The Art of Listening to Music with David Watkin

To the Back CourtyardHe got the greatest pleasure having you share a new piece of music, a recently discovered interpretation, a revived antique recording. As a listening companion,  it was made clear from the beginning that my responses could only run parallel to his, that I was there to share, and not to ask for further explanation or rationale. I don’t think I ever had the heart to disagree with his musical proposition. Not seriously.

I called in for lunch regularly, often with a view to getting back to work at the University around 2.30 to prepare for a 3.pm lecture to the troops. We ate. I did the dishes and was taken through to the large sofa in the sitting room and seated facing the speakers. He would disappear through to the CD Room out back, get distracted with other things he wanted to show me.

Eventually he would hurry back, oblivious to the passage of time. The gloom in the sitting room, the inadequacy of the table lamps, meant that the Grandfather Clock opposite the sofa (to the right of the fake Holbein) was unreadable. Bearing in mind my mental preparations for a looming lecture, I would make sure my sleeve was clear of my wristwatch before the music started.

David WatkinThe box of disks would be opened on the table behind the sofa. He would extract the disk he intended and then the brochure for track numbers. A later fashion for paper packaging for each disk would delay him in his scrupulous avoidance of fingerprints. The delicacy of the operation was at odds with his huge enthusiasm to get the piece to me. This resulted frequently in dropping the disk on the floor with a groan of despair. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fucking paper things.”

He would then insert the disk and peer irritably at the digital numbering on the CD Player. “What!” he would remonstrate with the flickering dial. He would check on the paper envelope and curse it. Then came the usual extended barrage of expletives and unreasonable vilification of the disks’ publishers. Picking up the remote as if it intended only malice towards  him, he would slowly select buttons and point the thing with slow determination at the CD Player. “Come on then……….. For Fuck’s Sake”. He would then scrutinise the tip of the remote, from which he believed the errant information had been projected.

“The second fucking movement…that’s all…” He would then repeat the operation, and be surprised when the entire disk was ejected. His curses achieved a new intensity. At this point, he was so distracted that his large cable stitch sweater would knock things off the table or get caught on a bronze figurine. It was his determination that prevailed, and the intended track would load and he would sink back with a despair that gave way to anticipation. The Grandfather clock would strike tentatively, trying to assert its presence before his glare condemned it to silence for the next twenty minutes

“Now, just listen to this. You’ll adore it.” In early exercises of music listening at the Mews I stayed completely still, hopeful and attentive. In later years I had the confidence to pick up the box or sleeve and work things out for myself. When listening to Bruckner, I knew to expect over twenty minutes for the movement. If it were Mengelberg, I knew to expect even longer.

“OK David but I must get back to the University before the last movement.” He would then give a groan, and contort his face into pain at my cultural shallowness.

“Students will be waiting.”

“Of course.” he would say sotto voce, mollified.

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