(And I do not here mean music critics or journalists—because even they can’t bring music alive when I read them, good writers though they may be.)
Who gets music right? Who can make music ring in your head—or even tease at the possibility of that—when you read his or her descriptions of it?
If you’ve tried to write about music, you know how hard—maybe nearly impossible—this task turns out to be. And if you care passionately (as I do) about music, this triples the frustration. Even novels whose focuses are music-driven and music-immersed, often fail to convey the music itself.
The only (semi-lame) example of an author I can think of who described music in a fresh, doubletake-making way, was E. M. Forster in Howard’s End. Those goblins he talks about, recounting a sort of Fantasia of images to reflect what goes through a character’s mind while hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, have stuck with me—even though I don’t have a clue what a goblin is supposed to look like. (I pictured a series of becloaked dwarves like Snow White’s pals, only sinister.)
The compounding irony is that writing, heard in the reading ear or read aloud, is of course a form of music. The human voice, the remembered voice, the dreamed voice, the cadences and punctuations of language, all are sounded internally or in actuality. Moreover, writers can and do emulate musical forms. Sections of work can parallel movements, bars or phrases of musical literature.
I often use music to help me enter (and re-enter) the dream of my own works in progress. And when a book of mine goes into the world and I give readings, I often tell listeners about the music that helped me coax the work from my reluctant brain. That music remains precious to me ever after (not that it wasn’t precious before).
Music, to me (alongside smell) is probably the most powerful and perhaps even dangerous of all the art forms because it enters the “bloodstream” of consciousness instantly, evoking emotion that very instant. How much do we read that has the power to pull immediate tears from our eyes? Damn little, of course.
So who actually gets it right, on the page? You tell me.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.