I suppose that the first sound I ever heard was the sound of my mother coo-cooing into my still wet ear immediately after my birth. She and I would have been pretty exhilarated. The birth had taken almost twenty-four hours and at various points along the difficult journey both of us had not been expected to live. Her voice sound was a mixture of relief and disbelief.
The soundscape of magpies, kookaburras, the wind and rain and of 1950’s Wangaratta all completed the cacophony rushing into my ears as I lay in my cot. It would have been a while later that my cognition had developed to the point where I could distinguish individual sounds and still later when I was able to fix on the sound of my father playing his violin in the quite stillness of evening. I know that was a big moment because that sound is still with me and I’m still trying to recreate it.
Although my father insisted till the day he died that he was foremost a musician despite having to work daily at non-music effort in order to feed his family. Often after work he would teach violin or piano to supplement his income or study textile technology for a chance at promotion at the Wangaratta Woolen Mill. It was only when all of the daily toil had ceased that he would pick up the violin and set his soul free.
Pure sound. Free of context. Free of cultural nuance. The soaring beauty. The woody growl. The cheeky jump of the bow on gut strings. Pure like air or water.
I would lie in my cot in the next room wavering between wakefulness and sleep, listening to his gorgeous tone, his abandoned lyricism and his undisguised adoration of beauty. In the warm semi-darkness, the magic sound lit up my emerging imagination to concoct a wonderland of sound, colour and form that transported me through the topography of my subconscious.
When gypsies start their babes on the violin they send them back to their mothers to imitate the sound of their baby brothers and sisters crying for mother’s milk. Their crude tiny violins with makeshift strings are never tuned for this practice session because they will never play a melody. They will never play a chord. They exist only to imitate the pure sound of a baby’s wail. When they can make the sound of the wail on the little fiddle, they deserve to learn their first tune.
Pure sound. Free of commerce or gossip. Free of patronage and pomp. Free of intent and political message. Pure sound. Free of history or future.
When I was able to crawl slowly and uncertainly around the family lounge room that doubled as the music studio, my father stood sternly behind the music stand staring at the page sometimes averting his eyes to me and smiling at my attention. The violin was cradled on his shoulder. Sometimes he would move his head slightly to gain a better aspect and sometimes his facial expressions changed as though expressing some mysterious emotion. In the background rose the enormous black box-like upright piano. Sometimes he used it to reference the ‘A’ note to tune the violin. At other times I heard it used to accompany his students. But it was always the secondary musical instrument. My father was not much of a pianist. Our piano only really came to life when one of his musical friends dropped by to accompany him in rehearsal for the next performance. It was not that he didn’t care for the piano or didn’t respect those who could play it. It was just that the violin was ‘the king of the instruments’. The violin had a certain magic that could never be approached by the piano irrespective of who played it.
In the years to come, I would play music with him, listen to him play for halls of people or in chamber music settings but I never heard him play with the same peace and majesty as he played on those warm balmy nights in 1950’s Wangaratta. In later years, life always seemed to get in the way, never allowing him the opportunity to soar with the gods.
As a child, my experience of music was live, home based, acoustic and composed and immortalised by people who lived on the other side of the world and didn’t speak English. These exotic qualities made music seem a special inner world of fantasy where imagination and things felt were more important and attractive than weeding the garden or running the gauntlet of the neighbourhood dogs when I went to the Milk Bar. None of my playmates had a father who could create such magic with a small wooden box with four strings stretched across it. Their world of football and horseracing interrupted by the summer cricket obsession seemed very bland.
My father never pushed me into taking up the violin. He didn’t need to. He knew that his playing would do that for him. He knew that if he made me a part of his musical world, I would be seduced by the sheer power and beauty of it all. When I started asking about how the instrument was able to produce a particular sound or what the name of his current piece was, he knew I was working up to the day when I would ask him to teach me.
When I finally asked him, it was something almost casual. The same sort of request as when a son asks a father to take him fishing or how to hammer a nail for the first time. I was too young to realise the absolute joy and pride he must have felt when I popped the question. At five years old, the world is immediate. There is no future or no past. I did not understand that I was asking to be taken on a long and difficult journey that would sweep me to the depths of despair and the heights of personal aggrandisement. I did not realise that the violin would become my talisman, my passport to places I never dreamed of and a way of meeting some magnificent humans.
At five years of age, I began to climb the mountain that was the violin. Each day, he would give me a lesson on my toneless quarter size instrument. Very quickly, I learned that the magic was not something bestowed on you like Cinderella’s slipper. This magic required hours of blood, sweat and tears before anything good happened. My sound was closer to the whining of a cat interspersed with the squawking of cockatoos than the golden tones of my father. After a few weeks, I had had enough and I told my father I wanted to stop.
He seemed as unsurprised at my request to stop playing as when I asked him to teach me. Calmly, he told me that it was out of the question and I would continue whether I liked it or not. One day I would thank him for his persistence and lack of compromise. I resigned myself to struggling with the now horrible thing but eventually it and me started to get along. On rare occasions, I actually enjoyed it.
As my father’s reputation as a superlative violinist spread throughout the area, the number and quality of his students increased. It reached a pinnacle when Sir Bernard Heinz, the chief examiner at the Conservatorium in Melbourne arrived at our housing commission home in an amazingly opulent car to examine my father’s students. During the examination, mum entertained Sir Bernard’s attractive female chauffer while dad paced up and down outside the exam room. On leaving, Sir Bernard was generous in his praise of my father’s success and insisted that should ever he decide to move to Melbourne, he should call on Sir Bernard.
My father’s well attended pro bono performances at local fundraisers and his revered place in the newly formed Wangaratta Artists Society made him quite the celebrity. He represented a direct link to the highest forms of European culture. My mother and father had used their ability to speak many European languages to survive during the Second World War and the years of refugee camps that followed. In Wangaratta, they now became highly sought after as translators and as a welcoming presence to those European migrants who had followed them from the nearest refugee camp at Bonegilla to the rural haven of gorgeous Wangaratta. Those fellow migrants and their new found friends who were musical were particularly welcome in our home and for a while the salon afternoons that that had thrilled them in post war Amsterdam blossomed again in our modest lounge room.
When my father was at home, the radio was always tuned to 3AR which broadcast a smorgasbord of light and heavy music classics. When he was out, mum listened to the local station 3NE. My mum and I would discover the ‘popular’ artists of the time. Patsy Cline, Slim Dusty, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis became the wicked secret we shared. This music had qualities I had never experienced in ‘classical’ music. It was loud, vocal, percussive and American. It made me feel different, free and strange. The sound qualities were really foreign to the ‘classical’ palette. When ‘classical’ sounds were present in these songs they were always secondary to the vocalist or they were used on tunes that were ‘bluesy’. I had no idea of blues at the time but it was used as a catch all word for ‘non European’ and it – along with the vocal twang of Elvis, Williams and Lewis – took me to places I only had been to when I went to the movies.
Occasionally, in Wang’s main drag Murphy Street I’d see people my parents referred to as ‘bodgies’. They wore clothes copied from American teenage movies, their hair was long, greasy and swept into ducktails. They chewed gum and smoked cigarettes. They favoured American cars and motorbikes. My parents were horrified. The perceived menace they felt took them back to their war experience when the Hitler youth had cart blanche to rough up anyone they thought was different. Soon this could happen in dear old Wang. If the truth be known, it was the ‘bodgies’ who were more often on the receiving end of violence meted out to them by the local farm boys who resented their attractiveness to their sisters and their mothers at the local dances. All the ‘bodgies’ wanted was to be left alone to enjoy their own culture in peace. Curiously, the ‘bodgies’ seemed to like the same music as mum and I. A few years later, my father wrote an article for the local paper lambasting this new music. He described it as a ‘cancer’ that would infect our communities and stop young people from dedicating their potential artistry to the highest ideal – European classical music. He was right, but little did he know that eventually his son would also succumb to the disease.
Non- classical music was definitely taboo most of the time and the few times it was even mentioned in my father’s presence he deemed it universally ‘stupid’. He couldn’t understand why anyone would go to the trouble to learning music if they weren’t playing the ‘great’ music. Many years later, I found my father was not averse to playing double bass and alto saxophone in this ‘stupid’ medium when it paid well. He played in the locally legendary ‘Ron Barber Band’ with the best big band players of the area and they could really swing at the Wangaratta Workers Club or at the big dances in Myrtleford and Glenrowan.
Each Saturday night my father would pack his giant double bass into our tiny 1956 Morris Minor and travel down a long dusty road to a hall full of farm people. There, he and an energetic drummer would lay down a resolute beat on which the saxes could scream, the piano would tinkle and the occasional vocalist would croon. Some nights he’d make more money than his entire wage at the mill.
One day in 1960, the two musics came together in our ‘hallowed’ music room when he hosted a rehearsal of the country and western hit for Johnny Ashcroft called ‘Little Boy Lost’. The rehearsal featured the best ‘non classical (stupid?)’ musicians in the area. They were preparing for the big 3NE talent quest which was to be broadcast ‘live’ from the new St Patrick’s Hall in downtown Wang. My father on double bass, tried hard to disguise the fact that he really enjoyed his sojourn into the depths of ‘stupid’ music. I was allowed to sit in the room and watch the musicians rehearse in ways I had never experienced in classical music. Nobody read the music from a stand. There was an electric guitar and drum kit – two instruments I had heard on the radio but had never heard ‘live’. The musicians didn’t look anxious like the typical ‘classical’ musicians often looked before they played. Our modest furniture was banished to other rooms to make space. On that hot summer’s day, with a room full of popular musicians and their exotic instruments and attitudes, the windows were thrown open and the blinds pulled back. Neighbourhood kids came up to the windows, peered in, smiled and started to dance. People were actually laughing.
Pure sound, pure joy, pure love of music.
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Henry Vyhnal is a music teacher, performer and concert director. He has played and recorded with a wide variety of musicians including Nick Cave, Stephen Cummings and Joe Camilleri during the explosion of Australian original music in the mid to late1970’s. Henry is accomplished in a variety of musics including classical, country, jazz, world music and punk.
As well as teaching music at Kyneton Secondary College he is the Music and Program Director for MITCH (Music in the Central Highlands), an organisation that supports emerging young musicians through the provision of performance opportunities and funding.