“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” according to Elvis Costello. While I don’t agree it is a “really stupid thing to do”, I do appreciate the difficulties of portraying the presence of sound in writing. My current novel requires me to write about sound and music, but I’m struggling with the idea of enforcing my own experience of these sounds onto the reader. Still, others have done it: think of Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Taking the concept one step further, author Margaret Attwood will be accompanied by performers who will play the characters and sing songs from her new book, The year of the flood, at its official launch later this year.
Music is important to me, as much as for writing as it is because I’m human. I listen to music constantly while writing, I incorporate sounds I hear into the writing itself. I even develop soundtracks to go with particular pieces and I often wish there was a way to infuse my novel with that soundtrack so the readers could share the experience. But what I hear is not necessarily what the reader wants to hear. Even if I did produce a soundtrack, it would be influenced by my fondness for world music, my own cultural attitudes, and my desire for the rare and unsual and might be completely removed from the reader’s ideas. As a reader I don’t like long descriptions of a character’s physique, exposition through dialogue or technical descriptions of objects, animals or music. I like writing that nourishes the mind’s eye rather than doing all the work for it. Writing that allows me to smell the aromas, see the colours, hear the sounds without overwhelming the page with exposition is true art and what I strive for in my own writing. But how do you give your words volume? How do you explain a Jewish hymn, a Qedamai Silt (a mode of Ethiopian secular music) or an Iranian lullaby? How do you explain your own character’s rendition of Bailero from Chants d’Auvergne? Is it enough to say that it is song for the soprano voice? Or is it safer just to jettison the whole idea? It is hard to find a balance between escessive and ineffective prose. But that is what writer’s must do: we are technicians and part of our craft is learning how to submerse the reader into a scene so that they almost forget they are reading. It sounds hard, it is hard. But writing is about challenging yourself as much as the reader.