Not surprisingly, the idea for my novel, The Music Room came to me at a concert on a winter’s night eight years ago. Watching the young solo violinist rip majestically through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides symphony, my thoughts roamed away from the stage. I pondered the tremendous pressures on her to convey the hours, days, perhaps years of rehearsal into a thirty minute moment of performance perfection. Then the applause. The bow. Finito. That moment, once passed, is gone— and until the advent of recorded sound, some 125 years ago—gone forever. Performance is finite. Rehearsal goes on forever.
Is the musician’s incessant rehearsing akin to the writer’s eking out many drafts? I don’t think so. Writers write and re-write, and though the book itself passes through many hands (agent, editor, copyeditor, production people, publicist,) it emerges often without fanfare or applause. No bow. Sorry. And once published, the writer does not return to rework it. No second chance to right what was wrong, as a musician can with the next performance.
Moreover, for the most part, writers work alone. Music and drama, on the other hand, are collective undertakings. Musicians and composers and actors and dramatists actively require the input of others to bring any given work to fruition. Without the composer’s work, the cellist has nothing to play. Without the band to enrich the song, the songwriter might as well just sing in the shower. For musicians (and for actors and dramatists) each undertaking creates new professional and often personal relationships. In working together artists connect, come to recognize whom to trust. These relationships, in turn often open up into future endeavours, broadening everyone’s horizons.
In The Music Room Gloria’s endless rehearsing involves no one but herself. In this she is more like a writer than a musician. Gloria imagines (or remembers) some joyous moment of performance, applause, public recognition for her talents, even her genius. However, in her dedication to rehearsal, to grooming, perfecting her repertoire, Gloria has lost some crucial connection to the world. She has also lost a central element of musical life. Musicians are not meant to be alone. Even if, and as she achieves perfection, Gloria has atrophied, wizened as a human being.
Gloria Denham seems to me a splendid example of the artist as pathetic character, isolated from anything and anyone who might have given her life richness and savor. Her willful ignorance only underscores her pathos. Her gorgeous music room with its brilliant acoustics ought to have exalted the collective efforts of many musicians, and at one time it did. When that moment passed, it became a sort of cell, Gloria its prisoner in solitary confinement. Ironically, Gloria finally trades that room for the chance to perform, to play in front of an audience of sycophants who are waiting for her to die.
Thematically The Music Room asks: what do the arts extract from people who practice them? What does the artists’ obsession, their single-minded pursuit, oblige from spouses, children, parents, the people who live with or around them? Musicians, composers, painters, actors, writers must, of necessity, carve time from everything else in life to give to their work. There will be costs and losses, just as surely as there will be moments of glory. The costs and losses in this novel are borne by two children, Marcella and Rose-Renee, detritus, in their parents’ nasty divorce, debris in their family’s egotistical pursuit of the arts.
My two sons, both musicians, have taught me a lot about music, about rehearsal and performance. When they were in high school rehearsals were always at our house. As they moved out into the world, I have attended their various gigs and concerts, recitals and recording dates. While the performances are exhilarating, my favourite part of the experience is rehearsal. I like sitting at the back of an unfilled theatre, a sparsely furnished rehearsal room, an empty nightclub, or in the recording booth at the studio, and listening to the start-and-stop, the mis-steps, the sometimes tedious repetition leading to the “Let’s move on” moment. Then they begin the same process on the next part of the program or the piece. I enjoy sound-check just before the show. The guy at the soundboard barks at everyone. The musicians oblige him, but hold themselves in check: every bit of psychic energy must be saved up to walk out in front of the audience. Performance.
In the months just before I went to the Mendelssohn Hebrides concert that inspired The Music Room, I had watched my eldest son Bear conduct an orchestra of some eighty musicians, and watched my youngest, Brendan give his all onstage at a rock venue. After being part of their bright, communal musical life, to return home, to this well-known room to write, seemed suddenly very lonely. It was winter and the days were short and sunless. The Hebrides concert inspired me to create, at least on paper, the noisy lives of children who live with music lilting through their lives. I wrote for a few months, finished a full draft, but then abandoned the book. Over the course of some seven years, I returned to the novel, and then left it again. The form changed, the title changed, but the story always stayed the same.
I intended to dedicate The Music Room to Bear and Brendan McCreary. But now I have a little grand-daughter, fittingly, for a musical family, named Sonatine. So, of course, The Music Room is for her. I expect one day to attend her rehearsals too.
The Music Room is published July 2015 by Buried River Press, an imprint of Robert Hale Ltd.