–David Cost

I am much more familiar with music that has been created from literature or plays than with music that has been the inspiration for writing. Yet poetry is filled with rhythm, and music may also—even in subtle and unconscious ways—find its way into the cadences and rhythms of prose. Do you feel music has filtered into your style in this manner and, beyond that, have you ever used music directly as a construct for ordering or advancing the framework of a narrative?

—David Cost, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dave, I’ve just been rereading the beautiful Nazim Hikmet poem, “Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in C Minor” (in translation), you sent me when we were discussing this question. Of course it does exactly the thing you ask about near the end of your question, with Hikmet using a particular musical work as both inspiration and structuring device for his poem, which, Bach-like, is both brilliant and lovely. I won’t quote from it here beyond the last lines: My rose, this is the miracle of repetition – / to repeat without repeating.  

I love the deftness of that finish. Hikmet has summed up both his own method in the poem and made a remarkably succinct exegesis of Bach!

I can only respond to the first part of your question anecdotally, but it’s my observation as well that it’s more likely for us to find a Mendelssohn creating music based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than it is to find writers who try to capture and echo the content and form of music in written work. I’m sure there are scholarly studies on this, but I’m not familiar with them. One writer comes to mind as someone who worked more closely from music, and that’s Thomas Mann, the great German novelist. In his twenties, he borrowed the idea of leitmotifs from Wagner and used them in Buddenbrooks. By the time he wrote Dr. Faustus, he apparently incorporated the 12-tone musical structure created by Arnold Schönberg. I say apparently because I never really understood what Schönberg was doing with that concept and, though I was on the lookout for how it worked as a structuring device when I read Dr. Faustus, it eluded me.

One small aside here. Years ago, I had a fondness for the TV western, The High Chaparral. I liked its back and forth between border Americans and their Mexican counterparts. I also absolutely loved the way it used musical leitmotifs for the important characters. It was perfectly integrated and charming. All of which reminds me of a larger point on another subject. I think it’s wonderful we have a form like film (OK, the movies) that’s created by the work of so many creative people in all art forms and technological areas. It’s an amazing kind of collaboration that really ought to be the template for more fields and more societal innovation.

But a quick return to Nazim Hikmet before addressing the general question of the influence of music on my work. I think it makes much more sense for a poet to try to use music as a specific construct for work than it does for a prose writer and that’s because poets are working in a much more exacting space to begin with. Even with free verse, they’re constantly attuned to line breaks, enjambment, verses and, in any poetry, the echoing of sounds—assonance, consonance—and the underlying rhythm of the words even if they’re not in a specific metrical line. And for poets who work with received or established forms from haiku to sestinas, there’s an even greater degree of exactitude required. If a poet chooses to add the challenge of trying to interpret a musical form, it’s maybe showing off (and possibly in a very good way), but it’s really just raising the level of difficulty the way gymnasts do. For even the most careful of prose writers, life on the page is both more spacious and uninhibited. My hat is off to any fiction writer who can pull off the challenge of building this kind of esoteric structure into the deepest layers of work. I’ve never tried it. The closest I’ve ever gotten was, I believe, unconscious. The structure of The Second Magician’s Tale has a very tenuous similarity to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with the third person chapters that move from troupe member to troupe member connecting the first-person Nell sections and acting a bit like the Mussorgsky “Promenades.”  But it’s not a close parallel and, as I said, it wasn’t planned.

The not-planned part is really key here, for I think that’s the primary way music affects my work and probably that of many other writers. All writing has a pulse. All writing has a rhythm. We could say that all aspects of life have these things. We notice rhythm in paintings and photographs. We’re very aware of pacing in film. It is simply part of the ethos of writing to have not only a sound track of voices running through the mind, but to try to push off from all this rhythm and sound to establish a singular voice as the dominant one. For me, that means I can’t listen to music as a background when I write because it acts as interference. If there’s that immediate competition, I can’t hear the voice of the story, the sound of the sentence and the way it moves into another sentence. I have to absolutely hear the work, just as I have to focus to really hear a piece of music. This goes beyond rhythm. I have to hear the words to know if their sounds are working together or if something feels off.

Here’s another tangent. We’ve all had the experience of trying to read something when our minds are somewhere else. We can read whole sentences and whole paragraphs without anything really penetrating. Part of that is just basic distraction. But some of it is due to the fact that there’s another dominant voice that’s still imprinted on our brain from something we’ve heard or read and it isn’t letting us home in on the voice we’re trying to hear. I’ve even had the experience fairly often—and I suspect it’s familiar to other writers—that I sit down to read my own work and can’t hear it. Everything sounds jumbled and wrong and it’s usually because I haven’t matched my attention to the voice I’m reading. There’s maybe a need to do something like clearing the palate with cheese at a wine tasting. At the least, there’s a need to shift gears, which must be a particular challenge for people who are bombarded with a ton of disparate things to read. I’m thinking, for instance, that it must be extremely difficult for agents and editors to go through their slush piles and find something with a voice strong enough to overpower distraction and the jumble of sound patterns they’re constantly searching through.

All this said, there are times when I use music specifically. There’s of course nothing better for creating mood than a piece of music. When I have an idea about something I want to write and can’t quite put my finger on how to express it, I sometimes think of a piece of music that has gotten into my blood in the same way I want a certain scene or situation to work. Then I’ll listen closely to the music and try to write down what it is that it’s evoking in me. What I’m hearing. The images it brings to mind. The sense of excitement or apprehension or calm. Music is a serious tool in this way. In effect, it’s a generator of language that can then follow its own lead. But even if work is inspired by a cadence or rhythm in music, it has to move from that to establish its own sound. Influence isn’t congruence. To make a more writerly comparison, you can’t write prose in lines of iambic pentameter. And you also can’t write prose in the exact rhythms of music (unless you’re maybe Toni Morrison in Jazz).

I occasionally use a device that’s drawn specifically from music, something I think of as effective repetition. Even a casual storyteller has honed lines that are used in every iteration of a story, and I think all of us have a way of recalling certain memories with set phrases. We characterize people over and over with the same words. We describe something beautiful we saw with the best words we ever came up with for it. We return to ideas that are cast in words, just as music returns to themes and even repeats entire sections. In effect, we may find sets of words are important references in life, something that makes it familiar and coherent. I draw on this sense of things occasionally. For instance, in the epilogue of The Second Magician’s Tale, Nell thinks again of her childhood with Gregor and there are these words: A flock of birds curving above the hillside, parting the sky, pulling the daylight after them like a rosy string. It’s a variation on this reference to the birds she saw when she was a child standing with Gregor in the dawn: They parted the sky where it was gray; they pulled the daylight behind them like a rosy string.

It’s not a mistake. I want that return and what it suggests.

The other way I use music specifically is by mentioning it in stories. We know that Guy Jacquemart in Time Stamp is a sound editor, but we get a more specific idea of him when we learn that Maddie has found a mix of U2 and Samuel Barber in his studio to use at her photo retrospective. We also learn that her mother loved Mozart and her father didn’t understand or like it. The music people listen to reveals a good deal about them and the music that reflects a culture also tells us something about it. I’ve added music links to the title pages on the website for this very reason. In some cases, the music is actually written into the stories, the clearest case being the Verdi “Ave Maria” from Otello that is so important in “Violin Song” from In the Land of the Dinosaur. And for that same collection, the Sammy Hagar “Heavy Metal” link is as close as I could get to the music Otto Baakey describes this way in “The Home of the Wet T-Shirt Contest”: “I heard that kind of music that crawls up your entrails after the war, but I never thought I’d hear it on American soil.” Other links offer music that more generally evokes the world of a story for me and, I hope, for the reader and listener. I’ll let them make their own connections.

There are times, though, when I go beyond all this and try to describe a piece of music that is integral to a story. I listened to some New Orleans jazz very closely, trying to translate its sound into words so I could put that into “The Beautiful Ships” in Clare, Loving.  The harmonics of the Tavener I link for Suite Harmonic are what I listened to in trying to capture John’s memory of the music played by the Wards in Drimarone, and they also provide the edgier variation on harmony that led me to the book’s title.

I’ve just realized this moment that I can’t really answer the very end of your question about whether I’ve used music to advance a narrative framework. Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes. No? If I have, I haven’t done it consciously other than in a specific case like “Violin Song,” where that Verdi is integral to everything. But there may be things I’m not consciously aware of that a reader might discover. All I’m really sure of—and I do know this—is that for me as a writer, music is somehow always part of the work.


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