When Elvis Costello told an interviewer that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, he was taking a shot at journalists. But the representation of music, by nature, is something that wordsmiths of all kinds have struggled with. One might think that the job becomes easier for writers of fiction — that, once you’ve got a license to make stuff up, describing the abstractions of another art form is just another part of the terrain. While I’m not a novelist (and though my own experience actually has been as a music journalist), I can say that, as a reader of fiction, I don’t find it to be quite so simple or easily brushed aside.
There’s more to music than tones and rhythms, and sometimes less. There’s more to a maker of music than the audible result of his work…and sometimes less. And the most striking observations, as with any craft, often come from the perspective of those who look from the outside in, and who find phenomena in what the artist can see only as the familiar. Music has — for infinitely different purposes, and for infinitely different types of people — served as a kind of social adhesive throughout human history. We’re drawn to it. We seek it out, often for no other reason than that it makes us feel pleasant. It is, after all, only a series of ordered sounds. But the great struggle for those who write it into their fiction must, I think, come with assigning a meaning to its performance — with suggesting a reason for its existence.
Watch as the narrator of James Baldwin’s captivating story Sonny’s Blues finally gains a chance to understand both the personality and the universality of the ways in which his brother Sonny turns urban adversity into jazz.
Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat in the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys were up there keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any long to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.”
Watch Helen’s tragic beauty swell and fall as she sings to that crowded bar in Ironweed, William Kennedy’s novel of resilience and redemption.
And then Helen, still wearing that black rag of a coat rather than expose the even more tattered blouse and skirt that she wore beneath it, standing on her spindle legs with her tumorous belly butting the metal stand of the microphone and giving her the look of a woman five months pregnant, casting boldly before the audience this image of womanly disaster and fully aware of the dimensions of this image, Helen then tugged stylishly at her beret, adjusting it forward over one eye. She gripped the microphone with a sureness that postponed her disaster, at least until the end of this tune, and then sang ‘Here’s Me Pal,’ a ditty really, short and snappy, sang it with exuberance and wit, with a tilt of the head, a roll of the eyes, a twist of the wrist that suggested the proud virtues. Sure, he’s dead tough, she sang, but his love ain’t no bluff.”
Listen to Gregor Samsa, the absurd hero of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as he seeks hopelessly to pour out an affection he never had before, and now never can.
The family was totally preoccupied with the violin playing; at first the three gentlemen had put their hands in their pockets and come up far too close behind the music stand to look at all the notes being played, and they must have disturbed Gregor’s sister, but soon, in contrast with the family, they withdrew back to the window with their heads sunk and talking to each other at half volume, and they stayed by the window while Gregor’s father observed them anxiously. It really now seemed very obvious that they had expected to hear some beautiful or entertaining violin playing but had been disappointed, that they had had enough of the whole performance and it was only now out of politeness that they allowed their peace to be disturbed. It was especially unnerving, the way they all blew the smoke from their cigarettes upwards from their mouth and noses. Yet Gregor’s sister was playing so beautifully. Her face was leant to one side, following the lines of music with a careful and melancholy expression. Gregor crawled a little further forward, keeping his head close to the ground so that he could meet her eyes if the chance came. Was he an animal if music could captivate him so? It seemed to him that he was being shown the way to the unknown nourishment he had been yearning for.”
It’s passages like these that remind me how wrong Elvis Costello was. Not because writing and music always fit like gloves on hands, but because conceiving one within the other, at its best, ends up birthing such beautifully loaded narrative and thematic concepts that we’re forced to realize we’re no longer dealing with two different things here, but one grand, overarching thing that cuts to the most fundamental ways in which we’re attracted to art. It also tends, sometimes sneakily, to show us depths of character — both in the fiction and in ourselves — that words alone fail to reach.
The truth is, when I read things like this I don’t need to stretch my imagination very far. I can hear the music in my head. The clearer the image, the better it sounds. And, as the Duke said: If it sounds good, it is good.
But enough about me. What are some of your favorite musical moments in fiction?