31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 62


Portrait of Antwerp

Robin Holloway

Music can't paint a picture or take a photograph, and the term 'picture post- card' is commonly used derogatively, implying cheap, small, garish or faded, superficial — a touristic sound-snap of the world-famous cathedral, seafront, garden, mountain, valley. What music can do, incomparably, is evoke by means of mood and atmosphere the states of mind aroused by visual impressions. Such timeless loci as the brook scene in the Pastoral Symphony, the desire-quivering night landscape at the start of Tristan Act II and the exhausted sterility of the noonday seascape in Act III, or the rapturous dawn in Daphnis and Chloe that restores the lovers to each other are perfect proof that 'pathetic fallacy is no fallacy'.

And the many successful attempts which have been made to portray specific cities work best when they capture emotion too — the 'Paris' of Delius's tone poem, the `London' of Elgar's overture and Vaughan Williams's symphony, the 'Rome' of Respighi's fountains and pines. Debussy's city evocations remain supreme for subtlety and suggestive strength: the sullen Seine and the honk of a passing tug in Nuages, in Iberia the contrast between bright public streets and dark twisting alleys, between the scented perfumes of the night and the acrid vulgarity of the festival day. Adding another such endeavour to this tradition, I can't expect to achieve the qual- ity: but I can be more explicit about the flow of interconnection whereby an abstract musical canvas is filled with images derived from the sights, smells, tastes, maybe even touch of a great city, as well as its sounds. Possibly sounds are the least of it in my Antwerp experiences. Apart from special identifying features — a salvo of cannon at dawn and dusk, a unique peal of bells — most cities sound much the same, grinding traffic torn apart by screaming ambulances. The visual aspect is paramount. Even arriving from the airport by taxi the journey is dominated by the stone Gothick causeway along which all the trains enter and depart, and its culmination in the stupendous shed and monstrous dome of the central station, a sort of Natu- ral History Museum (with, as it happens, a living zoo clustered around one flank). This chunkiest accent of the city's buildings is taken up in further late 19th-century com- mercial erections down the main shopping street, less monumental, more florid, drip- Ping with an intoxicating riot of gilding and decorative detail, topped with further domes. The cathedral, genuine Gothic, lacy for all its size, stands aside from this main route to the second primal thrill, the broad sluggish pewtery-brown shoulder of the river Scheldt, unforgettable image of the Power latent in seeming inertia. Traversing a grand place less spectacular but more pleasing than its over-manicured big brother in Brussels, the heritage trail soon gives way to smells and sleaze — a tingling red-light quarter (unencumbered, unlike Amsterdam, with trippers goggling from their luxury charabancs) and the half- derelict outskirts of the dock area. I'd traipsed each chartered street on previous visits. More recently it was a daily walk, for the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra has Joined the Ballet in placing its new rehearsal space and offices out in what will soon enough become a bourgeois bohemia. Look your last on picturesque neglect! Northward stretch vast watersheets of docks, making a perfect complement in their land-bound formality to the slow flow of the river. The furniture of cranes and Containers is exciting though the activity seems oddly slack; one can walk for hours in Wordsworthian isolation. The relative quiet is broken more by keening gulls than the clank of the machinery so stirring to the eye. And when the wind is right one can still catch the cathedral carillon twan- gling its hourly concert. Here, already, are more than enough ingredients for a city evocation: streets both populous and empty, broad stretches of water stagnant and moving, buildings radiating relish, swagger, confident bad taste. All this lies open to the soft Flemish skies, usually wet, often enough actually raining, occasionally opening to release unexpected (almost forgotten) blue skies and a sudden flush of colour to mitigate the norm of greys, blacks, whites, beige, ochre, dun. The gilding twinkles, the bicy- cles splash up the puddles, the pedestrians take their ease. Such varying lights and weathers com- plete the constituents — no need for cul- ture! Rubens's house, Plantin-Moretus museum, even the splendid cathedral, are not rendible in music. All were taken in within the first day, constantly shifted and reformed on endless subsequent walks, notepad at the ready, as simple impressions diversified and deepened. First attempts to compose them were made in the city itself: premature, as usual. Only at a distance, recollected in tranquillity, did the impres- sions fuse to form shapes, procedures, sounds. And then all the on-the-spot jot- tings and attempted continuations came into their own.

Then earlier this month, exactly a year after completing the orchestral score, the orchestra whose style and faces I'd also had in mind played it for the audience whose city was being so avidly evoked. Belgian audiences are hard to read. There's no knowing whether they recognised their por- trait or not. But from the very first sounds I heard (a drizzly Monday early morning rehearsal) the transformation from visual to aural seemed uncannily complete (to me). Not a painting, not a photograph: rather, formalised composed sounds evok- ing place and atmosphere in such a way that stepping out into the open at the end of each windowless session made a continu- um across the translation of medium.

The streets with their changing densities and occasional outbursts of clamorous bells; the high wet skies with occasional shafts of brighter light (and a central trib- ute to the faces as well as places of the city); the deep heavy river and long vistas of docks, given chalorous utterance by a pair of accomplished saxophonists ascend- ing through baritone, tenor, alto, soprano (the invention of the sax is one of Bel- gium's tastiest contributions to the gaiety of nations); and the gradual apotheosis in which the city skyline, shimmering on the flat horizon, gradually comes nearer until one stands right beneath, gazing up with awe and amusement at the squidgy gold- tipped monuments. There's a particularly squidgy gold-tipped chord at whose every recurrence I persuade or delude myself that I can actually see/taste/touch or even smell these buildings; as well, of course, as hearing them. The conductor agreed, any- way, and my publisher: but then he's a Welshman and she's American.

`Have you been talking to Penny Junor?'