Hitting the right note



You know how it is when you aim for one thing and the opposite happens?

I’m trying to stay home, quiet, not go out much. So when I found myself playing the whirlie for a serious shakuhachi musician on stage in front of a discerning Design Tasmania audience, I had to wonder how I got there. How it is that staying still can take you to never-in-your-wildest-dreams places.

Anne Norman who lives in Mornington has played the shakuhachi bamboo flute for 28 years – ten of those years were spent practicing eight hours a day. She’s studied with three lineages of shakuhachi masters while living in Japan, and speaks what she calls “fluently bad” Japanese. Her craft takes her around the world as an adventurer and artist. Happily, our paths crossed earlier in the year on Flinders Island and she came to stay with me for a few days in the spring.

I first heard her play in my old shed – echoing off concrete, tin and boards – like birdsong, but not; like wind, but not; like no other sound, but something higher. It was as if she could lure pixels of sound in that old barn and whip them into line with the control of her breath; the organizer of dust from all time, of light, of being in tune. Eyes bowed, head bowed, fingers making notes through wood, tongue focused, lips both giving and receiving, breath controlled, finding sound not words – a sound that asks not to be interrupted by questions.

And this is how Anne’s stay went. She practiced for her concert; I asked few questions. In between we made visits to the beach, the Gorge, she taught me yoga in the morning – how to stand like a mountain – and then back to practice while I wrote or worked in the garden.

A big old hebe was struggling and I decided it was time to hack it back. A blackbird’s nest wrapped up inside it got tossed to one side. Anne saw the nest and rescued it: “it’s an amazing thing, so beautifully made, will you keep it?” I kept it separate from the bonfire pile but knew, given I’d already saved a messy few, that it would probably end up there eventually.

We heard a bird singing in the golden elm above us – a green parrot that didn’t sound like a parrot seemed to be mimicking something else. We answered it and smiled as it sang back at us. The conversation with a parrot went on for quite a while.

On the day of the concert we rose with the sun for yoga. Standing mountain, kneeling mountain, prone mountain – I knew my mountains now. And then Anne practiced her flute and sang with it – two sounds resonating together with words inspired by Flinders: ‘a bone; a leaf; a stone; an echo; a shell; a seed; a twig; a feather…’

I took her into town early so she could set up. The plan had been to drop her off while I went home to change and return later. But things needed carrying and sound tests assisted with and, well, the time slipped by and I stayed, wearing the clothes I’d thrown on after yoga, and a hat to cover bad hair.

The harmonic whirlie looks like a length of vacuum cleaner hose. As an improviser and composer, Anne had invited her fellow musician, Yyan, and one of the Design Tasmania staff, to contribute an improvised piece to end the program. But the staff was kept too busy with providing extra seating – so that’s when Anne turned to me.

Yyan would play two shorter whirlies on stage, Anne would play shakuhachi from the audience, and I would play the bass whirlie, standing on a platform made from pallets in the smaller gallery next door, out of sight to the main auditorium. She’d give me a signal when to start, and I should just keep playing until after she stopped. We practiced once, as the audience was arriving. You sing, I sing. You play louder, I play louder. You go quiet and I will answer your quiet. Just like the parrot in the golden elm.

Anne’s hour long performance was from another place: her flutes, woven together with poetry, with stories of her travels, with 600 year old pieces, with Bach, and with Yyan’s improvised guitar…

So when it came to our turn I took to my pallet, more nervous than I can ever remember, waiting for Anne to come into view and give me the look. It came and I whirled, I stood like standing mountain and I can’t remember actually hearing how we sounded but afterwards Anne called me to the stage where I found myself bowing next to her in front of a room full of applause, nowhere near where I had meant to be when I woke up that day.

When I got home, I found the discarded blackbird nest sitting in a garden bed, filled with multi-coloured, egg-shaped pebbles that Anne had collected on our beach walk. These gifts from nature: a nest saved, made for pebble treasures by a master of improvisation and adventure.


Anne Norman is working on a concert series in Tasmanian lighthouses next year www.annenorman.com

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