My first musical experience was undoubtedly my mother singing to me. At the age of 68, on the ferry to the Isle of Skye, I found myself singing words and music I had never consciously learned. I put that down to pre-memory memories.
She was intensely musical: there once was a photo of her at age two sitting at the piano. She earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (and another from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and a third from the Royal Academy of Arts ) that took her from her birthplace in New Zealand to England, where she married my father, and later produced me in 1941. I don’t remember the air-raids, because she sang me to sleep. In fact, I have no memories of those troubled times.
I do remember around the age of four, when we were in Mauritius, sitting underneath her baby grand piano, touching the sounding board and feeling in my fingertips the music she was making. I remember looking in under the lid and seeing the big bass strings blur as they sounded. Later on, I remember standing beside her, learning to sing those English songs that were the basis for a musical education in her day: Cherry Ripe, The Ash Grove, Lillibulero, The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington, Henry V’s Hunting Song, The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies. I still have the book.. I remember her singing Victorian parlour music such as The Guiding Light by Salvator Rosa and I remember all the words even though I am sure I never saw them written down.
When we got to Canada in 1949, still with the baby grand in tow, I was given a recorder, which gave me something to do that wasn’t singing, because I could not achieve the hand independence necessary to play the piano. At least, that was my excuse, but I think it was more probably that I expected to make the leap into reading a score that I had done into reading words. I had gone from A is for Apple to reading Dr. Doolittle in a few months, then on to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, Henty’s Masterman Ready and Midshipman Easy, Treasure Island, Kidnapped … all before I was six. Surely reading music would be no different. After all, my mother sight-read music and words at the same time as she played and sang, all with no visible effort at all. I remember seeing her make a mistake on a new piece, stop, look down at her hands and back up at the music with an expression on her face that clearly said, “What could possibly have gone wrong?” Not so for me, although I could learn to follow the notes up and down at the top of the treble line, which meant that I could carry the air to Sheep May Safely Graze on my recorder while she did the marvellous rocking rhythm of the grundlegung.
I remember our first record player, on which I met Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Grieg’s piano concerto, all of them arbitrarily sawn up into seven- minute segments to fit on a side of a 78 RPM record. It later came as a shock to me that there wasn’t a rch, rch, click, slap, tick, rch, rch between the scale-like riff up the piano keys and the descent back down again in Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto.
Great technological achievements in music invaded my life. When the first LPs came out, I blew my entire Christmas money on a boxed set of the complete Messiah, and invited my friends to come and listen to it. In silence. No refreshments. “Do you remember blowing your recorder when we went Christmas Carolling?” a childhood friend asked me, half a century later. I nodded. There was a pause while she refrained from saying, “You were a weird kid.”
In my 16th year, while my father almost took his RCN frigate to Korea until the talks at Panmunjom turned the Canadian flotilla around at Hawaii, my mother took me to England in the hopes that I would become the nice English boy she had hoped for. I went to a school called Haberdasher’s Aske’s Hampstead School, where the school uniform was black coat, black waistcoat, pin-stripe trousers, school tie and cricket cap, producing the effect of a large group of adolescent undertakers with the wrong headgear. HAHS, as it was abbreviated, had a full pipe organ in the assembly hall and a superb music department that included the first clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra. Since I had dramatically failed to show any voice talent when my mother had taken me to her old voice teacher, we compromised on the clarinet. From a dead start of not being able to assemble the thing, that wonderfully patient man whose name I have wholly forgotten took me in one school year to being able to play the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto, at which time my mother had a full-blown schizophrenic episode that took us back to Canada, where I finished my high school at Lisgar Collegiate in Ottawa from which I emerged determinedly Canadian. Lisgar a tremendous improvement over the half-baked imitation-English school called Ashbury that I had been sent to before the failed experiment of dipping me into England.
I went off to university. I learned to twist to Chubby Checker, to slow dance to Johnny Mathis and to jive to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
Music at Queen’s was a feast. Someone managed to intercept travelling classical musicians between their concertizing in Montreal and Toronto for a one night stand in Queen’s Grant Hall. I heard some of the greats of the time, including Segovia and the reigning Hungarian String Quartet. Six concerts each year for four years, each series priced so that each concert was less than ten bucks a pop.
While grinding my way to a BAHon in English Lit with a minor in Philosophy, I had one absolutely free choice in the 20-odd courses necessary for the acquisition of parchment. I chose music. A delightful man named Dr. George taught a class of six weirdos about the importance of key in music. He got us to listen into music, not just whistle the big themes. Revelation.
Fast forward past 1962 (BA Hon) and 63 (MA) to my first job as an Assistant Professor at Acadia University, which paid in rank as opposed to cash, causing me to spend my subsequent academic career steadily going down the echelons until I finally reached the nadir of sessional instructor, only a sheepskin or two between me and the TAs. But I digress.
First folk, then rock re-oriented me. Folk was easy, because my mother sang folk songs — at least that’s what she said those pure-white, nymphs-and-shepherds songs were, but the only overlap with what I heard in the second half of my 20s was that she, too, had sung Scarborough Fair, placing me among the vanishingly small group of people who know that Simon and Garfunkle DID NOT WRITE IT. So anyway, onward with Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, The Weavers, Pete Seeger et al, who were on the travelling not very HiFi equipment in my basement apartment in Wolfville at roughly the same time as when I blundered into the SUB (Student Union Building) to see what the fuss was about, and saw The Fab Four on Ed Sullivan. I can’t say I was all that impressed by the music, but I was amazed that girls could scream that loud in such numbers.
Marriage. First son. Back to school for a PhD. The late 60s hit me all of a wallop. Rhythm happened: Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, The Chambers Brothers, Santana, The Moody Blues. They all were at first, “interesting,” and then after a few tokes, “mind blowing.” If Dr. George had shown me how to listen into Bach, dope took me deep into sounds I had never imagined could exist, allowing me to forget thinking about what I was hearing and just bathe in the experience.
Then it all went Kiss and fireworks and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in Rock — with the album cover that told you someone in the student apartment did speed. I filled out my collection of the Moodies, added Yes’ “Fragile” album alongside the Who and not too far from the Grateful Dead.
Divorce led to me making CBC radio my musical source at roughly the time people were discovering original instruments. Taflemusik delighted me, and Jeanne Lamond became my hero as I gravitated back to classical. One day walking in Calgary (I did a lot of that) I happened on a little store that sold New Age trippy-shit such as dream catchers and crystal jewellery. There was lots of mood music to persuade you that you were meditating; it was bland, featureless stuff as soul destroying as elevator music. There among the other cassette tapes were three by Kim Robertson, Irish harpist, whose music I credit for me being able to write The Laughing Princess.
I’d always whistled, improving my ability by filling in where I lacked digital dexterity on the recorder and the clarinet. I made a lifelong friend in my first year at Queen’s because I was walking along whistling snatches of the violin lead in one of the Brandenburg Concertos when someone behind me started filling in the cello. For decades, all I could do was whistle the big themes, or the top line of something like the Harmonious Blacksmith, which is great fun to do if you carry it on into the more and more difficult variations. Then in my fifties, I started to find myself whistling longer lines such as the gorgeous cello solo in the second movement of Brahms’ third piano concerto, as well as the first transformations of the theme that follow the huge first impressions of piano concertos by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
Then one day on holiday not far from Albuquerque we drove out the desert and climbed over the top of a ridge into open savannahs fringed with pine trees. Katherine was driving, Mollie was shotgun, so Mike and I were in the back. With perfect unanimity, Mike and I imaginatively imposed a burning map on what we saw, and both declared “pom titty pompompom pom pah!” and so on into the rest of the Bonanza theme. We followed up with every western theme we could manage to recall, until our better halves implored us to stop. We drove on in exhausted silence. I watched the scenery going past. Maybe it was the tires singing the right note, or the rhythm of passing over a rough patch, but I heard the beginning of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in my head. The piece unspooled in my mind complete, not just the soaring violin, but also the orchestra’s fullness. Hardly breathing, I went on through all three movements. I knew as it went along that I was skipping some of the repeats, but by george, I heard the whole damn thing.
Since then, I’ve been able now and then, more and more — when the light’s right — to hear in my head longer and longer passages from, in particular, the great piano concertos of the Romantic era. And when I whistle, I can hear the orchestra behind me. Not all the time, not always complete, but surprisingly so, especially while walking alone or on the edges of sleep.
This is without doubt the most surprising thing that has happened to me in the last fifteen years or so, and the most welcome. It overlaps with and complements and is wrapped up in the same package as being able to write what pleases me, and seems to engage others.
I decided to study English Lit because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do it. Most of my life was spent admiring monuments of verbal magnificence and being entirely over-awed. I failed to sing or play the piano like my mother, and when my year in England was over I put my clarinet away. I never got past G, G7, D on the guitar. I spent decades as a listener striving to understand music. Of late, I don’t understand it at all, but I hear music in my head, and that’s just fine with me.