‘Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat.’
This is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Its frenzied, unpolished language accelerates, crescendos, soars: it is a fabulous evocation of what it is like to play and hear music. Yet music and literature are vastly different. Music exists as a series of organised moments, each one heard as a continuation of the preceding – it has an inherent velocity absent from literature. It is a challenge to incorporate one meaningfully into the other; at its most compelling, literature involving music captures a feeling associated with the music, rather than attempting to convey the music itself. No amount of repetitive, alliterative or fricative language will ever turn words on the page into song – rhythm and sound alone do nothing without meaning or imagery or concept.
Because of this, music in literature must fulfil a role distinct from the act of listening to music. Reading the quote from On the Road makes me feel exhilarated, but not, I would say, in the same way that I would feel exhilarated if I was there, in a grubby American night club hearing George Shearing, jazz pianist, hammer out his brilliance. I have no idea what that is like! But the book successfully captures a spontaneity and drive that is exciting in itself.
‘With a slow rhythm it led him first here, then there, then elsewhere, towards a happiness that was noble, unintelligible and precise.’
While Kerouac looks at spontaneity, Marcel Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time, dwells on the power of memory. At a Parisian soirée, socialite M Swann overhears an exquisite musical phrase that ‘opened his soul so much wider, the way smells of certain roses circulating in the damp evening air have the property of dilating our nostrils’. Perhaps because of this intoxicating effect, when he hears the phrase later in the presence of his lover, Odette, its context shifts and becomes intertwined with her. The phrase is a ‘protective goddess, a confidante of his love’. When Swann’s affair with Odette is consumed by his obsessive jealousy, the phrase ‘warned him how fragile’ his moments of happiness with her were.
It is the effect, rather than the nature, of the music that is the focus here. The music does not change, but Swann does each time he hears it, and projects new meaning onto it. The incorporation of the music into the text works so well because, like in On the Road, it is preoccupied with how the music influences the listener. While there is some explicit description of the music itself (‘the mass of the piano part all at once struggling to rise in a liquid swell’), the phrase is more memorable as a catalyst for strong emotion.
‘They were possessed by the spirit of the drums’
One of my favourite parts of Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, is a ferociously intense public wrestling scene. It buzzes with an ever-moving pulse, choreographed by the beating of drums. They rise with the intensity of the fighting, and older men ‘remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm‘. As the climax of the episode is reached and the two ‘leaders of the teams’ begin their fight, the atmosphere reaches a fever pitch and the drummers’ ‘frantic rhythm was no longer a mere disembodied sound but the very heart-beat of the people’.
The drums are visceral; you draw from previous experience of percussion – the vibration felt in the chest at the beat of a drum – to make the scene more tangible. Kerouac and Proust both described how their music affected an individual – George Shearing ‘began to sweat’ to the ‘beat’, while the phrase ‘opened the soul’ of M Swann. But Achebe’s music is more global: the drums are ‘the very heartbeat of the people’, drawing them together in the shared experience of sound – a collectivity which lends the scene vivacity and movement.
In each of these three books the music incorporated serves a bigger idea: kinetic excitement in On the Road, fraught emotion in In Search of Lost Time and fiery combat in Things Fall Apart. ‘Music oft hath such a charm/To make bad good, and good provoke to harm’ says the Bard in Measure for Measure – but this leaves so much unsaid; music ‘oft hath the charm’ to conjure any emotion: euphoric peaks and melancholy lows. Through the lens of literature, we see music sculpt the lives of those around it, and maybe feel a little of that ourselves.