The Variations: Between Noise and Silence
MERCURY IS IN RETROGRADE.
Sound is ephemeral, gone as soon as it arrives. Sound is tiny, too. A typical sound wave makes air molecules vibrate by only about a micrometre, the size of the smallest smoke particle. Yet, despite its fugitive and insubstantial nature, sound is a great connector and revealer. Sound passes through obstacles. It links vibrating beings even in the dark or in dense foliage. This resonance is how the theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg justified his visionary universe of divine order in a pidgin of vibrant sonority. In the context of music, euphony proves the divine, but in the context of language, Swedenborg found in its parsimony a possibility to explore something much messier, punctuating his search for Shangri-La with small, equally utopian moments of reverie, and envisioning a cosmos in which everything, including seemingly solid objects, vibrates, according to the ninth and final rule of his doctrine:
In tremulations there are millions of variations.
Swedenborg imagines one of those millions of variations, writing that, “During a dream, for instance, we often carry on long conversations with imaginary persons, or we may hear whole melodies or other sounds which affect us exactly as those which enter by the external way. In fantastic imaginations, also, persons are able to hear various sounds and connected conversations, so that they sometimes persuade themselves that a spirit is speaking with them […] a woman, who every day continually heard the singing of hymns within her, from the first to the last verses; these hymns were often such as she herself had never heard or sung; she diligently sought help and cure from clergymen and others, but in vain, for the melodies and songs continued in the brain as if she were perpetually attending a great concert.” This passage echoes in the guts of The Variations, Patrick Langley’s second novel, which tells the story of Selda Heddle, a famously reclusive composer, who is found dead in a snowy field near her Cornish home. She was educated at Agnes's Hospice for Acoustically Gifted Children, which for centuries has offered its young wards a grounding in “the gift” - an ancestral bequest of tuning into the voices and songs of the past. When she dies, Selda's gift passes down to her grandson Wolf, who must make sense of her legacy, and learn to live with the newfound symphony of voices in his head.
Life and death, like music, is just tension and release. In the moment of death, the blood tries to rush back to the heart in an instant. It fills up the greater veins, withdraws from the finer arteries, and completely exhausts the most minute vessels. Your membranes become exsanguious as they quickly lose their tension. The eye loses its acumen, followed by your ear and your other organs. The thought and the imagination become indistinct. Sometimes the life is extinguished before the blood has even been able to force its way to the collapsed vessels. Sometimes there is a final tremor, a quivering, or a convulsion throughout the body, but by now the greater part of life is lost as soon as tremulations can no longer flow over a stiff expanse, like once-taut strings stretched over the porous wood of on even the most ancient instruments. Following this connective tissue through Swedenborg’s theories, it seems only fitting that a blizzard would kill Selda. Like a loss of spirit, stopped by the cold, life consists in motion, but death in the rest of the particles. Langley’s description of her final ascent makes you shake and shiver, but these are nothing but coarse contremiscences: the music of the body. Upon entering an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, John Cage heard two sounds, one high and one low. When he described them to the engineer, he informed Cage that the high one was his nervous system in operation, the low one his blood in circulation. If what really makes us living is the cause of motion, we will inevitably find that stillness can never have any part in that which is called life; that stillness and life are two contrary things. Life is a state of tension, death slack and unstrung.
Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion. Johannes Kepler, the man who discovered planetary retrograde, once wrote, "The heavenly motions are a continuous song for several voices, perceived not by the ear but by the intellect; a figured music, which sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time." Music is often spoken about in “movements”, originally referring to its actual tempo or relative speed but became a way to differentiate between different sections of a symphony, whether it was the brisk, swift movement or a slower, more torpid movement. Langley uses the language of music, and of movement, to wrap around something much more propulsive: the difficulty – or impossibility – of living with the past (the past being things that are now gone), of grieving it, or anticipating it. One description of Selda’s ancestor’s experience with the gift soaks in this mystery without a solution, a signifier without a signified. He writes with the placidity of still life, effortlessly disclosing a sonic cadence that is both precise and enigmatic that percolates and prefigures the symbiotic relationship between the two that comes to light eventually: "She sings of lights in the sky, angels in basements, snow-storms moving across the moors..." placed against thick textures of floating dust, dense shadow, and sudden bars of blinding sun, it lingers in his mind. He doesn’t believe that the gift is an ability to listen to death, to understand the presence of it, the immanence of it. It all sounds, to him, too sparky and alive. Too musical.
How do we symbolize noise? Why and how do we associate letters with noises? Can a new noise form a new letter?
I’ve heard it said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", but whoever originated and perpetuated that idea forgets that a city and style, object and evocation quickly take on aspects of one another as the urban environment shapes an aesthetic movement, which in turn produces a new form and vision of the city. That is the basis for ekphrasis, and much the same as how I imagine Langley forged his own ideas and style, finding in nebulously anthological fragments a quiet romanticism for beauty and softness amid the chaos of grief. As someone who has personally chosen to spend quite a lot of my professional time trying to translate music into prose, I also struggle against the poverty of language. Where music is a sort of crystallised form of human history, written in beautiful notational marks, I am not afflicted by a divine inheritance like some archaic beings in whom words of whispered languages sound with such force and seductive power that the temptation to write them down becomes irresistible.
On a late winter day in 1922, the sound of a gunshot resounded with a loud boom in the hills surrounding the house of three-year-old Edgar Curtis. The sound itself wasn't out of the ordinary, since the Curtis family lived near a firing range. What was extraordinary was the question the boy turned to ask his mother: "What is that big, black noise?" Edgar would go on to be the first subject of scientific studies of synesthesia and give me a name for my own edifice of writing about art. When I hear music, I see not just colours, but shapes, textures, and landscapes. The best way I can describe it is not a confusion of sensations, but an openness, as if these different senses have not formed into individually walled-off areas. Two pieces of music I had an extreme reaction to are Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s Ghosteen which to me lingers in a rainbow of iridescent light that shifts on often unimaginably large scales, and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte which falls like a nervous tunic of snow.
There is a place I’ve been to that I think about more than any other, when I find myself deep in meditation or in a rare bout of deep sleep, one where the water is like silk, like pewter, like blood, like a leopard’s skin, and occasionally merely like water. Sometimes it dances with flakes of fire, sometimes it is blank and anonymous with fog, sometimes it shouts as joyously as a mirror. It’s known that the tympanic membrane – the eardrum – responds to the sounds in our dreams. This membrane also responds to imagined sounds and remembered sounds, just as in Langley’s world memories are stored in the strange alloys of iron bells, of copper, ash and ice, when I dive into these dreams, they are often plagued with the sonic residue of past nights haunting music venues, marionetted into movement both rhythmically and bodily. The symptoms of tinnitus can vary significantly from person to person. You may hear phantom sounds in one ear, in both ears, or in your head. The phantom sound may ring, buzz, roar, whistle, hum, click, hiss, or squeal. If the topology of what I hear in dreams is any indication of what I might experience later in life, mine manifests as something rotary, like an alarm. It doesn’t pulse but rather dizzies itself in search of direction. Langley briefly mentions musical phantoms, like “echo condemned to her cave; Paul Wittgenstein's right arm; Clara Schumann's account of her composer husband driven mad by shapeshifting spirits and dictating his last piece of music,” though I don’t feel cursed by any of my phantom sirens or visions but see them as a gift.
But what if you are dreaming of silence? What inter-dimensional rhythm have you severed? My sister, since we were both very, very young, has been deaf in one ear. For her, a symmetry of sound exists in the low rumbles of an aeroplane, or the pierce of a dog barking. Music only exists in the mono, so the topology of listening, of where she’ll place herself in a room, or how she judges the depth of a sound, is entirely perceptive. Where my body fills silences with sensation, my sister's provides silence where there is none. Swedenborg wrote of his ninth rule about how many sounds are not produced by a well-tuned piano, about how many are still lacking within an octave. He writes of a music that exists only via negativa, but that still, definitely, exists.
'I was a chime child,' Selda tells Ellen. 'Do you know what that means?' ' Let me guess,' Ellen says, not looking up from her book, 'you can talk to ghosts.'
What would it sound like to write music for ghosts? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the world around them, or does it extend beyond immediacy? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions, or something more algorithmic? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I think this is the real confluence of music and writing, or any art form. That whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you, do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, breathe,
watch the bells' edges blur
as the sound rings out
and fades to silence.