In Europe, it’s nice to walk into an empty church when, rather than priests, there are only stain glass windows, a small red light like the eye of a cyclop, the worn, watery grey silk of flagstones, and maybe a sparrow or two, circling. In the silent crowd of empty pews, the smell of candles and incense, the cool silence, you can sit and feel strangely safe in a land of time where minutes are no longer made of seconds and each heartbeat is a bite of eternity. Here death feels like window with an animal feeling behind it of, simply, life flowing on – one knows not where. When animals die, they bend into death with that resigned, knowing expression in their eyes.
Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg church door, because pope Leo X was selling passports to heaven for vast quantities of money. Somehow it feels strange that Protestant churches feel so cold when they are the ones who rebelled because the sacred was being desecrated.
Walking into a church in Australia is mostly like walking into a scout hall. But everywhere else you go, seems sacred in some way. You only have to step into the bush or look up at a ghost gum down the street and feel you are in Notre Dame. Any tree seems to gaze back at you if you stare at it long enough. The sky is wider than the Egyptian goddess Nut and every time you tip your head back, its baffling immensity is strangely comforting. Twice I was walking with a friend outside of Melbourne and I stopped as if someone had touched my arm to listen to the quiet – it felt exactly like being in a church. I told my friend and we walked on a few steps and met a sign explaining this was sacred aboriginal territory. Maybe we are mystical animals, rooted in the sacred.
The first time I went to the opera was in Naples. An old Englishman, sitting behind me, bent forward and whispered in my ear: ‘Wake me up when they start fighting’. I must have been about nine. I liked him on the spot, so when Carmen’s lover got slaughtered I duly shook his knobby knee. Then, to our relief, Carmen finally shut up and died too. I never saw the old Englishman again but something passed from him to me, some unexplainable companionship that stayed like a stone in my pocket. The strange friendships of my childhood were flashlights in the surrounding darkness of school and home life. They led me on, protecting me and guiding me, a bit like dwarfs or witches in fairy tales. Maybe we are all dwarves and witches to each other at certain times of darkness in life’s forests.
I had another shot at Carmen at the Opera Garnier in Paris at about twelve and didn’t like it all over again.
Then, in my early thirties, a friend invited me to see Othello in the Arenas of Nîmes. Arenas, whether in Rome, Arles or Nîmes, always feel ominous to me, as if the suffering and fear packed in them so long ago were still hanging around. When I was about four years old, my father took me to the Collosseum. I was violently sick. I remember quite clearly the stench of beasts and bloody limbs. It could have been my father’s narrative skills of course, but surely a place like that would be saturated with its own past. (As I am writing this I made myself a coffee, after I drank it, there was a wolf inside the cup.) However, I did not refuse this third venture to the opera.
As my friend Samir dragged me to this cultural spree, I tried not to think that the gladiators had walked through the same mangy openings in the rock or that the lions and wolves had used that very rock to sharpen their claws on their way to their human snack. I also knew how Othello ends: he kills her. So with that and the wide open jaws of the enormous arena that engulfed us all, I was not planning to enjoy myself. It was a balmy Mediterranean night. The velvet belly of the sky hung low and the crowd of spectators were basking in an educated, whispered quiet before the singers started roaming on stage in Shakespearian angst. I was busy missing my old Englishman.
Yet, towards the end, when Desdemona has no hope in hell of having breakfast the next morning, something made me sit up on the cushion thoughtfully covering the stone step of the arena. The scene was pretty banal. Desdemona was with her lady in waiting gently moving around stage as she sung something quite as ordinary as: could you hang that cloak here, fold those dresses, take that sheet away and please fill the chest with this pile of clothing. Suddenly I knew she was not giving a course in housekeeping. Her song wafted straight into me. I felt with absolute certainty that this was her adieu, not only to her favourite lady in waiting but to life itself. Tears ran down my cheeks. Thanks to my friend Samir, I had understood opera at last. On the wings of music, emotions that are not our own, invade the privacy of our heart and widen our perceptions.
From then on, opera whispered secrets to me in the dark of a crowd about pain and fear and sudden stormy joy.
I was at a recital again the other night. It was about men dying under the sea in a submarine. Not so long ago either. I closed my eyes and let the waves cover me. It’s rather easy to imagine being under the sea in a concert hall for some reason. The lapping of subsiding voices, the metal instruments, the darkness behind your eyelids, the liquid of the composer’s exquisite music which, for me in some crazed way, contained silence, a silence only knowledge of suffering can bring. But then, the words of accompaniment, the choir, broke it all for me. Why couldn’t the music stand alone just as those men had been alone under the sea, waiting for death? What else but a form of silence, a wave of respect can greet so recently bodyless souls? Words seemed brash interruptions and the singing felt heroic and insensitive. The intelligentsia’s loud ovation jarred for me and only the music, so seemingly powerless in view of such a human disaster, stayed as a mysterious consolation.
A week later, when I went to listen to Twelve Streets Till Home playing at the Brunswick Hotel right near were I live, I discovered something else.
Their singer, Lucienne Shenfield’s bitter sweet voice rose above the noisy giggles of her girlfriends, above the rumble of the pub, above my own suddenly silent breathing. Unexpectedly her young sound became very old and wise, welling up like a river. There was nothing more to wrestle with, just hearing it made me understand that separate people at two ends of the city were soothing death, despair, undiluted pain because they sang or played their notes, because music is a sacred act somehow, somewhere, sometimes.
The only song I can sing is Ten Green Bottles on the Wall. I don’t feel cut out to understand high-tech, contemporary music that makes you sometimes jump out of your skin or rattles your teeth as if you had slipped under the wheels of a tram.
I didn’t expect to feel both encompassed and displaced – to such an extent – by Parlour Tricks, David Chisholm’s new work in progress.
I was suddenly ravished, as if the notes took me away to some genius loci I knew but had forgotten from long-ago. Was it the baroque instruments touching the notes with more tired gentleness, more restless passion than modern instruments? The sound slips you into that semi unconscious yet fully aware state that makes you hear more than listen. Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry also takes you down the music, down into Hades’ world of no return – unless it is suddenly Spring – such an exquisite reminder of the stormy fickleness of life’s joys and griefs. And the powerful, gentle Jessica Azsodi, with her sunny smile and desperate vibrato conjugated Spring and Mourning so well.
The story’s resolute lack of narration whispers back its presence – like a stranger in a petrol station, turns around to show the face of a true brother. Parlour Tricks plucks you out of its world to plunge you in your own memory of feeling until the music becomes your life and Persephone’s life writ in a strange baroque language of sound where the mythical past and the present meet as she goes down under.
The soprano Hana Crisp, who sang Sea Song, woke up Ophelia and swam with her to the surface of feminine longing. In every woman a drowned Ophelia has given up, but Sea Song sings her back to consciousness. This music has all stories sown in its hem, in a great swish of sound it brings them forth to our sleeping hearts and awakes us where we were no longer breathing, no longer thinking, no longer feeling.
The Song of Prayer is about yellow dressed women (such a reminder of the yellow star) forced into prostitution, then forced straight into convents – both prisons. It visits their lost pain, treads back into their unseen suffering. It awakens a community of feeling with what has been done to others. Touching the past reels in the present in a new way. These women are not alone, we are gathering the flounces of their woe; we no longer drag them in the dust of our forgetting, but lift them into our experience and hearts. Medieval chimes have us step lightly, as we are drawn, deep within, to understand. Yet the harpsichord, the viola da gamba and baroque violin, joined by a clarinet tripling bass and contrabass clarinets, stitch our present into their mourning, into their yearning as David Chisholm’s music swells with compassion.
When I walk in the street families folded in their homes have always fascinated me. Other lives are so close, yet so far away. A curtain, the distorting glass of a window is the only thing that separates us from each other’s intimacy.
The passage from conversation to silence is sometimes brutal. Driving back from a friend’s house on a cold night, one is suddenly alone with the words one has said, spilling around the car as one’s own presence wells up and our friends’ presence ebbs away. Their house, their furniture, their animals – the sweetness of it. Their cups, their floorboards seem like the lost world of the Proles in 1984 by George Orwell. Sometimes affection gives one the feeling of being transplanted.
As a child I used to have the same nightmares. One of them was about big squares of different colours with rounded corners that would come timidly, fearfully, tantalizingly close to each other, but never be able to intersect or overlap. The feeling this awoke in me was the nightmare in itself. It filled me with suffocating fear. I can still remember the passionate unrequited tenderness and loneliness of those squares of colour.
I then learnt Intersections in mathematics and, though I was nearly a retarded pupil concerning numbers, to the teacher’s stupefaction, I immediately found the answers. I knew it was my dream making me preternaturally aware of them. Others surround us but when we have inner connections with them, we can become hesitant squares of colour – hoping, hesitating, groping on invisible thresholds. Yet, isn’t that what true connection is about? Winston Smith sits in a dream of recognition in the Proles’ sitting room in 1984. His feeling of hidden wonder, his sharp living nostalgia so well describes what we feel when we try to connect.
When quite by chance I stumbled on Elsworth’s Kelly’s paintings I recognised my nightmare, but it became a dream instead. No, we can never intersect. We are most certainly alone but in spite of wondering if we will ever truly understand another human being, we can approach them as tentatively as his squares of colour.