25 MARCH 2006, Page 42

Painful listening

Robin Holloway

Back yet again in the dentist’s chair last week, where time compresses, yet elongates, into infinite present as if there were no events or memories in-between each visit. No ‘laughing gas’ these days (‘breathe deep: now blow it away — one, two, three’). Consciousness is unbroken, every sense screwed to its highest pitch the swish of suction is Niagara, the whiff of sulphur in the oral salves, the rubber gloves against the gums, a personal affront, the battering at one’s ivories like Nibelungs at the rockface; and the pain dull or acute — an amplified sopranissimo saxophone with lasar attachment at the threshold of perception.

Thus the foreground. The background is classical music. My courteous torturer placated my supposed tastes with Mozart’s Greatest Hits, an end-to-end loop of incongruous juxtapositions that would have had me roaring in protest had I not been pinioned supine on the deceptively easy chair. It began with The Magic Flute overture, continued with the slow movement of the clarinet concerto, upon whose suave calm the dies irae from the Requiem burst in like the unnamable stranger in Larkin’s ‘Aubade’. After this, the record was lost in professional noise, desisting for momentary snatches of anonymous rococo chit-chat — the side of Mozart unkindly but not unfairly compared by Glenn Gould to ‘an interdepartmental communication’. Next to be recognised, one of those (slightly interdepartmental) horn concertos. Then more bubble and bustle, the Figaro overture. After this The Magic Flute’s came round again. I begged for contrast and was granted, first, a huskyvoiced Haiwaiian guitar-strummer. Then an international barbershop group swooning in syrupy slurps over Neapolitan songs, to me parodistic but intended, apparently, to be both serious and sincere.

Music better fitted to the circumstances comes easily to mind — the torture scene from Tosca or the beatings-up in The Miraculous Mandarin; the excruciation of Florestan in his darksome prison, of Tristan or Parsifal in their mental and bodily anguish, the procession of nuns towards the guillotine in Poulenc’s Carmelites, Mélisande’s maddened husband dragging her to and fro by her lovely long hair, beautiful Billy Budd twisted up on the yardarm, the stigmata in Messiaen’s S. FranVois d’Assise (didn’t Stravinsky say of a previous appearance of Messiaen’s favoured onde martinot that it affected him ‘like a colonic irrigation’?), the sadistic experiments conducted by the Captain on his hapless human subject — indeed most of the rest of Wozzeck, too, and Lulu, and Germanic expressionism tout court. And even Mozart: if the trials by fire and water later in The Magic Flute seem over gentle, what about Marten alle Arten from the Seraglio, wherein its heroine declares she’ll undergo ‘torments of every sort’ before submitting to the Pasha’s libidinous designs?

‘Music for Pain’, Hans Keller’s sardonic riposte to ‘Music for Pleasure’, early straw in the wind for the general turn of Radio Three towards middlebrow palliation, takes on a more literal application than he had in mind. Recalling to mine another twist of the knife — visits to the osteopath for ‘writer’s back’, the crick familiar to all hacks clenched tight in bad postures over their desks for hours at a time, months on end. There are many such poor scholars in Cambridge; yet the best man for the job was known and loved most for his success with undergraduate sporting injuries. The walls of his salon were hung with affectionate testimonials and cartoons from the rugger players (mainly) who’d been restored to prowess by this huge hulking Yorkshireman, his fingers big as sausages yet extraordinarily sensitive in locating the nub of trouble, then bearing down on it with his full 20 stone till it clicked into true.

He, too, had a tape of music for pain, whose function was to drown out the groans and grunts of effort and anguish marking his deliberate progress through the curtained compartments from mattress to mattress. The only piece I recall is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, onomatopoeic in title if not in substance for the racking wrench of re-articulation and the dreaded ‘extension machine’, throwing up images, as one reeled off it gasping with weakness, of horrendous German devices for the correction of heresy and morals.

Yet Huge Henry was no Iron Maiden! His benevolence beamed from every pore. When the tape had run out of musical comforts, he would hum, buzz, boom, like a colossal bumble-bee, in a deep rumbling growl; tuneless — indeed virtually pitchless — yet exuding health and sanity to the world. One followed his rounds by the proximity of the invisible sound, till finally the bee bumbled into one’s own cubicle. The heat-swathed siesta was over, the chicken softened and basted in its own sweat, ready to be tossed and pummelled back into shape.

Different, but comparable, the music supplied in aeroplanes to reassure anxious passengers at take-off and touchdown. In my experience. The sheer inanity of the pop-strains, usually regarded as appropriate on major lines, merely adds to the nervous tension. The zany charm of smaller companies is otherwise. I recall a service between minor capitals in the US where the hostess, in-between volleys of bright update on her personal life and the state of the world, served up lavish dollops of Savoy operetta — ‘I’m just crazy right now about this groovy pair! Didja know that Gilbert and George [sic] never made out at a personal level?’ (Etc.) Or one of the many local flights linking remote Scottish airfields, where the tape of smoothe comfort-ye uplift had a recurring glitch inducing a Technicolor tartan retch so disturbing to the balance as to put at nought the very real perils of a landing amid the impassive highland cattle.