Music and Literature
Here's a passage I have always loved, from Molloy, by Samuel Beckett: I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on.
And here's another, from Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis: When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother's refusing my brother's help and thus causing disturbance in him, and by her telling me of her disturbance and thus causing in me disturbance greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generally not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.
These passages have in common not only their beauty, their attenuation, their long lines, their complexity, which are estimable in an era of prose that grows ever more abbreviated, ever more fragmentary; these passages also have in common that the prose writers who fashioned them were (are, in Lydia Davis's case) musicians. Beckett played piano avidly. And Lydia Davis, like Beckett, is a lifelong player of keyboard music and an advocate of the musical classics.
There are many such examples among writers of literature. James Joyce was a gifted singer, as was Thomas Bern‑hard, who was held back in music by the fact of his tuberculosis. Allen Ginsberg played the harmonium. Nicholson Baker, the author of The Mezzanine, Double Fold, Human Smoke, and other works of startling diversity, studied music composition when he was an undergraduate at Haverford. George Saunders, also a stylist of a most limpid prose, is a guitar player of some note; Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season, plays flute, banjo, and accordion; Paul Muldoon, the excellent Irish poet, writes songs and plays rhythm guitar in a band. David Gates, of Jernigan fame, plays old time and is learning the pedal steel guitar. There is my friend the novelist Wesley Stace, who also plays music and records under his stage name, John Wesley Harding. Wells Tower, noted short‑story writer, played in a band; Jonathan Lethem wrote lyrics for any number of musical projects. Nick Cave, the Australian musician, writes novels and screenplays, and his novel‑writing voice, far from being declarative and untutored, despite the absence of an MFA, is rich, decadent, and full of linguistic excesses of just the sort I admire. And that's just off the top of my head.
There is a link, I mean to suggest, between literary writing and music — a very specific link, a link of great relevance, which finds itself in the fact that literary writing is an aural phenomenon, though it appears on the page. The origin of literature is in the oral tradition, in what is spoken. That is, literature that avoids its sonic register does so at its peril. Literature that never lived in someone's mouth, or someone's ear, is desiccated literature. And that's part of why a lot of writers have also played music (leaving aside the fact that music is delightful and it often gets you out of the house). Playing music encourages you to listen more closely, playing music makes you more concerned with the musical component of your prose, and for my money, this makes you a more interesting writer, a writer who is not engaged with how a page looks or how a plot advances itself but is engaged instead with how a line sounds in the ear, how it gets sung.
As I say several times in the essays that follow, my house, growing up, was not musically erudite, but it was musically passionate. For this I owe my mother a great debt, as she had been schooled in piano from her earliest childhood and could make her way through some Debussy with real grace. She sang, too, and does to this day. My sister played guitar, not terribly well (she didn't practice enough), but because she was three years older than I, she was the recipient of much attention around the house — attention verging on adulation — for her picking away at "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?" on her nylon‑stringed guitar, circa 1969. Even my father had a couple of songs in his piano repertoire, and he had friends who liked to come around our place in the suburbs and bang on the baby grand, mangling show tunes. Show tunes! Those abominations that indicated a certain upwardly mobile artistic appreciation in the fifties and sixties. My family had all of those recordings, from South Pacific to Man of La Mancha to 1776, and on the slightly drunken nights, my parents and their friends could often be heard warbling away at "The Impossible Dream" or "Send in the Clowns."
Though we sang a lot, it didn't really occur to me that I might study music myself until I was in middle school and my parents were divorced, and my mother, among her other melancholy preoccupations, was attempting to learn Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," which, though I was mostly interested in the Top 40 of the time (the early seventies), I found mysterious, austere, and beautiful. That and Scott Joplin, who was experiencing a renaissance (owing to the score for The Sting), converted me into a music student briefly. Well, I remember also that we had weekly assemblies in the auditorium of my middle school and that a great number of these assemblies involved certain kinds of musical performance — African music, big bands, marching bands, music that was considered beneath contempt by my friends. I could not hide the way I reacted when there was music around, whether with tapping feet, or with impulsive singing, or with jubilation more egregious. Perhaps there were even shameful tears, because there were songs and varieties of music (bagpipes!) that caused weeping, and I can't really list all of these, because weeping to music ought to be a private affair, a tendency that I wasn't always sure I wanted people to know about. And so I prepared myself to try to learn something about music.
This involved, at this juncture, the piano, and a Russian guy who taught in a little office building in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut. And because I found the whole thing intimidating, embarrassing — being alone in a room with the Russian guy — because all my worldly, suburban friends thought that piano playing was somehow unmasculine, I was powerfully casual about my lessons (and I am embarrassed to say this, but I was twelve); there was the skipping of the recital on the day of the big town fair in New Canaan, after which I made up one story for my mother and another story for the Russian, who in due course sent home a note to my mother observing that though I had musical aptitude I didn't practice or give anything back at all. Soon the lessons lapsed. As the violin lessons had lapsed in the fourth grade, as the singing lessons lapsed the next year (when I was thirteen), as the piano lessons started and lapsed again (when I was seventeen), as the violin started and lapsed again (when I was forty‑three).
What remained was passionate listening. These essays, which were composed over so many years now, nearly fifteen years, are a record of that pursuit, and they return to the site of the first revelation of music as though there really were a first revelation and not an entire lifetime of listening. These essays try to explain what it is that so overwhelms this writer in song and instrumental music. It bears mentioning: the inability to stop trying to explain this imprinting, this mark that music has made on me, is why some of these pieces are longer than essays normally are. I can't stop. What these songs have done to me, in remaking me, is open me up to certain kinds of feelings and perceptions, even when much of what's in the world opposes any opening up at all.
Literature, exactly like certain moments in song — like that moment in "Hey Jude" when the Beatles get ready to sing the long coda, like that moment in "Celebrated Summer," by Hüsker Dü, when the acoustic guitar breaks through the wall of noise for a minute and reminds you that it's recollection that the song recommends unto you — literature, like music, wants openness, wants experiences, experiences of consciousness, experiences of sensation, and it wants these described in a way that is felicitous and sweet. Sweetness, gracefulness, these must be auditory phenomena when we are talking about prose, and if English is not the handsomest tongue, it has its moments, and these moments are literary moments or they are moments of song, and we are improved in these instances, made more charitable, more generous, and the two are therefore the same phenomena, music and literature, or so it seems to this writer, as if there is a certain order in these things, an order such as what J. S. Bach thought he heard when he made, over a great many years, what he so laboriously made. Literary effects are like harmonic intervals are like metrical feet are like time signatures are like cycles per second.
I always return to writing — in the harder moments; I come back to these alphanumerical keys here, as if it's only with words that I can make sense of the travails of consciousness. And yet when I come back to these keys, I find that music often comes with me. Much has changed, and the kinds of things I'm listening to are nothing like what I loved when I was first listening to the AM transistor radio under the sheet; now I find that sentimentality always drives me off, and a lot of what I like is music that most people would find hard to enjoy, but the experience is the same; I could still easily pass a whole night just spinning tunes on the stereo, and I could talk the ear off a friend, indulging in the little shades of differences between certain approaches to the popular song, certain recordings. I feel very excited and happy when I encounter a person with whom I can go on in this way, and you, consumer of books, are that person today.
The suspended fourth! Why so beautiful? The major seventh! Why so beautiful? And how do these instances of sonic beauty relate to that paragraph from Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" that struck such a chord with me back when I read it in my undergraduate years (She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches), though Nabokov himself professed a nearly complete estrangement from music? Now that I have been playing music more seriously for almost ten years, in a band, now that I know a tiny bit more about the architecture of the song, I am even more helpless in my admiration. And this book is my attempt to compile my musical affiliations and, in the explaining, to say to other passionate listeners, Did you hear this? And did you hear it the way I heard it? And isn't it amazing? And do you have in your collection similar things that I should hear too? I can think of no better place to put all these obsessions than in this volume. The best books are like albums of songs. Books and albums are of one vital substance. And I hope that vital substance is apparent here.
From On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening by Rick Moody. Copyright 2012 by Rick Moody. Excerpted by permission of Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company.