Where do words go after they have been spoken? You see, it’s not like when you write something down. That’s totally different. When you scribble something, the words remain trapped for all time, like in a novel or in a poem. But when you speak, where do they go? Some might argue they get trapped inside a listener’s head only to rematerialise years later totally jumbled up and distorted.
When I was a nipper I used to incessantly chant the Agnus Dei in Latin. My mum would chuckle whenever I sang it, calling me an odd and precocious child. One evening I remember her discussing it with my father. ‘Wherever did he pick that song up from?’ she said. ‘Oh, from school, I expect’ he replied. But it wasn’t from school; this was music I felt I had always known. I used to hear the music in recurring nightmares, and I would wake up drenched from the sweat and tears. I knew the music off by heart, and it terrified me. Of course, we used to have traditional school assemblies where we’d learn those Protestant hymns, but this was not from school, and we certainly never sang anything in Latin. I wasn’t any good at languages anyway, and I didn’t know a word of Latin other than this choral piece.
It wasn’t until I went to Trinity College as a student years later that I recalled this song. I was pulling an all-nighter with some friends, moping about. We were watching one of Beckett’s plays in my room and casually discussing the theatre of the absurd and existentialism. Somebody happened to mention a ‘crisis of language’ and for some peculiar reason I remembered the Agnus Dei. I laughed and turning to Ryan, a composer from the faculty of music, I started to sing it: ‘agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’. He looked at me in amazement and burst out laughing too. ‘Wherever did you hear that?’ he asked.
I knew Ryan was a great admirer of choral music. He had just returned from a sojourn in Belgium researching polyphonic vocal music from the Franco-Flemish school. A style that flourished in the 15th century, or so he told me. ‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘It’s a song I picked up as a child. My mother used to ask me the same question’ He looked at me puzzled and asked if he could record it. I didn’t see why not and so he dashed off to halls to grab his Dictaphone.
After we had recorded my rendition, Cael remarked that the music sounded mediaeval, similar to the Gregorian chant he’d heard while on retreat in Normandy. Ryan raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement, and made some excuse about having to leave. I didn’t see him again for a couple of weeks, but that wasn’t particularly unusual. He often locked himself away while working on a composition. And it was only a fortnight later while having a pint down the student bar that I overheard a conversation. Some of Ryan’s music colleagues were saying how strange he’d become, so I piped up ‘excuse me, have you seen him lately?’ ‘Nope, we haven’t seen Ryan for ages,' one replied, 'he hasn’t been to lectures, he hasn’t even left his room.’ When everybody had quietened down another lad spoke. ‘I saw him the other night. He was acting weird. I popped into the kitchen to get a pint of water and Ryan was crouched by the bin eating the remnants of a pizza. He didn’t even acknowledge me. He just kept on eating the crusts, and when he was done, he got up, pensively looked at me and returned to his room. Man you should have seen his eyes, they were hollow and bloodshot. He looked like a flaming zombie ... like he hadn’t slept in days!’ they chuckled, and seeing that I had nothing further to say, continued to chat among themselves.
Posters began appearing around campus advertising a choral concert. We were to have the world premiere of an unfinished Requiem by the composer Johannes Ockeghem. I’d heard Ryan mention his name before, in fact I think he had brought back some of his manuscripts from Belgium for his dissertation. It was just like Ryan to do a world premiere; he was totally married to his music. I must confess, I didn’t know the first thing about choral music, but I fancied the pants off Ryan, and so I went and bought a ticket that afternoon from the faculty.