Although I’ve done a couple of small things, I am returning for the first time since my brother John died in late December to beginning work on a piece of music of my own. When my brother first died, the idea of playing an instrument, let alone making a piece of music was completely beyond me. I came to realise that making music is for me, so much an expression of being alive, that without realising it consciously, deep inside I felt that to make a sound on an instrument or to sing would be a terrible betrayal of my brother: how could I do something that expressed being alive so fully for me, when John was no longer alive?
I had an imaginary conversation with John a couple of months after he died in which ‘he’ told me: ‘You’ve taken death into your body. There is nothing wrong with death, but it’s wrong for the living to take death inside them. You have to release death from your body and learn to live again.’ I was looking out of the window as I had this conversation with John. It was a February dusk. Just as John ‘spoke’ those words, the light on the streetlamp that I had unwittingly been staring at clicked on. A half an hour later I played my cello for the first time since John died. It was only for ten minutes and I didn’t play again for a few weeks, but it was a start at living again.
Now it’s the end of April, almost four months after John died and I miss him terribly. The last text I had from him said: ‘The days are getting longer! Air punch!’ John and I both always counted the days until the return of the light and the birth of Spring. I’m taking some joy in the slow return of Spring this year, but every moment of joy is stained with the sadness that John isn’t here to experience it with me.
When I was sixteen, I started doing English A-Level, dropping it after six months to do music in a year. During those first six months we studied the General Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was studying French and German too, so being a language geek, I loved translating Chaucer’s English and loved to trying to speak it out loud. I learned the opening of the Prologue off by heart and every April I find myself remembering those lines:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour …
When April, with it’s sweet showers
Has pierced the drought of March to it’s root
And bathed every vein in such liquid
From which power, the flower is created
This April has been quite wintry a lot of the time, although the Spring has definitely been showing its face. I am beginning to feel more alive again, but my brother is still dead.
I started off the compositional process by reading through the Chaucer Prologue to trigger me to generate longer and shorter notes on several groupings of string quartet. I’m using each these groupings to make what I call ‘seeds’ that I then subject to sound treatment and time stretching and compacting. It’s a process inspired by (or perhaps nicked from) ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Pärt and the Medieval French composers Leonin and Perotin. I first used it in this way in a piece called Stilled back in 2008.
I used the word ‘seed’ for these bits of material I make, because everything grows out of them, but it’s appropriate too, because of the way I have to work with them. It’s a process of tending – waiting - observing what the material seems to suggest for itself – maybe sometimes ‘training’ them gently to see if they’ll grow in a certain way – even at times pruning them heavily to remove what’s inessential and promote further growth. The process really slows me down – you just can’t do it quickly. Once the seeds are made, there’s no way other than just to live with their various treated versions in combination over a long period of time to let them grow. Often, I have to let them run in the background while I’m doing other things so I can catch them obliquely … forget that they’re there almost … try to let go of my intention to discover how they want to be. I’m running some of them as I write this … they’re there, but I’m mainly concentrating on the writing. Sometimes something catches my ear and I pay attention to what might need doing.
The weather has been alternating between rain, wintry cold and Spring sunshine. I’m the same … the sense of loss and pain coming in and out of focus … my ability to do things other than just coping with living in the wake of the loss of John waxing and waning. Right now, it’s sunny and warm after a cold afternoon. Right now, I’m able to be with this music making.
The ‘seeds’ that have arisen from the process of translating Chaucer’s words into musical notes feel to me like the remnants of something beautiful that was broken … things that must have made sense in their context, but now feel like fragments of memory hanging in the air without the world that gave them meaning. I’m trying to allow a small new to world to emerge where these fragments and memories can make a new kind of sense.
25th April 2023