Gareth Reeves’ poetry, Edward Cheesman’s piano and Barrie Ormsby’s paintings combined to do exactly what was promised: they conjured Shostakovich from the grave. How many face the steel wool of Shostakovich’s music, and try to disentangle from wiry censorship, ostracism, self-betrayal, and self-contempt some pure, raging truth? And how many, glimpsing truth, suffer to watch it flicker away? But these artists were resolute.
For nearly two hours they captured his spirit, and I left Prior’s Hall swamped by it. They revived the questions that fuelled his struggle between artistic integrity and the soul-hollowing compromise of survival. The hunt for answers finally settled upon its inevitable conclusion: the torn artist, exhausted and broken-spirited, resigns to let a hollowed life trickle on. The only relief is honest darkness:
still struggling for clarity,
still stringing meaningless
notes on lines of air:
having nothing to do
with anything, they are
all I have.
shall I live, shall this music live?
Is my art meaningless? Do I truly live? Should I live? Through what Stephen Regan called ‘poetic ventriloquism’, Reeves asks such questions in Nuncle Music. The artist revived and the ventriloquist became the resurrected living. Poetry and music, poet and musician became consubstantial; and then Cheesman drew from the fountainhead: Shostakovich’s ostensibly meaningless strings of notes.
Cheesman performed mostly Preludes and Ormsby depicted the preludes as a grid of twenty-four squares, each vibrantly coloured and either speckled cheerily or smeared by darker tones. Many of his paintings featured such shapes, floating obliquely through a cosmic picture space. This, I think, was the mingling of musical convention in a darker atmosphere.
The preludes sang out these squares, prancing like the keys of a pub-bound pianola. But amidst the dance of the jolly inebriated, sometimes Cheesman’s eyes grew wide. He leaned into climbing chords, always falling a half-key short of triumphant anguish. Be anguished, you plead. Be operatically, justifiably lachrymose! But the endings were prim, so the audience chuckled.
This laughter best expressed the bitterness of Shostakovich’s struggles. The poetry incited laughter as well:
and I know it’s all lies
and you know it’s all lies
and they know it’s all lies
and everyone knows it’s all lies
and my music knows that too.
I fart through my music,
I fart through art.
The humour was like that in Waiting for Godot, wherein baseness raised juvenile laughter, embittered by the artists’ darker meanings. The somersaulting lines and jarring halts featured throughout the collection. Reeves performed each bout of listing robotically, reminiscent of Lucky’s jargon in Godot. The words chugged on like the squares in Ormsby’s paintings, the scales of Cheesman’s piano. I found myself wishing for a hat to ram on his head, but then came the halting conclusion: that this too was vanity. The squares drifted into dark smears, the scales into held chords. Mad whirls of edict-induced redundancy pricked our morbid humour as it prepared for the coldness of ‘Shostakovich’s’ verdict: my music is vanity, airy as farts:
my tears as plentiful
as the piss from six beers, (…)
I’ve been a whore, I am
and always will be a whore.
We laughed at ‘piss’ too, but what darkness! His tears are vanity and he is to blame. He prostitutes his music to survive, but he lives as a ‘figment’, and a despicable one at that. Indeed the night seems bleak, but there is beauty in raging against the dying of the light. It paints darkness in the richest shade of black, and in blackness, there is reassuring completeness.
The reassurance came in the finale: Prelude No. 4, Op. 87. Its preceding poem may have been the bleakest in the entire collection:
Work it out for yourself,
make what you will of me.
You won’t know what I thought,
you won’t know what I felt,
I do not know myself
though I thought and felt enough.
I am not here,
nail down the lid,
throw in the earth.
It trickles still.
Is my art meaningless? Do I truly live? Should I live? Asking implies answering, and Reeves attempted some answers, negated them, and then returned to try again. However, these concluding lines obliterate all attempts. He throws in the towel with ‘I do not know myself.’ The double-meaning is all-encompassing.
What is trickling? If I may return to Beckett, in Endgame Hamm claims that a heart drips inside his head, causing Nagg and Nell to laugh. Blood trickles down Willie’s head in Happy Days, which he covers with a handkerchief, and we laugh at him. Can Reeves be referring to the same symbol; the bloody trickle testifying to an assailed inch of humanity?
Winnie has a music box that makes her smile. But she stops smiling when she decides against singing, for ‘song must come from the heart.’ Nevertheless, she ends the play singing, having had earth thrown down on her; and Hamm too has his last soliloquy, with his bloody handkerchief, in his light-black room. Are these the pianola ditties leading into darker chords? Do the song and soliloquy vindicate these characters of their long silences? Of the laughter? Did they end in a bang of darkness, their art strangling the meagre trickle?
Unanswerable; and Shostakovich, hollowed, knowing neither himself nor his own music, trickles still. The concluding blackness of the coffin is smudged by the one-line stanza. ‘It trickles still’, it ends, teetering between conclusiveness in the adjective and inconclusiveness in the adverb. One is alone, one is examined, one is lost to oneself. Empty music drowns out the artist’s conscience in laughter, but the heart’s music must rage forth some final day. Thus says Beckett.
Thank goodness for Cheesman then. His concluding prelude began with slow, sad tones, and I feared, ‘If this too should end in laughter!’ But it did not. There were no skipping squares but dark strokes overlapping, sufficiently sad at last. Let the room be neither light-black, nor the jolly pictorial walls of the Hall; let it be as black as the panging sharps and flats, shredding the ivory keyboard.