Music has always been an intimate part of my life. Perhaps it goes back to the time when, as a child of perhaps 5 years old, I would sit in front of the record player and just listen and listen and listen. And rock back and forth, of course. Or maybe it’s that I began to take piano lessons at 9 years old and dreamed of one day becoming a performer. Or perhaps it relates to the fact that I would hear melodies circulating around inside my head while riding the bus on the way to school – melodies that I always thought would grow into an original score – a piano concerto or a sonata. Or, perhaps, more relevant to my current efforts, that I would hear voices behind the music I was playing – voices that were trying to communicate with me, to tell me their story – voices that emerged from the notes and chords that my fingers executed. Where, I would ask myself, did those voices come from? Who were they? What did they want to tell me? What was their story?
Fast forward to my adulthood when poetry and fiction took over my life. Music was still there: the particular rhythm of a line in a poem, or a poem that started with a rhythm to which I had to supply the words. Or the cadence of a line or a paragraph, or even a chapter, in a work of fiction — a bit of dialogue, perhaps, or the crescendo of a scene that was working itself into a climax, like the finality of chords in the finale of a Brahms symphony.
It is music that has often inspired the shape of my characters, the arc that a particular story takes, or a poem that I silently sing. While I do not write to the accompaniment of music nor specifically use music for inspiration, it is the music that I listen to on a daily basis that provides an unconscious backdrop to what I am creating, And while there is no music in most of the stories I write, it is the musical nature of language itself that is always my focus, for a story or a poem is more than just words and characters and actions. It is comprised of feelings and tone, of mood and atmosphere, of all those intangible elements that can only be conveyed by how the language is implemented – by the very music of the linguistic experience.
The Appointment, my newest book, is a novella that takes place in the 20th century but has the feel of a 19th century work. It is European in nature though it is firmly an American story. Professor Withers, the main character, spends his waning days (or, more accurately, his post-waning days) in a quest for self. Could he have possibly been defined by the Elgar Cello Concerto most famously performed by Jacqueline Du Pres, a piece of music that has haunted me for years? And what about the other characters I create? The characters that come to me? Fazzalludin Chowdry, for example, a Pakistani immigrant, a butcher by trade who gets unwillingly involved with the President of the United States in my novel, The Wizard and the White House? Or the Reverend CJ Willis, the wily preacher in the same story? And how about Sister Lucretia, the evil nun in my Gothic novel-in progress, a dark, cruel character who is as elusive as she is wicked? What music helps me create such characters, such stories? Or, maybe I should ask: what music leads me to discover them somewhere out there?
And so I think back to what I listen to on a daily basis. Yoko Ono is constantly on my playing list and has been an unending source of inspiration for me. Surely her musical creations like the incredible “Hirake (Open Your Box)” or the John Cage-inspired Cambridge 1969 2007, both of which take me musically to a place where I’ve never been, have allowed me to create the wild, surreal environment that makes up The Wizard and the White House. Or Shostakovich;s Cello Concerto No. 1, a piece of music that is as disturbing as it is irresistible and which I’ve been listening a lot to lately – could it be helping me create the dark, threatening environment that makes up my evolving Gothic novel?
Music, that most abstract, intangible art form, can lead the spirit to places unpredicted and unforeseen. Fiction and poetry, at their best, should do that same. A reader should come away from a poem or a story with a feeling that they have been transported to a world where they have never before been or that they have never before imagined. And once they return, with a breath of wonder, they should feel like they were on a journey which was both elucidating and rewarding. One to which, the author hopes, they will often return.
A composer friend of mine, with whom I just worked on a project, recently told me that he hears strings of music in his head. He then transcribes them using software on his computer. And that’s how he composes. He does not sit at a piano or with cello in hand and work out melodies. No, he connects to another world – channels would be the proper word – and allows that world to occupy his being. Similarly, when I write, I channel – perhaps to the same place as he – and listen and record. Could it be that we connect to the same place? Could it be that artists, musicians, and writers have a secret place where they all go – a secret garden where that famous muse instills us with music, story, art? Or is it that we all go to our own private Innisfree, a place that guides us to the art we carefully render?
The answer is as elusive as the very source of inspiration. Regardless, music and language and art are inseparable and who is to say which inspires the other?
Mike Maggio, May2017