October 21, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Johanna Skibsrud's masterfully original and epic novel Quartet for the End of Time is a haunting meditation on war and memory.
The Globe and Mail wrote of the book:
"Quartet is a strange, deeply compassionate, and beautiful work. Skibsrud's prose, full of parenthetical asides and subordinate clauses, suitably slows us into contemplation of an eternally recurring moment."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I conceived of my new novel, Quartet for the End of Time (W.W. Norton 2014) as a loose transcription—or reflection upon, or conversation with—Olivier Messiaen's composition of the same name. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was first performed in a German prison camp in 1941, and the rare combination of instruments: piano, violin, cello and clarinet was dictated by what—and who—the composer had available to him. I first heard the Quartet performed in 2007. I was immediately struck not only by its strange beauty, but also by the remarkable story of its creation. Where Messiaen had struggled to transcribe the sounds of the world around him—birdsong, the rattle of military trucks on the road—I began my struggle to transcribe the musical and ideational complexities of Messaien's Quartet into words.
The most obvious soundtrack to my novel is, therefore, the quartet itself. But there are other sounds, songs, and ideas that either act as influences upon, or are represented within the pages of my novel. Try to imagine the following songs or recordings playing alongside, or interrupting, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time – creating the sort of dissonance that so inspired the composer … and me.
"La Mémoire" from Gil Wolman's Mégapneumes
Gil Wolman, a French artist, poet and filmmaker, joined the Lettrist movement in 1950 and went on to develop what he called "Mégapneumes." Rather than paying minute attention to the letter, megapneumes were based upon breath units. In its broadest sense, I consider my novel—like Wolman's "La Mémoire"—a meditation on—and exploration of—time, rhythm and breath.
"British Troops – Gas Shell Bombardment" (Will Gaisberg)
On October 19, 1918, the British sound engineer, Will Gaisberg, recorded a British gas-shell bombardment just prior to the troops' entry into Lille, France. He set up his recording equipment immediately behind a battery of 4.5' guns 6' howitzers. "Here the machine could well catch the finer sounds of the "singing," the "whine," and the "scream" of the shells," wrote Gaisberg of the experience, "as well as the terrific reports when they left the guns."
One of the key historical events in my novel is the Bonus Army March of 1932, when over 20,000 veterans camped (almost literally) on the doorstep of the White House in order to demand the instant cash payment of the "Bonus" they'd been promised for serving in the widely unpopular First World War. For many of my characters, the sounds recorded by Will Gaisberg in 1918 would have still been ringing in their ears.
"My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (traditional) and "Gods tomorrow" (A.H. Ackley)
In the Bonus Army camps, where my novel begins: "There was always somebody singing and stomping along to ‘My Bonus Lies Over the Ocean" or "God's Tomorrow Will Be Brighter than Today." (Skibsrud, Quartet for the End of Time.)
"America" (Rev. Samuel F. Smith), "Hail Hail the gang's all here" (Theodora Morse) and "The Old Gray Mare" (unknown)
On the sixteenth of July, 1932—the day before Congress was set to adjourn for the summer—Walter Waters, the leader of the Bonus Army, headed a march of 17,000 veterans and their supporters. When Waters was arrested at the White House gates, a riot seemed inevitable until a young nurse—who had travelled down from New York in order to offer her support—grabbed a megaphone and led the crowd in singing "America!" This was followed by a rousing rendition of "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here," the tried and true, "My Bonus Lies Over the Ocean," and for some inexplicable reason a few disjointed rounds of "The Old Gray Mare."
"Roses of Picardy" (lyrics: Frederick Weatherly, music: Haydn Wood)
Two of my main characters are Arthur Sinclair—a World War One veteran and a poor sharecropper from rural Kansas—and his son, Douglas. Arthur joins the Bonus March and takes Douglas along with him, but during the Bonus Army riot of July 29th, 1932, Arthur is arrested and falsely accused of conspiracy. He subsequently disappears. Douglas spends the rest of the novel searching for his father.
One particularly vivid memory Douglas has of Arthur is of Arthur singing this song. Recorded in 1917, it was one of the most popular songs of the First World War.
"Bourgeois Blues" (Lead Belly)
The other two main characters in the novel are a brother and sister duo, Alden and Sutton Kelly—the children of a powerful US judge, turned congressman. In defiance of his father, Alden (the eldest of the two siblings) becomes involved with the Communist Party.
Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly) wrote "Bourgeois Blues," which later became an anthem for the Communist Party, after a trip to Washington D.C. Lead Belly had been invited to the city by Alan Lomax, and after a recording session for the Library of Congress, the two went out with their wives to celebrate. Because they were an interracial party, finding a place to do so was difficult, however. They were repeatedly thrown out of the restaurants and clubs they tried. "Home of the brave, land of the free, I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie," Lead Belly sings.
"There's a Long Long Trail a Winding" (lyrics: Stoddard King, music: Alonzo "Zo" Elliott)
Even after the Bonus riot of 1932, when tens of thousands of veterans were forcibly expelled from the Capitol, many veterans continued to return to Washington every spring in order to demand their Bonus. When FDR came into power in early 1933, he set up camps for the veterans outside the city and encouraged them to give up on the Bonus – and sign up for WPA projects instead. Douglas Sinclair and his friend, "the bandit," find themselves in one of FDR's camps on a day when Eleanor Roosevelt has come for a visit. She "led them in singing ‘There's a Long, Long, Trail a-Winding," and sure enough all of them, the bandit included, sang along. It made the bandit sick to think of it later—to recall how all those men had waggled their heads and said, Why, yes, ma'am, when the President's wife had asked if they were all just as happy as could be—and Douglas always wondered if that was because the bandit had waggled his head right along with them: Douglas had seen it with his own eyes." (Skibsrud, Quartet for the End of Time)
The Seven Tone Scale
Years after the Bonus March, Sutton Kelly struggles to make a career for herself in journalism. When the Second World War arrives, she is eager to be posted overseas, but for years she is denied—offered the flimsy excuse that there are no "women's facilities" at the front. While she remain in New York, her boyfriend, Louis, is sent to London to cover the Blitz. There, he falls in with the esotericist P.D. Ouspensky and writes rapturously to Sutton of his experiences. Ultimately, Louis's connection with Ouspensky and his followers ends their relationship.
In Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous" he describes the seven-tone scale as the formula of a cosmic law, "the law of octaves." This law explains, as Ouspensky writes, "many phenomena in our lives:
- The principle of the deviation of forces.
- The fact that everything in the world is moving and changing.
"The consistent development of an octave is based on what looks like an accident. If octaves are going parallel to a given octave and intersect its ‘interval,' they can ‘fill up' the ‘interval.' This ‘additional shock' must correspond in force and character to the interval it is filling." (Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous)
"Love and Kisses" (Paul Whiteman) and "Take the A-Train" (Duke Ellington)
Sutton is finally sent overseas—first to the South Pacific, then to Italy, and finally to Berlin just as it is being liberated by the Russians.
"When they returned to the command post there was a party in full swing, though it was barely noon. Once again, they were served cheese and fish on fine dark bread, and the vodka flowed. They danced, the guards-major and his handpicked staff of bereaved officers swinging Frieda and Sutton effortlessly around the room. ‘Love and Kisses' by Paul Whiteman played. Then Duke Ellington's ‘Take the "A" train.'" (Skibsrud, Quartet for the End of Time)
Saint-Saëns's "The Swan" from The Carnival of Animals, Bach's suites for solo cello, and Schubert's Ave Maria
Alden Kelly becomes so badly entangled with the Communist Party and their "underground" affairs that he ends up fleeing the country. He ends up in Paris where, during the Second World War, he learns the extraordinary story of Olivier Messiaen's creation of the Quartet for the End of Time.
It was thanks to a friendly German guard, Brüll, that Messiaen and his friends were able to acquire the instruments they needed to perform the quartet. When the cellist, Etienne Pasquier, returned from town one day with a cello purchased by Brüll: "a chair was dragged out of the mess hall and placed in the middle of the exercise yard, where Pasquier was invited to play. He played for nearly an hour: Saint-Saëns's "The Swan" from The Carnival of Animals, Bach's suites for solo cello, and Schubert's Ave Maria." (Skibsrud, Quartet for the End of Time)
Benny Goodman's "Oomph Fa Fa" (recorded 1944)
In the hours immediately following the liberation of Paris in 1944, Alden finds himself in a bar listening to a blind French soldier recount the story of how, during his first hours of blindness, he had heard that Benny Goodman was dead:
"Of course, later, the blind man said, they would learn that Benny Goodman was alive and well, living in New York. His death had been only a rumor—its source unknown. He should have been suspicious, of course. It was not uncommon for such rumors to spread, and indeed, it would have been impossible to count the number of celebrities who had died and been resurrected again during the war. It was almost as though the rumors generated themselves for the sake of the comfort and relief of learning, eventually, that Benny Goodman, or Ingrid Bergman, or Bing Crosby, or Vera Lynn, were indeed alive and well—untouched by war." (Skibsrud, Quartet for the End of Time)
With Benny Goodman's "Oomph Fa Fa," we arrive back at our starting place: a wordless exploration of time, rhythm, breath.
Johanna Skibsrud and Quartet for the End of Time links:
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