Over the decades I’ve had a few weird experiences, mostly inspiring but occasionally ominous, of the soul, or the psyche, or maybe psychosis. I don’t know. Usually descending in the wee hours of the morning, they’ve been encounters I can appreciate and reflect on deeply or flippantly, but I don’t try to attach explanations to them these days.
And I was a harpsichord student at university. The harpsichord is an instrument that can sound quaint and dry under academic hands. The famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once snidely remarked, “the sound of the harpsichord is like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.” Well, yes it can, when Bach or Scarlatti are rattled off á la The School of Velocity. But if you are sensitive to its fragile touch and the poetry or spiritual ethos of the music, you can make a harpsichord sing with a deep, sustained and sonorous rumble.
In my case, nothing came of these studies professionally, but I love to play now and then when I come across an instrument. So here’s a little memoir culled from my diary, about a moment in time these two quirkily cobble stoned alleyways on my life’s journey once met and crossed.
It was still dark on an early winter morning back in 1986. One of those mornings when a fairly cold onshore breeze blows across the Swan River, and heavy cloud rolls over Perth from the Indian Ocean.
It must have been about five a.m. when I got to the Eileen Joyce studio at the University Music Department, to which I had the privilege of a key. I let myself in and lit everything up. The studio contains a large, aseptic wood veneered space with plate glass windows facing a garden of pine trees, and beyond that, the campus football field.
I can remember, from the many hours I spent practising keyboard music there, the instruments standing around the room in various states of rehabilitation. A dusty square piano from the 1850s, a squeaky medieval organ that no one knew how to fix, a fortepiano styled after one Mozart might have used, a small teal and rose painted clavichord, and a big grand piano. The piano sat there like a shiny black limousine among the spindly phaetons and cabriolets from earlier times.
In the centre of the music studio sat a glorious instrument, ancient and recently recovered from decades of disuse; a Kirckman harpsichord of worn and glossy walnut, with brass and iron strings, ebony and ivory keys. The ebonies were soft and yielding to the touch. The ivories were grainy and brittle, like an old man’s fingernails. The instrument was made in 1760, a year after Handel died.
There were a couple of other Early Music students beside myself, and a couple of excellent double keyboard reproduction harpsichords, but I took an interest in the Kirckman, worked up some suites to play on it, and the department decided it’d be good to restore the old thing.
They got a builder out from England who fixed it, and showed us the basic principles of tuning and other arcana. So on this early morning I got out the tuning key to finely adjust the intervals, the fifths as flat and calm as cream, the minor thirds narrow and tangy, suitable for playing around B minor and its closely related tonalities.
I did an hour’s practise and then began to play through a suite I was working up for a student recital, the eighth Ordre from the Piéces de Clavecin by Francois Couperin. This suite opens with a prelude, titled La Raphaéle. It’s a slow, sinuous piece almost ready to burst with passion. The first strophe announces itself as a grave arpeggio. The bass rises in fifths. The treble falls in thirds. The concord of notes then rises to a minor ninth suspended over the tonic, then to the dominant, gushing further upwards, tense with growing colour, before it sinks and darkens again, suspended and falling through the air, coming back to rest on B minor.
I loved this music, spun on those deep and dazzling strings, mystical and gloriously sad, music that the language of B minor was thought to incant most appropriately back in Couperin’s time. And of course, I also liked to think deep studently thoughts as I played. Perhaps about grandeur being a vast cold joy that holds up the empty spaces in one’s mind; or about the Shadow of God, and other such things.
The music must have drawn it out of me, so I felt attuned to it. These old keyboard dances are like civilized swordplay, like games played under the faint smile of Apollo, with the formal protocol of pause and return, perhaps so that the power and passion deep within the melody and harmony would not tear one’s heart open with their daggers as some laughing Dionysus would have them do.
So I played, and the formal praeludium of this first movement rose, straining against the steady four-beat measure, and fell back, took a courtly bow at the cadence, and began again.
And then I remember, and my diary records, that I stopped unaccountably, as though the room was expecting something.
I hadn’t slipped a finger or spoiled an ornament. It was as though the room, and my existence at that moment, slipped between the notes into a rest, a second of silence like the entrance to an underground cavern, into which I might have fallen.
There was a presence standing behind me. I could see it through my back. It was nine, or maybe twelve feet tall and shimmering with silver light.
I didn’t know if I was going to jump out of my seat in fright, or resume the dance. I think I sat very still for a while.
The being, made of invisible light, embraced me from behind. I could sense the ethereal warmth of its arms. And knew its broad shoulders as though my back and neck leapt out to meet them. The presence didn’t have a clear gender, but my emotions allowed it to be male. That’s the only way I have of describing the perception. I decided to let go, but remain watchful. The presence rocked me back and forth, with an imperceptible yet obvious force. My body went hot-cold, as it has on other odd occasions. The visitor, still standing behind me, made the hairs on my neck rise. A chill coursed down my spine, both terrifying and hilarious, then the sense of a light blue breeze or an indigo flame glowing and licking my back and head, flowing up and around.
It was as if the being had brought me to the pivot point in time between the upward swing of yearning and the downward plunge into terror and possible madness. I couldn’t decide whether to strike the notes, and will the visitor away with a sharp “no” and a tension-releasing shrug of my shoulders. Or accept. My head was emptied of speculation, having had the very useful, and timely, realization that I didn’t really know anything about anything.
A warm, almost hot shaft penetrated my lower spine and rose through my diaphragm and into my chest, making a bowl of warmth there.
I neither heard nor sensed any name, except possibly the thought, “No need to fear, you are safe.”
I sat there at that bench, hands resting in the air above the keys, ready to strike. I wanted to say something, but also keep it light and formal, so I just uttered quietly, “Well, you seem to be benign.” The shining presence remained behind me, shimmering, as though made of stars I could see through my back. I didn’t dare turn around. Perhaps I feared that if I did the experience would vanish.
“I hope you like the music,” was all I could add.
I don’t know for how many measures of time I sat at that keyboard as the experience left me. I began to play La Raphaéle again, the strands of suspended dissonance descending over several pedal points before the dance falls towards its close, the cadence ending on low B, F sharp and B. I was alone again with the music. I held down the ivory and ebony keys of the final chord, letting the vibrations follow my visitor as far as they could fly, before lifting my fingers, one by one letting the plectra slap quietly against the damped strings.
And then suddenly a whip crack lashed out from the soundboard like a shot from a flintlock pistol. The longest iron string had snapped. It snarled across the other strings before coming to rest, a quivering tangle of dark wire on the ancient yellow wood.
I sat for a minute longer, silent, not breathing, wondering what had happened to me, and who the visitor might have been. I realized that I oughtn’t ruin the memory with too much thought. Why, some years later, rereading my initial scribbled account, I’d scrawled, “it was nothing but the skeletons in my closet copulating on a harpsichord.”
But at the time I just sat there repeating quietly, between long bars of silence, “I hope you liked the music.”
I came back to my immediate surroundings after a while and got up to unhook the broken string and coil it. On the other side of the expanse of glass the ferns, the pine trees and the sky slowly filled up with the morning.
It had begun to rain a light silent winter rain. A weak patch of light glanced against the wall of the studio. The shadow of a branch quivered there for a moment and faded again. The early morning sun must have passed across a narrow opening between the plane of the earth and low layers of rain as it rose.
I let myself out of the studio and locked the door behind me as the birds screamed with joy at the brightening light. There were dozens of them in the bushes, plumping their feathers and shaking open their tiny wet wings.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org