Classroom-Projects-CD_585

Undivided Attention: The Small Choir of St. Brandon’s School – ‘Bright Eyes’

In late 2013, a month or so shy of his 4th birthday, my son discovered death. Whenever we talked about someone who wasn’t there or saw a photograph of a person he didn’t know personally, his first question would be: “Are they dead now?” And, if they were: “How did they die, Dadda?”, “Why are they dead?” Shortly afterwards he discovered Lego and then Star Wars – and then the mind-blowing double whammy of Star Wars Lego – and death got relegated to the outer limits of his galaxy. But occasionally, even today, often apropos of nothing, the same questions will come up as he sits on the back seat of the car, staring out at the passing traffic on a drizzly afternoon.

Throughout that period – though not, I think, directly related to it – I too was seized by death several times. When I say seized by death I mean grabbed and suffocated: this wasn’t just an unpleasant, fleeting thought; it was a feeling that had a physiological dimension, a sensation of mortality that gripped and crushed me. It’s a phenomenon that Italo Svevo described perfectly:

The image of death is enough to occupy the mind completely. Any effort made to hold onto it or erase it is titanic, because every terrorized fibre of our being remembers it after having experienced its presence, every one of our molecules rejects it in the very act of preserving and producing life. The thought of death is like a trait, a flaw of the organism. It cannot be summoned by an act of the will, nor can it be resisted. (1)

The terrorized fibres, the every molecule screaming out in rejection – this is exactly what I felt during this short time. And Svevo’s last line, in particular, struck me enormously – for yes, it was a feeling that could not be summoned by an act of will. If I were to think about death now, meditate upon it at great length, I could make myself pretty damn miserable, I’m sure – but I still wouldn’t be able to conjure up one of these episodes. For it was a feeling that was unsolicited; I could do nothing but hold on and grit my teeth and hope that it would pass. And afterwards, it seemed like life is only possible through denial: a denial that thankfully we manage all the time – unthinkingly, involuntarily – just like breathing.

All of which, if you’re still with me, brings me to a strange and beautiful compilation that was released that very autumn on Trunk Records: Classroom Projects – Incredible music made by children in schools. During that time – and many times since – both I and my son were listening to it a lot in the car. A compilation of recordings from 1959 to the late 1970s, it gathers a dazzling and, at times, baffling diversity of sounds, ideas and experiments from school music lessons up and down the UK. There are maudlin folk songs, eerie experiments with cymbals, Heslington Primary School’s spine-tingling ‘Autumn‘, uptempo jigs, haunting plainsong, fabulously harmonised rounds and bizarre adventures in musique concrète. And, perhaps best of all, there is this:

The original version of ‘Bright Eyes‘ – written by Mike Batt for the animated film of Watership Down and performed by Art Garfunkel (2) – was a favourite of my father and a song I associate strongly with my early childhood. Not many people in the UK in 1979 could have been unaware of it: it was the biggest selling single of the year. I fondly remember my dad alternating between it, ‘Scarborough Fair‘ and ‘The Sound of Silence‘, all of them equally out of tune, as he did the washing up most evenings. Whenever I hear these songs, an image of him – shirtsleeves rolled up and soapsud covered hands – comes powerfully to my mind. He died, not so very long later, when I was still young.

But what’s so special about this version and why does it move me so much more than Garfunkel’s recording? For me, it’s the fact that it’s sung by children – accomplished performers in their own right, yes, but still relative innocents. After all, Mike Batt’s lyrics were written from the viewpoint of innocents too: the animals in Watership Down struggling to grasp the concept of death, asking the questions that my son was obsessed with asking me that autumn.

So when the children’s voices sing – and my son sang along with them – the lines have a power that no adult can convey.

And nobody ever knows when you go,
And where do you start

These lines, in particular, touch me enormously: we do not know how much time we have, but, just as much, we know not where we started. We cannot say whether we existed before – or whether what we go to will be another kind of existence.

And this is the thing. In the midst of being visited by that horrible feeling of death, I realise now that I was being given a gift: a song that my father sung, that I sung as a child, that my son was singing to me now in turn. The music running through all of us, connecting us, was, and is, life: the life that is greater than any one of us as individuals; the grace that banishes the ‘image of death’.

Which, after all is the very heart of the song – for yes, the light that burned so brightly suddenly burns so pale, but it does not die.

          

Notes:

(1) From his novel Senilità (1898), translated into English as Emilio’s Carnival. Svevo was admired by James Joyce, who had tutored him in English while working for Berlitz in Trieste and helped champion his later, better-known novel Confessions of Zeno (La Coscienza di Zeno).

(2) Lyrics in full:

Is it a kind of dream,
Floating out on the tide,
Following the river of death downstream?
Oh, is it a dream?

There’s a fog along the horizon,
A strange glow in the sky,
And nobody seems to know where you go,
And what does it mean?
Oh, is it a dream?

Bright eyes,
Burning like fire.
Bright eyes,
How can you close and fail?
How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?
Bright eyes.

Is it a kind of shadow,
Reaching into the night,
Wandering over the hills unseen,
Or is it a dream?

There’s a high wind in the trees,
A cold sound in the air,
And nobody ever knows when you go,
And where do you start,
Oh, into the dark.

Bright eyes,
Burning like fire.
Bright eyes,
How can you close and fail?
How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?
Bright eyes.

Bright eyes,
Burning like fire.
Bright eyes,
How can you close and fail?
How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?
Bright eyes.

 

 

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