No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, November 01, 1998

The Innamorati -- Midori Snyder

Midori Snyder's previous novel, The Flight of Michael McBride, successfully juxtaposed cowboys and the Sidhe in nineteenth-century America. The Innamorati initially seems less ambitious, rooted in a Renaissance Italy which only slowly reveals its points of departure from the mundane. This is the Italy of the commedia dell'Arte; of that peculiarly Renaissance interpretation of classical mythology which inspired Titian and Botticelli; and of Ariosto's fantastic epic of magicians and fabulous beasts, Orlando Furioso.

If all this gives the impression of meticulous research and historically accurate prose, that's less than half the story. Snyder is a witty and observant writer, with an eye for telling details. She handles a large cast with ease, and each character is an individual, with history and mannerisms and quirks that distinguish them from the usual fantasy archetypes as much as from one another.

And everyone carries a curse: this, after all, is a novel about a group of people with a common desire to rid themselves of the various problems that beset them. That it is not only a novel about what one might term magical psychotherapy, is perhaps its greatest triumph.

There's Anna, a maker of masks for Venetian nobles, whose masks speak to her. Lately, though, she has become unable to give life to them – a barrenness of creativity that mirrors her body's lack of fertility (though she has a teenage daughter, Mirabella, to console her). The wealthy merchant Roberto watches Anna's self-destructive gaiety and wishes that she would settle down and marry him: but what can he offer her that will ease her pain? There's Rinaldo, a mercenary who wants to retire from his life of violence: Fabrizio, whose career as an actor is severely hampered by his stammer: Lorenzo, a lawyer who used to be a poet until he embraced Truth and realised that all poetry is lies …

They've all heard tales of Labirinto, the City of the Maze, where the cursed and sick may find solace and win their hearts' desires. Severally and together, they embark upon a pilgrimage to lose their curses in the twists and turns of the maze. But a maze – like a wood – is also somewhere to lose one's way. Labirinto's Maze (like Holdstock's Mythago Wood) is not a mere collection of hedged paths, but a sentient place which presents archetypes for the delectation, and despair, of those who gain entry.

Forcing each pilgrim to confront what they fear, or love – for love can be a curse, as well as salvation – the Maze reveals its secrets slowly and, on occasion, painfully. The greatest trial, shared by all the characters, lies (of course) at the heart of the maze. Only through the actions of a sorcerer's daughter, and the literally elemental conflict which ensues, can the various quests be completed.

Snyder contrasts earthy humour and ethereal song, love and death, betrayal and redemption, with unobtrusive skill. The Innamorati is a beautifully balanced novel: each character, and each element of the plot, has a counterpart, and the whole fits together like an ingenious machine.

Friday, August 14, 1998

Rachmaninoff's Dog: A Jigsaw Puzzle

This piece originally appeared in Banana Wings #12, 1998, eds Brialey / Plummer

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is like being plugged into the mains.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is the music that drives men (David Helfgott, protagonist of Shine, at least) mad.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is very Russian.

Or, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is quite nice but falls apart a bit in the middle.

I saw a performance of this piece at the Proms, the pianist being Arcady Volodos: it changed my entire perception of the music, and made me question what happens when I listen to a piece of music that moves me.

In the Albert Hall I sat with shivers racing up and down my spine: cold hands: a pinpoint headache behind my right eye: a feeling of slight nausea, and a distinct adrenaline rush. I felt exhilarated. (Once I’d left, my hands hurt from applause and my feet from striding down the road with more energy than I’d had for weeks. I hummed the quiet, agoraphiliac first bars of the music over and over, thinking of wide open spaces, to keep the charge. The weather helped: the tail-end of Hurricane Bonnie had hit London, and the trees were thrashing and casting off their leaves. I had that sense of being about to be whirled off my feet.)

During the performance, and especially during the hectic third movement, I had a distinct sense of panic and pursuit. A first-person viewpoint movie of running through tangled undergrowth in a forest at dusk, pursued by something I couldn’t spare time to look back at, unreeled in my mind. There were impressions of wide, cool spaces, and icy rivers, and a dark blue sky with clouds. The music may not be about being hunted, or running, or any of the images or thoughts that ran through my mind – I think Rachmaninoff would have thrown up his hands in disgust at having his music described as 'programmatic' – but that is what it evokes in me.

The whole experience, physical and mental, started me thinking again about what one brings to work and what is already there in it. And whether things that the creator didn’t intend can be considered as being part of the creation, rather than of its audience. How much of that sense of panic came from what's been described as ‘one particular and perhaps obsessive emotional experience … that underlines every aspect of the music’? How much of it was my over-active imagination? Why this piece, and not others? (Shivers up the spine are a fairly regular occurrence at live performances: on the other hand, the music I choose to see is that which already has some effect on me. It’s not limited to classical music: some voices, and some guitar breaks, in popular music can have the same effect.) Why this performance? And why, when I put on my only recording of the piece (Helfgott, from the soundtrack of Shine), did a certain amount of the experience repeat itself, when I’d never had that effect from that CD before?

My first experience of unprovoked physical reaction to something was to the weather. A high wind, dead grass bending before it, blue sky with high clouds, and a sense that the wind was coming towards me, coming for me. I was terrified: shaking and panting, wide-eyed, staring into the sky. I ran, and did not outrun the wind. And, of course, nothing happened. I was about six years old, and had been reading Norse mythology: this may explain a great deal, not least my subsequent fanciful thoughts.

This experience might have been described as a kind of agoraphobia: but I love wide spaces, and find many landscapes claustrophobic simply because there is too much up-and-down, and not enough sideways.

One of the first things that sprang to mind was, unaccountably, Robert Graves. I had, for years, had a half-recollection of his comment that a shiver up the spine implied the presence of the Goddess. Rachmaninoff sent me back to Graves, hunting for the actual wording. It’s in The White Goddess:

The reason why the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted and a shiver runs down the spine when one reads or writes a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the ancient power of fright and lust.

He’s talking about poetry rather than music. I now recall that this is the book which informed me that women could never be poets because they couldn’t have that psychosexual relationship with the Muse. He’s talking about poetry, because music is the realm of the sun-god Apollo rather than of the Triple Goddess: thus music shouldn’t, by Gravesian standards, be expected to have the same effect.

But it does: and anyway, I am sceptical about Goddess-invocation and mysticism when it seems that more mundane explanations may be offered.

Some places have an atmosphere so strong that most people are aware of a change in the air, or the temperature. A ruined house out in the middle of Dartmoor, probably abandoned by sheep-crofters at the turn of the century, feels safe. It is simply a collection of unroofed walls, with a doorway low enough that I have to stoop to enter. One of the old ponds near my childhood home – dating at least back to the 1930s, as opposed to having been created in the gravel mining of the Sixties and Seventies – had a peaceful, brooding atmosphere. The other was less pleasant to be near. Maybe this had something to do with the amount of rotting vegetable matter nearby, or the way the trees leant over the water rather than forming a respectful circle, as they did at the other pond. Perhaps the sedge was withered, and no birds sang.

Alan Garner’s good at evoking atmosphere. The sense of lingering horror in The Owl Service is based on silence, and the spookiness of still summer days: a sense of horror that is wasted on the modern world, as fewer people grow up having experienced the dreadful immanence of a silent noon with no breeze. Almost all the places in England where one can escape the noise of humanity are uplands: hilltops and moors where the silence may be abruptly jarred by an RAF fighter on exercises. That suffocating silence happens, almost always, in forests or narrow valleys, or on low flat land when there is no wind. It is the sense of oppression that precedes a storm, without the release.

I played the music to a friend, and she reported similar images. Weird, or what? 'Or what', actually. We both grew up watching BBC documentaries and Cold War dramas. When the producer says 'Russia' (or, as it may be, 'the USSR', or 'the Soviets', or 'the Evil Empire') the sound consultant reaches for his Tchaikovsky or his Rachmaninoff. This music makes us both think of ice floes on wide rivers, wolves running alongside trains at night, and dark forests, simply because that's what the man at the Beeb felt this music suited. Or, just as likely, that's what was on the front of the record sleeve when he bought it.

The only problem with regarding one's experience of a piece of music as a cultural construct is that it doesn't seem to account for the autonomic responses. I may be Pavlov’s, or Rachmaninoff’s, dog, but I refuse to believe that all of that was mere programming.

The autonomic responses, physical and mental, can't be inherent in the music itself. Otherwise any merely competent performance (that is, any performance where the pianist hits all the right notes in the right order) would evoke them. Helfgott’s performance of the same piece never had any particular effect on me before. It has, though, evoked more of a response since I heard Volodos play: I suppose because subconsciously I am filling in something that is missing, from my recollection of the Volodos performance.

I acquired another recording of the piece shortly after that experience. I wonder how much of it I am hearing objectively, and how much is overlaid with the memory of the live performance. Conversely, how much of my memory of Volodos’ interpretation has been replaced by Martha Argerich’s style?

How do I tell which memories are real?

I’m willing to believe that there is a scientific explanation for my reaction to a particular rendition of a particular piece. The phenomenon does not seem to be inherent either in the performer or the music performed: rather, it’s a combination of the two. Arcady Volodos’ album of piano transcriptions, while brilliant (he gives the impression of growing an extra arm or two as needed), doesn’t force my attention. Patti Smith’s version of ‘Gloria’ does something to the nerves on my back, which Van Morrison has never achieved.

The objective part of a piece of music is the notes, as they are written. Getting this right requires a degree of precision. Musical notes are mathematical entities: middle ‘A’ is a vibration at a wavelength of 440 Hz, with a variety of harmonics that are partly dependent on the instrument that is being used to produce the note.

There are also the knotty, but still mathematical, questions of key and mode. Minor-key music feels more subdued than major-key music: there are apparently also differences between the various major or minor keys. (Mozart felt that D major was best for serious, yet joyful, music). It’s likely that Rachmaninoff used a particular key, perhaps with amendments, to evoke the scale and ‘feel’ of Russian folk music.

The subjective art of the music is the performer’s responsibility. This is where passion comes in (or not). A technically perfect rendition can be soulless: the notes are all exactly the right length, not even a millisecond longer or shorter than they’re written, and there are no extra notes where the player’s hit another string, or key, or stop while reproducing what’s written. (I don’t, incidentally, think humans are capable of perfect performances).

Put the two aspects of a piece together, and it seems to me that you get extra harmonies and harmonics, perhaps unique to that performance by that player of that piece. Sound can have physiological effects: therefore, a specific performance may evoke physiological responses that another, apparently identical performance does not.

Acoustics may explain why music can affect one in this way. The atmosphere of a place, or the emotional impact of weather, may be just as explicable. Feng shui or barometric pressure or geomagnetic fields or cosmic ray bombardment or … you see, I could go on. And on. Whether or not I feel that any experience is spiritual, I refuse to believe that there is not, at the very least in part, a physical explanation for it. Humans take the physical and found the spiritual upon it: ‘upon this rock’, if you like, 'I shall build my church’.

Passion and precision are all very well: what makes it worthwhile is attention – or involvement, if you like. The third element is the listener, and their memories and thoughts and reflections and beliefs.

I wish I could play you my Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto: for piano, orchestra, and crowded agoraphiliac mind.

Wednesday, July 01, 1998

A Song for Summer -- Eva Ibbotson

By the same Eva Ibbotson who wrote the delightful Which Witch? for children. I hadn't realised that she also wrote adult novels: when I picked one up in the bookshop, it looked like any other faintly literate romance. I was delighted to find that (a) the sense of humour is still there, matured but unwarped (b) they may be romances, but they're firmly rooted in well-rounded lives (c) the two I've read so far – the other was Madensky Square – have featured music as an essential plot element.

A Song for Summer is the tale of a girl, Ellen, raised by her suffragette aunts who, despite their best efforts, enjoys 'feminine' activities such as gardening and cooking. She emigrates and finds a job looking after problem children in a Swiss school run on 'advanced' principles. (One of her first achievements is to persuade a couple of the girls that they don't have to swim nude: there is nothing wrong with wearing a bathing costume). She meets the mysterious Marek, who is working as a handyman and knows how to gets storks to nest. Meanwhile, the Second World War starts: Marek's mysterious past comes to light: he, and a couple of the pupils, travel to England and end up interned on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens: and the happy ending is not as undiluted as one might have expected. Plenty of surprises, intriguingly flawed characters, and a diva who lives up to the legend.

Sunday, June 21, 1998

"Enter these enchanted woods ...": The Enchanted Forest and the Wildwood

Published in Charmed Lives #2, Summer 1998 (edited by Meredith MacArdle)

'[The wood is] primary woodland. Untouched, essentially unmanaged, for eight thousand or so years… something more than just trees and bracken, dog-fern and bramble. It had become an entity, not conscious, not watching, but somehow sentient and to an astonishing degree timeless.'

'The Wood is, like all woods in this country… part of the great Forest that once covered this land. At the merest nudge, it… becomes the great Forest again. [Anyone] will tell you how... he has been lost in the smallest spinney. He can hear traffic on the road, but the road is not there, while there are sounds behind him of a great beast crawling through the undergrowth. This is the great Forest… it is voiceless, yet it has a will at least as strong as yours.'

The first excerpt is from The Hollowing (1993), a sequel - of sorts - to Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (1984). The second is from Diana Wynne Jones' Hexwood (also 1993), perhaps the deepest and most mature of her juvenile novels. Hexwood has been dismissed as 'Mythago Wood for children'. However, while the two novels deal with the sentience of the forest, and its role in the genesis of myth, they do it from two different angles.

Mythago Wood is a journey into the subconscious, the well of dreams that underlies and contains all human myth, as much as it is the journal of Steven Huxley's journey into Ryhope Wood. The wood is populated by "mythagos" - embodiments of mythic archetypes which are born from the minds of those who come within range of the forest's influence. Sometimes the mythagos are harmless; more often, they are not. Huxley's father is shot at by a Robin Hood figure, and keeps the arrow in his study to remind him of the wood's power. And time in the wood doesn't run at the same rate as in the outside world. George Huxley's journal contains accounts of month-long journeys, from which he has returned to find that only a few days have passed.

As Steven learns more of his father's adventures in the wildwood, the wood reaches out for him: oak saplings spring up between the edge of the wood and his house, and by the opening of the second book in the sequence, Lavondyss (1988), the house is entirely within the wood, with an oak tree growing through the desk at which both Huxleys wrote.

Mythago Wood is primarily a fantasy, although it has scientific elements. Huxley and his friend (Edward Wynne-Jones: call it synchronicity!) experiment with electrical devices to hasten the formation of mythagos from their minds. In the later books there are indications that more sophisticated instruments are being used both to encourage, and to repel, the mythagos. Holdstock's 'myth images' and myth genesis are firmly rooted in psychology and anthropology. Hexwood, on the other hand, states its science-fictional setting with the very first sentence: 'The letter was in Earth script, unhandily scrawled in blobby blue ballpoint'.

In Hexwood, entering Banners Wood means leaving the mundane world. Strange things happen to Ann, and Mordion, and Hume, within the boundaries of the wood. Ann's 'voices' tell her when she's been in the wood, and for how long: this generally doesn't equate with her perception of passing time, and often she seems to forget whole episodes. Hume, who is introduced as a young child, doesn't age reliably: it's as though, when Ann enters the wood, she steps into another time.

Eventually Ann realises that she has been the subject of a device called the Bannus, which has been playing through scenes - alternate possibilities - to achieve its required outcome. Hence the time distortion, the sense of deja vu, and the trend that Mordion identifies: 'The Bannus tended to send Ann along at important moments'. Ann is present when Mordion first awakes: for most of his magical experiments: and for Hume's first sight of the Arthurian Castle, where fame and fortune can be found, and an ailing king must be healed.

The Bannus manipulates 'theta-space' fields to run its cast - composed of the aristocracy of Homeworld, the present, corrupt Reigners, and the inhabitants of Hexwood Farm Estate - through a variety of scenes which draw heavily on myth and magic. Where Holdstock delves deep into the subconscious to depict prehistoric ritual and magic, Jones uses Arthurian myth, leavened with folklore and fairy-tale symbolism. Holdstock's The Hollowing draws on the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight (and Gawain turns out to be the villain: Nature, in the aspect of the Green Knight, is the hero). Jones transmogrifies the Fisher King, with his unhealable wound, into a nervous and hypochondriac Reigner Two, who has made a nasty bruise an excuse not to marry the malevolent Reigner Three - Morgan La Trey.

The Bannus is, to some extent, a teaching machine. It also transforms its cast into their true selves. In an echo of Mythago Wood, trees spring up along Wood Street as the Bannus transforms Reigner One, stealthily and without any fuss, into a dragon. But is the Bannus to blame? It isn't the only thing manipulating time and myth in /Hexwood/. The Wood itself is working on the people within its sphere - sometimes co-operating with the Bannus, sometimes not. For example, the Wood effectively imprisons the Bannus, along with assorted luminaries from Homeworld, until Mordion resolves the conflict between machine and nature.

The Bannus is resentful of the fact that, over the centuries of its imprisonment, its theta-space has merged with that of the Wood: the fact that the wood is called Banners Wood is an early indication of this. The Bannus can't control or communicate with the wood at all: it can only learn by trial and error what is allowed. In this, Banners Wood is like Holdstock's Ryhope Wood: it can't be manipulated. But it is a less malevolent wood. Mordion, in his role as magician, has learnt to work with the Wood: in return, the Wood gives him 'special treatment', because he can help it achieve its own desires. When the Bannus gives Morgan La Trey the formula for a poison to destroy Mordion (and does it really want him dead?) the Wood transforms him into a dragon instead of letting him die. It's only in this form, after all, that he can defeat Reigner One.

It is Mordion, in the end, who works out what Banners Wood wants: its own permanent theta-space, 'so that it can be the great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans'. Ryhope Wood functions by raising 'demons of the mind' against what it perceives as human invasion: Banners Wood is a gentler place, which needs humans to attain its full potential. Once it has persuaded Mordion to give it what it wants, there are mythagos all around: Robin Hood, twig-people, a dragon and a unicorn, all glimpsed through the trees as legends are supposed to be.

Banners Wood and Ryhope Wood are two different places. While Hexwood probably has a higher body count than any other of Jones' novels, there isn't the sheer nastiness and violence of primeval myth that is so dominant in Holdstock's proto-mythologising.

Ryhope Wood is called 'the wildwood': it's a place of violent death, of Ice Age winters and slow starvation. This is the wood of nightmares, where wolves prey on small children and every path curves back on itself.

By contrast, Banners Wood is the fairytale enchanted forest: there are wolves, and a terrible winter, but they are not unconquerable. Besides, the Bannus - like the magical cauldron of Celtic myth - provides whatever is asked of it. Mordion is struck by the beauty and peace of the wood: for him, it is a healing experience rather than the agonising catharsis of Huxley's journey into the wildwood.

Most importantly, perhaps, the way out of Banners Wood is relatively simple to find. Hume and Mordion go hungry in the terrible winter - but only until Mordion realises that he can buy food in the shops on Wood Street. Ryhope Wood holds onto those who come within its bounds: Tallis has to undergo a terrifying series of transformations before she can regain the edge of the wood, and the human world, and other characters never come out at all.

The Bannus gives people a chance to explore their own natures, and learn to accept responsibility for their own actions and the less pleasant aspects of their personalities. In this, Hexwood works well as a rite-of-passage novel: although all of the main characters are past adolescence, they still have much to learn about themselves. In Ann's case, at least, this is achieved by a temporary return to childhood. (Paradoxically, it is as an adolescent that her feelings for Mordion change from a girlish crush to love.) Only then is she able to assume her role in the adult world.

Ryhope Wood forces those who enter to examine their primal natures - and if they don't succeed, they will be lost for ever. In contrast to the romance and happy ending of Hexwood, all three of Holdstock's 'Mythago' novels fail to achieve resolution. (Mythago Wood and The Hollowing end with a man waiting, in the wildwood, for a woman to return. Lavondyss ends with a time loop: it's all going to happen again, just as unhappily …) There are recurrent themes of losing a child, and of the conflict between father and son - both more 'adult' psychological crises than the rites of passage in Hexwood.

The two novels both depict the forest as a sentient thing, a device for translating subconscious hopes and fears into real symbols. (In Hexwood, it's actually the Bannus that does most of this, through a conscious manipulation of character and plot not unlike the writer's.) Both Hexwood and the 'Mythago' sequence examine essential phases of human life, by embodying archetypes to lead and challenge the protagonists. In a sense, Hexwood is 'Mythago Wood for children': the conflicts and changes it examines are those which every child must confront before achieving maturity. Equally, Mythago Wood is Hexwood for adults: a darker and nastier place, with less youthful optimism, but still the Enchanted Forest.

Wednesday, April 01, 1998

Tam Lin -- Pamela Dean

This is one of those books that, having finished, I immediately want to turn back to page 1. And yet I am not sure that it is a 'good' book. The pacing is peculiar: while there are plenty of suggestions of magic, the magical elements take a very long time to reveal themselves for what they are. The 'right' romance takes years to blossom, too.

Tam Lin is based on the ballad of the same name, but the references are neat and unobtrusive – a book to make one think. In the original ballad, for example, Janet is caught by Tam Lin while 'plucking a rose or only two' from a forbidden garden. In Dean's version, it's while she is attempting to borrow The Romance of the Rose from the restricted shelves in the college library.

As in Freedom & Necessity, the magical is explained away: when someone comments on the fact that the mysterious Halloween riders seemed to be glowing in the dark, someone else remarks rather sharply that there are such things as chemistry majors.

It's a college novel and a discussion of literature – sometimes in considerable depth, which I suspect would be wasted on many readers. (On the other hand, Janet’s enthusiasm for Christopher Fry led me to reread The Lady’s not for Burning, which is no bad thing to come from a novel). Most of the texts that fascinate Janet turn out to have some relevance to the plot, although some of the links are tenuous in the extreme.

Incidentally, I’ve been avoiding reading Tam Lin since I first saw it in paperback a few years ago, simply because it looked so much like a run-of-the-mill Celtic fantasy. The cover art features a pre-Raphaelite, vaguely Celtic-looking woman gazing wistfully off into the middle distance, and it’s a fair bet that she’s not looking at a piece of gritty urban realism, such as Glasgow. The blurb is not much more informative, rambling on enthusiastically about the Fairy Tale series, edited by Terri Windling, consisting of novels based on well-known tales. Nowhere does it mention what this book in your hand is actually about.

So remember, children: never judge a book by its cover…

A Gap in the Landscape

This piece first appeared in Banana Wings #11, 1998, eds Brialey / Plummer

Learning to Love Brahms

I'd always assumed that other peoples' memories worked in much the same way as mine. Recently, though. I was discussing music with a friend of mine, Maggy, who is a keen amateur pianist and singer. I was waxing lyrical about Brahms’ second Piano Concerto, which she's heard several times. She even owns a recording of it.

"You know that bit in the second movement? Where it sounds almost like a peal of bells?" I asked her. (There is probably a technical term for this effect, but I don’t know it. I rely on raw enthusiasm.)

Maggy frowned and shook her head.

"You played the CD earlier," I reminded her.

A look of complete ignorance.

"I’ve got a tape somewhere here," I said, and proceeded to put it on and play it again.

"Ah, I know that bit," said Maggy with relief, and went on to explain to me about '2 against 3' time – where the left hand is playing to a different beat than the right – and other technical difficulties. I wondered what she meant by ‘know’: she didn’t know the piece in the same way as I did, because she apparently lacked the mechanism by which I could play through a piece of music in my head – just as I played the tape – and listen to an approximation of what I’d heard before.

I have entire symphonic movements in my head, although it doesn't take much to distract me from 'hearing' them. The orchestration isn't always accurate, though: there is a great deal of detail in an orchestral piece that I simply don't retain, and which seldom fails to surprise me when I hear the piece again. If I know a piece of music well enough, it can become a soundtrack to my dreams - in the sense that I wake up with a Beethoven finale half-played in my head, and have to play the CD in order to resolve the dream.

Later in the afternoon, Maggy played me a piece – possibly Bach – that she'd been practising for weeks. She only glanced at the score occasionally while she was playing, so I assumed that she knew it fairly well. "Now do it without the music," I said. She couldn't, although she admitted that the printed music was mainly an aide-memoire. She wasn't using it to determine which note came next – but without the music, she couldn't play the rest of the piece. I lost the ability to read music somewhere in my teens, when it became a useless skill (compare that to the nineteenth century, when the ability to read music was a standard 'accomplishment' among middle-class girls, and not being able to play a pretty little accompaniment while singing the latest popular ballad was a social faux pas). I do, however, remember relying more on the shape of the music than on the actual notes. Apparently, Maggy didn't have a visual memory of the music either.

My memory for music is not note-perfect. I was impressed, and astounded, when I first saw someone play Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, in front of an audience, without music. That's forty minutes of music, and lots of notes. On the other hand, when I listened to that performance, I could distinguish the original notes from the grace-notes and decorations added by the pianist. That indicates that somewhere in my memory I do have a note-for-note version of the music – or at least a sensory image of its shape. When I try to hear it in my mind, though, it's always incomplete.

Burnham Wick

I started thinking about music and memory after hearing the world premiere of a piece called 'Burnham Wick', by David Matthews. I usually avoid twentieth-century music: I find it difficult to listen to, because I can't seem to make sense of it. I didn't switch the radio off when they announced 'Burnham Wick', though, because Burnham-on-Crouch is about three miles - as the gull flies - from the place where I grew up. (It's thirty miles by road: the first bridge over the Crouch is ten miles upriver).

Burnham Wick is east of the town: a loose cluster of farmhouses, with single-track roads linking them, and all the land below sea-level. The highest point on the eastern horizon is the sea wall, against the top of which waves lap at the peak flow of spring tides. In 1953 the floods reached as far as the railway line, three miles west of the sea. It's very quiet, and the flatness of the landscape makes the sky seem wider than usual. The fields are nicely squared, and drainage ditches run between them. The next town to the east is Zeebrugge.

David Matthews was there: apparently the piece was inspired by a Sunday walk in spring. His music, which is of the kind I politely term 'abstract', uses a violin (apparently playing the highest possible notes) to emulate a skylark. There's a sense of stillness and suspense. "No", I thought, "that was not it, at all."

For one thing, he seems to have missed out the river entirely. The Crouch estuary is wide and muddy. Recently someone has laid on boat trips 'to see the seals' on sand banks nearer the sea. There is always a plaintive sound of seabirds, and of cables chiming on aluminium masts. (Burnham-on-Crouch is famed for having two major yacht clubs). And the light … with so much water to reflect it, and so few obstructions, the light is a tangible thing. Near sunset there is a peculiar glow to everything, and it's the slow river, not the sun, that seems the source of it. Pale things, like dead grass and sea lavender, look as though they're illuminated by spotlights. Cuttlefish bones seem luminous against the dark bladder wrack on the sea wall. The churches at Canewdon and Ashingdon are haloed on their hills.

Matthews may have put all that in his music: I didn't hear it. What I heard was someone else's perception. I felt that his was a different landscape, one far from the sea, where no one had thought to look up at the sky.

A Gap in the Landscape

Sometimes one notices something only by its absence. Where I grew up there was a small wood, visited by occasional birders and hunters, and by me. The wood was old, if not technically ancient, and tangled. There were a few paths, but they never came out quite where one would expect. At some point a huge tree had fallen in the centre of the wood, but most of it had decayed long before my time: the clearing it left was at the centre of the wood, hedged in with hawthorn and bramble. Most of the trees were oak or elm: the elms were dying, because of the advent of Dutch Elm disease, but the oaks seemed immovable. I'm sure the wood had once been much larger. In a more populous setting, it would have been no more than a copse, full of litter and rope swings. Here, it was allowed to sleep. When the paths became overgrown, no one came to clear them.

A cold day in January, sometime in the early 1980s. I paused on my way downstairs to look out of the landing window. I could see clear to the river, three miles away: I could see sunlight reflecting from the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham. Not until I was sitting at the kitchen table did this strike me as odd. There was something wrong. Something missing. A gap.

They had taken away the wood. Where it had been, there was not even a heap of timber: just a bulldozed patch, and a few ashes. Someone had been shooting rabbits, and there were orange gun cartridges like embers. The ground was cold. The farmer had regained perhaps three acres of arable land. He left it fallow for years.


Music is now how I tie down my experiences. If I'd had more music - and especially portable music - when I grew up, I might now have a recollection of the wood as precise as the one I have of the patterns of snow on Wandsworth Common. I call up that memory by listening to an otherwise undistinguished song called 'Ukraine Ways', which was what was in the Walkman when I went out in the snow one day.

It would be inconvenient, to say the least, if this mental recording occurred every time I listened to music. How many clear and precise memories of my living room do I need? How can I stop myself listening to Beethoven's Ninth now that there's a memory tied to it? Will listening to 'Ukraine Ways' on a sunny beach destroy the evocation of winter and snow? It's partly an involuntary process (which means there are pieces of music I can't listen to casually, in case they awake unwanted memories). Sometimes, with an effort, I can force it to happen, though seldom with a piece of music that I already know well. I certainly can't play a piece of music on the Walkman with the intention of capturing my surroundings, as though I were simply a device for recording sensory impressions.

(Incidentally, it's not just classical music that I can use to evoke memory. Rock music is more difficult, though, not least because there are intelligible words to get in the way. One of the joys of opera is not being able to understand a word of it, and thus being able to treat it simply as music.)

Of course, there's no way of guaranteeing that the images thus evoked are true ones: memory plays false, and I wonder how many lacunae I plaster over each time I remember something. Does this matter? I don't know. These images work for me, in a way that David Matthews' "clearly defined emotional progression" does not. He was not seeing, or feeling, the same thing. It may have been the same physical place, but it was another country.


The mental event that is triggered when I listen to a significant piece of music (as opposed to one that I simply think sounds good) is a complicated melange of image, sensation and emotion. Needless to say, there is no sound: I have already overdubbed the backing track, simply by linking the occasion to the music. Like my musical memory, my visual memory seems perfect until I try to think about the gaps. I can visualise the entire view from the landing window at home, but there are some parts of it on which I can't focus. Similarly, when I try to hear a piece of music in my head, I'm not hearing the full orchestral version. Quite often the music edits itself, so that when I next listen to the piece I am disturbed by whole sections that seem shockingly new.

There is a familiarity to some of my memories which makes me wonder how much of them I have constructed, or inserted, involuntarily. I can recall standing next to the hollow tree on the south-east corner of the old wood, listening to a wood pigeon. If I think about it, I can remember the smell of rotting leaves. But I don't know if that memory comes from spring or autumn: if it was spring, the rotting leaves are inappropriate, and the memory false. I don't suppose that this sort of memory is ever entirely reliable – unlike a concert pianist's perfect recall of a concerto – but I fear the gradual substitution of imagination for recall.

My father's memories are patchy but distinct: he is suffering from something that may simply be old age. He remembers events that, for all I know, never happened. His focus, when I was a child, was so different to mine that I can't check any of my memories against his. And yet – which gives me hope – his strongest recollections are of long hot summers between the wars. I have clearer memories of a nameless wood that was destroyed than I do of the view from my bedroom window, which I saw this morning. But if I look out of that window tomorrow morning and something has gone, I'll know. I think I'll know.

Someplace to be Flying -- Charles de Lint

Hank Walker drives an unlicensed cab: one night he's driving through a rough quarter of the city, and sees a woman being beaten up. He intervenes, and is shot by the woman's assailant. Then two identical teenage girls appear from nowhere. One dispatches the mugger with a switchblade: the other heals both Hank and Lily, the woman he's rescued. Then they wander off, arm in arm.

Hank confides to Lily that he thinks the girls were angels: Lily counters with her belief that they were animal people - the 'first people' who were there when the world began. She's heard tales of them from Jack Daw, an itinerant storyteller. Hank's heard the same stories from the same man: he humours Lily. The story, though, is only just beginning.

Someplace to be Flying draws on Native American mythology: crows, coyotes and the creator-being Raven. In this it's comparable to Terri Windling's award-winning The Woodwife: de Lint, however, focuses on the mundane rather than the mystical. While some may find the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by his heroes and heroines to be rather juvenile, they are real-world problems - of more immediate relevance than the archetypal grail-quests and Battles of Good and Evil.

Not that this is a novel without a Grail, or without villains: it's simply that the stage is human-sized, and the characters have human failings -- even when there is little else that is human about them.

De Lint has acquired a reputation for upbeat, imaginative urban fantasy, and Someplace to be Flying is an enjoyable addition to the canon.