Music: the only proof?

adagioQ What’s the connection between: Barber’s Adagio, Tavener and Bach, Onward Christian Soldiers and Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, OK Computer, Stayin’ Alive and In the Bleak Midwinter?

A: They’re all mentioned in my adult novel FLASHBACK AND PURPLE – where of course, every one of these pieces is personal. But in a sense the music that defines the novel appears near the end, because the book is set in 2013, which felt at the time as if it would always be the year Mandela died. So my book tour events may begin with the very moving tribute to Madiba by the Soweto Choir in a South African supermarket, where shoppers are surprised, stilled and uplifted by soaring song. Some stories are generational sagas stretching over decades but my novel begins in October and ends at Christmas. My themes are time, change and connections. For my central characters, lives are unexpectedly redirected and redefined over this short autumn period, and the open ending asks readers to imagine what a new year will mean for each of them.

For Annie, my central character, the music with the greatest personal resonance belongs to her past with Arthur Capaldi, and has the power at any moment to overwhelm what’s real and now. Her car radio, normally settled on Radio Three, surprises her with Maybe she’s in need of a kiss. It’s enough and too much; she cuts the track dead. Of course, Annie has been in need of a kiss since Arthur left her, and the scene is already rerunning with a flashback to the student disco where they danced together as lovers. All Right Now appears one more time late in the story. It’s their song in her version of the truth, but not necessarily in his, and if my novel had a subtitle this might be it. All Right Now is what he believes their reinstated relationship can be once again, but the phrase is also a comment on the current status of humanity on this earth, in an era that could be the last as our time runs out and business-as-usual won’t save us. Music can’t either, but it can open us to the truth, and if you’re not sure what I mean watch Charlotte Church sing This Bitter Earth outside the Shell Building – with Greenpeace, to whom my novel is dedicated.

There are at least twenty-three musical references in the book, which may be explained by the layers of time I set out to explore. My artist friend Maria Emilov aims to suggest these layers in her paintings, because they’re always accessible in each new moment. We can be walking in a wood while reliving a sight, sound, thought or experience from other walks or other woods, or even other worlds entirely. And almost simultaneously, we may be imagining a future experience, momentous or trivial, connected or unconnected with the present except through reflexes that are sensory or emotional. These layers of time can illuminate each other, but Annie, who has not ‘moved on’ as therapists tell us to do, is trapped beneath them. Held in the power of her past, how can she escape it, and in spite of her captivity, does she want to?

Ethan is a History student whose relationship with time is more complex, and at twenty-three he feels out of tune with society and his famous archaeologist father. He longs to know his mother, who died when he was a boy, and in the process understand and rebuild his own history. But he is equally troubled by humanity’s future. In his head are lyrics without tunes, but as he journeys back in order to go forward, music follows him, or waits for him – as it does, I think, for all of us. If you’re over fifty you may have considered, or even shared with family, the music you want to be the soundtrack of your life once it’s over, and it’s likely that these pieces are inseparably attached for you to scenes, relationships and feelings that go deep – perhaps too deep for words. I’m writing after a funeral in which music helped to define the real-life character we celebrated and mourned, and for all of us who heard it, the song performed with heartbroken intensity by someone who loved Dennis now becomes a symbol of him – and love, and death, and the life that seems at such times so acutely precious. I guarantee that if Five More Years by Bowie breaks into my present in the future, it will reconnect me with yesterday’s emotion if not with yesterday’s thoughts. For all our efforts to use, manage and hold back time, we have no power over it. But music has.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.’  Kurt Vonnegut

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