Essays / Music

Essay: The Impossibility of Music

Cover of "An Equal Music"

Cover of An Equal Music

IN a recent interview on BBC’s Radio 3, Daniel Barenboim left no one in doubt about the efforts of those who attempt to capture music in words. The celebrated pianist and conductor, in London to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, said: “You can not express the content of music in words.” And with that simple sentence he left his interviewer fumbling for another way to ask him about the meaning of the sonatas.

The significant word in Barenboim’s statement is ‘express’; he’s not saying you can’t talk or write about music, just that you can’t communicate its content; it’s untranslatable, he appears to be saying. This is a intriguing contention but one with which some of the finest writers in English today, who have made music central, or at least a significantly tangential element, in one of their novels, would take issue. He probably didn’t have Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth, David Mitchell, and Nick Hornby in mind when he said it – though one can’t presume the reading tastes of the maestro – but he might as well have.

Novels aren’t normally about sounds – leaving aside Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and is that really a novel in the sense that many of us understand the term to mean? Novels are mainly about the interaction of characters and how they respond to each other and to the world in which their creators place them. That is certainly the case with Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (1999). Yet all three confront Barenboim’s assertion head on and attempt to “express the content of music in words” and, to a greater and lesser extent, also attempt to describe the process of musical invention. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) shares a thematic similarity with An Equal Music in that it is about love, but although it features a singer-songwriter it is not really a book about musical invention, in the sense that Seth’s or the other two are of try to be. High Fidelity is more a funny tale of arrested development among pop music obsessives in north London, but in its bloke-ish way it manages some important insights into music, or at least the way pop music and its lyrics has become the medium through which some people understand to their emotional lives.

In an attempt to communicate the content of music a novelist runs the risk of getting himself tangled in embarrassing abstractions, and adjectives and adverbs – the very parts of speech fine writing enthusiasts and creative writing teachers value for their absence. The former is especially treacherous terrain as the English language abhors wordy abstraction and lack of clarity in expression. Yet, of all the arts music is probably the most abstract and therefore, prima facie, resistant to translation into another medium. Kandinsky tried to paint music and in the process he produced some of the most abstract paintings – some say first – of the early 20th century. What hope writers? Better than one might first think.

Amsterdam, McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is an intellectually ambitious work; it deals with some of the big issues in creativity, not just musical invention. Clive Linley, one of the book’s two main characters, is a successful composer of the post-Britten generation of British composers, and regards himself as the heir to Ralph Vaughan Williams. When we meet him he is grieving for a dead lover and deep in the process of writing a commissioned symphony that will premiere in Amsterdam ahead of the millennium. However, Clive is blocked. A theme for the last movement of the symphony eludes him. In search of inspiration he decides to go hill climbing in the Lake District. There he hears the song of a bird; it is a three note sequence and it provides him with the idea for the symphony’s last movement. At the same time as Clive experiences this musical revelation he observes an act of violence. He watches a man assault a woman and is torn between intervening on her behalf and continuing to sketch his musical idea. He chooses the latter only to fail ultimately in producing his great work, whose rehearsal in Amsterdam is on the same day as the novel’s improbable dénouement where Clive kills and is killed.

English: Ian McEwan, a british writer, photogr...

Ian McEwan (Wikipedia)

This potted summary illuminates two potentially interesting themes: the first is the notion of the blocked artist wrestling with the creative process. This is rich terrain for exploring ideas of creativity, inspiration, and execution. The second is the choice Clive makes. He asserts the primacy of art above defending another human being against attack and, as we subsequently learn, murderer. These are interesting and important ideas; but McEwan does little more than signal them; he identifies the onion, as it were, and does none of the peeling away of its layers. Worse still he seems to be making Barenboim’s point in his attempt at evoking musical content. Take this typical example:

“[W]hat fascinated him was the promise, the aspiration – he imagined it as a set of ancient worn steps turning gently out of sight – the yearning to climb on and up, and finally arrive, by the way of an expansive shift, at a remote key and, with wisps of sound falling away like so much dissolving mist, at a concluding melody, a valediction, a recognisable melody of piercing beauty that would transcend its unfashionability and seem both to mourn the passing century and all its senseless cruelty, and to celebrate its brilliant inventiveness.” (p. 20)

This is the description of a melody that’s lifting quite a heavy load. It not only has to “mourn” and “celebrate” the 20th century’s respective “brilliant inventiveness” and its “senseless cruelty”, but at the same time transcending its own unfashionability (on account of being melodic). If Clive is essentially a composer whose reach exceeds his grasp then so too, one must conclude, is McEwan when faced with describing Clive’s music.

Novelists exploit the intimate relationship they have with their readers. Through suggestion they invite them to complete an image in their heads which they’ve only sketched. To the point made earlier about the English language’s preference for simplicity over complexity and directness over circuitousness, economy of description is a positive attribute in novels. The trouble, however, with novels that introduce music is that music really only makes sense if you can hear it and no amount fine writing can create the sound of an orchestra, or an ensemble, in full swing.

In Cloud Atlas, however, Mitchell, goes some way to challenging that apparent truism. His assemblage of overlapping stories features one of the better characters and stories that feature musicians and music. Robert Frobisher, disinherited son of a clergyman, promiscuous bisexual, thief, and composer, seeks to nourish his soul an his pocket by apprenticing himself to Vyvyan Ayers. He is a distinguished, elderly, and functionally blind British composer who lives in the ancestral home of his aristocratic younger wife Jocasta Crommelynck, at Zedelghem, an hour from Bruges in Belgium countryside.

Cover of "Cloud Atlas"

Cover of Cloud Atlas

Frobisher is cynical and clever and his story, in two sections, occupies just 76 pages of Mitchell’s 530 page novel which takes its name from the Cloud Atlas Sextet that Frobisher writes – “my head is a Roman Candle of invention. Lifetime’s music arriving all at once. Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now.” (p. 479) The weakness in Cloud Atlas has nothing to do with the way in which music and musicians are represented but more so with Frobisher’s suicide, an act for which the reader has been ill prepared and simply doesn’t ring true. Until that point Mitchell’s characterisation of Frobisher, Ayres, Jocaster, et al, is sharp and convincing. But here is Frobisher wrestling with a musical idea:

“Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of crashing noise, and august chord range out, half-cello, half celeste, D-major (?) held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase affair off its pedestal – E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept…orgy of shrapnel filled the air, divine harmonies my head. Ah, such music.” (p. 43)

This succeeds where McEwan doesn’t because it avoids the literal. The sense of music is communicated in disjointedness of the writing.  He hints rather than tries to recreate but curiously succeeds in evoking sound better than McEwan is able to do.

If Cloud Atlas is let down by a dramatically crucial, but unconvincingly rendered, element in its story, and Amsterdam by a failure to evoke music in prose, then Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music impresses because of the tightness of its narrative, its emotional honesty, and the sheer quality of the writing about making and playing chamber music. I’m not sure whether Barenboim’s statement is capable of refutation, but if it is then Seth provides the argument.

Seth takes us into the world of high performance chamber music – the most cerebral branch of classical music – seen from the vantage point provided by Michael Holme, the first person narrator of the book, who plays second violin in the Maggiore String Quartet. But this is a much more layered text than simply the life of a second fiddle player. The enduring, life sustaining properties of music is the context for a narrative about obsessive, all consuming love – Michael’s for his lost then found then lost again muse Julia – and of betrayal in human relationships. Seth draws out the other characters of the other quartet players deftly and almost entirely through their dialogue; well sketched too are his father and Mrs Formby, the benefactor of his Tononi violin, in Rochdale; and the milieu the musicians inhabit.

Michael, who has been emotionally adrift since losing Julia, meets her after a ten year absence. She has since married and has a son. They become lovers. Shockingly she has developed deafness, though through sheer talent she is still able to play the piano to concert standards. Betrayal runs in counterpoint to love throughout, beginning with Michael’s of Julia ten years previously when unexpectedly he left her, and ending with her rejection of him after an intense, fleeting affair. Here, in the follow extract, where Michael, late in the book, tells Julia he has had to inform Piers, the leader of the quartet, that she is deaf. Note the discussion of ‘trust’ and Julia’s comments at the end about lying.

‘But, Michael – I don’t understand – what exactly did you tell him?’

‘Well, about your, your problem.’

She closes her eyes in all too evident shock.

‘Julia I don’t know what I can say – ’

But her eyes are still closed. I hold her hand and I put it to my forehead. After a while she opens her eyes – but now she is not looking at me but at something though and beyond me. I wait for her to speak.

‘Couldn’t you have talked to me about it beforehand?’ she says at last.

‘I couldn’t. He asked me point black. It was a question of trust.’

‘Of trust? Of trust?’

‘I couldn’t look at him and keep lying.’

‘What do you think I have to do at home about you? It doesn’t come easily to me. It’s just that the alternative’s worse.’(p204)

In the hands of a lesser writer the treatment of Julia’s deafness would have been mawkish. But Seth had established her musical talent and her joy in performing and so the revelation of her deafness – described in detail in a letter by her to Michael – is moving, astonishing, and shocking all at the same time.

Where Seth excels is in capturing the emotional effects of music on the auditor and player, as in this quotation where Michael listens to a Beethoven Piano Trio in C minor (that he used to play with Julia ten years previously)transposed by Beethoven for string quintet.

“The sound fills the room: so familiar, so well-loved, so disturbingly and enchantingly different. From the moment, a mere ten bars from the beginning, where it is not the piano that answers the violin but the violin itself that provides his own answer, to the last note of the last movement where the cello, instead of playing the third, supports with its lowest, most resonant, most open note the beautifully spare C major chord, I am in a world where I seem to know everything and nothing.” (p.54)

And here, having played the same quintet with the Maggiore, the music evokes, in an almost Proustian way, a memory of Julia.

For me there is another presence in this music. As the sense of her might fall upon my retina through two sheets of moving glass, so too through this maze of notes converted by our arms into vibration – sensory, sinuous – do I sense her being again. The labyrinth of my ear shocks the coils of my memory. Here is her force in my arm, her is her spirit in my pulse.(pp. 79-80)

The interesting aspect of An Equal Music – a novel of 381 pages – is that Seth, in contrast to McEwan in particular, devotes little space to the out and out description of music. He conveys the beauty of music and the excitement of playing it at the highest level through his characters’ discussions in rehearsal and in down times. Julia’s solo concert at the Wigmore Hall, where she plays Bach’s Art of Fugue, ends the book and could have been an occasion for rhapsodic description. Instead it is described in thirty words:

“There is no forced gravitas in her playing. It is a beauty beyond imagining – clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase, phrase echoing phrase, the incomplete, the unending “Art of Fugue”.”

It is something of a relief from the sturm und drang of An Equal Music to alight on High Fidelity, which deals with no less weighty matters of the heart, but does so with a comic zest and that is delightful. If the book’s central character, Rob Fleming, were twenty years younger it would be a ‘coming of age’ novel; instead it is one about the arrested emotional development of a mid-30s man who seems destined not to be able to maintain a grown up relationship with a woman. His lover of years, Laura Lydon, leaves him for another man and this occasions much soul searching, bad behaviour, and pop music. “What came first, the music or the misery? …Do all these records turn you into a melancholy person?” (pp. 26-27) Rob wonders early in the book. It’s unclear (and probably irrelevant) whether Barenboim’s ‘content of music’ is the notes on staves or the lyrics.

The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve listening to the sad songs longer than they have been living the unhappy lives. (p.27)

His life perks up when he meets Marie LaSalle, an American acoustic guitarist and song writer, who moves him to tears with a rendition of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way”, a song that “used to make me puke”. She’s pretty in that “nearly cross-eyed American way…a slightly plumper post-Partridge Family pre-LA Law Susan Dey – and if you were going to develop a spontaneous and pointless crush on somebody you could do a lot worse.” He does. That short quotation underlines one of High Fidelity’s endearing qualities and a long term weakness. I can just remember the Partridge Family and almost LA Law but for the life of me I’ve no idea what Susan Dey looks like. Those of a similar generation to Nick Hornby will also recognise the music; but those who aren’t won’t. His tone of voice and superb comic timing will survive but I wonder how it will read to people who have not heard the music he’s writing about. You might argue that this is even more so for McEwan and Mitchell who both write about music that has never been created let alone heard. Yet somehow it’s not; no matter how imperfectly they try, they recreate the content of music in their prose and in so doing evoke something. Hornby doesn’t. He depends on his readers’ ability to remember the songs he lists for them to have their emotional and comic punch. Once that active memory expires his lists will be meaningless to all but the antiquarian.

High Fidelity proves Barenboim neither right not wrong as Hornby isn’t playing that game. Seth’s greater musicality means that he elides the trap; a writer of proven poetical gifts he conveys musicality mostly in ways other than through descriptions of music. McEwan and Mitchell both try more fully to evoke sound and movement in their writing and to my mind the latter succeeds better than the former – though it is a close run thing. So where does that leave Barenboim’s assertion? Four very different and talented writers have made music central to one of their works. They have produced highly readable and, for the most part, insightful works. These are high achievements in themselves. What they have not, however, produced are novels that capture the content of music. Yet isn’t that beyond even the reach of art? No art form can capture the essence of another art form – music of Michelangelo’s David or Monet’s Nymphéas, or, indeed, of Jane Austen’s Emma or Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint – if it did it would be that which it captured and not itself.

Simon Holberton


One thought on “Essay: The Impossibility of Music

  1. Pingback: Bad Music? I know What I Like « Weering Review

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