A note or two about music

February 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

It was with dismay, derision and eventually delight that I followed the Classic 100 countdown of twentieth century classical music. Especially the battle that raged between the musical purists (who wanted to hear and celebrate obscure and innovative works) and the toe-tapping populace (who had voted with their much more mainstream feet).

Halfway through the first Sunday I squirmed and fidgeted to a composition that had some listeners rejoicing and others hiding until it was over: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie (at number 81). Over on Twitter, Tim Senior declared the piece “uneasy, spiritual, effortfully joyful“. Effortful? This sounded like praise for the emperor’s new, horrible clothes. A word you’d use to describe art that was conspicuously messy, noisy and sort of…awful. Like giving birth in an art gallery.


The thing is, I grew up listening to bad music. My parents played the classics. Then they played the Hooked on Classics. Then they played Richard Clayderman’s piano, James Galway’s flute, Abba’s moog and guitars, Herb Alpert’s tijuana brass and the Inca’s godawful pan pipes.

They liked music. Awful music. Still do: my mother proudly announced on the phone just the other day that my father was playing Andre Rieu’s Christmas concert and it was SO LOUD!

But all that bad music may have opened my ears, because I spent the next twenty-five years singing, more or less.

As I prepared to leave home for university, my mother handed me a clipped-from-the-paper audition notice for the Queensland Youth Choir. A few weeks later, in a small room in Kelvin Grove, the musical director declared me in possession of a “warm tone” and signed me up. It was the end of the eighties and we were a show choir, a flash of Fame, a grown-up Glee.  We opened the Queensland Tourism Awards, performed David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus, laboured through Boojum! and scored a week-long gig in Japan. It was four years of intoxicating bliss.


So when Classic100 came along my inclination was to defend the popular and the crowd-pleasing (because why shame people for loving glorious anthems?) But the countdown and the debate that accompanied it made me think, and for that I am deeply thankful.

I laid down, headphones in ears, to listen to the final five on the list: Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, Holst and Elgar. I felt connected, temporarily, to that slice of Australia to which these things mattered dreadfully much. It was nice.

And then, after it was over and everyone had retired to their corners and their beds, Julian Day played a piece that didn’t make the cut, and I hung on the line and listened.

It was “Black Angels” by George Crumb, an experimental piece about heaven and hell, angels and devils. It spoke so immediately, so clearly and so intricately to me; became not just an aural but a visual work in my head, that I wondered if I had taken some enabling substance. Within the first few bars a quiet and sinister cold descended. I heard frost forming on trees and ponds hardening into ice and snow settling on dead things. This was music to freeze by.

And just like that, it became crystal clear. Like Tim Senior said: “Isn’t that the sort of thing music should do? Not just soothe.”


§ 3 Responses to A note or two about music

  • elissamilne says:

    This post has given me goose-bumps: you’ve described my exact response to hearing Black Angels more than 25 years ago, when I was a teenage university student.

    A fabulous piece you’ve written – thank you!

  • Thanks for posting your thoughts. I’m a bit humbled by being quoted on a blog! Thank you.
    I’m just an amateur musician, who, like you, got into listening through performing. I’ve never heard Black Angels (but will seek it out now) but have had similar reactions to many other pieces of music (not just “classical”) which has left me seeking out more and more. I loved virtually all the Classic 100 pieces and enjoyed the Twitter conversations. The only thing music shoulden’t be is boring (and I do find Karl jenkins boring – and have to wonder if Andre Rieu finds his own music boring, which is why he has to build huge sets and have horses running around!)
    Lovely, thoughtful post, though, and you’ve got some extra thoughts cascading through my brain too…

  • A very enjoyable post. I must say that I find people who are snooty and intolerant about music to be dull company. There is beautiful, creative music right across the spectrum, and particular pieces push the buttons for one person that fail to for another. You were fortunate to be exposed to it all, and I’ll bet you’re a better musician for it.

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