Saturday, April 16: This is my last, and perhaps briefest, entry for this trip – and, given the circumstances of its being drafted (on the long haul home) it will be rather late appearing on the CMH website. The place and time at which this entry starts are, in fact, just prior to my last blog – space didn’t allow inclusion there of my ‘alternative’ academic outing. So, on Monday last, during a misty evening out in Company Bay on the Peninsula, at the stylish modern harbourside home of Donald and Stella Cullington (British ex-pats, Stella a GP and Don an academic musician at Belfast, classics scholar, translator and some-time organist at Dunedin’s Cathedral) I was privileged to present some conjectures on music, medicine and embodiment to a coffee-table conversation that included Don and Stella, myself, Otago colleague Neil Pickering – who just happens to be their son-in-law – and Peter Adams, a wonderful clarinettist and lecturer in Otago’s department of music. What united us was I think a willingness to suppose that music (perhaps more strongly and directly than the other arts) points to something beyond our ordinary experience. My suggestion was that the important questions about the therapeutic uses of music concern not how it works but why it works – what music’s ‘existential’ role is in our lives and self-experience. Roughly, music echoes not emotion but, more simply and more generally, just motion – movement – representing a constant in our embodied nature (think of the rhythms ‘natural’ to our size, limb-lengths, heart-volumes) and a constant in the universe independent of our attention to it (think of the almost brazenly-simple mathematical relations found in harmonics). Perhaps – so I suggested – it is almost truer to say that we in our embodiment are about music and its possibilities, than that music is about us or our emotional and other aspects.
Now there can and must be powerful objections to this way of thinking, and I must at some stage face up to them. Yet be all of this as it may, musical experience has a kind of will-not-be-denied immediacy that commands our especial attention; and during the course of the evening we duly paid especial attention to a very precise ‘quantum’ of music, in the form of some repeated left-hand octaves in Busoni’s extraordinary transcription of a piece by Bach, the ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Triple Fugue for organ. The opening of this music enunciates – almost as though it were for the first time in anyone’s hearing – the fundamentals of so-called western diatonic music, and the repeated octaves together with the harmonies they underlie have a kind of freestanding presence, a thing-ness, an ipseity (to borrow a term normally reserved for the exclusive particularity of individual people) that bespeaks a universe alive and bristling with its own joyous articulate reality. And, I increasingly feel, it is through music that we glimpse it…
The trouble is that it is next to impossible to write this down free of the appearance of lunacy. Perhaps it is to this that an interest in music, medicine, embodiment and above all wonder ineluctably brings one, in the end. So from here let me segue without effort into the stridently darker side of lunacy. For all practical purposes, most of the time, this part of the world appears idyllic. But in 1990, twenty kilometres or so from Dunedin in the sleepy settlement of Aramoana (Maori for ‘gateway to the sea’) a man who believed himself to be persecuted took a gun to his neighbours and killed thirteen innocents before eventually being shot dead by police, a full day and night after he first began turning his and others’ lives horribly awry. There is a powerfully and disturbingly un-dramatic film of these events, which should happen nowhere and especially not in tranquil and beautiful Otago, called Out of the Blue, and it is salutary watching for anyone who thinks they understand why bad things happen to good people. Aramoana nestles on a spit of land that partly locks-off the entrance to Otago Harbour; opposite it, at the end of the peninsula on the eastern shore, Royal albatrosses come ashore to nest and breed on Taiaroa Head. An artificial mole drives north-east from the spit to hold back the silt from the deepwater fairway. From the hills to the west the whole panorama stretches out like a lovingly-worked quilt, a detailed study in innocence in which nothing approaching New Zealand’s worst-ever massacre could possibly happen, or so one feels when looking at it from on high.
Which I did – briefly and frantically – from the cockpit of a delicious little Mazda two-seat convertible roadster as James Lindsay (see previous Travelogue instalments) and I roared irresponsibly around the wet and greasy hill-roads above Port Chalmers and Blueskin Bay on my last afternoon’s work (work?) in a literal joy-ride, a form of desk-clearing that sets new standards for impact and effectiveness. James was kind enough to let me take the wheel; I was kind enough to use the middle pedal occasionally (or, rather, the left-hand pedal – the car is, improbably, an automatic). It was colossal fun. I’m endlessly in his debt. I think he’s still speaking to me.
And so to my closing scene, airborne. Between Wellington and Auckland we found ourselves at a cruising altitude exactly midway between two layers of stratus (sheet-like) cloud, in the clear air that they sandwiched. Suddenly the sun swung below the distant rim of the upper cloud-layer and shone, unmasked, into the clear interstitial space in which we hung. It lit up the upper face of the cloud above us, and the lower face of that below, so that we were spinning precociously around the earth in a clear shell of limpid air between two pink skins of iridescent cloud. I have not seen such a thing before; an obvious and simple accident of meteorological probability, it must happen all the time somewhere or other, but not previously to me in an aeroplane at exactly the right height at exactly the right time. It brought home the irreducible ‘out-there-ness’, the almost-musical ipseity again of the world around us – and beneath us and above us – that is the backdrop to our plans and our projects and our woes. They matter; it matters; we matter; but do we always know in what proportion, or to what end?
On such altered perceptions turn our ideas of reality and of wonder. So this was a wonderful trip in which I thought about wonder, wondered about wonder, and became overtaken by wonder. I hope to write some of it down a little more sensibly soon; but beyond that, I can’t wait to go back.