Trekking into the musical jungle

(06-03-09)

There is a well-known Regency poet, or artist, or composer or some gluttonous, decadent extravagant fop, whose name has been escaping me all morning. With Google proving surprisingly uncooperative and my reference books located in another country, the only way I can continue with my train of thought and finish this story with any degree of coherence is to invent an appropriate substitute. So be it. Sir Darcy Wilberforce St. John deLaney Hamilton, Bart. that well-known member of the landed gentry, ranked among the great artistic souls of his day. His infusion with the divine fire is often attributed to his wealthy mother, who insisted that her pregnancy be spent in the presence of great works of art: soothing glissandos delivered by periwigged pimpernels on harps, elegant marble statuettes, fine watercolours and the most refined topiary. Bear in mind that much of this comes to you straight and unfiltered from a notoriously unreliable memory.

If one of the greatest musical geniuses of the age was the product of such refined practices on the part of the elder Mrs. Hamilton, then my own mother’s nine-month must have involved long periods of silence, punctuated by occasional bouts of atonal shrieking from my father as he danced around her while whamming two metal frying pans together with a ladle.

I must stop before I do them an injustice. Music has always played an important part in our home – but we have never played an important part in the music. On my father’s side I am the product of four generations of musical imbecility, with the more harmonious strands of our DNA having jumped ship somewhere in the transition from the stetls of Lithuania to the stetls of the Ukraine. On my mother’s side the accident occurred more recently, as my grandfather’s vocal inheritance is proving strangely elusive.

I think a key factor in all this – or more likely still, an off-key factor – is that the first sound I ever heard was a 10 pound baby tearing his lungs out in an attempt to gain attention from a hostile world. With that sort of introduction to the mesmerizing world of sound, is there any wonder I have no sense of musical proportion?

My tonal eccentricities are well-known to most of my friends and all of my enemies. As a result, I am usually forbidden to approach the microphone on karaoke evenings, and am only allowed out of the closet to reluctantly deliver my highly sought-after imitation of Sir Mixalot in idiosyncratic tones.

The situation is aggravated by one of those tragic twists of fate which has ensured that all of my friends seem to have dangerously overdeveloped musical glands. I have two friends who are concert violinsts, a third is a gifted flautist who currently conducts the orchestra of a prestigious London university, and sopranos, tenors and baritones crowd for space on my facebook friends list. To rub salt, pepper and a hint of tarragon yet further into the wound my flatmate, in an attempt to become acquainted with one instrument of every family, has recently started learning the cello. I alone of my acquaintances receive pitying glances and sorrowful embraces from friends and family when circumstances compel me to break into ‘Happy Birthday’. No-one else receives the raised eyebrow or the quivering upturned lip of barely concealed laughter as they produce vague humming sounds in an attempt to recapture a particularly stirring movement in a piece of classical music. Years of self-confidence have at least ensured that I make up in gusto for what I lack in talent, but the embarrassment remains.

This embarrassment is irrational and all-consuming. Where no music of any kind is involved, I can interact with any of the above-mentioned virtual virtuosi with the greatest of ease. I can discuss literature and philosophy, quote sitcoms and web memes, don an air of loving condescension or ironic detachment and generally proselytize, pontificate and pun to my heart’s delight. The moment a bow is raised, a throat cleared or a middle C pressed, however, my ego goes the way of the stock market and I become a dribbling sycophant with a gift for words surpassed by most species of canary.

An intense feeling of inferiority sets in – and rightly so. These individuals can do more with the emotions of an audience than I will ever be able to achieve in any other way. By playing on their instruments they can play directly on human heartstrings. No other artform has so true a course through the emotional centres of our brains, and no other artist can achieve so much with what seems to be so little. I cannot, in good faith, take a dislike to people who can play an instrument as I know that within the space of four bars my respect for them will be soaring to the B above high C. If there is one ability I have ever admired and envied and craved for my own it is the opportunity to produce music.

And so, after ten years of salivating over instruments of all shapes and sizes, I have finally decided to give it a go. I enter the vast unexplored jungle of accidental notes and tangled staves, of dominant chords and elusive sevenths armed with nothing but a battered music notebook and sensible shoes. 

Tune in next week, same time, same place, to hear what happens next. Be warned though – it may not be so easy on the ears.

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