About the Human Voice | Angelina D’RozaPosted: March 9, 2017
Alexander Graham Bell once said of the telephone, some day, every town will have one. I have three, my UK number, a local one, and a work phone, and I have never needed my phone more or wanted it less. I could’ve given up my UK number. Should have, probably. A chance to weed out all the numbers I never call, that never call me. I guess I’m not ready to disconnect. But it makes me forget sometimes that I am here, and not there, where you are. In An Affair To Remember, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr visit his grandmother who lives in a gorgeous little house cut out of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Almost entirely isolated, it is where I imagine living one day. I would be completely there and need to be nowhere else. I won’t need or want a telephone (except sometimes).
In The Guardian recently, there was an article about a man who broke into a church to pray: “Here the silence creeps into me, a bit like the cold […] And into that silence I bring all that is not OK with me.” Silence and time. August Kleinzahler said technology, as well as being fabulous, has limited our need (and so maybe our capacity) for thinking, memory, association, that it has created “a culture of distraction”. Sometimes, when I listen to music, it’s because I don’t want to be left alone with what is not OK with me, with thinking and memory. If I’m to get any sleep, I want the distraction. Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is a good bet. His version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is not as painfully beautiful as Nina Simone’s. She has a way of singing and playing piano as though those two elements are only barely holding together, like Virginia Woolf’s spider’s web, and you pay attention, fearing that there’s too much felt for such fragility to endure. You can’t listen to this for any other reason than for its own sake. If you want to sleep, Frank is lovely. And there’s nothing wrong with lovely. Of course, I’m up at 4am comparing these two tracks … because technology.
I like your observation about distance. Distance in time often appears to create a clarity that wasn’t available in the present. The theory goes that our conscious mind, in the moment, is making sense of our actions, rather than determining them. Creating a story of self and the illusion of decision-making. Have you seen the episode of House where a guy’s had his corpus callosum severed, so his right brain hemisphere and left can’t communicate? The guy can’t read the instruction “Stand up” because it’s on the left side, controlled by the right brain, but his language centre is in the left brain. So instead of reading it, he actually stands up. He doesn’t know why, but when asked, he says it’s because he’s cold and wants to fetch a jumper. His brain has told him a story to make sense of his action.
We rely on memory to make sense of the present. You can’t piece together a broken statue head, if it isn’t laid down in your memory what a head looks like. To some extent, what we see is what we’ve seen before.
What we gain from distance, perhaps, temporal and spatial, is the ability to construct a narrative out of the whole mess of crap.
Silence and time and lighting candles. I do this. The Guardian writer talks about sitting with God, but I’m there with myself. On the pew I remember sitting on as a child. In the church where I took my first communion. Or as often, along the creek in Castleton, with the little window selling Bradwell’s rum & raisin. I’m not sure I like rum & raisin, but it sounds dangerous. I think I’d always choose it. And if I don’t believe in a continuous soul, I’m grateful for the illusion. For the story that lets me make sense of myself.
Stood facing the cavern’s black mouth with the last blue rays snagged on limestone, I look up at the crevice-nests, feathers flickering in the wind. I stand a long time, till the light that offered something like courage is snuffed, the moment gone with the fleeing birds.
Melastoma. Purple flowers
if you eat the fruit
turns your tongue black
melas from the Greek for black
stoma the Greek
for mouth. Melastoma.
That’s what it’s like to confess. Have you ever made something up just to say to the priest, walked him through some black-lit story of covet and names in vain? And how long has it been since your last confession? Right there, in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze. There between the Virgin and a copy of Cafod Weekly. But all that forgiveness. Facing the cavern’s black mouth, I flake halfway through the Our Fathers to keep from being absolved.
On what would have been Chopin’s sixtieth birthday, all the major philharmonic orchestras, from the Royal Society to the Musikverein in Vienna, programmed an evening of music, so that each would play the “Minute Waltz” at precisely 7pm GMT. Alexander Graham Bell was in the London audience. In order to play some of Chopin’s most intricate pieces, two pianos were required on stage. As the first pianist warmed up, Bell noticed the second piano vibrate. Struck by the beauty of the two pianos vibrating across space, and less literally, but with equal grace, across Europe, Bell wondered about the human voice, how wonderful it would be …
Almost a century later, the composer and pianist Raymond Scott hoped of a time when there would be no need for musicians, only the composer, sitting on stage, able to think his creation directly into the minds of the listeners, untouched, and therefore, unspoilt, by the mediation of players (Not “a people person”, Kleinzahler says). To have what you wanted to say heard and understood, as you meant it to be heard and understood. That’s the dream. Unless it isn’t. What if we only had Hoagy Carmichael on stage thinking out his perfect, only, unmediated version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)”?
In one of my favourite Kleinzahler poems, “A History of Western Music: Chapter 4”, Father Castel develops his “Clavecin Pour Les Yeux”:
and twenty years later, on the 21st of December, 1755, the day of Saint Thomas, patron saint of the Incredulous and Harpsichords, this learned Jesuit, who had out an invitation to fifty persons of rank, some from abroad, lighted not less than one hundred candles […] the Father demonstrated, in a mere half hour of playing, the marvel of his creation: that when C is heard, blue will be seen; when red is seen, E will be heard. And that the chiaroscuro will answer to the grave D
In the second part of the poem “Clavecin Pour Le Voyage”, Migrenne, “not content with the Father’s ‘pretty divagations’”, aspired “to sit down at his instrument and illuminate the entire map of the world”:
Clouds he would color myrrh, sometimes crimson, or for variety an agate or pigeon neck. Smoke, sails, and flags were always blue bice, and castles red-lead. Of trees, some he made grass green, others burnt umber. Rome was pale rose and ocher […] Brazil was pink and blue and red, like parrots. Meadows straw color. The sea a pale celadon.
It’s a visual representation of sound, a temporal invocation of place. Migrenne uses music as Kleinzahler uses words, placing “a prism over this world, in order to color it with his playing, visiting any one place only so long as the reverberation of a single plucked string.” And the listener and the reader are there in this imagined space, mediated by the musician/poet, and by their own longing to be elsewhere.
Yes, I read that St Augustine confessed to stealing pears. His regret was that he’d stolen them without appreciating them, their taste and beauty. That he took them because he could. At least WCW ate the plums. Did you know in China, the word for pear is the same as the word for separation? That for this reason, you should never split a pear with your lover? I confess to spinning a lie. About Chopin and his inspiring A.G. Bell. The truth’s rarely as simple as the stories we tell.
I fly home Friday. Feels weird.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.