Friday, 29 November 2013
The fire alarm that changed my life
In the cylindrical tower, a spiral staircase descends from unseen height.
The building is of white, ancient stone, punctuated by rings of rounded windows of Romanesque design, the staircase of wide thin stone of the same type as the building.
An infinitely varied pattern follows the course of the simply ornate ironwork supporting the smooth endless polished banister rail.
As I find myself half-floating, half-tripping down the smooth worn stairs, I look in wonder at the walls that pass me, where floral interweavings, frozen animals and gesturing stylised human figures cover the curved vertical surfaces, hewn with infinite silent patience by masons who were able during their work to remain for the period floating at the scene of their anonymous memorials.
Other figures, children, the old and infirm, the beautiful and the crazed are glimpsed, passed and sometimes brushed against.
As I continue my descent it is possible to hear the faintest, most distant of musics which, as I attempt to focus my whole undistracted attention upon it, becomes increasingly close and clear and sweet until instead of a staircase, I am inside of nothing, my body has disappeared and the universe exists only as sound, with the infinite fluctuations and ebbing flows of air currents high above the earth, microscopic particles of gas and vapour, of which I am a single one.
I was awakened from the dream by shouting and fire alarms on the landing outside my room, confusedly half dressed and moved outside to find out the reason for this confused interruption of sleep.
It was the winter of 1992 and I was working as a busker and living in the Hotel Audran, off the Rue des Abbesses in Paris.
The staircase I noticed for the first time had a particularly subtle combination of evil, permeating smells that through repetitious application to the fetid air of the place had become as much a part of the building’s fabric as the stiff-stained carpet under foot and the streaky stains on the layered peeling paint.
Descending from the third to the second floor, as the midnight fire alarm signalled an electric cooker or tumbled candle out of control in one of the rooms, I noticed a tiny variation in pitch between the alarm signals emanating from the different ceilings.
The one on the level below was of minutely sharper pitch and - moving slowly backwards up the stairs, ears focussed, against the dazed downward flow of drowsy half-clad people - it was possible to hear the upper signal at enough of a higher volume for the lower to be imperceptible, then to shift, first two then four steps, down again for their mixing to create a strangely pleasurable throb as the skewed interfluctuations pulsed arrhythmically: the closer you descended to the sound below, the faster became the throbbing and then quieter, then disappearing as the higher note dominated.
We descended through two more flights.
I was now possibly the last person on the stairs. The first floor sound was slightly higher yet and the shrill sine wave from the ground floor ceiling was the lowest of the three, all of the sounds within a whole tone of each other, or the distance between middle C and the white note above it.
There was no smoke, no flames or crackling, no smell of melting, fat soaked carpet immolating within the crumbling rotten floors.
We were a motley collection of desperate souls, moments before in sagging beds, listening to the constant scratching of cockroaches and whistling of water pipes either trying to sleep, drink ourselves to sleep, fuck our way to momentary dishevelled contentment, or obtain the money from a haunted looking client with rotten teeth for tomorrow’s first fix.
I looked at my fellow residents and saw a mirror of shame at my own failure and outsiderness.
The long term unemployed who stayed for the first two and half weeks of each month, until the chaumage cheque ran out then slept on benches and subway vents for the next week and a half or so of the month.
These were my neighbours and on certain days, the only people with whom I spoke.
The Hotel Audran was a narrow, infested hole in the street of the same name directly half way between the church of Sacre Coeur and the Boulevard de Clichy.
As my Bulgarian friend Ivan pointed out “slep exectly helf vay to heafen end hell. Parfect!”
In the month or so I stayed there I came to know the neighbourhood and made a couple of acquaintances, principal among whom was Corinne.
In a tiny crammed grocery shop on the Rue Germain Pilon I boggled at the cost of basic groceries, wondering where to buy food for the evening meal in my room.
A strikingly pretty girl with full lips, voluminous mousey hair and round green eyes was hanging around, slinking and swinging a bottle of milk in one hand.
Excuse me, I said, do you know a shop not quite so expensive for basic food near here?
Buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you she said, and I thought why not, astonished and glowing.
So we went to drink coffee and grinned and told each other stuff, leaning over our cups with a confidential air, although she was coy, guarded, under the coquettishness.
She turned my amusement quickly into a committed, serious lust and, becoming aware of this fact, I admired whatever magical action she had taken, unnoticed, upon me.
Suddenly she had to go, to work. Where did I live she asked. She would come for me there. Oh, when, I asked, confused.
Soon. Maybe later she laughed, a kiss and she disappeared.
Suddenly, my surroundings were highly coloured, complex, filled with danger and promise.
Uncertain as to what had just begun, I moved to pay for the coffees, remembering I had almost no money, certainly none now for groceries.
I returned to my room with a small loaf and opened the wardrobe to look through my tinned food stash, finding nothing there.
There was a rather foul stew of andouillettes and borlotti beans in the cold electric frying pan which I kept hidden, beneath a towel under my bed (in case hotel staff should decide to enter my room and clean it, although this hadn’t happened yet).
I pulled it out on its stand and turned the dial to full heat, opening Russell Hoban’s terrifying and compelling Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale, set somewhere in the south of England a thousand years in the future.
Riddley had begun his journey and was a fugitive from several lethal pursuers.
Distractedly lifting a fork of food from the pan to my mouth as I rapidly read, I noticed just before it entered my mouth, a chunk of dead, now cooked, cockroach on my fork.
When the pan was cool, I wrapped it and its terrible contents into a black plastic bag and carried them down to find a place to leave them in the street.
This did not solve the food situation and I resolved to go out and play the violin at a metro station to raise some francs.
That was the night I met Olivier from Gibraltar, at Chatelet, which friendship would both signal the beginning of the end of my time in exile and lead to a series of events that brought me to composing music as my job.
The memory of heterodyning electronic sound signals, Doppler effect and the physiological response of strange and complex random sonic occurrences would inform all these processes.
What happened with Corinne and who was she? I would only ever find out a little.
Olivier was the hapless bringer of both magic and of chaos.
It could have been for him that Macduff cried “confusion now hath made his masterpiece”.
But more of this anon.