My Memories of a Future Life

The blood-red piano – music as spiritual possession

If I can hear music anywhere, my brain locks onto it, like a telescope catching a signal from a distant star. I can’t treat music as background any more than I could tune out someone talking directly to me, in fact I’d switch the comparison the other way around. Music, if it’s there, claims my whole attention.

You could divide the world of writers between those who write with music on and those who don’t. At first I thought it was intolerably distracting, then I realised that the part of my concentration it occupied actually tapped something deeper. I’m not a person who can lie on the floor and think of nothing. If I’m to relax I need my attention forcibly kidnapped. But music is like a form of possession.

Researching for my novel, I began to delve into the world of classically trained pianists. People who’ve started properly, by learning to read notes. (I can thump a piano myself, but can’t read a note.) One of the first things I realised is how classical notation is so dictatorial and domineering. Play this note for exactly a sixth of a second, and at exactly this volume, of which there are infinite, precisely defined grades. Every fraction of a second is documented. You might play a passage of sixteenths at a tempo of 120 beats per minute, which is four notes per second, every second. Pianists I spoke to told me they had to learn to speed up their eye movements in order to take in the score quickly enough.

That’s an overwhelming level of sensory input. It’s almost as if you don’t think, you do as the score tells you.

There are precise instructions for expression. Not just con brio, with vigour, but– amoroso, play it lovingly; appassionata, passionately.

It’s as if playing a piece is channelling the composer.

Of course in the real world the opportunities for making a performance individual are still there, but in the course of my research I began to see a character who didn’t read a score. She let it in and did what the composer did inside his mind and his heart. It is no less than a form of spiritual possession.

I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. People who were long dead, managing to speak again through this alchemy of notation and thundering sound. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more?

And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?


6 thoughts on “The blood-red piano – music as spiritual possession

  1. Wow, what an incredible insight into the mind of the pianist and what goes emotionally into the composition of music. Like you I can’t read music at all (tried to learn in my teens for GCSE music, failed miserably!) but have done some composition (I’m an amateur) for my brother’s short films.

    I love the description that it’s like possession – and that through it we almost revive the soul of the original composer. A great connection to the reincarnation theme! Your novel gets more interesting by the minute.

  2. Sally, I’m beginning to think we were separated at birth. I also dabble in composition on the piano – totally by ear and memory, but it seems to make sense when I play it to other people.

    And I was rather happy to have made that connection for the novel! Thank you!

  3. ‘Sally, I’m beginning to think we were separated at birth.’

    lol! Actually I too have been amazed by how much we seem to have in common, especially on the novel front. Like for example – I hadn’t told you this, but one of my reincarnated characters is also musical. He’s a lyricist for his struggling rock band. But he prefers computer keyboards to piano keyboards, as he’s a hacker by night.

  4. I always write to music (I even think of my books in terms of the music readers would like – hence my “musical pitches” – I find if I always use the same music for the same character it’s a great way of keeping the voice consistent across weeks and months.

    I love the ideas you describe here – sounds very reminiscent of the kinds of breakdown the likes of Glenn Gould (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is one of my absolute favourite films, and I could listen to Gould all day long) and David Helfgott suffered from. One of my good friends is the pianist James Rhodes (we adopted his cat) – it’s fascinating listening to him talk about playing – I get the impression that what you describe, losing that channel, is an almost palpable anxiety pianists live with

    1. Just hopped over to your blog and enjoyed that post, Dan!

      I really like the idea of using the same music for a character. I tend to use pieces of music for different scenes, and then there are some pieces that seem to encapsulate the whole novel. Rather like you said in your post, they capture a certain essence of the entire novel – at least for me. This novel would ba captured by Grieg’s piano concerto in A Minor, Handel’s Ombra Cara and Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy (and its obvious but delicious offspring, Emily Sande’s Heaven) .

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