Having re-inserted myself back into the appropriate time and space by managing to successfully arrive in The Hague, I spent yesterday enjoying the exact opposite feeling of the day before. Where Thursday’s defining characteristic was a feeling of separation, Friday’s was one of immersion. There were new people to meet, names to try and remember, festival venues to locate. Most of all, though, there was music.
Music has always been, for me, a critical component not only of the writing process but of the reading process. Rare indeed is the day a word gets written without a note being heard. Confronted with a book I don’t quite know how to describe, mine or someone else’s, the question that occurs to me most naturally is: what would this sound like? Hardly surprising, then, that as I wandered from venue to venue, doing my best to as see as much as possible, the question that arose most frequently was: what would this read like?
Music’s relationship to literature is often overt: it’s there in the lyrics, in the narrative shape, in the sense of drama. The highlight of my day was an extraordinary set by Villagers, backed by a string and wind quartet. It was a concert that covered a remarkable amount of ground without ever feeling anything other than completely cohesive. From hushed, haunting ballads backed only by his acoustic guitar, all the way through to wall-of-sound expansion, Villagers’ songs were held together by the interplay between their smart, playful language and their daring, intricate arrangements. This balance of style and structure, set against such sly, surprising pacing, struck me as overtly novelistic. But his confidence in shifting between emotional registers, in following abrasive noise, for example, with the sweetest of melodies, reminded me that the novel as a form still has a lot to learn from a concert set. Too often in fiction, evenness and consistency are prized over energy, daring and invention. How many novels embrace tonal shifts in the way, say, a well-sequenced album does? Too few, in my opinion.
Although Villagers were my highlight, it was Ghostpoet, performing earlier in the day, who drew attention to an absence of a different kind. When I wrote my novel, Idiopathy, I listened almost exclusively to dance music. I wanted the novel to carry, at a sentence level if possible, at least some of dance music’s propulsion. It would not, I knew, be a ‘verse-chorus’ kind of novel, but something more fluid, something constructed around a slightly different expectation of build-and-release intensity. Quite how successful I was I don’t know. Indeed, the fact that I still think about it suggests I was not successful at all, since the issue still feels unresolved. Watching Ghostpoet, it struck me that there was a key element of dance music I hadn’t considered. Fiction has its equivalents of loop-based, tightly rhythmic music. You only need read Don Delillo in full flow to know that fascinating, hypnotic effects can be derived from judicious repetition. But where is fiction’ low end? Where is its throbbing, hair-raising bass tone? Watching (and feeling) Ghostpoet’s music, I was at a loss for an answer.
It’s a question, perhaps, for another book.