Remember those family visits you were forced to endure as a child? The Uncle and Aunty who served stale biscuits; Dad’s former work colleague and his wife whose own child, fully two years older, totally ignored the visiting juvenile; the Grandparents whose dim, musty house imprisoned you for the mandatory sentence of stilted conversation about school and sporting activities until you were permitted to escape to the overgrown garden…
In former times a common badge of middle class cultural aspiration was the inclusion, as part of the lounge room furniture, of an upright piano. Usually nobody played—perhaps Dad once aspired to learn a handful of Broadway hits or sister suffered several years of unproductive lessons—but now the walnut box sat sadly against the wall, its cover down and a pair of almost-matching china vases sitting in symmetrical silence on top…
Mute, brooding, perhaps a little hurt. Staring down at the floral carpet and watching motes of dust dancing to secret tunes as late afternoon sun filtered through venetian blinds. That’s how it felt to be a piano in the middle-distance suburbs of the late 60s…
Unless, of course, visitors arrived towing a reluctant child who was known to learn the pianoforte. Give us a tune! What’s your latest piece? I hear you did very well in your Grade 5 exam! Know anything from The Mikado? How I dreaded these conversations. Not for their lack of connection to my musical world (because I did not really have one, then) but because they indicated an inexorable arc towards a particular outcome; I would be pressed upon to play.
Was it the repetition of this scene that encouraged my committing to memory a couple of pieces I could trot out with little pain, thus fulfilling my musical obligations? If so, how on earth did I conclude that 1918 compositions by a contemporary of Satie and Stravinsky would be well received by the Gilbert and Sullivan loving audience my parents inflicted me upon? Was it some kind of quiet rebellion? That is unlikely both for reasons of general emotional squashedness and because my tastes were still entirely constrained by the musical environment of my parents and a generally conservative piano teacher. Perhaps the two pieces by Poulenc were my standard performance repertoire because they were short. And after hearing their surprising melodic dissonance and unusual structure, people usually did not ask for more. That has a certain truthful cadence to it.
And so, one Sunday afternoon, the young pianist was found in an unfamiliar lounge room, perched on an unyielding wooden stool before the yellowing keys of a neglected parlour instrument, his back to a quartet of middle-aged adults juggling coffee cups and biscuits and ready to be entertained.
A couple of arpeggios proved the instrument to be more-or-less in tune, so, with a brief, inaudible sigh, I launched into Trois mouvements perpétuels No. 1, it’s unusual melody—combining salted caramel and peanut brittle—filling the room. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the hosts, hitherto unseen in such tedious company, appeared in the doorway. In my peripheral vision I could see her leaning against the door jamb, arms folded under her breasts (the memory of which irrefutably dates this story to teenage-hood), her eyes fixed on my hands. Halfway through the brief piece she could contain herself no longer. “His fingers are like spiders!” she exclaimed, to the mixed embarrassment and amusement of the older section of the audience. Me? Despite abhorring all arachnid life forms, I was quite chuffed, and launched into movement deux with scuttley enthusiasm.
What strange neurone webs, long dormant in our endless brain-matrix, are quietly breathed to life years—decades—after the experience occurred? Perhaps it was seeing a photo of an LP of Poulenc’s piano music on social media or picking up a CD of music associated with Picasso that included works by the French composer. Hard to say, but I found myself thinking about those pieces and wondering whether they had been recorded on disc.
You can find anything on the web, can’t you? And so a copy of Poulenc: Piano Music Volume 2 (Naxos, 1999) was ordered in the click of a mouse.
Awaiting arrival of the CD, wisps of memory began to surface. I found myself lying in bed, playing through the pieces in my head until the bar-lines wavered and the notation blurred to foggy uncertainty. But the next day, stacking the dishwasher, another phrase drifted in, then another, until, around the time the package arrived, a sizeable pile of fragments lay passively on the museum table of my mind, ready for an attempt at reconstruction.
The music. I wonder if I still have it? Two possible locations; the first a strike, the second a score. Well, well. Discoloured, slightly dog-eared, but intact and alive with dancing quavers. Open to the first piece, much as visualised and heard in brainwaves made gauzy by time. Next, the second. A single page of music ending in the only glissando I ever played.
How will the pieces sound played by a professional? By an actual musician? I’m almost afraid, but thrilled too. The music has been weaving gossamer fabric from distant memories, images of shadow-phrases emanating from teenaged spider-hands. I’m hearing the notes in my head, upper and lower register, fingers twitching like an insect overcome by spray, quivering out its last movements.
Or perhaps coming to life.