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The Warp

Flagrant Flowers

Flagrant Flowers

A musical extravaganza called ‘Flagrant Flowers’ occupied us in this same term. I used the same rather breathless style as that employed in Julian’s Journal when I wrote of it;

‘Here’s your part. It’s in ten sharps.’

‘But I’m not playing again tonight.’

‘Of course you are. Look at the programme.’ I looked. And beneath the heading ‘Serenade’ saw my name among the performers.

‘There must be some mistake,’ I said. ‘I haven’t even rehearsed it.’

The squat man who brandished the music in my face said;

‘My dear fellow, you couldn’t have. I’ve only just written it.’

Seizing my arm, he dragged me to join a trio of instrumentalists at the further end of the crowded room. Without waiting for the audience to stop talking, he exclaimed, ‘One, two, three, go!’ And we went.

All this took place in the Hollywell music rooms. I had my clarinet with me because I had played an earlier number in this concert. The music was not hard to sight read, but was strange. During some of it a thin man blew forlornly down a series of champagne bottles marked in chalk E, F sharp, B, or hit a barrel marked XX. At the end of the first movement two music professors walked out. At the end of the last, the diminutive and rotund Hans was bowing to a puzzled but enthusiastic audience. He shouted, ‘Form, Vulgarity, Bite! The three essentials of modern music! Mine has them all!’

Then he grasped my arm again, ‘Do you think the champagne bottles were too prominent? We had a party, so I wrote a part for the empties.’

As I got to know Hans better, he tried out more of his musical theories on me. ‘As I see it,’ Hans would declaim while walking energetically down Walton Street beside me, ‘music these days is much too snobbish. It ought to be prepared to accept what I call the unmusical instrument. Russolo says in his second futurist manifesto: “We must break out of the narrow circle of musical sounds into the realm of noise sounds, of booms, whistles, whispers, shrieks, the voices of animals and men.” ’

I became a convert and the matter became of such interest to both of us that a project called ‘Flagrant Flowers’ was born. It was to consist of a series of musical evocations of exotic flowers, drawing inspiration from the Temple of Flora prints on John Rickett’s walls and would make use of both melody and noise, the musical and the unmusical, side by side. We also decided that the compositions must all be musical miniatures, lasting no more than a minute.

I persuaded a number of my friends to compose. Mark Tennant headed various pieces of MS paper with the names of instruments and the indication ‘Tempo Extraordinario e dissoluto di fandango, con slancia e tutte la forza. In B Major’. He had some difficulty in finding a flower of suitable decadence to go with this. At length he chose the Maggot Bearing Stapelia, and in his music a maggot-like posthorn is accompanied by the faint trillings of sopranino recorders. John Rickett scored his ‘Ode to Monstern Deliciosa’ for counter-tenor, virginals, guitar and typewriter, and my setting of Gautier’s ‘Spectre de la Rose’ was accompanied by the rushing of water. I forget how this was done. Possibly it was another role for my concealed toilet flushing, of which I will write more soon. There was also the whispering tune of a clarinet played without a reed, and an accordion playing without notes, using the sighing sound made by air blowing through the bellows. As part of all this, the Gautier poem was whispered.

Hans was to contribute two numbers:

‘My unusual instrument is to be a plucked piano.’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s an ordinary piano which you get inside and pluck.’

After that Hans spent many happy afternoons half inside my piano.

Hans Selig, the squat man who had turned me on to this sort of music, did not speak at all about the second piece he was composing, though whether from modesty or because he had not yet written anything I didn’t then discover.

Rehearsals began. Our guitarist surprised us by strumming lustily and singing at the top of his voice in evocations where there was no part for him. He explained that, because of his Mexican blood, this always happened when the music ‘got’ him. Our music got him so much that we had to engage a friend to divert his attention in numbers where the guitar was not needed.

Our American saxophonist was ‘got’ by the music in a different way. ‘I don’t like long-haired music at the best of times, but this just doesn’t make sense,’ he said. The problem was not as grave as it at first seemed. His confusion was caused by his unfamiliarity with words like fortissimo. The solution was to replace the Italian directions with their jazz equivalent; ‘Fortissimo’, ‘Largo’, and ‘Diminuendo’ became ‘Belt It’, ‘Blues Tempo’, or ‘Put in Mute’.

Soon it all sounded quite as exotic as we could wish. Always mixing with flute, viola, and harmonium, were the unmusical instruments, cowbells, recordings of express trains and tornados, groaning, sucking, shrieking, twisting of corks in bottles, and various types of heavy breathing provided by those present. We liked to think that we were the subject of gossip even though we may not have been so. I wrote; ‘We became the subject of rumours. Although we sat in a little group together during meals, we frequently experienced being sconced - that philistine custom which only survives in the greater seats of learning - for talking shop or in a foreign language. People, hearing the strange words that were always on our lips, and the melange of shrieks and groans that came ceaselessly from the room where the tape-recordings were being made, attributed to us agonies even more romantic than those chronicled by Mario Praz.

‘The devotees of Flagrant Flowers, they whispered, were more to be avoided than were Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club, or Rochester’s Ballers, especially after Hugh Wood had inadvertently incorporated a page from his ‘Ode to the Night Blowing Cereus’ into a weekly essay on Middle High German inflections.’

There was a craze at the time to add to any invitation an exhortation to bring something; ‘Bring Your Own Champagne’, ‘Bring Your Own Prince’, ‘Bring Your Own Rose’. So, to our invitation to Flagrant Flowers, we added ‘Bring Your Own Flower’.

Many did, so that there were a number of button-holed flowers in the audience that eventually lapsed to silence amidst the blasts of our fanfare, and listened to a distant fugal reiteration, as of monks chanting:

O Alstroemaria Psittacina

O Blettilla Hyacynthina

O Zygadenus Muscae Toxicus’.

John Rickett rose and threw in an interjection; ‘These,’ he explained, ‘are the worshippers in our second Temple of Flora, invoking with ecstasy the flowers they adore.’

The music began.

We had reached the final evocation. The China Limodoron, the African Bog Plant, the Amorpho Phallus, all were past. There only remained Hans Selig’s Flower of the Passion Fruit Tree. My responsibilities were at an end. As I joined the audience, I saw Hans smiling to himself as a stirrup pump, a cross-cut saw, and two melons were squeezed on the stage.

I wondered for the first time whether we had proved our point. Had we proved that the unmusical instrument could take its place in the orchestra, that there was no real barrier between noise and sound, the flagrant and the flowery?

Actually, I think that we had failed. We had forgotten how undignified a man flowing bubbles down a sanitary pump can look, even in the most serious piece of music. Nor had we invited an audience capable of understanding what we were up to.

The thunderous applause might give the illusion of success, but Flagrant Flowers has actually been lost to time. It has never been performed again.

My musings were cut short. Hans was brandishing a sheet of music in my face.

‘Here’s your part. It’s in fourteen sharps.’

‘But ...’

‘Of course you are. Look at the programme.’


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