April 9, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Philip Lopate wrote of the book:
"J. C. Hallman has written his best, funniest, and riskiest book, one that flirts deliciously at the edge of obnoxiousness before darting off into deeper, sager truths. Every writer or would-be writer will find much to relish, wince at and identify with here."
While I was writing B & Me, I discovered many surprising links between my life and Nicholson Baker's work. For example, William James had exerted a pretty heavy influence on Baker and me both. And, weirdly enough, my father once worked, albeit indirectly, for a company involved with the library miniaturization processes that Baker skewered in Double Fold. But I discovered the weirdest coincidence of all when I read Baker's Paris Review interview – Sam Anderson was the reviewer – and learned that Baker had published a short story titled "Playing Trombone" in The Atlantic when he was just twenty-three years old. "I'd exhausted the whole musical side of myself with the trombone story," Baker said.
I reacted weirdly – and dually – to this. First, I flinched with recognition because I knew by then that Baker had studied music composition at the Eastman School of Music (notably, Ralph Ellison also once studied to be a composer), and I knew that Baker had had a brief career as the fourth chair bassoonist for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, where he grew up. And next I experienced a weird tingle of communion, because once upon a time I had been a trombonist myself; I had played trombone for about the same length of time that Baker played the bassoon.
It got stranger from there. I sought out "Playing Trombone," which took some effort – sadly, it's never been collected in any of Baker's books – and I loved it. It's a quasi-fairy tale about a trombone prodigy whose career moves from promise to purgatory, and there's a pivotal scene when the main character is required to hit a very, very high note at an important moment in a fictional piano concerto, and this resonated for me because I, too, as the principle trombone in a youth symphony, had once been required to hit a very high note at the end of the fourth movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. I had lived the scene that played a crucial role in one of Nicholson Baker's first publications! To give you some idea, here's a performance of Shostakovich No. 5; the important note comes at the 42:51 mark:
Now I said that I flinched when Baker claimed that he had exhausted the musical side of himself with the trombone story, and I didn't fully explain myself. I flinched because it's wrong! Music appears almost everywhere in Baker's career, and while it's true that there isn't much music to be found in The Mezzanine, Baker's debut novel, there's a great sequence in Room Temperature, his sophomore effort, about a French horn player at the Eastman School of Music. This sequence may amount to an even deeper exploration of Baker's musical side than "Playing Trombone."
The narrator of Room Temperature, Mike, tells a long story about an Eastman professor who demanded that Mike learn how to play, on French horn, a certain "Chiarnovsky" étude using only a single breath. "Chiarnovsky" appears to be fictional (though there is a Russian composer named Yury Chernavsky), but I understood the étude to be something along the lines of Flight of the Bumblebee, by another Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. From a literary perspective, this sequence is interesting because when Mike's professor demands that Mike play the piece without breathing, he issues the command by erasing the single comma breath mark that Mike had inserted in the étude to make it playable. How difficult might this be? Well, here's a guy playing Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee on the French horn:
Mike eventually succeeds in playing his étude in a single breath, but the exercise reveals that the academic study of music is largely about facile virtuosity, and one feels encouraged, reading Room Temperature, to transfer Mike's swap of commas in music for commas in books to Baker, who similarly gave up music for literature.
Now, granted, Baker did not write about Shostakovich, and "Chiarnovsky" is not Rimsky-Korsakov, so I've been skirting the edges of Baker here. No more! Rimsky-Korsakov appears by name, alongside yet another Russian composer, Alexander Borodin, in Baker's much more recent House of Holes. House of Holes is a sex farce, a "book of raunch," as the subtitle has it, and it features a whole bunch of unlikely but largely amusing sexual escapades. Rimsky-Korsokov and Borodin appear in a sequence with a woman named Luna, and here are clips of the music (the first movement of Schehereazade and Polovetsian Dances, respectively) that the two composers are said to provocatively finger along Luna's exposed leg:
The scene continues exuberantly from there. "Yes, that is my cock. It is very hard and very famous," says Borodin. "One moment! And now, my cock, too!" follows Rimsky-Korsakov. "It's what happens at the House of Holes," explains a third man, Chuck. They all make Luna come wildly, "her orgasm wave crash[ing] down just as she felt two hot blasts of white Russian semen drizzle against her toes."
"Thank you for the lovely concert of Russian piano music," Luna says.
That's hardly a one-off, as music had played an even more significant role in Baker's earlier sex farce, The Fermata. The Fermata is named for a symbol of musical notation. Or more properly speaking, as the cover of the first edition of The Fermata featured no words at all, the title of the book was the symbol itself:
The Fermata features a man who develops a magical ability to stop time and uses it impose himself, sexually, on strangers. It would seem relevant, then, that a fermata is the symbol a composer places above a note to indicate that it should be sustained for longer than its written value. In the context of Baker's book, this quick tutorial on the fermata seems downright provocative:
When I discovered The Fermata, I immediately thought of Frank Conroy's classic autobiography Stop-Time, which is also named for a symbol of musical notation. Fermatas and stop-times are kinds of musical pauses, the former a sustained note, the latter a silence. The books are similar in other ways too. Stop-Time is an actual autobiography; The Fermata a fictional autobiography. The Fermata is about a guy who can stop time. And Stop-Time ends with Frank Conroy heading off to Haverford College, and where did Nicholson Baker go to school? Haverford College.
Which turns out to not have been an accident, as Baker stipulated in his book about John Updike, U and I. Frank Conroy too had once been musician, a jazz pianist, so both Conroy and Nicholson Baker were writers abandoned musical careers to pursue writing lives at a small college in Philadelphia. And like Room Temperature, The Fermata features yet another story about a music teacher, Professor Sparkling. This sequence contains a bit of characteristically Bakerian prose that proves beyond all doubt that Baker had not abandoned the musical side of himself:
If the piece required her to play a simple A-flat-major triad with her left hand, she would feel in doing so as if the black A-flat and E-flat keys were soft, low, tree-covered hills, smothered by forgotten glaciers, and the C between them a fog-filled valley, over which her poised fingers were parachuting very early in the morning; an ordinary pile of perfect fourths and fifths would slice through her like the stave of a hard-boiled-egg slicer; she could sense the felt-covered hammers thumping gently against the piano wires as gently as the noses of sheep in pens or fish against glass; she felt with extraordinary vividness her right foot making its little jumps on the sustain pedal, hosing off any recent blendings and allowing a new concord to rise up clear from its mud-wrestling past.
From the mid-nineties through the early years of the new millennium, Baker's career veered away from music with books like Double Fold, The Everlasting Story of Nory, A Box of Matches, and Checkpoint. But music came roaring back in The Anthologist, in which Baker made the argument, via proxy narrator Paul Chowder, that poetry that appeared to have a three-beat rhythm was actually similar to music written in 4/4 time, with the fourth beat being a rest. To demonstrate this, Paul sets portions of Alice Cary's "Nobility," Longfellow's "The Day is Done," and Poe's "The Raven," to music – the actual staffs and notes appear in the book – and if you listen close you can hear the silent beats when the poems are read aloud, even without music:
Indeed, if you read Nicholson Baker as I did, mostly in order, you eventually get a sense that not only did Baker never exhaust the musical side of himself, his career tells the story of how he moved away from it, but slowly returned to it. In the early 2000s, Baker began to get interested in pacifism and drone technology – hence, Checkpoint and Human Smoke – and by 2012 he'd become so preoccupied with thinking about the United States' ongoing wars and its policy of routine assassinations that he decided to abandon writing for a while – and compose music instead. This story is told, obliquely, in The Anthologist's sequel, Traveling Sprinkler, in which Paul Chowder retreats to his Maine barn to sing songs to himself, and this is not wholly fictional. All of Baker's protests songs, which he composed and performed himself – including "Jeju Island Song," "Terrormaker," "Whistleblower Song," and "Nine Women Gathering Firewood" – appear on YouTube. I recommend them:
J.C. Hallman and B & Me links:
Brooklyn Rail interview with the author
Interview magazine interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Devil Is a Gentleman
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Hospital for Bad Poets
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for In Utopia
The Millions essays by the author
Willamette Week interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)