The Soundtracks of Our Lives

On Facebook there’s a meme going around of people posting a list of the albums that inspired or defined their teenage identities. One thing all the lists I’ve seen so far have in common is that they’re all pop music of one kind or another. I wonder if that’s because it’s a genuine rarity for a teenager to listen to classical music, or jazz, or folk, or opera — or because popular music is in some sense more personal, or speaks more immediately to mood and time and place.

My own teenage listening was a pretty odd mixture. I probably listen to more pop music now than I did in high school. I was an opera lover from a young age, and the music I heard at home was most often classical or folk: my parents deny ever being hippies, but their record collection certainly bore signs of their having lived in Berkeley for much of the 60s, with lots of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, & Mary. During my high school years, most of my family was quite involved in international folk dancing. My father and I, more specifically, were involved with a group called the “Philhellenic Dancers”: we met weekly to learn and practice dances from all regions of Greece, and a subset of the group, including the two of us, gave performances in restaurants and at festivals, including a few times at Greek Day. (As almost none of us were actually Greek, I have thought a lot about this group in light of current debates about cultural appropriate. But that would be — maybe will be — a separate post some day.) flute logo

In Grade 11, I started working part-time at The Magic Flute, a classical record store that for many years was a Vancouver institution: this was a job that both reflected and supported my orientation towards classical music. My first gig there was doing inventory, for which I was paid in store credit. The fruits of that labor are now boxed up in my parents’ basement. With vinyl making a comeback, maybe I should finally get the boxes shipped out here for sorting. (I can’t find any photos of the store online, but I did find this clip of its graphic logo, which was on all our shopping bags and on the cover of the mail-order catalog that I assembled and edited for many years.)

Acentral_parkll of these activities and interests infused my listening life. I didn’t have any sense of disdain for whatever the top 100 might be; I just didn’t pay that music much attention. I knew and liked some older stuff: when Simon & Garfunkel did their reunion tour in 1983, for instance, I lined up overnight with a friend to get floor tickets, and enjoyed their B.C. Place concert from our spot maybe 3 yards back from the stage. I got to be good friends with Veda Hille (now an original and successful musician in her own right) and she introduced me to the Beatles (imagine needing an introduction to the Beatles in the mid-80s, but I did), and then when we were co-editors of our high school year book, we listened to a lot of David Bowie while developing photos in the darkroom. Other people’s influence brought in other music: my boyfriend was a Eurythmics fan, for instance (I died my hair purple to go with him to their concert — though since my hair is naturally quite dark, the result was more like a purple aura than a bold statement). It was Vancouver in the 80s, so perhaps Bryan Adams fandom was inevitable, and when Born in the USA came out, my best friend and I put it on our Sony Walkmen and listened to it over and over. (That friend liked to get out and have some fun, so she is also the reason I saw Michael Jackson live when the Victory Tour came to Vancouver.)

Bryan at New Kent HotelBut there really isn’t a list of 10 albums that for me made up a distinct soundtrack of those years, at least not one that really speaks to who I was. Instead, there are particular songs or albums that now have astonishing power to summon up different periods of my life. It’s remarkable how music can do that, isn’t it? A song comes on and suddenly there you are immersed in a whole set of feelings, as if you are being dunked into a vat of memory. These are often not songs that are personal favorites – what matters is that for some reason they became part of a moment in time for me. I was in the grocery store yesterday, for example, and Billy Joel’s “I’m Moving Out” came over their annoyingly loud sound system — and I was instantly back in the New Kent Hotel in London, where my sister and I stayed at both ends of our 6-month tour of Europe in 1986. (I just looked it up, and what do you know: it’s still there.) It was really a kind of hostel, with a lot of long-term guests, many of them Australians on work visas, and the ones we roomed with played Billy Joel a lot. In the photo you can see the Bryan Adams poster my best friend gave me to take along, to remind me of my roots (I guess). I took photos of it on display in a lot of different hostels! The song brought it all back to me, perhaps because I don’t think I have ever played it myself in any other context: I remember all the excitement and anxiety of being on that big adventure.

surfacingSarah McLachlans’s “Building a Mystery” is another really evocative song for me. It’s on her album Surfacing, which came out the year Owen was born. I was up a lot at night nursing, and I used to play it softly as I rocked with him. It was a hot summer, and I was equal parts miserably exhausted and desperately in love with this new little person. If I hear songs from that album without warning — especially “I Love You” or “Angel” — I am liable to get teary, though I’m not sure why these memories are quite so poignant. Maybe it’s the sense of distance, the realization of just how much has changed, and how inexorably time keeps moving forward. Then there’s Enya’s “Caribbean Blue,” which my husband and I danced to at our wedding rehearsal dinner in 1992: an unlikely choice, perhaps, but it is a waltz and it had become one of “our” songs. One of our first joint activities (cliché alert!) during our daringly brief courtship was taking ballroom dance classes together, so we actually did a pretty good job of our dance, if I may say so myself! Of course I can’t hear that song now without remembering what a happy weekend that was, as our friends and family gathered around us to wish us well. We walked down the ‘aisle’ (we were married in a restaurant, so it was pretty informal — the plan had been to use their waterfront garden, but it rained) to one of Dvorak’s string serenades: this, along with my turquoise silk dress, helped make the ceremony itself seem less clichéd!

Joan-Sutherland-005Although I listen to music almost all the time now, there’s little that has the same emotional power over me: I have to go deeper into my past to get the same effect. I wonder if it’s just that the more immediate events and their associations haven’t yet distilled into part of my history. There is certainly some music that is fundamental to my life — that I have loved for so long, that has given me so much pleasure, that when I hear it it restores me to myself. At the top of that list would be Joan Sutherland’s 1962 recording of La Traviata: my parents gave me the highlights LP as a birthday gift in 1972 and I cherished it even before I had the honor of getting Sutherland’s autograph on the cover years later. (Richard Bonynge’s autograph is on the back: I still feel a bit embarrassed about how indifferent I was to his offer to sign it too, but I was 9 and Sutherland was my idol.) No piano music has ever displaced Chopin’s in my heart since I first tried to learn some of his easier waltzes as a student: practicing the A-major Polonaise in the little room I signed out in the music building helped me sustain myself emotionally during my terrible first year of graduate school at Cornell. And speaking of graduate school, The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” promptly delivers me back to my friend Bernie’s green pick-up truck and all the times we drove in it across the Catskills to my sister’s house in Mamaroneck…

I think my problem with the “10 albums” meme is not that there is no soundtrack to my teenage years but that my teenage years were just a few in a much longer musical history, an idiosyncratic collage of constant listening. What about you: are there songs or albums that invariably recall either high school or some other memorable moments in your life?

“In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows


Pejorative generalizations about the ‘traditional novel,’ like debates over the ‘death of the novel,’ often seem to me unduly preoccupied with form, as if broadening the range of human possibilities expressed through fiction isn’t also a literary innovation or revision. The Fountain Overflows is a good reminder that  just because a novel is linear, has characters, and tells a story attached (however lightly) to life at all four corners, it isn’t necessarily derivative, tired, or predictable. All the way through it I was marveling how unfamiliar it was — even though to all appearances it is perfectly conventional. It is its own strange world, populated with utter conviction, and, best of all, told in West’s endlessly unexpected (and always, in unexpected ways, thrilling) sentences.

The Fountain Overflows tells the story of the formative years of the Aubrey children: Cordelia, Mary, Rose (who narrates), and Richard Quin. Their father Piers is a journalist and political radical, fierce, inspiring, improvident. His indifference to his family’s well-being is a palpable thing (“I had a glorious father,” Rose reflects, only to conclude the thought, “I had no father at all”), yet they are devotedly loyal to him even as their lives follow his erratic, disruptive path from job to job and patron to patron. Their mother Clare is a pianist whose brilliant career was cut short by illness. Her absolute, uncompromising commitment to music pervades the children’s lives and, ultimately, the novel, which turns out to be as much an exploration of art as a values system as it is a family saga. Though a sensational murder story takes over the plot of the novel at one point, it seems a drearily mundane crisis compared to the catastrophe that is Cordelia’s insistence on playing the violin. “Cordelia had no idea that she was not musical,” Rose explains, and once she began lessons, she had “shown an extreme and mistaken industry”:

She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then, just in time, with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings. Her tone was horribly greasy, and her phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child. Also, she did not know good music from bad, as we did, as we had always done.

“It was not Cordelia’s fault that she was unmusical,” as Rose makes sure to acknowledge, but it does define her to Clare, to whom “Cordelia was someone who could not play the violin and insisted on doing so.” Worst of all, Cordelia’s technical proficiency deceives her pathetic teacher Miss Beevor into believing she has a great talent, and so the tension builds: how far will Miss Beevor’s insistence on fostering Cordelia’s “genius” take her? Will Cordelia ever realize that her playing is wholly inadequate? To her sisters, ruthless purists, her performances are an abomination:

Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.

The contest between Cordelia’s determination to keep on playing and the visceral horror her “musical idiocy” arouses in her family is at once acidly hilarious, and — once we realize that Cordelia hopes her violin will be her ticket out of her family’s isolating poverty — tragic. That Cordelia is profoundly misguided in thus attempting to use music to her own ends is never in doubt, though: all the energy of the novel supports Clare’s dedication to the highest ideals of art, by which “being fit to play Beethoven to Beethoven and Mozart to Mozart in the courts of heaven . . . is the impossible aim that all pianists must hold before themselves.” One of the most moving moments in the novel occurs when seedy, leering Cousin Jock — a man with no saving graces otherwise — stuns the gathered family with an extraordinary performance of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheo and Eurydice:

When I had heard Cousin Jock play before, I had thought he played too perfectly; it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil for power of performance and naturally enough performed without a soul. But now his powers dwelt humbly and faithfully with the triply mystery of the music he had chosen . . . That passage is sublime as pure sound; the mere relationship between the notes must cause delight. It is also a clear rendering of the climate of the legend, of the pure light of imagined classic Greece. It also states what is felt by all human beings when they have suffered a deep grief which is still, because they are not barbarians, within control, but is yet irreparable, even if its consequences should be afterwards annulled. . . .

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness.

Any sense we might have had that their revulsion at Cordelia’s playing was absurd, or at least disproportionate — that to compain “the music was profaned” when she played was to take music too seriously — is dispelled as we share in the respectful hush. To be “row[ed] away to the land where people were who are not musical” seems an exile more painful than the more literal isolation of the Aubreys in their shabby suburban home.

So that is one great surprise and pleasure and provocation of The Fountain Overflows: it challenges us to think about what music really is, and what it is worth — which is another way of saying that the novel is about life, and what it is for. “What is music about,” Rose asks Mary near the end of the novel. “Oh, it is about life, I suppose,” answers Mary, “and specially about the parts of life we do not understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.”

Rose and Mary — and, in her own way, Cordelia — are part of this cerebrally artistic world, but another fascination of the novel is that they are nonetheless children, and the novel also evokes the child’s world of imaginary animals and perverse adults who refuse to treat children as whole people. As the narrator, Rose seems anything but innocent, as she and her sister manage their unworldly mother and cope with their father’s eccentricities and withdrawals, yet she also reports things she sees but does not fully understand, West playing her point of view with Jamesian subtlety. She also (something else unexpected) accepts without question the presence of supernatural elements, from poltergeists at her cousin Rosamund’s home to her own ability to read minds — which, to her mother’s displeasure, she uses as a party trick. “We are Scottish,” Clare finally explains as she tries to deflect the interest Rose’s display has attracted; “we take these things more seriously than the English,” but the real reason is that Clare considers it unsafe to unleash these forces, which are not to be dismissed as childish fancies but rather repressed as only too real: “If there is a wall between the present and the future it is not for us to pull it down.”

The Fountains Overflow is apparently autobiographical: my Virago edition has an introducton by Victorian Glendinning that lays out the many connections between characters in the Fairfield family and those in the novel. I never know quite what this kind of information adds to our understanding of a novel: it’s not as if saying that Cordelia “is a portrait of Rebecca’s eldest sister Letitia” tells us what to make of Cordelia. It’s more revealing about West, really, that she would draw up such a portrait and then, apparently, have the nerve to dedicate the novel to Letitia, as if — what? she wouldn’t recognize herself in it? In a way, that would be the ultimate insult, perfecting the critique of Cordelia’s self-deception. I don’t know much about West’s personal life or character, but from that gesture I intuit that she (like Rose) put many qualities higher than kindness. There is in fact a cruel edge to The Fountain Overflows; that it’s expressed through aesthetics makes it none the less lacerating, and indeed another way of reading Clare and Rose’s musical idealism is as an elitism every bit as exclusive as the social snobbery the Aubreys disdain. Yet as I’ve said before, I think “the chief obligation of a writer . . . is not that she be nice but that she be interesting,” and I found The Fountain Overflows consistently interesting — not only for its intellectual preoccupations but for its human drama, which is as intense as it is bizarre. And I just loved turning every page wondering what sentence — funny or fierce, poetic or pathetic — would catch me up next.

Frank Conroy, Body and Soul

Body and Soul was a near miss for me. I thought it was really very good most of the time, especially through the first half, but there were parts in the second half that seemed really thin and reedy, and they stood out more because the other parts of the book were so strong. The novel tells the story of Claude Rawlings, a musical prodigy who, thanks to a series of rather unbelievably supportive and available mentors, rises from a grim neglected childhood to triumphant performances at Carnegie Hall. Though we follow Claude’s point of view throughout the novel, he remains a fairly flat, enigmatic character: one explanation for this would be that he represses so many of his reactions as a child that his life, as well as his story, is also quite repressed, but another is that for him, nothing matters as much as music–which makes it appropriate, really, that nothing in the novel is as exciting as the detailed descriptions of music.

Reading and writing about music is a tricky business. Conroy is, of course, aware of this, and even has Claude remark it at one point: “don’t you think it’s practically impossible to write about music directly? I mean, all you can do is skirt around it, sort of.”  I was thinking about the other novels I like in which music plays a big part — Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, or Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, or Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, for instance. In all of these, the writing drew me into the music intellectually as well as emotionally. Reading about music is never going to be the same as listening to it, so flowery attempts to sound ‘musical’ aren’t likely to be very effective. All of these writers focus on the ways the music feels to the musician or the audience, as well as on how the music is made or played. Conroy’s is, I think, by far the most analytic of this little group, with long discussions of technique and theory. He takes real risks here by putting in so much detail, and these passages do get a bit overwhelming, but they work because they are also carefully dramatized as part of Claude’s musical development, and it is fascinating to watch his comprehension grow and to experience the mental and emotional conflicts that emerge as his instinctive musical taste is challenged by his teachers. Here’s Claude working out an idea he has for subverting a composition assignment on atonality (I couldn’t explain exactly what he is doing, but it has something to do with Charlie Parker’s bebop changes, which in turn has to do with the novel’s larger interest in the musical integrity and seriousness of jazz in relation to classical music–one of its more interesting preoccupations):

Gradually, enough bits and pieces emerged, and held, for him to sense the general shape of the first four bars, which would contain all twelve tones, without a unison or a repetition. He worked it all out so as to include a certain four-note motive he was familiar with. When he had the complete tone row, he double-checked the math and began to explore the upside-down and retrograde forms.

At one point he almost lost heart. He’d written himself into a corner. There seemed no way to use the retrograde row against the original without a number of fairly strong tonal effects creeping in. He fooled with it in a dozen different ways, but as soon as he excised one tonal effect another would crop up somewhere else. It was like trying to pick up liquid mercury with your fingertips. Then he saw something. If he broke the original row into halves–a modest impurity even by Satterthwaite’s standards–and used the second half upside down, the tonal intervals were avoided.

A more ecstatic tone enters into the descriptions of performances:

Trading off with Fredericks, he felt almost outside himself, listening to the magic flow, the shift of colors, hearing the pulse, watching his hands do their amazing work. As he shaped the music in his mind and played it, he felt Fredericks shaping and playing right along with him, their souls joined in harmonious enterprise, like two old friends who can talk without words, who can communicate a thought even before it has fully emerged, because the same thought is nascent in the other. Claude knew he was on the stage, at the piano in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, but at the same time he was somewhere else, somewhere he could not describe even to himself–nor did he have the faintest urge to, so heavenly did it seem. Watch it! Watch it! Listen! Concentrate! Here it comes. Here it is. This!

It is thrilling to imagine what it must be like to break through in this way, and the most compelling parts of the novel for me were about precisely that experience–the near-miraculous, rare joy of transcending the technical skill and mental mastery and sheer hard work required to become an accomplished musician and being wholly released into the music itself. As someone who loves to play the piano but never had the talent or drive to become more than moderately skillful, I was moved by Claude’s development and impressed by Conroy’s evocation of it. As the mother of a much more gifted musician, I also felt that the novel gave me a glimpse into what music might be like for him, something much more organic and dynamic and inevitable and irresistible than it is for those of us forever stuck on the other side of that wall.

I didn’t care as much for the rest of the plot. Claude’s mother was interestingly conceived but I couldn’t connect her story to Claude’s (by which I don’t mean in the plot involving the hidden identity of his absent father or that kind of thing, but thematically, particularly her political entanglements–and the working out of the fatherhood plot was the thinnest part of the novel to me). I really didn’t like the whole ‘haunted by an inaccessible beloved’ storyline, or the story of Claude’s marriage: the former seemed clichéd, while the latter seemed kind of perfunctory. Claude’s relationship with his first mentor, Aaron Weisfeld, though, was a beautiful thing.

Musical Interlude: Young Artists in Concert

I’ve posted a couple of times before about my son’s compositions. Last week he and two other talented young musicians performed in a concert that included a number of his original pieces (a Sonatina for piano and violin, two solo piano pieces, and a setting for voice and piano of Poe’s “Romance”) along with pieces by Ravel, Fauré, and Wieniawski–and, in an unusual twist, some piano-violin improvisations prompted by audience suggestions. It was a big event that took a lot of preparation, especially by Owen (who played in every piece on the program) and my husband, who handled most of the logistics. The evening was a treat: not only was the music delightful but it was wonderful to watch the three young performers working together for the love of it. The audience was very appreciative, and we have been been beaming with pride (and basking in reflected glory) ever since! Audio tracks of the entire concert are now available here, for anyone who would like a listen.