Sight reading occurs when a musician is asked to perform a piece of music off a written score without ever having seen it before; without rehearsal. Often used as a test for musical acuity, students hope to muddle through without making too many egregious errors. Professionals, however, are expected to not only perform the notes correctly, but also to give the piece some measure of nuanced interpretation to showcase their superior skills. Then again, every performance of a new piece begins with a sight reading. This idea of attempting to perform as flawlessly as possible in the face of the unknown is at the center of Daphne Kalotay‘s new novel, Sight Reading, both in the musical realm and in the more fluid realm of life.
Hazel is a stay at home wife and mother, but her home is constantly in a state of flux; her husband, Nicholas, is a rising young classical music star as conductor and acclaimed composer, so their lives are never settled but instead move from contract to contract, from Festival to guest conductor job to composer in residence fellowship. At first, life on the go was exciting, a way for her to explore the world and practice her own art (pencil and ink sketches), but as the moves piled up and her permanence became scoped down to a single Persian carpet that she insisted always travel with them (home is where the carpet is!), the motif of movement had become somewhat flaccid and rote. She loves her husband and is proud of his blossoming career, and she relishes being able to free him from organizational care – as if he would notice that establishing a new life every year or even every few months requires organization – but she is beginning to feel that there has been something lost in the constant repetition of their lives. Still, she performs the refrain whenever it is called for, and does it beautifully.
Nicholas is indeed a free spirit, but one that is completely, utterly focused on music. It has captivated him his whole life; his most acute memories are those that evoke the music that surrounds him. His relative youth and his talent have brought him acclaim, and his life is uncluttered enough to allow him to create at will. He loves his wife and their daughter, Jessie, and adores the time spent with them, but he is just as filled when he is enraptured in the music itself. His music is not demanding; he partners with it, and from that partnership great things roll off of his fingertips – both in composition and in conducting. His boyish cluelessness of everything save his art has endeared him to almost everyone in the musical world, from promoters and administrators to comrades and other composers, to the public and to those that he leads either in class or by the baton.
Remy is an extremely talented violinist, but she never seems to be the one with the most talent no matter where she goes. There is always someone who is just a bit better, whose skill is slightly more pronounced than hers, no matter how hard she practices, or how much she gives of herself to the music. She has had triumphs, yes, but they have been small and personal or have been triumphs in recognizing her potential – not necessarily the realization of that potential. But she will not let what others would view as a limitation keep her from striving to be the best – if not in technique, well then, in lyricism and interpretation, in nimbleness and in spirit. It is her spirit that drives her, a spirit that finds its wings in the music and allows her to soar. She is learning that being her best is the ultimate goal, not in doing the best, and it is in doing her best that she shines, even if perhaps not as brilliantly as others but with a light all her own.
These characters are compelling, and where Sight Reading is the most successful is when the author takes us into the psyche of Hazel, Nicholas and Remy. (Nicholas, especially, was at times a joy to read – so uncluttered, so blissfully unaware of the impact his actions has on others, but in a benign and slightly adorable way, like so many artists are.) And thankfully, Ms. Kalotay was able successfully share the heightened sensibilities of the artiste to his or her art without those passages becoming cloying or, worse yet, pretentious, as happens so often when portraying the hypersensitivity of musical genius.
“You know what they say about stars in the sky,” Lesser said, that what we’re seeing has already burned out by the time we see it? A star by the time we perceive it has already been shining, without our even being aware of it. Think of the melody as that star traveling along on a continuum, until it arrives in the first measures of your score. Only then does the listener finally hear it.”
Remy tried to picture the melody as a line beginning far away, so faint that only she could hear it. Though aware of the seconds ticking by, this time she waited until she heard the melody clearly, felt it traveling towards her, and with her eyes still closed, listened to it. This time, when she lifted her bow, her hand was no longer shaking. She played the opening bars, and Conrad Lesser did not stop her.
Unfortunately, though, even with various components of this book being well executed, the main arc of the tale is too familiar and predictable, having been played out many times in similar works that have been released prior to this one. There is no new ground broken here, nor indeed is there a sense of an overarching moral, or a compelling reason for this particular story to be told. The individual performances are enjoyable but the overall work is flat and woefully thin, as if a soaring orchestral piece had been pared down to only three voices; regardless of how well those three instruments are played, the piece itself will be lacking. Additionally, some of the temporal transitions in the narrative were awkward and confusing which undercut the pacing of the story, and an intriguing theme at the start of the book was virtually dropped as the story progressed, and there was no clear explanation of why it was introduced in the first place.
Ultimately, this novel left me somewhat sad; although it promised much, in the long run I found myself indifferent to the resolutions of any of the characters and their choices. This story only gave me what I expected – which is not what I wanted. It ended up being a tired refrain, beautifully performed and artfully crafted, but leaving me without much of an impression after the final page was turned.