Sustaining compositions a note at a time

I’m eight years old, and when I sit on the piano stool, my feet barely touch the ground. I wonder if I’ll ever be tall enough to reach the pedals, but I don’t have to worry right now because Grade 1 pieces don’t require dampening or sustaining.

Piano class would become the most important part of my childhood. I couldn’t have known it then, but learning to read music at that age would prove key to my acceptance into the school band in 11th standard, an event which I can definitively say, changed my life.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen, I completely lost interest in classical music. Besides the odd Tchaikovsky from Jamie Uys’ film Animals are Beautiful People, that world seemed alien and boring, because I was told by pop culture that it was supposed to be boring. It seemed stuffy and upper-class and I wanted nothing to do with it.

I can’t remember how I first stumbled upon Beethoven, but I remember feeling cheated that the Ode to Joy that I was so familiar with was just a tiny part of his 9th Symphony. I couldn’t believe I had never heard this before, and the 4th movement gave me goosebumps throughout. I listened to it again and again, waving a pen around in some psychotic parody of a conductor.

My parents were incredulous. Despite sending me to piano class when I was younger, they had no inkling that I would take to classical music, being completely alien to that world themselves. I spent the beginning of this new adventure in a state of blissful ignorance, searching (embarrassingly) for terms like ‘classical’, ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Mozart’ on Limewire; which would soon shut down, forcing me to confront the reality that classical music doesn’t quite work like pop music. Downloading one movement of a four movement symphony and listening to it repeatedly is, as I discovered, perhaps the worst way to consume classical music.

I joined the school brass band when I was in 11th and was put on the tuba. Up till that point, I had always felt like an outsider. I had friends and I had fun, but I was the weird kid who drew maps, made up languages, and was a huge nerd. Somehow, the band too was full of misfits and weird kids. There were popular kids, but nearly everyone was either eccentric or downright strange. No one was boring—the same boring I had tried to make myself a year earlier, wearing my pants low and hanging out with the slightly cooler kids—and I loved that. I loved that I could be myself there, because playing well together was the only thing that mattered.

Social hierarchies were broken. Twelve-year-olds would hang out with eighteen-year-olds in the band room. We would stay late into the evening, stories from our teacher, NS, about what our school was like fifteen years ago.

NS was part of that distinguished, often resented but always respected, breed of exotic male teachers at school. The best at what they did, it was no surprise they had egos. If NS leaves, the band dies was a common saying around school. And he threatened to, every second week.

“I’ve had enough”, he would half-shout, “How long can I keep feeding all of you sheep, who don’t learn anything? Don’t take any initiative?! You know what that’s called? Flogging a dead horse”.
“No, I’m serious!”, he would retort when we whined in protest, “I’ve been here for over twenty years. It’s been a good run. Thankyougoodnight”.

But he stayed on, because he loved the band too much to let go. It was his brainchild, after all. And we were good. Really good. We played concerts all over the city; in Alliance Francaise, and at the Raj Bhavan for the Governor. Sitting amongst my friends having high-tea with the Governor of Karnataka, I remember having this distinct feeling that I was making it in life. It seems silly now, because having tea with a politician is hardly making it in the world of classical music, but I like to think what I felt was the reward of making a good choice. Maybe it was the lack of regret at not letting myself be afraid of making that choice.

Before Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom introduced me to the Britten I would come to love, I heard NS say, “A Simple Symphony. Anything but simple!” I was at a concert by the Bangalore School of Music Chamber Orchestra, which NS conducted. I didn’t mind the Bourée and the Finale, I found Playful Pizzicato amusing, and I loved Sentimental Sarabande.

In my fourth semester of college, I developed an obsession for Britten. This was partly because I liked his music. But mostly it was because of his friend, the poet WH Auden who once told him in a letter, “You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself in this way, i.e to build yourself a warm nest of love by playing the lovable talented little boy”. Admonishing him for being too bourgeois–according to Auden, one must find the right balance between Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention, Auden conjured up as Benjamin Britten, the image I had created for myself as a child. It helped that Britten was gay, a pacifist, and a Peter Pan figure of sorts.

If anyone has helped me get my act together, at least a little, in the last three years is Britten, after four semesters spent depressing myself with articles from Jacobin that instructed me to be ashamed of myself for wanting to make a career out of the things I love. To be fair, the author only said that it’s a bourgeois privilege to be able to do what you love, finding someone like Britten to look up to suddenly made me feel a measure of peace.

Last semester has been the scariest time of my life. I didn’t do any of my college work, and I genuinely believed I was going to fail the year. I got the closest to killing myself since I was fifteen. I managed to pull myself out of that dark place, and I like to think I owe it to Benjamin Britten—to the non-prescriptive example that he set. He was, after all, just a big kid who proved it isn’t a forgone conclusion that this world crushes you if you don’t grow up.

(Featured image by Rahul Rudra)

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