2015 – An Odd Space Essay by Chris Green
I will be 119 next birthday. In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, domestic power, antibiotics, the gramophone record and sliced bread. Let us not forget the vacuum cleaner, the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have seen the acceptance of Darwinism, the rise of secularism, the collapse of Empire and the provision of the welfare state. Oil and petrochemicals have become crucial resources to human civilisation and transformed the balance of power the world over. Oil, of course, is running out. The peak of oil discoveries was in 1965, and oil production per year has surpassed oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon we are going to have a lot of disappointed people. Should we perhaps feel a little guilt about our perfunctory waste and our accumulation of air miles?
When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families did not have a bathroom, there was horse-muck on the streets, and in cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. In the countryside though you could walk for miles in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition with the green and pleasant land losing out to electricity pylons, motorways, and suburban sprawl. Communication in all forms has been revolutionised. When I was born we had the penny post and the Daily Mail. Now twenty-four hour television, mobile phones, and wi-fi are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was around 29 million. Today it is 64 million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.
In life, things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, like an epiphany or a catastrophe, you are not aware of it. The changes are so subtle that you do not notice from moment to moment, day to day. Age creeps up on you with clandestine stealth, as months, years and decades slide inexorably by. You can perhaps only measure change through a succession of befores and afters. Even then, time acts as an unreliable witness, leaving you unsure of precise chronology. But this could be something particular to my circumstances; I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Ruth, Natalie, Marielle and Sakura. For the record, I have to my knowledge twenty two great-great-grandchildren and twenty eight great-great-great-grandchildren, and, no, I cannot remember all of their names.
Music means literally ‘art of the muses’. It goes back a long way. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects that music has on the body and soul. Rhythm and harmony represent a universal language; rhythm the heartbeat, the voice the song. Music has been my inspiration. Through my vocation as a composer and musical coach of some regard, I have had the great fortune to meet many of the people who saw through some of the historic changes over the last hundred years or so.
Not many people know that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies of this most idiosyncratic of British Prime Ministers. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness (English was his second language). Not a mention of his musical interests. It was, in fact, I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, which was at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability, and could have easily mastered the clarinet, but with maverick zeal, he was determined that he preferred the saxophone. He saw himself as a trailblazer. He bought one of the first Selmer Modele 22, saxophones to come to the UK, and guested in jazz ensembles which, although there are no records of this, played at dance halls in the Manchester area.
‘Why did we have to fight the war?’ I asked him one day. I had spent a majority of WW1 in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.
‘I will tell you why,’ he said. ‘Because Germany expected to find a lamb and found a lion.’
‘No question of sitting around the table and discussing things first then?’ I asked.
‘ Diplomats were invented simply to waste time,’ was his response.
This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go.
Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica, but on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for some tuition. Musicians at the time had started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp. Mohandas felt the harmonica was an instrument associated with the poor, and being able to play it to the starving masses back home would lend support to his great mission.
‘History would turn out for the better if our leaders learned that most disputes can be resolved by a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and by using diplomacy and compassion,’ Mohandas said to me.
‘It is a shame that history has the habit of repeating itself,’ I said.
Mohandas thought this a negative view to take and was optimistic that a new type of common sense would eventually emerge if you kept plugging away.
‘We must become the change we want to see,’ he said.
Mahatma’s teachings were something that stayed with me through the years of conflict that lay ahead. He was only four foot nine but he was a huge and inspirational man. I can still picture him, sitting in the lotus position, his bony fingers clenching his Hohner, blowing for all he was worth. I would have loved him to have been able to play Hoochie Coochie Man properly on the harp, but sadly he had to leave to catch his boat back to India for an important fast.
The 1930s are associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Ruth, and my first two children, Darius and Conchita, were growing up. I enjoyed a modicum of success with my work, completing an octet and a jazz concerto. We moved to Pimlico, which then was up and coming. It was a great shame to see the clouds of war gathering at such a positive time, but politicians the world over are a stubborn breed.
World War 2 may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. Although he showed some initial promise when he came to me and I took him through a few easy pieces, some early Mozart sonatas and the like, his interpretations of Chopin, however, were clumsy and heavy handed. Winston had what are sometimes referred to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed also to display a disdain for the instrument in the fortissimo passages. On the occasions, I tried to explain this to him he usually stormed off in a huff. He did not take criticism well. His famous Hush over Europe speech in August 1938 came right after I told him that he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with all the subtlety of a tank commander. He growled something unintelligible at me, finished his Remy Martin and went straight off to the House of Commons. Had he been able to control these rages, he may have backed off a little on his warmongering. While we may now all be speaking German, Winston may have gracefully embraced retirement with his Steinway and his watercolours.
‘How did you come into music?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’ The year was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had put Orson on to me. I had taught Hitchcock to play the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might be able to use the unusual instrument in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour that it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to me one of the most successful films of all time.
I did not often talk about my background. It was not that I was particularly ashamed of my humble beginnings, but somehow I felt it destroyed the mystique. I tried to dodge the question by talking instead about my early musical influences, but Orson had a persuasive way about him.
‘Are you going to answer my question, god-dammit,’ he said.
‘I come from a railway family,’ I told him. ‘Both my father and my grandfather worked on the railways. I came into music entirely by accident. I started playing when I was three on a penny whistle that was left in a railway carriage. It had probably belonged to a travelling navvy. I’m entirely self-taught.’
I explained that I quickly found out I was able to play any musical instrument I picked up. It was like opening a box of chocolates and finding all soft centres. I had what my music teacher at Frank Portrait Infants’ School, Miss Schnabel, called a precocious talent. I learned to read music before I could read my Jolly Animal ABC.
I got to know Orson quite well; in fact it was through Orson that I met my second wife, Natalie. Natalie was a nutritionist and had been treating Orson for his recurring obesity. Orson was a large man in every sense and, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, obsessed with his weight. He had flown Natalie in from America to keep an eye on his constitution while he was looking for some film locations in the UK.
Natalie introduced me to the benefits of wholegrain cereal, bee pollen, goji berries and noni juice, all of which I have retained in my diet ever since, and are among the things to which I can attribute my longevity, along with a positive attitude to life, regular exercise and an active sex life. I subscribed to my friend Pablo Picasso’s philosophy that a young partner helped to keep you young. Natalie made me feel like a teenager again. She was nearly thirty years my junior. I was fifty three and she was twenty five. Our extended honeymoon took advantage of the opportunities opening up in air travel and took in all six continents. We were stunned by many unforgettable sights; the multicoloured reefs and cays of The Great Barrier Reef, the decorative gilding and marble sculptures of The Golden Temple of Amritsar, the mysterious city of Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rain forest, the boat ride through The Blue Grotto Cave in Capri, the summer sun setting on The Grand Canyon, and the great migration of gazelles and wildebeests sweeping across the Serengeti plain in the early morning, to name but a few. But there were less obvious sights that were equally as pleasing. The colourful paddle steamer chugging down the Orinoco, the silhouette of a camel train crossing the Arabian desert, the reflection of the houseboats on the Dal Lake in Kashmir on a Spring evening. Yes, the air miles were clocking up a little, but young love knew no bounds.
Natalie, although she was always modest about this, was also an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music, helping to take it in new directions. The early to mid-fifties represented a productive period; in fact, possibly I was at my creative peak, as my compositions began to incorporate dissonance and atonality. In a few short years, I wrote a concerto for orchestra using a small orchestra as a solo instrument against a larger orchestra, a quintet (four cellos and a flute), a jazz ballet, and a tone poem based on The Seventh Seal. I may not have become a household name, but all of these unusual pieces were well received. Miranda Miercoles, Melody Maker’s classical music critic, not one that one associates with praise of any sort, referred to my work at the time as, ‘intuitive’ and ‘groundbreaking’. I framed the clipping.
Natalie persuaded me that we should spend some time in America and, as she was from New York, that we buy somewhere in the city. Money was coming in steadily, and we were able to buy a comfortable apartment in Manhattan, on The Upper East Side, close to Central Park. We were within strolling distance of the museums and galleries that were beginning to prosper and the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. One day, while I was in the apartment tinkling away on the ivories, I had a call from an illustrator for a magazine. He drew whimsical sketches of shoes, he told me. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate and had been given my name, I presume by Orson, as I did not know many people in New York at the time. I explained to my illustrator that orchestration had guidelines, but there weren’t any rules as such. You learned orchestration mainly through experience, through spontaneous discoveries, and through the teaching of great composers.
‘It’s very much a hands-on art,’ I said. ‘You have to be aware of point and counterpoint and of the families of instruments, timbres of each instrument in the family, and of course, tonality, but beyond that it is up to the individual.’
‘Good!’ he said. ‘That’s uh what I wanted to hear. It should be easy then.’
‘You mean like major for happy and minor for sad,’ I quipped.
‘Uh yes,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’ He seemed perfectly serious about this being the case.
‘I’m not sure orchestration’s something I can teach you,’ I said. ‘What was it that you had in mind to orchestrate?’
‘I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. That’s uh, what I’m going to do.’
‘Well, we can’t do it over the phone, can we?’ I said. ‘You’d better come on over.’
The figure across the threshold had a ghost-like quality. he seemed to be there and not there at the same time. He wore a white suit and a blue and white hooped Breton sweater. His tortoiseshell dark glasses and platinum blond hair made him look a little effeminate. My first impression, as he limply shook my hand, was that he was incredibly shy, but despite this shyness he had astounding charisma. ‘Hi, I’m Andy,’ he said. ‘Andy Warhol.’
I invited him in and sat him down.
‘I’m going to be famous one day,’ he said, deadpan.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘In the future everyone will be famous,’ he laughed.
‘What? For fifteen minutes?’ I joked.
I found that Andy’s philosophy interesting and some of the things he said had yet more resonance in retrospect.
We finally moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him that in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were probably a good place to start. Mozart for his precision and flow and Beethoven for his bold innovations.
Andy felt it might be better to start with Debussy and Ravel because they were more contemporary and therefore it would not take so long to learn.
‘You need to be able to put an idea on one side of Letter paper,’ he explained.
I asked if he had met the minimalist composer, John Cage. 4’33 consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds,’ I told him.
‘Cool!’ he said.
We spent the next session putting together a bullet point list and the one after that at Boosey and Hawkes music store where Andy bought a selection of instruments. He showed no interest at all in playing them; I think they were peripheral to his mission. What he wanted to orchestrate was an Art Movement.
‘What is it that inspires you?’ Julie Christie asked me at her balalaika lesson one day. We were in my apartment in Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames. She had recently finished filming Darling and was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago, wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She had been round to my apartment every day for a week or so to learn the balalaika to help with the role. Most days it seemed the balalaika I had borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty that the cameras loved. The thing is, she was even more stunning in the flesh. She looked sensational in her skimpy chiffon dress. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. I wondered if we were going to have an affair. It had been over with Natalie for a while and I had returned to England leaving her and our son, Melchior, and daughter, Melusine, in New York.
‘I hear music in the flow of the river, the rain on the window, the clinking of glasses, the hum of late night traffic.’ I said. ‘I hear music in everything, in the everyday and that is what sustains me. I have a tune in my head the whole day long.’
‘Play me your favourite piece of music,’ said Julie.
I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had always dreaded being asked to go on Desert Island Discs as I would be hard pressed to make these kind of decisions. What I wondered could I play for Julie? The great violin concertos of the nineteenth century were out of the question, as clearly they needed an orchestra. I could have picked some Bach or some Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed apt. Jazz had been a passion of mine for many tears.
Popular music upped its game in the 1960s, with record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushing back the boundaries of the art. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among others were spearheading a huge social change through pop music. What had once seemed trite now seemed important and vital. By 1965 through music and fashion, London had established itself as the capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were becoming the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a performance The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here that I met Marielle, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.
Marielle was involved with the music business in an anonymous kind of way, the closest I could come to describing this would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. She was a polished player with a rare appreciation of the avant-garde. She was someone you noticed; someone who stood out in a room. She was beautiful; with her deep and lustrous eyes and long dark flowing hair, she looked like a Greek siren, without of course the wings. She was twenty one.
Marielle moved in with me right away. For the next year or two, we played host to the pop world at Cheyne Walk, as young musicians dropped by to learn exotic new instruments. Brian Jones and George Harrison were regular visitors, as were some young lads up from Cambridge who called themselves Pink Floyd. I like to think that in a modest way we changed the direction of rock music. It moved away from the established format of two guitars, bass and drums. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from that period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Vibraphone Concerto and my famous Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Strimmer during this time.
The ten years from around 1967 that Marielle and I spent living on Lanzarote I count among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and certainly minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place that the mind was able to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting, a few miles from the present day resort of Costa Teguise. The artist and architect, Cesar Manrique, lived nearby and was a frequent visitor. His project was to transform the desert landscape, harmonising his vibrant modern design with the traditional architecture and colours of the island. A huge interest in alternative power was developing in the Canaries and through Manrique’s civil engineering team we had both solar panels and a wind turbine to deliver power to our house and the surrounding community. We were pioneers. Why not? Lanzarote is, after all, both windy and sunny. The rest of the world it seems have been slow to follow and is still resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.
Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over from the mainland to see us. Other than this, Darius and Conchita and their respective families came over a few times (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought our children. Mostly though it was just Marielle and I. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of the everyday without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Marielle, as many of you who have seen her work hanging in galleries will understand, during this period became a gifted painter of abstract landscapes. As for me, my music began to develop a profound simplicity.
How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb? The cypress tree in the courtyard.
I have always been a great admirer of the French composer, Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired explorations Furniture music. He saw it as the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere, rather than serving as the focus of attention. Satie is the link between these early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow sonic sculptor, in 1975, Brian sought me out and came over for a protracted stay. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think that I coined the phrase. Ambient comes from the Latin verb ambire, to surround. Our collaboration produced sonic landscapes, atmospheres and treatments. Film directors came knocking at the door. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. If you watch the BBC you will have heard my music many times without realising it.
I abhorred the right wing politics that began to take over the western world around 1980. The decade could be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the certainty that uncontrolled consumerism would lead to disaster? What was needed was a new set of guidelines with regard to conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management. And a greater veneration of trees. Marielle and I moved to the New Forest.
The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. In the 1980s, popular music reduced itself once more to a succession of bland, artless nursery rhymes. Cheap Yamaha synthesisers and drum machines programmed by greedy, tone-deaf computer programmers produced monotonous, predictable, exhaustible and hackneyed three minute jingles. Flamboyant, androgynous models with streaky makeup and spiked hair pranced around in fancy dress to unrelated storylines in fast-cut short films produced by yuppie film directors. It was a case of nice video, shame about the song. Even established rock acts became mainstream and mediocre issuing insipid power ballads. And jazz began to sound like elevator music. How could you have smooth jazz? Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms? To be fair, classical music fared no better during the period. With its fetish for dissonance, it became all but inaccessible.
Zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, but can also be related to the concept of collective consciousness, which describes how an entire community comes together to share similar values. Was this the explanation for the decline in musical quality perhaps? Subliminally, people had agreed that music was no longer important. It was better to get rich, and quickly.
Tariq Ali had come round for his violin lesson. I put this idea to him. ‘What do you think, Tariq,’ I asked.
‘In times of peace the arts gravitate towards mediocrity,’ he said.
‘There was no war in the 60s, but there was lots of great music,’ I said.
‘No war in the 60s?, he laughed. ‘There was the Vietnam War. We may not have been on the front line but as a culture, we were involved. Didn’t you go on any demonstrations?’
‘I was living in Lanzarote at the time,’ I told him. ‘But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you’
‘That is correct. And Mick Jagger wrote Streetfighting Man. But to get back to my point. Do you not recall the famous line in The Third Man about the Swiss?’ he said.
‘Not word for word,’ I said.
‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
I conceded Tariq’s point.
‘Perhaps we will have another war soon,’ I said. ‘There are some mad people in charge.’
‘I don’t think it will be a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ said Tariq. ‘Russia is not a country you can invade and occupy. War is about occupation and colonisation. The next war will be against Islamic states, where they can send in an occupying force. And, of course, there’s the oil. Iraq’s my guess.’
It seems in retrospect that he was right.
The days get longer and the days get shorter. As you get older the heat of summer makes you uncomfortable, so you look forward to the winter, but you can’t cope with the long dark nights and the cold, so you look forward to the spring, and your life passes by, with this contradiction. You are getting older, but you are willing the time to pass. Seasons replace one another in a relentless procession, as the northern hemisphere tilts towards or away from the sun.
The planet Mercury, according to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, has no tilt my and therefore no seasons. Luigi was one of those people who seemed to know everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind. His specialist subject was String Theory.
‘No seasons,’ I said. ‘That’s good then, isn’t it? Why couldn’t we live on Mercury?’
‘There is a little problem my friend. It has no atmosphere,’ he said.
‘Not so good for the old breathing then.’
‘And its four hundred degrees during the day and minus two hundred at night.’
‘Bit hard to get used to.’
‘You’ll like this, though,’ Luigi said. ‘Mercury has a large crater called Beethoven which is the largest in the solar system. They have also named craters after Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi, Schubert, Sibelius and Wagner. It is riddled with craters. You name me a composer and they have probably named a crater on Mercury after him. I’ll find out if they have named one after you, my friend.’
He never did find out. Sadly Luigi died when the steering on his Fiat gave out as he was overtaking an articulated truck near Basingstoke on the M3. He was only sixty two. No age at all.
When you reach your eighties, you understandably find that those around you, those you have known or admired, are dying with increased regularity. When you get a call from a friend you have not heard from in a while, you know it is going to be to inform you that someone you both know has died. The receptionist at the funeral directors gets to recognise your voice, as you order wreathes for lost friends and colleagues with increasing frequency, and you start getting Christmas cards from the undertaker. You find you know all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Abide With Me, and your copy of The Times falls open at the obituaries. Death is all around. When you visit the doctors with a routine chest infection, you imagine the grim reaper is sitting next to you.
Through the 1980s following Marielle’s death from a rare blood disease, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. It became obvious that one day I would die and although I seemed to be in remarkable health I began to speculate on how I would die and when. None of the ways seemed especially pleasant and most involved a protracted period of pain. Cardiovascular disease was statistically the most likely cause for someone of my age, although hot on its heels were cancer and strokes. Then there were lower respiratory infections, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nostalgia too I found could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back.
Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend and throughout the twentieth century had had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. If anyone could deliver a pearl of wisdom, it was Irving. I was fortunate to gain an audience with the great man in a stopover trip to New York to see my grandchildren, as he was by then famously uncooperative. I asked Irving his secret.
‘Music is the key,’ he said. ‘Music had been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory, helps with concentration, and reasoning skills; even better, it boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance. That’s what my doctor tells me. And he’s older than I am.’
I knew Irving to be in his late nineties, so that made his doctor very old indeed. ‘I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.
‘Another thing’, said Irving. ‘I presume you’ve reached the age that you suffer from earworm.’
‘Don’t think so,’ I said. ‘It sounds unpleasant, though.’
‘Earworm is where the last tune you heard stays in your head.’ Irving explained.
‘I definitely get that,’ I said.
‘The secret is to make the tune in your head a happy one, one with happy words. Positive affirmations and all that.’
‘What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the ‘Woke up this morning and my baby had gone’ lyrics.’
‘What! you mean lived to be 27, like Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix’.
He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Walters, there was a Blind Boy Fuller or Freddie King.
‘Look at me as a living example of someone who keeps a happy song going round in his head,’ said Irving. ‘It has worked for me.’
‘OK, I will try it.’ I said.
‘At the same time, don’t avoid thoughts of death,’ Irving continued. ‘Remind yourself your death is guaranteed. Facing death should be something that empowers you and heightens your senses. Feel the inevitability of it. Feel the horror of it. And then open your eyes and realise you are now alive.’
It took a little application, but after a while, I arrived at a view whereby death offered an increased opportunity to see what was important. Music of course was as Irving had suggested, the key; this was the way to make my mark. This realisation provided me with motivation. I kept a happy tune in my head and entered a new creative phase. My Tenor Saxophone Concerto was popular, as was my Sextet for Four Pianos, Oboe and Harp. But the piece that gained the most recognition was my opera, Gatto di Schrödinger (Schroedinger’s Cat), which played at opera houses around the world. Who could forget the rousing fortissimo chorus for one hundred voices, ‘Il gatto è tanto vivi e morti.’
Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had it not been for coming to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented a browser-editor to share and edit information and build a common hypertext, the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea, or should he put it in the public domain for the benefit of all? In between run-throughs of Schumann’s Reverie for Cor Anglais and Piano, we discussed the pros and cons of both viewpoints. It may have been my suggestion that the World Wide Web be royalty-free so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventors. Someone, he argued, was going to make millions out of the idea, someone like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, for instance.
‘How would you best like to be remembered,’ I asked him. ‘As a universally reviled figure or as a benefactor to humankind?’
He must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, Tim seemed to have changed his position, using some of the very arguments that I had used.
‘The World Wide Web must have an open standard,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, there will be incompatible forms of media, backed by Microsoft and Apple and the like.’
I met Sakura at The Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood at an exhibition called Young British Art. The show featured work by the little known Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, all of who would go on to win the Turner Prize. I had not wanted to see the exhibition after reading the press write-up about tiger sharks immersed in formaldehyde, but a friend whose view I respected told me I had to go.
‘Something important is happening here,’ my friend had said. ‘Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the fragile boundaries between life and death.’
Sakura caught my look of puzzlement as I took in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the fourteen foot tiger shark in the tank). What was Art? I wondered. Where were the boundaries? Paul Gauguin had said ‘Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’ I could accept that Art constantly needed to re-define itself. But in my cynicism, I wondered if was just a question of a dealer or curator saying something was important art, a prominent critic supporting him, and collectors with their mega bucks being persuaded.
‘The shark is a metaphor for mortality,’ Sakura said.
I found myself no longer looking at the unsettling spectacle in the tank. Sakura was a much more attractive prospect for my gaze. She possessed an exquisite beauty. She had long raven black hair, obsidian eyes and rich nut-brown skin with a flourish of red across her cheekbones. Her body pushed in all the right places against the fabric of the tight floral print dress. I was transfixed. I felt a profound surge of well-being. Another bout of rejuvenation was on the way.
I must have come up with some kind of reply, because the next I recall we were eating dinner at Claridge’s and, before I knew it, living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. She had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend it seemed recommending the exhibition. Sakura worked in television. I did not watch a lot of television, so I was not aware of any of the programmes she had been involved with. In no time at all, she suggested writing my biography.
‘Have you never thought of writing one?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think I’m famous enough,’ I said. In fact, I had many times thought of writing my autobiography, but I was too lazy to start. The project seemed daunting with so many years to cover.
‘Everyone knows who you are,’ she said. ‘But no one knows very much about you. The world is crying out for some insight into your life.’
Sakura had formidable powers of persuasion. The chapters charting my childhood in Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds were in the bag in a few days. However after the move to North London, sister Susanna joining the Suffragettes, Walter and I going off to war, and Ruth and I marrying, we reached the point where retrieval of memories was becoming more of a challenge. Looking back was becoming vertiginous. It was a long way down.
‘You should have kept a diary,’ said Sakura.
‘I started to,’ I said. ‘ A long time ago. After the First World War……. I think that they may be up in the attic somewhere in an old leather bag.’
Sakura dug them out, four gnarled Evening Standard Diaries from 1918 to 1921, and eagerly began to devour them.
‘What do these xs mean?’ she asked.
I told her.
‘Three or four times a day…… We only make love two or three times a week.’
‘But you aren’t as young as you used to be,’ I joked. She was 46.
‘Why did you stop writing the diary after June 1921?’
It was a fair question. Had I had an unexpected illness? Had I sold my soul to the devil? I couldn’t remember.
The biography progressed even more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures, and I had dates for some of my recordings, but with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead, and even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. None of them had taken well to Sakura. I was able to tie up the big events like the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (I had been introduced to one of my early heroes, Sir Edward Elgar) and The General Strike (I was stuck in Dover with Aleister Crowley for twelve days), but the devil, as it were, was in the detail. You wait until you are my age and Alzheimer’s starts gently kicking in.
Looking back made me question whether the quality of life had changed for the better over the years. We were now able to travel fast over large distances and get information at the click of a mouse, and every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient, but hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seem to have sacrificed a fundamental simplicity. The time and effort spent learning how to use our time and effort saving technology raised the question, at what point would the cost-benefit ratio no longer be in support of our technology? When I was a child, listening to someone reading the story of Alice in Wonderland aloud, without the benefit of even pictures to look at, would have filled me with awe. Nowadays, if a six-dimensional, four headed kraken suddenly materialised in a ring of fire in the room in front of a young child, it would engender no surprise, they would probably just see it as a continuation of Doctor Who or Star Trek.
Sakura and I had gone for a walk in the Wolds around this time from Claxby to Wolds Top. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We had panoramic views of Lincoln Cathedral, the Humber Bridge and the River Trent. We came across a family having a picnic. While they ate their Subway baguettes, the two youngsters played games on hand-held Nintendos, while the parents looked at domestic appliances in an Argos catalogue. I gathered from their conversation, that they were planning on stopping off at the Lincoln branch on their way home. Nowadays they wouldn’t even need to do this. They could buy the Dyson online from their smartphone or tablet.
‘Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still working on the biography.
‘Of course!’ I said, not going down the Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra routes. ‘Many things.’
‘If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ she asked. Sakura was not by nature a jealous woman, but I think she may have wanted me to say that my marriages to Ruth, Natalie and Marielle had been a mistake. I didn’t take the bait. If there was one thing I had learned about women, it was that each wanted to be the only one you had ever thought of. Apart from which, Ruth and Marielle were both dead, and Natalie, who I hadn’t seen for thirty years, would be in her seventies.
‘I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically. The biography stalled a little.
One morning I pulled back the curtains and saw a ball of bright light blazing brilliantly in the Southern sky. I was mesmerised. I began to understand how the expression, ‘bright as the morning star’ came about. The man in Jessops told me that what I was seeing was Jupiter and, what I needed was a Celestron 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer controlled telescope. He just happened to have one in stock. It was simple to operate, he said. I would be able to use it right away to discover the delights of star-watching. Once I got it home, I did not find it at all easy, and it sat in the conservatory unused for several months. I had an arts background. I had never learned even the basics about the universe. Finally, with the help of The Beginners’ Guide to the Cosmos, I began very slowly to pick things up.
Each of the billions of stars that I now had access to through the telescope was another sun. The problem was that there were so many of them and I had no idea where to look. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet and the acquisition of a circular star chart called a planisphere, I was able to identify the ever present Plough and use this as a reference point. I was able to distinguish an endless array of spectacular celestial sights. I could now see Jupiter up close, with its four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, strung out alongside it, Saturn and its unmistakable rings, the forever changing crescent of Venus and the fiery red of Mars. I was also able to see distant nebulae, star clusters and the Great Andromeda galaxy that lies about two million light years beyond our own galaxy, The Milky Way.
For my hundredth birthday, I hired the planetarium. Astronomers like Patrick Moore and George Smoot might not be everyone’s ideal party guests, but the after dinner conversation is not dull. I learned that our sun is four million times as big as Earth and produces so much energy, that every second the core releases the equivalent of one hundred billion nuclear bombs. Also that a supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, releasing a huge amount of gamma rays, which can outshine an entire galaxy. After the supernova, the once massive star becomes a neutron star, white dwarf, or if it is large enough, a black hole. Black holes are so dense and produce such intense gravity that even light cannot escape. The Universe I was told is at least 150 billion light-years in diameter. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The scale of it forced me to reconsider my definitions for large; the word that came to mind was astronomical. There were other fascinating disclosures. A bright star which appeared over Bethlehem two thousand years ago suggested the date of Jesus’s birth as June 17th, not December 25th. The star was a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single sudden beacon of light.
The relationship between music and the cosmos probably began with Holst’s The Planets. The work was composed around 1914, just ten years after The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, and Holst had no idea what was going on out there in space. Little more than fifty years later, we had landed a spacecraft on the moon. The piece of music always associated with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was also used in Stanley Kubrick’s equally important film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form finding them. The music included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Chuck Berry. These have left the Solar System and are now in empty space. In around 40,000 years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode or singing along to the chorus of My Ding a Ling. More recently, in 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just 431 light years away. Time is not on my side, so I am going to have my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) informs me, is the most likely place we might find life in the Solar system. This I am told will take a mere 76 minutes.
It is often said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. To me, even Chief Superintendents have had the appearance of callow youths since around the time of the Notting Hill riots. I have now had eighteen telegrams from the Queen, and still I can’t help but think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi dog on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the 1930s. Saga Holiday adverts seem to me like they are advertising 18 to 30 romps. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ It is best perhaps to think of youth as a malady from which we all recover. Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
Lately, there are signs that our 400,000 year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the prodigal violations of our stewardship. The forest fires that raged for months in Australia this year were the worst in history, finally doused by storms of biblical proportions, bringing in turn the worst floods in history. The oil well fires that burned in the Middle Eastern conflict clouded the sky for months so that no crops would grow in seven countries in the area. Bangla Desh was reclaimed by the ocean, after all the rivers that drained the Himalayas cascaded into one. Fourteen million people died in the famine in the African country no one knew was there. I see on the news this morning that an iceberg the size of France has just detached itself from Antarctica. It’s all happening. As the writer Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.’
What will tomorrow bring? The answer is up to you. It doesn’t matter much to me. I will be 119 next birthday.
©: Chris Green, 2014 : All rights reserved