Know your choir – David Wilson

Know your choir – David Wilson

A long and slow awakening to the power of (almost) all kinds of music

When I was about four and a half, I would apparently regale the rest of my family with oft repeated renditions of the two song fragments reproduced above, whose words and tunes I still remember quite well. Apart from nursery rhymes, which I must have picked up at an earlier age, these are my very earliest memories of music.

The words are obviously mondegreens – i.e. mistaken interpretations of misheard or misunderstood lyrics. The first is from Rose, Rose, I love you, which was a hit for Frankie Laine in 1951. When I listened to his interpretation on YouTube some 10 years or so back, I was flabbergasted to find that nowhere did it contain anything at all resembling the words “China Bobby and sing”. I finally solved this conundrum, however, when, as part of the preparation for this article, I did a web search for a score, and discovered a version in which the second phrase was “Chinese Romeo sing”. This presumably must have been the phrase I had heard and was trying to reproduce with “China Bobby and sing”.

I have never been able to identify the source of the second fragment, in which I pronounced the word “booses” in the third measure like “bosoms”, but without an “m”. Not having a particularly comprehensive vocabulary at the time, I didn’t have much of an idea what the good people of Dintsman’s Dun were supposed to be getting up to, except that it might have had some possible, if rather uncertain, connection with dancing or bosoms, or perhaps both.

The inquisitiveness which later led me to study science and mathematics manifested itself at a very early age. One thing which particularly fascinated me was hearing that falling cats always land on their feet, so I decided to perform some scientific experiments on one of the family pets. These consisted of hurling the poor animal back first from the top of the back steps of our house onto the path below. The fact that it did always land on its feet only increased my fascination, but its rapidly increasing reluctance to play any further role in my scientific education called a premature halt to the whole enterprise. I therefore turned my attention to some more cooperative experimental subjects from my mother’s cutlery collection.

I would carefully observe the effect of gravity on spoons by dropping them through a hole in the floor of the back room of our house. My mother’s mystification at the gradually diminishing size of her collection of spoons was eventually dispelled when my father had some reason to inspect the storage space under the house, where he was astonished to find a pile of the missing spoons immediately beneath the hole through which I had dropped them.

As a very young child I think I was reasonably fond of music, but I can’t recall having anywhere near the same interest in or enthusiasm for it as I did for dogs, steam trains, aeroplanes, ships, football, and models of all forms of mechanical transport. Until I had thought more deeply about it, I would have said that we weren’t a particularly musical family during my early childhood. But, on reviewing the pieces of music I can remember being played on my parents’ radiogram during this period, I realise they must have had a profound influence in developing my own musical tastes.

My father had come from a very musical family. His mother played the banjo, his father the concertina, one of his sisters was a keen cellist, and another a keen violinist. He himself had learnt to play the piano at an advanced level and with sufficient skill to win prizes. He nevertheless stood in awe of his mother’s ability to play a tune by ear immediately after hearing it for the first time. Since he was never able to acquire this skill himself, he would many years later adopt an unjustifiably dismissive attitude towards his own very considerable musical talent.

Shortly after we moved from Sydney to Adelaide – when I was 7 years old – we acquired an upright piano, which my father would continue to play regularly for some years. About the same time my parents bought a new radiogram on which one of the earliest songs I can remember being played often was Bill Haley and His Comets’ 1954 hit, Rock around the Clock. This is the only song from the contemporary hit parades I can remember my parents ever owning a record of.

My parents’ record collection eventually grew to contain a wide selection of classical instrumental and orchestral music. I can’t remember it containing much classical vocal or choral music until long after I had left home – unless one counts the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan and Sigmund Romberg as being “classical”. Most of the vocal and choral music in their collection was of lighter genres, such as the Gilbert and Sullivan and Romberg operettas already mentioned, musicals such as Showboat, South Pacific, My fair lady etc., and songs by such popular artists as Gracie Fields, Bing Crosby, Paul Robeson, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Although I can remember listening to hit parades on a radio I had received as a present, and I enjoyed all of the music in my parents’ record collection, I had nevertheless developed a strong preference for classical orchestral and instrumental music by my early teens. By my early twenties I had become something of a musical snob, looking with disdain on almost anything apart from classical orchestral and instrumental music written between the mid 18th and late 19th centuries. I think there was one piece of music which played a far greater role than any other in my recovery from this disease. This was Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets.

The fourth movement of this suite, Jupiter – bringer of jollity, was a piece of music I had come to like very much from hearing it on one of my father’s records. So when a version of the whole suite was issued by the World Record Club, a few years after I had joined it, I wondered whether it would be worth getting a copy. It was, after all, written around 1915, and according to my ideas at that time, anything written that late wasn’t likely to be much good. I was aware, however, of some wonderful 19th-century music still being written well into the 20th century (by Rachmaninov, for instance), so I decided to risk some of my hard-earned money on buying a copy of The Planets.

When I played my new acquisition through for the first time I was really, really disappointed. Apart from Jupiter, which I was already familiar with, there was nothing else in The Planets that I thought worth listening to ever again. I would nevertheless occasionally trot out the record just to listen to Jupiter, and to see if the rest of it really was as awful as I had originally thought. On one of these occasions, although I hadn’t really been paying much attention, I was suddenly struck by the thought “Say, that planet’s almost as good as Jupiter” (it was probably Uranus). I therefore started listening to the record more often, and gradually I came to recognise all the other planets as being nearly as good as (or maybe even better than) Jupiter and Uranus. Thus, over the course of a year or so, The The Planets had risen in my estimation from being almost beneath contempt to being one of my favourite pieces of music.

From this and similar experiences with other pieces of music, I have now become much more reluctant to describe any music as being “not worth listening to”, preferring instead to refer to it as “music I haven’t yet learnt to appreciate”. I have nevertheless recently received a rude reminder that I probably still have a long way to go before I can be considered truly eclectic in my musical tastes.

Late one Saturday night in November last year, I returned to my brand new Subaru Impreza after a night out. As soon as I turned on the ignition, the most hideous noise erupted from what appeared to be the direction of the front right wheel well. The closest I can come to describing this noise is as being like the sound of the grating of gears that results from mistiming the release of the clutch pedal in a car with manual transmission. Needless to say, the disappointment I felt was far, far worse than that I had experienced on listening to The Planets for the first time. I was somewhat relieved, therefore, when I discovered that the noise was actually emanating from the radio. On further investigating the extent of the apparent damage to the radio, I found that the noise seemed to be limited to just the one station – ABC Classic FM. By this time it had degenerated to a steady hiss punctuated by a series of regular clicks. With even greater relief, I then suddenly realised the significance of the time: between 10:30pm on Saturday night and 12:30am on Sunday morning ABC Classic FM used to broadcast a programme somewhat charitably titled New Music up Late. Although I was still a little sceptical that what I was hearing really could have been described as “music”, a few minutes later the voice of Julian Day indeed informed me I had been listening to Switches and Hose by Dale Gorfinkel. With all due respect to Mr Gorfinkel, however, I fear Switches and Hose is destined to remain forever in the category of music I haven’t yet learnt to appreciate.

A more accessible genre of music which I was somewhat slow in learning to appreciate is grand opera. My parents’ record collection contained none that I can recall, and my early acquaintance with it was limited to some of the more popular arias and choruses that were played regularly on the radio. When I was in my early thirties, however, and possibly having become more sentimental than I had been as a younger man, I found that it had the power to move me to tears. The first time I can recall this occurring was in a wonderful live performance of Gounod’s Faust, in the late 70s in Melbourne. During the final trio, just before Marguerite’s apotheosis, I found it impossible to hold back the tears. Since then, there have been several other arias and choruses which have had the same effect.

Until I was about 50 (in 1996), my enjoyment of music was entirely passive, since I had never had any formal musical education, never played a musical instrument, and was unimpressed by occasional tape recordings of myself singing. At various times I have participated enthusiastically in a wide variety of other recreations, without demonstrating much talent in any of them. They included Australian rules football, squash, orienteering, chess and bridge. Once I had concluded that the lady of my dreams had not the slightest interest in fulfilling them (some years after this should have already been obvious), I sublimated my frustrated desire by learning to fly light aircraft, eventually securing an unrestricted private pilot’s licence. Although flying light aircraft was a very enjoyable pastime, I quickly discovered that the expense to fun ratio was rather high, and decided to try and lower it a bit by taking up hang gliding. The highlight of my hang gliding career was a 3-hour flight of 80km, during the 1986 Victorian hang-gliding championship. At the start of this flight I had the great pleasure of sharing my first thermal briefly with a wedge-tailed eagle. As I circled left, this magnificent creature accompanied me, just a couple of metres off my right wing-tip. I would love to have enjoyed its company for a lot longer than I did, but as soon as the thermal gained strength, my companion shot upwards so rapidly that it had disappeared almost before I had time to blink.

About the time I turned 50 I finally discovered that singing in a choir could be great fun. A friendly colleague (thank you, Elke) had persuaded me to join The Defence Choir, which gives two performances of carols each year before Christmas. Sometime after I joined it, it also started doing mid-winter performances as well. Stewart Skelt, Julia Mayne and Katrin Hingee, the three colleagues who served as directors of this choir while I was in it, were all excellent at getting the best out of it, while making it a real pleasure to participate. Unlike the Dante Musica Viva Choir, though, The Defence Choir did eventually develop proper standards for participation, which Katrin formulated as “not singing the wrong thing loudly a lot”. While she was prepared to tolerate violations of any two of these criteria, she threatened to give marching orders to anyone who violated all three. By the time she took over as director, though, I had learnt from Stewart that if a bass raised his eyebrows and squeezed his buttocks together when trying to sing notes above middle C, he could look and feel as though he were hitting them without squawking. I’m sure Katrin was too good a musician to be fooled by this, but she was also kind enough never to let on.

At the end of 2003, a good friend, Denis Oram, who had been learning the guitar for some time, gave me one as a Christmas present. As I had come to regret never having learned to play a musical instrument, this was a wonderful surprise, and I decided immediately to engage a teacher with the hope of avoiding the bad habits I was sure to fall into if I tried to teach myself. I was lucky enough to make inquiries at the now defunct Casals Academy, located near my home in Braddon. Its head of guitar was Mark Norton, a very good guitarist and teacher, who has remained my teacher ever since. While I haven’t entirely avoided developing bad habits (such as not practising regularly enough, for instance), they aren’t ones for which a teacher could be assigned any share of responsibility.

Denis and I would get together regularly to play guitar duets, and we both joined the Canberra Guitar Ensemble when it was formed in early 2008, under the auspices of the Canberra Classical Guitar Society founded a couple of months earlier by Dan Sloss and Tim Kain. Both the original director of the Ensemble, Steve Allen, and its current director, Leslie Spencer, as well as the other members of the Ensemble, have made this a very rewarding experience.

When the Dante Musica Viva was formed in late 2005, under the direction of Francesco Sofo and Corinne Tarnawsky, I was sufficiently confident of my ability to avoid singing the wrong thing loudly a lot that I jumped at the chance of becoming a founding member. It’s a decision which has provided me with an immensely enjoyable experience.

David Wilson