Artillery Row

Squeaks and bumps

Dominic Hilton reminisces about his father’s hoard of bizarre avant-garde CDs, LPs and cassette tapes

“Shoo,” my mother said, elbowing me out of her way to tip a pile of chopped leeks into a bubbling vat of soup on the stovetop. She turned to eye my hungover expression, stirring the vegetables with a copper ladle. “Big night?” she asked, without sympathy.

This is typical of my mother. She shoos you away, only to immediately draw you back in. Ignoring her question, I poured myself a large mug of black coffee and carried it into the living room, where my father was sat in his leather lounge chair, staring glassy eyed at an arrangement of wildflowers. He looked dead, and I’d have been worried had I not seen him this way a million times before.

Ever since I can remember, my father has been a fanatical aficionado of avant-garde music

It was spring and I was in Hertfordshire, visiting my family home for the weekend. Sunlight flooded through the bay windows, fashioning a makeshift halo around my father’s thick mop of hair. The living room was eerily silent. Feeling like hell, I propped myself against one of his towering rosenut loudspeakers and was about to speak when the loudest fart I’d ever heard rattled my eardrums, causing me to pitch several fluid ounces of hot coffee down the front of my dressing gown.

“Christ Almighty!” I yelled, towelling my chest with the sleeve of my robe. “What’s mum been feeding you?”

My father pressed an angry finger to his lips. “Shh!”

Out of nowhere there came an enormous gurgling burp, equal in volume to the fart. It took me a few moments to register what was happening, but when the belch was followed by the unmistakable sound of someone clearing their sinuses, the penny dropped.

“This is a new low,” I said. “Even you can’t be serious.”

“Will you shut up, for God’s sake! Can’t you see I’m trying to listen?”


But he was lost in his trance again, so I went back to the kitchen to refill my coffee mug, where my mother gave me another look. When I returned to my father’s domain, he was stooped in front of the elaborate stereo system, extracting the CD he’d just played. “It’s an important new work by a female composer,” he said. “She uses nothing but her own orifices to make music. For acoustic reasons, she performs all of her compositions in the nude.” He side-eyed me across the room. “Unfortunately.”

‘Squeaks and bumps,’ my mother called the hideous sounds constantly blasting through our house

Ever since I can remember, my father has been a fanatical aficionado of contemporary avant-garde music—even when the sleeve notes confirm it’s just flatulence. Growing up, my sister and I would be dragged to experimental live concerts in which professional musicians punched pianos, played violas with their teeth, and had epileptic fits into bassoons. Sat in the audience, we’d collapse into feverish laughter as performance artists with dumpy little paunches gyrated stark-naked about the stage, hooting and hissing in simulation of great horned owls. Our father would sit alongside us, occasionally tearing himself away from the magic to scowl in our direction. When he could bear it no longer, he’d reach over and clip us round the backs of our heads. If he did this especially hard, one of his fellow enthusiasts in the row behind might tap him on the shoulder and whisper into one of his famously big ears, “Thank you.”

In the car on the way home, he’d wave away our apologies as he sped through the London traffic, griping about having raised a pair of narrow-minded philistines. Sat beside me on the back seat, my little sister would worry her seatbelt, her eyes wet with tears. “I’ll try to like it, daddy, really I will. I promise I’ll be better next time.” But the next time would involve an organ being sat upon, or a French horn being used as a sex aid, and the whole sorry cycle would repeat itself.

Back in his living room, my father would sit hypnotised, gazing at the ceiling, his head cocked to one side and his lips abnormally puckered. A slow, torturous death was promised to anyone who dared to disturb him, so I took to watching him through the keyhole. Still as a statue, he’d listen raptly as escaped lunatics free-improvised on electronic keyboards with their foreheads or earnest sopranos impersonated ovulating elephant seals. Long after the piece was over, assuming it was possible to tell, my father would shift his buttocks against the leather of his lounge chair and uncross his eyes. Often, he’d stand to find that one of his legs had gone numb, causing him to stagger sideways across the room like a drunk cowboy.

“Squeaks and bumps,” my mother called the hideous sounds constantly blasting through our house. “He’s turning me off music altogether with his unmitigated crap. It’s like someone is strangling a clowder of cats. But I suppose that’s what you get for marrying a deranged fruitcake.” The kitchen became her refuge, and she’d hide in there for hours on end, listening to Woman’s Hour and Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4, a station my father dismissed as “a bunch of nattering wankers”.

In an effort to impress him, I began whacking random clusters of keys during my piano practice. At the lyrical midpoint of a Schubert scherzo, I would suddenly flatten my palms and bring them down violently across the entire length of the keyboard while making vulgar retching sounds. Seconds later, my father would blow into the room, going for my throat. “But I’m defying the suffocating straitjacket of tonality!” I’d rasp as his grip tightened.

It annoyed me, his reaction. I knew for a fact that he’d tried a similar thing when he was a boy in the 1930s. “My parents must have thought they’d spawned an idiot,” he once told me. “I was like Beethoven, destroying pianos in his attempt to hear the notes. Except I wasn’t Beethoven. Or deaf.”

My father pinched his brow at the memory. “My god, it must have been horrendous. What was I thinking about? It’s a miracle I wasn’t murdered.”

What he was thinking about was becoming an avant-garde composer. But his dream died the day he wrote a modernist setting of the Sir Thomas Wyatt poem And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus and showed it to Bill Plunkett, an organist at his local parish church. After a careful review of the manuscript paper, Bill Plunkett, who was a traditionalist, handed it back to my father, offering a single word of advice: “Why?”

There was, apparently, something in the expression on the organist’s face that sank my father’s ambition. He gave up his dream of being a celebrated composer of cat squeals, choosing instead to become a natural appreciator of others. “After all,” he says, “where would composers be without people like me? Their music would be played to cretins unable to comprehend it. When I listen, I hang on every single note, in all registers. How many other mindless prats out there can say that?”

“Just you,” I concede. “Maybe one or two others.”

“Quite right. We’re a special lot.”

They certainly are. My father’s ever-growing collection of CDs, LPs and cassette tapes is already vast enough to qualify him for the reality TV show Hoarders. “It’s the only thing I get up for in the morning,” he said to me recently. “Except to pee, of course.”

Nearly every hour of my father’s life is spent organising and expanding his music archive

Years ago, when I left home to go to university, my parents immediately converted my old bedroom into an office. Gone were my life-size posters of topless women, my mediocre beer can collection, and my prized sleigh bed. In their place came a large desk, an executive swivel chair, a powerful desktop computer with state-of-the-art printer, multiple shelving units, a pull-out sofa bed, and several filing cabinets. The office was created for my mother, who remains a busy professional to this day. But within a week, my father was referring to it as “the factory”, having transformed it into a makeshift recording studio.

“I can’t even get into the blasted place thanks to your father’s mountains of so-called music,” my mother now regularly seethes. “The potty idiot’s already taken over the rest of the sodding house with his tuneless crap.”

She says this and he shoots her a sour look—the kind that makes me want to never get married. “Oh, shut up, woman. You’re exaggerating, as usual.” Then he vanishes to rummage through his soaring stacks of the weekly Radio Times, referred to my whole life as “The Bible”, dusty back copies of which span thirty years.

He’s 91 now, my father, and nearly every hour of his life is spent organising and expanding his music archive. “It’s my only passion,” he says. “I haven’t had a job for over thirty years, and I’ve never been so busy in my life. I confess that your mother suffers from a lack of husbands. It’s why she’s a member of something like forty choirs.”

It’s true that my mother is a social animal, while my father counts me as his best (and possibly only) friend—and I live seven thousand miles away. “Sometimes, I think it’s a good thing you live in South America,” he said on a video call, “because if you saw my current catalogue of recordings, you’d really think I’ve lost my marbles.”

I gave him the look that says, “I don’t need to see your catalogue to think that,” and he chuckled knowingly. “Your mother argues that I’m autistic. Between you and me, I’ve long suspected she may have a point.”

In my childhood, my parents would frequently entertain, and before their perfumed guests arrived to quaff grownup drinks and discuss adult topics, they’d spend the day preparing their house. My mother would burst from the kitchen carrying giant serving platters of fancy homemade crudités that my starving sister and I would try to steal. “Don’t you even dare,” she’d warn, lifting the patterned linen cloth to find us hidden and hungry under the dining room table. Our job was to hoover the carpets and straighten the paintings on the walls while my mother mopped the floors and scrubbed the bathrooms on her hands and knees.

My inheritance will consist of a cornucopia of music nobody in their right mind would ever want

My father’s only responsibility was the living room. “The place is a tip!” my mother would shout at him as he sat by the window wearing his headphones, ignoring her. “We can’t welcome people into this. Hop to it, you idle sod. Tidy up those flaming magazines. Now!” He’d mumble a few swear words, invariably insulting all of their friends—“congenital morons, the whole bloody lot of them”—and get back to listening to his music. Late afternoon, the living room still a bomb site, he could be found cleaning his LPs with an anti-static sticky roller, as if the snobbish guests were planning to empty his thousands of records out of their sleeves and pass social judgement upon their condition. I’d mention how unlikely that was, and he’d shake his head, saying, “All my LPs are pristine.” Then he’d gaze up at me, a solemn note entering in his voice. “Which is perfect for you if I die tonight.”

When the noisy guests finally arrived, littering our semi-circular driveway with their newly polished cars, I’d lie upstairs in my bedroom, envisioning my inheritance. A cornucopia of music nobody in their right mind would ever want. I wondered if one day I would I listen to any of it and remember my father. Would that prove to be his legacy: the sounds of a duck being asphyxiated, a trombone sullied, a cello molested?

“I can visualise being seen as a madman, but the fact is I’ve always been a fanatical collector,” is how he explained himself one day as we walked together in the woods. “Cigarette cards. Stamps. Birds eggs. Women. And now experimental new sounds at the margins of understanding. It’s a way of life, I guess, and I can’t stop. I’m going to continue doing it until I’m struck dead, either by God or your mother.”

The majority of his swelling library of cutting-edge works were recorded off Radio 3 via his DAB hi-fi system. This would be illegal if he ever shared them with anybody else, but as luck would have it, there’s zero demand for that. He “works” for at least eight hours every single day, organising his ever-expanding archive. I ask “Why?” and he offers only a weary sigh. “You must understand,” he said to me once. “I have to do it. It’s like masturbation.”

The archive really started to swell in the early 1990s, when my father’s company collapsed and he lost his job. I’d wake in the middle of the night to find him downstairs in the living room. He’d be sat in his paisley silk dressing gown, wearing his headphones, furiously texting information into his twin deck Sony recorder, not noticing that I was there.

“Your father’s had another of his panic attacks,” my mother said to me one morning at the breakfast table around this time. I cringed over my bran flakes. What a wimp, I remember thinking. Real men don’t have panic attacks. Our relationship turned a little sour after that. I started to daydream about what I’d do with my useless inheritance. I pictured myself lugging bulging black sacks, the square plastic jewel cases jabbing through the plastic. And I wondered how many trips I’d have to take to the municipal dump.

One time, when we were arguing, I told him the fate I’d planned for his beloved archive. His reaction haunts me to this day. There was a pause that went on forever. After a moment, his lips worked, as if he was going to say something. Then he disappeared back into his factory. We never talked about it again, and for years we went our separate ways.

Thanks to my father, my own taste for cacophonous atonal music has grown steadily over the years

Life went on. I graduated from university and embarked upon a series of doomed love affairs, while my father sank deeper and deeper into his obsession, the squeaks and bumps becoming ever more painful to the ear. It no longer satisfied him to merely archive the music, so he took to compiling what he likes to call “programmes”, and everybody else calls “mixtapes”. The shelves of the factory began to sag under the weight of thousands upon thousands of passionately curated and forensically edited CDs labelled with absurdly abstract titles like “Tangled Endings” and “Finding Luminescence”. Numbered according to intricate codes only he knew how to break, the “programmes” were stored in archive boxes, slotted in between other CDs with which they shared some “matching quality” that nobody except him would ever understand. “So that if anyone cares to take the CDs out in the future to play them,” he explained to me recently, “they’ll notice and be interested in the relevance between the discs.”

And I nodded, masking my real emotions with a supportive smile.

My own taste for cacophonous atonal music has grown steadily over the years. In my current home of Buenos Aires, I receive funny looks from people when they hear what I’m listening to. So I skulk through its barrios, EarPods turned down low, secretly filling my head with the twelve-tone serialism of my father’s great hero, Pierre Boulez. As I walk, I smile to myself and give passers-by an occasional, superior nod, acting like I’m lost in the ironic beats of the latest Gen Z sensation. I live in a trendy part of town, though, and nobody’s fooled by my charade.

I’m not my father yet. I’ll never relish the sound of a woman farting, for example. But I do worry what will become of me should I reach the age of sixty.

“It’s a damn nuisance,” he admits. “I eat and I breathe. I used to have sex, once. Now I give myself an hour and a half after breakfast to listen to music before I start working. But I am frequently in a panic because I’ve missed recording something—something I’m never going to listen to anyway. At least thirty per cent of the stuff in my archive is sheer bollocks. Probably more.”

It’s hard to talk to him about the nature of his music; about all of the squeaks and all of the bumps. He genuinely doesn’t hear it that way. “I was at the Albert Hall once with someone,” he says. “Who was it? Was it your sister? It was some woman, anyway. We were on our way out, when we met this chap getting into his car. “Did you enjoy the Prokofiev?” I asked him. And he shrugged, saying, “Yeah, except all the wrong notes.” Well, what can one do with berks like that? Personally, I love all the wrong notes. The only difference between the sound of a baby vomiting and a great symphony is the complexity. Otherwise, it’s basically the same thing.”

My sister works in the music industry and has strong opinions about my father’s obsessive behaviour. “It keeps him busy,” she says. “And young. It definitely keeps him young. He doesn’t have time to die. Leave him alone, will you?”

“Me?” I say, but I know she’s right, and I feel guilty for forcing him to account for himself.

“I personally think that retirement is an absurd concept,” he said to me the last time I talked to him. “There is a massive amount that goes to waste. My knowledge of music is encyclopaedic. That’s got to be valuable to someone.”

My mother joined him on the sofa, waving at the camera. I asked her how she was, and she said, “Your father’s factory needs fumigating. It’s disgusting. You couldn’t find yourself in there, even if you tried.”

Later, when she left the room to sing in one of her virtual choirs, I asked my father about it, and as usual he lamented how behind schedule he was with his life’s work. “I worry about the day I die,” he said, “and how angry I will be that I didn’t have more time. I tell you, Dom, the only thing I know for certain these days is that I will die cursing fate.”

And I thought, Please don’t. Please don’t.

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