Tears, tantrums and transfiguration

June 2nd, 2010

I had become a moody, sulky cow thanks to the exertions of Mt Eyjafjallajokull. I was all set to board a plane on a certain Monday evening to participate in the Harare International Festival of Arts (affectionately known as ‘HIFA’) and catch up with the lovely C. into the bargain, whom I’d been missing enormously. Instead, Monday night saw me at the cafe round the corner cursing Mother Nature and her capricious ways. I was taking it personally – I’d been told I wouldn’t be leaving till at least Wednesday, and even that wasn’t looking entirely hopeful.

On Tuesday night I went to a concert, had a few drinks with some friends, and caught a tram home. I was snuggled in bed infront of the lap-top in my PJs (much like I am now – eek!) doing some half-hearted admin work. It was 12.15am. There, in my email inbox was a message from Jo – one of the HIFA organisers. The cover letter was brief: ‘Dear Leigh, does this alternative itinerary work? Let us know so we can confirm. Best, Jo’. I opened the attachment – the first thing I noticed was the convoluted route that expertly avoided all ash-spewing vulcanism: Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur – Dubai – Johannesburg – Harare – clearly I’d be in the air for days. The second thing, slowly dawning on me, was the departure time – 2.40… am??

I suddenly adopted the attitude of a contestant on ‘The Amazing Race’. I rang a taxi, re-packed my hand-luggage haphazardly, scrawled a likely-illegible note to my housemates explaining my sudden disappearance, and bolted. I was actually about 70% sure that I wouldn’t make the flight, but fate was smiling on me and the queue for check-in was non-existent. I have never felt more like a rock-star as when I was in the back of the taxi speeding to the airport, frantically emailing Jo to tell her to confirm the ticket booking as I would be at the airport in 15 minutes.

And two days later, without much incident, I was in Harare and I was face-to-face with C. It was indeed a reason to celebrate. My initial tantrums at almost missing out on HIFA turned to  embarrassed sheepiness when I realised how unnecessarily sullen I’d been, and by the time my HIFA experience was over, it wouldn’t be too much to say that I was actually quite ashamed at my behaviour in light of what I’d been privileged to be a part of over the HIFA fortnight.

The truth is, my HIFA experience still isn’t over. I returned to Melbourne and over a red (of course) breathlessly described everything to Laila and Julia. I had been moved to tears several times in Harare and was struggling to fight back tears again as I related my stories. But I wasn’t crying for the reasons you may think. I was actually moved to tears by the incredibly warm nature of the people there. Above all, everyone wanted to share. Over the course of the fortnight, there was a man who wanted to take us to his favourite coffee shop and who devoted an entire evening to showing us the best markets in town. What did he want in return? Simply to sit and listen in silence to C. and I rehearse, which he did for two hours; another man folded a disc of foil cut from a Sprite can into an intricate (and practically life-sized) mosquito before my eyes and gave it to me as a gift; the mother of a boy who played in an ensemble with C. and I rang our hotel room to invite us to share a dinner at their home; the head chef at our hotel almost became our surrogate mum, enquiring about our well-being every morning at breakfast.

I relate all this because it’s ALL to do with music, and music-making. I’d been privileged to play music to people that related it directly to their lives (and often their lives were rich with hardship) and who considered it an act of sharing, of story-telling, of somehow divulging a secret part of ourselves, if only for a moment. We’d given something to them and they wanted to offer us something in return. Money never changed hands, and yet both parties ended up infinitely richer from every exchange.

Rehearsals for our ‘Metaphysical Morsels’ concert began as soon as I stepped off the plane, and I couldn’t help but view performing all of these existential pieces – most of them dealing with the big issues of death and transfiguration – as the most intimate of emotional exchanges. I felt silly for being on the verge of tears most of the first rehearsal. The frightened weight of the  entire fragile world seemed to be contained in the first movement of the Hindemith Bass Clarinet Sonata that Julia and I started working on. Jolivet’s ‘Chant de Linos’ is a piece that Laila and I have performed many times before, but this time around it seemed almost unbearably tortured. When Peter Tregear asked us on live radio to explain the background of the piece I found myself poised to start blubbering again, thinking about the intense nature of grief and the necessary catharsis of funeral rites.

But there was an instance when there was no ‘poised’ about it. Brenton Broadstock has transcribed for us an incredibly moving work called ‘I touched your glistening tears’. Such a poetic title beggars further explanation, and Julia had the foresight to ring Brenton and ask him about the piece’s background. He related a moving story about his role of carer for his handicapped son and the helplessness felt in those instances when all he can do is wipe away his ‘glistening tears’. As Julia related the story to me, she was fighting back tears. As I absorbed it, I found that fighting back tears was impossible.

As classically trained musicians, we can often be cynical and one-eyed in our quest for technical perfection. But the bottom line is that we have to be aware that music arouses emotion – be it happiness, awe, anger, ecstasy, or even revulsion. Every piece, like every person, has a story – a story that should be shared, discussed and celebrated. If we perform a piece, but haven’t told a story, perhaps we haven’t done our job properly, even if we’ve executed the notes perfectly. The story might be different for every person in the room who hears it, but it must say something. When we performed ‘I touched your glistening tears’ on the radio last week, I realised that by the end of the work I had my own eyes shut so tightly that I’d squeezed out some tears myself. But it was no longer about me. In fact, it never was. What had I been complaining about again?


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