June 17, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Brian Hall's novel The Stone Loves the World is a fascinating multi-generational tale of art, science, FAMILY, AND LONELINESS.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"[A] strikingly original take on science, uncertainty, and the longing for connection to others and to the world . . . Hall takes a risk with sprawling, dense passages, and pulls it off by majestically drawing together the various threads of this consistently moving and entirely unconventional narrative. It’s a stellar achievement."
My most recent novel, The Stone Loves the World, is based partly on my childhood and family, in which music played a large part. Both of my parents listened only to classical music. My mother started at Scarlatti and stopped at Brahms, whereas my father was open to the whole range, from Gregorian chant to György Ligeti. While growing up, I took piano and bassoon lessons; my sister took voice. My rebellious older brother tried clarinet for a while, but gave it up, just short of breaking the instrument across his knee. My father, restless in his lifelong career as a geophysicist, hoped that I would become a professional bassoonist, but was good about hiding his disappointment when I majored in English instead. I still play the piano, and make butter and egg money accompanying cellists at a Suzuki school. I can’t listen to music while I write—I would end up listening to the music and not writing—but one of the pleasures of working on my novel was to return to my family’s musical favorites in the name of research.
Cavatina from Beethoven String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Opus 130
In later years, when he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and depression, my father listened over and over to the late Beethoven string quartets. He owned nine complete recordings of them on LP. These astonishing and innovative masterpieces were composed while Beethoven himself was ill and depressed, and many people have heard in them, as my father did, a consolatory message about struggling toward a place of peace in the face of pain, disappointment, and approaching death. Near the center of my novel is a 40-page chapter following the thoughts of Vernon, the character based on my father, as he listens to all six of Beethoven’s late quartets. If I had to single out one movement from one quartet to mention here, I’d choose the Cavatina from Opus 130, because it ties into another subject of the novel, astronomy. The Cavatina is the last piece on the Golden Record that was affixed by NASA to both Voyager 1 and 2, so that aliens would listen to it and know. . . what? Well, maybe that we humans are often depressed and disappointed and fear our mortality, but write beautiful music anyway. The Cavatina is now four times as far away as Pluto, in interstellar space, traveling away from us at around 35,000 mph.
Francis Poulenc, Flute Sonata 1st movement
Like Mark, the main character in my novel, I was much too shy to speak to girls when I was a teenager. Additionally, a lot of my ardent feelings were both channeled into and called up by music. Thus I tended to fall in love from a distance with girls who played music that I liked. The happiest times of my adolescence occurred during the summers, when I attended a music camp in Maine. Each week there was a student recital, and I would sit in the audience and be entranced by this or that accomplished female performer—invariably a better musician than me, and usually one or two years older. They never knew me, but I vividly remember some of them today, always associated with the piece they played—which makes sense, since I generally didn’t know anything else about them. Rachel (last name withheld) will stand in for all of them: she played the Poulenc Flute Sonata.
Bach, The Goldberg Variations, Aria and Variation 7 (Glenn Gould, 1981 recording)
My piano playing is at the level of a middling amateur. I can play some of the Goldberg Variations, while others are too difficult. My car is old enough to have a CD player in it, and when I drive long distances I often bring along both the 1955 and the 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould. (Insert passionate argument here about which is better—or maybe let’s not.) I like the metronomic interrelatedness of the variations in the 1981 recording, and the Gouldian obsessiveness that went into its construction. In the novel, Mark, being a better pianist than me, can play all the variations. He listens to Fox News late in the evening to try to understand the radicalization of the American Right, then plays piano for an hour to calm himself down. The Aria would be great for that. And then, if he wants to replace his allayed anxiety with something cheerful and buoyant, there’s Variation 7. I like to imagine Mark playing both of these, because they’re easy enough that I can play them, too.
Charles Ives, Psalm 150
My father was fascinated by Ives, and so is Vernon, the character based on him. For one, I think my father was attracted to Ives’s nearly complete obscurity as a composer during his lifetime, which paralleled my father’s hermetic life as a listener. (His love of music had no connection with his professional life, and he had no social life. He always listened to music with headphones on, so even we in the family didn’t know which piece or composer he was immersed in at any given moment.) Another reason might be that Ives’s music often has a Rube-Goldberg-machine quality, which appealed to my father as an inveterate tinkerer of appliances and scientific instruments. As a physicist, my father often wanted to know how music worked—how did this or that key change effect this or that emotional response? This is usually an unanswerable question, but with Ives, not always. Psalm 150 is a good example of how Ives sometimes wrote music following quasi-mechanical rules, to create specific effects. About the singing at religious revival meetings of his youth, Ives once wrote, “the fervor of the feeling would at times . . . throw the key higher, sometimes a whole tone up.” His setting of Psalm 150 is meant to reflect that: written for two choruses, one holds the key, while the second keeps wandering chromatically off of it. Listening to it does in fact create an impression of amateur enthusiasm and excitability.
Méditation from Thaïs; “My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By”; title theme to Star Trek: First Contact
All my life I’ve felt a particular thrill of emotion when a melody dips below the tonic (the home note of a key) to linger on the 6th of the scale. It feels poignant to me, trembling, transcendental. When I mention this to other people, they usually look blank. However, I’ve found one online source (Gravity Sound Studio), that characterizes the major sixth interval as giving the listener a feeling of “childlike joy and innocence” and “a pleasurable longing.” In the novel, I assign this longing to Vernon, and have him list the three examples above as illustrations. In all three, the moment occurs on the first beat of the fourth measure of the melody (hmm . . . that’s kind of interesting): the easiest one to pick out, without looking at a score, is in “My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By,” where it coincides with the first syllable of the word “stranger.” Of course, this is exactly the tinkerer’s sort of thing my father obsessed about, even though this particular fixation is mine. I am mostly satisfied simply to accept the mystery that the major sixth arouses feelings of longing in humans; my father would have been tormented by the hopeless next question: why does it do this?
Beethoven Opus 133, Grosse Fuge
Okay, I had to put this in. Beethoven originally intended this huge, gnarly, difficult, modern- sounding fugue as the final movement of his Opus 130 string quartet. Pretty much no one at the time could play it, and no one understood it, and his friends urged him to detach it from the quartet and compose a sunnier, more conventional (i.e., less batshit) movement to replace it. Usually Beethoven scorned this sort of advice, but for some reason, this time, he accepted it. The movement he substituted has always sounded to me like a sly parody of a “cheerful” final movement—winky and tinkly, just this side of a brittle hysteria. Whereas the Grosse Fuge (published separately as Opus 133) is awesome. Literally. My father listened to it dozens of times over the years, different recordings and performers, always claiming that he didn’t “understand” it, always giving it another listen. In memory of my father, I’ve handed his fictional counterpart, Vernon, a theory as to what Beethoven might have been up to. I would give an awful lot to be able to sit with my father again and float this theory by him, and hear his thoughts.
“Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones
There’s no reference to this song in the novel, but there are plenty of references to Mark’s cluelessness about popular culture, which is based on my own. The only member of our family who listened to non-classical music was my brother (the guy who nearly broke his clarinet in half). I was too shy to go to parties, and when I hung out with my nerdy friends, we didn’t listen to music. So I only knew the popular songs that my brother happened to be enthusiastic about:
Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida,” The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” a few others. In the summer of 1980, when I was nearly twenty-one years old, I worked as a bus driver for an “enrichment camp” for wealthy high school kids. One day, one of the kids was playing a song on his boombox, and I listened to it for a minute, then asked him what it was. He chuckled at my joke, then gradually realized I wasn’t kidding. I’ll never forget the look of almost frightened stupefaction that came over his face. The song was “Satisfaction.”
Brian Hall is the author of the novels The Dreamers, The Saskiad, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company and Fall of Frost, in addition to three works of nonfiction, including The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia and Madeleine's World. His journalism has appeared in publications such as Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Ithaca, New York.