A Brave Symphony

The written voice of Canberra, and curator of The Canberra Times’ Gang Gang column, Ian Warden, requested three particularly personal things:

Nicholas Milton gang gang cockatoos Petri Pitkanen

Nicholas Milton + Gang-Gang cockatoos + Petri Pitkanen

Malcolm scratched his head and stared at the sheet music in front of him. It was close, but not there yet. He picked up his violin and decided to start again.

As he began to play, he lost himself in the music. This was his favourite state of being; unconsciously and effortlessly moving his fingers across the strings, as though he was a conduit for the music being devised somewhere else. On one level of his consciousness he was still searching for the perfect combination of notes; but on another he was completely adrift in the sound. As he began the difficult second movement, he redoubled his concentration to focus on a new arrangement in this part of the concerto. He tried to hear the many instruments playing together in unison. One hundred people on stage coming together in beautiful unison. Here, now, at this time, there wasn’t the sound of a single violin in his room, but instead a full symphony orchestra.  But as his mind raced with options, he was distracted by the sound of someone shouting at him. He opened his eyes to find a tall, muscular man in his early twenties, sweat coming off his newly shaved head, yelling.

‘Mal! Mal! You have to come and see this.’

Mal sighed and put his violin down.

‘Benny, I was just getting to the part I’m trying to fix.’

‘But dude, you have to check out my score on NHL. I think I’ve finally figured it out. You have to see the way I was playing.’

Mal stood up and followed Ben into the lounge room of their tiny flat. He didn’t have the least bit of interest in watching his friend play his beloved PS4, but he felt he should humour him.  Ben was a big kid. He knew from bitter experience that if he paid attention to him now, he would leave him alone for the rest of the day.

Ben pointed triumphantly at the small flat screen television sitting in the corner of the room. Malcolm tried to negotiate around a floor littered with empty chip packets, a disconcerting crunching noise accompanying his every step.

‘Ben, do you reckon you could clean up after playing? This place was pretty tidy before. How long have you been playing?’

‘Only since eight.’

Malcolm looked at his watch.

‘This morning? It’s two o’clock. Have you even showered?’

Ben stared at his friend exasperated.

‘Never mind that, look at my score!’

Malcolm walked closer to him and peered at the screen.

‘5-1. Impressive… are you playing as the Maple Leaves?’

‘Yep. It’s only half time… and on the hardest setting. The computer has been destroying me, but something just clicked during this game. ‘

‘I’m proud of you mate; a morning of productive work.’

‘Well, to be fair, more night than morning,’ Ben said sheepishly. ‘I started at eight last night.’

‘Aren’t you supposed to be at work?’

‘Mal, it’s Saturday.’

‘I thought plumbers had to work weekends… emergencies and all that.’

‘Nah, not this weekend.’

Before Malcolm could protest any further, Ben had sat down and picked up the controller.

‘Watch me play mate. It’s a sight to behold.’

Malcolm collapsed into one of their sofas and resigned himself to watching Ben for the next five minutes. But within seconds of resuming his game Ben was swearing at the television

‘I suck again. You must be making me nervous. Stop it.’

‘Rightio then,’ Malcolm replied, rolling his eyes. ‘I’ll be in my room if you need me.’

Ben now appeared oblivious to Malcolm’s presence as he stood up and left the room.

‘Fuck it!’ he exclaimed at the television.

Mal picked up his violin and resumed his piece, trying to re-gather the thoughts and creativity he had channelled prior to the interruption. As he began to lose himself in the music he became aware of Ben celebrating in the other room. Obviously he had found his form without Malcolm to distract him.

A week later Mal was again in his room, putting the finishing touches to a recording of the concerto on his laptop when Ben appeared at the door.

‘Mal, can you come in here for a sec? And do you mind bringing the computer?’

Mal followed Ben into the next room to discover the PS4 on again. Ben appeared to have rediscovered his form on the NHL game.

Moments later, Ben and Malcolm were arguing.

‘You are crazy Ben, that’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard. It’s more nuts than the time you thought there was a ghost in the basement of the National Library.

‘You saw it with your own eyes Mal… well your own ears and eyes.  Heard it with your ears… You know what I mean. You’re the brainiac around here. ‘

‘I saw you playing NHL on a Playstation; albeit well. That’s not surprising. That’s all you’ve been playing for the last week. It’s psychosomatic; a placebo. That’s all.’

Ben suddenly slapped his forehead and stared at Mal wild-eyed. He appeared not to have heard his last comment.

‘What if this doesn’t just work for computer hockey?  What if it works on real hockey too?’

‘Oh c’mon. That’s even crazier Ben,’ Mal replied.

Ben paused for a moment to think. At last he spoke, his eyes still bright with excitement.

‘Let’s find out; a control group. The Canberra Brave. They’ve sucked lately. Even Pitkanen has been bad. They have a home game next week against the Mustangs. We will try it then.’

‘How? How will you try it then?’

‘You’ll see. Just be there at Phillip next Saturday. And bring your laptop!’

‘Sure,’ Mal said reluctantly.

A week later he found himself sitting in the chilly surrounds of the Phillip Ice Skating rink; the rink that the 90s forgot, as Malcolm liked to think if it. An air of excitement was building amongst the hundred odd supporters huddled together on the small stand to the side of the rink. Most were hunkered down, hands in pockets and hoodies on, their breath visible in tiny clouds escaping their mouths. As the players made their way onto the ice, the crowd began to clap and cheer, and Malcolm found himself becoming caught up in their enthusiasm. A moment later, Ben had plonked himself down next to him.

‘Here we are big fella, D-day. The big test.’

Mal shook his head.

‘You’re nuts!’

‘Did you bring your laptop?’ said Ben, apparently oblivious to Malcolm’s scepticism.

Mal leant over and pulled his Macbook Air from his bag.

‘There you go. But I want no part in this!’

‘Sure, sure. That’s what you say now. You’ll feel differently when I’ve made you famous.’

‘How are you going to do this test anyway?’

‘Just wait till they start losing; which they will. And then I will put the hard word on Cyndi Lauper over there,’ Ben replied, motioning towards the DJ in the corner, who had begun dancing to the sounds of “Eye of the Tiger”.’

‘As if he is going to agree to that,’ Malcolm replied. ‘In his world, Breakfast Club is a new release movie.’

Mal decided to focus on the game to try and take his mind off Ben’s crazy scheme. Unfortunately, Pitkanen aside, the Brave did not begin well. They were pinned in their own half for first five minutes, resorting to icing whenever they recovered the puck. Pitkanen did pull off some amazing saves, but by the end of the first period they were already down by two goals.

When Ouellette was crunched in front of them at the beginning of the second period, the wind audibly escaping his lungs as Hughes crushed his chest into the wall, the crowd around them gasped with a combination of shock, awe and disappointment. Moments later Clayworth tried to even the score, but only resulted in hitting Hughes high and being sent to the penalty box.

‘Start a fight Brave! At least then you might win something,’ a guy behind them shouted. Mal turned to see him wearing a Mustangs jumper.

‘I’ll give it a few minutes in the second periods and then the magic can begin,’ Ben whispered.

‘If your crazy idea has any merit, how do you know it won’t make the Mustangs play better?’

‘You tell me Mozart; what’s your piece called?’

‘101’

‘Because Canberra is that age, yeah?’

‘Yeah, it’s supposed to be a sequel to Andrew Schultz’s Symphony No. 3 – Century.’

‘Well, there you go. Plus, it made me play better didn’t it, not the computer?’

‘But you were playing as Toronto!’

‘Yeah, but it made me play better. You don’t get more Canberra than me. I was literally born on the twelfth of March. When they make the movie of Canberra, it will be called Ben Reilly.’

‘Okay, okay.’

True to his word, when the Mustangs scored their fourth goal midway through the second period, Ben stood up.

‘Wish me luck.’

Malcolm sunk into his seat and tried to hide.

Ben walked over to the DJ and proceeded to have a lengthy and heated argument. At last Ben reluctantly took a fifty dollar note from his wallet and handed it over him along with Mal’s computer. The DJ began plugging it in.

Meanwhile, on the ice, the Mustangs had scored again.

Ben returned to his seat.

‘You had to bribe him to pay the music?’ Mal whispered.

‘Not exactly,’ Ben replied loudly. ‘We have a bet. If the Brave win, he will pay me fifty dollars. But he wanted to hold my fifty before he would agree.

The sounds of Bananarama abruptly stopped from the speakers around them. Mal sunk further into his seat. Part of him was excited about what was about to happen but the most dominant emotion he felt was dread. This was going to be the first public examination he would face, and he wasn’t sure this was the best audience for his audition.

As his piece began playing through the public address system he noticed several confused looks on the people around him. Some were too focused on the game to notice the soundtrack change, but he saw a couple of teenagers in the seats below them exchange confused looks. It might have been his imagination but out on the ice he thought he saw Pitkanen look at Clayworth with a surprised look.

‘I don’t think the crowd appreciates my music,’ Mal whispered to Ben.

‘They will in a minute,’ he replied. ‘And look, that guy with the beard down there is enjoying it.’

Ben had a point. A red headed man with a matching beard was tapping his feet enthusiastically to the music. He was writing notes on his notebook at the same time.

Nonetheless, Mal felt the discontentment of some other supporters growing. The frustration at the Brave’s performance was being channelled towards Mal’s music. Two larger men, wearing black Megadeath shirts and sporting matching mullets, were making their way towards the DJ. He looked nervously in their direction. However before they reached him, all three were distracted by cheers ringing out from the crowd behind.

The Brave had scored, as Clayworth tucked the puck into the net from a brilliant counter attack.

Ben nudged Mal.

‘See’

‘It’s one goal’

‘It’s just the start.’

The Megadeath fans had reached the DJ and we’re arguing with him. But when Ouellette scored with an amazing flick, Mal noticed the DJ began to shake his head more defiantly.

What followed was truly amazing. As Mal move his attention away from the DJ, he became increasingly aware of how well the Brave were playing.

Kokkonen was the next to score and after Mustangs lost Hughes to the penalty box, Clayworth scored during the power play.

The score was 4-5.

The Megadeath fans had given up on the DJ and returned to their seats. Although now they weren’t using their seats very much, instead spending the bulk of the final five minutes on their feet.

‘How long does your piece go for?’ Ben asked.

‘Around an hour.  But the second movement needs more work.’

‘That’s plenty for this game.’

As the minutes ticked by, the Brave got better and better.

They scored three times again and ran out easy winners. The small crowd rose as one to cheer them off the rink.

No one was cheering more loudly than Ben. Even Mal found himself on his feet too.

‘They are cheering for you my friend,’ Ben said over the noise of the crowd.

When the players had gone onto their rooms, Ben made his way down to the DJ, who was now deep in conversation with an older man in a puffy Brave jacket. Ben joined the conversation and motioned up to Mal.

Moments later all three had walked up to Mal’s seat.

‘My name is Matti Luoma and I coach the team,’ the man in the jacket began. ‘The story your friend just told me is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. But I’m a superstitious guy. I’d like to play your music at every game if that’s okay?’

‘Um sure,’ replied Mal. ‘But the second movement needs work.’

‘Whatever. Please just make sure Bear here can play it at every game.’

As they got up to leave, Mal noticed the red headed man from earlier speaking enthusiastically to Pitkanen. He overheard some of the conversation as he walked past.

‘I like the name Brave. But the Canberra Gang-Gang would be even better. You see, the Gang-Gang cockatoo is a small, stocky cockatoo with a wispy crest, large, broad wings and a short tail. Just picture the distinctive grey and red colours on the front of the jerseys.’

The man was biting his pencil in-between sentences, and seemed to keep staring at Pitkanen’s biceps.

The following months were a whirlwind for Mal. He and Ben would be VIP guests at every game for the rest of the season.

And at every game they would hear Mal’s music.

Fan websites and local media became more and more fixated on the story. The Canberra Times in particular was full of stories of how the Brave were being inspired by a local composer’s music.

As Ben and Mal took their seats for the Brave’s first semi final appearance months later, Mal blew warm air on to his hands and tried to understand how fate had brought him to this place.

‘I’m enjoying the games, and it’s great people are appreciating my music, but this cold weather is really getting to me.’

‘Ah, what sort of Canberran are you!’ Ben replied. ‘You know they picked this area for our National Capital because they thought the bracing cold weather would help the politicians think straight.’

‘True, sometimes it does feel warmer in here than out there.’

Mal was nervous. His new found celebrity was welcome but he knew it was directly linked to the team. And while they had won all their home games, he noticed they were becoming less and less convincing. The team’s form away from home had been terrible, and most people were now directly linking their home game wins to the fact they could play Mal’s music in the Phillip rink. During a road trip to Wollongong the team had managed to take the lead, until the players were caught wearing Bluetooth earphones.  The league promptly banned the practice, and the Brave had lost every away game since.

Still, their home form had got them this far. However, if they lost today, their season was over, and the community’s attention on Malcolm over too.

Ben looked over at him and obviously sensed his concerns.

‘It will be fine, mate. A win today and we’re hosting the final. As long as we host we are all good.’

But it nearly wasn’t fine. It took a goal by Clayworth in overtime to clinch a 1-0 win, but Pitkanen had been the hero keeping the Brave in the lead all night.

Coach Luoma came and spoke to Mal after the game.

‘I think the music is wearing off. We need to do something to amp it up.’

Mal nodded.

‘I agree. What did you have in mind?’

‘We have been approached by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. They are considering performing live at the grand final.’

‘Wow, um… yeah, that might do it,’ was all Mal could offer in reply. Truth was he was incredibly excited at the prospect of the CSO performing his concerto live.

When Mal arrived at the rink a week later he was shocked by what he saw. A select group of the CSO were huddled together in one corner of the stadium. He recognised a few familiar faces from the School of Music. John, the orchestra’s lead violinist smiled at his direction before nudging a man next to him and indicating towards Mal. This second figure had his back to Mal but as soon as he turned around, Mal recognised him.

As the man approached him, Mal could only stare for several moments. Finally he found his voice.

You are Nicolas Milton,‘ he stammered. ‘You are like… my hero.’

Nicholas smiled in return.

‘The feeling is mutual Mal, you have been doing some amazing things here.’

‘But you are supposed to be in Europe?’

‘I am back in town briefly to conduct Firebird, and I was keen to conduct our little mini orchestra for your piece.’

He leant in and whispered to Mal.

‘And I’m a huge ice hockey fan.’

Mal smiled in return.

Nicholas continued.

‘I love your piece. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to suggest a minor change in the second movement.’

‘Yes, I’ve never been able to get that section right.’

Nicholas showed Mal a piece of sheet music.

‘I think if we rearrange it like this, it might work better. It would mean a violin solo?’

Mal stared at the page. What Nicholas was suggesting was inspired. He heard the music playing in his mind as he read the notes.

‘That’s it! It will be perfect.’

And it was.

Made all the more so by what Nicholas said next.

‘We’d be honoured if you would join our string section for this performance?’

The following hour was an incredible experience. Mal struggled to watch, so overawed was he being conducted by Nicholas Milton; performing his own original work no less.

His concerto sounded even better being performed live by a real orchestra than he could ever have imagined sitting in his bedroom; and this wasn’t even the full CSO.

He was aware of the crowd cheering more and more loudly around him, and noticed both Clayworth and Ouellette score for the Brave. But most of the time he was fixated on the music, and he didn’t realise the final whistle had gone until Nicholas signalled for them to finish.

Ben rushed up to him.

’10-0. We won 10-nothing. It’s a record. You set a new Australian Ice Hockey League record!’

Mal smiled.

‘I think they did,’ he said, indicating to the players, who were now embracing hundreds of supporters on the side of the rink.

He stood to walk over and congratulate them, when a tall man with short cropped hair nudged him.

‘Hi, are you Mal?’

Mal smiled and nodded.

‘I am, I just need to go and speak to someone.’

‘I’ll be real quick,’ the young man continued, walking with him. There was something strangely familiar about him.

‘My name is Nick and I’m a tennis player. Do you like tennis Mal?’

‘Sure,’ Mal replied, trying to place how he knew the man.

‘Great, because I’m going back on tour next week and I need your help. I need to take my game to the next level. I’ve tried training harder, and new gear…I’ve even tried truffles.

‘I was wondering… have you ever been to Wimbledon?’

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