Friday, 8 October 2010

Life & Death in the Eclectic Choir

You are the music while the music lasts.
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

I WONDER WHAT the first music I would have heard was. My father had a large wireless and he had it set to the BBC, and we were not to fiddle with the dials. Of course, we did give the various knobs a twirl and feigned innocence (untrue) and ignorance (quite true) while Dad had to try and get a clear signal again.

We did get to listen to radio programming from the United States: Jack Benny; George Burns & Gracie Allen; Amos & Andy. I’m not sure that I understood the humour, but the laughter was contagious. Gracie - playing the dimmest bulb – was once asked if her nursemaid had dropped her on her head as a baby. “Oh, no,” replied Gracie, “we could not afford a nursemaid. My mother had to do it.” The audience in the studio somewhere in America laughed, and I laughed in Bermuda. This was something I could identify with.

When I was four years of age I was sent to Humpty Dumpty College, the first pre-school in Bermuda. My father was teaching me how to read and write (I recall copying the word umbrella over and over below a picture of one that I’d made) and how to do basic geometry (drawing tangents and arcs). So far as I know, we did not have reading and writing lessons at Humpty Dumpty; we had stories read to us, which one would prefer, of course. What we did do, I know from looking at my report cards that survived so many decades in my father’s private papers, is sing and dance.

One’s nursery school teachers were not expected to tear into their pupils’ lack of ability, there was enough child psychology in the air even all those years ago, but Auntie Peggy and Auntie Norma had managed to note that I was not really cut out for a career on the stage. My dancing, even as simple a routine as the Hokey Cokey, was a struggle. I guess I’d put my left foot in ... and lose it. The kindest comment on my singing went something like this: “Ross does not manage to sing in tune, but he can sing very loudly.” That might qualify me for a career in religion or politics.

When I moved onwards and upwards to Kindergarten at Warwick Academy we began the day singing Church of England hymns; the simple ones at first such as “All Things Bright and Beautiful” but we were too soon muddling our way though “Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty.” Christmas and Easter meant carols and anthems that one heard on the radio and played by the Salvation Army brass band on a street corner.

My father liked Broadway show tunes. Another five years of therapy for me! We had “South Pacific” and “Carousel” and “Carmen Jones” among the pile of classical records below a record player a relative had passed down to us when they upgraded to a Hi-Fi. The classical records came with the old record player, they were 78’s. I used to play Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and concertos, knowing not a thing about the composer except that his music set something off in me. (I know a great deal about the man now, and find I listen to his ballet music and “Eugene Onegin” rather than the melancholy work.)

We began more formal, and compulsory, music classes at Warwick Academy when I was, perhaps, eight-years-old. We had to sing scales, boys and girls together, all sopranos, while Miss Patricia Devlin pointed at charts with a ruler. Miss Devlin wore a full-length grey fur coat and dark glasses, and her hair was shaggy and spiky all at once. We were taught how to read music. Perhaps some were, I never, ever made sense of it. A sheet of music, to me, might as well be Greek. Except that I’d recognise some Greek letters and nothing at all among the notes and signatures that made up “music”.

When I was twelve, I joined Miss Devlin’s choir to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” for a special Easter assembly. The choir was made up of boy and girl sopranos, altos, tenors and a few basses. I was still singing soprano. Perhaps “singing” does not best describe what I was doing; I was emitting some noises in the soprano register. My voice, moreover, was breaking. Our choir had one instruction from Miss Devlin: “Sing in tune, in your key.” We had a second commandment from the Headmaster: “Sing as loudly as you can.” I managed the latter.

Despite my complete lack of musical talent (I had been unable to play three notes in the right order on a descant recorder) I was actually invited to join the boys’ choir at the Anglican Cathedral. I attended one rehearsal, singing in my loud and cracked voice, and, at the end of the hour, was to be measured for my choir robes. I’d not thought of that when I let myself be co-opted into the Cathedral choir’s ranks. I told the choir master that I needed to pop downstairs to use the toilet first. I kept on going, all the way to the bus stop.

One might think I’d steer clear of choirs after that brief moment of horror, but twenty years later, in Salt Lake City, Utah, I signed up for the Christmas performance at a Mormon church with a musical friend. Not, I should point out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I was making bass-like noises by then and we sang several Christmas songs, carols, which I did not know. I recall a little of one that began: “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! I can hear the falling snow!” A more psychedelic lyric (at church) I’ve not come across yet. My friend did not sing in the Christmas service, he went overseas for the holidays. As I could not read the music we were provided with, I had to memorise my bass line. I was unready and unsteady and did not sing at all loudly. “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! You cannot hear me, but my lips are moving!”

I have tried to pick out a few notes on the guitar and on the piano. I am remarkably inept. Whatever portion of the brain controls musical ability is not firing at all in my mine. Could I have been dropped on my head by my nursemaid as a baby? Well, my Mother would have had to do it. Not that unlikely, she was a grand mal epileptic.

One might think that I’d have spent my life steering clear of the musical mysteries, but it has been rather the opposite. I am something of a fanatic when it comes to music. I have it playing in my head at my every waking moment. I believe this began around the time I first indulged in mind-altering drugs. After a little LSD my life switched to the Key of E (for Ecstasy). In order to control the songs (most have words) I play music on whatever device is at hand. I listen to the radio (the BBC’s 6Music is my preferred station) and watch and listen to concerts, festivals and performances on the telly. This does not, cannot, fill my ears enough.

I have an iPod Touch and an iPod Classic. I ran out of space on the former. I’m approaching 350 albums on the Classic and could listen to it non-stop for a fortnight and then some before having to begin again.

My iPod Classic certainly has a variety of music for me to match up to any mood (or to create another mood if the current one is disagreeable). I started with the complete box-set of The Beatles, digitally remastered and released about a year ago. Then I begged, bought and borrowed many albums from my 1960s experience. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Dave Clark Five, Jefferson Airplane, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Donovan, George Harrison (my favourite Beatle), the Motown artists, and so on. From the 1970s there’s Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, David Bowie, T-Rex, Pink Floyd, some of the disco divas, and many more. Lots from the 1980s and 1990s: I like The Cure, Madonna, George Michael, The Go-Gos, The B-52s, Our Lady Peace, Beck, A-Ha, Erasure, Holly Johnson, The Verve, Blur, it goes on and on. The Kaiser Chiefs and Scissor Sisters do the trick as well. So can Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Guillemots, Green Day and Darren Hayes.

On my iPod one will also find Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Fauré, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. There’s Billie Holiday and Liza Minnelli. There’s The Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” and there’s Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”. There must be a colliery brass band in the mix, and a few hymns.

Do I sing along to all this music? Very rarely. I have neighbours and friends I’d rather not annoy. I like to use the iPod if I’m on the train (I listen to Podcasts too, while on the move) and also (curiously) when I’m reading at bedtime.

I’ve been listening to a shuffled mix of all my Rolling Stones songs while typing this. I’ve not sung out a single note. I have been tapping my feet, though no telling whether it is in time. I could be lost in the Hokey Cokey.

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