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Still Life with Goanna?

September, 2010
By Anthony Marshall

It’s odd that Melbourne, a city of nearly four million inhabitants, has no secondhand bookstore specializing in music. There used to be one a couple of kilometres from my shop, Well Read Books and Music, but it closed down about seven years ago. Hoisted with its own petard perhaps; its petard being a particularly feeble pun printed over its front door and on its trade card: “The music bookshop in the ’art of Brunswick.”

Or perhaps it had to do with the upright piano that stood near the front window and was open to all comers. What was the system? Could anyone have a bash? In any style? Jazz, classical, honky-tonk, chopsticks? I went there quite often but I never saw (or heard) the piano in action. I always intended to ask Helen Benny if she had to kick people off it or ask them to quiete down a bit. Surely someone thumping the goanna (as we call it—jocularly—on this continent) would put customers off? Drive them mad even? But now she’s gone, and it’s too late. And it’s too late to ask anything of Ken Snell, who had a music bookshop in Malvern about twenty years ago, because he’s dead. By his own hand, sadly. Ken knew pretty much everything about music and the history of music in Australia. Which (you may say) isn’t much but it was a lot more than you or I know, or will ever know. Helen bought up Ken’s business and transferred it to the suburb of Brunswick on this, the edgy, arty, side of town. But it didn’t flourish. So now, for secondhand music, Melbourne is pretty much a black hole.

How can this be? It’s not that Melbourne is an unmusical city. On the contrary, it is a very musical city. The place is awash with musicians and singers and music teachers and always has been. The most famous of them all is Helen Mitchell, better known to the world as Nellie Melba. Her surname pays quiet homage to the city of her birth, where many fine buildings were constructed by her father, David Mitchell. And the tradition of good singers (and good building) lives on. So how come this niche market has not been cornered by someone with a bit of wit, musical know-how and entrepreneurial flair? By someone like me? Indeed, why not by me?

On the face of it, I am a likely lad. I have dealt in music, albeit as a sideline, for all my bookselling life. My advertising board and my bookmarks proclaim: “Secondhand books and music bought and sold.” Wherein, already, lurks a problem. Almost every day someone comes in and asks where the CDs or the records are. Only they say “discs” or “vinyl” nowadays instead of “records”. “We don’t sell them,” I say. “But it says you sell music.” “Only scores and sheet music. And mainly classical.” “Oh.” And the person shuffles out, disappointed and mildly disgruntled. Surely everyone knows that secondhand music means vinyl or plastic, not bits of paper?

It’s a problem even to get hold of these bits of paper. The world of musicians (“musos” is what we call them) is pretty much hermetically sealed. If you’re an outsider you don’t have much chance. If you want to get hold of good music for the saxophone, say, then you’d better be a saxophonist, or be sleeping with one, and preferably a dead one (I could put this more elegantly, so as not to appear to condone necrophilia but you get my drift). When the dead muso’s scores and sheet music are up for grabs, then the insiders are “in like Flynn” (as we say here).

I bought a whole heap of music a few years ago. From the widow of a man who had been principal French horn in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Now, I know a bit about the French horn. I used to play it myself. I was enchanted by the horn. Not just by the mellow fruitfulness of the sound, but by the look of it, all those gleaming golden curls and coils. As a youngster I’d heard Michael Flanders singing his song about playing the horn: “I once had a whim and I had to obey it, to buy a French horn in a secondhand shop; I took that horn home and I started to play it, despite all my neighbours who begged me to stop!” And so on. All set to the music of the Rondo movement of Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto. (If you don’t know the songs of Flanders and Swann they are worth seeking out). Well, notwithstanding my brassy background, I found this horn music a bit of a devil to sell. I said as much to a customer who had selected a couple of items. “It’s no wonder,” he said. “We all had a good pick through and got the good stuff as soon as he died. You just got the left overs.”

 There’s another problem. Sheet music is darned hard to display. You can’t just jam it spine-on into the shelves. It has to be presented face-on. Either in custom-made racks or display units (“gondolas” is the technical jargon, I believe) or in some other enticing way. Because, if you handle it sympathetically, sheet music can be very enticing. All those engraved or chromolithographic front covers. But sympathetic handling costs, in terms of time and space. So there are various cheapskate options. Either you leave the music lying flat in piles. (These piles will rapidly deteriorate). Or you distribute it in large folders, with contents clearly marked on the covers. (The folders are secured with ties or ribbons, which customers in theory tie up again when they have finished browsing. But they never do.) The third option—my preferred option—is to deposit the music, face-on, in cardboard boxes of convenient size, with just enough space to allow the music to slope backwards at an angle of 70 degrees. Yes, at exactly 70 degrees. This is no random figure plucked out of the air, but calculated after exhaustive testing by two Ph.D students at the Melbourne School of Bibliopoly as being the optimum “angle of repose” for sheet music being retailed in a cardboard carton.

Whatever the method used, your sheet music will soon become a mess. The floor area round about will resemble the confetti-strewn forecourt of a church after a wedding. Sheet music is usually fragile and flaky, printed on the lowest-quality blotting-paper that the great musical publishers think they can get away with. Even when handled with care (and I don’t issue customers with white gloves) sheet music sheds itself like dandruff.

And every job lot of sheet music that I have ever purchased has involved me at the outset in hours of painstaking paper conservation work. Using a roll of masking tape, of non-archival quality, I fix up the split spines, torn pages and dog-eared edges. And after a few months I have to go back and do it all again. And the bottom shelves of my store room are choked with yet more piles of injured sheet music, still waiting patiently after the first triage for care and attention. It’s a horrible job, which I keep putting off and which for some reason I feel unable to delegate to my assistant surgeons.

What is not horrible is “dressing” the shop window with music. Two or three times a year my left-hand window gets music as its theme And—this is my variation—I embellish the display of books, scores and sheet music with real musical instruments, artistically arranged. I make use of my resident quintet: trumpet, violin, French horn, tambourine, acoustic guitar. (Until recently it was sextet, but the trombone recently returned to its owner, my son, who like all true Marshall males has the brass-playing gene). The flashing brass and burnished wood are guaranteed to catch the eye of folk passing by and get them to stop and inspect the display.

What I love much more than dealing in sheet music, more than displaying it, more than selling it even, is music itself. The real thing. Listening to it, on the radio, on CDs, live at concerts. But above all doing it. Singing in a choir, for example. Since the age of eight I have sung in some choir or other. Currently I sing with the Gisborne Singers, a four-part harmony choir, situated about 45 minutes drive out of Melbourne, on the way to Bendigo. “Wow, that’s a long way to drive every Tuesday evening for rehearsals,” people say. But it really isn’t. And it is no hardship because I love the choir and the music that we sing. And what’s more I’m a tenor and we stick together. When I moved back to Melbourne a year or two ago I wasn’t going to desert my fellow tenors. Though “fellow” is perhaps misleading here, as our choir is unusual in having two female tenors in its ranks. (An interesting word “tenor”. It derives from the Latin, or the Italian, “tenere” meaning “to hold”. So a tenor, or tenore, is a “holder”, someone who holds something. Holds what? In opera the tenor, if he is lucky, gets to hold the soprano. At our more modest level, I maintain that the tenors simply hold the choir together.)

We just had a special concert to celebrate the founding of our choir thirty years ago. The program began with “Serenade to Music” by English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is a sublime work, composed in 1938, the words taken from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” specifically from Act 5, Scene One where—surprising in a play largely about something else—there is a lengthy discussion on music, its power, its beauty and where it comes from. Some of the poetry is exceptionally beautiful, as for example when Lorenzo says to his beloved Jessica: “How sweet the moonlight sits upon this bank. Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.”

Other choral items were folk songs by Brahms (sung in German), an Australian folk song by Melbourne-born composer Percy Grainger, a medley from “Phantom of the Opera” and, to finish, a rollicking song by Aaron Copland “Ching a Ring Ching Chaw” which some of you must know, these words representing the strumming of stringed instruments in (American?) heaven, possibly banjos but more probably harps. This program was rather light fare compared with our usual repertoire of oratorios, requiems, chorales and glorias. But it was enjoyable to perform and was well received. Why would one hundred and fifty people bestir themselves on a Sunday afternoon in winter to go and listen to an amateur choir in a country church? Partly out of loyalty to friends and family, certainly, but partly too because to experience live music in performance is still something special, quite different from listening to recorded music. As someone said to me: “When you are at a live concert you are breathing the same air as the performers and that just makes it special.” Rather like buying a book in a bookshop rather than on-line. Or music in a music shop.

I know what I’d call my specialist music bookshop: it would be “The Well-Tempered Bookstore.” Or perhaps simply “Anna Magdalena.” From which you may infer that I am a Bach enthusiast. I am, and like many amateur pianists I like to play some Bach for a few minutes every day. Which means I must have played quite a few hours of Bach in my lifetime because the piano and I go back a very long way. More than fifty years.

It was a strange time to start learning the piano. In the 1950s, when I was a boy, it was the fashion in England to hold piano smashing competitions. Because television had arrived. The piano in the front parlor in most houses became suddenly redundant. And there was little or no demand for secondhand pianos. So all around the country, at school fêtes and country fairs, an orgy of piano smashing broke out. On village greens, on football pitches, teams of men with sledge hammers, axes, hacksaws and crowbars attacked upright pianos and reduced them to debris that had to pass through a hoop about two inches in diameter, to verify that the destruction was whole-hearted and thorough.

I witnessed a piano-smashing only once. I was shocked by it. To see two teams of grown men wantonly laying in to two defenceless uprights, to see felted hammers flying everywhere, tangles of springy piano wire, splintered wood and the black and white ivories lying slaughtered on the green grass. Now, years later, I think that it was possibly also a symbolic act, the ritual destruction of repressive Victorian values, embodied in the piano, which deserved to be taken out on to the village green by right-thinking English yeomen and smashed. Decades of primness, prudery and piety in the parlor, of hypocrisy and violence, of empire, wars and colonialism. All this projected on to the piano, around which families prayed and sang hymns and parlor songs of fervent faith and patriotism. But the craft that went into an upright piano! All gone in a twinkling. And a tinkling. How very sad it was.

It was also very sad to be taught piano by Miss Eileen Voyce, my first teacher. By some quirk of fate, her name was only one consonant removed from that of an Australian-born concert pianist, of great renown in England at that time, Miss Eileen Joyce. But Miss Voyce was, I suspect, a whole alphabet removed from Miss Joyce in temperament, ability and looks. She was simply a dragon. It’s a wonder I survived. I am certain that Miss Voyce disliked children, teaching and the piano, in more or less that order. But she was a spinster, and her mother a piano teacher, so what else was she to do? And now I look back, I feel a little sorry for her. What a life.

It’s a strange instrument, the piano. Not like any other. A violin you can snuggle into, nestling your chin against it; a cello you embrace with your knees; a French horn you cradle, one hand intimately within its bell; with all wind instruments you breathe your breath into them, your lips forming the correct embouchure. How intimate is that? But a piano, an upright piano, stands there in front of you, a great block of wood and technology, the keyboard like a great elongated grin, impudently daring you, challenging you to make something of it. You can prod it and it will respond. But to make it live and vibrate with passion you have to explore it, caress its keys with your fingertips. You can fondle a piano but you cannot embrace it, snuggle into it, breathe your breath into it. And if you try to give your soul to it, it may or it may not respond.

 And what a feat of hand-eye-brain co-ordination it is to make the music happen. You look at the printed page. A complicated code of lines and dots, in black and white, like swallows on telephone wires, waiting to be deciphered, decoded, and translated from theory and the realm of intellect into action and feeling, by brain and heart and hands. What a invention of genius, this business of notation, with its staves and bar lines, its key signatures and time signatures, its sharps and flats and accidentals. The impressive gravity of the breve and the semi-breve; the scurrying of hemi-demi-semi quavers. All this requiring to be processed within our little brain and interpreted with eight fingers and two thumbs. Sometimes we are required to grab whole handfuls of notes at once, eight or ten different ones at a time, every finger and thumb employed, at full stretch. And there are bars and bars, and pages and pages of these notes, ever-changing, swirling before our eyes, thick and black on the page.

I have wrestled with the piano and piano music, had a love-hate relationship with it for fifty years. I can’t live without it, but when I live with it, it almost drives me to despair. It took five men to lug the upright piano up the stairs here to my flat above the bookshop. And now it’s here I have no excuse not to play it. And I do play it. At least out of shop hours, so as not to disturb the customers below. But the truth is I’m not much good. And never will be much good. But I battle on because, as we used to say in England, “a thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” I admit that the more I practice the better I get. There is no doubt about it. Researchers discovered that the top ten percent of piano students at, I think, the Julliard School are better than the next ten percent of piano students simply because they practice twice as much. So it’s scientifically proven. And a famous pianist (I forget who, but I heard him on the radio the other day) said: “If I don’t practice for one day, then I notice it. If I don’t practice for two days, then my friends notice it. And if I don’t practice for three days, then my audiences notice it.”

I’m only a bumbling amateur but the same applies to me. But I never do have an audience. I shrivel up when required to play in front of people. My hands and my innards turn to jelly. I know why too, because I have read lots of books, such as “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey, about nerves and performance. Excessive nervousness has partly to do with insufficient preparation and concentration but mostly it’s to do with incorrect mental attitude. It’s a question of letting go the ego, the self-consciousness and the vanity which wants an audience to be impressed by your playing. All the performer should be concerned with is with letting the music speak or sing, so that he (or she) and the audience “become the music while the music lasts.” Yes, I understand the theory. But to put it into practice?

Meanwhile I struggle on. Why on earth do I bother? Because to make music, to create sound actively, is for me a form of relaxation and sometimes even of meditation, a private way of reaching that special divine realm where music dwells. And from whence music comes. The realm which Pythagoras and Plato referred to when they talked of “the music of the spheres.” Paul Klee said that painting is the art of “making the invisible visible.” Equally, music might be said to be the art of “making the inaudible audible.” Shakespeare gets Lorenzo to make this very point in “The Merchant of Venice” when he says that every planet and star “in his motion like an angel sings” and that immortal souls too contain such harmony, unheard by us here on earth : “Whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

The great classical composers, Bach, Mozart, Beeethoven, Stravinsky could hear this harmony of the heavens and had no doubt that their musical creativity was a gift from God. And for many people it is a given that hearing great music is a spiritual experience, which links them to a higher world, the world of the sacred, beyond the material world. The experience perhaps that Tennyson describes: “Music which gentler on the spirit lies, than tired eyelids on tired eyes.”

This is not a matter which is provable, I suspect, nor disprovable. And I do not care anyway. We are all entitled to our belief or our unbelief. In my shop there hangs in the doorway a poster from an organization called SoFiA: (Sea of Faith in Australia) which “is not a church, but a network of people who are seeking a radical reappraisal of past religious traditions in order to meet today’s spiritual challenges. The Network affirms the continuing importance of religious thought and practice, even though it acknowledges that religion, like art and poetry, is a purely human creation.” I think they forgot to insert the word “music” between “art” and “poetry”. In any case, I think they are quite wrong. And I am quite bewildered by the word “Faith” in the name of their organization. Isn’t faith precisely what you have when you believe in things not made by man, things which you cannot see, touch or prove? Like God, and the divine inspiration of great poetry, art and music?

A few months ago a couple came into my shop, speaking German. We soon got talking. It turned out that they were a hybrid couple, Maureen from Melbourne having married Ulrich from Freiburg. Before very long, we decided we liked the look of one another. They wanted to spend two months in Melbourne in September and October; I thought I could happily spend two months in Freiburg learning German. Why not do a swap?

They went upstairs and inspected my flat. It would do very nicely, they thought. But why not sleep on things, before deciding, then meet for a coffee the next day? “An excellent idea” I said. “But tell me one thing. Do you have a piano in your flat in Freiburg? You see I’m not sure I could last eight weeks without a piano.” “No we don’t” said Maureen. “But my best friend is Professor of Piano at the Hochschule at The University of Freiburg. I’m sure she could arrange something.”

That evening I went to sing with my choir. I sat next to Margaret, my fellow tenor, and told her of my plan to go to Freiburg. “Aha” she said, “one of my best friends is Professor of Piano at the Hochschule at the University of Freiburg. We were at the Conservatorium in Melbourne together.” It was indeed the same person, Professor Betty Vergara-Pink, who must be a very fine musician indeed, because they don’t hand out professorships in piano in Germany to just anybody.

Next day I told my new friends from Freiburg that I had received a “sign” to go ahead with the exchange. Meanwhile they had decided too that it was a good idea. So now we are all set. In a few weeks I am off to Germany, the land of great music and great musicians. And two days after we agreed to embark upon this mild adventure, I bought over the counter in my shop a handsome nineteenth century song book, Edmund Parlow’s “Instruktives Lieder-Album” published in Braunschweig, Germany around 1880. Inside, on the front pastedown, is the original bookseller’s label: Max Liebers Musikhaus, Freiburg.

Marshall’s Music House, Melbourne? It’s not going to happen. I’m happy dabbling in selling music, in the same way that I’m happy dabbling at playing the piano and singing in my choir. I don’t want to get too serious about any of it. I don’t think I could live without music. But I couldn’t live without silence either. Which is one reason why you won’t ever hear music—or ever see an upright piano—in my shop.

Anthony Marshall is owner of Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and author of “Fossicking for Old Books” (Melbourne, 2004).