'Youth, Death and Transfiguration' by Xanthea O'Connor

This piece was commissioned by Melbourne Recital Centre in collaboration with the Emerging Writers Festival for the 2019 Writers in Residence program, and was written in response to this concert. To learn more about the writers and the program, visit  Soundescapes, where stories, music and people intertwine

Image by Xanthea O'Connor

A mother forces her son to eat a slice of apple, while another rips a backpack off tiny, protesting shoulders and checks it into the cloak room. There’s someone around my age with their laptop open, reading a slide on the production of gamma radiation. Two grey-haired women thumb dutifully through their programs, doing their best to ignore the raucous crowd swelling around them. They are the families of Melbourne Youth Orchestra members, impervious bubbles of quickfire, chaotic reactions. Sitting in the foyer, I feel conspicuously without any similarly substantial distraction.

When I was very young, my grandmother took my sisters and me to see afternoon WASO concerts. We wore our best clothes, shared a cake at the Concert Hall café, then sat up in the choir stalls looking down on the orchestra and out to the audience. We were within spitting distance, literally. I remember noticing liquid pooling around the brass section. It fascinated me—dignified adults in such a grand theatre opening up a valve on their instrument and hocking up their drool. They were too gross to be human—more like an organelle within a cell reacting to stimuli and secreting waste. Each member was just one portion of The Orchestra; a greater and more impervious organism.

I never played in an orchestra—I took ballet classes instead. The mornings I didn’t have ballet, I’d wait outside the auditorium and listen to our school orchestra practice. Sound filled the grand old building and overflowed through open glass shutters on the second floor. Sitting on the old stone steps, I tried my best to listen past my balletically-trained quantisation of every piece of music into militant counts of six or eight—one, two, three, four, five, six, two, two, three, four, five, six, three, two, three, four, five six, four, two, three, four, five, six—until the bell sounded for form class.

The ballet studios were tucked into the lower east corner of the school, down a winding asphalt path beyond the tennis courts and staff car park. The director's jet-black Volkswagen Beetle perched overlooking the studios, a bird of prey biding its time. The two rooms were a clinically spotless white with a long, high window and a polished chrome barre that skirted three walls of the room. My perpetually clammy hands would leave nervous, dirty fingerprints on the barre every time I used it. Three-metre-high mirrors towered along the fourth wall. We'd be told to face the mirrored wall during centre exercises, but to only look in the mirror when instructed, to irradiate some personal imperfection. It was passionless and oppressive and made me hang onto every small piece of control that I could find.

Sitting in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, I wonder what led these young people to be here— holding instruments at an age where they’re whittling down their own identity, but still going through the motions of keeping people around them happy. Would the instruments gather dust in a childhood room for the next decade? Is this the end or the beginning?

During pas de deux class, when I was sixteen, I would lose the thread of intent within the choreography. I had to silently ask a partner to dance with me; gesture to myself, gesture to them, then roll my hands over each other in front of me; fingers poised in the gentlest of royal waves. My partner groaned involuntarily every time he lifted me, squeezing my waist so hard that a sharp pain ran up into my diaphragm. I was increasingly conscious of the sweat and menstrual blood congealing between my legs—it was a new sensation and I hoped no one else could smell it. I wilted into the stagnant summer air on each lift. He fumbled on my hips as I turned quickly. I caught his genitals with the point of my knee. When the music stopped, we both pointedly stepped two feet away from each other, arms crossed, wholly unqualified for this level of intimacy.

At the end of ‘Death and Transfiguration’, Melbourne Youth Orchestra rumbles through our applause; the sound of good shoes pounding floorboards. The conductor gestures for them to rise and standing, they turn to us; the whole spectrum of sheepish grimaces and goofy beaming faces on display. They’re each looking in a different, specific place in the audience, or pointedly anywhere but that one place. They unravel from The Orchestra, each member loved individually and fiercely by the people sitting around me.

Ever since my grandmother died in March, I have felt the weight of it in my writing, a medicine ball rolling over a sheet pulled tight. Every narrative falls back to her. While she lay in palliative this March, Mum held her phone out to me and asked me to play some music, me being the most musically minded in the room. I was paralysed with indecision. Everything seemed potently mocking of our grief or my grandmother’s immediate mortality. What would ever be of comfort for us all in these crucial, final moments?

Richard Strauss finished writing ‘Death and Transfiguration’—the score of a man grappling with, and finally yielding to death—130 years ago. He was 25, two years younger than me and a touch older than the members of Melbourne Youth Orchestra who were playing it now.

For the last few months, I’ve been trying to decide on what I should have played to my grandmother as she lay in palliative—her in memoriam. I’ve been looking for it, but I’m no longer sure it exists. I want to make it myself.

There would be the orchestra tuning to A 440,
growing louder and louder until it overwhelmed any room it was played in.

There would be a swell of steady violins looped indefinitely,                                                                   
urging her breathing sounds to rise and fall on the hospital monitor beside me.


                  There would be her saying goodbye to me over the
                  phone, cascading into an absurd number of quantifiers:
                  " I love you lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and
                  —".

It would be a
formless,
unlistenable
cacophony
that I'd
marinate in.


I wonder how Strauss managed to keep his work within a structure and under thirty minutes.


Xanthea O'Connor is a writer, musician and performer living between Melbourne and Perth. With a background in music journalism and radio broadcasting, she is interested in writing about music, feminism, our environment and how they all interconnect. Xanthea is currently completing the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT and is a 2019 Writer in Residence at Melbourne Recital Centre.