Trois Salv-adorable Vignettes

I’ve had something of a staggering writer’s block during the past 6 months, brought about by a perfect storm of creativity-draining projects and late-night rehearsals, resulting in over a dozen failed attempts at putting anything coherent into already precariously structured sentences, such as this one.

Determined to force something out (in the hope of triggering more literary aftershocks) I resolved on the train today to put down three surreal and trivial vignettes from my youth and non-youth (admittedly not really knowing what a vignette is, nor caring to).

Vignette No. 1.,): Over 5 years ago I was walking out on King Island, during low tide. I needn’t emphasise that the tide was low, as that is what makes the unremarkable King Island so remarkable; it lies some 800 google-map metres from the mainland off Wellington Point (near Brisbane) (in Australia) and is accessible via a sand-bar for walking purposes only during low tide. During high tide there is no reason to venture thence, as the island consists of 100 square metres of dense mangrove and the decaying, seagull-encrusted remains of anyone who ventured thence while the tide was rising. With King Island, it really is all about the journey (see poster below) and not at all about the destination: a pilgrimage to be undertaken purely because of its temporary availability. And if you’re a particularly fortunate pilgrim you might avoid being stung by one of the many washed-up jellyfish. One can only hope that the Bayside Bulletin named it one of the Redlands’ “Major Tourist Attractions” in a valiant effort to hamper the local tourist industry.

As shown

As shown

This occasion became distinguished from my other visits. The sandbar leading to the island extended almost as far past the island as well, so I decided to reach its furthest point. However, after making my way past the main foliage of the “island”, the landscape suddenly became not unlike a Salvador Dali painting; desolate, sandy and littered with hundreds of frozen chickens.

Melting in the sun, the chickens glistened cheekily, giving no hint of their origins, nor explaining their general intact-ness. I cannot find any other account of this occurrence, most likely due to the facts that no-one normally bothers trotting the extra kilometre out on the broken coral, and that the numerous unsavoury predators* of the bay would ensure the small flightless birds would not last another tide. The only other explanations were that I imagined the whole thing? Or maybe it was art.**

Three Quarter Shark

*Three-Quarter Shark

**Seriously, we could not find any art at the Tate Modern, unless it was supposed to be the large and random group of people jogging sporadically in unison around the main hall area. In the words of persons much more perceptive than I: “Isn’t the Tate Gallery great, Valerie?”

Vignette II) There used to be a small jacaranda tree out the front of my house growing up. It (the tree) is no longer there as it turned out it possessed great intelligence and an unquenchable* thirst for water that enabled it to spread its major subterranean tendrils into the plumbing and ultimately emerge from the bathroom sink of our house an unreasonable distance away. (See Diagram)

* Technically, isn’t all thirst is unquenchable in the long run?


This in itself was kind of surreal, as it implies a tree was sinisterly plotting this for some two decades (kind of like a reverse Shawshank Redemption), but there is another story I have regarding it; an experience of near-impalement. One day, hanging upside-down from an (in hindsight) unstable branch for a 13 year-old to be hanging from, I realised perhaps I should probably get down, just as the branch snapped. I fell backwards onto a protruding spike from a vertically-facing branch that had been sawed off. I tried very hard to add this in the Diagram. Fortunately, this spike broke off with my impact, but I ended up unable to move as my shirt was attached to the spike-remainder until a laughing sister freed me, and unable to breathe for a while, apparently from shock.

Typical for Australia, recovering on the driveway meant inevitably being bitten by a green ant* **, which was considerably more painful. I ended up with a spectacular bruised gash and after making it assisted to bed, my family ran a bath for me and then went off somewhere. It took a good half hour to crawl unassisted down that hallway to the bath, like some kind of unthreatening zombie in a third rate horror film, but with much more napping involved.

I don’t know if that is the scientific term*** for them, but they had a green shine to them and a very distinctive sting that came with a phycological effect telling you that it was the worst thing ever.

** Helpful Hint: I learnt that if you soaked them in water first they became much more docile and willing residents for your lego houses. I am not sure exactly how I came to make this discovery.

*** Wikipedia now tells me that green ant is indeed an acceptable term, although it is also amusingly known as the metallic pony ant. I don’t know how they arrived at that one, but I like it.

Vinaigrette Three: While living in Mill Hill, a sunny suburb of London, one of my flat-mates (whose initial meeting of I had managed to avoid for some weeks) happened to arrive home while I was cooking pasta on a gas stove, which of course you should not run away from. She was very friendly and either Dutch or Belgian or some-other-non-UK-and-less-major-European nationality, but extremely friendly and chatty either way.

She began a lengthy dialogue at me about how she had just come back from the dentist. I was all ‘oh that’s nice’ and she proceeded to tell me how she had to leave the house at 4am just to get there, all the way on the other side of the city (which, again, was London). It was currently about 4pm or so. “Well that’s certainly dedication” I replied, thinking perhaps she should try and find a closer dentist, but also thinking maybe there was a long sad story involved about how this dentist saved a close relative of hers who had vicious wisdom teeth or something so I did not voice this.

I became confused, however, when she then stated how people were lining up around the block just waiting to get in – hundreds of people. I again assumed perhaps it was a very popular clinic (London is very populated after all), one that emphasised quality in a soup-nazi-esque fashion. Her closing comments were that she really enjoyed going and planned to go again several times in the next few days. “Good for you!” I thought, smiling and nodding, because I didn’t have any remotely relatable dental experiences.

It was not until she had gone and I had finished the pasta that I realised that Wimbledon was on at that time and in all probability she had actually said she had been to the tennis. But I never did verify this – I think it was also my last proper conversation with her.

Moral Conclusions: 

None. I told you they were trivial. Instead, here’s a photo of a certain (relatively) recently acquired cat playing cello.

Sterling Cello

Much too sul tasto for my taste, but he’s learning.

Blanket Statements

Abstract painting has always been something I avoided. Despite the exploratory tack I desperately like to take with music, being relatively untaught in the art-realm I tend to cautiously stick to the knee-deep waters of photo-realism, where I can judge how effective a painting is purely by how much it looks like the thing I am painting.

Nailed it.

The most exciting thing I found to draw in Bangalow… Nice place though.

The treacherous, murky currents further off-shore contain pretentious, vague beasts of prey, just waiting to pounce when an art student submits a blank canvas with the word “Future” written on it in sparkly glitter. I was going to say clear gelatine, but that might actually be profound, because in the ‘future’ while it is sitting in the garbage, a colony of ants will probably come along to eat the crystals and thus illuminate the word with their bodies… Apart from a woeful tale of artistic anguish and futility, the moral of the story here is that you can justify anything* with enough of an explanation.

*Indeed, I once told a concert audience that the piece I was playing; “Canteyodjaya” by Olivier Messiaen, was written when he was twelve years old and named after his pet axolotl. This is of course completely** untrue, not to mention utterly ludicrous, but, said with a straight face, it was met not with laughter, but with blank stares, approving nods and knowing smiles. Ironically, I later received one of my best gigs that day from a member of the audience who ‘liked the way I spoke (spake?).”

**probably and hopefully.


Axolotls can regrow vital organs, including parts of their brains.

But I digress.

Yes, I have taken my first steps into this notorious tide by taking up the palate knife rather than the brush and attempted a non-photo-realistic portrait. Due to the new lack of detail, and the often inadvertent, but welcome, special-effects of the palate knife medium, I am ashamed to say that instead of the usual 2-month effort, I completed this painting in 2 days; one session doing a rough background coat and the other the actual painting.

It is of Molly, the chocolate labrador, from Lake Cathie, on new years eve, with a blanket.

It is of Molly, the chocolate labrador, from Lake Cathie, on new years eve, with a blanket.

Lost in Tranlston

So it turns out that one can make a pretty extensive start on a doctoral dissertation armed only with Google and some pretty obscure squiggles that may or may not be in German, written over 100 years ago. Anyone who can interpret the following will be awarded an amazing prize* because I have no idea:


I think it says ‘Aowiw lz Oardanier’ but Google Translate says no and I don’t think it means anything in English.

*Despair* Suggestions are welcome. That aside, being without means of creativity and in a small room with a big box of M&Ms, I delve once more into the realm of my previous artistic endeavours in a feeble attempt to keep this blog’s head above water in these turbulent times.

Thence introducing Hannah, the talented author of Not All Who Wonder Are Lost, whom I sketched about a year ago. For the first time ever (excepting that rather ineffectual effort with Ella Grainger) I decided to take regular photos during the process in order to make a time-lapse progression. Without further ado.


The final result being:

And FinalAh. It’s nice to deal with a tangible art form for a change. Poor Etruscans.** The original title for this post was “Never Look a Gif Horse in the Mouth.” I’d always assumed the phrase was a reference to the Trojan horse legend: meaning if you looked inside the Greeks would know you knew they were there and attack at once. Apparently the actual meaning is much less violent in that horse-age can be determined by the length of their teeth, so if you looked at the mouth of the horse someone gave you as a present you were trying to determine/judge the value of their gift.


**The Etruscans’ language is basically extinct as of over two and a half millennia ago, or something like that.

It Would be Unimaginative to Make This Title a Pun on ‘Liszt’

Throughout history and beyond, there has been a relentless stream of musically prodigious acts in almost all disciplines, and the field of music has in no way been lacking. Beethoven himself was said to have composed the Ninth Symphony at the age of nine while floating in a lake. That is not strictly true,* but more of a literal misunderstanding of the scene towards the end of Immortal Beloved. Yet it proves the point that some of the legends surrounding musical giants are allegorical; the truth is harvested from the cocoa tree of reality, crushed and fermented by the dual catalysts of 19th century sensationalism and controversy, roasted by flamboyant business acumen and finally undergoing the conching process of time. The result is a smooth and tasty confectionary that does not at all resemble the hard, bitter pod of its origins.

*At all.

Anyway, many of these super-human feats by musicians are indeed true, or in the case of earlier, un-verifiable-by-NASA generations, generally unprovable to not be true. People can be clever sometimes, and so I don’t doubt the plausibility of something like (W.A) Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere after one hearing.

Crest of the NASA Anagram Society

Crest of the NASA Acronym Society Addicts

However, in 2006 I was reading the Alan Walker biographies of Liszt and as one can probably imagine, here was a composer whose reputation was built on much Paganini-esque mystique.

Yet among it all, an incident recorded herein caught my doubt and curiosity. Strangely it was not regarding Liszt whose accounts and legends troubled me so, but one of his students, Ernesztina Kramer (1864-1936). Thanks to our friends at The Internet, here’s the account in question:

Of special interest are the recollections of Ernesztina Kramer, who was Liszt’s student for three years from 1882 to 1885. Ernestina had been an infant prodigy, and by the time she was ten years old she was a student of Erkel at the academy. The day dawned when she, like others before her, was introduced to Liszt. He asked her to play something, and since she had been specialising in the music of Schumann, he suggested one of the latter’s sonatas. Nervous and trembling, the poor girl lost her composure and started to play the sonata a semitone high. Liszt did not interrupt her, but let her continue in the wrong key to the end of the piece. The girl then noticed what she had done and cried out: “My God! How unfortunate I am! I can play anything in any key, and that is what happened here.” Liszt consoled her and said: “My child, thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate” (1997, p. 297, Walker).

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

While this is a throwaway anecdote tangentially related to a man who frequently imbibed from his well-stocked cellar of anecdotes, this raised a lot of questions. Here are some doubts I’ve been festering for the last six years:

  • This is Ernesztina’s own account which doesn’t seem to have been echoed anywhere else… and neither does she really (at least in the digital realm).
  • Despite being an 18 year-old prodigy (assuming she saw him soon before he started teaching her), she didn’t notice the tactile, pianistic implications of the ‘unconscious’ transposition, nor the harmonic implications. Which kind of means she performed music entirely thinking only about relative intervals. Not the note, key or chord names, not the absolute pitches, and not even the feel of the piano under the hands (and a semitone higher is a long way in circle-of-fifth world).
  • Again despite being a prodigy, she had a loss of composure at an activity she’d be doing since birth.
  • Again despite being a prodigy and apparently having excellent relative pitch skills, she did not notice it sounded a semitone high.
  • Again despite being a prodigy, and well aware she could ‘play anything in any key’ did not seem to have been told at any point in her history that this was in fact a talent.
  • Furthermore she seemed under the impression it was a curse.
  • Ernesztina did not go on to have a career significant enough to be noted by our friends at The Internet over a century later. Which is a post-humous death sentence.

Anyway those are the bulk of my concerns. Could something like this really happen? Put it this way: I’d happily believe it if she trounced into the room, sat down at the piano, spat heavily and quipped “Pick a piece, Monsieur Liszt. And while you’re at it the key too.” People are clever sometimes, we’ve established that. But generally not simultaneously clever and yet blundering along with massively fundamental and basic mistakes and then not even recognise the resultant phenomenal feat as anything other than ‘misfortune.’ It seems such a talent is negated by a lot of weirdness about the situations.

One other thing. It seems that alternative explanations either partially or completely discredit her story, there’s no realistic, middle-ground explanation. To wit:

The Idealist says: Ernesztina’s account is true and she was raised by a wild pack of absolute-pitch-hating wolves in order to develop her abilities. And then rescued by another pack of relative-pitch hating wolves to repress them. It has been known to happen.

The Optimist says: Ernesztina could play transpositions intuitively, but on this occasion did so deliberately and only pretended it was a mistake so as to appear humble.

The Realist says: I don’t know. I’m still watching the perfect-pitch dog video.

The Pessimist says: Ernesztina went and learned the Schumann sonata a semitone higher. Then pretended she believed it was a horrible upsetting mistake/curse so Liszt wouldn’t make her try it in other keys to verify her talent.

The Cynicist says: It probably didn’t happen at all. Aaaaand there’s no evidence other than a self-account. But if there’s one thing to be gleaned from history its that people don’t ever lie about themselves.

Are there other considerations missing? I’d certainly like to know! Of course, humans are capable of spontaneous transposition and even more amazing things, but if they’re talented enough to do it subconsciously, they should probably also have the much lesser observational abilities to be able to realise they’re doing it. And even if not, to recognise or have been told at some point it’s more of a super-power.

Well, now I feel somewhat bad that I’ve stayed up to 1:30 am to rant about and criticise the account of a long-dead woman I’ve never met who left no discernible mark on the world save a paragraph in Alan Walker’s biography about someone else. However, she can rest easier knowing that now when people google “Ernesztina Kramer” (with the quotations) they’ll get a third result. Thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate.