The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How a Book Sings

by Andrew Tibbetts

Just some free-form rambling from thoughts I've been having about music and fiction:

A lot of people talk about the more abstract elements of fiction as if they are the opposite of the emotional elements. Writers are accused of being too interested in structure and linguistics and then compared to writers whose style is more direct. They are found too cerebral and unemotional in comparison.

I was thinking of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” the other day. One of the ten novels written in my life-time (so far) that I have most responded to and a novel I have not had much success in recommending to people. Friends who’ve tried and failed to make it through have said that they admired it. They’ve called it ingenious and even brilliant. And then turned around and showed their ‘buts’. But it left me cold. But I couldn’t get in to it. But that kind of (intellectual) thing isn’t for me.
Last night, I was reading Oliver Sacks book, “Musicophilia,” about music and the brain when it hit me. Music is abstract and yet it connects more deeply and directly to our emotions than any other art form. What is it about organizing noises into a shape and a flow that pushes our buttons like that? It’s a mystery.

Here’s a little clip of a young man playing the accordion. He is playing a contemporary piece by the brilliant Russian composer, Sophia Gubaidulina. She is of tartar background and places herself geographical and emotionally (and subsequently musically) at the meeting place of east and west. This piece, Et Expecto, would seem very strange, I imagine, to people not versed in contemporary music practice. One of the comments on Youtube wonders if the artist is hitting notes at random, for example. But surely whatever your comfort level for new music, you will recognize that this collection of little (and big) noises is pure emotion.

Hurray for you, Maciej Frąckiewicz! You play with heart and style.

So, back to fiction. Last night it hit me: I respond to the abstract elements of fiction like I respond to music. Rhythm, form, line, texture, dynamics, timbre, orchestration—all of those musical concepts have correlations in fiction.

David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” is very much like a symphony, or perhaps a Concerto for Orchestra. Part of the pleasure of reading the novel is following the play of themes as they pop up transformed in the different movements. And this isn’t entirely an intellectual pleasure. It’s emotional. The book gave me a felt sense of human civilization, of people’s longings to learn from each other and build a better world for subsequent generations and also of the dark elements of human nature that keep subverting those goals, civilization upon civilization. It doesn’t pull together as a theory, as a set of concepts, I’d look to a non-fiction book by a political scientist or a philosopher for that. Instead, it’s the emotional consequences for the people who are at the nodal points of history. What it feels like to care and to be thwarted. As the characters in each of Mitchell’s narratives discover the journals, the letters, the films (and the sci-fi gadgets that document for the citizens of the future) of the characters from the other sections, we get a sense of love and understanding building bridges across time. His form reflects this emotionally at the macro-level. Each of the six sections from different times in history is nested inside the others. We contain our futures, the book says.

I think I’ll just stop here. These thoughts are bubbling around my brain and I’m enjoying the opportunity to spill them on this blog. Thanks for reading.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Oh, I think Colin has played that accordion piece on his radio show. You're right about literature having elements of music -- rhythm, cadence, high notes and low. Some writers are so musical, it's fun to just let go and listen to them as you read.

Wed Feb 27, 09:36:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne said...

I think it's so fitting that Tricia should already be familiar with this music. Again, great post, Andrew!

Thu Feb 28, 07:10:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous Colin said...

Joking aside, I've played some similar things on the radio show but not that particular piece yet. The clip and your post reminded me of an artist that I'm planning to feature in an upcoming show. If you're not already familiar with the work of Pauline Oliveros, you might want to check out the link

Thu Feb 28, 06:32:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

What a great take on Cloud Atlas. I'm so glad I read this. I keep thinking about Atlas, ever since my last blog when I put it in my top 10 books, and your post has made me think I need to go reread it (again).

Sat Mar 01, 03:59:00 pm GMT-5  

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