We hear before we see, our first songs are learned from inside our mother's womb, the rhythm of our lives is an invisible heartbeat. Sound is the medium through which we begin to understand the world and when we organise sound so as to make sense of that world we get music.
Music works because the shape of life is mirrored in the patterns of music.
At least I think that's why music works.
It's an idea I got from the piano player, Leon Koel.
'Life,' he used to say, 'is a fabric of rents and ruptures that time smoothes into continuity – and music, in all its forms, turns time's device into play.'
Play being the operative word.
Koel was the best piano player I ever heard.
The trouble, though, with Koel, said Valmai to me one time, is he never knows when to stop. And when he does stop it's like straight onto the next thing, no rest, no thinking about it.
Valmai was one of the Glister Sisters, our sometime backing-vocal group, back when me and Koel used to perform these hybrid pieces – sort-of electro-rock-operas – in pubs and clubs and dance halls, years ago now. And after that Koel invited her to London to perform in some avant-garde pieces with his classical friends there. He nearly, she said, drove her mad.
'It was like being with a hyperactive kid,' she told me. 'He made me feel like I was the adult, even though he was years older than me. Not just an adult, actually, more like a mother. As proud and as fretful as if I was his mum. I think he made a lot of women feel that way. Or like a teacher stuck with one of those ADD classroom monsters. When we were rehearsing he would not stick to the script. But the thing was, every little annoyingly-distracting thing he did was kind of fascinating. So I'm all, Stop doing that, Leon! Then, Oh, isn't that interesting? Then, Oh no, what are you doing now? And then, Oh yes, I see, yes, that's even better.
'I suppose he was some kind of genius. But super-annoying, definitely.'
'Once you start talking about The Trouble with Koel' I said to her, 'you are at the beginning of a long sentence.'
'Many long sentences,' she agreed. 'You might have to write a book.'
A glimpse of Koel at his peak: at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for a Schoenberg recital he arrives on stage bare-chested, on his shoulders a startling coat of feathers. He regards the audience for a moment then asks: 'Does anybody here want to have some fun? I mean really have some fun?' Then leaps off the stage into the auditorium, runs up one aisle and down another, eyes rolling, roaring like a madman. With the audience dumbfounded, almost cowering, Koel sits at the piano again and plays the Kleine Klavierwerke, caressing the dissonant chords with the tenderness a mother might show a vulnerable infant. After which that same audience, fearful a few minutes ago, stands and claps until their hands ache.
This was Koel. Bozo the Clown one minute, Paganini the next.
He never seemed to do what people thought someone with his gifts should do, never quite seemed to sense the gap that exists between the separate and parallel worlds of life and music.
The musician is dedicated to play, because playing is what you do to music. But life is not just play. That's the problem.
My name is Euwan Purcell. I make pianos. Making pianos is not what I started out doing but it's what I'm best known for now. You might have seen the advertisements – a big honey-coloured grand piano on fire in the middle of a red desert – a memorable image, I believe, for an Australian piano, suggesting the idea that hot equals good. But despite spending most of my life in Australia I have never been comfortable in the heat. An immigrant at the age of four, I grew up in a hill town south of Sydney where the nights were always cold. My father, a boat-builder, brought us here from the North Wales coast, on the far side of the world. He was a grumpy man, Daffyd Purcell, perverse and contrary well before he got old, a nimble, nuggetty type, sure with his hands, with pepper-and-salt hair and great bushy eyebrows. As if to compensate for the over-luxuriant brows the hair on his head started falling out when he was still young, leaving him with a landing strip on top that soon became a dome. When he frowned his skin bunched up in papery-looking ripples, wrinkling the Vatican skyline of his scalp.
I asked him, once, why we had left the old country.
'It's not for us,' he said. 'We lost that land years ago.'
I think he was referring to the English conquest of our bit of Wales in 1278.
That was his mantra, though. Whenever you wanted something he didn't want, he'd say, 'It's not for us, that.' As if there was some primal law against it.
Despite building natty boats he was not a successful businessman, perhaps because he set up his business in a barn next to our house in the highlands, miles from the nearest piece of water. Being near a navigable waterway, from his point of view, would be too easy for a boatbuilder. Better to get the bastards to come to you.
My mother was a music teacher and church organist. She was tall, fair-haired, snaggle-toothed and quietly-spoken; so quiet she rarely spoke at all. There wasn't a whole lot of conversation in the house. The sounds I remember are the tock tock of hammers, the hum and whine of the saw in the workshop, and the delicate patterns of Scarlatti and Bach on the piano in the front room.
This endnote from the novel is the text of a talk the narrator Euwan Purcell somewhat anachronistically plans for the New Music Club at his university.
n 1830, after four years of fruitless attempts to please the judges, Hector Berlioz, a student at the Paris Conservatoire, won the competition for an original composition, for which he was awarded the Prix de Rome. In order to win, in this year of revolution and civic turmoil, against all his natural instincts he wrote a conventional piece, a cantata, which he despised and later burnt. The prize he won involved living for two years in Rome at the Villa Medici, situated in the Pincio Gardens above the Piazza de Spagna. There was a living allowance provided, the chance to absorb the culture of Rome and, perhaps most importantly, the gaining of the award signified acceptance into the elite of French cultural life.
The problem was, by the time he won the prize, Berlioz no longer wanted to go to Rome. He had fallen in love. Not for the first time, nor the last; but with the violent and undeniable immediacy which characterised most of Berlioz's emotional adventures, and which on this occasion made the thought of leaving Paris intolerable to him.
The girl's name was Camille Moke. At least, that is what he called her. Her actual name was Marie. She had been the beloved of his friend, the German composer, Ferdinand Hiller. She was a piano teacher at the girls' school where Berlioz taught guitar, and Hiller had unwisely asked Berlioz to keep her amused while Hiller was away. She was very pretty, and according to Hiller had managed to organise herself an unusual degree of unchaperoned freedom. Whatever Berlioz did to amuse her was effective. In a matter of weeks she told him she loved him.
It is hard, given the reticence on these matters in memoirs< of the nineteenth-century, to know what exactly happened between them. Hiller accepted defeat and 'fled to Frankfort.' Berlioz, instead of making her his mistress, (as his friends had expected) asked her to marry him. Despite her parents' reservations about Berlioz's uncertain future, she agreed. Rings were exchanged.
But, before anything more binding could be arranged, another suitor appeared.
The rival was an older man, the successful and well-known piano maker, Pleyel, whose first name was also Camille. Berlioz at this time could be described as neither well known nor successful. Suddenly Camille Moke and her family seemed not so sure about Berlioz.
And then along came the Prix de Rome.
Berlioz appealed to the conservatoire authorities but the award could not be delayed. He would have to go to Rome or forfeit the prize. And forfeiting the prize meant giving up the desperately-needed pension.
Camille assured him she would wait for him.
He arrived in Rome after the slow journey by coach and boat and found there a boisterous group of fellows who welcomed him into the strangely unstructured life at the Villa. By his own account he spent most of his days drinking at the Café Greco ('a foul-smelling miserable hole,' he called it) and running through the countryside at furious pace. He worried and fretted about Camille. He feared her weakness, especially in the face of the pressing attentions of the experienced M. Pleyel.
The first letter he received from Paris confirmed his worst fears. Pleyel, the pianomaker, had arrived at the Moke household the very day that Hector had left the city. The older man had been welcomed by the Moke family. The 'engagement' to Berlioz had been forgotten.
Pleyel and Camille were already married.
Berlioz immediately applied to the Academy for leave to return to Paris. This was refused. He was told that to leave Italy would disqualify him from his position. But he could think of nothing else. He had determined on revenge.
The only possible thing to do, he decided, was to kill Pleyel, his rival, and Camille, his betrayer. Then he would kill Camille's mother, Madame Moke, the panderer, as well. And himself, of course.
His plan was a curious one; for anyone other than Hector Berlioz it would seem like the plan of a madman. He bought two double-barrelled pistols and two small phials of poison, (in those days, as always, you could buy anything in Rome.) He went to a dressmaker and had himself made a voluminous frock, with pockets large enough to hold his guns and bottles, and a hood to disguise his unique head, (he had a great beak of a nose and a famously wild shock of red hair.) He thought that he would go to the Moke house in the early evening, posing as a maid, and announce that he had been sent with a message for the Pleyel family. Then when the pianomaker walked into the room he would shoot him in the throat, then shoot Camille, the betrayer, then Madame. The final barrel would be for himself. The poison was in case one of the pistols misfired.
With rage and sorrow in his heart Berlioz boarded the coach for Paris. He stuffed his costume into the cushions at the back of the carriage. At the first coach stop disaster struck. Someone stole his dress. At Genoa he managed to find a dressmaker to run him up a substitute garment, crude but serviceable. At Nice, (or Nizza) just on the Italian side of the border with France, forced to delay the journey by a fierce storm, he had a crisis of confidence.
'There were moments,' he later wrote in his Memoirs, 'when, in spite of my wrath, I could not help feeling sorry that my plans, excellent as they otherwise were, involved my own suicide. It seemed hard to bid farewell to life and art, to go down to posterity merely as a brute who could not get on in the world, to leave my unfinished symphony, and all the other greater works which were seething in my brain…'
He spent the night on high cliffs above a wild sea. By morning he had resolved to abandon his murderous plan, to stay where he was, think things over. The coach left without him. He wrote to the director of the Academy in Rome and told him he would not leave Italy, he would return to the Villa as soon as he could settle his mind.
He sat in his hotel room and began writing an overture.