Music and language

Posted on 17th February 2015 by Anna Smaill
Anna Smaill writes about her love of music and how it influenced her debut novel, The Chimes.

I love music, and that love inspired The Chimes. But, no. That sentence is far too simple, and love is kind of a useless word to describe how I feel about music and how it has shaped my life. At the age of five I loved music. I loved my first instrument, the recorder: its bird notes, its functional simplicity. I loved the chaos of Saturday morning music classes and the satisfaction of black dots and squiggles resolving themselves into written music. When it came time to choose a ‘proper’ instrument, I didn’t need to pause. My parents had an old LP of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and I knew which instrument produced those darkly golden sounds. What a seducer the violin is, after all – with its glamorous curves and glow. That was love. At first sight, or rather hearing.

But my relationship with music got trickier after that, more complicated. In the end with the violin, it wasn’t just love, it was love–hate. How could something that looked so graceful sound so utterly absymal? The caterwauling period customary for new recruits passed. But my playing was always dominated by a massive gap between what I heard in my head, and the way I sounded in real life. I loved what I heard in my head, so I practised, and I improved and gradually I began to enjoy the noises I could make. The repertoire of an instrument disposed to solos is great bait for the ego as well. I played air violin with Perlman and Menuhin; I bowed graciously to rapturous applause. I practised and I improved and I got into a performance music degree. I think I already knew by then that the gap between imagination and reality shouldn’t haunt you in quite the way it did me. The physical world of music should have become second nature, unthinking, like it is for an athlete.

I made the decision to stop playing in the end, and it was a hard one. "Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn't, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence,” said Balzac, apparently. It has certainly been true for me. When I quit the violin, I went through a strangely intense period in which I tried to transfer the connection I had made with the violin into language. I remember feeling very strongly that I had to preserve all of those brain connections somehow. The thought of abandoning them seemed tantamount to cutting off a limb. My first book of poetry (with the transparently autobiographical title The Violinist In Spring) came out of this experience.

For anyone who reads The Chimes, a few connections will already be obvious – an idea of memory that is stored in the body, and an idea of music as the source of a dangerous Platonism, as a place where pure ideals come into conflict with the muddied, clumsy world of the body. The split between the immaterial and the physical in music has fascinated me ever since. What if that dualism were taken to an extreme? I began to imagine an ascetic philosophy that strove to purify and rise above the physical body, in order for pure communion with music. And if music were seen as the ultimate good, what might happen to language? To memory? What might a world dominated by music be like?

Flash forward to London, where I was living after having completed my PhD in English Literature. It was the midst of the recession, and there were no academic positions in sight, so I had taken a job as a researcher at a legal publishing company. I was caught in that particular grimness of the bad 9-5 job, the one you are desperate to escape. What in hell was I doing? I wasn’t an academic, apparently. I wasn’t a poet. I wasn’t a musician. Out of a kind of desperation I began to plug away at an idea for a novel, a fantasy about an elite and cloistered school for musicians. It was the old idea of a world dominated by music, but it remained flat and ordered, plodding and two-dimensional. There was no spark. 

The day after I quit the researcher’s job, I was on the bus crossing the Thames via Waterloo Bridge. The bus was about to begin the stretch up the Strand and the Kingsway towards home, and a voice came into my head. I had my notebook with me, so I wrote it down. The words it spoke in were halting and lyrical and weird. They came out of a confused and confusing darkness. But the voice wasn’t hopeless or despairing; it had a kind of fierce pride. That night I had a breakthrough: what if that darkened, confusing place was part of the world I had already imagined, the one dominated by music? Not possible, I thought. Then I paused. In that pause, and in the sense of a novel as a problem to be solved, was the spark of The Chimes. For the first time since the good days of violin, I felt the possibility of vocation again, and it was marvelous, like a piece of wonderful luck.

Of course, writing the novel itself was a whole different kettle of folly, a journey across three years, two continents, the birth of a baby, and a whole lot of doubt and error. I had to work out how to write a novel from the perspective of a first-person narrator who had lost his memory, for one thing. But that first spark and its afterglow kept me going throughout. The feeling was a bit like what I imagine Simon, the book’s narrator, feels running on in the dark, pulled on by a voice and a blind faith that is half like flying, half like falling. In the end writing The Chimes was a way of sounding out the questions that music raised for me. It was a way, I guess, of acknowledging the fact that orderly ideals can thrive through the mess of physical realisation, and that answers might lie in the discordant parts, just as much as in the beauties. 


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