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One fine untroubled morning in 2019 I was out walking in Potts Point, on my way to see my eldest brother. He lived in a room here when I was 21 and he was 26. In those days, Potts Point was unconventional and impoverished, home to people who minded their own business, which was largely conducted at night.
His room was narrow, with a bed and a wardrobe housing a few shirts on wire hangers. A window opened on to a wall. There was a bathroom on the same floor. I could stay there when he was away; I could borrow a shirt. When he wasn’t away I stayed in a friend’s apartment on New South Head Road and walked to Potts Point to visit him. At the time, I was writing a thesis on the fiction of Samuel Beckett. As I wrote I grew more and more uneasy about the loss of this thesis, and I began to carry my work with me in a small suitcase for safekeeping. With my suitcase and my plain man’s shirt I wasn’t of much interest to the people on the street. I kept writing. The suitcase became heavier and heavier, for it now contained books and all my drafts. I carried it to my brother’s concerts. We began to share this burden, as we walked about the city. Once he stopped and put it down, flexing his fingers. “You do realise I make my living with my hands,” he said, before he picked it up again.
Sometimes I met him at the recording studio, a room with a strange artificial quietness. The master tape we listened to was more distinct, clearer than the mass-produced sound it created. I have often thought of a family in this way: a space where the wider world is lightly muted. What happens there can have a particular irreplicable clarity.
Potts Point is prosperous now. In 2019 I walked past tubs of flannel flowers and crimson waratah on my way to my morning reunion with my eldest brother. But that afternoon I flew over a desiccated landscape to reach the town where we once lived. I had read about the drought, but I hadn’t expected to see this: bare earth, trees white as bone, sheep, their coats weighted with dust, gathering at dams to drink from milky, unhealthy water. The walls of the dams were ridged at points where the water level had held for a time. Later, much of the land I had seen was overwhelmed by fire. Millions of hectares of precious forests, some ancient and irreplaceable, were destroyed, before immense human effort and unforeseen rain extinguished the fires.
The country was still raw when we heard about the virus. By that time, I was back in Western Australia. Reports of illness and suffering in China were concerning, but remote. Then the virus appeared in other places: France and Italy, London and New York. It was spreading in Australia. We were told to stay at home. With images on our screens of prone bodies in the rigging of intensive care units, of unemployment queues, of the pragmatic interiors of open graves, it was hard to remember that there had been such a thing as an untroubled morning in a fine city.
Most years, in the early hours of 25 April, I wake to the sound of a low murmuring from the streets below. Our apartment building acts as a sea wall, and on this particular morning the sea that flows beside it is made of people walking, measured and purposeful, up the hill to the war memorial that sits at the crest of Kings Park. They take up position early, in darkness.
2020 was different. The Anzac Day commemoration was cancelled because of the threat of the virus; there were no pre-dawn voices. Later that morning, when my husband and I walked through the park where the war memorial stands we saw large signs telling us to stay at home. The park has been an Indigenous dreaming place for tens of thousands of years. The war memorial lies above the meeting of wide rivers: a place of sky and water. There is a memorial to the Boer War, but no memorial to the Frontier Wars. In 2020, despite being told to stay away, people had left behind twists of rosemary and garden flowers. I thought of my husband’s mother, a thin child in dark photographs, born in Novgorod during the Russian Civil War. We paused under a familiar tree. The coffee kiosk was open.
The signs said stay at home. Our home is a shelf of concrete walled in glass. It sits above the tree line, below the steady flight path of herons. Pairs of magpies and parrots rest briefly on streetlights. Below them, another understory of swift insect eaters rushes closer to the dangerous human activity of rushing bodies and machines. I notice a kind of courtesy among the birds, a sharing of space, but there are also disputes. Some birds land on our balcony and look in on us; others menace them. Small birds follow larger egg and nestling eaters, attacking their flight feathers. Ravens, in particular, are hated and pursued. The air below the herons is full of purpose, of danger and avoidance. The virus brings us closer to this: we are shut in, attentive. Stay at home, with the wild birds and the TV screen showing hospitals and queues and graves, with reflexive cooking that no one has the appetite to eat, with whatever music might carry the gravity of what is happening and still rise through the air.
In the opening scene of a BBC report from a hardworking hospital in East London a man in blue scrubs played a black piano. This crowd-funded piano sits in the hospital foyer. The shot was beautifully composed: we heard such calm proficiency as notes rippled forth from conspicuously medical hands. The physicians, the nurses, the cleaners might all be gifted with hands as dexterous, if not as musical, as these. Then there were interviews about the virus. A consultant surgeon said of the patients and staff, “There is kindness everywhere.” In my mind, the kindness and the piano are linked. Pianos are paradoxes: instruments of solitary absorption and memorised sequences of sound, but also mighty sources of communal consolation. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a piano appeared at the scene of his death and people began to play.
When Beckett was a student in Dublin, the man who shared his rooms overheard him improvising on a rented piano: sad chords, solitary and nocturnal. Beckett played the piano for most of his life, but he didn’t own one until he was 61. It was characteristically modest, a German Schimmel, installed in the equally inconspicuous country retreat where he wrote, drank whiskey and isolated himself by choice. He was a physical player; described as ‘pounding’ the keyboard of a piano at the École Normale in Paris. His eyesight was so bad that he had to contort himself for sight-reading; “My nose so close to the score that the keyboard feels behind my back.” We see him leaning in to the piano, tipping forwards like an old acrobat, joking about it later.
When an early manuscript of his novel Murphy was sold by Sotheby’s in 2013, some pages were displayed online, and among his incidental doodles – a portrait of James Joyce and another of Charlie Chaplin – he repeatedly drew the treble clef: a twirl on the page, a spiral of impulsive gorgeousness. This is also the thing the piano can do: tip us into a place of delight, take us somewhere where we leave the weight of our anatomy behind. Moneyed refugees fleeing the Russian Civil War valued their pianos so much that they strapped them on top of the trains that carried them through Manchuria and out of their country. But even when pianos must be left behind, the notes still travel, contained in the mind. My husband’s mother, twice a refugee, having put aside her musicianship and most of her languages after arriving in Australia, surprised her family with a single flawless piano performance in her seventies.
Lately I have been dreaming of a piano of my own, an instrument for sadness and relief. I have been dreaming of a piano that I cannot see. The keys are visible, and so are my hands, but the rest of the instrument is indistinct. In dreams before my son was born I was given a swaddled baby that I could hold, provided I didn’t uncover his face. Perhaps this piano dream has drifted across from my old dream of my unborn child.
On our screens we see hospitals, queues for food and work, the interiors of homes in New York and Italy, glimpsed as cameras film the removal of stricken bodies. We see the bedding, the shrines and decorations of strangers: their domestic consolations. We see rows of graves and look away. My friend in the apartment above texts me, asking if I can go to the far corner of our balcony and look up at her and wave. She’s standing at her window, framed like a portrait. She hasn’t been out, nor seen another living person, for a week. We laugh and shake our heads at this peculiar meeting. I see my grown son in a carpark, we catch our breath and hug, our masks secure.
People are finding ways to pass the time. Virtual museum tours, concerts from musicians’ living rooms, podcasts, Netflix. Everyone, it seems, is ordering food deliveries. I discover that removalists are still at work. Soon I will find a small piano on the internet and men will manoeuvre it into our bleach-smelling lift and wheel it through our door and into position. Curious birds will watch them, briefly, from the railing of our balcony. When I begin to play so much memory will be released. My own first chords, I know, will be sad.
In the meantime, I am listening to the sonic version of the virus, created by Markus Buehler at MIT. It sounds elegant, pizzicato, like the Koto music I sometimes listen to when I’m writing or cooking: background music that settles the mind. Perhaps American scientists are habitual listeners to Koto music as well, standing at their desks or kitchen benches, hands busy with a keyboard or a knife, minds adrift. Perhaps when Buehler was considering the patterns in the topography of the virus, when he was assigning instruments to elements of these patterns, he chose flute and strings but gave primacy to the Koto, that calm companion of the mind. This sound brings the virus into my home in an unconvincingly neutral, abstract form. I listen, I watch the birds; I cook for our fading appetites. I think about the past.
The friend whose apartment I used to stay in on New South Head Road when my brother’s room was occupied had twelve Siamese cats. These cats kept vigil over me in the night; if I woke, I would see them perched on my Beckett suitcase and the armrests of the couch where I slept. They were pale and clean-limbed, staring at me with gentle puzzlement. Sometimes I spent the entire day in the musty old Art Deco apartment, writing, my suitcase open and the contents strewn around me. That suitcase, which must have fallen apart in time, is within me in ghostly form, filled with all manner of notes and memories now, immune to the pathologies of the world outside.
We live in altered places. We have a sense of what it means to live in disturbing times, to live under threat. We should not forget the many people who have known this all their lives. When I was 21 I often made my way up to Potts Point where old men, relics of orphanages and prisons and hostels, rested against walls or sat on ledges in the sun, asking only for this: warmth on the skin, nicotine between their ruined teeth and in their ruined lungs. Who knows what old loves and conversations, what music sounded in their minds.
• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The music of the virus: sadness, relief and communal consolation | Australia news