A recent comment on this site brought to mind my shelved novel ENTERTAINING ANGELS which I've occasionally blogged elsewhere in its unedited state. It's the saga of a dysfunctional family struggling in the aftermath of two world wars and revolves around a mother/daughter conflict, winding up just before the millennium. In this passage, Isabelle (Belle), casualty of a lavender marriage and mother of a growing son, is finally striking out and pursuing her dreams in the world of music.
It was a modern studio, airy and spacious, with skylights and halogen spotlights. A waxed pine floor dimly reflected its only functional ornament, a Japanese grand piano, dark as liquorice. This elegant beast dwarfed the flimsy steel stand which had been dauntingly placed in its lee where the singer might address his score fully observed. Lecture chairs were stacked below a notice board announcing entertainments and workshops past and pending. A series of murals enhanced the orchestral theme, examples of student art. They were bold, imagistic creations, smacking of Picasso, Braque and Gauguin, transmitting some dreamlike truth beyond a slavish fidelity to shape and viewpoint. What struck the viewer more than anything else was the intimate relationship of the performers with their chosen instruments - as though they would have been limbless without them - giving off a febrile animal passion to achieve a state of being beyond their bodies.
"Amazing, aren't they?" Gabriel said. It was a throwaway remark. Compared to their first encounter, he was disconcertingly withdrawn.
"That's youth for you. Treading where angels fear. Give me a committed young ensemble. They're able to tap resources they didn't know they had." He gave her a churlish grin. "That's before life puts the boot in, I expect."
"You mean they become overly aware of pitfalls?"
"Something like that." He was like a watchful tiger in a cage and appeared to have difficulty focusing on the task before him. He slumped down on to the piano stool, absently tinkering with the keyboard in a driven manner. "Wrong key..."
"It's important to learn the rules of perspective. Fundamental."
"Knowing when to break them - when it's justified - that's the stuff of genius."
"It all depends where you fit the frame."
"Quite," Gabriel said. "Now, shall we start at the beginning...wherever that may be? Let's assume you've had no experience at all. Let's make music!"
She stood with her back to the wall as instructed, so that her posture was best aligned to produce unhindered sound. He told her that singing was breathing and that the singer must be prepared to let loose his burdens before launching into song. "Offload the past. Shed all the guilt and resentment. Come freely to the music."
Naturally, it made sense. His voice had a nectarous quality. She began to feel that he was required to be as adept a psychologist as he was a musician. There was an intimate element to the procedure which she had not reckoned upon. Lessons with Joan Sandys had not been like this, just scales and arpeggios, jumps of fourths, fifths, sixths and sevenths, and a few laboured songs within earshot of someone who was benevolently critical and, in the main, undemanding. Belle suspected that Joan had not taken her seriously, perhaps had been too jaded with living and had not seen any potential in her.
There followed a treatise on breathing technique and a series of one and three-note exercises in changing vowel shapes. "You're holding back," Gabriel shouted from the piano. "Why are you holding back? There's a voice and a half in there. A true bel canto. And a top D or E, at a guess."
"I don't know, I don't know," she said, dismayed. "I am trying!"
It was as if she had been catapulted to some high ledge with no safety net and no crevice for sanctuary. The musicians on the walls were demonstrating their skills in a frenzy of ecstacy, or else languid from the vision glimpsed. If their instruments were part of their being, how much more so was her own voice? She stood alone in echoing space wondering why she had submitted to such exposure, why it hurt and why, at that moment, it mattered more than anything else on earth.
The momentum was in no danger of flagging. They progressed to more melodious arpeggios, ascending and descending, rising again to sustain the highest note. "Don't lose the support," Gabriel cried. "Now float it! Fly!"
I can do better than this, Belle thought in a sudden access of determination. But instead of the single thread of silver she was aiming for, the notes issued thin and timorous and died on the air, taking refuge in the place which had given them birth.
"Why are you choking the sound?" demanded Gabriel. Realising his professional methods were in jeopardy, he let go a sigh and tried to suppress his exasperation. "Look, " he said, "you're capable of breath in volumes, your pitch is good. Excellent, even. The transition from head to chest voice is smooth as cream. Why do you expire before you've seen the view from the top of the hill?"
A cloud filtered out the natural brightness from the skylight. The interior lights shone accusingly. Belle was at a loss to know why she was downhearted and unreasonably ashamed. It was only a singing lesson. She was giving it her best shot. Was it because the constraint suggested she was not in control of something as basic as her own voice?
"It's such a personal instrument, the voice," she said.
"Yes," he replied. "It is. Listen, I'm not judging you."
"My function is not to be some kind of Svengali, either. I'm in the business of ensuring that good voices don't go to waste. There's enough gloom in the world.”
She flicked him a glance of rapier understanding and began to search in the compartments of her bag for Kleenex. She was angry with herself for betraying her own poverty. "It heals," she heard herself snuffle. "The music is so healing, so other..."
"But that, "Gabriel said gently, "is sometimes preceded by a healing crisis. We cannot escape these things. Truth will out." Over the years, he had formed the opinion that the services of a vocal coach were at least equally valid with those of a counsellor, only the tools and the approach were different. "Why don’t we try developing the mezzo range for the time being?” he suggested. “But now, I think it's best if we call it a day. We'll dispense with the fee for this week."
"Oh, but I couldn't..."
"No, I insist." After a moment's hesitation, he said pointedly, catching Belle's eye: "I wouldn't dream of drawing on your account, Mrs Loveless."
She made to leave, bundling a redundant sheaf of scores back into her music case. Though she could bear to have fluffed the grade, she was appalled at proving herself a coward. "I ought not to have taken your time..."
"I'm glad you did. I hope I shall see you next week, Belle. At the same time? We might do some Vaccai exercises. If you don't have a copy, perhaps you could get one? The Schirmer edition is best."
"Thank you." She smiled politely.
"Facing the music can be painful..." As the phrase fell, he caught the heel of her hand in passing. Simultaneously, a shock of electricity seared through them both, its sharp, mercurial pain striking through hands and feet alike. In an automatic gesture, Belle snatched her hand away. Just then, a smart knock on the door heralded Jeremy Kay, the Head of the Music Department, who leaned inside to ask if Gabriel could spare a few moments at the end of the session. "Need to pick your brains, old son," he said.
"Five minutes," Gabriel said, spreading the fingers of one hand and managing to look both startled and sheepish at once. There was a glint of amusement in Kay's eyes as he retreated. He'd no idea who Belle was but thought the pair of them looked exceptionally well matched with their Tudor dynasty colouring.
In a whirlwind, Belle disappeared down the short staircase from the mezzanine floor, turning out of sight.
"Well, well," Kay mumbled, glancing after her. "Tell me it wasn't something you said, dear fellow."
"I couldn't vouch for it," Silk grinned. It was a rueful grin and the Aegean-blue eyes looked haunted.
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