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The Scrivener: Through The Clouds

Brian Barratt takes us on a rewarding journey that begins with snow and clouds, then progresses via Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla Symphony’ to the meaning of life, the universe and everything else.

"In the philosophical search, we sometimes look beyond life and the universe and question ‘everything else’,'' says Brian. "Of course, when I was 17 I knew all the answers. Now I’m 70, and I’ve spent quite a few years clarifying the questions. That probably applies to most of us, eh?''

To read more of Brian's stimulating words click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And for lots more intellectual fun visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

A couple of hours from home, we were halfway up the slow mountain. Patches of grey icy slush began to appear along the sides of the road. There were occasional glimpses of black cockatoos in the scrubby trees. Although Zoltan was born in Melbourne, he had never seen snow. Our target was the top, the peak, the white wonderland.

‘What’s all that stuff?’ he asked, out of the blue. He’d noticed something that most people took for granted. ‘They’re clouds,’ I explained. We’re driving up through the clouds.’ With the blunt scepticism of an eleven-year-old, he retorted with something like, ‘Pffff. They are so not clouds. Clouds are in the sky.’ So I stopped the car, carefully, and we got out to have a look. After a few minutes, he was convinced.

On another occasion, we discovered the last resting place of the Aboriginal people of the district we were driving through. It’s a lonely cemetery, not visible from the road. Lonely, significant, and powerfully moving. Zoltan stood gazing up at the sky, seen in the gaps between very tall eucalypt trees. I asked him what he was looking at. ‘The clouds. I know clouds move, but I’ve never seen them move before’.

It reminded me of the time I was far above the mountains, in a BOAC Britannia airliner, flying to England with a nine-year-old. He looked out of the window, or port-hole, whatever they called them in those days, and declared in loud alarm, ‘We’ve STOPPED!’ When you’re in a plane, high above the clouds, you can’t see them moving, can you?

There are times when we all become aware of space beyond our own space, and even time beyond our own time. It’s difficult to put into words. Looking becomes seeing. Hearing becomes listening. Whether or not writing will become explaining, in the next few paragraphs, is open to question. I’m moving from homely anecdote to reflective observation. I promise not to go all posh and intellectual, though. I’ll keep writing in my usual voice and accent, which I’m told is somewhere between Nottinghamshire, Melbourne, and BBC English, OK?

The thing is, I’ve just been listening again to Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla Symphony’. When I first discovered it, I had to ask a musically well-informed friend why it had such power, why I relished it. My ears don’t like dissonance (or jazz, or big band music, for that matter). This piece of music, all 78 minutes of it, won’t appeal to those who like perfect harmony and rhythm. For that, we all go to such as Mozart. And yet it has me almost as enthralled as was Zoltan when we actually reached the snow, hired a little tea-tray sledge, and he went whizzing down the slopes. Rapture is the only word for it. My musical friend suggested that perhaps Messiaen’s dissonances come together in one great consonance. Perhaps it’s another example of recondita armonia, secret harmony, sweet harmony of contrasts.

The composer’s own notes on the 6th movement, Jardin du sommeil, ‘Garden of the sleep of love’, suggest ‘The two lovers are locked away in the sleep of love. A landscape has sprung from them... Time passes, forgotten. The lovers are outside time.’ And that is exactly how you feel when the music flows over you and through you. You’re enveloped in a fresh landscape of sound. You might have heard it before, in whole or in part, but it never sounds the same.

Sorry, when I say ‘you’, I actually mean ‘I’. It’s quite possible that the music will mean nothing to you, in the same way that I can’t stand progressive jazz whereas you probably like it. One person’s discord is another’s delight.

So why am I prattling on about all this? Well, perhaps it’s because of the famous question in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams), about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything else. In the philosophical search, we sometimes look beyond life and the universe and question ‘everything else’. Of course, when I was 17 I knew all the answers. Now I’m 70, and I’ve spent quite a few years clarifying the questions. That probably applies to most of us, eh?

Thank goodness I’m no longer the Bible-blinkered boy I was at 17. There’s so much more in moving up the slow mountain, through the clouds, discovering something new every day.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2006

Footnote. Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony is available on Naxos CD set no. 8.554478–79.


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