La Raphaéle

January 23rd 2005

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, it might sound that way when Bach or Scarlatti are rattled off á la The School of Velocity. But if you are sensitive to its delicate 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, little has come of these studies professionally, but I love to play now and then when I come across an instrument. So here’s a memoir culled from my diary, about a moment in time these two quirky, 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 slightly sour, to make the thirds narrow and and buttery, with the accidentals tuned as sharps, 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, limpid, yet 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 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

Christmas in Maridalen

Silent wooded hills surround our valley of fields and farm buildings in Maridalen, the Vale of Mary, a few miles above Oslo. Near where the road divides and hems each forested slope sit the ruined remains of an ancient church abandoned after the Black Death: a thick stone wall lanced with Romanesque apertures and outlines of rubble. In the summertime the site rests on a mound above a waving meadow of gold at the northern tip of the lake, but now most of it lies buried in snow. A mile further up, past the new school and the old wooden church a few dozen brightly painted houses huddle under the hills above the western branch of the road. Below that several farms divide the long bowl of the valley. Through it the river winds south under its winter ceiling of ice.

The seasons express themselves intensely here. Halfway through spring, masses of tiny violet and white flowers push themselves up through gobs and rivulets of sunny slush. Summer is for bike riding and berry hunting in the forest; tiny strawberries, then redcurrants, blueberries and hazelnuts. Days are long and yellow as the grass. We go to bed with the sun still up, heavy curtains drawn against the blue. Autumn, and school: I’m shy and inquisitive among a rowdy mass of kids. At home the cellar is full of small wrinkled apples and potatoes, pots of redcurrant jam, one with a drowned mouse in it. There’s the distant rumble and clank of hay harvesting. My friend and I ride the tractor with farmer Brodin. His nose drips and he makes rude remarks about “the angels who will be pissing on us soon enough.” Now, bruised shadows line the tired eye of winter, opened only a few hours each day to peer wearily at the blue-black hills and gritty roads, before shutting down for another sixty-five long nights.

The snow descends silent and slow. Sometimes it falls along the narrow path between spiny cliffs of black trees, and then the world makes a sudden turn and we all rise and spiral into heavens of floating snow. It drifts sideways like white opium ash. When we aren’t making angels wings or pissing our initials, the drowsy numbness reduce our small forgetful bodies to piss our steaming woollens instead. Falling snow envelops our innocence with its warmth, but once fallen, cannot erase the grimy adult miseries induced by darkness.

My mother, my brother and I live at “Trollstein,” a place father had bought three years earlier. There are a dozen steep steps, then a sunken path to the small wooden house. The windows are shuttered, but the rough square panes are iced thick. Ours is an old yellow cottage with a tarpaper roof on a patch of grass surrounded by rocks. A few scabby apple trees and a row of evergreen sentinels keep us away from the larger houses on either side. We are friends with the Buringrud family on our right, but we must have nothing to do with the people in the big green house on the left.

We have our baths in the kitchen in a big plastic tub. My mother sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room, she shares it with my father on the rare times he is home from the sea. My younger brother and I have bunk beds and teddy bears in the back bedroom

Pine and spruce buttress the slopes behind our little spot. What rears beyond it is an unknown wilderness. Wet, snow-sunk boulders loom and lean against each other under the trees above us. They are the troll stones. Perhaps those stones have sent me the same terrible dream several times: Long after midnight I fly over fir-dark hills to an invisible lake. An Indian paddles his canoe across the cold reflected stillness. He raises his feathered head and cries a single eerie cry, the long scream of a bird in the ghostly moonlight.

*****

On a late December afternoon Norbert and I come home from hours of play. We find ourselves outside the locked kitchen door in a canyon of snow, unable to get in. We are warmly dressed, with our rubber boots and waterproof overalls, but before long I’m raging in frustration, banging on the door, kicking it vigorously, and hollering out to our mother who is inside. I can hear her call out, “just wait, I won’t be long,” but we have never been locked out like this and I do not understand at all.

After what seems a whole afternoon she lets us in. Wonder and excitement replace our tears. In the corner there’s a tree with chains of coloured paper, little heart shaped baskets filled with sweets, white lights and a star on top. The first we’ve ever had. We find a pile of parcels under it. I recognize a small pair of skis under the wrapping. Mother has laid out bowls of nuts, oranges, and marzipan pigs, a traditional Christmas treat. We have been told that father will be coming home soon, but I am lost in all the presents.

Evening arrives at three o’clock, and someone else is banging down the door. The Julenissen stomps in with his loutish charcoal-bearded boys, doing the rounds of the village with a sack of trinkets. “Good evening, have there been good children here?” Norbert and I recite our merits and get a little plastic car and a piece of marzipan each. They sing a drunken little ditty. Mother gives them some oranges. We’ve forgotten to put the bowl of sour cream porridge in the toolshed out by the outhouse. Norwegians like to encourage goodness in their gnome-folk, but mother is Australian, and she could not have thought of everything. Perhaps our neighbour and his teenaged sons would prefer some Aquavit before they stumble off. Their speech is warm, with Nordic words flying like woodchips off a log. Mother’s accent has a pewtery English quality, careful and formal. She is giving us the best Norwegian Christmas she can.

The house is silent. Norbert and I are dabbling around, waiting for the day when we’ll be allowed to open our gifts, and watching Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble babbling in Norwegian on TV. Four candles sit glowing on the sideboard by the plastic crib. Next to them, paper dolls of the wise kings Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. The last gilded door on the Advent calendar has yet to be prized open.

Mother stands for a long time by the window, gazing in silence at the black void outside our little cocoon. She says nothing, then leans against the sideboard for a while and gently blows three of those four candles out before tucking us into bed, for the long, dreamless sleep at this deepest edge in the trough of the year. But life has returned late next morning as we tumble out of our bedroom. Mother makes the tea and takes a box of matches. One of the four candles had burned down to a stump. She relights the three that remain. There is accordion music on the radio, then melancholy classical sonatas.

*****

It must be Christmas Eve. Father is not yet with us. We join our neighbours, the Buringruds, and visit the little timber church in its grove of bare beech saplings. Other fathers push their kids along the white velvety road on their sparkstøtter, wooden chairs on sled runners, or haul them along in toboggans. I don’t remember having been inside a church before. The white-planked walls pulse with joy in the creamy dazzle of brass chandeliers and a hundred candles. It must be almost as exciting as visiting King Olav’s glittering palace. The room is full, farmers and kids and city cousins. Many dressed in traditional costumes; boys in colourful vests and knee britches with white stockings. We sit with our neighbours, their girls Mona and Dora in red dresses, embroidered camisoles, lace aprons and filigree jewellery.

A couple of fiddlers play along with the organist on his harmonium. Big rosy men rocking back and forth, their hard heels drumming the floorboards as they spin a slow dance on their Hardingfeler, fiddles with mother-of-pearl inlay, ink rosettes and maiden’s heads, and half a dozen sympathetic strings droning under the courtly polyphony.

The pastor ascends to his pulpit, clears his throat and announces the birth of a magical child in round buttery tones. He rests up there, well upholstered in his black cassock, with jowls swelling over a thick white ruff. I wonder why we’re getting alphabet crackers to eat. At last we all stand and stretch, and the grown-ups sing a hymn. It’s strange to hear my mother singing, a girl’s voice, gentle and a bit tentative. A sound so unlike her.

Et barn er født I Betlehem, I Betlehem, I Betlehem.
Nå gleder seg Jerusalem. Haleluja.

*****

Father has come home from the sea. He is first mate on a Wilhelmsen cargo ship and gets back to his wife and kids every six months or so. I have small icons of his visits tucked away. The shapes of them have crumbled at the edges, and though they may have lost their original place, flashes of sound and colour remain intense. Like half a dozen pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a tin kept in my pocket, or fragments of mosaic laid upon the mantelpiece.

I have fallen on the ice and cut my chin badly. My father tapes it up with cotton and sticking plaster. A day later he squats in front of me and tells me he is going to pull the bandage off very slowly and gently. I am whimpering with anticipation. He sighs “oh, yo, yoh” and rips it off clean and quick before I have time to think.

I see my father naked as he changes out of his clothes in our bedroom on a summer’s day. He is swift and shy and turns away.

He dandles Norbert on his knee, up and down, cooing “my lit-tle tiny tot.”

My mother has a screaming fit, shouting at him across the living room. I can anticipate her laughter and anger, but the sound of her weeping, so rare, fills me with shame; it seems to me like the sound of cold water falling into an iron cauldron. She hurls her shoes at him as he lies across the sofa uttering nothing.

Father is tall and lean and quiet. Perhaps it is Christmas day when he gets here, or soon after. He has brought us more gifts from far away; a little wooden camel and a bronze bust of Nefertiti from Egypt. A copper boomerang with a thermometer mounted on it from Australia.

I help him prepare a great pile of doughnuts. He towers over me as we work at the kitchen bench, mixing sour cream, eggs, sugar, cardamom and flour. He shows me how to roll the dough and join the strips into rings before he fries them in hot fat and dusts them with sugar. My father is methodical, explaining as we go.

He bakes a salmon. It’s a silver ship on a reef of boiled, peeled potatoes, anointed with butter and black pepper, then broken to reveal its cavernous pink bowels. He stirs the sour cream porridge, cooks it down with sugar and puts a knob of butter in each bowl.

He sits and takes his coffee at two in the afternoon, sipping the hot liquid through a lump of sugar tucked between his teeth. He gives me a green piney cough lozenge coated with sugar. He drives us up to the Holmenkollen ski jump, racing along the narrow roads and tearing round the corners. Mother laughs. “God! Kristian you’re a dreadful driver!” She says sailors are pretty dangerous behind the small jittery steering wheels of cars.

I don’t know how long he might stay here with us, perhaps a week before he goes back down to Oslo, to the black ship with its salty derricks and blue striped funnel, off to trace lines in the rolling seas between Gøteborg and Tilbury Docks, Port Said and Port Hedland, or Lisbon and Sao Paulo.

It is the first Christmas I remember, and the last one we will have with our father. After he has gone away again, it is as though mother has begun to lead us deeper into the dark-white valley, into the river with its ceiling of ice, under the hard grey lake, down to the fjord and out along the ocean floor, walking miles below the storms, too far down for her to notice the short pearly days between the long vacant nights. Perhaps her sun will rise again months after Christmas day, after a voyage past the Canary Isles, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and on to the coast of Western Australia, the farthest shore of an unimagined world.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org