While driving to Angrignon Metro station a few days ago, I had a chance to listen to a recently released album by Richard Reed Parry (in a solo effort, though he’s better known as a multi-instrumentalist member of Arcade Fire), titled Music for Heart and Breath.
It was a beautiful sunny day, I was on vacation, and I felt free and hopeful.
Out of the speakers of my car came sounds which, though not quite melodic, were neither cacophonous nor atonal; there was harmony there. There was musicality and structure to the acoustic instruments I heard: cello vibrations, the plucking of multiple violins, some percussion, the shrill sounds of flute and piccolo, moans of a double bass.
I was spellbound and immediately drawn into an inner space where impressions, feelings and thoughts surfaced in a steady stream, and if I could have, I would have pulled off to the side of the road and started writing down everything that was coming to me.
These were life sounds: not just nature, not just emotion, but all of it. And I was so inspired. In that moment, it seemed like a perfect soundtrack to write by.
It turns out that in this recording, according to Parry himself, “Every note, and everything that any of the musicians plays, is played either in sync with the heartbeat of that player, or with their breathing, or with the breathing of another player.”
And so, in a sense, mystery solved, except that I’m still left with this lingering impression of music that fuelled my writing imagination; of an experience of creative convergence.
That music should have unleashed such a torrent of thoughts and feelings in me would not surprise Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and prolific writer, who, in the preface of his book Musicophilia (2008), discusses the similarities between music and language, and the running debate for more than two hundred years as to whether they evolved in tandem or independently (and if so, which came first?).
As Sacks says: “There is, nonetheless, much evidence that humans have a music instinct no less than a language instinct, however this evolved.”
I know many writers who work while listening to music. But what of readers? Because that’s the next logical question, isn’t it?
Do you listen to music while you read? And if so, do you have a preferred soundtrack? Composer? Type of music?
I don’t. While music inspires me to write, I’m so sensitive to the aural landscapes of my life that they would draw me out and away from the literary worlds I was trying to enter, both as a reader and a writer.
And yet…there are books that come with soundtracks. That may sound odd to you, but I know of at least three, and I’m hoping that you will be able to add to this list.
The first of these is Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites (2010), which was given to me by my mum who loved it. She had the generosity and good sense to include Yo Yo Ma’s beautiful recording of the complete suites. Because, you see, the reader is meant to listen to a specific suite in tandem with a chapter of the book, which weaves together three narrative strands: the first featuring Johann Sebastian Bach and the mystery of the missing manuscript of his suites from the eighteenth century; the second, following Pablo Casals and the historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late nineteenth century; and the third, sharing Siblin’s own fascination with the suites in the twenty-first century.
Reading The Cello Suites brings both Johann Sebastian Bach and Pablo Cassals (two hundred and forty years later) to life. What a joy it is to follow all three men (Siblin included) on their separate journeys which are held together by the probing, pensive, exacting and lyrical beauty of the suites.
While Eric Siblin’s life was altered by the genius of Bach, French dramatist and novelist Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt claims to owe his life to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Ma vie avec Mozart (2005) (My life with Mozart―sadly, not yet translated into English), a marvelous and uplifting work of autobiography, Schmitt tells of his transformation from a suicidal 15 year-old to a lifelong devotee to the works of Mozart, whose impact Schmitt first felt while attending a rehearsal of The Marriage of Figaro with his music teacher.
This watershed moment was followed by a decades-long practice of writing letters to the great composer. These Schmitt shares in Ma vie avec Mozart, which includes in its margins handwritten references to the cut on the CD (which accompanies the book―there are16 in all) that Schmitt settled upon as Mozart’s imagined response to each missive. A more lovely and intimate relationship between author and reader is unimaginable.
Finally, in 2013, Canadian musician Robbie Robertson (legendary member of The Band), in collaboration with his son Sebastian, Jared Levine and Jim Guerinot, released a new book-and-CD project for young readers that highlights 27 groundbreaking popular musicians, from Billie Holiday to Hank Williams to The Beach Boys, entitled Legends, Icons and Rebels: Music That Changed the World.
Once again, the writer is engaged in a labour of love, and animated by an impulse to share the works of musicians and songwriters whose work he was transformed by.
“Music is the literature of the heart;
it commences where speech ends.”
(Alphonse de Lamartine)
p.s.There are some who enjoy the experience of listening to audiobooks. Are you among them? If so, can you write to us and share some of your best listening experiences? Do you have preferred narrator-readers of these that you could recommend to us (voices you particularly enjoy) ?
Mary Jane O’Neill, who handles adult programming at Pointe-Claire library, has mentioned popping an audiobook into her car’s sound system for a long drive out of town, and how enjoyable she found listening to an excellent reader reveal the book to her.
(I confess to only ever having enjoyed audiobooks for and with my children! Well…maybe it’s time to take the plunge 🙂 )