Can’t sing but can read

The friendly editors at The Daily Post had prompted us (WordPressers at large) to write about/construct a soundtrack to our life a couple of days ago. It didn’t inspire me then to write anything ‘meaningful’ or ‘transcendent’ even in the mildest sense of these words and the end result can be found here. It did however get me thinking about books that I had read that have a musical theme. I could recollect two such books: Jazz by Toni Morrison and An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. Both alike in some ways but really worlds apart.

An Equal musicAn Equal Music is a love story between a violinist and a pianist. The lovers use classical music to bind, express, remember and repair their emotions. It seems like music is the second, parallel language in the book, and that unless you known your quartets and quintets and your Schuberts and your Beethovens you won’t fully understand the gravity of the dialogue. Despite my lack of ‘culture’ I found it engaging; mostly because Vikram Seth’s character portrayal is good. Well, that was the least I expected after having read A Suitable Boy. It is definitely shorter and better paced than A Suitable Boy (thank heavens!). I went from liking to pitying to finally getting annoyed with the lead character, Michael Holme. What more can you say about an ageing underachieving but talented musician, who has issues with authority and throws tantrums like a disgruntled child, and who is hopelessly in love with the unattainable woman of his dreams? It gets messy in a very neat, well-imagined and well-researched package. It shouldn’t take you long to unwrap though. I would say go for it if you know more about classical music or have played classically. Maybe then you will gather more of the novel’s essence. (Note: I did put on Beethoven and Schubert while reading the novel. It helped.)

Jazz is sJazzimply art. For this book Toni Morrison uses her mighty, almost unearthly, powers to do something I have not experienced before. She uses Jazz music as not the theme of her novel but as its rhythm. She writes her story, which is essentially that of love and betrayal, with a musical soul. Her language seems to jump out of the page and engulf you. At times it feels like a sudden descending thick fog and you lose your orientation and at other times it rattles your very bones. It can soothe and caress your mind’s eye. It can lift your soul and then an ingenious turn of phrase can bring it crashing down. Such is the force of her talent. Such is the force of Jazz music, no? Here’s what she had to say about the process in her Foreword,

I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge was to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.

To me, it is special. It’s always special when you are on a journey with Toni Morrison. But this one more so because it was hard on me personally. It moved me the whole way through. I was calm outside but I was in turmoil internally. Funnily enough that’s what Jazz, the music, makes me feel. I find that this book also has the rare distinction of being a perfect companion to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue record.

Here are my favourite chord progressions from Jazz – they all broke my heart.

…Laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears.

‘Taught me two lessons I lived by all my life. One was the secret of kindness from whitepeople – they had to pity a thing before they could like it. The other – well, I forgot.’

Don’t think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.

‘A son ain’t what a woman say. A son is what a man do.’

I still see the dips and dunes on the pages made by the drying of my tears, from back in 2011, when I first read the following prose and even now as I type out these borrowed words I am choked up.

Only now […] that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone when it sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves. They dangle and writhe. Singing pain. Waking me with the sound itself, thrumming when I sleep so deeply it strangles my dreams away. There is nothing for it but to go away from where he is not to where he used to be and might be still. Let the dangle and the writhe see what it is missing; let the pain sing to the dirt where he stepped in the place where he used to be and might be still. I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.

Read it if you have the time. If not, make time.

Now to the actual question of the soundtrack to my life: ‘Life’ is too abstract a concept I find. ‘Memories’ is a better word. I do not wish to start cataloguing my music montage just yet, even though it does make for an interesting insight into my psyche. For example, my earliest memory of loving a song which was not a lullaby and which I wanted to play all day was (not a rhyme, but) Funkytown by LIPPS INC. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. ‘Nuff said.


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