What do you think when you hear Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings? Driving back and forth across Philip Island, on a break to celebrate your brother’s birthday, having it running on the cassette player in the car – the B-side of an album also including the 1812 Overture – conducted by Eugene Ormandy? Probably not – because that’s me. At this end that music is full of intense family memory, the Datsun full of us, mid-winter, seeing penguins and whatever else you do on Philip Island (funny how the music remains when other things are forgotten) – and the way Tchaik recaps his opening gestures at the end of the final movement remains just as affecting as it was back then, whenever it was. Goodness, I don’t know. 1980? Perhaps a year or two later? (My mum could say – she keeps a diary and has a memory that shames 99.8% of elephants.)
‘My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.’ – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Sorting sentimentality from nostalgia and memory is not easy. People vary in their interpretations of at least the first two of these terms, which is why I suppose I’ll have to go a bit chapter one of the PhD on it and define exactly what I mean by, and how I’ll be using, them. Sentimentality is something from which I am repelled; I think of it as indulgent, self-serving, entirely sufficient unto itself (and as a result, rather nauseating), a matter of wallowing and self-regard, self-congratulation even. The easiness of sentimentality fails to appeal to me; in fact I find it objectionable. Sentiment is something of value, something I align with personal feeling and connected experience, involving thought, consideration; but sentimentality gives in to the most undemanding of emotional impulses and is to be resisted. Music of which I conceive as sentimental is simple button-pushing, overly familiar and dependable, asking nothing of the listener – trash.
For ‘nostalgia’ I’m disposed to consult the dictionary and adopt its etymological apparatus: homecoming and pain. The pathos of memory. The stuff that you still have to deal with, each time you remember, so many weeks or months or years later. I’m sort of cool with that, because there is always unfinished business. The object turns in the light, and you see something different. You thought you had it, but that was a couple of years ago, and since then… What has befallen changes the manner in which you can see what went before, and not necessarily for the better.
Memory really should be simply you, recollecting. Imperfectly, most likely, and very probably open to contest, but according to your own capacities to recall, a matter of your summoning what you feel to be available.
But can it be that simple? Memory invites association, and the critical faculty is never at ease. The thinking through memories is what takes me beyond sentimentality, which is I think happiest just to register and regard and to do no questioning. To define memory without complication is probably beyond me.
‘Our memories, our experiences – that’s who we are.’ – Shirley Schmidt, Boston Legal
How is it, see, when you put on The Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers’ Lane? That’s closer to sentimentality, in a way, because this music was so tremendously important, at a time so distant, and there are associations with things that were so outrageously happy – but again there are things there that even now, thirty years later, you’re still wondering about. It’s a simple matter to hear the opening guitar and to recall where you were when it first came out, how you used to take long, late-night walks around where you lived with the tunes and the words going through your head, constructing your idea of straight affection, how you gave a copy to the girl you liked for her birthday, and surprised the hell out of her, and the fact that you were both listening to it as you came to love each other more and more. And it’s a known thing that now she doesn’t want to listen to it for all the stuff it holds. Despite the fact that, in the fulness of time, you married each other.
But to recollect – with fondness, with longing, even with regret – is not to indulge in sentimentality, and ‘indulge’ is for me the active word here. Recently I came into possession of Frank Sinatra’s album Cycles. Not said to be one of his best, and even dismissed by some critics, it takes recent pop tunes for material and so it is set apart from his regular ‘American songbook’ repertoire. On this album he performs Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides now’, a piece of which I’d heard, because many of my friends like it, but with which I was not previously familiar. Joni Mitchell is not a favourite artist of mine; what I’ve heard of hers (which admittedly isn’t much) hasn’t tended to appeal, and the song she performs live with the line ‘they paved Paradise’ drives me insane.* But anyway, I’m listening to ‘Both sides now’ and thinking, gosh this is really a very fine song. Well made, with interesting lyrics, a solid and surprising melody – I like it. So off I go to find the original version.
Aha! It wasn’t even sung first by Joni Mitchell, but by Judy Collins – in a performance that I understand Mitchell didn’t like terribly much. Then Mitchell’s first recording came a couple of years later. Many years after that, she recorded it again, with an orchestrated accompaniment arranged by Vince Mendoza. (I know a lot of my friends like this, too.)
This last one however strikes me as utter schmaltz. It’s like he’s studied with John Rutter and left even Rutter’s rhythm out. There’s something so very easy about these five- or six-note chords, something so colouring-in about the whole affair, giving you what you expect if you want everything to be more or less of a film soundtrack. And there’s a sense that you’d almost have to be remembering the original for it to have any real power at all, because it’s gone back and decided that the pathos is not sufficiently demonstrated in the earlier version. Or: we’re sad that that was so long ago. Look how old we are. Time passes, waaa. Or something.
It could of course be argued that this recording is nostalgic, in the sense suggested above. A reconsideration in memory, a refined awareness, a sense of otherness to something previously considered familiar or even finished. There’s a pain in recollection. (Still, sorry, I find it sickly.)
Sinatra, on the other hand, seems to nail it. Time and again he brings an awareness to things that surprises. His ‘Yesterday’ on the same album outstrips, for me, anything the Beatles did with that tune. The consequences of his age and the things he’s seen are present in his reading of this song of loss. And, staying with him, ‘My way’, although a massive hit, is really a ridiculous song. I’ve read that Sinatra came to hate it, and in many ways I can see why, given at the very least how frequently he was expected to sing it. It’s silly and self-regarding in a dreadfully satisfied way, and there are some really dumb lines (‘I ate it up, then spit it out’, for example). But. There is a performance he gave in a concert in London, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970 (with H. S. H. Princess Grace of Monaco in attendance), that was broadcast in a tribute program on the ABC (as I recall) on the night of the day he died. I’ve seen it again since then, and although the copy that was on YouTube appears to have been removed, if you can get hold of the boxed set Sinatra: London, it’s in there. What is amazing about this performance is the depth that Sinatra seems to find and to convey; it is a reading completely without bullshit – quite an achievement given what a bullshit song it is. Sinatra seems to embody a dignity in this performance that transcends any risk of indulgence, and it is totally not sentimental. He understands the progress of the song; his bodily and facial expressions change as it goes along and he finishes, without smiling, in what seems to me a completely plausible state of experience. He was roughly twenty years from the end of his life when he performed at this gig, and the studio version dates from a year earlier, but he seems totally in character in what is, ultimately, a fairly dramatic culminating utterance. Initially he jokes with the conductor, and moves into position with a slight smile on his face, but his transition to narrator is quick and enormously effective. His patience with the tune, his gentle physical gestures, his complete absence of apology, his only very occasional glances in the direction of audience members, all combine to make this to my mind a breathtaking musical experience. I can watch it again and again and again and it bowls me over every time.
And it could have been so shithouse. Why don’t you go and watch Tom Jones to see just how bad this song can be? I mean that’s not even sentimental, it’s just painful. There is so little real feeling in this performance that it beggars belief that it was ever made. Or that anyone willingly listened to it. Really: dreadful.
So I just took part in the third ever public performance of Four words of Elizabeth Hunter, written in 2001-2 and then shelved, forgotten. I’ve written about it already so I shan’t recap, but this is a case of going way back to music and doing a bit of remembering as a consequence. I remember this time with great fondness – just married, expecting Oli, back in Melbourne after two years in Sydney. But I’m not sentimental about it. Nor am I about the music, pleasing though it has been in reacquaintance. When we rehearsed it a couple of weeks ago, we got to the end, where the words go ‘My dark birds of light, let us rather enfold. Till I am no longer filling the void with mock substance: myself is this endlessness.’ The final chord is repeated several times, and it’s A minor with an added flattened fifth, over B-flat. It’s disgustingly unresolved, but it sits there. We played it, and the piece finished, and I felt quite affected. Not having experienced the performance of this music for over fifteen years it sort of stunned me. Our new performance finished with quite some time of audience silence, and that was very cool too. Did they know it was over? Were they confused, overcome?
And there are layers to this stunned-ness, that might only be interesting to me, but I’ll investigate them anyway. I’m a little bit guilty about not having got more out of this score, not having had more faith in it or will to see it live. Finding that the music is, to my ear, actually quite well-made makes me regret not having made more of an effort to put it around. Then again, it’s a difficult piece and each time we reach the end of the second movement, where in sprechstimme the words are, ‘People who aren’t capable of loving often blame someone else. I did, from time to time. I blamed Alfred. That’s why he must have gone away and left me, with my hateful children’ there’s a profound feeling of unease at the violent feeling they contain. (I said at one of the recent rehearsals that I’m not sure I’d have set those lines if I were writing the piece today, i.e. having had children between then and now.) There was a kind of protective urge apparent to me at the final chords of the piece; I wanted it to be allowed to be, if that makes any sense. I kind of felt as though I didn’t want anyone to say anything about it, although still I want them to hear it. (This one is very difficult to articulate.)
Music from the past, music that is, that one has made oneself, has complications inherent in it that aren’t all that easy to put into words. I had Mickets on in the car a week or so ago – yes, sometimes I listen to my old records, and what I say is I’m okay with enjoying to hear them because that’s how I wanted them to sound. I was busy pleasing me – and the progress from one piece to the next was a curious thing with which to become re-familiarised. Funny how some pieces on that album are very familiar and others I’ve sort of let go. And then when I hear them I’m pleased that they sound well and all that.
As a musician, a creator of music, a maker of stuff, a person who believes he** has something however slight to contribute, these are all big questions. And for me they have to do with emotional honesty, the will to make music that will last because it continues to have stuff to offer. One can’t know if one is being successful all the time but it’s an effort to avoid the easy, to look beyond, to find what really matters. To ask the next question, as Davis McCaughey would have said.
*Also, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is a contender for the title of most unjustifiably re-quoted lyric of all time. What nonsense.
**Please don’t take offence. I’m talking about me.