Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do All Musicians Play to Keep the Void Away?

I specifically denied myself the pleasure of listening to the audio file of “The Music of Erich Zann” posted on our main page for class this week. I didn’t want to be tainted by hearing the interpretation of the “weirdness of his music” by someone else.

As usual this story is Lovecraft working his mojo on the reader by taking a perfectly normal setting and twisting it to the point where we recognize it but are now uneasy to have it described into our brains via the written word.

This may be one of the best settings and mood pieces Lovecraft ever wrote. It is a horror tale to be sure (after losing vampires and werewolves to other genres I cling fiercely to all our darlings now), but until the “big reveal” of Zann somehow trying to fiddle away eternity this story had elements of fantasy, fairy tale, and even romance.

This is not a knock, this is a huge strength. The fourth paragraph is really what did it for me:

“I have never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’ Auseil. It was almost a cliff, closed to all vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall. Its paving was irregular, sometimes stone slabs, sometimes cobblestones, and sometimes bare earth with struggling greenish-grey vegetation. The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward, and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch; and certainly they kept most of the light from the ground below. There were a few overhead bridges from house to house across the street.”

That paragraph immediately brought a few vivid images to mind for me. First, Dr. Seuss and his illustrations of buildings that just shouldn’t be. The odd angles, the non-square corners, and everything just kind of blending together really popped. The second was Tim Burton and his production crew. I thought: what would Burton do with this paragraph? That was the fantasy/fairy tale take.

But Lovecraft being Lovecraft makes sure to sprinkle in the dark. Details such as “almost a cliff” (usually dangerous things those) and “struggling greenish-grey vegetation” (not attractive, kind of ominous) and “certainly they kept most of the light from the ground below” (so then it’s dark in and around these crazy houses) keep the reader off balance and worried. Interested yes, but worried to be sure. Plus, even with Dr. Seuss bouncing into my thoughts the quasi-rational part of me wondered how safe it could be to be in one of these houses? Are they falling apart? Were they designed like this? Did an earthquake or mudslide leave them like this and people have to live there anyway?

The final ratchet up that made it even better was that the narrator could never find the place again. Was it imagined? Is this narrator nuts and his memory is wrong? That just adds to the mystery and mystique of the setting.

In short, this was for me a very good hook. To be fair I know I’m not going to get a lot of satisfying characters or character development from Lovecraft so when he immerses me in his signature ability (setting) so well I truly enjoy his stories.

The other part of this story that absolutely sweeps the reader along is the reference to the music Erich Zann plays. Lovecraft makes his story timeless by never describing the music in specific terms. The narrator is “haunted by the weirdness.” He “often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread.” Never does Lovecraft say Zann’s playing sounds like a dying swan or a locomotive hissing or anything definable. He leaves the specific sounds up to the reader’s ear. Some will hear shrill orchestral violin solos. Others will hear synthesized keyboard-like tones that might be heard in a planetarium from hell.

The key is that each reader hears something different, and that is why I didn’t listen to the audio file on the class home page. I have my own idea of what Zann’s playing sounded like. After I finish this posting I will listen and see if they got it right or wrong.

The further beauty of using musical notes to ratchet up tension and fear is that it is a non-visual sensory experience for the reader. So much of what we read is described to satisfy the eyes. Zann’s music doesn’t satisfy at all, and it hits the reader in the ears, not the eyes. It might even go deeper for actual musicians who have studied notes and played scales. For those readers this story might evoke the memories of sore fingers, frazzled minds and endless hours trying to get a song just right. Lucky for those readers they weren’t playing to keep existence at bay.

The final reveal that steals Zann from this world and that the narrator flees from never to find that wonderfully strange street is less terrifying and more a question. Who was Zann? Why did this expanse want him? Was the narrator in the right place at the right time or is there something special that saved him from the void? This is one of the stories of Lovecraft that could easily be fleshed out into a larger more expansive work, and imagine how the music would sound for that?

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