The Number 12 to Orchestral Heaven

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By Nabuma

Every market day Thong Nguyen rises at a ghostly hour, when everything is still and quiet and the lid is closed on dreams, but from whose misty recesses, still escapes snatches, half-glimpsed flashbacks of winged, ill-tempered ancestors, risen from tombs composed of derision, and from where the ash of times-past disperse in flight. Thong sneezed after muttering to them, to himself,  “Leave? We had no choice”, as he drove his van through the entrance and into the pre-dawn hustle and bustle of the wholesaler’s nerve centre in order to collect produce for the vegetable stall he has at a big city market.

Ever since he and his then-young wife and children arrived as immigrants from Vietnam, he was intent on building a new life and securing the family’s future.  Now the children have grown and his eldest daughter, Lien is progressively taking on more responsibility for the family business. She is in every way her father’s daughter, as she has his grand booming voice, his expansive vocal range acquired from years of spruiking customers.  Though, none of the family realise that they all split atoms when they talk. Always doting on her, he nevertheless playfully teases, “Lien, when will you marry and give us a grandchild?” But for now, she is devoted to her little fluffy dog that has claimed a permanent fur-ridden spot on the couch and sees something beautiful in romantic soapies.

No matter how leading becomes Lien’s role, Thong still fusses over produce as a painter fusses over colour, taking pride in displaying everything to its most plump, vivid or verdant advantage. With attentive care each vegetable is carefully laid, cast according to type – the leafy cousins, choy sum and bok choy lay side by side, contentedly, shaded from the dazzling sun.  The pungent roots, ginger and garlic, collude like inseparable twins, keeping their heat and their odours contained within as they await their shared, piquant destiny.  Bug-bitten broccoli or fruits scarred for life are sacrificed, discarded, along with other expendables, for their strange birthmarks scare people off.

After all is laid, the day well underway and his daughter at the helm, Thong walks across to the main commercial strip and takes the Number 12 tram to Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda.  A few times he had taken alternative tram routes, such as the 96 light-rail to Acland Street, but found the Number 12 better suits his purposes.

Though a successful market man and proud of his achievements, Thong, in his heart of hearts, envisions himself as a conductor of a great symphony orchestra.  And it is on the Number 12 that he takes out well-deserved time just for himself and the purposes of art.  At that time of day the tram takes few passengers from where Thong first alights.  As an artist in command, with little concern for the conventions of polite society, and as if civil compliance meant nothing, Thong turns up the volume on his smart phone, the concerto audible to all, lifts his conductor’s baton and gesticulates to his heart’s delight.

The tram is the rhythmic vehicle on which he mounts the heights, magnifies his simple life and sets alight the passions that pour from his depths to his fingertips and to the musical wand, which ignites the air in a fanfare.  His upraised arms carve currents along which melodies lift and fall.  The road is dancing, his forehead flying.  The repertoire abundant with electricity shakes the sleep from passengers who soundlessly float past.

Once he startled a woman by sitting too close behind.  It was less the volume of Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto that disturbed her than the movements, like some living thing with fluttering wings, that she sensed swirling behind her head; his baton only millimetres away, almost touching her.  She turned around for a few moments only to find a small audience, all wearing wide grins while Thong was lost in concentrated fervour, guiding in long and gentle strokes, the string section of his imagined orchestra.

His favourite conductor was the magnanimous, Daniel Barenboim.  His being the first Jewish Israel citizen offered honorary Palestinian citizenship made him the proud bearer of two special passports.  It was Barenboim who took the very first orchestra to perform inside the blockaded Gaza Strip, who set up classrooms to teach music from pre-school to conservatory level in Ramallah, the West Bank and Israel and who on a path towards peace, brought together in a single, unifying orchestra, young Israeli and Palestinian musicians.  He understood the great healing force of music, its being one of the few human languages that speaks directly to hearts, that touches dimensions of our being not accessed through ordinary spoken communication, or which any effort at formal negotiations or high-level diplomacy could ever achieve.

But some hissed through clenched teeth when he played a piece from Wagner’s Tristen and Isolde.  It challenged Israeli taboos against the Nazi’s favourite composer and thus provoked an outcry among Holocaust survivors.  Even though he himself refuses to nourish old grievances, striving as ever to create ‘a bigger reality through music’, he thoroughly understood their pain as a people deeply traumatised.  It had been at the urging of the Israeli brass players to play Wagner and Barenboim respectfully turned to the audience, a half-hour debate ensued, some stormed out, but the majority who remained applauded loudly.

Also adored, was the seraphic composer, Toru Takemitsu.  Both he and Barenboim, Thong believed, were men of the noblest and highest virtue.  For Takemitsu, music is a form of prayer.  His are prayers that shimmer across a great emptiness that is silent, propagating sounds upon its surface, which play like light that bounces off  hearts left expanded and elevated.  He composed no less than ninety film scores, combining sounds from the classical west with sounds from the traditional east.  What most delighted Thong was that Takemitsu was self-taught and had done all this without attending any music school and had begun his career without being able to read sheet music.  His hypnotizing Requiem struck a chord in Thong’s heart, bringing back from the past the evanescing forsaken homeland and ancestors.

The Japanese composer sometimes wore a disdainful expression, but this belied a most gentle and capacious heart.  Who can tell what buried content lies behind a pair of eyes, a given smile, behind the human screen.  Just as bin Laden’s benign, even saintly visage disguised the terrorist in him, many a stony-faced Asian is all butter inside.

And here, under the clothed face of a market stallholder dwells another self, another way of being, another flame that shines brighter, a latecomer to the ensemble.  It is to this other self, that portion of his being that yearns to soar, to unleash every creative urge and be plunged into the glorious realms shared by classical composers, that he gives free rein.  And so, on each and every market day, Thong Nguyen, for a few moments, with the deft rise of his conductor’s baton and all the nuanced gestures of a maestro’s hand, distinguishes himself on the Number 12 to Fitzroy Street.

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