Music and memory in “Love Tokens”

A composite image of emotionally charged objects belonging to Joe Chindamo that inspired some of the compositions premiered at "Love Tokens."
A composite image of emotionally charged objects belonging to Joe Chindamo that inspired some of the compositions premiered at “Love Tokens.”

By Stephanie Trigg, CHE Chief investigator, The University of Melbourne 

‘When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but ah, forget my fate.’

Nearly dead with grief and love of the man who has abandoned her, Dido sings to her maid, Belinda, seeking to banish all future thoughts and memories of the wrong – her suicide – she is about to commit.

This lament, from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas (1688), libretto by Nahum Tate, was voted Britain’s favourite aria in a BBC3 survey in 2010. It has been performed and adapted many times: its beautiful melody, simple lyrics and the grave inevitability of its chordal progressions make it an utterly compelling lament.

Remember me, Dido sings, but forget my fate. Unfortunately, her sad fate is one of the main things we remember about Dido. Commemorative work of this kind can only rarely be controlled by those who want to be remembered in a certain way: the emotions of the living will always be more dynamic, more mobile and more powerful, especially when they are channelled into the creative arts of word, image and sound.

One of the main themes of the Centre’s work is an enhanced understanding of the way emotional histories are constituted through material objects, texts and images, as well as broader social and cultural changes. It is easy to read the emotions that sit behind large monuments such as the Taj Mahal, built in the 1640s to commemorate the dead wife of Shah Jahan, or the Monument to the Great Fire of London designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1671. It can be harder, when writing cultural and social histories, to hear and feel the memories embedded in smaller material objects that are retrieved from domestic use, for example, or texts and souvenirs that would be classified as ephemera. Even more complex is the combination of memory and emotion in the composition and performance of music, and in the exploration of the relation between objects and sound.

I have come, this evening, from an extraordinary recital by Joe Chindamo (piano) and Zoë Black (violin) held in the Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The two musicians performed a program of original music by Chindamo, either specially written or re-arranged for this event, supported by a collaboration with the CHE Performance program, led by Jane Davidson. The name given to these 12 separate pieces – ‘movements’ – neatly puns on the idea of parts of a larger musical whole, and the capacity of the emotions to stir, to move. The program was also part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes 2015 series, exploring the stories of heroes from World War I. The concert was called Love Tokens, and the twelve short works performed tonight each found their inspiration in objects and memories: portraits, gifts, musical instruments, melodies and chords.

Those interested can listen to a full recording of concert by tuning into a broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Tuesday 17th November at 8pm. (Full details here).

The Salon is a tall, wood-lined room. Its walls are made of large square timber panels, set at slight angles from each other to cast subtle irregular shadows and planes of light. Other wooden items – a piano, a violin, a music stand: the conventional materials of music-making – were joined by an easel, on which sat a portrait of Private Cyril T. Leishman (died 1915), painted by Violet Teague.

Private Cyril T. Leishmen C1915-22 by Violet Teague (1872-1951). Oil on canvas. Shrine of Remembrance collection, photographed by Lucy Burnett at the "Love Tokens" premier.
Private Cyril T. Leishmen C1915-22 by Violet Teague (1872-1951). Oil on canvas. Shrine of Remembrance collection, photographed by Lucy Burnett at the “Love Tokens” premier.

Cyril Leishman was born in Melbourne and enlisted in the Australian army that landed at Gallipoli in August 1915. He died in October that year of diphtheria, aged only 20. His grieving mother commissioned Teague to paint his portrait. Teague worked from a photograph, but asked Cyril’s sister to sit to ensure his familial features were brought to life in the painting. This portrait has only recently been donated to the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance collection, and was kindly lent to the Recital Centre for this evening’s performance.

Chindamo’s work ‘The Nine Lives of La Folia’ is his response to this painting. La Folia itself is a musical motif based on a simple Portuguese folk dance-tune with a designated chord progression. It was a highly popular source during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and many composers used it as a musical stimulus. ‘The Nine Lives’ reflects that historical trend, linking specifically to the seventeenth-century composer Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 5., no. 12 violin sonata, ‘La Folia’.

As Chindamo and Black played through these nine movements, our attention was drawn to the portrait of Cyril Leishman, in repose in its ornate gilt frame. Knowing the story of the portrait, it was hard not to trace a kind of double face – both male and female, like Shakespeare’s identical twins Viola and Sebastian – in the portrait. But the dominant emotional story was that of the young man killed in war. The left hand side of the portrait is shrouded in dark shadow, with that side of the face lit up; by contrast, the right side of the face is shadowed against a lighter background. Light and darkness followed each other around the tessellated walls of the Salon; and across this portrait, while the last movement brought us into a more meditative and grave mood to contemplate this early death and the mother’s grief.

CHE Deputy Director and leader of the Performance program, Jane Davidson introduces the “Love Tokens.”

The dead were present, indeed, all throughout the evening: Cyril most visibly, but also Chindamo’s uncle Giuseppe, who gave him his first accordion, other friends and teachers, all remembered through objects, portraits, musical memories or simply the rituals of life and death, commemorated through music. Two paired pieces were dedicated to Chindamo’s father, Pasquale. The first, a tarantella, ‘Bellantone’, called up his birthplace in Calabria; the second, played as an encore, was a beautiful and melancholic lament, ‘Saying Goodbye’, that Chindamo had performed at his father’s funeral.

One of the most moving pieces was played at the end of the concert. ‘Three Spaces’ recalled a friend who sent love tokens (a key ring, postcards and a concert ticket) to Chindamo as she was dying in Europe. Remember me, sings Dido.

There was also joy and celebration, especially for two people in the audience. Chindamo had reworked ‘Last Waltz in Paris’ as Kevin’s gift to his wife, Chris. As Joe and Zoë played for this couple, they held hands tightly, revelling in the music itself, and the gift it represented. Here, the love token, or material object – the score itself – was brought to life in the intimacy of lovers and musicians sharing space and time, surrounded by all the formality of performance in this beautiful but curiously intimate public room.

Joe Chindamo and Zoe Black at the World Premier of “Love Tokens” at The Melbourne Recital Centre. Photo by Lucy Burnett.

Many of these twelve movements (many also comprised of separate parts) drew on traditional musical forms (the waltz, the tarantella), or compositions, like ‘La Folia’ or Paganini’s ‘Moto Perpetuo’ (for Chindamo’s ‘Fury’, a modern virtuoso piece for Black). Only Chindamo’s ‘Variation on Dido’s Lament (after Purcell)’ played an older melody through from beginning to end, transforming the aria in loving variations to both rhythm and melody. Here, Black’s violin took on the resonance of the human voice, in duet with Chindamo’s liquid piano. He is a beautiful player. His touch is always secure, centred and grounded, whether in delicacy or passion, while also clearing air and space around lyricism and improvisation. As this familiar lament filled the room, a different form of emotional memory was brought into play: the memory of other times we had all heard or first heard this aria. For me, it was in a rented furnished flat in London, where a collection of Purcell’s works was the only CD left by the owners. I played it over and over, and so for me this lament is always underpinned by nostalgia and homesickness, as well as Dido’s grief.

Unlike the visual arts or literary works, music’s power to describe or evoke objects and narratives can seem intangible, much more open to variation and change without the obvious thematic cues of words and images. Chindamo’s twelve movements certainly spoke to musical traditions (and to baroque and romantic music, in particular), but their emotional ties to objects – and the way those objects were tied to beloved friends and family – opened up a rich world of personal memories shared with a room full of strangers. Death, ritual, love, the beauty of familiar music and the discovery of the new: this is the work of the emotions.

Professor Stephanie Trigg is the Program Leader for the Shaping the Modern Program and Director of the Melbourne Node of CHE. Stephanie’s own work for the Centre is focussed on two major projects: first, the expression of emotion on the human face, in poetic, dramatic and narrative texts from Chaucer, Shakespeare and the realist novel through to graphic fiction and the novel of autism; and second, medieval, early modern and modern emotional and affective responses to two natural phenomena: fire and stone.She blogs at Humanities Researcher and can be followed on twitter @stephanietrigg.

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