Where Words and Music Meet

I’ll be teaching in the Sozopol Nonfiction Writing Seminar in Bulgaria this summer, and there’s little I love more than preparing for a trip to a country I’ve never visited before. For me, one of the most rewarding anticipations is exploring that country’s literature, history, and music. So I’ve been poring through books, discovering Bulgarian writers such as Georgi Gospodinov, Nikolai Grozni, and Kapka Kassabova, and the English writer who traveled through Bulgaria in 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor. And then there’s the music.

Years ago, back in 1987, I discovered a CD of women’s choral music of Bulgaria, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. The keening solo voices and the tight, eerie harmonies of the chorus created an otherworldly atmosphere, and while this music is often called “angelic,” it also has both feet firmly in the soil. Over the years I’ve returned again and again to the earthy, uncanny grace of this album.

Recently I’ve found a cache of videos on the web of Bulgarian choral music, and one of my favorites is this performance of “Malka Moma,” with the Philip Koutev Choir and solo singer Neli Andreeva.

The lyrics (in English translation, of course) add further depth to this gorgeous song:

A young woman asks God:
Give me, God, dove eyes,
Give me, God, falcon wings
To fly over the white Danube river
To find a young man who is a match for me.

In the second stanza God, happily, grants her wish.

There’s a video of another song, “Koji Lyo,” by the same chorus and also fronted by Andreeva, that’s even more entrancing. Unfortunately the “embed” feature is disabled. But if you like the video above, then you should make your way here, and pronto.

Exploring these videos has reminded me of how important music is to my life. It’s like a second home within the home in which I live. I listen to whatever I can, every day, any kind of music, no matter how obscure, just so long as it is transporting in surprising ways, just so long as it grows the mind through the ears.

Yet when I first read this quote by Heinrich Heine,

“Where words leave off, music begins,”

I was not pleased.

Why this dis of literature? Writing isn’t a helicopter pad for music’s takeoff, it flies too. Though I may be a writer only (I merely listen: I can’t play a musical instrument, and even on a kazoo I barely manage elementary kazoo noises), my life has long been fueled by a mixture of literature and music.

Bill Holmes, in his book The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland, in describing the use of dramatic silence in the music of Hayden and Bruckner, says, “What Pound said of literature can also be said of music: that it is ‘news that stays news.’”

Exactly. The headlines may be expressed differently, the who-what-where-when-why may be arrived at through other paths and by different means, but they share an urgency of revelation. Composers may express narrative tension out of musical notes, but writers are somehow able to create music out of words.

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And writers write beautifully about music. Holmes’ passages about specific works by Haydn and Bruckner are among the most affecting moments in his excellent memoir. Here’s a memorable quote: “Bruckner does not write music for gazelles or butterflies, but rather for mountains dancing. They move with the slow inexorableness of glaciers, and, when icebergs fall, the listener has been aurally prepared for the great crashing into the sea.”

Music may be beyond language (at least music without lyrics), but we think in words, and as we listen we often shape what we hear into metaphor, images, narratives. It’s a form of translation, from one genre to another. As has often been observed, all translations are imperfect. But all translations are necessary as well.

And superb examples abound in fiction. The novel Wunderkind, by the (Bulgarian!) writer Nikolai Grozni, is set in a state-sponsored music school in Sofia during the last year or so of communist rule.

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In this novel the best musicians are also the worst-behaved students, always chaffing at the smothering strictures of an authoritarian school and society. The teenaged and supremely talented pianist Konstantin is perhaps the most difficult case. In the scene that follows, Konstantin has lost a bet with fellow student Irina that her violin playing cannot make him cry. Soon after his first tears it’s pay up time. The price? Konstantin has to take off his pants, walk on the narrow fifth floor ledge and enter his next class through the window before the teacher arrives. A daunting enough task, but then his concentration is undermined by the distant sound of a piano:

From where I stood I could hear the high-register notes of the Yamaha in Chamber Hall No. 2, five stories below. Someone was rehearsing Chopin’s Prélude in A Minor with unabashed barbarism, exaggerating the inherent ugliness in the chord progression. Balancing on the ledge of the building with nothing to hold onto except my will, I thought back to my twelfth birthday, when Ladybug had given me the sheet music of the complete preludes and instructed me to spend a night reading the A-minor prelude, without touching the piano. In this way, before I ever heard this prelude played, I’d heard it in my mind. I’d heard the raw chromaticism in the left hand and the bleak, determined voice in the right. I’d heard the voice and the accompaniment drifting apart until the voice was completely alone, a quiet monologue going nowhere, saying nothing. What I hadn’t heard while reading the sheet music was the left-hand groove, evoking the sound of a broken barrel organ in the streets of Paris, or Warsaw, in the middle of winter, an eternal winter with gray skies and chandeliers of ice and stray dogs sleeping on steaming manhole covers. On the bottom staff—the taste of earth, worms, and dust; the smell of dead leaves and frankincense. On the top—the luminosity of awareness making sense of transience and predestination. Three quiet major chords marked the moment of death, because death was sweet. It was our true home, the home we’d left and been trying to get back to. It’s what we passed through before and would pass through again, a moment of truth that suspended the weight of thought, the weight of the will to inhabit a dead universe.

The third bell rang just as I reached the corner and edged myself toward the window of my classroom . . .

In The Friends of Freeland, by poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, a parable is presented: God is pleased with you, and offers to grant you a wish. You ask to hear some of the music Mozart has been composing in heaven, and voila!–here you sit in an auditorium, facing an orchestra of angels, with Mozart himself conducting.

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Mozart, Leithauser tells us, has been busy in the afterlife, having written 27,272 symphonies, so what follows promises to be a long concert:

The concert begins, Mozart’s Symphony no. 77 in A Minor, “The More than Everlasting,” K. 1027 . . . so ravishing is this music, your body becomes an instrument, infinitely subtler in its vibrating niceties than any Steinway or Stradivarius. This is music whose every demi-semi-quaver is both indispensible and independently fulfilling; music that reconfigures the topography of your brain, opening sectors wherein thoughts have never penetrated and into which they now go surging with all the breathtaking agility of a flock of helical-horned gazelles bounding down a green savannah; this is music that evokes the word ineffable and dismantles it—in a fable—and eventually explodes it, sending sky-high, in a glittering alphabetic strew, a’s and i’s and f’s and b’s, for language is no longer of any use to us here.

The symphony concludes.

The second symphony, Mozart’s Symphony no. 727 in G Sharp Major, “Ascending Orders of the Infinite,” K. 2500, commences. And it is far more beautiful still, you perch in your chair like a fern beside the perpetually sliding crest of Victoria Falls, absorbing the rainbow-filtered solar harmonies through your every cell. These melodies are aliment, they are Life Itself; indeed, they are more than Life, having as they do their origin in a zone beyond all questions of mutability, mortality.

The second symphony concludes.

Commences now the third performance, Mozart’s Symphony no. 1779 in A Flat Minor and D Sharp Major, “The Borderless Beyond,” K. 5339 . . .

The music Leithauser describes is glorious, perhaps too glorious, because after a few more symphonies the seat starts feeling lumpy and the grateful listener begins to long for the lobby, where snacks are being served. Leithauser continues for three more paragraphs:

And is the moral of my fable clear? Art is willing, but the flesh is weak . . . Poor Mozart: he conducts so raptly he fails to notice how the amphitheater behind him empties . . .

Even so, even so, what is another composer—a thoroughly earth-bound composer—to do but compose? What else but fill the trellis of his clef with grapelike clusters of notes—hoping that, years hence, the vintage will prove noble?

What is the struggling painter to do but clean his brushes and attempt another waterfall, another impossible sunset? And the writer? Fill the page, and hope some reader turns the page.

Finally, we come to “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story by James Baldwin, which contains perhaps the greatest literary passage on the power of music to deliver revelation.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, an African-American schoolteacher who feels trapped in Harlem but can’t quite face the source of his entrapment. His brother Sonny, an aspiring jazz musician whose struggles with drugs are fueled by his defiance of the racially imposed limitations of his world, has recently been released from prison. The two brothers are estranged, yet the death of the narrator’s young daughter has opened a wound inside him that finally allows him to truly hear the music his brother plays. When Sonny’s band plays their version of “Am I Blue,” the narrator hears not merely the notes but what the music strives against and seeks to transcend:

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Then [the bass player] Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filed the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause, and some of it was real.

Yes indeed, as in Baldwin’s story, the best music moves through time and takes us to places we need to travel, to places we might arrive at by no other means than by music. But words, words can describe that place we unexpectedly find ourselves, tell its unspoken story (or stories, because we all hear differently), and give shape and contour to shifting, complex feelings that might otherwise be beyond our grasp.

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3 Comments

  1. Rimas Blekaitis says:

    Loved the post and I very much look forward to reading more of the work mentioned. What is called “Sonata form” and the basic form of the modern novel as it arose in the late 18th, early 19th century seems to have played on each other. The writers of those novels would’ve been listening to Mozart, Haydn et al, and many of those composers would’ve been reading novels (assuming they could afford them!) So a kind of cross-pollination would’ve been inevitable, I would think. (There was a very fine student lecture on a topic like this back in my first residency at VCFA.) One of the best explanations of sonata form I’ve found is a series of lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (note that “sonata form” has nothing to do with whether or not a piece is actually called a “sonata”). These were “Great Courses” lectures I could get at the public library on CD (and somewhat to my surprise, a lot of people were grabbing that particular set of lectures. ) Beethoven took great pleasure in deconstructing the Sonata form and creating myriad new forms from it, much like many writers like to play with forms themselves…(The first few cds in those lectures are really worth a listen.)

  2. Rimas Blekaitis says:

    oops some typos above, oh well…

  3. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rimas! I agree, there are lots of paths leading to and fro from music and literature. How helpful we can be to each other . . .

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