When I was 12 years old my parents bought an old upright piano. So there my ‘composing’ started. And with it, all of music. Rather late in life, compared to some of the students I have now, and certainly compared to my own children.
My first music may have been a father singing in church while the organ was playing loudly, the congregation lagging loudly behind. I am not sure I recognized this as ‘music’. The headmaster, pipe in mouth, singing the hymn of the week, accompanied himself and us on the harmonium, his feet pumping scanty puffs of air into the harmonies of our song. That must have been music, what else could it have been?
In spite of it all, I loved to sing.
I don’t remember my mother singing, ever.
I do remember my sister dancing. Tiny and skinny, a sad-faced pink figure turning and turning on stretched crumpled feet, arms high over her head.
My mother watching.
On the small turntable lay Rosamunde (the cover showed a dark red sunset over an Alpine lake). On the portable tv-set I watched an orchestra playing Tchaikovsky. None of the small black and grey persons on the screen seemed to lag behind, they cooperated magically and beautifully. Even more so than the four boys in short sleeveless jackets, no matter how happy and funny these seemed (this must have been 1962, I guess).
Then there was the story of the violin. It had saved my uncle’s life when he was a forced labourer in Japan during the Second World War, my mother never tired of telling me. But that, too, never turned into real music; the uncle was in a sanatorium in Switzerland for all his life, first as a patient, then as a medical engineer. The few moments in Holland that we talked he tried to teach me mathematics. He was, well, slightly ….remote.
When my parents could finally afford that old upright I began improvising like a madman. I felt an enormous distance between the music inside me and the real music around me. I had simply never known there was anything like real music inside me. Improvising, I tried to find out what that inner music might really sound like. That took me to this very day.
‘Composing’ and ‘music’ have remained almost identical to me, and the idea of ‘putting your music on the piano’ somewhat awkward. A late starter, I still have to work hard to feel rooted in the music as deeply as the music seems to be rooted in me.
When they finally fled from Indonesia, leaving everything behind, my mother’s coloured family tried to settle in cold white Holland. And now I suddenly remember: in my grandmother’s narrow living room in The Hague there was a small piano. After all, in Indonesia she had been a singer and a piano teacher, and through chamber music making she had got to know my grandfather, an engineer and a flautist.
But I don’t remember anyone touching that small piano – music somehow had gone out of their lives.
I fight to make it entirely mine.