FINGERS LIKE SPIDERS

Most of us can remember those family visits we were forced to endure as a child. The Uncle and Aunty who served the stale biscuits, Dad’s former work colleague and his wife whose own child, fully two years older, totally ignored the visiting juvenile, the Grandparents whose dusty, dim house imprisoned you for the mandatory sentence of stilted conversation about school and sporting activities until you were permitted to escape to the overgrown garden…

In former times, a common symbol of middle class culture was the inclusion, as part of the lounge room furniture, of an upright piano. Usually nobody played—perhaps Dad once aspired to learn a handful of Broadway hits or sister suffered through four years of unproductive lessons—but now the walnut box sat sadly against the wall, its cover down and a pair of colourful china vases sitting in symmetrical silence on top.

Mute, brooding, perhaps a little hurt. Staring down at the floral carpet and watching motes of dust dancing to secret tunes as late afternoon sun filtered through venetian blinds. That’s how it felt to be a piano in the middle-distance suburbs in the late 60s. Unless, of course, visitors arrived towing a reluctant child or teenager who was known to learn the pianoforte. Give us a tune! What’s your latest piece? Know anything from The Mikado? How I dreaded these conversations. Not for their lack of connection to my musical world (because I did not really have one at that stage) but because they indicated an inexorable arc towards a particular outcome; I would be pressed upon to play.

Was it the repetition of this scene that led to my learning by heart a couple of pieces I could trot out to fulfil my musical obligations? If so, how on earth did I conclude that 1918 compositions by a contemporary of Satie and Stravinsky would be well received by the Gilbert and Sullivan loving audience my parents inflicted me upon? Was it some kind of quiet rebellion? That is unlikely both for reasons of general emotional squashedness and because my tastes were still entirely constrained by the musical environment of my parents and a generally conservative piano teacher. Perhaps the two pieces by Poulenc were my standard performance repertoire because they were short. And after hearing their surprising melodic dissonance and unusual structure, people usually did not ask for more. That has a certain truthful cadence to it.

And so it came to pass that one early Spring day, late on a Sunday afternoon, the young pianist was sitting on an ungiving wooden stool before the yellowing keys of a parlour instrument in an unfamiliar lounge-room. A couple of arpeggios proved that the instrument was not too out of tune, so, with a brief, inaudible sigh, I launched into Trois mouvements perpétuels No. 1, it’s unusual melody—both caramel and peanut brittle—filling the room. The eighteen-year-old daughter of the hosts, hitherto unseen in such tedious company, appeared in the doorway. In my peripheral vision I could see her leaning against the door jamb, arms folded under her breasts (the memory of which carbon dates this story to teenage-hood, without any doubt), her eyes fixed on my hands. Halfway through the brief piece she could contain herself no longer. “His fingers are like spiders!” she exclaimed, to the mixed embarrassment and amusement of the older section of the audience. Me? Despite abhorring all arachnid life forms, I was quite chuffed, and launched into movement deux with scuttley enthusiasm.

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What strange neurone webs, lying long-dormant in our endless brain-matrix, are quietly breathed to life years—decades—after the experience occurred? Perhaps it was seeing a photo of an LP of Poulenc’s piano music on social media or picking up an op shop CD of music associated with Picasso that included some works by the French composer. Hard to say, but I found myself thinking about those pieces and wondering whether they had been recorded on disc.

You can find anything on the net, can’t you? And so a copy of Poulenc: Piano Music Volume 2 (Naxos, 1999) was ordered in the click of a mouse.

Awaiting arrival of the CD, wisps of memory began to surface. I found myself lying in bed, playing through the first movement in my head until the bar-lines wavered and the notation blurred to foggy uncertainty. But the next day, stacking the dishwasher, another phrase drifted in, then another fragment, until, around the time the little package arrived in the post, a collection lay like jigsaw pieces grouped into like colours but not yet joined.

The sheet music. I wonder if I still have it? Two possible locations; the first a strike, the second a score. Well, well. Discoloured, slightly dog-eared, the slim booklet reveals both history and mystery. Here is the first piece, much as visualised and heard in brainwaves made gossamer by time. Next, the second. A single page of music ending in the only glissando I ever played. Then the unknown third and final movement. But what’s this? Pencil annotations and fingering clearly show I must at least have begun learning the last piece, but I have no memory of this at all. Nothing. I am sure, when I play the recording, I’ll hear this third part of the trilogy for the first time.

There is a brief sparkle of excitement and a tiny quiver of apprehension. The music has been circulating my head, phrases emanating from my teenaged spider-hands. How will the pieces sound played by a professional? By an actual musician? I’m almost afraid, but thrilled too. Both feelings are augmented as memories of the pieces slowly patch together into something I suspect resembles the whole. I’m hearing the notes in my head, both right and left hands, fingers twitching like an insect overcome by spray, quivering out its last movements.

Time to listen.

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[Here are the pieces]

23 comments

  1. Brilliant writing, Bruce. I can see that sad piano vividly.

    Do you still play?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s an electric keyboard in the family room but the dust shawl rarely gets moved. Always, this year, this year.

      Very glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks.

      Like

  2. Just curious — how are the Naxos CDs? I saw many at great prices but I don’t think I own any.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The recordings are generally excellent, and the range of titles extraordinary. Though if you have a particular favourite that you know well, like, say, Beethoven’s 6th symphony, it would probably be safer to go for a more upmarket label such as Deutsche Gramophon where you can research the orchestra/conductor/performance more fully. Still, at the price, they are great for testing out and experimenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I try to get Deutsche Gramophon or Sony Classics when handy. But if Naxos sound fine then that is more than good enough for me. Thanks Bruce!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I will second that the Naxos are generally really damn good.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m right there with you as I read through this one, VC. Exceptionally well-written and well-felt. Not meaning to fawn too much, but your decision to leave us just as you push play is perfect.

    My grandparents had an early 20th-century upright that we kids plinked on endlessly but I don’t remember anyone ever actually easing a tune out of it while it lived in their basement. My mom now has it and has used a “Teach Yourself Piano” book to inject some new life into the old friend. My wife and I bought an electric Yamaha and hired a crusty Russian matron to put our children through their paces, but the effort never really took and the poor Yamaha now cries its lonely self to sleep every night having been reduced to nothing more than a piece of furniture.

    Go move that dust shawl, VC!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All these unloved keyboards. Are there ghost-tribes of saxophones too? Interred in black boxes on top of wardrobes or propped at the back of coat cupboards…

      I’ve been fantasising, by the way, of acquiring a couple of synths and trying to get finger-fitness sufficient to do some electronic noodling. After all, there’s a big space now that Edgar Froese is gone.

      Like

      1. Buy the new mini moog Bruce. Its almost exactly the same as the original, a few minor differences but apparently not with the sound. Just midi out that sort of thing. I played around with one a week or so ago, much fun! The price is ….welll expensive.
        Cheers, Jim
        Sorry no Xmas disc this year

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the lead Jim. Sounds tasty!
          BTW, did you notice that you were anonymously name-checked as Christmas CD King in the File Notes piece?

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  4. Wow! Up until the piano-playing ability you nailed my ’50’s kid-hood at the relatives – right down to the two years older cousin’s total ignoring of me (understood two years later). The musical instruments as furniture or boxed away does create a melancholy sadness.
    I’m humbled by your deft handling of written imagery and feelings. I need to read more of your posts.
    Additionally, I too have been a huge fan of TD and Froese from the beginning – their sound came at just the right time to elevate my vibe.

    Like

    1. Thank you 00i.

      Changing the subject slightly, as I think we briefly discussed under one of your late ’16 posts, 1967 albums have started appearing at Vinyl Connection (here, for example). Having read your most recent post, I’m eyeing off Grace Slick (who wouldn’t?) and her Surrealistic Pillow…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great piece Bruce, thanks. And I liked the music too, quickly dialed up on YouTube and routed to the stereo to listen to whilst reading.
    I took the disappearance of a pump organ from the family home (given to a remote cousin with some talent) as a sign that my childish tootlings were not appreciated. But then again my Dad always removed spiders from the house by capturing them in a matchbox and taking them outside to release them into the garden where he hoped they would thrive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, DD. Hope you were not too traumatised by that pump organ loss, and that arachnophobia was avoided too.

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  6. I did enjoy pulling out all the stops.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is an amazing piece. So good I’m gonna read it twice because it resonates so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wonderful piece, Bruce. Really pretty exceptional writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You stir up all sorts of thoughts, feelings and images with this one. CB couldn’t play a note but people in his clan could make music. Thanks for jarring the good ghosts.

    Like

    1. A bit of thought went into this one, so I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love a good story.

        Liked by 1 person

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