Words & Music

October 21, 2008

Many of my favorite writers allude to music in their novels. That’s not a coincidence. Walter Pater called music the art form to which all the other arts aspire.

In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison described the multi-dimensional experience of entering the physical world of a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo. Toni Morrison titled her fourth novel simply Jazz. (I suspect Ms. Morrison extended the concept of the classic Ellison Louis Armstrong passage to novel length. I’d like to ask her about that if I get the chance.)

Edmund White wrote Nocturnes For The King of Naples and The Final Symphony. James Baldwin used jazz allusions in Another Country.

There is Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, which metaphorizes Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9.

Is there a specific reason writers find inspiration in music? I can speak for myself, and there are several. A musical education is invaluable to writers. Once we get past the basics of Creative Writing 101, personally, I feel a musical education is worth more than writing workshops.

European fine arts music and scored jazz compositions are unique because of the score itself. There is no analog to the score for a novel, a painting, a photograph or a film. The score is a unique dimension to the musical art. If a corresponding dimension exists in painting or literature, it is accessible only to the creator.

As such, the score offers a unique window into the mind of genius. We simply don’t have a corresponding access to the internal methods of Mark Twain or Herman Mellville as they create aesthetic effects to move us. Reading a novel is analogous to listening to music; playing music is different. Even a doctoral study of a book is not the same as reading a score.

I tried to pin down Michael Cunningham (The Hours) on these mysteries. I asked Michael what he learned from writing his first novel (A Home At The End Of The World) that he applied in writing his second (Flesh and Blood.). Michael couldn’t help me. He said these were ‘subterranean things’ he couldn’t put into words. What Michael called ‘subterannean’ is the invisible dimension, the inaccessible analog to the musical score.

I’d guess that a composer writes primarily to be listened to; primarily to communicate with the untrained human ear. There’s a difference between the aesthetic effects composers create through sound, and the notes scored to create those effects. I hear the beauty. I want to know how they do it — to improve my own writing and design.

For example, on his Chopin DVD, Jerome Rose remarks how the striking melodic lines we hear in Chopin are actually created by complex interactions between the two hands. I discovered this myself studying the score to the Scherzos, pieces far beyond my technical ability to play. (So that’s how he does that!) I study the score to see how Chopin thinks. (I can’t see how Michael Cunningham thinks, and Michael can’t tell me.) I’ve had similar awakenings with Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. I learn more about writing from studying piano scores (even pieces I can’t play) than I have from literary criticism or Master Classes in fiction writing.


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