There has been only one occasion when I have found myself composing a tune, and it was seemed to descend all of a piece, perfect in every way.
It happened one afternoon in my second year at university, when, alone and at a loose end, I shut myself into one of the music practice rooms in Currier House, just me and a piano in a sterile, sound-proof cell.
I wasn’t studying the piano anymore, having abandoned it after fhree years of lessons in India and a fourth in England, ending with a fizzle after an intermediate-level Royal Schools of Music examination. The fact was, I had never taken flight as a pianist, just plodded along, heavy and uninspired, “doing” scales and the endlessly replayed pieces one had to prepare and perform for the exam. After all those lessons I wasn’t even competent enough to be entrusted with accompanying the hymn-singing in morning chapel at Mount Hermon. But although I would never be a pianist, I was musical. I loved singing, and thanks to Mrs. Murray, the Principal’s wife, so did the whole school. Every morning, schoolchildren from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, as well as Christian families opened their lungs to the mountain air and raised their collective voices in song, making a joyful noise that echoes in my ears even today, nearly fifty years later. And we didn’t just sing: we harmonized, reedy descants soaring over smooth altoes, sturdy tenors, and youthful baritones; adjusted the dynamics, now full-throated, now hushed; and alternated lines, first the girls, then the boys in reply.
I may have betaken myself to the practice room that day in search of the youthful spirit I feared I was losing at university (see send my roots rain). At Mount Hermon, a precious side-benefit of learning an instrument was that one got to miss a half-hour of morning or afternoon study to practice, completely alone; perhaps I just wanted to get away and commune with myself. In any case, I sat desultorily picking out little tunes with one hand, no particular place to go.
I had been reading the Romantic poets, and was taken with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and his idea of organized innocence. My conception of organized innocence is probably highly idiosyncratic, but I remember it as a state one can consciously choose as an adult, having tasted the bitterness of experience. The innocence of youth is also a state of ignorance, but if one can come through experience without being poisoned, one may return to a new innocence.
Then it came to me, a tune composed expressly for Blake’s Introduction to Songs of Innocence. It came as the child had come to the poet, as the song had sprung to his lips in the poem, and I found myself singing it out loud, utterly unselfconscious in the sound-proof room, then writing it down without any effort whatsoever. It wasn’t even written for me: it had a portamento in the second repetition of the last line which I did not have the delicacy of touch to execute; and it was always a little high for for my range, as if designed for a boy with an as-yet-unbroken voice. Someday, I tell myself, I will ask such a boy to sing it for me, and make a recording.
A cherub of song visited me that day, as angels had the young Blake; and at a desolate time when I sorely needed it. I had never composed a tune like this before (or rather, one had never offered itself to me in this way) and have never done so since; but now I know that it is possible.
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
‘Pipe a song about a lamb!’
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again.’
So I piped: he wept to hear.
‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer.’
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.
‘Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.’
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear (x3).
Introduction, Songs of Innocence