Sounds from a literary underworld

If there’s one thing I love almost as much as music, it’s words. And words about music even more than that. There’s a quote I read recently (which has been attributed to multiple people such as Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and Frank Zappa but which a quick Google search would reveal that there’s a bit of controversy over who said it first and where and how):

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

I sort of agree. Except for the stupid part. I personally think writing about music, talking about music and thinking about music are all amazing things to do – it’s just that they are fundamentally different activities, with different purposes and outcomes and expressing different ideas. Of course, they can’t replace music itself. But then most people who write about music aren’t trying to. And there are some fantastic words about music floating around out there in the world.

This week Music Tasting turns to fiction, for someone else’s words about music. Orpheus Lost is by ex-pat Australian author Janette Turner Hospital, who has written several highly acclaimed books and numerous short stories and who also happens to be my mum’s cousin (just putting it out there, so you know – I had the pleasure of staying with her and her husband at their home in the US a few years ago). The novel is a contemporary twist on the Greek legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and is a beautifully told story of Leela, a mathematician from the American South, and Mishka Bartok, a young Australian musician. A love story, but set against the complex backdrop of terrorism and paranoia, and infused with music and obsession. I highly recommend the whole book, but here’s an extract from the very first chapter, which completely and utterly drew me in from the beginning.

* * * * *

The tunnel smelled of monstrous decay, but even so, even knowing within the dream that she should turn and flee back up into the sunlight, Leela would be powerless. Mishka’s music drugged her. Waking or sleeping, she could close her eyes and see him as she saw him that first time: not just the visual memory lurking entire, but the sounds, the sensations, the hurly-burly of Harvard Square, the slightly dank odor of the steps as she descended into the underworld of the Red Line, the click of tokens and turnstiles, the gust of fragrance from the flower sellers, the funky sweat of the homeless, the subdued roar of the trains, and then those haunting notes….

She stood riveted, her token poised above the slot in the turnstile. She had heard two bars, perhaps three, in the brief lull between trains.

“Would you mind?” said someone behind her.

“What? Oh… sorry.” She let the token fall through the slot. She pushed against the steel bar and into the space of the music. There was another pause between trains, a few bars, a stringed instrument, clearly, but also a tenor voice. Was it a cello that the singer was playing? Surely not. No street musician would cart such a large and unwieldy instrument down into the bowels of the city, onto the trains, among the crowds; but the sound seemed too soft for a violin, too husky, too throaty. She could feel the music graphing itself against her skin, her body calculating the frequencies and intervals of the whole subway symphony: base throb of trains, tenor voice, soft lament of the strings, a pleasing ratio of vibrations. Mathematical perfection made her weak at the knees.

She was letting the music reel her in, following the thread of it, leaning into the perfect fifths. Crowds intruded, echoes teased her, tunnels bounced the sound off their walls—now the music seemed to be just ahead, now to the right—and two minutes in every five, the low thunder of the trains muffled all. The notes were faint, they were clear, they were gone, they were clear again: unbearably mournful and sweet. Leela was not the only one affected. People paused in the act of buying tokens. They looked up from newspapers. They turned their heads and scanned the walls and ceiling of the subway cavern for speakers. With one foot on the outbound train, a man was arrested by a phrase and stepped back out of the sliding doors.

“Where is that gorgeous sound coming from?” he asked Leela. “Is it a recording?”

“A street musician,” she said. “Someone playing an early instrument, I think, a Renaissance violin, or something like that.”

“Over there,” the man pointed.

“Must be. Yes.”

“Extraordinary,” the man said. He began to run.

Leela followed him the length of the inbound platform to where a dense knot of commuters huddled. For a while the music was clearer as they approached, and then it was not, and then it seemed to be behind them again. Leela turned, disoriented. Her hands were shaking. The man who had stepped back from the outbound train leaned against a pillar with his eyes closed, rapt. Leela saw a woman surreptitiously wiping her sleeve across her eyes.

The violin itself was weeping music. Sometimes it wept alone; sometimes the tenor voice sorrowed along with it in a tongue not quite known but intuitively understood. The singer was singing of loss, that much was certain, and the sorrow was passing from body to body like a low electrical charge.

Leela recognized the melody, but although she could analyze the mathematical structure of any composition, she had trouble remembering titles of works and linking them to the right composers. It was an aria from some early opera, that much she knew. Gluck, probably. She had to hear all of it.

Ahead of her was an impenetrable cordon of backs.

Leela closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her face. She had a sense of floating underwater and the water was warm and moving fast and she was willing to be carried away by it. It was this way back in childhood in summer ponds in South Carolina, or on the jasmine-clotted Hamilton house veranda, or in deep grass, or lying under the pines with local boys; it was this way in later carnal adventures: body as fluid as soul. Everything was part of the euphoric storm surge which swept Leela up and rushed her toward something radiant that was just out of reach.

A fist of air punched her in the small of her back and a tidal wave of announcements drowned the music. Her hair streamed straight out in front of her face like a pennant. Words rumbled like thunder. Stopping all stations to shshshsh clang clang for Green Line change at Park clang shshshshsh…. Bucking and pushing ahead of the in-rush of train, a hard balloon of air plowed through the knot of listeners and scattered them.

That was when Leela caught her first glimpse of Mishka Bartok.

His head was bent over his instrument, his eyes focused on his fingered chords and his bow. He was oblivious to the arrival of the train. His body merged with the music and swayed. He was slender and pale, his dark hair unruly. A small shock of curls fell down over his left eye. When he leaned into the dominant notes, the curls fell across the sounding board of the instrument and he tossed them back with a flick of his head. Leela thought of a racehorse. She thought of a faun. Incongruously, she also thought of a boy she had known in childhood, a boy named Cobb, a curious boy with a curious name, a boy who had been possessed of the same skittish intensity which somehow let you know that, if cornered, this was a creature who would not yield. The violin player had Cobb’s fierce and haunted eyes.

There was no hat on the platform in front of him, no box, no can, no open violin case for donations, and the absence of any such receptacle seemed to bother the listeners. Someone tucked a folded bill into the side pocket of the violin player’s jeans but he appeared not to notice. A student in torn denim shorts took of his cloth hat and placed it beside the closed violin case as tribute and people threw in coins and placed dollar bills—ones, fives, tens even—in the hat but the musician seemed indifferent and unaware. Some listeners boarded the inbound train, some seemed incapable of moving. Leela let five trains come and go, bracing herself each time against the buffeting of air. She had now worked her way forward to the innermost circle. She was four feet from the man with the violin. She could feel the intensity of his body like a series of small seismic waves against her own.

Trains arrived and departed, some people left but more gathered, the crowd around the main with the violin kept getting larger. His instrumental repertoire seemed inexhaustible—he barely paused between pieces—but when he sang, it was always and only when he cycled back to the same aria that had first reached Leela’s ears. When he sang, she could not take her eyes off his lips. She touched her own with the pads of her fingers. She had a sensation of falling forward, of free-falling into a well of melody without end. The cautionary words above her desk hovered at the edge of her mind: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell, but she did not care if she stayed on the inbound platform all day. She wondered fleetingly if hours might have already passed. She gave herself to the wave of music. She wondered if she might have grown gills.

Perhaps because she was now so close to him, perhaps because of the heat that her body gave off, the musician glanced up as he began to sing the aria again. Their eyes met. Something fizzed and smoldered like a lit fuse along the line of sight. Leela let less than one second pass as the last note faded, and then, recklessly, interposed herself between the player and his next chord.

“What is that song?” she asked, or tried to ask, even as his bow hovered above a new beginning. There was a constriction in her chest.

Che farò senza Euridice.” He lowered the violin from his left shoulder and stroked it with the fingers of his bowing hand. “Gluck.”

* * * * *

Pages 4-8 from Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital, published 2007 by Fourth Estate. Read the rest of it – I promise you it’s worth it.


About Bronwyn

Brisbane-based choral singer, music blogger, freelance administrator and accidental geologist.
This entry was posted in Literature, Solo Vocal Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sounds from a literary underworld

  1. Sally Fyfield says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thank you Bronwyn.

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