching the details of the life of an 18th century historical figure with a view to writing a biography. However, he decides that since he can’t understand the day-to-day chaos of his own life he certainly won’t be able to understand the life of an historical character which has been reduced to a series of recorded accounts. The stuff of life is the chaos, not the stories we create to try and make sense of it.

Similarly, Sterne’s Tristram could have stuck to his plan and given a straightforward account of the events of his life. However, had he done so, what would we know of him? Instead, every hour spent reading his ramblings is an hour spent with the man. We enjoy his chaotic company, which is surely preferable. As I said, in Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin, faced with chaos, finds writing biography impossible. In Tristram Shandy, Tristram finds writing autobiography impossible. He puts this down to the effect on his personality of the circumstances of his conception. However, the ironic reference to “a rational Being” in the opening suggests a more more serious, philosophical aspect to this. Sterne (unlike the atheist Sartre) was a vicar and, I suggest, Tristram is his idea of a typical, irrational human forced to surf the Age of Enlightenment:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

If the impossibility of writing autobiography draws our attention to Tristram’s personality then perhaps Haydn’s digressions draws our attention to the music itself. It is all too easy to follow the course of a classical symphony unaware that you are really not listening to the music. Once you are familiar with the form you can usual tell where you are in it at most given moments: these bars sound like a minuet, these, the trio. Tracking its course can, unconsciously, be uppermost in the mind of the listener when what the composer wants us to do is simply listen. Like one lost in the hills forced to pay close attention to the landscape, a listener unsure of his or her bearings has to pay more attention to the soundscape. Also, like Tristram, perhaps Haydn, if he simply wants to digress from the matter at hand, does so! If art imitates life, it has at times to be spontaneous and unpredictable.

 

squiggle2

 

*Illustrations: Laurence Sterne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons