Saturday, 29 October 2016

In Which My Dad Begins My Musical Education

Whatever modest musical ability I have I owe to my Dad.

It took me a while to work this out.  When I was growing up, there wasn't lot of music in the house.  Mum and Dad had a small record collection and on rare occasions they would put something on the scratchy mono turntable Dad had built himself.  We also had a piano, but no-one played it much.

As I got older I realised this wasn't how it had always been.  Dad was a decent pianist and also quite a good singer.  As boy he trained as a church chorister, and our photo album included a picture of him dressed as a policeman in a production of Pirates of Penzance where he and Mum met and fell in love.

Sadly by the time I was old enough to notice, Dad had lost a lot of his hearing and this ruined his enjoyment of music.  It's just not the same when you can only hear half the notes.  His only piano playing was an occasional rendition of Fur Elise, which he could play fairly fluently by heart despite his lack of practice.  When he was feeling cheerful he would sometimes burst loudly into song, snatches of obscure things we never heard in full.

However, at some point he decided to take my musical education in hand and started to play me his favourite records.  He had fairly broad tastes but the main items in the collection were jazz-influenced comic songs, and classical and modern orchestral and chamber works.

Naturally, he started me on the comic songs.  I had already discovered Rolf Harris as part of my family's attempt to become proper Aussies, and as children we would listen to things like Flanders and Swann and Stanley Holloway's The Ramsbottoms.  Dad started introducing me to more sophisticated jazz-oriented songs like Phil Harris's 'Woodman Spare that Tree' and 'Darktown Poker Club'.  My favourite was Johnny Dankworth's 'Experiments with Mice', which I loved despite the references to various popular jazz musicians going completely over my head.

When he thought I was ready for it he began to introduce me to orchestral music.  The first orchestral piece I remember him playing was Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', which I would have already heard and seen in Disney's Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice.  We had the piece on a 7-inch record with a beautiful cover featuring an artist's impression of the sorcerer.  It was my first lesson in the idea that music could tell a story on its own, lyrics or no lyrics.

From there he tried me out on all sorts of stuff.  He played me Mozart and Beethoven, but I mostly found them boring.  He tried me out on a scratchy copy of Bach's harpsichord music which I found pleasant enough without it really capturing my imagination.  In the end, the pieces that drew me in were two theatrical, story-telling pieces from the 20th Century - Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Holst's The Planets.

To be truthful I think Stravinsky was beyond me, but I enjoyed the beautiful dynamics, the way the dreamy woodwinds build up into the thumping of the cellos and the fanfare of the brass, the sheer frenetic tempo of parts of it, the elemental simplicity of the melodies augmented by complex arrangements.  It gained added street cred when I learned that the audience rioted at the first performance of the ballet for which it formed the score.

However, on the rare occasions I listen to orchestral music these days it is most likely to be The Planets.  Holst's composition consists of seven separate pieces of music, based on the then known planets of our solar system presented in order of their distance from Earth - Mars the Bringer of War, Venus the Bringer of Peace, Mercury the Winged Messenger, Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity, Saturn the Bringer of Old Age, Uranus the Magician and Neptune the Mystic.

The pieces are inspired more by astrology than the Roman gods for whom the planets are named.  Each planet, each piece, has its own mood and personality.  If I was feeling quiet and reflective I could listen to Neptune or Venus, if I felt like dancing and smiling I could listen to Mercury or Jupiter, if I was a bit bullish I could enjoy Mars.  Someone recently gave me a copy on CD and I discovered it is perfect driving music, sweeping you out into space as you roll along the highway.

Other aspects of Dad's attempts to educate me were less successful.  He tried to teach me to play piano but I didn't get very far.  At the time I thought it was because he was a lousy teacher but these days I am more inclined to believe I was a poor pupil, too impatient to dedicate myself to regular practice.  My teenage musical choices were also a disappointment to him - he never got pop music.

Of course in my teenage years I turned to other teachers.  My peers used to pass around bootleg tapes of their favourite records, and I heard whatever teenage boys were listening to in the mid-1970s.  There was a smorgasboard from the poppiest of pop - I loved Paul McCartney and The Sweet for a time, although I never stooped to Abba - through to what in those days passed for heavy metal (Deep Purple, Uriah Heep) and the glories of prog rock.

Yet there were other influences even among my peers.  One of my best friends at high school was Brett Dean, a precocious young musician who went on to become one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary composers.  At one point he lifted my eyes a little from the pop universe by making me a tape of pieces he thought I might enjoy.  I seem to remember there was something by Shostakovich, and Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga and the Great Gate of Kiev among other pieces now forgotten.  I loved it and listened to it a lot.  When I discovered Rick Wakeman's brand of orchestral rock music (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) my ears were ready to enjoy.

It took me a long time to realise how much of this taste I owed to Dad, trapped as I was in the myth that he was a poor teacher.  Yet why did I prefer Pink Floyd to punk, Rick Wakeman to rockabilly?  I believe it was because Dad's musical lessons had prepared me to listen patiently, to understand that music should have dynamics, should tell a story beyond lyrics and even without them.  He taught me that the best music lasted longer than three minutes, and that it could draw you in completely to an alternative emotional world.  Although the techniques and instrumentation are very different Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' and 'Echoes' provide the same kind of story-telling that I first heard from Holst and Stravinsky.

I'm quite sure I didn't properly appreciate my Dad while he was still alive.  Perhaps it takes the nagging pull of absence to really make you understand what you have missed.  Dad was a better teacher than I ever knew, because he taught me out of love, and shared what he loved.  He thought carefully about the choices he played for me, understood young boys better than I gave him credit for (having been one himself) and gave me space and time to find my own place among his favourites.  He never banned anything from the turntable, and even his tutting at some of the music I brought home makes more sense now than it did then.  What did I ever see in Sherbert?  And why did so many Australian singers put on American accents?

I miss him, but I also carry him inside me, and will until the day I die.

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