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No doubt you’ve heard of air-guitar – the art of playing an imaginary guitar, usually electric and often to Led Zeppelin – and perhaps you’ve heard of air-drumming, but you probably haven’t heard of air-harpsichord.  I hadn’t either, until I found myself engaging in it last week.  It was 9pm on a weekday and, as my daily routine dictates, I cranked up the record-player to indulge in some tunes before bed.  This night I chanced upon an old LP by the classical/rock fusion band Sky.  Released in 1980, the price sticker on the front said Sky 2 cost $13.99.  The sticker surprised me – for years I’ve removed these hideous things from LPs, CDs and books immediately after purchase because price and value are different concepts.

Amongst this eclectic recording, which contains creative versions of Vivaldi’s Concert in G and a prog-rock reworking of JS Bach’s ubiquitous Toccata, is the Gavotte and Variations by the mid-eighteenth century opera composer JP Rameau.  The liner notes cheerily state that this isn’t really a gavotte because the tune – or ‘simple’, which now I think about it is such a great word as a noun – should be played slowly.  I doubt whether as a twelve-year-old boy I was interested in such detail, but I did love this series of seven variations very much, to the point where I drove my brothers, both older, to distraction.

Last week, shortly after I laid down the stylus, I found myself standing in the middle of the loungeroom and watching in amazement as my hands and fingers danced over a harpsichord keyboard.  There are those who say it is a difficult instrument to play, but to me it was surprisingly easy – and I was great at it, not missing a single note even as each variation became so fast that it almost sounded like modern techno dance music.  Regardless of how much a maestro I was, the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper stared at me from the couch, declaring to each other that The Slave had finally gone completely bloody cuckoo.

I’d not heard this music for twenty years but every single note was familiar; I could even remember how each variation began and finished before it was played.

Why had I loved this music so much?  Was it the simplicity?  Was it the prettiness?  Maybe the repetition?  Or the relentless build up?  Or the furious high drama of the last?  Was it the plucky percussion of the harpsichord and the accompanying images of men in wigs and make-up and tight white stockings?

And the fact that I am still moved by it, despite all the music I’ve now heard and adored, tells me what exactly about my life?  What core of me had been tapped?

If Bruce Chatwin is correct when he wrote in The Songlines, ‘Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way in the world’, then I’ve carried Sky’s version of Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations around in my body for three decades and it’s showed me a path through life.  If Chatwin is wrong, then this music is merely the reason why I’m a brilliant air-harpsichordist.  Either way, I’m deliriously happy that it exists in the world, that we have it in the first place.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, March 28 2009)

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The past