Music and my Scientist Dad

Writing on Father’s Daysome memories of my late dad’s influence on my musical education: 

My dad was a research scientist who worked on developing a battery for a prototype electric car in the 1960s and 70s. It was shown on TV on ‘Tomorrow’s World’. He was meant to drive it on to the set but dropped out at the last minute because he was too shy. We all sat round the TV and were so disappointed when someone else drove on instead, especially as I’d told all my friends to watch. He later told us he had been worried that the car might stall and the thought of the impending embarrassment had held him back. He asked one of his colleagues to take his place. I know that feeling – should I attempt the solo part I have been offered or ask someone else play it?

My dad, a scientist; my mum, a dancer/teacher: I’ve always credited my mum for encouraging my love of music and wrote about it here (Thank you for the Music, Mum) but I came to know and love many of the classics because of my dad. He listened to the BBC ‘third programme’ which played music by the ‘great’ composers: overtures, concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn (amongst others) every day. Orchestral sounds, dramatic rhythms and (what soon became) well-known melodies drifted around the house. He not only listened on his home-made valve wireless but also had music playing in the car. He gave me a lift every school day, car radio turned up and when I heard something I really liked, I was in danger of making myself late by staying to listen to the end. I first heard Brahms’ second piano concerto in the car. I was stunned by the beauty of the cello solo melody that opens the second movement and recurs throughout. I’d never heard of a cello solo in a piano concerto before. I really didn’t want to get out of the car that morning. Next birthday, my dad gave me a double LP of both Brahms piano concertos and I listened over and over to that movement.

Listening to it now, I find it such a sad, nostalgic sounding melody, I wonder at my teenage self sometimes!

Symphonies and piano concertos were one thing but there was another type of music where my dad’s enthusiasm left me cold. That was opera. I was never a fan. It didn’t help that the first one he took me to as a young teenager was La Belle Hélène by Offenbach. I didn’t like the warbly voices, couldn’t make out the lyrics and couldn’t follow the plot. Worst of all, confirming my annoyance at being there, the leading lady began to strip off revealing her corset and bloomers! I was mortified and excruciatingly embarrassed. The whole experience put me off opera for years. When I was clearing out my dad’s house, what did I find in the attic? An LP of La Belle Hélène with the leading lady there on the front in her corset! My dread came flooding back!

My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.

 

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