If I weren’t a writer, I should have been a musician, I think.
I remember getting a Fisher-Price tape recorder as a present while I was a child. It was accompanied by a couple of Deutsche Grammophon compilations of music: Chopin, Mussorgsky, and all the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Karajan. I remember the Military Polonaise in A major sticking in my head, as precise and nice as a well-polished, shining patent leather shoe. Then straight after that, the Heroic Polonaise in A flat with those descending octaves in the left hand (start at 2:50) that even to my inexperienced ten-year-old ears, listening to a Fisher Price fingernail-size speaker, sounded like tough going. I also liked the pop music of the time and used to drive everyone mad colonising the front room so I could listen to songs like “The First Picture of You” by the Lotus Eaters. (methinks I am betraying my advanced age here. Oh well.)
I learned piano on and off through my late childhood and teenage years, had a stint at the saxophone, did well in the Harmony section in Leaving Cert Music II – and in my late twenties, learned to resign myself to being musically mediocre. For personal reasons this was an unexpectedly painful realisation since I conflated musical accomplishment with fey desirability and sensed I lacked both. Yet my forsaking this musical path was perhaps for the best.
Because I poured all the frustrations of being a failed musician into my writing. I created characters who were born and gifted musicians. One of them, Lucia, is in my novel. I heard minor chords in the wind and could pitch a cry of joy to its exact note. One agent, not the one who represents me, told me that I mentioned music too often in the MS I sent him. Now mind you there were plenty of other more pressing problems with that manuscript than with the number of pages that mentioned the Kreuzer Sonata. But it is true, I am very aural in that regard and love to bring music in as often as possible. And I love the words: ostinato, obbligato, cantabile, allegro ma non troppo. It makes innate sense to me that the universe should be set in the key of B flat.
I still hold out hope that someday I can go to composer school and retrain. For me, music is the highest art, and writing is the closest I can get to it. Writing is like eating a good meal and a nicely diffused sense of wellbeing afterwards; music is getting the hit straight to the bloodstream. It’s also the way I try to make sense of the world when it distresses me.
Such a distressing event was the recent debate about a dying youth’s message to those suffering from suicidal thoughts after a letter he wrote chiding suicidal young people for their feelings (links may be triggering.) I feared an anxious and depressive episode reading these, so I wrote a song about it, scored the piano music, added a string track using some software and put it up on a private blog.
For me, music and writing are both ways to try and right the wrongs I am powerless to right in real life. I assign symmetry and form and dramatic integrity onto the hollow randomness of real-life. This act of adjustment is crucial therapy for me and keeps me as balanced as it is possible for me to be.