So odd. I’d not heard anything like it for decades. But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air. A whistle, yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.
How on Earth did it happen?
It was last Sunday morning. I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen. Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn’t listened to for years. Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.
Let me say that I’m not fond of jazz. I don’t even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene). And I don’t like a thing about the saxophone – Kenny G’s got a lot to answer for. But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper. What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of sixteen-century ‘tunes’, which are the basis for many Christian hymns. It’s delicious music.
These days I don’t have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first eighteen years were spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney’s North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory, and taken very seriously – by most students. If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.
The hymns were unfathomably beautiful. The harmonies. The passing notes. The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes. Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ‘When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man’ (from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God”).
Who knows what these words really mean.
All I know is that listening to Robson’s imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle. The whistle was brief, really just half a dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades. As if I was nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 10 August 2013.)