Title: Musica Ficta

Author: Anne Kennedy

In: Sport 1: Spring 1988

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1988, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 1: Spring 1988

from Musica Ficta — an allegory of hearing

page 91

from Musica Ficta
an allegory of hearing

(An excerpt containing a man and a woman, and another woman, and another man disguised as a band of men, all within the Age of Chivalry to the Black Death)


He set out to write about her but instead he has written of himself, or perhaps it was she who wrote of him.


The most difficult thing of all was, at the age of eight, a boy, a reader of fairy tales, becoming a vagabond prince, leaving the castle, roaming the countryside, singing and playing and living the life of a simple jongleur. He wore tassels and bells, his shoes pointed upwards towards the stars, and his trousers were of the most sumptuous streetmap.


(Hildegard, her blessed soffit)

Halfway between Heaven and Earth, in a convent cell the size of her thoughts, St Hildegard of the 12th Century, the tenth child of a family of ten, was given as a tythe for the glory of God (and everything shall be given, not just a tythe of the cHild Hildegard, but everything of her, and everything was). And thus walled up at the age of eight, together with her tutor, a woman who had once had similar status, Hildegard discovered that if she gazed at her thoughts long enough, the ceiling became covered in the most astonishing pictures! For years she did not tell anyone what was contained there, for fear that she would be page 92burnt at the stake. And anyway was it not better to let them wonder than for them to know (the astonishments, that is, of their existence)?


(A Middle cHild)

Asked why he took up the sackbut — after all an instrument of the Middle Ages — when such a young boy, he replies he has always wanted to be jongleurs.

And in the Middle Ages there is more than one age. His greatest desire is to be the middle jongleur of a troupe, and also the first of them and also the third, and also perhaps the intervals between them. His middle ear is highly developed. He has pluperfect pitch, and has no trouble walking in a straight line across a room (the room of the woman, past her bed. She stifles a yawn, having studied yawns; she has studied indifference until she knows all its particulars).

But there is but one sackbut and that is not enough for a troupe of musicians, especially of way back then. There is always a problem. Oh the difficulty of everything!


(A cloud encounters a soffit)

Sometimes he wants to be thought a cloud, so he makes nonsensical answers, the answers a cloud might make. For instance, when someone asks him the time he says, 'I like piano concertos,' because that is what he would like at that time of day.

In the meantime she, containing a small soffit, recites, 'Saint Cloud upon which 1 will build my church!'


(The possessions of the Church the passions of the Church)

As surely as Rome was not Constantinople, in the Dark Ages one performance of plainsong was very different from the next. Music, whenever it was brought into this world, was a new creation, an improvisation based on certain codes of musical etiquette according to a book a prominent socialite had written on the subject — the behaviour of the text, to the glory of God; but not the same glory (and very probably, not the same God).

page 93

Then in the Middle of these Dark Ages, St Gregory of the Neumes and of the Fields of Sleeves Sliding Across Pages, a dove came and spoke into his ear, words of divine inspiration, plainsong chants for the even greater glory of God; and he was, after all, Gregory the Great, and he wrote these chants down in the system of musical notation that had miraculously visited him, and he called them Gregorian Chance, after a board game called Monopoly they played about the palace in the evenings, and after himself; the way music has fallen and where it has fallen to, or rather, to whom. With Gregory, Rome had become the centre of the Church, and the Church the centre of everything, and now everything shall include music, the wind, the way atoms fell, etcetera.

So music became a fixed object, a possession of the Church together with its lands and treasures and counter-tenors; existing on parchment of its nomenclature, as well as existing in the air like the wings of a dove. And the passage of music was plotted upon charts along with the movements of moods and of winds, and ever after, music, moods and winds, blew according to these diagrams, in the possession of the Church.

And possessions are the difference between being here and not being here. But because of the nature of notes, their playfulness, their natural wanderlust as they look for exits from this world, Rome, under Gregory, was seen to have tamed notes (as it had tamed roads, souls, words) and bridged the gap between Heaven and Earth.

And this was how Gregory achieved his greatness.


     (Gregory the)

          How Great
          Thou Art



page 94

(The Cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

In his youth he was once focus-puller on a short film Death, and the woman was the focus of his attention. The film came out blurred, but she was of the utmost clarity.


     A job he found
          became him

          it suited him
          down to the ground

          he was buried there
          with it.


(The meeting of ends)

He travels every day to a factory on the outskirts of town and to pass the time during the journey he reads from miniature musical scores borrowed from a musical library. One day when he happens to look up from a well-known cadence of the pluperfect persuasion (If only I had had. . . !) he notices several of the other passengers in the bus are reading scores also, keeping in time with the tapping of a foot, the trapezing of a finger. The result is a complex rhythm, quite by chance, or by opportunity, rather than the predictability of the notated Gregorian variety. But the bus company, perceiving an overall plan in the order of this randomness, has thought to fix music stands to the backs of the seats so their patrons can better turn the pages without missing a beat.

The prince nods civilly at Arthur Rubinstein, a nodding acquaintance, who also happens to be looking up from the score he is reading, just across the aisle. Rubinstein is on his way to his job in the light industrial zone which he needs to make ends meet. However, he once confessed to the prince, in a burst of emotion as they waited together at the bus stop on a cold morning, stamping their feet and clapping their gloved hands in a muffled applause, that his real passion was the piano.

In the factory the prince is engaged in the manufacture of china ballet dancers, shepherds, string quartets of monkeys in red vests, page 95basketsful of roses, living room furniture complete with pianos, and single china shoes the size a fairy might wear. Sometimes he believes these objects — the factory, the bus trip to and from it, Arthur Rubinstein and the members of the orchestra, the molecular structure that allows a note to exist (even when it is imagined), that also allows china to exist — to be a mina miracle. This until he happens to glimpse a shadow box, life-size, upon a living room wall, the way people move about stiffly when it is cold, in the criss-cross patterns cast by the emptiness of their trellis gardens in the winter.

When he has finished a batch of ballerinas he dispatches them to the tinting department where they are painted in various shades of ballerina and also of ballet dancer. He is very bored.

Oh how boring his life is! He is so bored that at morning tea time he tells his workmates, 'I am in love!' but this makes no impact, so he tells them he is a jongleur in the South of France, but that is no more to the point.

Instead, to amuse himself, every time he sees a pink ballerina coming off the end of the production line, he sings a Middle C, because middle is what he is and middle is also what he would like to be, and also because pink is the most common colour among ballerinas and he needs a good tonic. After a while, to make variety, he decides that every time he sees a yellow ballerina he will sing an E flat, and every time he sees a blue ballet dancer (more rarely) he will sing a G natural, and that is exactly what he does. Hopping up and down this mina triad, a triumph over boredom, a little game he uses to relieve the tedium, also to relive it, the prince attempts to make sense of this world. To the same end he is writing a novelette in his spare time.

The way ends meet: once at the age of eight he became a vagabond prince because of the reading of fairy tales; now, in his present employment, it is a small matter to become a chinor one. And this affectation, as it turns out, comes in very handy.


(It is a small matter to become many of them)

Sharing a bed with her limbs they awake one morning to find an eyelash, hers, beside them on the pillow, the woman curled towards them, sleeping. They watch for a moment the to-ing and fro-ing of her eyes beneath her eyelids, and it is as if they travel back and forth in a bus to a factory for a fortnight's work in quick succession. These page 96are her dreams; they are encased in her dreams with her, inside the parentheses of her eyelashes upon pillows; the ordinariness of them compared to Musica Ficta!

Oh how monotonous this life is! Oh my collapsible dream! What they don't see, china princes, are the intricacies of the Sistine ceiling of her eyelids, nor do they hear the bombardment of notes against this ceiling from a choir of counter-tenors engaged by the Vatican. What they see is a dream confined to this bed, and it is actually very ordinary.

Upon this thought, china princes, against the homing-pigeons of their desire, step over the curve of an eyelash. They have left.

It is cold. How cold it is. In the cold their hearts are impassioned, although their bodies have barely a movement.

Their first escapade is to go to the typewriter and write a portion of the novelette which has been preoccupying their every waking Sunday evening. What does this portion have to do with their lives? Nothing. It has absolutely nothing to do with their lives and that is why it is so exciting. People used to write novels about life, and now everyone is writing novels about novels. China princes decide they will write their lives about a novelette begun eight years ago.

Looking up momentarily they discover themselves in the Dark Ages, wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, which is the current obsession. This is very much to their liking. They would rather wonder than know, especially where angels are concerned.


(The inside of her head the same as the outside)

There was once St Hildegard of the 12th Century and of the walling up of nuns and of divine inspiration, her free verse and the excesses of her plainsong, and of her hospitality to a band of jongleurs who happened to find themselves at her Abbey between the hours of daylight and daylight.

Hildegard had visions (angels dancing on the heads of pins, or falling from the sky, or clinging to the tips of the nuns' fingers as they made tapestries for the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, its soffit) but these jongleurs were not part of her visions; they were very real, or so she thought, and so they thought, holding their sackbuts to their lips.


page 97

(After Breugel: An Allegory of Hearing)

A flock of monks
descended from a dove
divine inspiration
who once suggested
texts, melodies in waiting
of the liturgy
plainsong like plain
scones, no embellishment (such
as a bunch of grapes or
quavers boiled for jelly)
nothing will cloud
their passage into this world
via the ear of the
Pope of the day
and of the Dark Ages
Gregory the Fallen From a Great
Height was his title
also Pope Gregory I am
I am and a first-year course
in the Ides of a long
march from Rome to Avignon
also St Cloud Upon Which
I Will Build My Church
and he has received
a music, the wind, all moods
for the glory of God
that is the theory and Magic
Realist is also his name
but actually these notes
their nomenclature
are the realest moments
of his entire life.


page 98

(Entering a convent: the Fifth Adventure of the Jongleurs)

In their time the nuns have all gone to fancy dress parties dressed as the woman in the streetmap, wearing an assortment of skirts, blouses and cardigans, and paying particular attention to a version of face and a matching in the matter of shoes and handbags.

At a masked ball disguised as a blessing, they stand out like sore thumbs, nuns among a crowd of religious sisters, priests, clowns, angels, nymphs and shepherds hired from the local drama society. They are accustomed to the startling prominence they have in the convent along with all the other uniformly-shaped Sisters of Mercy. Here they have nothing to do with their hands although their souls are well occupied; despite the dispensing of small mercies among the small talk of the party, the controlling of their moods, the tides, and also the weather, together with the vagaries of their dress — the nuns at this party are not a success. As it turns out their early departure is a blessing in disguise, because they must be up by 2 am for the singing of Matins.

In the early hours they sing Gregorian chant that over the centuries has been stretched into a melisma, a sequence, the singing of many notes to one syllable of text. A stave first drawn in the 7th Century has become a motorway of many lanes. Kyrie eleison can take twenty minutes to get to the end of, as the syllables try every possible route in their search for an exit from this world — but to no avail. The chapel abounds with echoes, notes returning from the marble walls and the soffits on the ceiling. The nuns, each one shrouded in a veil, feel comPassion for these poor thwarted souls, and see that despite their carryings-on they are nevertheless very beautiful, the sound of them (and everything shall be given for this beauty, even happiness), and they take them in and bring them up as their own; and they are — their own.

Jongleurs wandering about the convent garden in the early morning after a night of entertaining the women, and now being entertained by them, their melisma in the distance, discover a tree trained to grow in symmetrical strands against a warm wall. As it is nearing the end of winter the tree is covered in buds. China princes freeze momentarily when they see this, a tree with small buds, a threat to their very nature, what they are made of and therefore what is the matter with them. To keep calm they put their hands in their Chinese sleeves where there are a few stray leaves gathered once in a Domain, and they remind page 99themselves that an exhibition of warmth is after all what they have always wanted; that the approach of spring is nothing to be alarmed about.

The nuns, emerging from the chapel, a multiplicity of person pulling notes tenderly along on trainer wheels behind, have found to their delight that many hands make light bulbs.


The outpourings of his heart
the inclinations of his body an art-
form he has revealed to the woman
of no such thing of
ordinary things, also, is
one of her titles along with
coloratura soprano and everlasting
princess of everything you can think of.
When he unstops these Passionist
beliefs learned from an order
of priests — it is not just that he thinks
he is in love with her, she is
an article of his faith — she lies
back on her bed together
with a basketful of kittens
her long cigarette trailing
the remains of a novelette
she has imagined — Musica
meaning beauty
is falseness and things
are not the way they seem
they are only the way they are
and she invites him to enter
her body through her ear
divine inspiration and also a cloud
encounters a soffit. A moment before
she would not let him inside her
house (she has studied in-
Difference) he has noticed a palpable
improvement in the relationship
which swings between them
page 100a hammock one of them one day
will dive into in the arms of another
nevertheless clasping
the ornate curves of her
hair and the continuation
of her body from the last time
he touched its recesses
when he discovered that for a moment
he dominated the woman the dominant
thought in his head and was therefore
master of his own thoughts and also
a captive of them
the china figurines of court-
ly love — revisiting
this vision he remembers
the way their souls once
bounced off walls
the ball in her court.
or, she thought, in his.


(The tenor of their ways)

There is only one problem but there are many china princes and the problem therefore has many inversions. Sackbuts are sometimes a problem, the absence of them; the novelette and its age, that too, on particular days, their particles, is a problem. Anything can be a problem if you let it — is the opinion of china princes. And to this end they engage the services of an encounter-tenor.

He was once a choirboy in the Vatican City, this before the custom of castrating boy sopranos had been dispensed with. His voice was of such beauty that everything shall be given for it, and everything was. And the encounter-tenor, bereft, took all the music of the Catholic Church, from Gregory I (The Great) to Messiaen I (de Notre Dame), to his name and believed these notes were his children and he was the father of a large progeny — this until one day performing in the Sistine Chapel, and looking up at the fruit of his black seed (six billion notes upon a page) displayed in abundance on the curve of a ceiling, he realised that he had not opened his eyes, and what he saw was the miraculous reflection of his wishes.

page 101

With that the encounter-tenor left the Church and abandoned his many children to the Vatican orphanages, and now he is running encounter sessions for people who believe they have insurmountable problems. It is the encounter-tenor's creed that no problem is without its solution.

China princes, in their first session, blurt out in a counterpoint of versions, that there are many points of view but there is but one woman and they like her more than no such thing, and that is the matter with everything. The encounter-tenor says shyly that he, also, has not been without love.