In October 2012, The Conan Doyle Institute in Edinburgh presented a concert to celebrate its first Anniversary. It was given by the Alastair Savage string quartet who were playing on instruments crafted from a tree that grew in the garden of Conan Doyle’s family house in Edinburgh. The programme included a piece that I wrote especially for the occasion, based on the novel, “The Sign of the Four.”
I write to you, while imagining that Dublin courtyard, filled with the aroma of cedarwood, warm walnut oil, and the sound of violins, and to tell you that, at last I can claim a violin experience of my own!
I composed my first string quartet for Alastair Savage’s group at the request of the Conan Doyle Centre in Edinburgh for their first anniversary. When I hear people perform my music like this, it always brings such a rich mixture of feelings. I feel a great and unfamiliar humility when players take such pains to achieve a genuine reproduction, which is strange terminology but may be as near the truth as it is possible to get with regard to written music.
The two violins, viola and cello that Alastair and the quartet played on Tuesday were made here in Edinburgh by Steve Burnett, from an old sycamore that stood in the garden of Conan Doyle’s childhood home on the outskirts of the city.
Searching through the Sherlock Holmes stories I thought the “ Sign of the Four” would be an appropriate one for a quartet and I set to work. Finally, the piece arranged itself into a reading of a synopsis of the story with incidental music.
I read from the book, as the audience enjoyed the brilliant playing and the atmospheric language of Conan Doyle, on a dark, late autumn evening in an elegant Georgian drawing room overlooking the cathedral grounds.
Thirty-five people make a perfect audience for Chamber music, and Steve’s instruments, having lain asleep in the workshop for more than a year, filled the room with their song: a glorious gratitude to their craftsman and the quartet, and for the joy of having an audience. Afterwards I felt a warm satisfaction inside, redolent of my early days performing. No critics were there, no conductor or agent. No fee or potential recording contract. Only applause and smiling faces.
“As it was in the beginning”
After the concert, as I walked to the car, a fox loped across the broad elegant expanse of Melville Street with a grace and urbanity that matched her surroundings, as if she had been born in the city. I stood watching her, surveying the silent Georgian streetscape, and felt suddenly harassed by a memory of the summer from that very spot, when an open topped car, growling impatiently in the festival traffic spewed out noxious petrol fumes and the voltage and vitriol of electric guitars, carrying the insult of their “sound” around the city, like a violent mental patient on day-release.
“These planks of wood impaled with their diabolical devices and variations of torture and torment, contemn patience, dedication, craftsmanship and fineness of feeling, and glorify vulgarity, deadly voltage and sexual distortion. The hellish sound of this ‘instrument’ disturbs the Almighty Himself, and the evidence of His discomfort surrounds us!”
That is what you wrote in your letter to me after one of your reluctant Dublin rock and roll ‘experiences’, and I agree entirely, though I could never summon such faith or effective language to use as a vehicle for my own feelings.
The concert and the relief and sanity that it brought, having rearranged and restored my molecules, follicles and corpuscles to “factory settings”, I sat down to write this morning, reflecting on our forty years of friendship, our many exchanges about music, and of you, across the sea in Dublin among melomanic Irishmen and centuries of craftsmanship.
“The flames of hell give forth no light” it has been said! Nor does an electric shock generate music any more than it gave relief from their torments to the mental patients of old.
To call this painful noise “music”, and the as the media now does, is an obfuscation that will be penetrated in time.
I fear that in our urban lives, we are being steered by increasingly excessive and almost inescapable noise towards some sort of collective neurological malfunction, the early stages of which is at present masquerading as euphoria.
Did Mary Shelley herself not describe her chimera as “handsome” and ‘beautiful” and did not the creators of the gleaming war machine swell with pride in 1914.
Please forgive my self-indulgence. I seem to have found a little revolutionary spirit under some old delusions and complacency. Only thoughts of you and old Ireland bring me comfort and peace.
After Christmas we’ll come visiting and shopping and we shall buy some Donegal tweed, against the winter blast, and Waterford crystal, to bring gentle music to the dinner table.
When midnight mass is over and the children are asleep there will be silence in Melville street so we can listen to the trees grow and the fox’s velvet footfall.