The Music Does Not Matter: Notes on Music in Literature

The Music Does Not Matter: Notes on Music in Literature

You can put the listener in a room that doesn’t exist,
that couldn’t exist. You can put them in an impossible room

—Hari Kunzru

In Edward Bellamy’s Marxist utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), Julian West—a late-nineteenth-century insomniac who, as a result of a particularly intense hypnosis-induced sleep, wakes up in the year 2000—is introduced to a “music room” (“an apartment finished, without hangings, in wood, with a floor of polished wood”) and handed a card bearing “the longest program of music I had ever seen . . . a most extraordinary range of vocal and instrumental solos, duets, quartets, and various orchestral combinations.” In Bellamy’s imagined future, performance halls are connected by telephone wires to music rooms all across Boston, “‘providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will.’” Setting aside the omission of any non-classical musical genres, Bellamy is quite prescient: today, most of us possess mobile devices capable of accessing almost any music at almost any time, our own portable “music rooms.” And yet, paradoxically, the music conjured in the music rooms of Looking Backward—like music in literature or, indeed, in any text at all—cannot be heard: it is soundless music, and thus exists solely in the imaginations of readers, an aural instantiation of what Bertrand Russell calls sensibilia—“unsensed sense-data.”

Though he “remained bewildered by the prodigious list,” Mr. West rather promptly chooses “an organ piece” and afterward exclaims that Bach himself “must be at the keys.” So: What have readers heard, exactly? Some readers might “hear” something vaguely Bach-like—up-tempo contrapuntal organ perhaps? Others might not hear any music at all, but imagine a certain moment in German history, or an angelic church service, or an “important” bourgeois leisure pursuit, or— But the point is clear enough: the response music in literature triggers in a diverse audience is far from precise; hence, an unbridgeable gap separates those experiencing music in the domain of a literary work (such as Mr. West) from those reading about that music and/or the experience of it.

Counterintuitively, however, this “unbridgeable gap” has its advantages: for many writers, it creates among other things an extra-literary space in readers’ minds, a tear in the fabric of the literary artifact/artifice, a mystery toward which we are perpetually drawn without the possibility of “answers”—a kind of Zeno’s paradox. As Christopher Gilbert writes in “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso, I Remember Braiding My Sister’s Hair”:
                  What it’s all about is being
just beyond a man’s grasp
which is a kind of consciousness
you can own, to get to
be at a moment’s center
and let it keep on happening
knowing you don’t own it—
For this reason, music in literature leads quite naturally to group formation and solidarity, as well as to transcendence and corresponding forms of corporeal release/escape, the “rushing toward annihilation and release” (Rafi Zabor). In Hoop Roots: Playground Basketball, Love, and Race, John Edgar Wideman writes, “Transcendent is a word that comes to mind when I consider the capacity of music to expand the parameters of experience upward, elevating the spirit, extending the range of what’s possible. Music ushers in a transcendent reality.”1

Descriptions of Music in Literature

How, then, do poets and writers portray music in literature, seeing as it cannot be heard? Descriptions of music in literature tend to be sensuous, simile- and metaphor-laden evocations—Rachel Zucker: “‘I sing like a rusty gate’”; Jackie Kay: “The sax was all slow and sad, like it was trying to remember something lost”; Reuben Jackson: “the music reveals itself / a negligee black note at a time”—which is just to make the obvious observation that the most common and effective descriptions of music tend to describe something other than music, even when descriptions of music are themselves “musical”—that is to say, when they aim to sonically imitate the music itself. “Zip little silver birds like buckshot dimes,” writes Fred Chappell in his poem “The Highest Wind That Ever Blew: Homage for Louis.” Or, “Ma’s skirt balloons, his jacket booms. She zincs. He chowders,” as Reginald McKnight writes in his short story “This Is How You Get to the 40s.”

In contrast to, say, conventional notions/examples of ekphrasis, which attempt to inhabit and dramatize a still original, music in literature is generally twice removed: not only is music, actual music, rather than the proverbial “music of poetry” or the musical form of a novel such as Toni Morrison’s Jazz, incapable of existing in literature, but the descriptions that stand in for music (Bernard Malamud: “The song was like a lit candle in the night”) almost always refer to nonmusical sensuous particulars, commonly through similes and metaphors, so that the effect is less palimpsestic than it is intersemiotic2: it is music translated or transcribed into sensuous verbal descriptions, and the music on the page—if one persists in thinking of it as music proper—is a fantasy impossible to actualize, an art forever poised on the edge of being. This is “the bind in which the musically-interested writer finds her or himself,” observes Stephen Benson in Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction, “—music is interesting for its musicality, but it is this above all else that will escape the writing.” In lieu of music, then, we have writerly flourishes, attempts to compensate in other ways for literature’s inability to (re)produce actual music.

But why not, one might ask, a technical description of music? Setting aside the obvious fact that, to a nonmusician readership, a technical description of music will be incomprehensible, many writers themselves do not possess a clear understanding of either music theory or instrumental technique. There are, of course, notable exceptions: David Shapiro was a violin prodigy; Nicholson Baker was briefly a bassoonist for a philharmonic orchestra; and Reuben Jackson was for many years curator of the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In any case, for the music-invested writer, to misdescribe or explain incorrectly some technical aspect of music is to risk discrediting whatever authority s/he may have previously held.

Frank Conroy, who writes about music exquisitely in his memoirs Stop-Time and Time & Tide: A Walk through Nantucket, and especially in his first and only novel Body & Soul, nevertheless describes at length, in an essay called “Think About It,” his own misunderstanding of what pianist Red Garland was “doing with his left hand.” Conroy writes, “I went uptown to an obscure club where [Red] was playing with his trio, caught him on his break, and simply asked him. ‘Sixths,’ he said cheerfully. And then he went away.” Years later, Conroy “discovers” that “if the bass played the root [of a dominant-seventh chord] and I played the sixth based on the fifth note of the scale, an interesting chord involving both instruments emerged.” That “interesting chord” is simply a major third. If the root is a C, then six of five (G) is an E. (Isn’t it more interesting if he played the key’s actual sixth [A], with the dissonance it creates beside the dominant seventh [B-flat]?) Far more egregious than Conroy’s misunderstood “epiphany” surrounding Garland’s one-word explanation (“Sixths”) is his insistence that, after many years of living with it, “my life caught up with the information and the lightbulb went on.” Musician-readers do not experience the illumination Conroy had intended—instead, they are still waiting for him to be illuminated rightly—and nonmusician-readers may have glossed over the passage altogether, lost at sea.

My point here is not to shame Conroy—“Think About It” is a fine essay, and it’s not fundamentally about music, anyway—or criticize musicality in toto. (Check out these lines, from Marvin Bell’s “The Fifties,” which offer something for musicians and nonmusicians alike: “I see notes for solos—bad. / I get hung on the chords—bad. / I can’t stay up—bad”). My point here is to display how distant technical descriptions of music remain from actual experiences of music. However unintuitive it may be, those “sensuous, simile- and metaphor-laden evocations” discussed above far better approximate our experiences of music, despite their turning away from music itself. It turns out that “this fearful medium,” as Tolstoy writes in The Kreutzer Sonata, “is available to anyone who cares to make use of it.”

Abstract / Invisible Realities: Integration, Transcendence, Escape

In “The Hallelujah Chorus,” according to Ed Pavlic’s Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners, Baldwin tells Ray Charles that music is “an abstract reality.” This is undoubtedly true. It’s one of the reasons why the Abstract Expressionists—thanks in part to Clement Greenberg’s “Towards a Newer Laocoön”: “[I]n its nature [music] is the art furthest removed from imitation”—so admired music. Yet music is also an invisible reality: we can watch musicians perform or turntables spin, but we cannot watch music (or any auditory phenomena) itself. Sound is “suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things,” to quote Italo Calvino’s “A King Listens.”

As a result, sound’s invisibility, in tandem with the soundlessness of literature, facilitates the bending of reality in literature, however slight. In David Huddle’s novella Tenorman, Eddie Carnes’ seductive tenor playing—playing that “could unhook a bra”—is seductively directed at female listeners: “‘As a woman, you sense that you’re the object of that music,’” says Marianne, the narrator’s wife. In Josef Skvorecky’s short story “Eine Kleine Jazzmusik,” a trumpet player can “attack” a Nazi with his horn: “In a unisono blast the brass gave forth a fortissimo bellow as if straight at his person. Everything went black before his eyes . . .” This invisible, soundless “music” also allows Emma’s resonating piano to be heard across an entire village in this well-known passage from Madame Bovary (trans. Lydia Davis):
                  She would strike the keys with assurance and run down the entire keyboard from top to bottom without stopping. When it was thus assaulted
by her, the old instrument, with its buzzing strings, could be heard as far as the edge of the village if the window was open, and often the
bailiff’s clerk, who was passing on the main road, bareheaded and in slippers, would stop to listen, holding his piece of paper in his hand.

Like long-lost family members, like unexpected weather, like phone calls in the middle of the night, music can suddenly arrive, bearing its associations and moods, its emotional capabilities and anonymous unseen performer(s). In “The Singing Simics,” Charles Simic describes his uncle Boris singing opera on a New York subway: “I recall the astonished faces of sleepy passengers . . . opening their eyes wide to find in their midst Andrea Chénier himself, the great French Romantic poet and innocent victim of revolutionary justice dying on the guillotine and singing with his last breath.” And, similarly, in Wanda Coleman’s “Jazz at Twelve,” the narrator can hear, upon seeing her boyfriend’s “moonful look, the one that tells me I’m beautiful. . . . Nat King Cole singing ‘Angel Eyes.’” The invisible reality of music draws music-in-literature into the domain of the imagination—even if, as Benson observes, “music is always already worldly: socially situated, entwined with words, however silently.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that music in literature is capable of doing more in the world of the relevant text than music is capable of doing in the world itself. Nor should it come as a surprise that this essay opened with a passage from a utopian novel: it’s crucial to foreground the illimitableness of music in literature—the very ease with which it transcends the bounds of reality.
                  The music Pythagorean,
one note at a time
Connecting the heavenly spheres. (Simic)
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s phantasmagoric novel The Unconsoled, music is a liberating force, a force capable of rousing a city: Ryder, widely regarded as the greatest living pianist, is scheduled to give a concert, and the success of his performance—his ability to re-inspire them, or transport down to earth some fragment from the ineffable—is tied to the future of this unnamed Central European city. In The Unconsoled, writes Benson, “[m]usic is put to work in an essentially commodified fashion, as art with a use-value, that of consolation and reparation”—a use-value effortlessly upheld in literature, seeing as music (consigned therein to silence) is so frequently imbued with abstract potentiality, with the Platonic ideal of music. “And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard,” writes Wallace Stevens in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (my emphasis). Too, Ryder is a concert pianist, rather than a composer or improviser, and though interpretations of written music by musicians vary widely, not even Glenn Gould could make Bach sound unlike Bach: it’s a translational skill, not a compositional one. Thus, in The Unconsoled, Ryder’s task—the performative expectations leveled upon him by a vast array of characters, known or unknown or once known (Ryder’s former life with this city’s populace dreamily and only fragmentarily surfaces: he has an ex-wife, a son, numerous “friends”)—is even more outrageous: he must reinvigorate known commodities, make compositions already heard or at least capable of being heard, uplift an entire city.

Which is just to say that The Unconsoled exaggerates music’s ability to unite people, provide a so-called “universal language,” be an agent of group formation and solidarity. This is another trope of music-invested literature. The Trumpets of Zion form the social nucleus of James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head. Kanye’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an invisible thread enwrapping isolated listeners in Kiese Laymon’s “Kanye West and HaLester Myers Are Better at Their Jobs . . .” Music, too, is what keeps brothers Jonah and Joseph together in Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, even if, finally, to quote A. Elizabeth Reichel, “it is social and political forces that decide whether music is able to create permanent alliances.”

In Skvorecky’s “Eine Kleine Jazzmusik,” like The Unconsoled in its exaggeration of this trope, a jazz band known as the Masked Rhythm Bandits give a rapturous, climactic performance (“God Almighty, who has created jazz and all the beauties of the world, only you know how well we played!”) in a Nazi-occupied Eastern European city referred to as K. The bandmembers are “masked” to preserve their identity. The familiar elements of jazz (swing, syncopation, scatting, etc) are effectively outlawed. In this scene, the Masked Rhythm Bandits’ concert produces among its musicians as well as its audience—“a local Wermacht unit”—an extraordinary if short-lived freedom: “It seemed to me that the theatre in K. had disappeared . . . and there was nothing but music.” By entering so completely the space in which music and music-listening occurs, almost every character present at that final concert in “Eine Kleine Jazzmusik” receives—semi-equally—a cathartic release from authoritarian decrees and a balm for whatever physical or psychic suffering has been and/or will be inflicted by them (Wermacht) or upon them (Masked Rhythm Bandits).

A brief transcendence, yes?

Because it cannot issue from the text itself, music in literature is often linked to life-altering experiences or momentous revelations: writers cannot help but explore the “wonder-working fantasy” (Hawthorne’s phrase) of music. “Raise me up into that music by which all things are changed,” writes Rafi Zabor. Of course, there’s no shortage of historical musicians who believed some form of transcendence via music was possible—famously John Coltrane, whose late, avant-garde concerts and albums (see Ascension) were feverishly otherworldly—or else whose compositions attempted to transcend or at least transport its listeners (see Gustav Holst’s The Planets). But such musicians and compositions are rare.

Meanwhile, literature routinely uses the present-absence of music, as well as the oft-startling descriptions that supplant music (Bob Kaufman: “Smothered rage covering pyramids of notes spontaneously exploding”) to exploit the absorbing, transportive possibilities and emotional flights inherent to music. As John Edgar Wideman writes in his short story “Williamsburg Bridge,” “[O]ne afternoon Sonny Rollins practicing changes on the Williamsburg Bridge halts me dead in my tracks. Big colors, radiant bucketfuls splash my face. I spin, swim in colors. Enraptured. Abducted by angels who lift me by my droopy wings up, up, and away.” Put differently, music in literature often disguises its inexpressibility as ineffability, producing an aesthetic and existential trapdoor—a tear in the fabric of the relevant literary artifact/artifice—through which readers, along with speakers or narrators or characters, enter (without entering) a realm beyond the limits of language. The Coltranian solo at the end of Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home is the finest example I’ve yet encountered, hands down:
                  . . . and the rush of his own ideas blasting him into regions unforeseen. He saw the treasured geometry of his lights and vitals, the
wellscanned signature of his timeless self erased by waves of greater light, the vessel bursting, and as the Bear sped to the limits of his own
transcendent outline, he could discern details—gardens, geometries, geometric gardens, fine dust and starry singularities, all the
declensions of Life into lives—rushing toward annihilation and embrace, their mayfly construction swept away, since under these
circumstances even metaphysical flesh was grass.

                  He felt the the [sic] wellknown fluttering veil at the entrance of his heart give way as a greater paw lifted it like a piece of pop-up tissue

                  I don’t believe this is ha—

                  The whole world vanished. In fact all worlds vanished.

“. . . and there was nothing but music,” indeed.

Yet not all transportive/transcendent experiences of music in literature are otherworldly; some are afterworldly. In Jackie Kay’s debut novel Trumpet—in a chapter simply titled “Music”—the spirit or soul or ghost of Joss Moody, legendary trumpet player and transgender man, escapes his body-vessel while playing music for the other bodies in the funeral parlor, “his stiff comrades inside their coffins.” It’s a long, feverish, metamorphic solo—in the course of which he witnesses his own birth, becomes a horse, becomes a girl again3—“He can taste himself transforming”—and at last merges with music itself: “He is the music” (my emphasis). The chapter’s indispensable, the principle moment in which Kay acknowledges her ethical bind: the potential harm of speaking of and about a transgendered man on the one hand (like the absence of Emmett Till’s voice/perspective in Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle), and the ethnocentric artistic hubris of speaking as or for him (à la William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner) on the other. Insufficient to her art’s demands, Kay exploits the present-absence of music in literature by allowing Joss to “speak” for himself (albeit inaudibly and incorporeally) as music, and thus become, in Wallace Stevens’ familiar words, the “[n]othing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Joss and music, now one and the same, thereafter haunt the novel like a ghost, like Scotland’s atmospheric fog (“The people and the weather shrouded in uncertainty”), like the silent white space of a page.

On the Musical Imaginary

Now let us return more directly to the paradox of music in literature: how it provokes our listening but denies us music. It strikes me as too simple and dismissive to cast this paradox in a tragic light—“‘That’s the worst of music—these silly dreams!’” as a character exclaims in Virginia Woolf’s “The String Quartet”—or to claim that readers are like Odysseus’s shipmates, their ears plugged with beeswax, deaf to the Sirens’ “high, thrilling song.” After all, even if you cannot, like Odysseus, “hear the Sirens’ song to your heart’s content,” music in literature can still access or activate the space in which music-listening occurs, an imaginary, unlocatable space—“the part of you projected into the space of sounds” (Calvino).

Consider the moment, in David Huddle’s Tenorman, when Marianne describes her husband thus: “‘I’d been standing there beside you—and I knew you’d “lifted off” the way you do when one of your old jazz guys picks up a horn and starts to play. You were up there in the zone.’” Or that moment when Millie—to return to Jackie Kay’s Trumpet—at a jazz club with Joss, her soon-to-be husband, finds herself “inside the music”: “I am sitting in the middle of the long slow moan of the sax, right inside it.” In “Listening with Imagination: Is Music Representational?” philosopher Kendall Walton echoes this very sentiment: “it is as though I am inside the music, or it is inside me.” Music in literature, as a record of music’s existence, as an intersemiotic translation of music, opens both the desire and the eagerness to absorb music (or be absorbed by it), and this desire, this eagerness, becomes in turn a palpable, extra-literary presence—a present absence—that surrounds and soundlessly accompanies one’s experience of reading. The activation of the music-listening process, even in the absence of actual music, becomes an ingredient of reading itself. Walton again: “It is as though the music provides the smile without the cat—a smile for the listener to wear.” Put too succinctly, the paradox of music in literature enlarges readers’ aesthetic, affective, and sensorial experience. “We might have known it always,” writes David Malouf in his poem “An Die Musik,” “music / is the landscape we move through in our dreams.” There’s no tragedy to the paradox because, to corrupt Eliot’s famous line from Four Quartets, “The music does not matter.”4 What matters is the musical imaginary, the felt space readers enter as virtual listeners of a soundless music.5

                  Envy of Other People’s Poems

                  In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.

                                                                        —Robert Hass

Paralleling the inaudibility of music in literature, some of the most fascinating migrations into the musical imaginary are concerned with responses to music by somebody other than—but intimately related to—a speaker, narrator, or third-person protagonist. A key factor in the emotional impact of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for example, lies in the disparity between Gabriel’s response to his wife, Gretta, “standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music”—“A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart”—and Gretta’s own response to the music. Specifically, she remembers Michael Furey, who in her adolescence “used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim” and who, she believes, had died for her (aged seventeen) by visiting her, despite an illness, one cold dark wet night: “[I] slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.”

Readers need not “hear” The Lass of Aughrim in some evocative verbal metaphor. After all, the version Gabriel all but distantly hears is supplanted by the image of his wife shadowed on the stairs—“Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter”—and the version Gretta hears is uniquely tied to her own experience, to which readers have, until she reveals the memory to Gabriel, no access at all. “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” writes Wallace Stevens in “Peter Quince at the Clavier,”
                  And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

                  Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.
And here, in Joyce’s “The Dead,” music is two distinct feelings, and thus separates man and wife. Contrary to music’s integrative function6—its ability to unite people far and wide—Gabriel and Gretta hear different songs, cannot not hear different songs.7 Importantly, because the song on which this story turns is, for readers, inaudible—“distant music” indeed—the story dramatizes the musical imaginary: the music we “hear” or are prepared to hear exaggerates the idiosyncrasies inherent to music-listening and is capable of distancing, isolating even, one listener from another.

The migration into the musical imaginary is similarly dramatized in Ishiguro’s “Crooner,” from Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. Tony Gardner, a bygone American crooner gearing up for a “comeback,” invites the narrator, a “gypsy” guitarist named Janeck, to accompany him during a private performance: Gardner wants to serenade his wife, Lindy, from a gondola—the story’s set in Venice—beneath her balcony. However, when the gondola arrives at Lindy’s window, a brief squabble about where Gardner has been ensues, and then Lindy complains of the cold, so that Gardner tells her to “listen from inside the room. . . . Just leave those windows open and you’ll hear us fine.” Ishiguro withholds the songs’ lyrics, and the music itself is only cursorily described: “I tried to make it sound like America, sad roadside bars, big long highways”; or, “his voice came out just the way I remembered it—gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike.” Finally, several tunes into their performance, Gardner and Janeck hear Lindy “up there sobbing.” Why? Is she sad, disappointed, overjoyed? As Janeck himself asks Gardner: “‘Just now, was Mrs. Gardner crying because she was happy or because she was upset?’”

Deaf to the intratextual music, readers can only guess at what the music might sound like and what, more importantly, it might mean to its addressee: Lindy’s response to the music, to her husband’s grandiloquent if stereotypical romantic gesture, cannot be parsed with any accuracy. (Thought experiment: What if we could actually hear Gardner’s serenade—if this were a film, say, and Gardner sang Frank Sinatra’s “Moonlight Serenade”—would we ourselves project feelings of romance and hope onto Lindy’s response? It’s not unlikely.) Because a detailed description of the serenade would in all likelihood clarify for reader-listeners how Lindy feels or, more precisely, how readers think she feels, Ishiguro chooses to let Lindy’s response—as well as Janeck’s response to her response: “‘We did it, Mr. Gardner!’ . . . ‘We did it. We got her by the heart’”—create narrative tension, a mystery requiring clarity.

And Gardner soon clarifies: he tells Janeck that, although they’ve been married for twenty-seven years and are happy together, he and Lindy are divorcing. In the quasi-realism of Nocturnes, a crooner’s “comeback” requires a young wife: “‘Look at the ones from my generation still hanging round,’” Gardner tells Janeck. “‘Every single one of them, they’ve remarried. Twice, sometimes three times. Every one of them, young wives on their arms. Me and Lindy are getting to be a laughing stock.’” The pathos of Ishiguro’s “Crooner” is that the authenticity and the uses, or use-value, of the “love song”—the musical imaginary reader-listeners associate, say, with the Great American Songbook or the romance of Venice—are sacrificed on the altar of superficial American careerist ambitions.

Sound v. Image (Reprise)

Musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.
—Kate Chopin

Though it’s an abstract and an invisible reality, by collaborating with the writer, with experience, with character, narrative, plot, setting, image, language—all those familiar characteristics of creative writing—music in literature nevertheless acquires (by proximity or osmosis) pictorial representation. “Music,” according to Kendall Walton, “stands ready to take on an explicit representational function at the slightest provocation.” A glaring example occurs in a late chapter of Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, when Colman, Joss Moody’s adopted son, remembers his father telling stories with his horn:
                  As a treat sometimes, he would ask for ingredients to his story. Everyone present had to give one. Whatever you could think up. A
butterfly. A chest. A little girl looking through a keyhole. Hair. A baby ape. An old woman in a house by the sea. And then he would make
up a song on his trumpet, a song that would tell the story of all these things together, and sometimes it was possible for each person to
recognize the music of the butterfly, of the wooden house, of the little girl.
Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Maria Schneider’s Cerulean Skies, or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition—compositions that cannot not describe or collaborate with their titles—Joss’s “story time” is a veritable flipbook of complex, emotionally suggestive images: “A butterfly” (whimsical?); “A chest” (nostalgia?); “A little girl looking through a keyhole” (fear? curiosity?); “Hair” (erotic?); “A baby ape” (cute?); “An old woman in a house by the sea” (lonesome?). Because music in literature cannot be heard, Joss’s trumpet playing acquires the narratological abilities associated with literature and the paradigmatic representational arts—it narrativizes and brings to life, brings together, each person’s “ingredient.” It’s a clever move. If Kay can convert music into evocative verbal descriptions, then she can “record” (for both her characters and her readers) Joss’s music without sound.

There are countless, subtler examples of music in literature acquiring narratological meaning without sensuous, simile- or metaphor-laden descriptions. In Ed Pavlić’s Winners Have Yet to Be Announced, a copy of George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous is slipped in the cover of a book on suicide and then placed on Donny Hathaway’s piano “just to make people listen a little different”—or to make readers “listen” a lot different. Still, on the whole, such acquisitions occur most frequently when music becomes for its listener (narrator, speaker, character) the proverbial Proustian madeleine—a rabbit-hole into the past.

In James Alan McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music,” from his 1977 Pulitzer prize-winning short story collection Elbow Room, a nameless African American narrator attempts to explain to his wife and to himself—indeed, “quietly, and mostly to myself”—the very task the title sets in motion. Put simply, the explanation is that country music, particularly when accompanied by square dancing, reminds him of his boyhood infatuation with a girl named Gwyneth Lawson, with whom he’d square-danced at a school performance. Country music plays throughout the two kids’ climactic dance—“. . . promenade that dear old thing / Throw your head right back and sing be-cause, just be-cause . . .”—but the sound of the music is not described. Instead, the music is supplanted by memories, those indelible images McPherson’s retrospective narrator still fondly recalls: “I only remember that during many turns and do-si-dos I found myself looking into the warm brown eyes of Gwyneth Lawson. I recall that she smiled at me. I recall that she laughed on another turn. I recall that I laughed with her an eternity later.” This sort of “recall” is a widespread literary tactic. “Memoria was [once] the mother of the muses,” writes Victor Villanueva, “the most important of the rhetorical offices.” Still, its execution—how one tackles such “personal, private, vanishing evocations,” to corrupt a phrase from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”—is varied and difficult, maybe even impossible. As McPherson’s narrator later admits: “[A]lthough it is difficult to explain to you, I still maintain that I am no mere arithmetician in the art of the square dance. I am into the calculus of it.” Though she may not be able to grasp “the calculus of it,” the narrator’s wife, like readers themselves, can certainly feel a more-than-modest portion of the lived experience embedded, for him, in country music.

This tactic can be turned on its head, too. Consider Ellen Douglas’s A Lifetime Burning,8 an inventive exploration of the confrontation between imagination and reality. An epistolary novel, A Lifetime Burning consists of the compelling, often scandalous “confessions”—that is to say, lies: “My dreams of my own frustration, impotence, passivity, hatred, imprisonment, death”—of a sixty-two-year-old wife, mother, and professor of literature named Corinne, as she angularly stumbles her way toward what she has been “putting off” for much of her adult life: her love affair with a woman named Judith. The novel seems to embrace D.H. Lawrence’s claim that “out of a pattern of lies art weaves the truth.” Like McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music,” this text is addressed to Corinne’s husband, George, as well as to her children, though it, too, is addressed quietly, and mostly to herself.

One of Corinne’s wilder “confessions” concerns her month-long “sabbatical” in California: she stays with her son William, a singer-songwriter, and there befriends a rather unstable young woman named Janice Clifford, a viola player who rents a room in his house and is obsessed with American violinist Eugene Fodor. More specifically, after hearing/seeing Fodor on the Johnny Carson show—and Fodor was in fact a frequent guest on the show—Janice believes that she, and she alone in all the world, can sufficiently nurture a musician of such extraordinary talent and depth: “‘[W]hen [Johnny] asked Eugene a question,’” she tells Corinne one afternoon, “‘I saw an expression cross his face—Eugene’s—indescribable, as if he retreated into some deep place inside himself. I knew and he knew—he would know, if only he had a chance to—that I was the only one who belonged there.’” Unlike McPherson’s narrator, who attempts with appreciable success to communicate the relationship between country music and his first infatuation, Janice has no tangible relationship with Fodor, the man or the music: she is a mere listener-spectator, and whatever she hears when she hears him play has no basis in reality. When she states elsewhere that Fodor is a “prisoner of his gift,” readers no doubt detect that Janice, alas, is the prisoner of her obsession. In this soft-edged California “sabbatical” at the center of A Lifetime Burning, music and musicians emerge as a figure for the imagination itself, for the virtual and untenable realities that both Janice and Corinne have created—each in her own way—for themselves.

By this point in the novel, music and Corrine’s imagination/lies have long been linked. In her first major invention, for example, she follows George into a church, attempting to catch him and their diminutive neighbor who she’s cruelly nicknamed “The Toad” (“she has the look of someone who barely missed being a midget—arms a trifle short, a short-legged waddle for a walk”) fornicating. In due course, Corinne hides in a dark, cramped closet—a not-so-subtle metaphor for the openness of her own sexuality—that opens into two rooms. In one room, she hears George and The Toad whisper-talking; in the other, the church choir and a pianist rehearsing. Naturally, the music cannot not comment upon or ornament Corinne’s situation: when the pianist begins “Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,” readers instinctively put this song title in different characters’ mouths. Is this what The Toad says, in so many words, to George? Is this what Corinne says/sings to herself as she overhears her husband cheating? Several diary entries later, however, when we learn that Corinne has in fact invented the entire scene and that even The Toad is a fabrication, readers cannot help but mull over the title yet again. Is this what Corinne says/sings as she imagines herself nearer, nearer, nearer to the truth? Hence, what was at first commentary on Corrine’s situation (i.e. her story) has now become metacommentary on her storytelling. When the choir sings “‘Just as I a-am, Thy love I own . . .,’” Corrine remarks, “Ugh. Flat,” whereupon she quits the closet and then the church, as though the remark (“Ugh. Flat”) were leveled at her own powers of imagination, her own “[p]itiful sad illusions.” Put simply, in Corrine’s invented scene, the very mention of music creates a metafictive (non)space—another virtual and untenable reality—another impossible room—between the story and her ability to tell it.

But let us return to sound and image. Again, one might ask if there is a difference between sound and image in, frankly, any of the texts heretofore discussed. More precisely: Is the kind of sight employed in looking at visual art also accessed and thenceforth carried about, so to speak, as a present absence throughout one’s reading experience? Yep, I think it is. In literature, however, auditory phenomena—to say nothing of music—are almost never “composed.” (The “Sounds” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden has its moments, and Italo Calvino’s short story “A King Listens” is something of an anomaly: “For you the days are a succession of sounds, some distinct, some almost imperceptible; you have learned to distinguish them, to evaluate their provenance and their distance; you know their order, you know how long the pauses last; you are already awaiting every resonance or creak or clink that is about to reach your tympanum. . .”) The composition of sound is most frequently employed for dramatic or suspenseful effect—like the ticking clock/heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Unless one is John Cage, who listened to everything in the same way he listened to music, the auditory phenomena that accompany quotidian activity in literature and in life (footfalls on pavement, a cough behind a door) do not access or activate the musical imaginary.

And yet it’s quite commonplace to encounter, in literature, a painterly or filmic composition of characters and/or objects: “The two women are sitting at right angles to each other in the kitchen on a sunny July morning in the nineteen-sixties,” begins Ellen Douglas’ 1988 novel Can’t Quit You, Baby. Moreover, there’s no shortage of lyric poems that funnel down to a single, memorable, even haunting image:
                  Light from the open car
reveals the yard.
And, as if painted onto the night,
is the yellow window
where someone, holding a mirror,
is drawing a picture of herself. (Ondaatje)
Ergo, it’s difficult for readers to extricate imagery from the kind of sight accessed when looking at visual art (“ut pictura poesis”—“as is painting so is poetry”—as Horace so famously put it), whereas it’s very difficult indeed for readers to even associate auditory phenomena with the kind of hearing one accesses/activates when listening to music. Put another way, because sound does not dominate in the way that imagery clearly does, readers are far more likely to acutely register their migration into a musical imaginary than into a visual (art) imaginary.

Across or Among People: Baldwin and Authorial Intrusion

But of course literature cannot, like Corinne in California, like the prince in Poe’s “The Red Masque of Death,” sequester music into “castellated abbeys” of the imagination, in effect saying (to quote Poe’s narrative): “The external world could take care of itself.” Will not the Red Death visit us anon? To my mind, death will at least—or perhaps should I say “at last”—visit the work that abstains from communicating with a living, extratextual world. Langston Hughes: “Music . . . demanded movement and expression, dancing and living to go with it.” Music in literature does not exist merely to activate an ideal music in readers’ minds, but rather to record or to enact in language the effects of music across or among people, individually and collectively. Despite the prevalence of the transportive descriptions discussed above, music in literature is inextricably linked to language, characters, plot, settings, moods, form, historical period(s), and so on and so forth, in much the same way that music is inextricably linked to real people and places and emotional states and situations. Music, and music in literature, is a communal art. As Ondaatje writes of Fats Waller in his poem “In a Yellow Room,” “I have always loved him but I love him most in the company of friends.” Similarly, about Billie Holiday in “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara writes, “she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing,” so that we all—hearing about her death and, at the same time, “hearing” her whisper a song along a keyboard—stop breathing, together.

Furthermore, to borrow terminology from film, there is in literature no such thing as non-diegetic or extradiegetic sound: a reader cannot “hear” music that a narrator or speaker or character(s) cannot. Though it induces the elevated imaginative faculties of its readers, music in literature is both “always already worldly” (Benson) and everywhere tethered to what Kendall Walton calls the “work world,” that is to say, the relevant artwork’s imagined world—the dollhouse for the dolls.

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) is told by a first-person narrator who must, like many of Baldwin’s late narrators (e.g. Hall Montana in Just Above My Head, Leo Proudhammer in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone), fill in the gaps created by first-person limitations—that is to say, the narrator, Tish, must imagine, or at least imaginatively ornament, crucial scenes. In one such scene, Tish, now a Baldwin surrogate, delivers a close third-person account of her mother, Sharon, traveling to Puerto Rico to meet the woman, Victoria, who claims to have been raped by Tish’s fiancé, Fonny, and convince her to retract her testimony. Once arrived, Sharon enters a nightclub—she’s there to speak to Victoria’s husband—and a band is playing. Because Tish (who was not present at the scene) narrates the story, she can decide, like a DJ or a novelist or Mr. West with his “musical telephone,” what music her mother will hear, and Tish verily announces to the reader that the music ought to remind Sharon of her past9: “If I remember ‘Uncloudy Day’ because I remember myself sitting on my mother’s knee when I first heard it, she remembers ‘My Lord and I’: And so, we’ll walk together, my Lord and I. That song is Birmingham, her father and her mother, the kitchens, and the mines.” The music therefore emboldens Sharon—echoes of home and family both accompany and fortify her—so that “she is alone merely physically, in the same way, for example, that she is alone when she goes shopping for her family. . . . she has a family to feed.”

However, rather than forge solidarity between two ethnicities historically disenfranchised by the US judicial system (African Americans and Puerto Ricans), the music prefigures barriers separating Sharon and Victoria: it becomes a symbol for the complex racial, cultural, and political landmine yet lying between them. Just as Sharon’s “only option is to play the American tourist”—she is, in Brian Norman’s words, “unexpectedly thrust into an imperialist position”—so the Puerto Rican band can only bungle American music: “no one who had ever had a lover, a mother or father, or a Lord, could sound so despairingly masturbatory.” Via Tish’s imaginative reconstruction/ornamentation of Sharon’s memory, Baldwin comments on the importance of black music as well as the sometimes painful ramifications of its popularity. As Ed Pavlic has written: “Sharon listens with one ear and, with the other, hears black music, black lives, being imitated.” When the musicians who “know nothing at all about the song they are singing” and who may, in consequence, “know nothing about themselves at all” finish, “Sharon claps for them, because she prays for them.” Blurring the divide between character, reader, and author, effectively pinch-hitting for his first-person narrator (Tish), Baldwin uses music as an intermediary linking the work world—the work world within the work world, in this case—to our own, even as that very music (as a social artifact) heralds the difficulties of transnational contact.

Outro (Vamp and Fade)

If only it could play you, too, tonight—
discordant instrument,

—Eugenio Montale

And meanwhile, in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, in the evening, after a lot of conversation, Mr. West is escorted to a bedroom in which there is “a musical telephone,” and he is shown how, “by turning a screw, the music could be made to fill the room, or die away to an echo so faint and far that one could scarcely be sure whether he heard or imagined it.” West is tempted to listen to “the finest tunes in the world”—who wouldn’t be?—but his host, a Doctor Leete, persuades him to sleep. Nevertheless, all across Boston, music remains awake, remains traveling from performance hall to telephone wire to private music room or bedroom, whether it can be heard or not . . .


[1] Critic Stephen Benson refers to fictional transcendence through music as, simply, “the transcendence trope.”

[2] An ekphrastic description, however imaginative or whimsical or animated it may be, must maintain an imagistic relationship to the image it is meant to describe or affectively augment. Descriptions of music are not bound to the image of a band performing, or a neighbor practicing her lieder (to evoke Ralph Ellison’s “Living with Music”), or speakers stationed in two corners of a room. Rather, descriptions of music are bound to the “original” auditory phenomena issuing from those images. The writer or narrator or speaker is free, or at least freer than the ekphrastic writer-narrator-speaker, to go beyond conventional sensory descriptions, to translate intersemiotically, to introduce that which is seemingly unrelated to the “original” music, even as it describes and augments it.

[3] I say “becomes a girl again” not because Joss ever identified as female—definitely not—but because the metamorphic solo enables him to appear elsewhere in Trumpet in a variety of outward forms: “He is a girl. A man. Everything, nothing. He is sickness, health. The sun. The moon. Black, white.” Most prominently, in the dreams of first Millie and then Colman, Joss appears in the form of “a small black girl”; “a small girl, his father.”

[4] In the second section of “East Coker,” the opening stanza—dramatic, breathless, cosmic (“Thunder rolled by the rolling stars,” etc)—is followed by this extraordinary meta-commentary: “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion / Leaving one with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter” (my emphasis).

[5] This, incidentally, is the chief reason I have employed the phrase “music in literature,” as opposed to Stephen Benson’s “literary music.” I’m sympathetic to “literary music”: music in literature is not, in truth, actual music, hence it requires the adverbial qualifier. Yet I prefer “music in literature” because there is, as I argue above, a constitutive element of music—the imaginary, unlocatable space of listening—present in reading of and about music.

[6] Here, during a parade scene in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, is the integrative function of music at work: “Alice had picked up a leaflet [extolling American democratic equality] that had floated to the pavement. . . . She read the words and looked at Dorcas [her niece]. Looked at Dorcas and read the words again. What she read seemed crazy, out of focus. Some great gap lunged between the print and the child. She glanced between them struggling for connection, something to close the distance between the silent staring child and the slippery crazy words. Then suddenly, like a rope cast for rescue, the drums spanned the distance, gathering them all up and connecting them: Alice, Dorcas, her sister and brother-in-law, the Boy Scouts and the frozen black faces, the watchers on the pavement and those in the windows above.”

[7] Interestingly, viewers not need truly hear The Lass of Aughrim, either, at least the version Joyce intended. In “‘Thought-Tormented Music’: Joyce and the Music of the Irish Revival,” Martin Dowling explains that the melody featured in John Huston’s The Dead is “the Scottish, not the Irish, version.”

[8] The title, I should mention, is also a phrase gleaned from the “East Coker” section of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Its relevant stanza serves as the novel’s epigraph:

                  Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

[9] Curiously, as a form of metafictional music, this might be a soundless example of non-diegetic sound.


Baldwin, James. If Beale Street Could Talk. New York: A Laurel Book, 1974. Print. 163, 164.

—. “Sonny’s Blues.” Going to Meet the Man. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print. 137.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. New York: Signet, 1960. Print. 86, 87, 102.

Bell, Marvin. “The Fifties.” The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Editors Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print. 11.

Benson, Stephen. Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. Print. 141, 148.

Calvino, Italo. “A King Listens.” Under the Jaguar Sun. trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt, 1988. Print. 37, 38.

Conroy, Frank. “Think About It.” Dogs Bar, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print. 77.

Chappell, Fred. “The Highest Wind That Ever Blew: Homage for Louis.” The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Print. 33.

Coleman, Wanda. “Jazz at Twelve.” Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales. Boston: A Black Sparrow Book, 2008. Print. 18.

Douglas, Ellen. Can’t Quit You, Baby. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Print. 3.

—. A Lifetime Burning. New York: Random House, 1982. Print. 106, 107, 152, 203,

Dowling, Martin. “Thought-Tormented Music”: Joyce and the Music of the Irish Revival.” James Joyce Quarterly. Vol. 45, no 3/4. Print. 442.

Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets. Web. 15 September 2017.

Flaubert, Gustav. Madame Bovary. trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Viking, 2010. Print. 36.

Gilbert, Christopher. “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso, I Remember Braiding My Sister’s Hair.” Turning into Dwelling. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015. Print. 31.

Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Newer Laocoön.” Web. 24 October

Hass, Robert. “Envy of Other People’s Poems.” Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005. New York: Ecco, 2007. Print. 3.

Homer. The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print. 12.50, 12.58.

Huddle, David. Tenorman. 1995. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995. Print. 22, 33.

Hughes, Langston. “The Blues I’m Playing.” Short Stories. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. Print. 58.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. “Crooner.” Nocturne: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. New York: Knopf, 2009. Print. 26, 27, 28, 30.

Jackson, Reuben. “for duke ellington.” fingering the keys. Cabin John: Gut Punch Press, 1990. Print. 37.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. New York: The Modern Library, 1969. Print. 210, 212, 219, 221.

Kaufman, Bob. “Walking Parker Home.” Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993. Print. 152.

Kay, Jackie. Trumpet. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print. 18, 33, 133, 134, 136, 214, 260, 271.

Kunzru, Hari. White Tears. New York: Vintage Books, 2017. Print. 26.

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Malamud, Bernard. Dubin’s Lives. New York: FSG, 1979. Print. 137.

Malouf, David. “An Die Musik.” Web. 15 September 2017.

McKnight, Reginald. “This Is How You Get to the 40s.” Brilliant Corners. Vol. 14, Issue 1. Winter 2009. Print. 35.

McPherson, James Alan. “Why I Like Country Music.” Elbow Room. New York: Fawcett Books, 1989. Print. 30, 31.

Montale, Eugene. “English Horn.” Trans. Jonathon Galassi. The Music Lover’s Poetry Anthology, edited by Helen Handley Houghton and Maureen McCarthy Draper. New York: Persea Books, 2007. Print. 112.

Norman, Brian. “James Baldwin’s Confrontation with US Imperialism in If Beale Street Could Talk.” MELUS. Vol. 32, No. 1. Spring 2007. Print. 125.

O’Brien, Geoffrey G. “The Rhyme of the Left Margin.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Issue 30. 2013. Print. 95.

Ondaatje, Michael. “The Concessions.” The Cinnamon Peeler. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print. 179.

Pavlić, Ed. Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Print. 181, 213.

—. Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2008. Print.

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Reichel, A. Elizabeth. “Fictionalising music/musicalizing fiction: the integrative function of music in Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing.” SoundEffects: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience, vol. 4, no. 1, 2014. Print. 157.

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—. “Crepuscule with Nellie.” The Book of Gods and Devils. New York: Harcourt, 1990. Print. 15.

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—. “The Snow Man.” The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1954. Print. 10.

—. “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1954. Print. 65.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Kreutzer Sonata. Trans. David McDuff. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print. 112.

Villanueva, Victor. “Memoria Is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color.” College English, Vol. 67, No. 1. Sep. 2004. Print. 16.

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—. “Williamsburg Bridge.” The Best American Short Stories 2016. Edited by Junot Díaz. Boston: Mariner Books, 2016. Print. 284.

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Zabor, Rafi. The Bear Comes Home. New York: Norton, 1997. Print. 451, 453.

Zucker, Rachel. The Pedestrians. Seattle: Wave Books, 2014. Print. 27.

Jaydn Dewald is a writer, educator, jazz bassist, and the author of three limited-edition chapbooks, The Rosebud Variations: And Other Variations (Greying Ghost, 2017); In Whose Hand the Light Expires (Yellow Flag Press, 2018); and as counterpoint to this compressed mass a longing (forthcoming from Sutra Press). His poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in Australian Book Review, Best New Poets 2015, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, West Branch, and many other publications. A microfiction pamphlet, 7 Miniatures, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. He lives with his partner and two kids in Bogart, Georgia, where he’s a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.


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