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?