When Linda stopped playing, it felt like a death. In the aftermath, drugged with grief, for a time I shut off whole centuries of music. It was not only that her companionship, her presence, her nerves, had come to define one hundred and fifty years of sound, it was also that her heart, her sensibilities, her endlessly restless, beautiful brain had melded into mine. How could I play that music without her?
We were a duo in a deep sense. How I hear and how I play baroque music will always be in part Linda. I served my apprenticeship in a series of her living rooms, where her daughter slept under the harpsichord. Our lives were enfolded in sonatas and ideas, threaded through rehearsals, concerts, walks and meals. Together, we talked of creeds: how to listen, how to live.
Most of all, we played. Hours and weeks, months and years, we played, from the time I was sixteen. I learnt to feel harmony wrapped in the chords of her harpsichord. I learnt to make my recorders and my self a part of her chamber organ, to become simply another pipe in a bigger instrument.
Our duo was seriously labour intensive, both in terms of time and emotion invested. The music we played made little sense for either of us in practice rooms alone – it was a conversation, coming to life only with the other voice. Leading up to a concert or recording, we worked for hundreds of hours. She would retune the harpsichord scores of different ways, wrestling with the beautiful mysteries of unequal temperament. I would play scale after scale, reinventing every fingering on every instrument, trying to match exactly the new sound world she’d just created.
When we talked about music, language was most often our analogy. Music as sentences, phrases to be punctuated, words to be articulated, stories to be told. We needed to find ways of speaking that were intelligible, eloquent, and expressive. We are both readers. She has a more scholarly bent, devouring reams of musicology. That is never my way into a piece. Mine is more through ears, fingers and breath into a bloodstream, into a dreamlife, pieced together through observations, novels, fragments of conversations, and watching the wind play in the trees.
We were always drawn to the early seventeenth century, a time in music history where the world split open, and new forms emerged. Tiny operas, a whole world of characters and emotions, were contained in four-minute sonatas of intensely expressive music. Our way of hearing and playing that music made it shockingly personal to listeners who believed in the pure reconstruction of a past, where unseemly body parts and emotions of the players ought to be tastefully removed. We couldn’t play that music quietly, carefully, in a contained manner. We didn’t.
It was real to us, music. It wasn’t abstract, it wasn’t “just” music. It was our lives, our selves, our dreams and hopes and intellects, our senses, our language. It’s a dangerous way to be with a piece of music, but beautiful. It’s in this context that I learnt more than any, I think, to allow myself to be completely undone by sound, to let it seep right in deep, and shape me. In this duo, I discovered that I have a weird kind of synaesthesia – I hear and feel musical notes as emotion. Two particular notes in a row will spell abandon, the next five are hope, the following three joy. Return to those same two notes later in the piece, after the passing of time and experience, and they spell something else entirely. The notes are alive, writhing under my fingers, sending shocks through my body.
Often when I practice now, or before I perform, or mid-phrase in a recording, I’ll hear Linda’s voice. I ask her questions. Don’t worry. She hasn’t actually died, and she’s still a friend who is central to my existence. We talk in real time too. But she’s doing other things now, flourishing with them, and that’s absolutely what she needed to do.
I still miss our repertoire, and of course her with it. I love both dearly. I’ve never found anyone else to play our pieces with, so they make sense to me in the same way they did those years we breathed and inhabited them daily, got close to their bones and fluids and took them as our own. Recently I played Castello again, just for myself, by myself, imagining Linda’s harpsichord. It was good to return, devastating too. The immediacy of the sound, the flood of associations and memories, the sheer visceral power of that music grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. I came out of the exchange shuddering for breath, but intensely alive. Now I’ve begun the long, slow dance of re-acquaintance, because what I realised was that in silencing that repertoire, I had lost a part of myself. And I needed to find it again, to help me work out something new.
For me, with any death, if I can wait the anguish and disorientation out, afterwards, there can be unexpected growth. My love for the person who has gone demands that I find their qualities in myself. To honour them and to compensate for their absence, new parts of me must come to life. And so, I am richer.