“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Variously attributed)

I was thinking about how this blog is supposed to be themes that relate books to life and how there are gaping holes in what I’ve covered so far.  This week I attempt to redress the balance by picking something that is a huge part of most people’s lives: music.  However, as the title quote shows, I may be digging myself the most enormous hole here, as trying to capture an aural experience through words is nigh on impossible.  Let’s take a breath and have some music so if nothing else this post does make some sort of melodic offering.  One of my favourite bands, and one of my mother’s favourite songs, Frogs Legs and Dragon’s Teeth by Bellowhead:

That was for you Maman!  Right, back to books, and two brave writers who’ve made music a big part of their novels.

Firstly The Courage Consort by Michel Faber (Canongate, 2002).  I’m fan of Michel Faber’s writing – I love his sparse style and unpredictability.  Anything can happen his books, there’s no “typical Faber”.  The Courage Consort is a novella (121 pages in my edition) told from the point of view of Catherine, one of five members of the titular a capella group headed by her husband, Roger.  Catherine is emotionally fragile (we are introduced to her trying to decide whether to jump out of the window) and her husband seemingly oblivious to her pain.  They join three others to rehearse an insanely complex piece called Partitum Mutante in an eighteenth-century chateau in Belgium.  The composer arrives briefly to assist them, a madman who attacked his ex with a stiletto in an airport and tells them to make their singing “more extreme, but more soft also…quiet but loud”.  Working on this seemingly doomed project, the disparate personalities that make up “the seventh most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world” start to come into conflict, but not in an entirely predictable way.

Faber creates a believably comic situation and the characters are generally well-observed, if bordering on national stereotypes at times.  The character of Catherine is sympathetic and Faber shows how music carries over into her musings about life in general:

“Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it.  Even the way a sustained A flat tended to make an auditorium’s air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately.  It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all soundwaves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping-paper off it.   But too much sonic nakedness wasn’t good for the spirit.  At least that was what she was finding lately, since she’d started coming…adrift.”

But things are not necessarily what they seem: Catherine hears screaming in the night and is told a ghost story about the forest that surrounds them.  No-one else hears it, and Catherine goes on to have an experience in the forest which is not told to the reader.  This lack of explication stops The Courage Consort being a straightforwardly comic novel, as an eeriness creeps around the house and its inhabitants.  Things do not go as planned, but ultimately the group comes to fully comprehend just how healing the experience of music can be.

Secondly, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty (Vintage, 1997).  Grace Notes tells the story of another Catherine, this one a composer struggling to manage her art alongside the demands of her life.  These demands include a new baby and ensuing post-natal depression, her father’s death, and conflict with her mother.  Musicality comes naturally to her, and she has an innate understanding form an early age:

“One day, when she was only three or four, she’d slipped away from the kitchen as her mother baked and listened to the radio.  On this particular day the piano lid was open.  Catherine had reached up above her head and pressed the keys as softly as she could.  No sound came from them.  She had to press harder to make the sound come.  It frightened her when it did.  Dar, deep , thundery.  The booming faded away and the noise of the birds outside came back.  She tried further up the piano where the notes were nicer, not so frightening.  She pressed a single note, again and again.  It wasn’t the note which made her feel funny – it was the sound it made as it faded away.  The afterwards.  It made her feel lonely. “

This idea, later defined as “the notes between the notes” – grace notes – is the novel’s theme and main image: what happens in the spaces between events, what is left unsaid, what is defined and what is undefinable.    Catherine gradually comes to terms with her life throughout the course of the novel and moves onwards, creating a new symphony, but the grace notes continue: “it began with a wisp of music, barely there – a whispered five-note phrase on the violins and she was right back on that beach with her baby. […] Like the artist’s hand which moves to begin a drawing but makes no mark”.  Having described Catherine’s life in an interwoven way – memories that come to her interspersed with descriptions of her life in the present – MacLaverty describes her music similiarly, the literal description of the action of instruments interwoven with the images that have inspired Catherine as she writes the symphony.  It’s a highly effective method, and probably the nearest I’ve read to a representation of sound, and the feeling it evokes, written down.

As the novels are about two musical women, here they are pictured with two more musical women: Dusty Springfield and Lily Allen Cooper:


2 thoughts on ““Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Variously attributed)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.