Sport 21: Spring 1998
Between flying in and out of Australia, the only flights I embarked upon were the intermittent ones into the imaginative airspaces of books. For my 21st birthday, my brother Brendan gave me a copy of For The Birds by John Cage. The American composer/writer/artist declared that he was ‘for the birds, not for the cages in which people sometimes place them’.1 This belief in creative freedom was Cage's credo, although he did have the good sense to question the romanticism of both birds and flight, noting a few years earlier:
Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression ‘free as a bird’, Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, ‘You know? They're not free: they're fighting over bits of food.’2
Ian Wedde pulled off a similar ornithological nose-dive in his poem ‘Mahia, 1978’: ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull gulped worms and shit’, while admitting, begrudgingly, ‘Oh certainly he could fly’.3 Despite page 33 appearances to the contrary, the French composer Messaien's preoccupation with birdsong was certainly no decorous affair, as his piano-crunching Catalogue d'oiseaux attests.
Living in a heavily built-up part of Sydney, the flights certain books offered were the greatest freedom. The year was bracketed at the other end by the gift from my brother of two books: Louis Zukofsky's long, baffling poem A and Wassily Kandinsky's collection of prose-poems, Sounds. As was the case with Cage, Kandinsky and Zukofsky were great mixers of music, art and literature. Kandinsky developed theories concerning synaesthesia—the exact correspondence between music and colour—to such a literal degree that he believed specific orchestral instruments matched specific colours.4
Occasionally during that year flocks of parakeets would swoop down onto our rooftop, a raucous, iridescent pink wave—confirming, you could say, these colour-sound relationships before I had ever really thought about them.