The sound of the water was the constant backdrop to everything we did that week. Tunes were played, meals cooked, conversations had, and all the time it ran over the stones into the pool, into the fishponds, in the river. Water is at the heart of Ruskin Mill, where every summer so many melodies are inspired and shared, holding in their contours something of the stone, the valley, the peace. I came there tired, parched, and found an oasis, a source of freshness and joy that bubbled up and healed me.
He was sitting alone on the wall by the pond, playing his violin, his feet dancing with every note. I could see him through the refectory window, an inscrutable, pensive figure. Everything about him is big, and solid: his curved back, his thick arm drawing the bow across the string, his shaven head. There is something ancient about him, despite his thirty-odd years: an inheritance from a mysterious past of bards and itinerant musicians. In the decade since I first met him, he has mellowed, becoming warmer, more part of the world – a father and a husband, too. He is now my tutor and friend, though still hard to know and full of contradictions. No longer the taciturn eighteen-year-old, sitting at the back of folk workshops. Yet even then he had stood out from the crowd, with his apposite comments and still, centred playing.
I moved away from the supper preparations, the snippets of conversations, the fragments of tune being committed to memory by a melodeon-player, and wandered outside to join him. He looked up as I approached, leaving his tune suspended, unfinished, mid-air.
The question had been building up in me all day, and was ready to be asked.
‘How did you make that sound, John? With the three fiddles, last night? That intertwinement sound?’ In the evening session, I had listened to the three violins: the dance-tune at the centre, two other melodies winding round it, spontaneously created, flowing like the river outside. The combined sound of the three instruments caught me in its spell and inspired in me an urgent need to know how it was made.
‘You just play a third above the tune and it usually works’, he smiled.
‘But you’re doing more than that, it’s not as simple as that’, I said. ‘And anyway’, I added, ‘you’re not playing a third above.’
I had tried to join in, to find my place in their music, but my attempts had been clumsy and frustrating. I needed to find out what it was that eluded me.
‘You’re making those tunes live and I don’t know how you’re doing it. If I play them with a friend, it just sounds like one of us is playing the tune round and round and the other is doing variations. It doesn’t intertwine. And after a while it gets boring.’
He looked serious now, as if he knew this was close to my heart and he wasn’t going to treat it lightly. We were on this course to change, to find the place within each of us where we inhabit these tunes – no rules, no striving to impress, just playing from deeply within us. The ‘lonesome touch’, somebody* once called it.
‘It’s about responsiveness’, he said, placing his violin on the stone wall. ‘And really, really listening.’ He paused, staring for a moment at his fellow tutors, who were sitting by the pizza oven, talking quietly. Then standing up abruptly, he said, ‘Can you go and get your violin?’
‘It’s in my tent, I’ll be back in a minute’, I replied.
When I returned, he picked up his violin, and led me towards the old stone Mill. ‘I’m going to play a single long note, and I’ll keep playing it while you play another long note. Then I’ll change to another one, you change your note, and so on. Any note, whatever comes to you.’
He started to play a long note, quiet and firm. I put my bow to a string, and played the same note as John. He played another one; again, as if caught in a web, the same note came from my instrument. Frustrated, I said, ‘I can’t do this, it’s not working’. I thought of some of my music therapy clients, searching for a sense of self, caught up in the identity of others, unable to play their own music and always copying me.
‘OK,’ he said, ‘the only rule is you don’t play the same note as me’. I could manage that. Structure. Something to guide me.
John started to play again, and this time I found a different note on a different string, holding, allowing it to push against his sound. He let the two instruments inhabit their shared vibration for just long enough, then he found another note, an edgy, dissonant clash, which pushed my fingers in a new direction. Listening intently to each other, we piled the notes on slowly, one after another, some biting with dissonance, some resolving, but always happening in response to what had come before. We played on and on, long, slow notes, allowing the sound to gather and accumulate.
‘I have got to make long notes with you!’ It was Sam, the young professional from the cult folk group, who had come on the course to find sustenance and respite from the world of gigs and tours. He was holding his fiddle. Now we had three voices.
‘What is it you’re doing?’ he asked. John explained, and I added: ‘The only rule is, you’re not allowed to play the same note as the person before.’
We started again, this time with Sam adding his own colour. A new, richer sound emerged, now that we were three. The timbre changed, darkening, our notes becoming closer, more chromatic and menacing. Then someone broke from the knot of sound and reached up to a higher note, and everything opened out, our music breathed more freely, and brightened. As I played, I focused entirely on the combination of the three sounds, allowing my fingers to find their own place on the string, guided only by what had come before. The web had lifted, freeing me, and I was playing. Just playing.
It was getting cold, and we moved into the refectory where fellow course-members were setting the tables. As we started to play again, ignoring the noise and bustle around us, I felt the excitement of having had my question answered by John: it was about listening acutely to the others, allowing myself to respond to the weight and force and quality of their music. The long notes gave me the chance to listen properly – there was none of the hurry of a tune, there was space, and time to notice, and to allow. And in allowing the notes to emerge of their own accord, I was stepping away from habitual ways of playing, and entering that mysterious realm where self ceases.
It was time for supper, and we put our instruments away. The evening routine unfolded: washing up, tidying our tents, the last session of the day when anyone could lead with a tune. Mandolins, fiddles, melodeons, concertinas. The music went on late into the night, and the intensity of that hour before supper faded into memory.
In the morning, Sam left to join his band on tour, and we felt bereft. The group was quieter without his energetic presence. We took a while to adjust to the new sound of the combined instruments. Everyone wanted to know what we had been exploring the evening before. John and I explained, and demonstrated. We talked, we pondered, we played. That was the beauty of that week: there was time to follow the tributaries, to allow things to unfold, to happen. And to change.
We all agreed that we had to include a ‘long notes’ improvisation in the concert. Three of us would start with it, then we would step back from the centre of the circle and the whole group would join in with an old melody – Peggy Ban, a song collected by John Clare, that poet-farmer who had lost his mind to madness because he hadn’t fitted.
Friday came, our audience arrived, we made that feared shift of allowing our lives outside to come into the intimate space we’d shared for a week.
The concert was over, and performers and guests were chatting and drinking beer. I left the Mill and wandered over to the pond where it had all started. Sitting on the wall, I watched the water tumbling on the stones. John had listened to me, and taken me seriously, and that really, really mattered. My question had changed the course of things. And I had glimpsed something of that place in music that cannot be held onto or made solid, but can be known just for a moment: the ‘lonesome touch’.
Assignment 2, Oxford University Department for Continuing Education: Writing Lives
*The ‘lonesome touch’: the ‘someone’ referred to is renowned fiddler Martin Hayes