I imagine the grass under their feet, their tanned, evenly pigmented feet. They’ve flicked off their thongs, which they wear without pain, without their toes in a death grip, as they settle in to a spot in the summer sun. The tan of their feet sweeps up over their ankles, along their long, leggy legs, straight and muscular, exposed in the short shorts that the hot weather demands. It is a natural, climate-appropriate style, all the way up to their singlets and their bare arms, brown and vascular. They stretch out on the grass, relaxing in the chlorophyll calm, easy grins on faces shaded by hats and caps, broad-brimmed or baseball, straw or skull, hats that fit, hats that protect, hats that look good. I imagine that grass, and it is green as fuck.

Not like the grass on my side of this UV imagery. Over here, there are no tan lines or easy grins in the sun, no singlets, no even pigment. It’s all pink and angry skin, socked and sneakered feet, trousers at all costs, and most definitely, absolutely, no well-fitting hats. If my envy conjured a lush park peopled with the sun-tolerant, my reality is a bale of hay languishing on the median strip of a highway.

So it will be for the next three months of summer, in which Australia will make me feel as welcome on her molten shores as a shit in a bathtub. Three months of shade chasing and zigzagging from awning to awning, sidling up to a lamppost at an intersection and leaning with relief into its shadow, or muttering in agitation when someone else gets there first. Genetically speaking, it is clear that I shouldn’t be here. While everyone else seems to relish the heightened sensuality of the season and the lust of exposed skin and steamy nights, I long for more layers and a bridge to hide under while I wait for a few billy goats.

Nature’s project to render me physically hilarious actually begins in October, when the first pollen dust hits the eyeballs, setting off a corporeal false alarm that will run for at least two months. With its trivial cause and symptoms that are both harmless and wholly annoying, hay fever is one of those special ailments from which a victim suffers miserably but without the benefit of any sympathy whatsoever. The frustration of all that itching and sneezing leads to a desperate search for a cure, whether gorging on local honey or coating nostrils in Vaseline or swilling liver-killing doses of antihistamine that even a Russian athletics coach couldn’t mask.

Ultimately, there is only one proven treatment: never, ever, go outside. If you have already made this mistake, you must also burn any clothing that was ever touched by pollen’s cunning and powdery fingers. There have been occasions, in the depths of blissful antigen-free winter, when I have worn a jacket for the first time since the previous spring. Within minutes I am a sniffling, swollen mess of poorly evolved humanity, confused and searching frantically in my vicinity for an explanation. Recognising the old foe’s dirty trick, I barely have time to throw off the jacket before deteriorating into a blur of limbs to the face.

It is a lifelong battle that I am destined to lose. I was once sent home from primary school because my symptoms were so bad, and although I was probably milking it a bit, I did look sufficiently ridiculous that my mum arrived with a thermos full of ice cubes to soothe my bloodshot and bulging eyes. It worked – perhaps too well, nearly sabotaging my homebound hopes – but I remember being aghast when she walked into the school office, my little brain unable to figure out why she would bring soup to a hay fever fight.

The true evil of the seasonal progression is that hay fever is at its worst when it is hot and windy, climatic conditions which alone require all of my Petri-deep character to withstand. Nevertheless, I would take either of those over prolonged, direct sunlight. Even in winter, when the sun is low and hunching between the shoulders of buildings, I cower and dodge its aggravating angle. It’s the celestial equivalent of an oncoming car cresting a hill at night, headlights now tilted as if deliberately trying to blind and run you off the road. Sitting in your car, enraged and hidden, you’ll curse the driver, the danger, perhaps the failures of their character or the misfortune of their birth. The only difference in my case is that a sunny footpath provides no such privacy.

Well, you say, buy a hat. Quite right – it was another failed attempt to do so that prompted this entire rant. There comes a time every year when I must confront my sun-phobia and the ordeal of solving it, but every year the same insurmountable obstacle looms in front of me like Gandalf to a Balrog: the shape of my head.

I realise I’ve just cast myself as a Balrog, a harsh but not useless comparison, because now try this: imagine the Balrog wearing a hat. What kind of hat could possibly fit him? What kind of hat could possibly make him look less like a danger to children? Imagine there is an answer to those questions (there isn’t), where on earth could he find that hat? That’s right. He couldn’t.

This is what it’s like when your head is as ill-suited to headwear as mine. It’s enormous, obviously, but not in a Mount Rushmore, impressively-carved-out-of-stone sense, but in a ‘the gap between the eyes of a hammerhead shark is enormous’ sense. Size is not the only culprit, however, but also the proportions, the interplay of length to width to volume to ear protrusion. My head is the embodied antithesis of the golden ratio. I am the customer that haunts the nightmares of milliners.

Hats and I were never meant to be. My favourite hat of all time was bought at the Australian Open as a young, tennis-obsessed boy. It was a white cap with a black peak and I can’t tell you how many imaginary tournaments I won while wearing it, clinched heroically in a fifth set tiebreaker, playing alone against a wall. One day, in a frenzied burst of parental tidying, it was hung on a wall-mounted light globe beside a mirror, its cheap synthetic material snug against the globe’s glass. Some hours later, in a twist you might think predictable, it caught fire. A hole was burned straight through its side, and although I carried on wearing it for some time, tufts of hair poking out through the char like the flames that destroyed it, it was never the same.

As an even younger boy, I had a broad-brimmed straw hat to protect my still freckle-free skin. I had no concept of materials or their suitability for certain tasks – having sandals made of jelly being another example – so it was a cruel shock when I was caught in a sudden downpour and the straw sagged and drooped like soggy bread. Ruined. It was another early portent of a headwear future filled with disappointment and ridicule, a fate sealed a handful of years later at the onset of my teen years. Just when puberty was beginning to dig the trenches for a long battle to come, its chemical warfare turning my undercut-perfect straight hair into a thick, wavy boof, the well-known manufacturer of sportswear, Canterbury, released a series of designs utilising random off-cuts of fabric. They had named these designs: ‘UGLIES’.

Just like the person who placed a synthetic hat in direct contact with a light globe, you should know where this is going. A hat was given to me as a present, a generous but sadly oblivious gift, with the word UGLIES emblazoned across its patchwork front. I was young enough that I hadn’t yet formed a sense of where I belonged on the aesthetic pecking order, but luckily my brother was close at hand to help me at this important stage of development. The sledging was gleeful and unsparing. One should expect to be mocked by one’s siblings, but the punch lines shouldn’t literally be embroidered on a hat for them.

So here we are at the beginning of December, and as the sun continues to wilt my resistance, I will have to subject myself to the ignominy of trying on hats in a shop. A smug young person with a small head will ignore all my anti-social signalling and thrust a hat in my direction. With bitter satisfaction, I will watch the confusion bloom in their eyes when they discover that one size doesn’t fit all, oh no not at all. I will swear at the sheer functional incompetence of most hats, at all the one inch brims and tiny peaks that are as shade-creating as eyelashes and then I’ll swear at the people who wear them just to accessorize their perfectly ordinary skulls. Finally, hot and flustered and not a little sweaty, I’ll make a bad purchase in a panic, the weight of judgement and discomfort pressuring me into a hasty buy I will regret as soon as I leave the building.

It’s almost a law of nature by now, an annual ritual as sure as the season that provokes it, much like my springtime Telfast dependence or my envy of the tanned and sun-loving. Maybe I should just embrace the sombrero, bare my shins and learn to walk in thongs like the rest of humanity, or at least stop fantasising about how green that grass must be. I know you’re supposed to just accept yourself these days, but sometimes it really is greener on the other side. Just ask any billy goat crossing a bridge.

On the other hand, they are typically heading for a lush meadow, and if I consider what that would be like – no shade and a haze of pollen in the air – my summer plan seems clear: find a good bridge, and stay under it.

You’re not supposed to remember, I think. Something about the drugs saving you from the formation of memory, your brain soaked in morphine, a flooded library. I do remember, but the memories are a bit lumpy, as if scrawled on soggy paper, with no hard edges.

I remember waking up, on my side, jolted out of the blank of anaesthetic, consciousness returning like a modem reset. Blinking and flickering, my systems came back online and at a certain point my throat recognised that it was stuffed with a tube, deduced that this was not ideal, and began to choke me violently. The sensation woke me like an angry parent but I suspect it was the sound, a splutter that bubbled into straight-ahead panic, which prompted my nurse to attend to that unwelcome penetration.

The minutes that followed, full of blear and fog, who am I, where am I, bed righting, pillow wrangling and desperate thirst, come into my mind trailing the same scent as my memories of long-haul flights, with their own minutes of waking and adjusting under watchful eyes, as window blinds are slid open and the plane prepared for landing. I suppose the similarities are genuine: being doted upon, and being high as a kite.

Some crucial differences, naturally: I had just been cooled down, blood diverted, sliced into, sawn through, prised apart, heart valve excised and updated, then wired, stretched and sewn back together. It seems quite dramatic, written out like that, like an ordeal or a tragedy. It was neither, and writing about it now, five years later, is challenging not for any trauma of reliving the experience but because it’s difficult to sound convincingly nonchalant. It may test your credulity, but aside from some anxiety and mild discomfort, it was a positive experience.

Now minus the choker and having been lifted onto my back by long-lost orderlies, I made a quick inventory of new limbs and counted five tubes still coming out of me: one each in the neck and the arm, two under the ribs for ‘drainage’, and most pitifully, a catheter extending from a forlorn and fearful manhood, the removal of which loomed ominously in my future for the next three days.

Near to my right hand lay a plastic device with a large green button, a wondrous thing to cradle in your hands and whisper sweet sonnety nothings to. O love, pharmaceutical! Here was the warmest chemical embrace, soothing, devoted, and when it began to wane, I could simply press a button and be enveloped anew. Morphine. Initially I had a misguided intention to use it as little as possible, until the nurse told me that this was daft. ‘Are you in pain?’ she asked.


‘Exactly. Stay on top of it.’ My abstinence was characteristically fickle, and I ceded my intention, giddy with permission.

For the next 24 hours, I rode that green button like it was Pegasus, holding me aloft as chaos and catastrophe streamed ordinarily into the Intensive Care Unit. It was oddly enjoyable, in a surreal way. I dozed, stared out, drifted. Somehow, despite the accidents and the heart attacks that were called out in colour codes, euphemistic catalysts of rush and scramble, I was serene. Maybe this was the result of all the devil juice I was pumping into my arm every ten minutes, or perhaps I was just high on a more natural intoxicant: relief. I was awake, and ignoring the various frailties of my situation, I was myself.

Of all the risks of heart surgery, I was most afraid of having a stroke, of coming back altered or incompetent, inducing familial obligation or unhealing dependence. Standing in the bathroom, pre-op, watching a grey ghost in the mirror holding an electric razor, I felt an acute sense of irreversibility, a mid-fall longing to defy gravity and go back to before the jump, scrambling pointlessly against the events that were so horribly imminent. I wanted to be able to ask someone ‘do I have to do this?’, for the answer to be ‘no’, for them to put a halt to it all and let me go home. It’s a bit undignified, this supplication, like a dizzy drunk promising to never drink again if only the world would stop spinning, but considering I had to walk out of the bathroom in a hospital gown, an item of clothing that is almost entirely hypothetical, my dignity seemed to have been shed with my body hair.

After the obligatory observation period, I was moved from Intensive Care to the cardiac ward, wheeled through the corridors like luggage on a trolley. Helplessness is infantilising, and it’s surprising how quickly even the prideful accept this state of being. Then again, how much resistance can you muster when your bladder is emptying itself autonomously, completely unnoticed, into a bucket under the foot of your bed? But then again again, if your most inconvenient functions have been delegated into someone else’s hands…well, why resist?

The next two days are undefined, faded like the scar on my chest, but I can still recognise that not much actually happened. I should have been sleeping, drowsy from the drugs and the physical toll, but a mundane side effect was holding me from sleep’s door: the hiccups. For three days they interjected, regular, incessant, maddening; an unreachable dripping tap. The doctors and nurses were rendered powerless amid their own rising annoyance – as with a relentless sneeze or cough, compassion for the noisy soon turns to resentment – their medications rebuffed by what was revealed to be my body’s objection to being stuck in the chest by a prong of tubes. A fair but futile protest. I was so exhausted from the lack of sleep that I became temporarily narcoleptic, falling asleep mid-sentence (my own) during a visit by my sister, waking at the next spasm to her laughing at me. It turns out that morphine is no match for embarrassment.

The hiccups gave up their vigil soon after the drains were removed, part of an eventful interaction with a double team of nurses. On either side they stood, gloved and purposeful, professional in their concern and with a matter-of-fact ability to distribute care; whoever coined the term ‘tough love’ was surely acquainted with the charms of a nurse. They exhorted me to hold my breath and not allow any air into the nostrils they were about to create at the base of my ribcage. Perhaps it was classic misdirection, busying my focus on an action that cleverly involved keeping my mouth shut, but given I’m prone to wobble in sight of my own blood and/or internal organs, I took the bait, looked at the ceiling and held on. Two horizontal scars remain, about 1 cm across, a faded white, marking the spot in surgery Braille.

With the drains now plugged, my nurses turned their tube-removing attention to the catheter I had been taking for granted ever since waking up three days before. Other feelings not covered by morphine: worry and self-consciousness. Both were warranted. The worry soon gave way to actual pain, and the self-consciousness to actual shame. I felt like a watched dog taking an uncomfortable shit, furtively avoiding eye contact and annoyed by how long the process seemed to be taking. This was the physical low point of the whole enterprise.

It was also a turning point, of sorts. Unplumbed and forcibly separated from my green button of tenderness, everything became a little more real. Nature’s call now required a graceless lean-and-fall out of bed, like tipping a cow, arms braced across my sternum to prevent them bearing weight, followed by a very slow shuffle to the bathroom. Without the morphine to stroke my brow, discomfort gained a new and ragged edge, adding a sharpness to the daily belly injections and the deep coughing I was required to simulate, painful hacks to shovel air into the depths of my lungs to stave off pneumonia. I was soon moved to another room for the last few days of my stay, began to sleep and walk around twice a day, and gradually confronted the two months of convalescence that lay ahead of me.

One final memory from the hazy phase remains, a strange and uncommon experience that were it not witnessed, I would think it a hallucination. I can’t say with certainty when it occurred, but I think it was day one on the ward, at the height of sleep deprivation and morphine reliance. My sister was in the room, standing to the right of my bed, probably on the same visit as my dalliance with narcolepsy. Her phone rang: it was my mum, calling from the other side of the world. I listened to the one side of the conversation I could hear, standard answers which filled the silence with obvious questions:

‘Yes he’s fine, it all went well.


No I wouldn’t say that, he looks pretty awful actually.


Well he just fell asleep mid-sentence, but he’s awake now, I’ll put him on.’


My sister walked to the bed and held the phone to my ear, I said ‘hi Mum’, and then burst into tears.


It was strange for a number of reasons. Firstly, without any false machismo, I’m not a crier. Various moments of sentimentality can turn me misty-eyed, like the death of animals in films, or stubbing my toe, or having a particularly good hair day ruined by the wind, but when major emotions need expression, I don’t cry. At times I’ve wished I could, but it’s usually impossible and I turn to food. Feelings can be delicious, but not in hospital.

Secondly, I didn’t feel upset. I didn’t feel anything, I was too busy paddling serenely on a green morphine sea. I tried to talk, to explain that I was fine, but it was impossible with a flood of tears pouring out of me, my ability to communicate dissolved like a sugar cube in the rain. Eventually my sister took the phone from my ear, agreed to call back later and then stood there, embarrassed and eyeing me askance, wondering at what point it would be acceptable to leave. I said, ‘immediately’.

I probably didn’t say that. Truthfully I don’t remember any words of the conversation, but the broader details are true, and it’s fascinating that in amongst the soggy pages of memory from those first few days after surgery, there are two with solid ink: the removal of the catheter and my spontaneous disintegration at the sound of my mother’s voice, crumpling like a cheap car between the forces of bottled anxiety and maternal concern. Evidently the sharpest experiences etch the deepest, and I guess that’s what Ted Hughes meant when he wrote ‘the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember’.

Is he right though? I often think about the tyranny of memory, its ability to haunt, to stop time on a person, to imprison, and I want to argue with him. But if I think of these particular memories, these two lowlights, I am glad I can remember, glad that my treasured opiate didn’t rinse them away. They’re both symbolic, if I look hard enough: of good fortune and risks dodged, of ‘not that bad’ and ‘I can do that again’, of survivable discomfort and the importance of family, whether laughing at you or feeling embarrassed on your behalf.

Then again, who knows how much I’m inventing. Even sober memories are unreliable, so perhaps I shouldn’t look for sentiment in drug-addled corners of the library, and perhaps I should’ve picked stories which paint me in more dignity, not less. Oh well. It grew back in the end, and that is best to remember.

This concert has me stumped. My fingers have been poised on the keyboard for ages now, stuck like a sprinter with stage fright, waiting to transcribe any thought that could pass as coherent. It shouldn’t be this hard. I’ve had enough coffee to wake the dead and enough food to kill them again, so it’s not an issue of fuel. Come brain on, please coherence, yes. Wait, here comes something, a thought churns, and I evacuate: it’s quite soothing to rub those little bumps on the F and J keys…Hmm. Who thought of them? Clever. Hmm.

The details of the concert are easy enough to relate: March 30 at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, with a chamber-size Melbourne Symphony Orchestra joined by the Australian String Quartet, all led by MSO concertmaster and ASQ first violinist Dale Barltrop. The program is also willing to come easily, by way of this simple shortcut:

Igor Stravinsky:                         Concerto in E-flat, Dumbarton Oaks

Matthew Hindson:                    The Rave and the Nightingale, for String Quartet and String                                                         Orchestra

Franz Schubert:                        String Quartet no.14 in D minor, Death and the Maiden                                                                 (arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler)


It was the first time I’ve heard the ASQ since its most recent reshuffling of members (now a major motion picture!), and there have been so many over the last fifteen years that the name Australian String Quartet connotes ‘organisation’ rather than ‘ensemble’, which is, oddly enough, the truth. The ASQ is an organisation, much like the MSO, but unlike an orchestra, individual changes of personnel represent major upheaval in a quartet. Years of rehearsing, debate and refinement go out the window in an instant, and each new formation has to start from scratch. A nightmare process for the musicians and a disengaging one for audiences, because who wants to hear a quartet in its infancy every few years? Hopefully the current band stays together for many years.

The ASQ is not the reason why I’m struggling to untangle my response to this concert, though. I expected them to play well, to wring silken tones out of their set of Guadagnini instruments, and they did. I expected the MSO to chatter along in the Stravinsky, Barltrop to lead with subtle assurance and the Schubert to have moments of serene beauty, and that all happened as well. There were unexpected joys too, like the infectious smile of ASQ violist Stephen King that infused much of his playing in the Hindson, or the way the MSO’s viola section, joined by King in the Schubert, stole all of their scenes with playing of exceptional quality. The double basses boomed magnificently, and in amongst the all-black attire (can it be so every concert, MSO?) I saw the most tremendous pair of high heels I’ve yet witnessed on a classical concert stage.

I could go on, but perhaps, reader, you shouldn’t. You now know what was played, when, where, and to what quality (very high). It might get a bit dark later on. Fair warning.

But first, a summary: I had expectations, they were met, and the unexpected was pleasurable. So, why am I stumped? There must be an important issue at the heart of why this concert wasn’t all that I’d hoped it to be.

All that I’d hoped it to be.

That’s actually it, the heart of the issue. Beyond mere expectations, I had hopes for this concert, hopes for what it would do or could be for me, and their failure now represents the bulk of my experience and is affecting my ability to write or think clearly about it. It’s a shame, but at least it does highlight a point I’ve made before, that an audience member contributes as much to their experience of a concert as the performers. It’s unavoidable, and part of the reason why I write these gonzo-style reviews, full of self-reference and overly personal details, is to make this obvious. A traditional review may appear to have a measure of objectivity, but that’s an illusion. Every writer brings their own layers of meaning and experience to the concert hall, and it’s only fair to performers to acknowledge that.

Still, it’s also fair and relevant to ask why my particular hopes did fail, even if only for my own enlightenment.

The first dashed hope concerns Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale, composed in 2001. The program notes told me that Hindson quotes the opening section of Schubert’s final quartet, no.15 in G major, before engaging the string orchestra to bound off into the world of 21st-century rave music (“DJ Franz”) while channelling Schubert’s melodic spirit (the “Nightingale”). It’s a concept that excited me when I read about it, but its realisation left me with a thought that was quite absurd in the context of a classical concert: this music has aged terribly.

I had hoped for electronics, or at least for a bold attempt to render Schubert into the milieu that the title declares, but this was hard to find. Listening to its rhythmic gestures and its various gimmicks, like the side-strumming and stomping en masse, it seems that Hindson hadn’t sent DJ Franz to a rave, but to a hoe-down. I was tremendously disappointed, my hopes crushed under all those shoe heels.

That’s how it was for me, but not for the rest of the audience, who clapped rapturously; not for my neighbour, who liked it the most of all the night’s works; and not for the lady behind me who yelped in gleeful shock when Barltrop said the word “thrusts” in his introduction to the piece. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if it had no title or program notes whatsoever, thus preventing my 2017, live-electronics-are-everywhere ears from establishing those misplaced expectations. I remain confused, though; I’m sure Hindson knows it sounds nothing like House or Trance or any other genre of electronic music, leaving me to wonder if the title is a deliberate misdirect. Maybe it’s all an in-joke that has gone over my head. If so, he got me good.

Nevertheless, I still had Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to look forward to in the second half, a classic of the string quartet repertoire and one of the most beloved pieces of chamber music that we have. I had never heard a live performance of Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra and I was concerned it would affect my enjoyment of the piece, the multiplied forces diminishing the intimacy of the music, smudging the textures and obscuring Schubert’s tender voice.

This is precisely what happened. There was no way it couldn’t happen, to be honest. Within his arrangement, Mahler included several extended passages where a string quartet plays alone and each time this occurred I longed for it to remain so. Here was the unadulterated source, sublime in the hands of Barltrop and his fellow principals, and it made so much more sense to me.

Again, I know that I am the problem. If I’d never heard it as a quartet – many, many times – I would have enjoyed it immensely; it’s still the same music, after all. If I’d never read Schubert’s letter to his friend Kupelwieser, dated around the same time as the completion of the quartet and in which he writes: “…for every night when I go to sleep, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews the grief of yesterday”, I would never have been searching in the music for his voice, searching for the expression of those dark and dangerous sentiments that we all know about and which are no fun to admit to. I wanted to hear him render that darkness beautiful; to lance the mundane struggles of being human with the incision of his melodies, and when I heard him through the mode of his intention, the string quartet, his blade was hot and direct.

Then the orchestra would return to the procedure and – as if suddenly aware of uninvited strangers eavesdropping on a private conversation – I shut down, cork shoved back into the bottleneck in a rush. I could appreciate the playing and the emotional commitment that the orchestra offered me, but I couldn’t meet them halfway to take it. Not all of them. I hate crowds.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Hoping for a private catharsis in the midst of hundreds, and then blaming its failure to materialise on a lack of intimacy. It seems incoherent, and perhaps it is, but is has soothed me before and I will keep seeking it out. Until then, well, those bumps on the F and J will have to do.

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

A confession: sometimes, when I am moping along a footpath through an oncoming rush of rage-inducing text-walkers, the gaudy jackets of a team of charity fundraisers will appear up ahead and – like the markings on a poison dart frog – warn me of imminent danger. I feel the icy hand of Panic seize the wheel, and fuelled by the fear of an unsolicited and entirely unwanted human interaction, I will go to embarrassing lengths to avoid this confrontation. Whole minutes – minutes! – have been added to travel times because my fight-or-flight instinct takes over in the presence of all that fake cheer and induced guilt, and I am compelled to cross the road or divert through a shopping centre or – in the worst case scenario – appear to suffer a momentary but total loss of hearing. All because a worthy cause has found an awkward way of asking people for money. Timing is everything.

I make this not-entirely-true confession hoping that some of you out there may share this shame, and yet Caution is reading over my shoulder, reminding me to be wary of what I admit to. Once, when rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 “Pathétique” in a youth orchestra, I gave voice to my dislike of the symphony, particularly the first movement and its famous lyrical melody. I recall that many ‘s’ words were flung, including sentimental, saccharine, and superficial. Perhaps one other you can think of, if you wish it.

My admission was not warmly received and the accusation ‘you have no soul’, normally just water off a redheaded duck’s back, was offered for my consideration. I did consider it, before stubbornly agreeing with myself and waddling off to enjoy my siege mentality alone. I have stood by my assessment of the Pathétique for many years, and it made a cosy partner to my opinion of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations as the most unendurable cello-with-orchestra piece in the repertoire.

All of which is to say, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis were up against it on March 18 when they performed this very symphony, in a concert also featuring superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. I wanted to enjoy it at last, truly I did, even doing some research – research! – in the hope that the tiny brushstrokes of new knowledge could dust off any ignorance and dig up my long-lost Tchaikovskian soul. If I could survive the first movement’s recurring melody without gaining a mouthful of cavities, I suspected I could become engrossed in the performance, or even be moved. That is why I detour my way to concerts in the first place, after all.

My hope was somewhat misdirected. I expected the last movement Adagio lamentoso to be the most affecting, but found that the relatively brisk tempo preferred by Davis, while refreshing in an interpretive sense, weakened its pathos. He had asked the audience to refrain from spontaneous applause at the end of the third movement, a common by-product of the movement’s typically Tchaik-like bombast, thus allowing a direct plunge into the anguish of the finale. It was a much-appreciated gesture and yet, as the lament outpaced its ability to unlock my own lumbering emotions, I wondered if it was being propelled by the same adrenaline that usually fuels (and is burned up by) an unsanctioned burst of applause. It didn’t exactly leave me cold, but as the music fades to the black of a possibly eternal sleep, I had been left behind in the gloaming.

Nevertheless, the playing of the orchestra was as good as I have heard them sound, and I was engrossed. The strings were impassioned and sumptuous, achieving a vigorous richness from back desks to front, and the wind and brass sections were replete with excellence, including several individual cameos of the highest quality throughout the concert.

One such cameo, the famous bassoon solo at the beginning of the Pathétique, ushered in my biggest surprise of the night: a thoroughly riveting first movement. Could it be that here was a performance so captivating that it upended all of my crass opinions about the symphony, thereby releasing my soul from its purgatory of wilful, since-youth ignorance?

For narrative purposes that would be ideal, but alas I have no story of redemption to thread through this tale. I was enjoying the performance so much, in fact, that when we arrived at the final return of the lyrical theme – the moment that has always bothered me the most – I was more disappointed than ever.

Listen to it now, I ask you. Take Tchaikovsky’s hand in the ominous opening Adagio, follow him as he sets off in the Allegro non troppo, turbulent and urgent, before unfurling that huge theme. It’s quite reassuring the first time, after the darkness and stress that preceded it. It goes on a bit, you might agree, and you may be sick of it by the time he turns it up to ten, unleashing all the dogs of sentiment to chase a scale up the octave for another pass at the melody. Finally it peters out in the clarinet, a moment of calm that Tchaikovsky shatters with a violent development section, building to a climax of brass brutality that will leave you beaten and bruised on the floor. It is genuinely epic, especially in the concert hall, and when it ends with a pause after the final blow, Davis and the MSO had me holding my breath.

And then…that bloody melody comes back. Just like that. No preparation or significant metamorphosis. Yes the accompaniment is a bit different, but essentially it is unchanged – unchanged! – despite the ordeal we’ve just been through. According to some, that is precisely the point, and I do know that. In the development, Tchaikovsky quotes unambiguously from the song With The Saints Give Rest and by following this clue, scholars have suggested that the rhythm of the lyrical melody aligns with another section of the song, a section with words meaning ‘but life everlasting’ (no zhi-zn’ bes-ko-nech-na-ya, for those listening along).

It’s a plausible supposition, but this knowledge can’t alter the impact on me. It feels like a betrayal of your commitment to becoming emotionally involved, the symphonic equivalent of someone saying ‘high five!’ and then leaving you with your arm hanging in the air like a plonk. You’ll look around sheepishly and casually morph your hanging hand into a not-fooling-anyone stretch, but learning the reasons for your abandonment won’t lessen the burn in your cheeks.

I feel a little rosy of cheek now, in fact, wondering if anyone else feels this way. I guess Caution got bored and left me to expose my unpopular opinion all over again. I had hoped for a transformation, but the MSO’s excellence only confirmed my bias and proved that some tastes don’t change with age. I can’t be surprised; any time I hear John Farnham’s You’re the Voice I am as much filled with revolutionary fervour as when I was eight-years-old.

I shall lean on that song as the accusations of soullessness come dripping in, my only regret being that I didn’t say anything about the Strauss, or the spectacular Daniil Trifonov, or about the video that was played to the audience at the beginning of the concert, with the lights down and the orchestra on stage. Two of those things were thrilling experiences in a concert hall, and the other was a worthy cause finding an awkward way to ask people for money. Timing is everything.

I’ve been watching the cats for a while, lying in the grooves of a corrugated iron roof I can see from my third-story window in Huanchaco, Peru. Lounging about in the late afternoon sun, I can count three of them in various states of feline elongation. Like the many street dogs that wander amongst the fishermen and the jewellery vendors, they are free denizens of this tiny town by the sea. By the sea and yet in the desert. I’ve never seen anything like it.

From my window I see the coast curving away to the left and out of the reach of my squint-wrinkled eyes. Unfinished brick buildings peter out halfway along and from that point, right from the water’s pebbled edge, a hill of sand and rock climbs steeply into the haze. It’s a horizon of weak watercolours, three washed-out tones of blue, yellow and grey. A simple palette for a landscape mirrored in the lifestyle.

Life does seem simple here, but that doesn’t mean sleepy. Car horns toot incessantly, waves crash and construction inches forward somewhere, although you couldn’t guess which barely-begun site was the recipient. Beaten and bruised buses rumble along the main road with a driver’s assistant hustling from the doorway, whistling and calling to locals and tourists for anyone wanting a Mad Max-style trip to Trujillo. The horns beep and boop-boop in coded conversation, Morse-like outbursts for merging, for approaching an intersection, for attracting attention or for overtaking. It’s a good thing considering there is barely a notion of separate lanes and even less of one for indicating. Any safety measure is welcome because although the taxi drivers wear seatbelts, they have usually been removed from the passenger seats. It’s hard to get your head around a cultural difference when you’re worried it might be vaulting through the windscreen at any moment.

Despite this noise and chaos, the pace of life feels slow and it’s a rhythm that seduces. The weather is virtually unchanging, every day revealed as a sunny mid-20s after the bookends of haze and cloud are licked away by a gentle sea breeze. Enormous pelicans patrol low amongst the waves before dipping swiftly to steal their catch from the sea, while the uncaught regularly launch themselves out of the water in shiny eruptions of silver, either a flight of fear or fancy, I don’t know. Fishermen paddle out to drop their lines aboard handmade reed catamarans, which at all other times stand upright along the beach in twos or threes like ancient sentinels, stoic neighbours to the street vendors positioned nearby. It all feels easy and calm, life just ambling along.

I do wonder about how false my impression might be, how reductive and ignorant. The picture appears idyllic but there must be drama and conflict around the edges. There are humans here, after all. Many of the bodegas have iron bars separating customer from goods, a hint at a threat of crime that you don’t feel as a tourist by the beach. What seems simple and enticing to me might be a struggle from week to week, scrounging for the soles to pay for the drinking water you can’t get from the taps or for the electricity flowing along a chaos of cables like a tragedy waiting to happen.

That’s travelling, I suppose, forming an impression of a place based on a brief encounter, just like we do with people. Just like I did when I met Barry downstairs. You’ve met a Barry too, I’m sure. Barry possesses a voice of such chainsaw potency that if he was buried underground he could whisper for help. He uses that voice to great effect, dominating conversations with his expertise on all things and the assumption that you probably need help to spell your own name. In his 50s, he is tall and wiry with the white-grey hair of a former reddish head and the sunburnt nose to confirm the suspicion. I spoke with him for five minutes and have been doing my utmost to avoid him ever since, which is not so easy. The walk past his apartment to the beach is a daily nightmare because he leaves his door open, a classic move to trap passersby that requires my constant vigilance to evade. His cavity-drilling drawl does have a silver lining though: you can geolocate him with ease and plan your crab-crawling dash under the windowsill. It’s not graceful, but survival is all that matters.

I wonder about him though, about why a single middle-aged man comes to Huanchaco for weeks at a time or where his need to educate every one he meets comes from. I’m curious about his story, but can’t face enduring that conversation to hear it. I might be missing out, but that’s quite alright.

I’ll stay ignorant about Barry; I’m satisfied with what I gleaned from him in that initial encounter. If I’m ignorant about Huanchaco after staying here for a week, if there is a dark side to the repetitive perfection of the weather or having the waves to yourself because the locals can’t swim, that’s ok too. There’s a line from the Walkmen song While I Shovel The Snow that goes: there’s no life like the slow life, and listening to that song on Christmas Eve, as I looked out the window while fireworks exploded all over the town at midnight, it had never had so much resonance. Ignorance is Huanchaco.

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com


Play On v_4
Collingwood Underground Carpark, November 25


I couldn’t see the cobwebs in the dark.

Even much of the grey concrete that would normally give an underground car park its essence had been swallowed by the night, its mood transformed by soft decorative lighting around a makeshift wine bar and a crate bedecked in DJ gadgetry. Dancers trod a hard floor unused to the patter of human joy, replacing the squeal of rubber with the uncoordinated rhythms of wine-emboldened silliness and shy, oh no thanks I don’t dance two-stepping. In the midst of an aborted attempt to broaden my shuffle-and-bob repertoire with a spin, the hard-won momentum abandoning me halfway such that my back was now towards DJ Laila Sakini, I saw the entrance door fly open and allow a cool rectangle of outside light to roll down the descending driveway and into this den of music lovers. A Friday night in Collingwood, and I was in some sort of hipster Batcave.

Hipster is an unfortunate word so powerful that it has just ruined all the sincerity of that introduction. It’s as if the paragraph was a lovingly made cocktail full of sugary ingredients to charm you, but just as I reached out to hand it to you, a bird flew by and crapped right in it. I don’t even know what the word signifies anymore, but it definitely has negative connotations. Like ‘baby boomer’, ‘deconstructed’ or ‘Kanye West’. My attempt to evoke an image of exuberant underground dancing has been shaken away like an Etch A Sketch doodle and been replaced by the most hipster thing you can imagine, which may or may not include:

  • A waxy moustache (twirled)
  • Denim overalls (vintage)
  • A leather apron (vintage)
  • Non-prescription glasses (over-sized [and vintage])
  • Cycling (single–speed)
  • Laneway listening parties (cassette tape)
  • Anything cold-pressed and single-origin, preferably fair-trade and hyphenated
  • Charcoal (activated)
  • Hats (indoors)
  • Authenticity (insincere)
  • Insincerity (authentic)
  • Superiority (assumed)
  • #melbs

Like you, I am now trying to figure out why I used the word in the first place. My best explanation is that I like the challenge of positioning you in this way and then trying to coax you back to the impression – a true one – that this was one of the best gigs I went to all year. A masochistic impulse to make my life unnecessarily difficult I suppose, kind of like wearing a beanie in summer.

I do know why the Batcave occurred to me: at the beginning of the evening, as I made my own descent down that driveway, I saw a young boy dressed as Robin running about and catching imaginary criminals. He would soon be standing on a fold-down wooden clap-seat behind me, hand in a packet of chips while enjoying a performance of half of Maurice Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello.

When I say half of the duo, I do of course mean two of the four movements and not one of the two instruments. If you had immediately pictured a lone musician appearing from behind a temporary white wall, crossing onto a ramshackle stage to perform partnerless in front of a full audience under the grey ceiling of a car park, you’re slightly off. There were two, as required: Kristian Winther and Mee Na Lojewski, to name names. The rest is accurate though, well done.

But did you also imagine the industrial spotlight set atop a yellow tripod that was illuminating the stage? The small and somewhat woolly-toned piano that would soon be driven by Hoang Pham when he joined the others to perform Brahms’ Piano Trio no.1? The rows of subtly wobbling seats entirely filled with as varied an audience as Brahms has had all year? How about the clapping and cheering between movements? The freedom to walk to the wine bar mid-concert and refill your tipple? The absence of hairy eyeballs when returning to your seat?

I suspect you didn’t, because why would you? We’re not used to experiencing these pieces like this anymore. If I’d asked you beforehand: ‘Want to come and watch the Ravel underground with me?’, you may have thought I was a bit dyslexic and/or confused and gently replied: ‘…you know Lou Reed is dead, right?’. When you saw my face distort in puzzlement at your response, you might have assumed I’d simply misspoken an invitation to a Velvet Underground listening party, and – depending on how #melbs you are – replied: ‘oh, has their back catalogue been reissued on cassette?’. 

Two terrible jokes wrung from the same barely-coherent pun, and it’s of no consequence whatsoever to the story. I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me. My excuse is that I just can’t think clearly at this time of year; I was cured of Christmas long ago but am surrounded by a society still struggling with the illness. People are everywhere and bad music is in the air, plus I’m frequently a victim of second-hand glitter abuse and will be suffering the consequences of someone else’s poor life-choices for weeks to come. Writing is a slog right now and joke writing is worse. So again: I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me.

Oddly though, that whole Ravel-vet Underground bit has somehow uncovered the reason why ‘hipster’ was in my head when mixing that bird-tainted cocktail above. A few days after the concert, I was raving to some friends about it and my description went thus: it’s called Play On, a series of concerts every Friday night in November in which some classical musicians play chamber music and then a DJ takes over. There’s wine and beer and wobbly wooden seats, risk-taking music making, an enthusiastic audience, dancing, random superheros, and it’s down a driveway. And they said….’meh, sounds pretty hipster’.

This bummed me out. Of all the things I jokingly listed above, it’s the last few that have an aftertaste of pejorative bitterness and capture what we really mean when we say ‘that’s so hipster’. Your own list of hipster constituents may read very differently to mine, but common to anyone’s recipe will be an aura of insincerity mixed with undeserved (in our eyes) superiority and it is this that sends us so quickly to judgement and scorn.

And if that’s how you felt about this concert as soon you read ‘hipster Batcave’, it was a grave error on my part. There was no irony in the applause between the movements that night, only genuine enthrallment and a desire to express enthusiasm for the music and its performers. We may have been enveloped in tonnes of concrete and the concert punctuated by the odd slam of a portaloo door, but despite these obvious incongruities to the norms of classical performance, the ambience of the evening actually felt like a throwback to a much older tradition. A tradition that existed before the English built a concert etiquette around their stiff upper lip, their don’t you clap there, philistine rules and the succulent pleasure of glaring judgementally at those unaware of them.

In this relaxed yet expectant atmosphere, the musicians took interpretive risks, the audience felt at ease and the music came alive. Here was further proof that classical music – undiluted, demanding, and sincere – can easily captivate an audience usually more inclined to the sounds of excited electrons and the promise of dancing in the dark.

Which brings us back to those cobwebs. After I’d descended the driveway, evaded Robin and unfolded my seat, I looked around and took note of how this purely utilitarian space had been transformed. When I noticed the spotlight upon the yellow tripod, my eyes followed the trail of its blaze up to the ceiling and along the two concrete beams that ran its length. There, hanging secretively, was a long since abandoned bundle of cobwebs, ever so slightly swaying in the tickle of draughty air that had found it. For a few seconds, I was transfixed by the unusual poetry of a gossamer stage curtain clutching tenderly at a concrete monolith. And then I smiled. Somehow in that moment, I just knew this gig would be fantastic. I really do hope this concert series can keep…playing on.

I know, I’m sorry, and please forgive me.

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

Let them eat cake. And drink coffee. And let it be free, too. This will help entice them to come to a chamber music concert on a weekday morning.

Ah geez, of all the barnacles clinging to our cultural memory bank, I’ve gone for the one with connotations of aristocratic condescension and elitism as the opening line of an article on classical music! Damn connotations. I really don’t mean to suggest that someone in the programming department of Musica Viva is like Marie Antoinette, or that MV thinks of their audience as ‘them’. So, just stop being so judgmental, alright? It’s just a play on words, because there really was an array of free cake and coffee before the Tinalley String Quartet concert on Tuesday the 20th at 11am, and Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was nearly full. Think about that: Nearly full, a Tuesday, 11am.

It’s quite incredible, considering how classical music died sometime in the last century. I can’t tell you the exact year of death, as there seems to be an obituary every few years, but it’s definitely dead. Or is it dying? Well, one of those. One foot in the cultural grave in any case, like books, poetry, reading – you know, words. Words are dead, music is dead, everything good and beautiful is dead dead dead! Dead and buried at sea like that stoic string quartet in the movie Titanic, a symbol of all the artistic traditions drowned in the wake of humanity’s poorly-captained pursuit of progress and growth at all costs. Well, we all have an iceberg in our blind spot.

That’s what they say, anyway, those prognosticators of demise. And just like vinyl records, radio, television, the movie industry, face-to-face conversation and grammar, the modern world still hasn’t killed off classical music. 11am on a Tuesday! Nearly full, reader! That’s really amazing. Hundreds of people, enduring an internal pas de deux between a caffeine high and a sugar-induced food coma, watching a string quartet play Haydn op.20 no.5 and Beethoven op.59 no.3. I guess the lesson to be learned is: don’t trust the opinions of writers.

Oh. Better move on before that sinks in. Hey look! Here comes a


So, did someone say string quartet? Tinalley Quartet?




Tin Alley does exist; it bisects the University of Melbourne campus in Parkville, just above the Conservatorium of Music. It seems reasonable to deduce that the original members took this as their name when they were studying there, a valiant effort to avoid the tendency students have of naming a chamber group in emulation of Europe’s vaunted tradition. When I was doing my Bachelor degree, the quartet I fought with – oops, played with, I meant to say – tried to name our group after my teacher and his Swiss surname. He laughed in our faces and deflated our burgeoning pretension with a flick of the wrist. Despite our embarrassment, we knew that he was right; the Tinalley Quartet evidently possessed a similar wisdom and was rewarded for its local gaze with an unconventional and memorable name.

Its members’ student days are long behind them of course, and indeed, if one word could encapsulate their playing, it is: professional. I know that sounds backhanded, but it’s 99% a compliment. 99% compliment, 1% a gentle, no-contact backhand. Everything was so polished, so pristine; the Haydn was pure and the style blessedly free of anachronisms, and these were wonderful qualities. If you’ve never tried to play a Haydn quartet in tune, let me assure you that it’s as fraught with risk as scratching an eye in the midst of chopping up a hot chilli. One false move amongst all your delicate care and the sting will be immediate and regrettable. No red eyes or regrets on this particular morning; I can’t recall a single moment that was out of tune, and the slow movement was poetic and beautiful.

And yet, it was all so…respectable? Respectful? Both? I already undermined my own opinion above so feel free to ignore me, but I definitely like my Haydn (or Mozart, or etc…) to have a dash of the disreputable. There’s a notion that music from Haydn’s time connotes a certain ‘refinement’, but his was an epoch before daily showers and plumbing and antibacterial hand wash, and the dirtiness of that life must be in the music, don’t you think? Shouldn’t we catch whiff of the sour note of body odour which all that perfume is trying to cover up?

It was similar in the Beethoven, the music served wonderfully by the Quartet’s precision and yet not quite coming alive because of it, too. The opening chords of the first movement were daringly played senza vibrato, and here the perfection was mesmerising: a nebulous cloud of suspense seeped out across the stage, and I thought of the space-walks in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the creation scenes of that Terence Malick film I walked out of a few years ago. (I think that film has no clothes, but I might be a philistine. We’ll find out in a minute.)

After this wonderful opening, it never quite took off. Again, high precision, control and beautiful phrasing, but I missed the boisterousness of the first movement that can make you want to jump out of your seat and do a set of star-jumps. Then again, it was 11am; a performance at this time is undeniably a different prospect to an evening concert, the air is just not charged in the same way. Still, the only time control weakened its grip was at the beginning of the fugal last movement. The rapid subject bolted away like a dog spotting the neighbour’s cat, and each new entry of the theme had a clenched-jaw tinge of panic, a dog-owner’s desperation to grab the leash trailing through the dirt and avoid it all ending in a puff of cat fur. Happily, the cat lives on, but there may have been some stiff jaws by the end.

I don’t feel great about myself for putting that in, for two reasons: firstly, I know that panic. It only hits on stage; one person gets a bit jumpy and it spooks everyone like teenagers playing with an Ouija board, and soon you’ve got a runaway ghost train to contend with. Secondly, because the fugato starts with the viola, I’m concerned it seems like I’m pointing the finger at him, as if trying to emulate the bullying ways of ol’ cranky-pants Hanslick, even using the German word for viola (die Bratsche, 2 syllables) in the title.

I’m not though, and for a very silly reason: for most of the concert, I couldn’t see him. I mean, I could see him, but I couldn’t see him.

(This is getting weird, I know. But understand that I’m not referring in any way to the violist’s playing; that’s important. What follows is a half-serious rant merely about the location of the instruments on the stage. Going to be a strong finish, eh?)

Of course he was on stage the whole time, on the outside of the formation like so many quartets do nowadays. Famous, renowned quartets, full of musicians with far greater abilities than I and who must see or hear some fundamental benefit to sitting (or standing, like the Tinalley) with the cellist in the middle and the violist opposite the first violinist, playing to the back of the stage. So I must be the philistine and The Tree of Life not pretentious nonsense, because I just don’t get it. To me there are only negatives: the viola sound is less present in the balance of the instruments, and now he has his back to me. The result is a disappearing magic trick – it’s as if he froze into an iceberg right there on stage, and vanished before my eyes. It’s so bizarre. I have viola-specific myopia.

I’ve seen plenty of other quartets who arrange themselves like this, and it’s quite common that when the viola has a big melody, the violist will deliberately turn out to play more at the audience. What does that say about this formation? None of the other instruments need to do something radical when they have a grand moment, so what is the implication of this? It’s like someone standing up to ask a question at a town hall meeting: literally, to be seen and heard. Isn’t it? Am I crazy? Does this formation have no clothes? Am I an ignoramus? Is this too many rhetorical questions? It is?

I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. I’ve railed against a seating arrangement, suggested Haydn should be a bit dirty, haven’t praised a fine ensemble enough for what they deserve, and shamelessly made use of a clunky segue for my own amusement. And there was that opening line, where I possibly offended someone at Musica Viva for implying they devise concert series by channelling Western history’s most famously spoiled Queen.

Sigh. Well, it’s done now. I suppose I’ll just sit here and wait for the iceberg to hit. Any cake left?

It’s a tough gig being a composer nowadays. Just imagine, a piece you’ve written for string quartet is programmed in a concert at a festival, in this case the Texas-based Mimir Chamber Music Festival in its Melbourne iteration at Melba Hall. That’s brilliant, you think. I hope they enjoy it. What else is on the program? Ah, good you asked: just a Beethoven string quartet (Op.18, No.2) to start, and later on, a Brahms piano quartet (Op.26), a couple of standards by two of the greatest composers of chamber music, you know, ever. Your piece will be played between them, ok?

Gulp. *sweats*

It’s quite a predicament, and its perfect analogy is eluding me, hidden somewhere in the cobwebbed tunnels of my fuzzy morning brain. Perhaps it’s like writing a short story for an anthology only to be sandwiched between Hemingway and Kafka, or cooking the entrée course between an appetiser by Escoffier and a main course by Marco Pierre White. Hmm no, not quite right, but I’m sure you get it. In this concert, this fool’s errand was given to Mason Bates, an American composer I had never heard of, although I am very content to swap the bliss of my ignorance for the pleasure of having heard some of his music.

Curt Thompson, festival founder/organiser/performer, in his pre-concert welcome, highlighted Bates’ embrace of electronic music and his moonlighting as a DJ. A twittering of titillation ruffled through some of the audience at this revelation, taking me by surprise and leaving me searching for the scandal. Isn’t such genre-straddling fairly commonplace nowadays? Perhaps it was a generational divide, and I’d stepped into an existential blind spot for the next two hours. Luckily, the youths I heard whistling in appreciation at the end of the concert assured me I was not alone (ok ok, maybe not youths, but there were definitely young adults there, promise. Subtle, wasn’t it, including myself with them?).

Nevertheless, this electro influence clearly pulsates throughout his piece From Amber Frozen. Like the illuminated pads of a drum loop machine, each neon light containing a rhythmic element waiting to be triggered, a single groove coalesced out of the individual plucks and plectrum-picks, body taps and stomped-roach crunches that had been spread amongst the four players. At other times, someone – I suspect cellist Brant Taylor – sounded exactly like a gamelan gong. An unhinged trill section reminded me of Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata and I heard Johanna from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in a melodic passage given to the first violin.

Were those moments overt enough to constitute deliberate references? Probably not. The arousing of those aural memories reveals more about what’s in my head than the composer’s intentions, but it does highlight a curious aspect about music: that although playing or listening to a live concert is very Zen and entirely bound to the present, so often this in-the-moment experience moves us by unpicking our past, revealing our badly-sewn stuffed toys of personal history, with loose threads, dodgy repairs and stray bits of stuffing sticking out like sad fairy floss.

Such is life for us all; no one is in pristine condition. For Brahms though, his stuffed toy of the soul must’ve been something torn of ear, dog-chewed, dropped in ash and stained by wine, with a solitary eye-button hanging forlornly like a bride’s hair in the rain. Or so I imagine, given that he also found himself sandwiched between two of history’s towering musicians – Robert and Clara Schumann – and in possession of a deep and abiding love for both of them. Pretty awkward.

In 1855, Robert was in a sanatorium, self-committed after a failed attempt to drown his insanity in a river. Depending on whom you ask, his madness was either caused by syphilis or mercury poisoning, or an intracranial mass, or bipolar disorder, or maybe schizophrenia (evidently, diagnostic revisionism is fairly inconclusive. His diagnosis back then was ‘psychotic melancholia’. Well, we’ve all been there).

At the same time, Brahms was writing to Clara:

I can do nothing but think of you… What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?

It all seems to have been a fantastic mess, a debacle of emotions befitting three of Romanticism’s most romantic romantics, all sweaty-palmed passion, tantalising inappropriateness and disappointing conclusions. Robert died, Brahms moved away and Clara put her mind to burning lots of manuscript. Love triangles, eh?

Whether any of this history is present in the Piano Quartet op.26 in A major is for scholars to say, but it was begun in 1857, a year after Robert’s death, and is known to have been Clara’s favourite of Brahms’ three piano quartets. It is a lyrical work, and sunny, yes, but more of a mid-Spring sun than a Summer blaze; an epic which gently enfolds you – you, a lost duckling astray in a concert hall, of all places – in its warm hands and keeps you safe throughout its long but captivating duration.

The piece itself was in safe hands amongst these players. So often, Brahms suffers in concert because of musicians over-playing the cliché that his music is somehow architectural; his dense writing and complex structures used as a justification for constantly thick, heavy playing. It can be exhausting to listen to, like someone pouring syrupy mud into your ears. My relief in this concert was instant, as pianist Kristian Chong – a standout, for his ability and willingness to always let the others…um…stand out – delicately uncorked the subtle urgency of the opening theme, before Taylor took a swill and joined in.

The playing was uniformly exceptional, but I was especially slack-jawed following the fiendishly exposed unison theme of the Scherzo. The pristine intonation of violinist Stephen Rose, violist Joan DerHovsepian and Taylor allowed the timbre of a new instrument to emerge – surely Brahms’ reason for writing such a cruel passage, short of outright sadism.

Perhaps he wrote it to release some frustration, the suffering of others putting his own in some relief. Perhaps he wanted others to attract condolence instead of himself, for it is still common today to hear someone say ‘oh, poor Brahms’, with that smug pity we all hold for the unrequited, even if we’ve been there ourselves. Or perhaps it’s merely a simple melody he decided to give to the three string instruments all at once. Call me unromantic, but I think that’s it.

Because despite any ménages à Schumann you may find yourself in (if so, quick, get out!), sometimes – like Bates’ presence on this program, or forming a band of Musketeers, or Amigos, or Stooges, or even Tenors – and even if you’re in the middle of a genius sandwich, à trois is better than a pair. Come to think of it, especially if you’re in the middle of a genius sandwich. What better company to keep?


As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

It had been a rough week, if you remember. On the Monday, Leonard Cohen added his name to 2016’s long list of casualties, a list soon joined by the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe of blue pantsuits and any faith in humanity you’d held onto after Brexit. As the days rolled by and clicking my ruby slippers together remained ineffectual, my expectations began to rise for the Friday night concert on November 11, featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andrew Litton, cellist Alban Gerhardt and Antonin Dvorák’s Cello Concerto. I expected the concert would provide a balm to my anxieties, the familiar beauty of Dvorák’s made-in-America masterpiece would stay my wringing hands, and when I would hear his song Leave Me Alone quoted in the second movement, I would be moved by its reference to his first love and not because I wanted to jam my fingers in my ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” until I woke up back in Kansas. Well, not actual Kansas, obviously.

There was one major obstacle that threatened to prevent my escape into Dvorák’s fairytale world of Bohemian heroism, and it was something intrinsic and immutable about me, a characteristic that I couldn’t simply tie to a post outside with a dish of water while I ducked into the concert hall for a bit of soul nourishment. An unavoidable trait that bestows a pervasive bias on my entire experience of a cello concerto, like a four-stringed wooden albatross around my neck.

I am a cellist.

I sense your confusion. Surely this qualifies me quite specifically to critique a performance of a cello concerto? Almost like…being an exp**t?

You would think so, yes. That is what I’d assumed too, and I had even looked forward to enriching one of these pseudo-reviews I write for you with all my years of cello-related experience. All the scratching and scraping, the suffering through Pachelbel’s Canon, the futile attempts to influence pianists to play softer and the furrowing of my brow in gross displays of over-acting. But in a topsy-turvy world where left is centre and right is alt-, it was only a hindrance.

When I should’ve been carried away by the arching lyricism of the first movement’s second theme, all I noticed were the mechanics of portato and the splashes of vibrato. When Gerhardt played the E# that leads to the repeat of this melody with about four centimetres of an up-bow, I thought ‘wow…that bow is amazing’. When he made the choice to play an already high and fast passage up another octave, instead of being thrilled by the virtuosity – which was very impressive – I thought ‘gee, that’s some unfashionable soloist mischief right there’. I waited for my musical principles to inform me how I felt about this, but as I’m equal parts honour thy composer’s intentions and hooray! someone took an artistic risk!, I could only stroke my chin without conviction.

After a week of feeling at odds with how half of the Western world seems to think, I found myself sitting in a concert hall – a place I usually feel at home – sensing yet again that I was adrift of the majority and the cause, disconcertingly, seemed to be the very thing I shared with the soloist. Our common ground was alienating me.

This was not quite the anxiety balm I was hoping for, and my hands danced together combatively as I tried to find an explanation. Did I know and love this concerto too much? After all, it was the first piece of classical music I became obsessed with in my early teens, listening to it repeatedly in the car and often through headphones to placate my siblings. This was despite my annoyance whenever any potholes disrupted the Discman I was using (you might have to google what that is, children of the noughts) as I sat in the fold-up, backwards-facing rear seat of a Volvo station wagon (…and that).

Was it Gerhardt? His sound was enormous and his instrumental mastery complete, but although I’m certain he must love this music just as I do, I couldn’t feel it being shared between us. Could everyone else? I imagined so, and their raucous applause at the end confirmed it. Now I wasn’t just the alien, I was also the culprit in an it’s not you, it’s me case of failing communication. I knew it. I should’ve stayed at home.

Not that I’m the first to feel that way, of course. Probably everyone in that concert hall had been on at least one side of that situation in their lives, delivering or hearing the news that someone’s love must go unreturned. For such adversarial times, it was slightly odd to realise we were all united by our experiences of heartbreak and disappointment, an all-embracing unity that would even include Donald Trump himself, that cartoon villain and epitome of the adage the world is your cat café. He’s probably avenging the feeling, Leonard Cohen made a career out of it, and Dvorák felt the power of its creative impulse too.

The story goes that in 1864 he began teaching a talented young actress named Josefina Cermáková and fell hopelessly in love with her. In the absence of any hint of her own romantic interest, Dvorák displayed more wisdom than many a teenage Morrissey fan and kept his feelings to himself, choosing silent suffering over outright rejection. His song Lasst mich allein (‘Leave me alone’) is known to have been one of her favourites, and he quotes an altered version of its melody in the slow movement, an outburst of passion that follows the idyllic main theme. This was in 1895, some 30-odd years after falling for her, and 22 years after marrying her younger sister, Anna.

Yep, really. Seems awkward, but those were different times. Maybe Anna never had any inkling of this history, maybe she didn’t care, or perhaps the whole thing is merely apocryphal. After all, consider how the story claims Dvorák kept his feelings to himself and yet here we are, discussing those feelings more than one hundred years later. We can thank Josef Suk for blabbing to Dvorák’s biographer and thus adding a fertile layer of frustrated love and secret pain to Dvorák’s mythology. Certainly it deepens the pathos of the cello concerto, particularly the coda of the final movement, which Dvorák rewrote after hearing news of Josefina’s death upon his return to Prague from America in 1895. The result is an extended passage of exquisite nostalgia, full of sorrow and a longing for something treasured, now lost.

As concertmaster Dale Barltrop began the short yet beautiful violin solo in that final coda – a reminiscence of the Leave Me Alone melody – I thought of the America that Dvorák departed all those years ago as a homesick immigrant, sailing past the Statue of Liberty and all she symbolised back then. Remember Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus? ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…send these, the homeless…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’.

Something treasured now lost, indeed. Almost makes you want to make America great again, doesn’t it? To return it to a time when the most celebrated golden door in New York was watched over by a statue nicknamed the Mother of Exiles and not by the National Guard at the foot of a tower in Manhattan? Well, you can’t. You can’t undo any of it, not the United States election, not Brexit, not the unrequited declaration you made, not the unwelcome declaration you received, not the text you shouldn’t have sent, the last drink you shouldn’t have had, the deadline you just missed or the whole block of chocolate you ate in one go.

That’s just how this all goes, but at least we can time-travel with music. As Gerhardt began the solo cello’s final note, a long whisper that builds to an enormous climax, I was still in the late 19th Century with Dvorák, wondering if he had been in love with his sister-in-law that whole time. As the orchestra’s final eruption rang out over my head and I began to applaud, I noticed that my hands had been resting quite peacefully in my lap and my ruby slippers had been kicked off under the seat in front of me. While I hadn’t felt Gerhardt’s love, Dvorák’s had eventually short-circuited my anxieties and assuaged my alienation, despite my wondering all week whether the artistic voices of dead white men should even be heard at this time. And although my thoughts had been stuck in dichotomies for days – left and right, us and them, sweet or savoury – here was one, Dvorák and I, with a clear culprit.

It felt good that it wasn’t me, for once. And it felt good to not be at home with a racing mind for company, going hoarse with a finger in each ear. In the midst of all of this careening humanity, sometimes you just need to put your pride away and turn to someone – friend, lover, long-dead composer, dog – and mumble: ‘don’t leave me alone’.


As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com


The eyes gave him away.

They’re hidden on the back wall of the hall, in amongst the cartographic wood panelling of which the warm, red lighting makes you feel like you’re an ember in the cosy heart of a fireplace.

But I found them. His grotesque lips and the many folds of his water-filled chins appeared soon after, my brain rapidly making connections in the unhindered way it does when seeing what it wants to see. And now, every time I sit in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I’ll be staring at him.


Go on and google it, I’ll wait for you. I had to, even though – like most who went to primary school in Australia – I learnt about Tiddalik while I was sitting on a classroom floor as the teacher read from a picture book, my mouth open lazily in fly-catching mode. As his frog face revealed itself to me, I could remember everything about him except his name. Do google him, it is a great story from the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The narrative details of Tiddalik aren’t relevant to today’s article: as far as I’m concerned, all you need to know is that I saw a giant frog face on the back wall of a concert hall, while in front of it, the Jerusalem Quartet played Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No.13.

I know, I know, you’re right in thinking: ‘This is a concert review?? Who sends you to these things?’. Good questions, both. It is a review, but think of it as being like one of those plastic wishing wells that charities place in supermarkets and shopping centres. Remember those? Like a big, squashed funnel. If not, this is what happens: you send a coin racing down a chute at gravity’s insistence, it hits the flat plastic and slowly spirals around the rim for a while, each revolution drawing the coin nearer to the hole in the centre, the sloped walls getting steeper and steeper as the coin gets faster and faster, becoming a blur of spinning metal before dropping into the catchment below with a …….chiiiing. Yep, this review is just like that. You’ll see.

And who sent me to see this concert on September 17? Well, this time it was Musica Viva, which has been championing chamber music in Australia for so long and so successfully that you’d assume judgement would be a strong trait. Have you seen its program for 2017? It’s so good that I’m clutching the hope that MV will like this review and want this relationship to be ongoing. But then, that’s probably the motivation behind all of my writing. If I would just get a dog and instantly sate my needs for adoration, perhaps I’d lose all desire to put my voice in your head.

That might be good for you too, if having my voice in your head is anything like having it in mine. It’s quite like the wild West Coast of Tasmania in here, sometimes; wrangling an idea into comprehensible sentences is like chasing a plastic bag on a beach in a wintery gale. Happily, though, while researching the Beethoven/Ross Edwards/Dvorák program of this concert, I came across a quote of Dvorák’s that was somewhat comforting:

To have a fine idea is nothing special. The idea comes of itself, and if it is fine and great, then that is not because of the person who has it. But to develop the idea well and make something great of it, that is the hardest part – that is art! 

I do enjoy quotes like these: the passive-aggressive ways they pass through you. At first, you feel the warm glow of ‘ahhh that’s nice to know, this genius had struggles just like mine!’. But then it turns in your mind a few times, you compare the quality of your ‘fine’ ideas to their fine ideas, feel silly, blush at the modesty of their sentiment and before you know it, the warm glow you’d initially felt crumbles in your mouth like a junkie’s tooth. A bit like after a performance when someone says to you: ‘Bravo! That piece is really hard. You did so well’. That’ll make you grind a tooth or two, too.*

That being said, the Quartet No.13 in G major by Dvorák is really hard, and the Jerusalem Quartet – of course, and obviously, for an ensemble that has had a successful worldwide career for 20 years – nailed it. It nailed the Beethoven as well, Op.18 No.6; a work that jumped out of the musicians’ instruments with much more expressive conviction than the Edwards. One passage was particularly memorable, with the cello, viola and second violin – in unison and without vibrato – creating a colour of such creeping dread that if the next phrase had consisted of Psycho-esque shower stabs, I would have been grateful for the chance to draw breath.

If the Beethoven fit them like a glove, the Quartet No.3 Summer Dances by Ross Edwards was more like hiking in high heels. They still bounded over rock and bushel with energy and poise, but you suspect they’d have been much more comfortable in a familiar, broken-in pair of boots. The playing was precise and virtuosic but I sensed a degree of expressive unease, not quite a lack of conviction about the music, but…almost. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own ambivalence towards Edwards’ music onto them, hearing or not hearing things in the music in accordance with what rests on the ragged shoreline of my subconscious.

Perhaps the Edwards’ many dance rhythms simply suffered in the articulation-swallowing hall (winkwink, Tiddalik googlers). The hall was an obstacle to crystalline detail that affected the Dvorák as well, with much of the rhythmic turbulence that prevails throughout gobbled up by the space. Crucially though, it wasn’t thirsty enough to devour the train-like chugging rhythms that abound, specifically in the second movement, and once I was aboard, the music fed me with such fertile nourishment that I felt like a hero from a Tarantino movie, collecting bounties along a rail journey through snow-covered Bohemia.

See, I told you; it’s like the West Coast of Tasmania in here, my imagination as unpredictable and barely-tethered as a comb-over in a windstorm. To the gusts of Dvorák, anyway. My evening’s companion was not so moved; furthermore, she found the central Nocturne of the Edwards to be evocative and captivating, when I had not; and, disappointingly, she hadn’t seen Tiddalik either.

Now I think of him, I understand why. The back wall of the concert hall is just a pattern of lines, like the contours of a map; according to the website, it’s supposed to look like the back of an instrument, adorned with the shapely curves and eyes of wood grain. If you look at the vertical centre of the wall, it’s easy to discern the symmetry, the pattern flipped and repeated, rippling out on both sides like waves behind a speedboat. Actually it’s just like a Rorschach test; those inkblots used to examine personality characteristics and emotional functioning that all look a bit like a butterfly or a bit like a bat or a bit like an *insert inappropriate sexual allusion*, depending on your particular brand of madness.

Speaking of which, I’ve talked of Tiddalik and wishing wells and crumbling teeth and comb-overs and please-like-me motivations. A particular brand of mad, to be sure, and I don’t know if I passed or failed the aural Rorschach test of this particular Dvorák text but I was swept away on his train rhythms and his fragments of heroic melody and I loved it so much I saw the fat face of a water-filled frog and snippets of childhood and classroom carpet and being told to close my mouth and I thought of loves I’ve played Dvorák with and loves I never played with and loves I haven’t met and Dvorák I haven’t played and just lots about love for Dvorák and then I thought about places I want to travel to and trains through the snow and Christoph Waltz and tobacco and bounties I need to collect and I didn’t want the journey to end or the playing to stop I just wanted it to go on and on and onandonandonandndndndndnd………..



*In loving memory of Richie Benaud