Saturday morning. My friend L. and I are on the ‘phone, arranging one of our brunches in Notting Hill. Her soft Irish tone turns businesslike. “Now do you want to come up for your lesson before or after brunch?”
I search my memory for a reference frame. “Lesson?”
“Yes. I promised, over a year ago, I’d teach you to read music.”
I grin from ear to ear. A child about to be given a long-awaited treat. “After brunch,” I say. I suddenly remember I forgot to have dinner, last night. I don’t want hunger dizziness to spoil this moment. A secret is about to be revealed to me, and I need all my concentration.
I have adored music for as long as I can remember. My mother says I could tell tunes apart before I could string a sentence together. I play CDs all the time. I don’t listen to music. I breathe it in and let it permeate through every cell in my body, and every thought in my mind. I need music like I need air. I have no difficulty believing, in Lorenzo’s words as he courts Jessica (The Merchant of Venice), that –
“There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
I scribble words because I cannot compose music.
Music caresses my soul, balms my wounds, stirs my emotions, feeds my resolutions and inspires my dreams. When, about two years ago, I suddenly developed tinnitus, I thought I would lose my mind. The thought of not being able to hear music was simply unbearable. The fear of such a possibility was so overwhelming, it conquered my deeply-rooted distrust of the medical profession. I went to a surgery. “Take a paracetamol,” I was told in a less-than-sympathetic tone.
“I said hiss – not hurt,” I snapped, containing all impulse to spit some serious venom and wondering, once again, whether I was before extraordinarily evil or profound stupidity.
A couple of weeks later, I resorted to some medically-unapproved complementary medicine diagnostic tools which showed that I had displaced a couple of neck vertebrae. After a few subsequent visits to an osteopath who unceremoniously pulled, pushed, crunched and stretched me, I could hear music again without the interference of any buzzing, ringing or hissing.
While at University, I used to sing at balls and formal dinners, accompanied on the piano by my friend Helen. We called ourselves Champagne Sorbet. Unable to read music, I would memorise the tunes. I have a sweet-sounding pearwood alto recorder, and I play (badly) everything by ear. I watch with envy people who sit on the Tube, leafing through musical scores, the black squiggles on the staves actually translating into music in their heads. I would happily swap one of my languages for the ability to read music.
L.’s studio flat is cluttered with odd pieces of inherited furniture, hand-painted china, embroidered cushions, leaning towers of books in English, French and Russian, and every imaginable ornament – be it glass, plastic, wood or fabric. Against the wall, stands the upright piano. The top and surrounding floor space are littered with books and scores. Chopin, Sondheim, Porter, Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Kander and Ebb, Jule Styne. She clears a space on the table, covered in an Estonian linen tablecloth with lilacs, daisies and poppies, and smoothes an A4 sheet of paper over it. Her biro sinks through the paper into the soft fabric as she draws five parallel lines across the page. “This is a stave,”, she says.
Soon, both sides of the paper are covered in treble clefs, bass clefs, quavers, semi-quavers, and pauses. L. explains the mathematical nature of music. I think of the word Harmony. She illustrates the meaning of rhythm, and the term heartbeat comes to my mind. She shows me the pattern of a bar, and I think Perfection. Of Dante’s concept of the Universe, conducted to the beat of all-encompassing Love.
“Now, let’s practise,” says L. We sit by the piano. I am too much in awe of the instrument, to touch it. Eventually, I brush the dark wood lightly with my finger. L. has bought a beginner’s manual on piano playing especially for the occasion, and bends back the spine before sliding it into the score holder. She brings her thumb down and a sound, like an alerted reaction, pings across the room. “This is Middle C,” she says, matter of fact, in charge of the magnificent instrument. She makes me sit on the stool and allocates each of the hesitant, clumsy fingers of my right hand, to an ivory key, then instructs me to play the notes printed on the score. She counts as I push down my fingertips. Sounds result. Oh, joy! My little finger rebels. She tells me off for my lack of control. I finish the page and she gives me encouragement. I have to stop. After barely five minutes, my wrist is aching. L. shows me muscle-strengthening hand exercises. I watch her knuckles spring up and down, like a spider ready to pounce. My own hand refuses to follow her example. There seems to be a breakdown in communication between my brain and the muscles in question. I ask her to play, instead.
L. pulls a score from under the stack of papers, and spreads it open. Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. She touches the keys with authority, yet something about her manner with them is cajoling. The notes drift up, filling the room in different colours, all pastel and translucent. Ethereal and full of regret. They float up to the ceiling, then slowly fly out of the window, rest on the swaying leaves of the tree just outside, then disappear into the distance, lost amongst the street sounds.
The music pleads with me, like a prayer. I try and think of words to describe it. But I can’t.