Classical Accompaniment

The arrangement that shapes my characters

A decade ago, while I was struggling to write my second novel, when the work felt urgent and impossible, when I was too far in to turn back, when it was all moving too quickly and unpredictably but when I was also stuck with a boulder I couldn’t lift, I was reassured by the voice of Margaret Atwood on the radio. Asked by a BBC interviewer whether she found writing had become easier with time and experience (her biblio­graphy reveals she must have been about twelve novels in at this point), she replied that no, it hadn’t. In fact, the only thing she had been able to learn producing all those thousands of pages of fiction was that it was incredibly difficult each time and, unfortunately, each book was difficult in an entirely new way. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to the long battle with my own incompetence.

I’m now working on my sixth book, my fifth has just been published, and Atwood’s observation still holds true. Writing is still a state of emergency. I have, however, found that I’ve developed one habit that helps keep the process centred, the characters present and available. I listen to a lot of music, and as I’m writing, I find certain pieces match the inner lives and dramatic, emotional climates of particular characters or the plot at hand. In the past, it has been a certain Radiohead album, some folk songs, a classical concerto. With my most recent novel, Dream Sequence, two pieces of contemporary classical music started to remind me of my two main characters and, in turn, surrounded and nurtured their development. (They’re both quite easily available on YouTube or Spotify, if you’d like to hear them.)

I experienced a breakthrough of sorts when I realized that I was essentially working on a version of the Echo and Narcissus story. Kristin is my Echo. She’s a young American woman, living in Philadelphia, richly divorced but alone and at a loss. She once met her Narcissus, Henry, a successful young British actor, in an airport and had in that moment an overwhelming experience of love and connection. She is convinced that they are twin souls, destined to be together, and her trajectory through the novel is her attempt to bring that about, in accordance with what the universe wants. She is a magical thinker, ruled by fantasy, but we’re all susceptible to her kind of elaborated desire. Kristin is at the far end of a continuum on which most of us exist. Whenever we think of someone as “the one,” or something as meant to be, or that everything will be all right if this one thing happens, we too are indulging in a private mysticism, one that our culture of self-­actualization and self-care, of horoscopes and sun salutes, of superfoods and spiritual growth actively encourages.

As I developed Kristin, I was listening to Oliver Knussen’s Choral, a piece imbued with mysticism. It quotes the harmonies — the so-called mystic chord — of the late-­Romantic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin; its slow, ominous, highly coloured music builds to a violent climax that gives way to repercussions and ramifications. Scriabin’s own beliefs were heavily influenced by theosophy. Exactly what they were is hard to specify: it’s probably enough to know that his notebooks include the outburst “I am God!” and that he thought his chord would “afford instant apprehension of . . . what was in essence beyond the mind of man to conceptualize.” The colours of Knussen’s Choral remind me of Kristin’s world also. She has a ­saturated vision, a profound sense of the beauty of things and of immanent meaning. Both attempt to reveal what is invisible and more deeply true than the surface of our lives. I like that in them — beauty becoming dangerous, deranging.

Then there’s the French composer Pierre Boulez, a much­ misunderstood figure in contemporary music. He certainly shares part of the blame for his reputation. For a long time in writings and public statements, he projected a dry, dogmatic, aggressive intellectualism that belied the beauty and delicacy of his music.

For a while, I became quite addicted to one of Boulez’s pieces. I needed to listen to it, and for more than a month I did so every day, often several times. It felt like an addiction. I had the sensation that there was something in it I needed, some unique compound that delivered a rush of stimulation and relief I couldn’t get elsewhere. I suspect that this may be literally true, that music of a certain complexity induces a quantity of synaptic activity that changes brain chemistry. But more than this sensory thrill, …explosante-­fixe… seemed arrestingly meaningful and articulate about the modern world. When it became very much Henry’s music, I could listen to it and find him in there.

The title …explosante-­fixe… is taken from André Breton. It is characteristic of what he calls “convulsive beauty,” and might be translated as “exploding-­static.” A long piece for chamber orchestra and solo flute with electronics, it is a dazzling display of invention and changeability, with a kind of prodigal, aimless profusion that baffles some listeners. It is deeply seductive, sometimes overwhelming, and sometimes anxiety inducing. It is the flashy, fluid, panicky, gorgeous medium in which my Henry moves — an actor suffering from his lonely, insatiable ambition and besotted with cinema and the idea of a transcendent fame. In …explosante-­fixe…, Boulez extends the acoustic timbres of traditional instruments with electronic sounds and effects, processed playback, and the like. The relationship between the two seems to me like that between our organic bodies and our devices, our small-screen prostheses, our cars and escalators. It felt very apt for Henry, a person who wants to flourish through the media, to see his own image proliferating on screens. He wants to be recorded and reproduced and thereby assumed into a realm that is better than nature.

I found in Boulez’s music this sense of enhanced experience, the familiar attenuated sheen of contemporary consumerist spaces, the bright, reliable, insubstantial pleasures and aimless circulation, together with the spectral poverty that haunts Henry’s world. It reminded me of the multiplying glass and steel surfaces of new apartment buildings, of a housing market inflated by international capital, whether in Toronto or London or many of the other places I’ve been. Boulez’s lengthy composition has an imposing sense of scale, but it is made of tiny units, phrases, and ideas rather than melodies, in a way that brings to mind our shrinking living spaces, tiny new condos and subdivided properties, in cities that keep on expanding.

We inhabit now a strange world in which our pleasure and our despair converge, along with our delight and our destruction. We enjoy our lives while they become less and less affordable, in consumer and property debt to the few who own everything. We binge on our entertainments, while the climate breaks down. We are seduced and dejected. I attempted in Dream Sequence to be as eloquent about this as Boulez is in his music, to show Henry and Kristin, desperate and elated, ­circulating in our own hopes and fears, on the verge of something — something.