In early March, just as Covid 19 was beginning to make itself felt, three weeks or so before lockdown began, I went to Wales for a couple of days to record some audio at a peat bog near Crickhowell. The site is used by the poet Allen Fisher in his Black Pond series of poems and paintings. One part of Fisher’s poetry sequence uses an early Morton Feldman score as a structuring device, and my work-in-progress is a translation of the text back into audio. Shortly after this trip, I fell ill. All three of us in the household were out of action for most of March with what now seems likely to have been a mild variant of Covid. As a consequence, my lockdown hasn’t been as active as that of some others. It’s been longer too. I’ve watched a lot of film noir (Kansas City Confidential was a real discovery), some Jean-Pierre Melville and other Mubi-sourced fare. I had a bad Bergman experience, and I’ve glugged down a fair few gallons of Netflix product. Also Gogglebox. I’ve spent some time with the Cristanne Miller edition of Emily Dickinson and with Barbara Guest’s poetry and criticism. I’ve listened to the Strangeness of Dub podcast, Kim Gordon, the Amplify online festival, Beatrice Dillon, Tony Allen’s work with both Hugh Masekela and Moritz von Oswald, Dale Cornish, Christian Wolff (Philip Thomas’s lockdown uploads), and 60s and 70s Miles Davis. I haven’t listened to Seth Cooke’s new release, as it comes on an SD card encased in a cube of black concrete. (There’s audio on Bandcamp, but wouldn’t that be missing the point?) I made a mixtape of wonky standards (Derek Bailey, Paul Motian and more) for a friend. And I edited an interview that another friend had conducted in the mid-90s with his late grandmother. This gave me the pleasant sickbed task of cutting together her wartime recollections with some of the music she’d heard on wax cylinder in her childhood (Caruso, Melba).
This tinkering with audio and familial memory chimed with an unboxing experience. The cardboard box I’m talking about contained musical scores written by my late grandfather. It came to me to me when I cleared my late parents’ house in January, and I’ve only just retrieved it from storage. It had been sealed for 30-odd years. My grandfather was born in 1901. He was a draughtsman by trade but he wrote music for most of his adult life. He had conservative tastes, and was not keen on most 20th-century music (though there was a foxtrot among the papers). I can’t read sheet music but most of the work is operatic in nature and, as my Dad’s accompanying note makes clear, C19 in idiom. Only one of my grandfather’s pieces was ever performed. He seems to have been undaunted by his lack of success, returning to composition year after year. He clearly had many bursts of enthusiasm, but almost nothing in the box is finished. There’s the beginning of an operetta on the Herne the Hunter story (ie the Windsor-based ghost tale); and another on Cinderella. Some of the music is devotional. Most of the notebooks contain only a few pages of music, followed by many more blank pages. There’s a small box that contains fragments scribbled on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper. There’s a bulging A4 envelope of sol-fa doodles that I’ve yet to open. There’s also an appealing-looking fragment composed in the early 1950s and transcribed by my Dad from memory in the mid-80s. I wondered about the mediumistic thrill of being the next son to channel this melody 35 years later. It was, after all, a father’s-father’s message-in-a-bottle. On the late-May Bank Holiday, I laboriously transcribed the piece into Logic Pro X’s score editor, which I’d never used before. The fifth bar contains just a few notes and the instruction ‘etc’, so I was dealing with a loop. Interesting! Actually, no. Not at all. Not at all. The fragment turned out to be an infuriating ear-worm. The joke was on me. Careful, as they say, what you wish for.
Will Montgomery teaches contemporary poetry and poetics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He recently co-edited the essay collection Writing the Field Recording with Stephen Benson, and his monograph on short-form poetry is out this Autumn. He also makes music.