The Harbinger

Again to The Labyrinth and yes, yet again I become uncertain of my position. That’s pilot speak for “Where the hell am I?” In all my years of flying planes I was never this lost.

I make it to the distant outpost that is Urology. I am greeted warmly by Nurses Blonde and Brunette and in a nearby room awaits The Harbinger. This man is the opposite to my friend The Cricketer. No preamble, straight down to business. I was all too aware that the next few minutes could determine the path my future would take. We all have those key seminal moments in our lives, moments that permanently etched upon our memories. The day the plumber arrived on time, the day Elvis died, the divorce coming through, a checkout sans queue at the supermarket. This for me was one of those such moments.

Within a minute The Harbinger was asking whether I favoured surgery or radio therapy. The biopsy had thrown up a Gleason Score of 4 + 4. That is at the high- risk end of the scale, the maximum of which is 5 + 5. The Harbinger began to arrange scans asap.

Into yet another room to meet Florence my Macmillan Nurse. Tall, slim, elegant in her bespoke dark blue uniform. She tried to soften the impact “Eric we are going on this journey together”. “Oh, does that mean we’re going to catch the same tram back to Old Trafford?”

She supplied me with literature, a booklet, a primer, basic stuff for those who read and move their lips at the same time. She instructed me not to Google. Since then I have not ceased to Google. I Google every day. I have become an enthusiastic Googler, driven. I want to acquire as much information as possible concerning my condition, the possible treatments, survival rates, degrees and rates of metastisis. Everything. I have, within a very short time, become one of the UK’s leading authorities.

January 2nd. I return to the Labyrinth and once again become hopelessly lost en route to Urology. I pass Neurophysiology so I must be on track. I am greeted by a smiling Nurse Blonde and I wave my third can of Diet Coke in greeting. The fizzy stuff proves to be the solution and at last I wee into the receptacle. I emerge from the toilet to find Nurse Blonde and Nurse Brunette high -fiving. There is an air of celebration. I look for fireworks and a puff of white smoke.

And now a scan performed by Nurse Blonde who compliments me on my Calvin Kleins. Surely this cannot be the high point of her day.

Another room. The Cricketer is waiting for me. A tall, loose man, a Real Ale drinker, easy company. He talks me through what is next on the agenda, a biopsy. He is thorough and disarming. There is no need for me to ask any questions. We are old friends chatting over a pint in the clubhouse.

Ten minutes later I am attired in a hospital gown – one of those mysteries that are open at the back – and my multicoloured happy socks. I assume the position. I lie on the table in a tight defensive foetus -like position. My bottom becomes the focus of the Cricketer, Nurse Blonde and Nurse Brunette. I have learnt that this department affords no privacy, one can have no secrets, there is no hiding place.

First a finger. Not too bad at all. Then a needle, a probe, a camera, more needles and what feels like a chair. Perhaps it was just a stool. The Cricketer engages me in conversation as he snips away at my prostate. We are best friends. I ask him if he will be spending the entire afternoon pushing objects up mens’ bums. “Yes”. I ask him if he has ever considered a career in neurology. How we all laugh.

He snips twelve samples, six from one side of the offending prostate, six from the other. And I have a sore bum. Nurse Brunette carries away parts of me to be analysed. The results are to be explained to me a week later.

At least I now know after a lifetime of enquiry why hospital gowns are designed as they are. I am enlightened at least regarding this mystery if nothing else.

Nil Points

Hospitals at Christmas. I attended one several times during this odd, singular, period. A huge, sprawling, multi-tiered, labyrinthine place.Its contrasting parts constituting what could be described as a small settlement on the south side of Manchester.

I enter and set off on a journey of discovery trying to locate where I had to be. Corridors, turnings, doors, stairs, signs, directions, arrows.It was strangely disturbing. Everywhere was strangely devoid of the usual hustle and bustle. Many departments were closed, darkened, deserted, the occasional secretary alone in a room tapping at her keyboard. I passed bauble-laden Christmas trees, decorations, fripperies, lending an odd counterpoint to the essential seriousness of such a place. Waiting rooms only partially occupied. I encountered a few fellow travellers as I trekked along the endless corridors.

After several wrong turnings I arrived at my destination. Urology, tucked somewhat apologetically away in a corner. Three nurses. Two patients drinking from white plastic cups. I was welcomed by Nurse Brunette the data gatherer/interrogator. “Any allergies?” “Yes, life, children, salads”. This evoked a thin smile.

Nurse Blonde tasked me with having to provide lots of urine and presented me with a white plastic cup and an endless supply of water for this purpose. And I set to work. Now usually I can wee at the drop of a hat. The very act of breathing is for me a diuretic. If weeing was an Olympic sport I would be on that rostrum winning medals. And, after all, my need to go every few minutes was the reason I was here.

Cup after cup after cup. Nothing. Not the faintest urge. Nurse Blonde tried me with a huge mug of coffee. At least that is how she described it. Nothing. Nurse Blonde suggested I should go for a long walk. This I did along the endless corridors, the doors, the darkened rooms, the fripperies. Neurophysiology was becoming a familiar landmark. Still nothing. Into the toilet, run the tap. Always works. Nothing. “Eric, we are closing the department at one”. The pressure was on. I drink until Nurse Blonde tells me to stop. I am dismissed, asked to return on a similar mission several days later. I feel I have let the team down.

As soon as I leave the hospital I feel a very urgent need to pee.

John Cage, the American avant-garde composer, is reported to have said “I have nothing to say. I am saying it and it is poetry”. OK, it’s rather gnomic, somewhat abstruse but I think it was intended as a provocative paradox, that it is impossible to say nothing.

However, for most of this year I have had little of any interest to say to you and so I have said nothing. Or have I? And that isn’t poetry in any sense. Or is it?

I have written only three posts this year, the last, recounting my ascent to ten thousand feet in an early elemental microlight, was squeezed out in an attempt to retain my rapidly dwindling readership, down from thousands to hundreds. My blog once read in more than seventy different countries. My hope is that you are not terminally disappointed. What is the nature of the relationship between somebody who writes a blog and his/her audience. What are my responsibilities?

So, a resume:
The year began with great activity and promise. As you might have read in the post titled “Achieving the Impossible,” the quite exceptional Mary Dullea recorded the 48 pieces which will constitute my next CD, “Entangled States”, in one weekend. We recorded 4 or 5 different realisations of each piece, 243 takes in all. Quite extraordinary, hence the title of that post. After some time Alex Van Ingen, the Sound Engineer and Producer sent her the necessary files. Mary then had the unenviable task of having to listen to all those realisations several times and then selecting just one which would take its place in the master file. Difficult because often those realisations which had to be rejected were, in different ways, as valuable. The difference was often merely a question of nuance, articulation, one passage of just a few seconds gaining preference,acceptance. This process also took some time as Mary is Director of Performance at Royal Holloway University, makes recordings, performs internationally as a soloist and is a member of the respected Fidelio Trio.

Immediately after the recordings in January I presented Dr. Scott McLaughlin with the scores of the “48”. As you may have read in my post “Work in Progress” December 2015, after visiting me and my playing to him some of the pieces, he generously volunteered to write the sleeve notes. Understandably he wanted to listen to the master files which did not reach him before he commenced preparations for the Autumn term at Leeds University where he is a lecturer in Composition and Music Technology. Because of this unfortunate timing he could not commit his full attention to listening to the pieces and the preparation of the text.

So, at the time of my writing this, Peter Vodden has produced a striking image of sub-atomic particles doing amazing things for the art work. The master files are with Divine Art in Vermont. Mary is contributing to the sleeve notes from her unique perspective as one who realises my Non-Prescriptive music and Scott is, perhaps, during his Christmas vacation, finalising the text having sent me a third draft of his work in progress. As with his contribution to my last CD Piano Sonatas 7, 8 and 9, MSV28544, there are moments of guilded prose. He has, incredibly, managed to explain the connect between “Quantum Entanglement” and “Entangled States” in a succinct, clear manner. Not an easy task. Fortunately, like me, he reads Difficult Science so he is not a stranger to the insane world of quantum physics. Divine Art has put out pre-production publicity, part of which reads “Astonishing masterpiece of contemporary complexity…” which I find to be rather ironic when I always intended the 48 pieces to represent quintessentially the embodiment of the art of simplicity, neither easy to achieve or define, in music. If you wish to read about the convoluted process by which I perhaps achieved my aim, please visit my post “Simplicity” November 9th 2016.

The short pieces, as you can read, did not come easy to me. I am genetically programmed as a composer to favour large scale works as you can hear in my last CD where Sonatas 7 & 9 have a duration of 30 minutes or so and Sonata 8 lasts for 50 minutes. I find the greatest satisfaction in unlocking the potential, in terms of development, from often short motifs. The idea of a second contrasting motif would be just too much, unnecessary. One idea is usually sufficient, providing me with something to say. Thus much of my music could be described as monothematic.

So, perhaps, dare we hope? A Spring release of “Entangled States”. Then I will have something to say and I will say it as I report on the reviewers’ comments as I did with the 3 Sonatas. Let’s hope it’s poetry. I learn much from those who are qualified to comment about what I am attempting to do with respect to my (some say pioneering) Non-Prescriptive techniques, how it is viewed, valued, how it is put into some kind of context,the comparisons, often favourable, made with sometimes notable and established composers. The comments have been universally incredibly kind and generous. For example in a review from Classics Today the Sonatas were awarded 10/10 and 10/10 (blog post November 6th 2014). I am forever mindful, however of how cruel, scathing, how devastatingly ferocious some critics can be when they choose to derogate, maul,the efforts and the hard won reputations of others.
I have not been idle.

I have not been a bystander waiting for things to happen. I have completed, amongst other pieces, Piano Sonata No. 10 and at present I am engaged in a project that I have had in mind for many years. I am enjoying doing this, it’s fun. I will have something to say about it next year. Will it be poetry? As always I have been working within a disciplined routine which has to be kept quite rigid and inflexible. If I know I should be doing something at a certain scheduled time there is some degree of probability that I might just do that. Otherwise things slide. Excuses, reasons are fabricated so as not to engage in The Struggle. And I will always remember that if it had not been for two remarkable people who recognised something of value in my music I would not be writing this blog, it would not exist. You would not be reading this. My emergence into the public domain is entirely due to the intervention of Anthony Goldstone (now sadly deceased) and Stephen Sutton, the incredible, indefatigable CEO of Divine Records who is living proof that cold fusion power has been harnessed successfully.

May I wish you all peace, good health, good fortune in the coming year.

You will have noticed that I have not written to you since the recording of Entangled States in January. Unfortunately the process from recording to release is complex and takes a long time. It’s happening, but at a rate comparable to that of tectonic shift. I have been writing, placing marks of graphite and graphene onto paper. I have been searching for another Big Idea but that is proving to be irritatingly elusive. I am pursuing my thread of simplicity in music – much music has too many notes. I have alluded to this in previous posts and have decided to combine this way of working with a project that has been percolating for many years, to write Pieces for Terrible Pianists. I will explain in a further post, but not now.

So, I have decided to write about an episode which happened in another chapter in my life,a life far removed from my present arcane world of composing.

December 6th in a former life. A wet, grey, cold, flat, forbidding Middleton Sands. The Lune Estuary. Morecambe Bay. North West England. A solitary, tiny, frail, flexwing microlight flying machine. A combination of a Striker wing and a Mainair Tripacer Trike had been trailored 60 miles from Manchester and was waiting to be flown,was rigged, fully fuelled, checked. I was here on the beach with one thought in my head, to climb to 10,000 feet, higher than I had ever flown and at that altitude to cut the engine and to glide down to my take-off point, a line scoured in the sand.

There was just one problem the area was covered, shrouded by a persistent blanket of adiabatic fog.

The hours were passing. The short winter day was already beginning to close. I had stomped along the shore in an effort to keep warm and was beginning to think of abandoning my plans when the layer of fog began to noticeably thin. My instincts were to try, to go for it, to seize this opportunity. Pre-flight checks again, engine started, warmed. I strapped myself in and applied full throttle. The take off run was extended due to a nil wind and a wet clinging surface.Lift off. Bar out. Climbing steeply, feet level with my chest. Within seconds I had punched through a very thin layer of fog and settled myself for a long ascent.

There was minimal instrumentation available. I had an altimeter strapped to my left wrist and a compass tied with a piece of string to an angle of the A frame. That was the avionics accounted for. Everything was minimal in those very early days of microlight development. The trike was comprised of a few aluminium poles describing triangles. The sail was a barely modified hang glider wing. This form of aviation was in its infancy.

Dangling my legs 2000 ft above the Lune Estuary.

As the altimeter ticked around, first the Lune Estury, then Morecambe Bay, then the hills of the Lake District fell into their expected positions. The engine, a Rotax 330cc twin cylinder 2 stroke continued to supply sufficient power for the altitude to slowly increase. That was quite important as, at the time, the engines were inverted, which sometimes gave rise to plug fouling which, in turn gave way to unscheduled landings.

On one such occasion, I was forced to land in a field by the side of the M6 motorway near Preston. It proved to be a field with a slope. Braking was achieved by taking feet off the steering bar and digging them as forcibly as possible into the ground. Brakes were a thing of the future. I always carried a toolkit – in those days it was necessary – and after securing the aircraft and leaving the engine to cool, I began to take out and clean the plugs. A passing police car pulled to a halt on the hard shoulder of the motorway and the officer climbed over fence and field and approached me in a most friendly manner. He asked me what the problem was and, after I had explained, he volunteered to drive to a motorway service station, purchase two plugs and to return, which he did within a very short time. He refused to take any money from me and remained to see that I took off safely or perhaps to see if this machine could actually fly.

To return to the ascent. I had passed through 8500 feet. The climb rate was slowly decreasing but something wonderful was happening. As my elevation increased the sun appeared, a huge, soft, orange circle framed by a wonderfully blue sky, the hills of the Lake District offering a black silhouette. I was by now no longer counting in thousands of feet, but in hundreds of feet. My altimeter slowly approaching my target. For some reason, once I was there, I added a few more feet before reaching down to a small switch between my legs and flipping it from right to left.

It isn’t always December. Taxiing for a play amidst the summer cumulus in G-MBWP.

The engine cut. The resulting silence was emphasised by the sudden lack of noise from an engine situated close behind me which had been on a continuous 90 per cent throttle. The powered craft became a glider. Virtual silence, air gently wafting through the wires, the wing beautifully responsive to any input. I had taken care to stay vertically above my take off point so my descent became an exhilarating series of spirals, figures of eights, dives and swoops. The air was still flat calm, brushing against my face. My feet were cocooned in insulated boots, my hands kept warm with three pairs of gloves. Almost immediately the sun disappeared and my eyes had to adjust, work harder. Looking down I saw that the layer of fog had completely disappeared and I was able to spot my landing site from 5 or 6 thousand feet. My environment was incredibly quiet, peaceful, serene, private. I landed and came to a rapid halt a few feet away from etched line. It was not necessary to switch the engine off after this particular flight.It had been switched off for almost twenty minutes. I parked the little machine into wind and climbed out, turned around and looked with a new sense of affiliation and affection at my tiny bundle of sticks and sail and the little two stroke which, at that time, was not intended for any purpose of aviation.
By the time I had derigged, folded, packed the wing and tied the trike securely onto its trailer, night had fallen upon Morecambe Bay.

The seemingly impossible was made possible by the heroic, Herculean efforts of pianist Mary Dullea, and sound engineer and producer, Alex Van Inghen. We accomplished what each of us considered would be pushing the boundaries of what was achievable in terms of recording, given the limited time we had.
2 days. 48 pieces.

Alex, travelling from Surrey, arrived late to a dark, desolate, isolated, sub- zero Wyastone. He set up his extensive recording equipment so that an early, prompt start could be made the following morning. He duly arrived at our lodgings at l.00am. We had a whispered catch-up. By this time Mary was long abed with her hot water bottle for company, doubtless dreaming of Non Presciptive music.

The night was extremely cold. I wore 2 pairs of socks and commandered the blankets from the adjoining bed. Alex slept in his clothes. Hypothermia threatened. Mary was the warm, snug, clever one. The forecasters had predicted snow, gales, rain and low temperatures. Well, they got one correct.

So, on a cold, grey morning we set off early to Wyastone concert hall to find that the ever efficient Paula had ensured that the spacious auditorium was heated. She had also thoughtfully provided additional heaters which we were only too eager to employ. Thank you Paula. One heater was positioned close to Mary (and the mics). Thankfully it did not have a fan. The other we situated in our control room. The reliable Philip Kennedy had already visited and given the magnificent Steinway Model D its first of four tunings.

Mary with her calisthenics, the loosening of her (thankfully warm) fingers, becoming reacquainted with the weighting of the action, the three pedals, arranging the scores. Alex making final sound checks, adjusting levels, tweaking, preparing spread sheets, attending to much fine detail. Headsets made it possible to communicate with Mary 60 or 70 metres distant. Everything set, positioned, a collective silence and we commenced. Only 48 pieces lay ahead of us.

We were always aware that we had to maintain a quite daunting schedule which equated to approximately one piece every fifteen minutes. Hence the title to this post. The key! to our success lay with Mary’s meticulous preparation. Each of her scores was overlaid with a network of lines, arrows, directions, notes to herself, annotations. She had arrived at the recording with a knowing intent.

We broke for short intervals for hot drinks, calories and carbs. Mary favouring salads, fruit, florentines, biscuits. Alex drank oceans of industrial strength black tea, the consistency of which left concentric rings around the insides of the cup. A longer break for lunch,a plenary session, an analytical review of things done, whilst Philip went about finessing the tuning again.

Then a long, long period of sustained effort through to the evening. One piece every fifteen minutes. Again, again and yet again. Mary and Alex maintained inexorable progress. Our schedule demanded that at the end of the first day we should have nailed 24 pieces. We, in fact, made it to 25.

If all this sounds somewhat grim, this is far from the truth. We generated humour, laughs. Alex and I were quite silly. Coruscating it was not, but Mary smiled a lot and laughed at our foolishness.

Back to our lodgings in Monmouth. We dined on ready meals and a welcome bottle of Shiraz, Mary’s favourite. The second night was infinitesimally warmer. Mary and Alex slept well. I, again, woke at 3.30am.

Much the same pattern for the second day. Another early start on a cold, bright, sunny morning made it possible for us to maintain our exacting, daunting schedule. Take after take after take. Laughs, smiles, breaks, teas, calories, carbs, the piano whisperer, lollypops for Alex (it’s become a sort of tradition). The in-tray tantalisingly, encouragingly becoming slowly depleted.

Six or seven pieces remaining. We were in our Wyastone bubble. Isolated, focused with one exclusive intent. Our goal beckoned, drew us on and piece number 48 was completed. Fittingly Mary’s realisations of this portrayed a triumphant flourish. A celebration of the completion of our task.

Sadly, time did not allow for any last group discussion.No pattings of backs.No fist bumps. Mary had a train to catch from Abergavenny, 20 miles distant. We packed quickly, bade Alex a hasty farewell and left. Left Alex in the night to dismantle and stow all his gear and close down Wyastone. He returned to resume the same recording that he had left two days ago. Prokofiev I think.

There remains much to be done. Peter Vodden has already submitted his image to be displayed in the jewel case to Stephen Sutton. Scott McLaughlin has commenced his sleeve notes which cannot be completed until he is in receipt of early edits from Alex. Alex will also send Mary the 243 takes which were generated during the recording. She has the difficult task of deciding which of the several takes for each of the pieces will be selected for the final mastering. Finally, Stephen Sutton, CEO of Divine Art Records, will collate all the parts and will, as always, produce an excellent end product.

Release date? With so much to be done, it’s not possible to be precise but I am hoping for April, May. Springtime would please.

I will keep you informed of our progress.

In three weeks time, mid January, Mary Dullea, Alex Van Ingen and myself will converge upon Wyastone to record the CD. Hopefully we can complete the task in a weekend even though it looks very much as though we will be making a double CD. I doubt whether all the pieces can be compressed onto one disc. The Three Sonatas also occupied two discs and that entailed three days of recording. It will be a very intense, very focused two days as always. Wyastone is in Monmouth, that’s very near one of the many places where England meets with Wales. It’s a long way to travel for all of us but we give it lots of pluses, the Steinway piano, recording facilities and the efficiency of its staff.

I will not attempt to describe Wyastone, how we go about the recording, for I have written about this already. If you wish to catch a glimpse of what we do, what it is like, how we go about our tasks, scroll down to two previous posts – A Weekend at Wyastone, September 2013 and Wyastone Revisited November 2013.

And how do I sign off this, my last post of the year? I have struggled. I have drafted several attempts but each falls short of how I completed the corresponding post of last year. Owing to a paucity of invention on my part I am not able to improve upon it. I have decided to repeat the last paragraph ad verbatim. I regard it sadly, disappointingly, as relevant to the now as it was one year ago. I can only hope that in the future this, or something closely resembling it, does not become some kind of vapid, stale, trope but I am struggling to find sense in a world which I feel has become a moral and ethical vacuum,a world which is so often characterised by an increasing absence of social values, bereft of empathy or tolerance.

“As we approach the turn of the year we must hope that our political leaders will together work with an urgency and purpose to facilitate change. Change which will result in a more egalitarian, humane and compassionate global society. We have to hope. I guess that in some of the most desperate regions of the world hope is all that people have. May I offer a similar line of thought from Miguel Cervantes via the mouth of his alter ego Don Quixote, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not what it should
be”. It is with these thoughts and in this context that I conclude this last post of the year. I sincerely wish you all peace, good health, good fortune”..