A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Writing Fiction about Music

Lately I have been working on fiction in which music is a key player.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!)  Music has certainly been essential to my life—to my very being in fact—from the age of five years and probably earlier.  So, as both a music-maker and music-teacher, I always have something to say about music.  But when it is central to a work of fiction, when I am attempting to help the reader experience through written language the music as made or heard by a character, certain fascinating questions arise.

For example, how can one best describe a melody in writing?  If it were a painting or another item from one of the visual arts there would be an abundance of vocabulary pertaining to subtleties of colour, shape, size, spatial relationships and so on.  True, we have words to describe  volume, pace, pitch, rhythm and other qualities relevant to music.  But, in contrast with writing about a painting, it seems to me that conveying the subtle variations and combinations of these aspects of a melody has an author working furiously to find adequate language.  Our lexicon has far more words and phrases applicable to visual impressions than it has for describing aural impressions.  Roget’s Thesaurus, for instance, has twice as many pages devoted to “Light” as it does to “Sound”.

Let’s come at this from the opposite direction.  I’m not by any means a visual artist but I’m a complete sucker for pictures by the impressionist school, such Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  My special Renoir favourite shows a girl combing her hair.  Click here to see it.  As you contemplate this picture, do you have music playing in your head?  I don’t mean a song—that involves words—but pure music.  I know there are people, musicians or others gifted with a highly developed musical intelligence, who would respond this way. But I wager that aural imagery would be very rare in the responses of most viewers.

My liking for impressionism is also apparent in my musical preferences.  Claude Debussy is probably the best known impressionist composer, so now listen to a piece of his music played here.  As you listen, keep your eyes shut to avoid visual sensations so that you can focus on the sound as much as possible.  What sort of imagery does this music evoke for you?

I have to say that my own response is largely tactile and kinaesthetic: in other words the music prompts me to touch and make muscular movements, because I want to play it with my hands as I listen.  But then I’m a trained pianist, and most people are not.  I suspect that, as you listen to this music of Debussy, most of you find a lot of visual images arising in your mind’s eye.  Did they include, by any chance, something like Renoir’s painting?

Ah yes, you saw the title of the music appear on your screen when you followed the link, didn't you?  In English it is The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.  But had you not known the title before hearing the piece would your mental imagery have been different?

Debussy gave visually loaded titles to some of his best-known and most-loved  works—like Clair de Lune, The Sunken Cathedral, and of course The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.  If Debussy had simply called them Number 1, Number 2 and so on, would they conjure up more or less visual imagery in the minds of listeners?  I suspect that the mental response would be just as visual, although the pictures “seen” by different listeners would vary greatly.

So, as a writer trying to convey the experience of a fictional listener with a layman’s appreciation of music, I may perhaps describe the visual imagery as it arises.  I may also describe the moods or thoughts or memories occurring as a result of the music.  But that is not the same as the music itself.

If the listener is a musician in the audience, the experience will be different.  Musicians tend to analyse the music they hear, perhaps constructing a silent critique of it.  As the writer I may now need to mention some technical terms and concepts essential to a musician’s practice of the art.  Will I need to explain to the reader what I mean by words like modulations, glissando, counterpoint, and modal?  Would this then be a real drag on the narration?

Of course, if my character is the person making the music I may need to convey other things such as some tension or exhilaration felt at specific points in the performance.  The character may be very aware of sensations in her body as it works on the music.  If the performer is in that peculiar state of mind called “the zone”, where she is utterly at one with the music, where the music seems to be occurring of its own accord through the medium of her body—is it even possible to give the reader a sense of such an experience?

Such, then, are my musings as I work on my stories.  So it was opportune that I recently read an outstanding memoir by elite Australian pianist Anna Goldsworthy, which largely concentrates on imparting the experience of making and listening to music.  Have a look at Piano Lessons.  I thoroughly recommend it to you as a brilliant piece of writing.   For a number of reasons it engrossed me and one day I may make it a subject for another post.

I’m keen to read any observations from you about this topic.