Over the past two years, I drafted my first novel: The Four Senses. I doubt anything will come of it now, but I learned a lot writing it. It’s a dystopian story about people locked in a concentration camp and deprived of one of their senses. They are able to write on a blog under false names, and our heroine reads the blog posts, then decides to go find these people. Here is a selection: one of the embedded blog posts, by a pianist and composer whose hearing was taken away.
THE FOUR SENSES ____
That title is not designed to suggest the names of two serial killers or super-heroes. Those words have changed meaning oddly since the Elizabethan era, when they meant simply “left” and “right.” I am aware of their many shades of connotation, and employ them with a sort of wry, quiet humour here. Perhaps the reader shall see why, as I proceed.
This morning I returned to the fugue which I recently composed. I carried the crisp sheets of score paper over to the piano from their resting-place on a dining-room chair. I reveled in their texture, their color, their very two-dimensionality, as aspects of their peculiar beauty. In the past, I never expended much thought on the pure aesthetic appeal of the actual pages on which music was printed or written; that visual was merely the encoding of something far more beautiful. Yet, now, this shift of perception is perhaps natural, given my loss.
When I arrived at the piano (those few simple steps from one room to another appeared a journey of their own, across geography and chronology), I paused and stood petrified. Not frightened, merely motionless. My internal self seemed to freeze, as well. All that noise we call “thoughts” and “feelings” just halted, as when the electricity goes out and all appliances in our homes stop breathing and lie still. The sound was switched off. The reel was paused. I wonder how long I stood thus.
At last, I set the music (already I begin thinking of the black spots and lines as the music, rather than as symbols for the music) upon the piano’s carven rack. I seated myself on the bench. Then I stared at what I had written, without recognition. A weight as of great physical exhaustion seemed to hold me still. Yet I have had the correct amount of sleep, and the proper nutrition, and a regular regimen of moderate exercise. This was a lassitude of the spirit—if such a thing as a “spirit” exists—rather than of the flesh.
At last that other quasi-mystical element of the human composition, the Will, exerted itself. I stirred. I stared at that first series of notes, cudgeling my brain into recognizing them as indications of which ivory keys to depress. I have been so used, due to long practice, to the effortless connection between the visual and the sound produced, that in the past my body made the leap from “seeing” to “playing” without any conscious act of translation. It would appear natural that this process should continue. Are not the muscles of my hands unchanged? Is not the gray matter of my brain unmarred?
Perhaps not. Perhaps the violent loss of hearing has re-wired my neural pathways. With my negligent scientific knowledge, that suggests itself as a serious possibility. (I note here that after Boffin read this post, he said that indeed, the deprivation takes place on the neurological level, as precisely targeted brain damage).
Whatever the cause, however, that translation from visual to physical is no longer effortless. I perform a mental act of recognition for every note. There is the first spot: I used to know where to plunk down a finger to produce the sound it signifies. No longer. Now I have to squint, look at where that spot occurs in the sequence of lines and spaces, murmur, “F-sharp,” then hunt along the keyboard for that particular block of wood. I press the black strip, and trust that the requisite sound came forth. I would not know, of course. And then again, with an “A.” And so on, until my right hand had fully stated the theme. Then it was time for the left hand to join. I found the effort of simultaneous translation too much for one day. I am ashamed to admit that I indulged in that most infantile of escapes: a nap.
This is no longer music. It is nothing but a slippery, endless chain of signifiers.
First, a black spot of ink. Meaningless, except by convention. Even that convention has shifted throughout time: pitch has raised, tuning systems have changed. Within the larger structure of world music, this convention of “Western” notation is nothing but one among many competing—or perhaps, most congenially, complimentary—but fundamentally various systems. That black spot I read as “F-sharp” means something completely different, or nothing at all, to someone with an entirely divergent cultural background.
So, a black spot in a space between lines. A small sign like a hatchmark. That is but the first signifier in the chain of deferral. Next is the noise that the instrument or the mouth makes, those phonemes signified in their turn by other marks on a page: “F-sharp.” Why should that combination of letters “mean” the same as that black spot? And why, then, have we two systems of writing to signify two systems of sound? Why cannot we write music using English letters (or the letters of any human language), or write English using musical notation?
Then, after the mental symbol ambiguously represented by F# or “F-sharp,” the next link in the chain is the slender block of wood, painted black, fitted in between other slender blocks of wood topped by strips of ivory. Why? How does a series of black-and-white sticks have anything to do with an ordered and beautiful series of sounds? Yet it does. This physical construction, which may seem to be an obstruction in the making of pure mystical music, is necessary. Arrangement, though somewhat arbitrary and somewhat dictated by the principles of physics, has become necessary.
One may imagine a—what shall I say? universe? cosmos? creation? world? Let me say, a system of existence. One may imagine, then, a system of existence in which music was possible from one mind directly to others without the clumsy, degrading interference of ink spots and phonemes and wooden sticks. From mind into air and thus directly to the ear and into the other mind.
Now that I have written that, I see it is nothing but another chain.
What I truly desire is music communicated directly from mind to mind. Because only then could I have music again.