Harp Of Glass

15th July 2018

 

I got called Scotch again this week. Clink. Cheers, don’t mind if I do. Ack, it’s not an uncommon mistake. True, I have a golden complexion and a sunny disposition, I’ve even been told I can be quite intoxicating, but as it turns out, on closer inspection, I am not an alcoholic drink made from distilled malt barley. I’ve also been called Scotty a fair bit, but I’m not the Engineer on The Enterprise either. I’ve been called a jock, but neither do I neither play football nor gently cradle your genitals. I’m not even Scott-ish, I’m absolutely certain.

 

I come from a little grid of streets on the south side of Glasgow called Waverly Park, where all the avenues are named after the novels of one of the most famous of Scots, the helpfully named Sir Walter Scott. Scott, though more associated with Edinburgh and The Borders, was still considered with enough reverence by the city fathers of Glasgow that they jettisoned him 80 feet into the air, where his pedestal still orbits today. In Waverly Park you will find many more homages to his works; Midlothian Drive is named after The Heart Of Midlothian, Nigel Gardens after The Fortunes Of Nigel, St. Ronan’s Drive after The Well Of St. Ronan, Peveril Avenue after Peveril Of The Peak, Durward Avenue after Quentin Durward and Kenilworth Avenue after, erm… Kenilworth. It’s literally my home.

 

Ravenswood Drive’s derivation is a little more indirect. It comes from the family home and main setting in Scott’s The Bride Of Lammermoor, which served as inspiration for the Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti. A Scottish opera? Is it like the Scottish Play, a curse upon all those who misuse its name? Say ‘Scottish Opera’ three times into a mirror and legend has it you will bankrupt Creative Scotland with first class flights.

 

Lucia, featuring a cast of central characters such as Enrico, Edgardo, and Arturo, is an opera that retains much of the Scottish flavor of the original source material. Hoots mon, it’s as Scottish as kilts and bagpipes (please don’t write in, I know they’re not really Scottish either). I’ve been listening to this opera a lot recently, in particular, the 1970’s recording featuring Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiarov, a young Luciano Pavarotti, and of course Joan Sutherland. I’ll be honest I don’t know much about opera, but I had at least heard of Pav and Joan, so we had a starting point. The singing is perhaps a bit heavy for contemporary tastes, but I was curious about this version as it’s regarded as the finest example of the ludicrous showing off that this opera demands.

 

I’ve been to the opera a couple of times, but it was mostly the sets and costumes that impressed me. I don’t have the ear, nor the musical vocabulary to fully appreciate what’s going on. I mostly slept with my eyes open during music theory. Just show me the root chord and I’ll make something up. All week, my untrained ear has struggled to penetrate this opera. It’s a closed shop. It’s the same story with Jazz. I’ll put jazz on sometimes of an evening, but it’s more for the general laid-back ambiance it creates than any real love of the genre. And also because it makes me feel clever.

 

I have fond memories of lazy summer Sundays in The Brewery Tap just down from Kelvingrove. There was usually some live jazz. Friends and I would kick back in a booth with a beer or two and dig the vibe man. We’d usually last a set before the appeal of being cool hip cat art students wore off and the draw of heavier drinking and conversation took us off elsewhere. We didn’t really belong in the jazz set. We looked the part, I even had a nice black turtleneck, but we were lost to the finer points of beatnik etiquette. I couldn’t pretend to understand why people were clapping mid-song when they did, but it always seemed to come when I’d just brought my glass to my lips. Understanding what was going on wasn’t important though, just feeling vibe was enough. And that’s where I am just now. I don’t want to listen to music that draws my focus, but I don’t want to sit in silence either. I want to be in the in between, caught in the no man's land between the anxiety of silence and guilty hedonism of a catchy tune. Neither pole suits my frame of mind just now, so I’m just going to sit here in the middle, not committing to anything. I feel vague and ambivalent about everything. Perhaps it’s the medication? I’m not going to run from cancer nor tie myself up in knots with it; instead, I’ll just let it keep me company. Just me and my cancer, chillin. Jazz and opera are serving a purpose for me this cycle. They’re as indeterminate as I am. We’re keeping it vague. There are no discernable rhythms anywhere, it's all background noise.

 

Chi mi frena in tal momento

 

This the Third Act, nearly the finale. Cycle eleven of twelve. Two more to go. You can count my enthusiasm on the fingers I’m raising. Around cycle eight I think I said to myself that I was pretty much over it, the toxins had built up in my system to the point that I was dreading even one more dose, never mind another four. At that point, I’d have to sleep all weekend, muscles twitching, fatigue weighing down my bones, legs trembling. I couldn’t feel anything in my hands. We lost a lot of plates that cycle. There was a river of coffee on the footpath. It was a massacre.

 

Since then, I’ve had a bit of a reprieve. The Oxyplatin has been dialed back to 80% of a full dose, but the drop off in side effects is much more than 20%. Perhaps it’s just the anticipation of the finishing line, summoning those last reserves that you draw on when you all but thought your legs were spent. It’s pure adrenalin keeping me up right now. Nearly there. It’s so close. You can see it on the horizon. There’s space blankets, water stalls, tv cameras and adoring crowds just ahead. I hear their applause, or maybe it’s all the blood rushing to my head. I thought it was cameras taking my picture, but I think it’s more likely to be migraine flashes. One last push. It all rests on The third act now, the dizzying warbling crescendos. Joan is singing. She’s gone off-piste, doing her own thing, freestyling. I’m singing too, but it sounds more like a primal scream. Sorry, Joan. I’m just trying to keep up.

 

In the opera, Lucia is driven mad in the third act. She kills the man she loves after hearing some crappy gossip about him. It was the original fake news. When she realises his innocence too late, she completely loses the plot. All this on the night of her wedding so some other poor hapless soul, who is presumably ringing his lawyer right about now. Lucia descends the staircase to the grand hall where the wedding guests are gathered, her hair and eyes wild, a bloodied knife in her hand. This is ‘the mad scene’, the moment that the whole opera rest on. It’s where I am now. I’m coming down the stairs. Lightning flashes, a chill wind blows. You might want to give me some space. Cycle eleven and I’m ready to kill. That’s not a knife I tell Lucia, shoving her aside. This is a knife!

 

At some point 1880’s, the Australians got their murderous hands around Lucia’s neck, so the development of this opera and my affinity with it is stretched across my two homes. Aussie soprano Nellie Melba took on the mad scene and inserted an extended cadenza into its midst. The mad scene in her hands became a gaudy circus act of death-defying proportions. She ascended to the top of the tent and swung out vocally without a safety net with all manner of runs and trills, the audience below responding with corresponding oohs and ahhs and strewth darls! A solo flute accompanies Nellie, but however high it goes, she can always climb another rung. She’ll be right.

 

The standard was set, and Lucia became the ultimate test for a soprano. It’s the equivalent of Helfgott’s Rach Three, driving all those who attempt it into madness. As the years passed, the opera continued to exact its toll on the wellbeing of sopranos and orchestras alike. The accompanying flute, broken and exhausted, was eventually replaced by the Glass Harmonica. Not for any musical reasons, you understand, no, this was the dawn of socialism, metastasizing opera into a class battleground. During one particular performance, the flutist walked out mid-show when he learned he wasn’t getting paid. Well done comrade. Should have taken some more with you, formed a picket line outside.

 

Donzenetti, now looking for an alternative for the next show, fell upon a new invention of the time, Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Harmonica. Now, Glass Harmonica players were presumably trying to get a foothold in the industry and were willing to play for ‘exposure’ and ‘experience’, and so took the job on at Don’s lower rates, and the Fair Work Commission was presumably none the wiser. The ‘Armonica’ consists of a set of wine glasses usually tuned with water. Sometimes it's known as musical glasses or the "glass harp". We’ve all done it, run a wet finger around the rim of a glass of whiskey and produced a pleasing tone. The Armonica is the beast version of this. The new invention wasn’t just a replacement; it was a revelation, producing an eerie, ethereal tone that perfectly suited the mad scene.

 

As perfectly attuned to Lucia as the ghostly Armonica appeared to be, the instrument struggled to find an audience further afield and its popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century. For one, it lacked the audible volume to compete for a place in a full orchestra. And then, another crappy murderous rumour. There was a dubious claim that gained enough traction to kill it off for good. Mirroring the madness of Lucia, it was claimed that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go mad themselves. Granted, it was mostly the Germans who were spreading this rumour, probably because they had adapted the own version of Lucia and were competing for which language would be the official operatic tongue. German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz wrote in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung:

 

“The Glass Harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that is an apt method for slow self-annihilation.

 

1. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it.

2. If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively.

3. If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces.”

 

Whatever the intention, dodgy rumours fuelled another murder in the story of Lucia, and the Armonica died beside her lover. A glass tumbles to the floor from a dead hand. Tree branches scratch at the window panes. A wolf howls in the night. The Glass Harp’s popularity was dead.

 

Popularity isn’t everything, but it’s always there, needling away, whispering in your ear from the shadows. Back in 2004, a younger, a less socially confident me was working on Populismaz, a show at Vilnius Contemporary Art Museum. As part of our installation, Henry VIII’s Wives, the artist collaborative group I worked in, had commissioned an organ pipe to be made. The part of the story that holds the most meaning for me is what happened between the formation of ideas and the presentation of said organ pipe. One of the last traditional organ makers was located in a rural part of Lithuania for the job. His workshop was in the middle of an empty paddock, surrounded by empty paddocks, surrounded by nothing for miles around, surrounded by Lithuania. The scaffolding on which he tested his pipes was a full-scale cathedral organ made of wood which sat at the centre of the building. The rest of the house had been built around it; because there was no way you were going to fit half a cathedral in the front door later on. At some point, a wooden cathedral organ stood alone in that field, the centre of a rural black hole. I dream of it sometimes, in that paralysed state between sleeping and waking.

 

Powered by a boxed fan, the finished organ pipe was 20 feet long, but to create the specific note that we wanted, the air had to double back, meaning the length needed to create the requested ‘brown sound’ was 40 feet. The brown sound is -8hz, too low to be audible to the human ear, but deep enough to be felt in the guts. It would inspire many a desperate rush to the washrooms; hence it’s nickname and infamy. Once the fan was switched on, the effect was immediate. If you walked the length of the pipe, you could follow its wavelength. A step here and you would feel fine at its crest; another couple of steps on and your stomach tied itself up in knots in the trough of the wave. Step on again, and the sickness faded. Yet straddling both crest and trough seemed remarkably pedestrian. It’s something we all do every day.

 

We should have expected the brown sound to have adverse effects. The museum directors succumbed to kind of hypochondriasis, a nervous disposition no doubt brought on by the constant twisting of intestines. It was decreed that the pipe could not play all the time as previously arranged and that we would have to abide by set performance times and issue warning notices for the public. On the opening night, I retired to the bar, always socially uncomfortable at openings. The bar I recall was down the grand staircase and at the other end of the museum. I was raising a glass vodka to my lips when suddenly I felt curiously nauseous. I checked my watch. Bang on time. Upstairs the fan had started and the note was silently resounding. I looked around and saw its effects grip all in its range. Hands grabbed at bellies, faces contorted. I put my glass down. Is this the right time to clap?

 

A similarly, disconcerting experience comes with the Glass Harmonica. It’s own disorienting, ethereal quality is due in part to the way that humans perceive and locate sounds. Above 4 kHz people primarily use the loudness of the sound to differentiate between left and right ears, triangulating where the source is. Below 1 kHz, they use the phase differences of sound waves. The pitch of the Armonica is in the range of 1–4 kHz, which confuses the brain. It becomes near impossible to locate the source of the sound, no matter the shape of your ear. Spock’s Theme from The Wrath Of Khan gives a suggestion of this aural dissonance. Even a recording of the instrument leaves the listener disembodied, floating in space.

 

I diagnosed myself with Misophonia after the stroke, but in truth, I’ve always been allergic to sound at a certain pitch or volume. I like having music playing, but not too loud, please? Or if it’s too tinny, too scratchy, I’d rather just switch it off. Anything that piques my irritation is no longer sufferable. I think I have a visual version too, but then I doubt anyone enjoys objects being zoomed into your face it high speed, or an irritating movement in your peripheral vision. I may have fully recovered from the stroke, but I think my brain just takes that split microsecond longer to deal with incoming information now. It can be a bit disorientating. But thankfully there is a cure. The cure is at end of the universe when I can spin freely in the vacuum. There won’t be any sound. There won’t be any light, not even the stars. Nothing to anchor my eyes on, so I won’t even know how fast I’m spinning. It will be bliss.

 

This where I live now, floating in space where you can’t find me. It’s a void without meaning or purpose. My Consultant tells me the Chemo isn’t really doing anything now. We’ve passed the three-month mark where chemo has any measurable effect. And now that we’re cutting back on the toxicity levels as well, well it’s really hard to say if there’s any point to it at all. Most people are pulled off the treatment by now, but I’m still standing, so we go on. If you can stand it, the chemo has to continue. Doesn’t matter that’s it’s pointless, chemo is a contradiction and there’s no use trying to make sense of it. Do I still have Cancer I ask? I can consider myself disease free I’m told. But the poisoning has to continue. I don’t understand. The explanation is that I have Schrodinger’s cancer. It’s doesn’t exist, in theory, until you open the box. It exists and it doesn’t exist. My cancer is on another plane, in the space between worlds. I carry it with me all the time, but you can’t see or hear it. It’s right here, beside me. I might be sat right across from you, but my thoughts are always somewhere else. Just me and my cancer, chillin.

 

The chemo might be pointless, but pointless is better than nothing and nothing is better than pointlessness. And so it’s an art. Years after the Vilnius show was dismantled, the boxed sections of the organ pipe were shipped off to Arbroath for the group's last show. It was set alight and pushed out to sea like a Viking funereal longboat. I wasn’t there to see it, but there is a sadness to the photographs of the fading flames on the water. Fire and water, existing in the same space at the same time. Neither one nor the other. Something in between.

 

At 80%, the chemo effect is harder to locate now. It hangs weightlessly in my limbs, not quite a pain, but a deadening. Fatigue is not quite tiredness, but a listlessness that can’t be cured by sleep. There’s a fug for a few days that obscures clear thought and places everything in a slow-moving cloud. My bones are hard, my flesh dissolved, my skin is liquid. I vibrate somewhere between 1 and 4hz.

 

I note that despite us being in the depths of winter, the sun is shining outside. We’re between the seasons. It feels good on my face. On the sunniest days, the shadows seem all the stronger. Drive along a country road in the morning and the trees on the verge create shadows like dense rural black holes, deepened further by the contrasting bright sun that pushes through the branches. The effect at speed is a seizure-inducing strobe; your eyelids flutter at warp speed trying to keep up with the pulse, beating out the rhythm of light and darkness existing in the same instant. I exist in there, somewhere between the light and the dark. I’m strobing in and out of this world. In between, it’s not a greyness, nothing so definite. It’s a tone.

 

I’m busy in the tone, not being silent, not dancing, but skirting the dance floor, quietly losing my head. Everyone loses their head eventually. Lucia’s sonic madness is the climax of the opera, but her song affects all who hear it. In Madame Bovary, Emma’s decline begins in earnest at the opera, during a performance of Lucia. Sir Walter Scott, the original flying Scotsman, may have escaped madness himself but his statue’s flight path continues today over George Square. Named after George III, it’s a piazza given to psychosis, even on non-July days. Donizetti himself would succumb to madness and spend his last years confined to an asylum. According to his legend, Donny would only regain his composure and come to his senses again when the music from the mad scene was played to him in his cell.

 

Donizetti found lucidity again in the haunting, melancholic dreams of the Glass Harmonica, a sound that plays to those between life and death. It’s a tone I know only too well. When the harp player visited him, he would open his eyes again during those brief visits and beat time along with him. We’re beating time together. I’m going to beat this time shortening disease.

 

As I’m writing this, I can hear the family in the garage, maneuvering round unpacked moving boxes and my abandoned gym equipment. Wheels turn, helmets clip. Somebody groans in tune with a gear change. “Quit it,” says a small voice. They’re going for a bike ride around the Caledonia Park. It’s cold and frosty outside, but it’s sunny, crisp too. I like days like this when it’s neither one thing nor the other. If I put on my nose warmer and gloves I’ll be fine.

 

Wait for me, I shout out. I’m coming too.

A head pokes around the door. Are you sure dad?

Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve got time. I’m in between things.

 

 

In between

What I find is pleasing and I'm feeling fine

Love is so confusing there's no peace of mind

If I fear I'm losing you it's just no good

You teasing like you do

Once I had a love and it was a gas… .

Up Next: 13. Crab Walk