A Right To Spring & The Rite Of Spring

The old man with a rare smile. Photo by Anne Koh.

Summer arrived this week. The pollen-laden air is already dry, bringing some discomfort to the old man who is breathing laboriously like an asthma sufferer. He is swatting at humongous blowflies that instead of fearing the sight of a human being are relishing in disturbing his peace. They are buzzing with glee at what he is holding, a lilac biodegradable bag of smelly chicken bones and pork fat that he had spat out onto his dinner plate. It is only a short walk to the green bin behind his garage that the garbo will come to collect on Thursday but he is already wheezing from the effort. The sky is a lot higher up from earth, its cheery colour of light blue absent of any threat to the laundry hanging on the creaking Hills Hoist. It is also almost absent of clouds except for a smattering of light fluffy ones that are fighting a losing battle against the sun’s domineering rays. In a distant corner, the remnants of a cloud left a faint trail, waved goodbye and disappeared. The roses are in full bloom again replacing the ones decimated during the recent storm with even more vigour and colour. The fish in the pond next door are resting and not eating after a tumultuous week of uncontrolled sex. They are a spent force leaving a messy trail of wrecked water plants in their habitat and undeniable evidence of their mating prowess – trails of thick foamy sperm and clusters of fertilised eggs which they will devour once they recover from their orgy of spawning.

Irrefutable evidence of their crazed sexual encounter.

“What happened to spring?” the old man asked his Mrs as he rinsed his hands from the kitchen sink. It certainly felt like they went from the depressing grey and cold of winter straight into summer.

“We didn’t get spring,” the Mrs said.

“We have a right to many things these days, surely we have a right to spring!” he croaked in a hoarse squeaky voice.

The winter had been long and punishing on the old couple. Both had bragged to their neighbours from KL about ‘never being sick for over twenty years.’ The Chap and His Lady arrived a couple of months earlier to experience their first spring in Adelaide. The Chap, an avid golfer whose single digit handicap made him even more driven about the game, played (or practised) golf, rain or shine. The Lady loved the spring here – she thought the wintry weather was simply perfect. Any day without the scorching sun imprinting black spots on her pink skin was a wonderful day. She was the first to succumb to the coughing, a gift from their daughter and son-in-law, both oncologists, who had arrived from Toronto to attend their graduation ceremony. The Lady proved that wearing masks did not prevent the spread of germs. The old man had long suspected the mask mandate during Covid was simply a ruse to get the people to become obedient and learn to relinquish their right to movement as they saw fit, with or without a mask. His Mrs caught the same bug from The Lady and both sisters were soon coughing like wounded frogs. The old man, a long term user of Armaforce, held the misplaced confidence that the andrographis, olive leaf and echinacea mix would continue to protect him from bacterial infections, especially after learning that doctors in Victoria were being asked to prescribe Armaforce for post-Covid treatment. He would go on to be immune to their coughing fits for two weeks before he too began to splutter violently and lose his voice.

The lingering cold air and dampness did them no favours either. By the time he was close to finding his voice again, the Mrs caught a second round of the germs. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime for some reason. But, when night came, the coughing returned with a vengeance. In their bedroom, the couple sound like frogs and toads quarrelling all night. The pent-up mixture of air and yellowish phlegm from their bruised lungs only helped to make the vibrations of their vocal cords sound dissonant and coarse. Their neighbours would not be mistaken to think those were the sounds of frogs mating. All night they took turns to disturb each other’s sleep in their attempts to spit out stubborn phlegm from the depths of their throats. “Kawwww, Phooooi!” “Kaaaaaaa, Phooooi!”

The Lady was either riddled with guilt for being generous with her germs or born with extreme kindness. She was seen plying an assortment of traditional Chinese medicines and cough syrups to her next door neighbours. When those proved to be less effective than how she ‘marketed’ them like a professional chemist, she made regular home visits to check on her patients, each time bringing concoctions of ginger, honey, turmeric and pipa fruit (loquat). Into the third week, a sudden inspiration from her produced soups containing azuki beans, mung beans and barley. She insisted that they took her liquid concoction of chuan bei and nashi pear with honey “just before you go to bed.” The old man, a long term adherent of Intermittent Fasting, could not bring himself to break his discipline by consuming the tendrilleaf fritillary bulbs late at night. “All we need is a few days of warm spring weather,” the old man. “Where is spring?” he demanded.

Two months ago, the old man’s nieces finally persuaded him to join their local orchestra, the Burnside Symphony Orchestra. Both Stephanie and Corinne have been members for a few years already. They knew their uncle would love it. Formed in 1956, the orchestra is two years older than the old man. Back in those days, the orchestra, being one of the oldest amateur orchestras in the country, attracted a lot of support. Its concerts were regularly reviewed by critics who wrote for the South Australian newspapers. https://bso.org.au/

All three of them had commissioned their instruments from the same luthier in Florence, Paolo Vettori. The sound from a Paolo Vettori instrument is sensational and the fine craftsmanship shows the maker in his prime. To produce the geometry and symmetry of such beautiful scrolls and C-bouts, the spontaneity and flare can only come from a hand that has a masterful control to cut and shape with such finesse and boldness.

The old man had agreed to join his nieces earlier in the year but Covid had provided him with a good excuse to delay fronting up for rehearsals. When they prodded him again to give it a go, he said he would, “but let me see what’s in the programme.” He did not elaborate and they did not ask why that was relevant. If they are playing The Rite of Spring, then I am not joining. When his nieces left, I asked him,”So, what have you got against The Rite of Spring? I know it’s awful music to listen to – must be awful to play it too,” I said, showing off I have heard of Igor Stravinsky’s music.

“It’s not awful music!” he replied loudly, almost choking himself with his thick sputum. “It is just too difficult to play,” he said. “Too fast, too many rhythm changes and too many notes!” he added.

“Not awful?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. I had tried to listen to it many times, in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But, Stravinsky was “too modern” for me. Heavy metal music sounds tame by comparison! Manic, head-banging, dissonant and weird. “No beautiful melody,” I said, revealing my bias for classical and romantic music by the great composers, Beethoven and Rachmaninov. “It’s awful music,” I repeated. “It’s no surprise the audience in Paris rioted on the night of the premiere in 1913.”

That an audience attending a classical music concert could riot in the streets showed how bad the music was. It was actually a ballet, but no difference. Generally, audiences who know how to appreciate the fine arts think of themselves as intellectuals, highbrow and knowledgeable in high culture. It had to be the music that turned them into raging lunatics. For such “elite” people to be so outraged by the avant-garde score and Nijinky’s choreography that they turned violent in the streets and protested by throwing tomatoes at the composer, their primal emotions had to be stoked by a madman. Stravinsky broke every rule about what music should be. His music was atonal, coarse, harsh and raw. Even scary.

The old man vehemently disagreed. “In The Adoration of the Earth, when the cellos and double basses come on, the sounds conjure up Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. Amazing! They all copied him!” he said. “Terrifying music that was used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia to signal the arrival of a menacing T-Rex was actually music from Glorification of the Chosen One in Part 2 of the ballet,” he added. “In Evocation of the Ancestors, you could hear the passages of the music in John Williams’ Dune Sea of Tatooine in Star Wars. It would not be wrong to say that every Hollywood composer was, in one way or another, inspired by Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring,” the old man said, whilst giving me the look that I did not know what I was talking about.

The old man had harboured a dream that one day he would join an orchestra and relive the joy he felt when playing classical music with a group of friends during his formative years in his hometown, Penang. “The last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said to Athalie who sat next to him on his first night with the BSO. Athalie Scholefield, a tutti second violin in the orchestra for some 50 years, was very welcoming and encouraging. Long retired and free to enjoy her passion for music, the old lady with short straw-like hair and a wrinkled face looked young compared to her violin. It looks ancient and in bad nick, the old man thought to himself as he inspected her instrument. Always wearing a sweet smile, the diminutive woman who is often invisible behind her music stand said, “You’ll be alright, luv.”

Who raises himself on tiptoe, stands not firm

Who strains his stride, walks not far.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The old man reminded himself not to be unfair to himself. After all, he had no expectations to play in an orchestra so soon. His dream was to play the popular adagios and romantic melodies that he loved. Easy listening music that is at the same time easy to play. But, he would apply himself to the challenge of being a worthy tutti player. Inspired by his own children, he welcomed the opportunity to work hard so that he could make good music from his violin.

“It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect,” he said. “I clocked in the hours, averaging two hours daily,” he told Stephanie. 

“I always say practice makes progress!” she replied.

In total, there were nine rehearsals before concert night on 30 November. The old man missed one rehearsal due to a birthday party he did not wish to miss. The first night was a disaster – he knew the music well but he could hardly play the notes. So, like any tutti player in an orchestra, if you can’t play it, just pretend you can. His fingers moved with agility, his bow cut the air like a knife cutting a birthday cake, up and down, swiftly or slowly, as willed by the conductor, but all the time, he was squeaking like a poor church mouse barely audible even to himself. The final rehearsal was also a disaster. During the day, he had been able to suppress his cough but when night came, he became tired and agitated. He miscounted in the Vaughan Williams, unable to rejoin the orchestra for a full page. He was heard spluttering loudly behind his mask, his body visibly shaking with every violent cough as the night wore on. The next morning, he said to his Mrs, “I don’t know if I should attend the concert tonight. I don’t feel I’m ready.”

“You’ll be right,” she said. “Just pretend to play if you’re lost,” she said, matter-of-factly, with no emotion.

Suddenly, he remembered Athalie’s words to him on the first night. You’ll be alright, luv.

Burnside Symphony Orchestra Concert Night 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.

The concert was a sell-out. Everyone played to their best ability. The Mrs and The Lady were there to lend their support. Both were quite chuffed after the concert. “Not bad at all,” both chirped in unison. Reminding the sisters that they were all amateur players, the old man said pleasingly, “We were fantastic!” Suddenly, his cough had disappeared. Although wearing the now familiar light blue medical-grade disposable mask, he was hard to miss. His straight shoulder-length hair reminded me of the famous violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, whom I heard live in Prague. His nieces were glowing with excitement also as they congratulated him for taking part in the concert. “See, we said it would be fun, right?!” one of them screamed with delight. “Actually, Philip Paine was fantastic,” he said to his Mrs. The conductor of BSO was superb in holding the orchestra together. A horn player in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, his professionalism and strong leadership shown through the night.

BSO 30/11/2022. Brahms Double Concerto. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
BSO, take a bow. Bravo! 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
Corinne, the old man, and Stephanie, with their Paolo Vettori instruments. Photo by Anne Koh.

The old man was still pumped up and a high dose of adrenalin was still rushing through his veins even after he had helped move the chairs and music stands from the stage. “I am really pleased with my playing,” he said, beaming a huge smile behind his mask. “Told you you’d be alright,” the Mrs said. “Now, I can no longer say the last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said with a chuckle.

BSO Violin 1, Violin 2 and Viola sections. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.

To The Fore When I’m Sixty-Four

In a few more days, the old man will turn 64. Crikey. Has it been so long since he first sang the Beatles song? He was a teenager then, with so much promise and seemingly limitless potential. He had a thick mop of hair, so stiff and thick they felt more wiry than hairy. No designer style yet it looked decidedly designed in the shape of a coconut. His flatmates took turns to cut it for him. Free labour did not mean labour freely given. His lack of concern about hygiene and looks showed in his face. It was messed up with active pimples that were prone to explode more randomly after greasy or spicy meals. Still, he didn’t care, since he didn’t notice them. Scrawny and bespectacled, he moved like a shadow, following his friend’s moves. They attended uni classes together. They rushed to the library together to secure the books mentioned by their lecturer. They went to the shops together to do their weekly shopping. Did I say ‘together’? Not quite, he was often a step or two behind, just like a shadow. His friend came from a well-to-do family, the father a doctor and the mum a headmistress. Those with a better background tended to start off in life more confident, more comfortable and definitely with more freedom. He was however, a son of a dhobi, not from the lower caste like the Indian laundryman but nevertheless he considered his father was a working-class man. He was wrong about his circumstances – it wasn’t that he was out of touch with reality, his reality was quite spartan and dire. He never had enough to eat – his mother made sure that they lived a rather thrifty lifestyle so that they would not grow up ‘wasting’ money. Every morsel of food was small and inadequate, everything had to be sliced to thin slivers to be shared by many siblings. In uni, he worked three shifts a week in a Chinese restaurant and if he did not go back home to visit his family during the summer vacations, he would find full-time work in a factory or warehouse. In fact, as soon as he arrived in Australia, he found work as a drinks waiter. That first moment of financial independence thrilled him as the pay was enough to cover his food and lodgings. It took him just a few more weeks to save enough to send home some money to his best friend whom he asked to arrange a meal for the gang of about ten school friends he left behind in Penang. It was enough to buy them a good lunch at the Eden, an outlet that served western food. Strangely, only one of the friends wrote to thank him for lunch, but he did not think much of the oddity back then. Such matters did not dwell in his mind, he was simply happy to see a photo of them enjoying a meal together. He was accustomed to being in the background or backstage. Giving speeches and barking instructions in the class was as foreign to him as eating gorgonzola or as impossible as swimming in the desert.

The two friends were so often seen together that the richer one became known as Fat Shadow and the other, Thin Shadow. No one ever asked who’s who, the answer was as clear as night and day. Both of them loved to sing love songs. The old man’s favourite was ‘My Way’ deciding that the words meant something to him, and that he would grow up to live life his way. They sang ‘When I am sixty-four’ often too, not appreciating that life would hurtle so fast that their sixty-fourth birthdays would arrive in the blink of an eye. Fat Shadow was the more outgoing of the two, therefore the more visible and louder. Thin Shadow packed his own lunch and was never seen in the uni cafeteria. His lunch was predictable. IXL’s strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwich. It mattered not if it was spring or autumn.

Three years passed by and uni days ended. The two friends grew apart and without a goodbye, they went their separate way. Thin Shadow stayed on in Australia. Later, he heard Fat Shadow had made his way to Singapore and established a career there. Life’s cycle was pretty much the same for the friends. “You fall in love and marry the girl in your dream,” he said. “Then, you wake up and realise the dream was better and you were a better person there.” Their kids came soon after and life as they knew it ceased forever. “It was about me initially, then ‘us’ for a short while and then ‘them’ very quickly and for a long time after that.” “It became always about them,” he said, finally understanding the gravity of parenthood once he worked out the monthly pay cheque he earned was just enough to cover their living expenses. “We lived and breathed raising our children, and gave them the best opportunities we could muster,” he said.

Happy union with wife and children is like the music of lutes and harps.

Confucius, Book of Poetry

“But, aren’t Confucian teachings about children showing respect and being filial to their parents?” I asked, sensing that he gave much more than he expected to receive.

“It is also true that they didn’t ask to be born and weren’t given a choice,” he said, justifying their belief that they therefore were obligated to take care of them the best way possible.

The old man’s kids left home early. It didn’t seem so long ago that his eldest son was a sweet little boy, no more than three and a half years old. With a chubby face packed full like a big round pork bun, his aunty (伯母 – bó mǔ ) called him Bak-pao-bin or ‘pork bun face’. The toddler was well brought up and was the epitome of a Confucian son. In a restaurant, he would keep to his seat and not run around like a headless chook. With a meticulous habit of not leaving any crumbs at the table, he was distressed when the French waiter kept saying “merci, merci’ to them at the end of the evening. “Mummy, I am not messy,” said the child who was about to break into tears.

An empty nester at the age of 45, the old man was struck by the brevity of their happy times together as a family. Hedonistic as a teenager and as a young man, he was suddenly wrecked emotionally by the sudden emptiness that engulfed him. The music and laughter that permeated the walls of their home evaporated into the air, as if a storm had lashed down on the world and frightened away all the birds and butterflies in the park. Their bluestone Federation-style house, emptied of children, looked abandoned and sinister in the distance. He was traipsing aimlessly on the park across the road when his resolute composure gave way. Feeling weak, he lowered himself to sit on the ground but ended up squatting when he discovered it was soggy and cold. His thoughts turned epicurean, preferring the avoidance of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul rather than seeking pleasure. He raised himself up and felt like a new dawn had arrived. He was ready for the next chapter in his life.

For the next fifteen years, he worked hard in his business and tried to build a retail ’empire’, a goal that he failed to fulfil. At the end of this period of high risks and torturous toil, his plan collapsed in ruins amid the global financial contagion that spread from America. He was not awoken by Elton John’s song about the candle in the wind at Princess Diana’s funeral. He failed to recognise that life is fragile and tomorrow is not promised. Today is the present, literally a gift that should not be taken for granted. But, in recent years, it was the pandemic that stopped him in his tracks and made him reconsider the meaning of life. He was attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s leanings to nihilism, a theory that life has no intrinsic meaning and humans have no real purpose. Growing up in a ‘Buddhist’ environment, he had already been exposed to the idea that we ought to tame our desires to reduce suffering, a concept not dis-similar to passive nihilism, or a will to nothingness. However, Nietzsche’s Existential nihilism gave us the way to create our own personal subjective meaning through a combination of free will and awareness of becoming what he called a ‘Higher Man’, a better version of ourselves.

In recent years, his answer to rapid hair-loss was to wash his hair infrequently. This was after discovering a clump of hair trapped on the drain hole cover of their shower cubicle. His normally stolid face winced, aghast at the loss, now held gingerly in his fingers. Despite his Mrs’ incessant nagging about his foul-smelling pillows and the ever-increasing need to free-up the robot’s vacuum main brush from the entanglement of long hair, the ownership of said hair was without dispute since hers was cut, like a bob, he persisted in keeping them unwashed for days. Soon after, he was washing his hair once weekly, believing that his receding hairline would be stemmed. His doctor was on a long vacation leave and he had no one to discuss the merits of taking Finasteride to further combat the loss of hair. “It’s important not to be impotent,” he said to me, after learning that a side effect might be a loss in his libido. I felt like telling him about the many benefits of being celibate and many in fact, celebrate the freedom of having no interest in sex. But, he looked like he was in no mood to listen to me, so I simply walked away.

After much coaxing from his nieces, the old man finally summoned enough courage and stood up from the shadows at the back of the hall where the Burnside Symphony Orchestra held their practice sessions every Tuesday night. He stepped into the fore a few days short of his sixty-fourth birthday and introduced himself to the concertmaster. She welcomed him to join them in the First Violin section but he said he was happy to start at the very back of the Second Violins. Two hours later, he emerged a rejuvenated man who seemingly had multiple shots of happy hormones racing through his body that night, thrilled with the music-making and friendships made, savouring a blissful happiness reminiscent of the fun nights he enjoyed as a 15-year-old student in the Penang Orchestra. “Now I have a lot to look forward to when I am sixty-four,” he said.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair

Many fears from now

Will I still be standing on my pedestal

Heyday, meetings, own a gold mine?

If I’d been a flop, work till sixty three

Would you lock the door

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Our kids will be older too

And if they say they were hurt

That I betrayed you

Could they be happy, ending abuse

When our fights forgone

You can sit with a dreamer by the fireside

Chilly mornings on the way to Ryde

Nothing’s forbidden, smokin’ the weed

Amore or amour

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Every summer visit the Hermitage in St Petersburg

There’s nothing to fear

There is talk of war

Putin going nuclear

A lunatic’s rave

Dead men on a cart, NATO aligned

Putin’s point of view

Predicate precisely what the US say

Sanctioned dearly, wasting away

Not an inch eastward, yet there they are

Hermits evermore

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Lyrics by Wu Yonggang, tune by Lennon-McCarthy
With members of Burnside Symphony Orchestra in Oct 2022