Saturday, December 27, 2014

Music and Fear October 4, 1997

    Before I'm through, this essay will have been about many things. After all, the author is an old man, has studied much and thought even more, and already written a great deal, not a little of which is either music or about music, in the form of fiction. But in order to begin well, it seems necessary for me to say that at first and for some pages to come, this essay is about music and fear, and especially about the fear of not being musical. Anyone who has ever conquered a fear, or had it conquered for them - is ever after anxious to help anyone he finds with the same fear. Fear is the opposite to hope, as St. Augustine taught long ago, and while fear can be useful - I am writing this essay this late and rainy afternoon in early October, partly in fear of being not only bored but wasting inspiration if I don't get going - hope is what we really want to acquire, and what we so delight to share, unless we are arrogant or perverse.
    Once upon at time, I was very much afraid of not being very musical, even though I sang anything at the drop of several species of invisible batons and I was quite convinced that the study of music was neither possible for me - even though I had a gift for mathematics - nor interesting, even though I generally loved the sound of musical instruments. The once-upon-a-time fear was actually much upon-a-time being with me throughout my elementary and high school years, and not being sent away until I went to university. And this fear was sent away rather quickly. My hope is that wherever this essay falls into receptive hands, it will have the same effect. When I enrolled at the University of British Columbia in September 1953 I was, instrumentally speaking a complete duffer. By February or so, this personal conviction had been swept away. I was hardly ready for Carnegie Hall, but I was no longer convinced I was unteachable.
    I do not mean that I enrolled in a music course , UBC had the tiniest of music departments then and for some time and I was, anyway, on fire with the knowledge by then some eighteen months old - that I was a writer, a novelist. With this vocation in mind I was utterly involved with the campus newspaper, the thrice-weekly published Ubyssey, learning to hunt and peck my little assignments on ancient typewriters and discovering that finding the most efficient words to write in the most insignificant story for a real live audience was much more interesting than working on a paragraph or essay for a single teacher. The Ubyssey published three thousand copies per edition, and for years - because I was born for the long labours of making fiction out of the doctrine of Catholic mysticism, the students of UBC were the largest regular audience I was to know. I was delighted with my campus situation and thus it made life even fuller, by the time I had settled into my classes I began to work on my first attempt at a novel. That too was all consuming and the last thing I would have expected was to be curious about developing musical skills as well. But then, in the course of following my literary inspirations, both with the Ubyssey and the novel, I ran into a profound inability to ignore instrumental music.
    In the early days, I kept no writer's diary so I may not list the order of events in precisely the order of their occurrences. But the effect was precise enough and that is what really matters, and I will try to get the order as good as I can.
    I'm pretty sure that the party at the Kerrisdale Lawn Bowling Club was the first link in the silver chain of discovery. I'm going to dwell on it at some length because it illustrates some of the enemies of our development of our abilities. Never before that night had I had scruples about going to a party held by friends or associates and off hand neither can I remember having them again, but that night they landed hard and heavy in the hour before it was time to leave, and I think it was for the sole purpose of keeping me away from what was to be a profound musical experience. I lay down after supper - I was living with my family not in residence - before the long bus trip to Kerrisdale and immediately became filled with nagging spirits trying to tell me I should spend Friday evening at home with my text books. These petty Nazguls must have lingered for half-an-hour before I finally shook them off and headed for the bus. Well, buses. It took thrice of them to get me where I was going, as did my daily travels to and from the university for my first two years before I was able to buy a car. Once I was up and moving the enemy vanished as if it had never come, but I probably pondered the event. After all, Friday night is everybody's holiday, and I in particular had gone out on Friday night ever since grade eight, when I had joined a scout troup.
    At first, the lawn bowling club gathering was low key, affable and chatty, no doubt with some anxieties for it to go well because it was the first party of the year and was not in the more comforting warmth of someone's home. Most Publication Board parties that I remember were in private homes, some of them quite impressive. As souls trickled in we sat around chatting, and the older lad that I had decided to cultivate as a friend offered me a beer, which I happily accepted. I suspect it was my first bottle of commercial beer, as up to then I had drunk only my father's home brew, and that -except for one occasion - sparingly. Neither the other lad nor I had brought girl friends, and of course one of the utterly marvellous features of the North Brock basement crowd was that unless you happened to be seriously in love there was no need to bring a girl. There were already lots of them on the publication staffs - The Ubyssey, the Totem (Annual) and the Raven, the literary magazine. They were good looking and lively as any group of girls I'd known and of course, rather well read, although at this point I knew none of the girls very well and the freshman's distant worship were of young ladies in other settings.
    I had been accepted professionally, with my stories getting printed and my editor-in-chief - Allan Fotheringham - soon to appoint me to a small but educating responsibility, that of Canadian University Press editor, and now I was testing the choices of friendship. Writers can be a prickly lot in general and in principal, and my simultaneous membership in the Canadian Officer's Training Corps at UBC was a contradiction to the common ethos of my fellow scribblers.
    But the beer was friendly, and the older lad and I were getting along well. We were in fact to become fast friends over the next years and he finally gave me the banjo I used for some time, in part as the result of what happened next. This was the arrival of some young men who had some association with the Pub Board and were also musicians. I think there were three of them including a string bass player, but what affected me the most were the pianist and the trumpeter. They were an intense and fiery combination and seemed capable - to my none too experienced ear - of improvising on any tune they agreed on.
    The next provocative encounter with a live player came at the next Ubyssey party. He was a guitarist, with an electric guitar, not a staff member but brought by someone who was. Again I was quite overwhelmed, especially as I was sitting in a chair right in front of him.
    It was probably between these parties that I started the novel - The Yacht Novel - as I was to call it for the decades it took to assume its final text - and at some point not too far along in the plot I not only invented a character who played the guitar but I found myself somewhat lamenting the fact that this character's creator did not share this skill.
    In the Christmas season I had two more contacts with live music that I found left me feeling regret that I did not know how to play an instrument. Both instances were in the United Church settings and had to do with people my own age who could play the piano to accompany hymns, one of them being a rousing version of "Good King Wenceslas." That was by a girl, before Christmas, the second performance came after Christmas, at the Older Boy's Parliament conference at UBC, and featured therefore, a young male artist. If I'd had suspicions that making music was somehow unmasculine, these were now all swept away.
    It was early into the second semester that I received my final inspiration, - in this series - and this time a challenge that was not out of the reach of my immediate possibilities.
To be continued.

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