I asked my mother.
Oh, they're the same on the piano.
But you play them as different notes on the violin.
It sounded perfect on violin,
so I didn't press the point until the piano tuner arrived.
I was actually getting accustomed to the anomalies. But after
his visit it went entirely wrong.
About this time I was given a
tin drum for Christmas. I was overjoyed and having lost my
tuning wandered around the house and garden thumping out every
melody I'd ever heard.
What's this one? I'd ask my parents and brothers. They would
frown with non-recognition. I even tried it on Engine-Driver,
the goose, as he sat on the far end of the bench which supported
the prop for the clothes line. He was so unmusical that he
ran away squawking. I went to bed tired and puzzled. I never
saw the drum again.
Whenever I got the chance I would
creep into the music room, pull out the candle holders attached
to the front of the piano and experiment, pretending to be
a miniature Liszt.
Charles! Stop thumping the piano. You'll put it out of tune.
Little did she realise, but that was exactly what I was trying
Not only that, but you are not holding your hands up properly.
She placed one old English penny on the back of each hand
and told me to practice my scales without the pennies falling
off. That was the last day I touched the piano for about five
I had discovered the egg slicer
in the larder. It had a half egg shaped frame of cream plastic,
which the wire passed through as it sliced the egg. The wire
was continuous and threaded around the metal frame to cut
the egg into slices about one eighth-of-an-inch thick for
salads and sandwiches. I found that by pressing the wire in
various positions it was possible to play melodies, chords
and arpeggios using a toothpick as a plectrum. When other
kids would go off and sulk I'd hide in the larder and play
the blues. No one ever caught me, but I remember my mother
This egg slicer keeps moving around the slab in the larder.
I said nothing.
Having acquired a taste for strings, and noticing the stream of fiddle
students and quartet players through the house, I asked for
violin lessons. These involved Twinkle, twinkle little star,
successive contortions of my right thumb through the handle
of the bow, and pushing my left elbow further to the right
as I held the fingerboard. I decided that if it was so uncomfortable
that I would take up tree climbing, build a tree house, and
learn to drive mowers and cars like my brothers instead.
One day in the attic I found
a guitar with a broken back and no strings. I used to play
Santa Lucia on that. my mother remarked, and it disappeared
the same way as the tin drum.
During these years, as my brothers
were away at school or doing National Service, I would sit
in the back row of abbeys, cathedrals and concert halls listening
to orchestras tuning and rehearsals.
If there isn't an organ or piano, we tune to the A from the
oboe. I was told. I watched for the oboe, and as I was playing
recorder at school, I became an ardent Leon Goosens fan and
went to one of his local concerts. Not long after this I heard
that he had been arrested in Australia for smuggling pornographic
pictures. My interest in the oboe player was discouraged,
and a brand new clarinet appeared.
[In April 2000 I received the following email from an Australian
visitor to this website That was Eugene Goosens, the conductor
and composer, who was caught in Sydney with the naughty books.
And they weren't smuggled, they were a few books for his own
reading - it was Australian customs who made the charge of
smuggling stick. It is somewhat of a blemish on our history,
and is generally not mentioned here.]
Acker Bilk had taken his Stranger On The Shore to the top
of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and the sheet
music was available. I learned it and Take Five by Dave Brubeck.
My mother would attempt to accompany me on the "out of tune"
piano, but she could never get the pieces to move right.
She's a very good technician, with her training at the Royal
College of Music, but has no feel, my brother confided. I
agreed. Poor old Mum, she never could quite hack it with pop
music or jazz. She had no improvisational skills, and suddenly
got interested in mandrigals through a composer friend called
Peter Twilley, who always struck me as pretty wet (a wimp),
with a droopy wife who wore her hair long, straight and centre
parted, as though she was a waif found out in the rain. That's
when I started guitar.
But to regress; earlier my vocal
career had been going from strength to strength as a boy soprano.
At the local church I often got the solos, and my eldest brother
Richard got the dark haired contralto. Our motives for attendence
were classic. I was after the money for the choir practices
and services. He went for the romantic or sexual interest,
which soon left me on my own, as I had to keep attending to
reap the benefits, whilst he took his elsewhere, like to the
local cinema known as "the flea pit". I realised that my voice
was my fortune.
My first journey away from this
idyllic setting took me at age twelve to Rapid City, South
Dakota via Prestwick - Shannon - Gander - New York - Washington
D.C - Cleveland and Minneapolis, in the pre-jet age. This
trip, a car journey to Vancouver Island, and a year in Junior
High School was provided by Kelton S. Lynn, who eventually
became the president of the American Bar Association. At South
Junior High School, I was immediately recruited into the choir
and became the first tenor in the barber shop quartet. Somehow
I missed out on the orchestra, but got my first opportunity
to sing with guitar, and to learn about algebra and science
in a practical way. Mr. Van, whose name must have been short
for something very Dutch, was the science teacher, and proposed
a wholistic view of the universe, with planets orbiting the
sun and electrons circling nuclei.
Here was a wonderful way to understand
how the logics of music and mathematics were connected. I
found that an octave was the doubling of frequency and that
the frequency of each adjacent ascending note could be found
by multiplying the lower frequency by the twelfth root of
two. [The twelfth root of two is the number, which when multiplied
by itself twelve times equals two (1.05946).] Without being
aware of it Mr. Prior, the algebra teacher, and Mr. Van were
working together to enable me to see the complete perspective.
I saw that the patterns of music could act as a model for
both the macro and micro systems from astronomical to microscopic
I was introduced to the Jacob's
ladder, a high voltage spark, which repeatedly climbed between
two tall electrodes on his desk giving off loud crackles,
radio interference, and the ionic charge which my nostrils
recognised as the feel of the air after a thunderstorm. There
was a small clique of science enthusiasts, who built and fired
rockets and radio controlled missiles. I was fascinated. Unfortunately
this created the first conflict with my hosts, the Lynn family.
After school I went off with the young experimenters and was
so absorbed with thee activities that I forgot the time. I
had gone to the house of an American Indian friend and I was
later found in a rough part of town in, of all unforgivable
things an American Indian home. It was the first time I had
encountered racism and could not understand why I was forbidden
to ever associate with this particular friend again. Kelly
was so generous, and would proudly display his collection
of Sioux art, but to find that I preferred the company of
Indians to whites was too much for his Republican hackles.
I'm still not sure whether the Indian familily's sin was poverty
or racial impurity, but I found the Lynns' attitude as hypocritical
as my own family's snobbery about the children from the local
council houses in England. Were both families afraid that
I would be culturally polluted? I wanted to experience and