Back in November, Black Clock Associate Editor Patrick Benjamin started a train of thought on the union of music and reading. I found his insight into this experience quite astounding, as I had never given it even a bit of thought before. This is because when I read I block out the rest of reality, so listening to music isn’t important to me as a reader. I’m sure if I could remember them, there have been times when the feeling of the music in the room mingled with the reading world I was in, but it’s not something I seek out, and I especially avoid listening to anything I know the lyrics to because I’ll just end up singing – leaving the book unceremoniously abandoned on my lap. More often then not, the world of the book is all I can hear, and all I care to hear.
But, maybe the truth is that I’m just not listening to the right music. So, I turned to one of our Black Clock 16 contributors, Henry Bean, to see what his thoughts were on this matter. Mr. Bean’s story in the newest issue of Black Clock, “A Hole in the Sky,” follows Tyrell, a man with strong ties to music, as he struggles through the special chaos of a certain moment in his life. Without giving anything away, I think between my associate and Mr. Bean I’ve been inspired to give the combination of music and reading an actual chance.
Henry Bean: “In Ingmar Bergman’s final film, Saraband, there’s a scene in which a angry old man, played by Erland Josephson, sits in his study, leaning forward in concentration, eyes closed, brow furrowed, listening with all his might to a recording of a Bruckner symphony. His son enters the room; the man stops the music, begins to tell his son (who is 60) what, in fact, he thinks of him, a bitter, scathing denunciation that is one of the most terrible encounters between a parent and child ever depicted in film or literature, after which the son leaves, shattered, and the man picks up the symphony where he left off, burying himself in it with the same intensity as before.
This, I imagine, is how music ought to be listened to, as if it contained the secrets of the universe, and not a note is to be missed. Unfortunately, I can’t do that, except on drugs, which I don’t take anymore. To listen now, I need something else (driving, cooking, cleaning the house) to siphon off nervous energy so the rest of me can focus on the music. Reading is not a good something else; it’s too complicated and demanding. Usually, when I try to read and listen, I end up either turning off the music so I can follow the words, or getting so absorbed in the writing I don’t hear the music.
But every now and then, for five minutes or half an hour, it works perfectly; the music and reading abet each other, each somehow clearing the way for the other kind of perception. When this happens, it’s almost invariably one of two kinds of music that does the trick.
The first is Bach, particularly Glenn Gould’s two recordings of The Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1980) which are both such mysterious blends of mathematics and “feeling” that either they don’t interfere with the decoding of printed words and the understanding of sentences, or they even facilitate that process. It is as if the Bach expresses a truth, a universal constant, in the presence of which everything becomes logical. The world makes sense. This calms the mind and lets it focus on the words and their meaning because a deeper, foundational meaning is being attended to.
The other kind of music that sometimes has this effect is a larger category, 20th Century classical. Not all of it works. Stravinsky doesn’t; it’s too dramatic, it fights the words. But Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Shostakovitch and especially Charles Ives sometimes do, though they are, in a way, as chaotic as the Bach is orderly. I’m not sure how this happens, but the modern music’s abstraction, the scarcity of melody or conventional harmony, the atonality, the wavering between structure and chaos, somehow “support” or enable reading just as the Bach does, but from the opposite direction.
Ives is the 20th Century composer I know best, particularly his 2nd Symphony, in two different recordings by Bernstein, and maybe one of the reasons it works is that I know it so well. Reading “to it’ is like sitting with a book in a familiar landscape; there are “events” in this landscape (especially the grave restatement of the main theme late in the symphony) that inevitably distract me, but they do so in a way that is predictable, and thus comforting. And, when they’re past, I go back to the reading refreshed, restored. Even if I’ve only ‘been away’ for half a second, it lets me see the text with new eyes.
Of course, Gould’s Bach is also very familiar, so maybe that’s the key as much as the music itself. Music we know well does what we expect; that reassures us and leaves us free to fall through the hole of our reading into another reality, confident that the one we left behind is being attended to by the music.”
Following this wonderful continuation of our thoughts about the intertwining of music and reading, I wanted to dig further into the possible implications of music in “A Hole in The Sky.” So, I asked a few prying questions, to which Mr. Bean graciously replied with an honesty I’m sure Tyrell would appreciate.
Black Clock: I would venture a guess that the main character in your story shares a similar opinion about music. Would you say that?
Henry Bean: I imagine that Tyrell’s opinions about music are very different from mine. For one thing, he knows music much better than I do. As he observes in the story, he would “live inside it” if he could. The problem is, he can’t. I have no idea what kind of music he likes or listens to, but I suspect that a lot of it would be people I’ve never heard of. He might find the composers I mentioned (Ives, Stockhausen, Schoenberg, etc) formally interesting, but my guess is they’re too cerebral for him (though I could be wrong about that). He wants an expression of feeling that’s more direct, raw, deep, shattering; as I say in the story, he’s a romantic, and we share that. But, unlike me, he would have no trouble listening to music while he reads or writes (if he wrote) because music to him is the deepest reality. I agree with that, but I can’t feel it the way he does.
Black Clock: Does your character’s affinity for music play a role in the way he sees the world, and inevitably, in his fate?
Henry Bean: Music is the purist of the arts, and Tyrell is nothing if not a purist. It’s purism (an insistence on what should be in the face of what is) that gets him into trouble and that won’t let go even as it threatens to destroy him. It’s not so much that his affinity for music leads him to this fate as that it reveals the purist impulse that also produces the fate. They’re parallel not causative.
Black Clock: I’ve started incorporating certain music into the background while I write, though it only works about fifty-percent of the time. Did you listen to music while writing “A Hole in the Sky”? If yes, what?
Henry Bean: No. I can sometimes listen a little while writing a screenplay, but never with prose. It’s too hard; there’s no concentration left over for anything else.
Black Clock: As a fun question, any suggestions for what you might listen to while reading ”A Hole in the Sky”?
Henry Bean: Frankly, I want the reader’s full attention on my story, not divided and shared with someone else’s music. However, if I had to pick one piece it would be Ives’s The Holidays Symphony. All the little musical fragments in that work, the patriotic tunes, traditional ditties, Stephen Foster, etc, help set the very American landscape where the story occurs. (The importance of which I never thought of until you asked this question.) And Ives is always working on the boundary between order and chaos; this is very much where Tyrell wants to be and must be and who he is; and I guess we share that, too.
I think being on this boundary is something we can all sympathize with, even if the experience is different – especially if the experience is different – because in that space which only one person can truly know, lies a very good story.
Inspired? Intrigued? Perhaps you, like me, are staring at your record collection with a heavy tome in one hand, ready to bite into a new musically charged reading experience. I hope so, and I hope that if you’re interested, you’ll check out Henry Bean’s story “A Hole in the Sky” in the newly released Black Clock 16, and join us for the issue’s launch on Sunday February 17th (4pm at The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA).
By Jessica Marie Felleman
an Associate Editor for Black Clock and an MFA Writing candidate at CalArts.