Fiction

The composer

THE MOTHER OF my daughter's best friend called him ‘the composer'. She said she bought ironbark honey from him, and that he had a violin for sale. I told her it had to be a good one; Mei was entering Brisbane's Young Conservatorium Orchestra, and I felt it was time she had an instrument befitting the music she would be playing.

‘It'll be a good one if he owns it,' she said. ‘He's a real composer, you know.'

I asked his name.

‘Milo something. Jaarvi. That's it! Milo Jaarvi.'

The name rang a bell, though I did not recall his music. I asked if she knew how much he wanted for the violin. She didn't, but she was sure he would give me a good price.

‘He's strange like that,' she said. ‘He's honest. He once walked three kilometres to my house after he short-changed me on a tub of honey.'

She gave me an address in the Blackall Range, north of Brisbane.

My daughter was sick that weekend, so I drove out of the city alone. The composer's house was a Queenslander set high in the wooded hills. Peach, olive and citrus trees stood in the front yard. Walking up the stairs I noticed paint peeling from the wallboards. A man of middling height came to the door. His prematurely greying beard and hair made his green eyes startling.

After a brief exchange I was inside with the violin. I have only ever been a mediocre violinist, and the demands of work and family have meant that I can give less and less time to playing. Yet even I could tell the instrument in my hands was exceptional. It was perfectly weighted, and it resonated with such clarity and intensity that I was embarrassed and barely let the bow touch the strings.

‘It's a fine fiddle,' I said.

The composer nodded. ‘A friend sent it to me from Berlin. It's a hundred and thirty years old. It was almost dead when I got it. I played it back to life over the course of a year. It was made by a Lithuanian out of hundred-year-old Bosnian maple. Biednas was the maker's name. He's barely known, but a true craftsman.'

‘I need an instrument for my daughter,' I said. ‘But I doubt I can afford this one.'

I told the composer that Mei was going into the youth orchestra. Second violin.

‘Has she any Jewish blood?'

‘My parents are Irish and my wife is Taiwanese. Why do you ask?'

‘All the great violinists are Jewish. It's the instrument of the wanderer, the exiled.'

I told him that but for a trip a year to Taiwan to visit Mei's grandparents, our family was very much settled.

The composer smiled. He looked out the window at my car on the gravel drive. He asked what work my wife did. I think he was trying to judge my means in order to arrive at a price.

‘Twelve thousand,' he said at last.

It was more than I could comfortably afford. But I had long dreamt that my daughter would become a concert violinist, and she seemed to have aptitude. I sighed and took out my chequebook.

‘No,' said the composer when he saw the cheque. ‘Seven thousand five hundred. It's worth much more, but that's what it cost me. Seven thousand five hundred, on the condition that it's for your daughter - that you won't sell it - she must own it for good.'

I thought it was a strange, sentimental request.

‘Very well. I promise. Thank you.'

I asked him if he played.

‘Not really. Not the violin. I bought it for my own daughter.'

I guessed by the arrangement of the house, its utilitarian furniture and lack of decoration, that the composer lived alone. There was no sign of a woman or child. I did not want to rub the wounds of a broken marriage.

‘Daughters.' I smiled consolingly. ‘I must have thrown a hundred thousand dollars on Mei's various fads by now. And she's only sixteen.'

The composer nodded and smiled.

I SAT DOWN to sign the cheque and took proper stock of the room. A Paling & Co. upright piano stood against the wall, and beside it a handcrafted guitar. Not so much as a painting or photograph adorned the walls. The composer's desk was at the room's one window that looked onto the hills and, beyond them, the sea. Beside the window stood a small unpolished bookshelf.

I asked the composer if these books were all he had, for I had never known an educated man to possess such a small library. He nodded. I made a mental catalogue of the collection, which was easy as there were only nine volumes: a Greek Bible, The Brothers Karamazov, a collection of war stories by Heinrich Böll in the original German, the collected poems of Alfred de Vigny in French, a selection of hymns and writings by St John of Damascus, a book on Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier, another on music of the early Renaissance, Pseudo-Dionysius's Mystical Theology and Athanasius's biography of St Anthony.

‘Nine books?' I said.

‘They keep me going all year. Then I read them again.'

He went to the kitchen to get tea from the stove.

‘Forgive me,' I said, ‘but are you Catholic or Orthodox?'

‘No.' He came back to the table and poured tea. ‘Once I belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church.'

‘Well, judging by your library, it wasn't reasonable argument that dissuaded you. There are barrel loads of dissuasive books around these days.'

‘Yes. Please don't offer me one. It's true I've lost my faith. But an evangelical atheist is no more pleasant or interesting to me than an evangelical Baptist or an evangelical fitness guru. There's enough noise in the world, and I have no time for the kind of people who shout.'

‘Forgive me. I had no intention of forcing a book on you. I was curious. You see, my parents were devout Catholics, being Irish, but in recent years I've, well...drifted, as they say. I sometimes feel concerned about it, as a family man. I suppose yours is a similar case.'

‘No. My break with faith was very sudden.'

‘How did it happen?'

‘My wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver.'

I apologised. The composer squinted out the window at the afternoon light.

‘My wife was from Berlin. She came to this country with a couple of hundred dollars and her violin. She was busking on La Trobe Terrace when I met her. She was nineteen and very beautiful.' He laughed. ‘I wrote a piece for violin and piano in a night, just to get her to stay at my flat to record it. We married shortly after. We lived by the sea, at Shorncliffe. One day after dinner she and our daughter went to buy an ice cream. On the walk back a boy racing a traffic light lost control of his car and hit my wife and child at a hundred kilometres an hour.

‘Susanne was twenty-seven when she died. My daughter was six. I had believed in God. I had lived through poverty and prejudice, for my art as well as my faith, and believed devoutly...' The composer paused and breathed deeply. ‘But it was not the fact of their deaths - as meaningless as it seemed to me - that marked my break with God. Not just that. Like all Orthodox I expected tragedy of this life. It was compounded absurdity that broke me. You see, after they died I set myself to work - it was all I could do to keep going. I resolved to compose a requiem mass. But I would not hurry it. I composed for ten years...I studied ancient music, even the Hebrew prosody that informed the psalms, which dictated my phrasing. My heart and soul was in that work. It was a prayer that I prayed for a decade, the only thing of my making that mattered at all. Then, in the very week I finished it, a lazy, barely competent film was released with an even less competent soundtrack that had stolen my themes.'

‘Surely not all of them?'

‘So many of the important ones...but the composer had not understood them. He had not made them mean anything at all, merely tacked them on to the saccharine string passages that make up most film scores. My mass was unpublished. I would be accused of imitating a second-rate work that I never knew existed, let alone heard. When audiences did not understand me, I would have failed in matching the film composer's accomplished technique. But that was only if the work was performed, which I doubted it would be now. God had heard my prayer for ten years. Then He threw it back at me. I thought: How could I have suffered two events so pointless, so deaf, dumb and blind? There was no reason. After that I could not believe.'

I should say that the composer almost whispered all this. I guessed it was the most he had spoken on the subject in a very long time. He apologised. He was embarrassed. Yet I was curious. I pushed him.

‘The theologians say God may be nearest when you think He's farthest away. And clearly, you're not one of the God-haters.'

‘Aren't I?' He shook his head. ‘I'm bitter at God for not existing. All the more because the God-shaped dream men have made for Him is so beautiful. You see, I know the theologians are cleverer than the rationalists, that the saints are greater than the materialists, who find this world easy because their imaginations - that cruellest of human faculties - are atrophied. I feel real pain that God has not made Himself exist, if only to justify the finer men. But that is the nature of this world: where rats, diseases and advertising thrive, and tigers, butterflies and poetries die out. It's the vicious, the loud and dull that survive here. The glorious, the lovely, the quiet, the courageous...all these must pass away. That is why my wife and child are gone.' The composer lit a cigarette and flicked the ash into a dirty whisky glass. ‘I believe there will come a day, perhaps in your daughter's lifetime, when no man on earth but the paid specialist can hum a bar of Bach's St Matthew Passion, when the poetry of de Vigny is not read at all. But perhaps chance will be kind in the future and man's imaginative faculties will evolve away, so he will not feel that loss, nor all the others.'

I was embarrassed by what the composer had said; I was barely aware of de Vigny.

‘He was a French poet of the early nineteenth century. "The Wrath of Sampson" is his finest.' The composer closed his eyes to the sunlight and recited a line that resonated with echoes: ‘How beautiful will be the feet of the one who comes to announce my death to me.'

I had the feeling he had recited those words many times before, that they had never lost their melancholy savour. The composer said nothing more until he turned from the window and smiled and apologised again.

Above the books in the composer's shelf was a collection of scores and CD recordings. There were no more than fifty discs. One for each week of the year, he said - though I do not imagine he was really so fastidious or accurate. I noticed some common to my own library: Leonin's Viderunt Omnes, recorded in the Cathédrale Notre Dame; the Glenn Gould recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier; those long improvisations by Vladimir Spivakov on Pärt's Für Alina...then I saw a recording of chamber music called Lux et Nox; the composer was Milorad Jaarvi.

 

WHEN I PICKED up the disc and saw the cover photograph of the dark-haired young man reading a score in the pews of St Stephen's Cathedral, I recognised him at once. I had known him - or known of him - as a first-year student at the Griffith Conservatorium. I dropped out before beginning second year, but I remembered that Milorad Jaarvi, then a postgraduate, was the conservatorium's star. Only the best young musicians were asked to perform one of his pieces at the biannual concert.

The recording bore the ABC Classical imprint. On the back I read the release date: 1999.

‘Ten years ago. Are there any others?'

‘No.'

I wondered out loud: Could it be so difficult for a composer with the start he had had to make a career?

‘After the death of my family I had no energy left for vanity,' said the composer. ‘I could not push myself, as they say. Nowadays, I rarely send music away.'

‘Why do you write if you don't mean your work to be heard?'

‘Because I'm a composer. There is nothing else I know to do with the time life gives me. Though I try very hard to be a farmer instead.'

The composer finished his cigarette and took a folder of manuscript scores from his drawer. He showed me a suite of piano pieces that were built around quotations from Palestrina's Lamentations of Jeremiah. The notes were sparely written, the light, spontaneous pen strokes and dabs of ink like flecks of birds against a winter sky.

I asked him to play one of the pieces. He flattened the score against his leg and sat down at the old upright.

He had excerpted a modal phrase from Lamentation No.1 that stepped sorrowfully down from its root to arrive at a minor chord, and this he played at varying intervals, in varying rhythms above an accompaniment that at times accepted it, at others resisted, alternating light and dark, home and exile, so the sadness of the motif became exquisite.

‘You must publish this!' I said, taking up the rest of the manuscript. ‘All of these. They must be performed.'

He smiled and went to his shelf and took up another score, a massive document. At the top of the first page was the title: Missa Susanne et Michelle, for soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

‘It's my requiem mass, the one I wrote for my little family.'

I thought the pages seemed to have been handled recently. There was no dust. I touched a quaver on the last page, and the ink remained on my skin.

‘You're still writing it. But you said you have no faith.'

The composer sighed.

‘I write now, ironically, in my hours of doubt. Those hours pass, of course, just as hours of faithlessness pass by the saints. But there is one thing that troubles me. If the world is our cradle; if poetry and song are accidental offshoots of the desire of apes to call to each other across distances; if love is a sentimental perversion of the desire to perpetuate the species; if life itself can be created chemically by men in laboratories, as we are told will soon be possible; if everything human is so completely of this world, then why are we never at home here? Why do we long for somewhere else? A place our world only resembles. From this longing comes the music.'

‘Is it finished?' I asked.

‘It's always been finished. I just keep praying it.' He smiled. ‘I erase three notes in the morning only to put them back at night.'

He put a compact disc on top of the manuscript, marked with black felt pen. The text said Kyrie/Agnus Dei.

‘The disc contains the first and last movements. I mustered singers from about the district and recorded them in St Finnain's, on Windy Knoll. It's a crude recording, but you can take it if you want. I have copies.'

‘Come with me,' I said. ‘We'll find a copier for the score. It's just possible I can get this performed.'

‘Take the manuscript.'

‘What if I lose it? It could be a masterpiece.'

The composer smiled, almost laughed, as if he had not heard the word in many years. I realised that the music before me had nothing to do with ambition.

The sunlight had vanished into the hills and a wind rose in the east over the ocean, blowing the curtains and making the composer's room cold.

I finished my tea and took up the violin, as well as the score and recording. ‘I should go,' I said. ‘My family will be waiting.'

‘Of course.'

I took my car down the gravel road and onto the asphalt. I slipped the disc into the player and heard the voices of four amateur singers carrying a mass inside a tiny wooden church. After a few moments of listening, the wind in the microphone, the shuffling of feet and the creaking of floorboards seemed to vanish. The mass left the building and floated in the darkening foothills of the range. I recognised the notes of the film score Jaarvi had mentioned, but the phrasing and then the deep structure I began to perceive changed the notes utterly, till the film score faded into oblivion and I knew that if I ever heard it again it would only seem to me a faint, fragmented echo of a voice that had spoken to me clearly this night. The road swung out onto a ledge that revealed the last flush of blue dusk over the ocean. I pulled the car off to the side and listened to the Agnus Dei, to all the beautiful anguish the composer had poured into the God-shaped hole that resided in his heart. We will all lose everything, I thought. And perhaps then we may earn it back. A sustained soprano note seemed to reach across the water toward the infinite horizon.

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