Seldom have I been so wrong in my interpretation of a musical piece. Vic Mars‘ The Hospice was intended to be one thing, but I received it as another. This extended piece was composed as the score to a Christmas reading of Robert Aickman’s story of the same name, presented by Gideon Coe on BBC6. The holiday setting, bucolic music and homespun cover art put me at ease, and I imagined the following.
On Christmas Eve, the narrator is driving to his childhood home to see an ailing parent. The road is long, the journey dark, the moon a steady companion. As the driver winds down the back roads, he recalls his childhood, the times he’s shared with his parents, the dignity that may be lost now that one of them has entered hospice care. There’s trepidation, but also resolve; this is what a good son does. He hopes for a good Christmas. As he pulls in, he sees that one parent ~ he’s not sure who, but he suspects the one who is ill ~ has gathered enough strength to watch from the window. In “Part 2,” the peaceful journey ~ punctuated by rhythm and an upbeat tone ~ gives way to more serious talk. There are things that need to be said, but the conversation is all surface, talk of mortgages and belongings and wills. In these fleeting moments, the son wishes for more, but does not know how to instigate the discussion, and is reluctant to bring up subjects that may cause pain.
By “Part 3,” the spiritual night has begun to encroach. Chime tones symbolize the passage of time and the tolling of church bells. The contrast between chime and bass is like that between heaven and hell. The dutiful son tells his other parent to sleep, watches through the night, waits for the death rattle, the final resolution, the prayers and the tears. When the drum rolls begin, the end is imminent. And then single keyboard notes, implying a thinning of breath. Strings grow more important in the concluding section, like an elegy, the droning drums a military tribute, the first triangle strike an angel getting his wings. Two minutes to go, and the pace quickens, a grand finale, leading to resolution, the wake and funeral over, the car now backing out, the living parent at the window, waving goodbye.
At least I got the car part right.
Turns out Aickman’s tale is a horror story, involving a mysterious house, a guest chained to a table, and a sickeningly large meal that may actually be … no spoilers, I’ll let you read it for yourself. The images are so specific that they threaten to overwhelm the music, but it’s a good fit, as the prose sneaks up on the reader. The final menace and meaning remain elusive.
But I still prefer my reading.
The Hospice is an incredibly cinematic piece that proposes its own narratives. Read the story first and you’ll be stuck with it; but listen to the music first and you may come up with your own. Musician Vic Mars and artist Frances Castle paint an evocative picture. Together, they produce a third story, one unique to every listener. Scary? Comforting? Cathartic? Take it for a spin, and see what happens. (Richard Allen)