(From Beyond Willow Bend, July 9, 2013)
Dr. Harrison Solow is a writer with a rare gift.
One has only to read her story, The Postmaster’s Song, or her Pushcart Prize-winning essay, Bendithion, to recognize it. These works do not simply represent the magnificent sounds of the Welsh tenor, Timothy Evans, that inspired them: they are infused with the sounds themselves. They are musical pieces.
Recently, I asked Dr. Solow a number of questions about The Postmaster’s Song and Bendithion, as well as other related questions. Her answers were both delightful and revelatory.
And so, it is my pleasure and privilege to share them with you this week in Music and Prose.
BF: I couldn’t help but be struck by the feeling that you are exquisitely sensitive to sound, and not just because of your response to Timothy Evans’s voice, and the need to write about it. It’s the inflection in your dialogue, the rhythm and lyricism in your prose. I wonder when you realized you had an ear for music, or when your family realized it and nurtured it in you (if, in fact, they did).
HS: Thank you, Barbara. Kind of you to say. There was a moment of revelation, so to speak, but since this realization, as innocuous as it was, came after the influence of my family. I’ll address the family first:
I grew up in a highly catholic and Catholic extended family – that is, both wildly diverse and belonging (if belonging means adherence to tradition and form and not strictly content) to the Roman Catholic Church. Regarding the catholic aspect, my very large extended family was comprised of Americans of European, Asian, Pacific Island and African descent – as well as Asians, Pacific Islanders and Europeans from many nations. And while both my parents were European-American, most of their numerous brothers and sisters married people who came from (or whose parents came from) other lands, as had some of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters. Each one had a distinct voice – a timbre, a rhythm, a pace, a pitch – a song to sing, a story to tell. Because my parents were born and raised in the same small town in Hawaii where I spent the first few years of my life, each side of my family knew the other. When we all got together, and we did often, the resultant harmony (and sometimes disharmony!) was something to behold. I grew up hearing the music of these voices.
In the Islands, when I was very young, the main entertainment for everyone in the community was visiting. And the main component of visiting was conversation. This was never called conversation, or chatting or a having a talk. It was called, in the insular, intercultural vernacular of the time, “talk story.”
“Talk story” is a pidgin phrase that, to me, is many layered and highly evocative. This is exactly what people did – they both talked out their stories and talked a story into being – they shared anecdotes, events, tales, adventures, daily activities, and sometimes recounted older, grander, traditional stories with each other – some told the iconic stories of the tribe, and others told the stories of cultures from which they came – and those stories, woven together, became the backdrop of my later experience. The uncles who married my aunties brought tales from backgrounds in Scotland, Italy, Spain and the American Heartland. The aunties who married my uncles brought traditions from Japan, Portugal, China, Scandinavia and from their own multicultural families of origin in the Islands. A mini United Nations, they would talk for hours, taking great pleasure in the repetition of oft-told tales.
They didn’t analyse these stories; they didn’t interpret them. They recreated their life in oral tales and let listeners make of them what they would. And sometimes, because any number of people sitting on the porch or in the living room or around the table might have been involved in the same story, they brought a rainbow of perspectives to a single incident – each could add his or her voice to the narration and it became a crafted, collective tale – it took its place in the history of the family and the small community.
These were the voices that surrounded me in very early childhood. And later, when most of the family moved to California where I grew up, this tradition was maintained: each week, the standard mainland English of the weekday melted into the warmth of Island speech at the weekend gathering at the grandparents house, when once again, family and close friends would talk story – giving the voice of the Islands to their history and their current experience. Other factors contributed to the music of these voices: many of my relatives spoke other languages and those multilingual nuances were present. One of my grandmothers spoke five languages. My paternal grandfather played three or four instruments and – something I don’t actually remember, but I was told – he had a beautiful singing voice.
But my father was the best storyteller of all. He had a gift for mimicry, timing, dialogue and perfect recall. He also had the material – a huge repertoire, gleaned from a habit of risk-taking and a kind of physical fearlessness (as did the company he kept) that constantly put him in almost unbelievable but well documented situations that would of course eventuate in highly entertaining stories. Everyone loved his stories. My friends (even in high school, when it is customary for teens to be interested in other pursuits) used to love to come to my house to listen to him recount exploits and adventures from his youth – and not a few from his current life.
What I am able to recall from my own memory and not from family stories about my early life, mostly derives from experience beginning after we had moved from that tiny town in Hawaii to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was able to participate in the storytelling, the arguments, the music, the great rolling laughter, and the multi ethnic meals that were so much a part of our lives…
Added to that colourful tapestry is the mesmerizing, beautiful, reverberant solemnity of the Latin Mass, which was a huge influence on me from infancy onward –the beauty of the ancient language punctuated with the oratorical English prowess of urban priests – as well as the great grand music of the Catholic Church, encompassing as it did the music of some of the world’s greatest composers – Bach, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, Schutz, Mozart, Haydn… and the liturgical year with its seasonal rituals and breathtaking beauty.
This is what I was born into. This is what I grew up with. So, no, I don’t think my family nurtured an ear for music or language consciously – they just transmitted it easily, naturally as parents and relatives do. I absorbed it all unconsciously. The Church did the rest.
As for your first question, “when did you realize you had an ear for music” – I remember a precise moment – at about age 14, when I read e.e. cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty howtown” – and was forcibly struck by the sound of words – and by the cadence of them – and I began to realize the power of the word-song to transmit meaning by means other than definition.
I am absolutely positive that I knew this before that moment – I read prolifically, I had linguistically gifted teachers who would not use common language like, “You’ll be in trouble if …” but instead would employ the lyrical rhetoric of their literary backgrounds: “Woe betide you if…” and who would use words like munificence and benison and culpability easily and freely to 6 year olds. My teachers were proficient in Gregorian chant, Latin, Greek, ancient literatures and majestic texts. This was evident in their speech, thought and demeanor – and their influence was profound – but for some reason, I remember this one e.e. cummings epiphany with startling clarity, when “up so floating many bells down” rang out inside me – and I think I made an unconscious commitment to cadence in that moment.
It is probable that, for me, the bond between music and the literature I grew up on is cadence. I hate to be repetitive, and I have said this in other interviews but I don’t know how to express it any more clearly than I did in my PhD dissertation:
“My literary life began as did that of the Western World – with oral stories and fables, and then moved on to tales of daily life and very quickly thereafter to Lives of the Saints and the rigours of the Baltimore Catechism, all of which (absorbed as it was, at a very young age) inculcated a deep affinity with imaginary heavens and hells and the rich portent with which earthly life is endowed: Biblical parables, medieval pedagogy, Arthurian quests, Bunyanesque allegory, Chaucerian pilgrimages and Apologias of all kinds. This literature comes naturally to me. Or rather, as it was clearly imposed on me, it was not a resisted imposition and comes naturally to me now.”
The sounds of the literatures above are the sounds of music. On the other hand, you asked me about the connection between my writing and music. I hadn’t thought about it, except in connection to my writing about Timothy Evans, until last year when I was invited to write a guest blog on the subject of writing about music and I had a surprising revelation that goes back to your original question about inflection, rhythm and lyricism – and that is this: I actually think in musical terms.
Some years ago, I edited (and did a little rewriting for) a very unusual and complex book on Vermeer for the University of California Press. It was a beautiful book and there wasn’t much to correct – just some additions to be made. Soon after, I had occasion to give a paper on Aesthetics at the Men’s Faculty Club for an iconic private academic club of which I was, at the time, one of two female members. During this address, when describing the author’s ability not to endlessly fiddle with his prose and to let it speak to the reader via its own aesthetic, I said this:
“And someone has had the great good sense to leave this book alone. Or if altered, respectfully tuned to perfect pitch by an invisible hand, so that each word has the unmistakable ring of authenticity. The reader perceives nothing enharmonic. A true book and a beautiful one. But although there is no false note, neither is the entire composition a universal symphony. There is vision here — intensely personal, internally arranged.”
There are seven musical references in this short paragraph! That surprised me. Looking over some of my work in preparation for this interview, I found similar parallels, when I’ve employed musical terms as literary ones – like this:
“My work, therefore, is paraspherical. It both incorporates and extends beyond the traditional imperatives of single sphere or single-genre material in an effort to narrow the chasm between art and experience so that those who can may leap from one world to another. There is a difference between describing a song and singing it. This [book] is the singing.”
BF: Since the series is about the relationship between music and prose, I think readers would find it interesting to hear a bit about your early musical experiences and background, if music was a part of your childhood, if anyone in your family was musical. I noted in your blog post on the Red Room, titled “Academic Politics” that you sang in choirs. Has singing always been a part of your life? Do you play any musical instruments? Did you study any formally?
HS: My first instinct was to say that I really had very little musical experience, but then when I started to examine my background, this is what arose:
My mother had a very pretty voice – and she sang throughout the day. I remember that very clearly. She sang all kinds of songs. Her mother had sung WWI songs and she learned them when she was little and she used to sing them sometimes and I learned them too. Her own experience as a schoolgirl included the Second World War and the music of that era. And of course the music of subsequent eras. Her singing was a source of deep pleasure for me as a child, and often a great comfort as I played in another room, both alone and not.
I also played the violin – starting lessons at about age 7. I had learned the accordion earlier when I was younger but when it became time for me to graduate to a more sophisticated instrument, I couldn’t hold or carry it – I was too little. In any case, I don’t remember who chose the accordion for me, but when I had a choice, I chose to study violin. Every week (a highly anticipated ritual for me), my mother would take me downtown on the bus to Sherman Clay for lessons or recitals. I also had private lessons as well as group lessons at school. I played in the school orchestra, and I sang in the children’s choir at my parish. We also had music classes as part of our curriculum.
In secondary school, I learned guitar (eventually playing in a group) and I was an alto in our Glee Club Choir, which performed in various venues throughout the years.
When I left school (graduated) and went into the convent, my life was infused with music. Or rather, to quote an over-quoted fictional character, it was a force that surrounded us and penetrated us. It bound our little galaxy together.
What I mean by this is that it became a language for all of us. We lived our lives largely in silence. We spoke only when academically necessary during university classes, (which began at 9 after we rose at 5, participated in the recitation of the Divine Office, Meditation, Mass, breakfast, morning post [assigned chores] ) and ended at noon. During breakfast and lunch, someone stood at the lectern in the refectory and read to us while we ate in silence. Only during our convent class in the early afternoon were we allowed to speak(again no chats – just what was necessary for class discussion), and at two recreation periods a day, and during dinner. Also on special holidays, silence was suspended for the day.
But throughout the day, there was music. We sang or chanted the Hours (The Divine Office) several times a day, we sang informally during recreation, we sang at Mass, some of us sang in a special choir, called Schola – for musically complex High Masses and other celebrations and for performance. This entailed many, many hours of practice every week. And some of us studied music formally, voice included.
The result of all this was almost mystical. Unconsciously, naturally, gradually, we developed a way of communicating through music. I’m not sure I can explain this adequately, but what happened was this: we began to acquire an ability to perceive how someone was feeling or, in a general way, what she wanted to convey, by nuances in the way she sang. These communiqués were comprised of almost inaudible variations in tone, intensity, modulation, etc. I suppose it was just a matter of frequency and vibration, as is speech, but music took on extraordinary communicative properties. After we had all lived together for a while, we began to be able to communicate via both silence and music. Silence has endless qualities, but because this interview is about music, I’ll just give an example of a musical communication:
Often when we were out on a walk, or tending the gardens, (or even working at a task if it were necessary to practice a certain piece) one of us would begin to sing a few bars from a composition. Others would join in, and – I know this is very odd – no matter how many of us there were, we would depart from the set piece and begin to sing entirely different notes and melodies and harmonies and descants – creating entirely new pieces, in complete conjunction with one another, without a single flawed note. I know that musicians have jamming sessions in which something similar happens, but the difference here is that not all of us were musicians, and during these extraordinary experiences, we seemed to be speaking a new language and exchanging information. I know how implausible that can sound to some of your readers, but it happened – and happened frequently. It bound us together. The test of this was, that if someone else came into the room it would falter and break apart cacophonously, or if there were a visitor in our midst, it would simply be rendered inert.
That was my early life in music.
It pretty much dissipated within a year or so after leaving the convent. And until I went to Wales, decades later, it did not revive. The relationship among Wales, music and me is bound up in the literature I was teaching, studying (Welsh and English) and writing – this is all chronicled in Bendithion and The Postmaster’s Song, but what neither of these tales tells is that I began singing again when I went to Wales. I sang in two Choirs, one Welsh and one English. And I became deeply involved in the Eisteddfod – the ancient Welsh-language series of competitive festivals that celebrate poetry, literature, and music throughout the year, culminating in the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru – the National Eisteddfod of Wales. As an example, here is a link to a performance of a boy who is famous in Wales, an Eisteddfod icon, but unknown elsewhere – I met him and followed his career from the time he was a little boy. He’s about 14 here.
BF: Regarding the writing itself, since yours is so musical, would you like to share a bit about process? How conscious are you are of the musical elements of your writing? During composition? During revision? Do you ever read your work aloud as you revise? If so, why?
HS: I’m honestly not aware of process, largely because I rarely write anything as a process. What I mean is that the process – the composition – germinates and develops in my head and it’s difficult to differentiate that from my usual thinking, which is fairly fanciful at times. Although I have trained myself – and been trained by others when young, to pay attention to what I see before me, it rarely has my full attention. What I am really paying attention to is not what is there – but what appears not to be. When I actually write these thoughts down, they are in almost final form and the writing takes very little time.
For example: Six months before my PhD dissertation was due, when I had a manuscript of about 400 pages, I threw it away. This is because I had attempted to do what is recommended by every academic with whom I’ve spoken and every piece of advice on the subject I’ve ever read – make notes, organize chapters, write for a certain number of hours or write a certain number of words or pages a day, methodically, steadily. But that isn’t the way I work and I shouldn’t have attempted this process. I adhered to it for about a year or so and it did produce copious material, but what I ended up with was exactly what that process indicates: an organized, methodical and, to me, a highly pedestrian, boring piece of work.
So I destroyed it – all physical copies were shredded and all digital copies deleted. My supervisor nearly passed out. But I honestly wasn’t worried. I had the information and the story in my head – and notes in my journals. And for the next two months, I didn’t write anything at all. I just thought and dreamed and remembered and ruminated. Then 16 weeks before it was due, I started to write this 400-page tome. When it was finished, I asked a fellow academic, not in my field, to look it over editorially and a former student to proofread my footnotes and bibliography to make sure that all my formatting was correct. While they were doing that, I re-read some of my children’s books – a little literary vacation – and then I went over the whole thing the week that it was due, made a few minor changes and handed it in a day before the due date.
Similarly, my first book was written in 6 weeks. I hadn’t written anything down for two years and my publisher was panicking. But again, this is just the way I work. The book became one of the two best selling publications in the press’s history and the thesis was honoured with a rare distinction in British universities “Accepted as Submitted: No Changes Required”. I was awarded the PhD on the day of the Viva (oral examinations) by the external examiners. So, I’ve concluded that I do best with my own methodology.
Consequently, no, I’m not really conscious of any elements of my writing, because I feel that I’m recording something that has already been written – not actually writing it. I rarely revise beyond proofreading or structural modifications because the entire work seems to be finished before I write it down. I don’t read it aloud to myself, though I “think it aloud” to myself, which is a different thing from thinking it or thinking about it. It’s similar to hearing it – like remembering a song without singing it aloud.
But sometimes, I read the portions of my work that I have transcribed from my mind onto paper to that date – at conferences or university colloquia or seminars – and occasionally at workshops that I’m conducting. I do, of course, give readings of my work after publication.
BF: Your description of Timothy Evans’s voice as “…flawless, haunting, and irrefutably magical” made me muse about the human voice itself. I imagine that scientific studies have been done on human voices—their complex mix of waveforms, timbres, and overtones, unique to each individual, and how the brain interprets them. But I’ve often wondered if our response to an exquisite voice like Evans’s is more complicated and elemental. As an organic instrument, the only purely organic instrument there is, the voice is capable of expressing what no other instrument can: the soul of the musician. You allude to as much when you say of the voice, “It has always come from hunger.” Can you talk more about this? Do you feel that a similar statement can be made about writing?
HS: I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about the specific origins of hunger in Timothy’s case. But I will say that as accurate as it is to say that artists give of themselves in the performance of their art (and often what they give goes to their art and not simply to the audience, but that is another discussion) it is as accurate to say that an artist is nourished by and in the performance of his art. By performance, I don’t mean public performance – but rather the undertaking, the enactment, the perfecting of the art.
Some writers say, at times rather dramatically, that they have to write – they have no choice. I don’t hear this from those friends of mine who are very famous writers, though perhaps I haven’t been listening – but I do hear it from others. But whether or not that is the case for others, it isn’t the case with Timothy and it isn’t the case with me. I have a hundred books in my head and I’m not troubled that they all haven’t been or won’t be written. Timothy has a thousand songs in his heart and he is equally untroubled. We both feel, and I once had a beautiful friend who felt the same, that the real art is not recording the visible but perceiving the invisible. It’s a hard thing to say because it sounds a little pompous, but as this is my creed, I have no other answer. Singing and writing – and other arts – are simply manifestations of a larger mandate – one much more difficult to nurture and to fulfill.
My elder son, who is a prominent designer, said to me the other day when we were talking about the way each of us sees the world, “You look at the world as a writer” and I was surprised by the rapidity with which I answered him, “No, no – not at all. I look at the world as a pilgrim and then, sometimes, I write about it.” I guess this means that I am a pilgrim-scribe. As I explained in the introduction to The Bendithion Chronicles, I am dedicated to, and on a quest for, the liminal, the invisible and the holy, which is best explained by this excerpt:
“And if illuminating this ephemeral and largely invisible panorama seems like an inconsequential or ignoble task, it might be well to consider this: millions of people dedicate their lives to making the invisible visible: archaeologists, astronomers, quantum/particle physicists, artists, priests, nano-technologists, physicians, nuns, microbiologists, filmmakers, rabbis, oceanographers, astronauts, psychiatrists and writers (and, depending on viewpoint, some people in other professions) – all in pursuit of truth, all on a pilgrimage to somewhere they haven’t been before. I just happen to be on the same pilgrimage.”
The hunger, the quest each of us keeps in his/her heart for our own purpose, then, is best fulfilled for some of us by the pursuit and not the chronicling of it – or the singing of it. If you gave Timothy an ultimatum either to live the life he leads in Wales with his animals, his emerald fields, his language, his culture, his friends – or his singing career, he would unhesitatingly choose the former. If I had a similar ultimatum, I’d do the same. Ironically, of course, that’s something to write about.
BF: I found myself nodding when I read: “…he is offering transport to another world.” One of the observations made about great art of any kind is that it transports. In Evans’s case, the voice and music are intricately bound. I’d really enjoy hearing your thoughts on this.
HS: Considering the fact that Timothy himself is transported when he sings, it isn’t surprising that his listeners are. We talked about this several times – and each time, he insists that he isn’t actually there when he sings. He says he “goes away” and that it is a little scary.
He sees himself as a conduit through which music flows in the same way that I see myself as a conduit through which words flow. If that means sometimes that others travel through us to other places, then that is a lovely thing. And of course I’m not talking about every instance of singing or writing. I write plenty of things that fall outside this realm. I can’t answer for Timothy, but I’ve seen and heard him sing in different states of being – some of which have nothing to do with the sheer magic that sometimes happens.
And so much depends on who’s listening, reading, or viewing and how synchronous they are with your song or book or any form of art. I move in a very small circle, but that circle moves through a great universe.
BF: Can you tell us about some of your other writing, that perhaps doesn’t fall into this category?
HS: Yes – most of my professional writing, some of my nonfiction, all of my ghosted books (and some of my speeches) for celebrities, some (though not by any means all) of my academic writing, various articles. The kind of life I’ve led had enabled me to be far more versatile than I would have been without the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, so I write in widely diverse genres and styles.
Felicity & Barbara Pym, my last published book (there’s another on the way) doesn’t fall into the kind of literature that we have been talking about, though it has its moments – but Mater Amabilis which centres around the invisible, does. Appropriateness to purpose is always the goal.
The brief bio on academia.edu would probably answer your question best. It can be found here:
BF: Thank you, Harrison. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with us today?
Only a thank you to you, Barbara, for the invitation and for the fascinating questions. I’ve learned something in trying to answer them. And thanks to your readers for their interest in reading them.
About Harrison Solow:
American writer Harrison Solow has been honored with multiple awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably winning a Pushcart Prize for Literature in 2008. Dr. Solow is one of the two best-selling University of California Press authors of all time (at time of publication), a Notable Alumna of Mills College where she earned an MFA, and holds the rare distinction of a British PhD in English (Letters) with a critical and creative dissertation “Accepted as Submitted: No Changes” from Trinity Saint David, 2011.
She lectures in English and American Literature, Creative, Nonfiction and Cross Genre Writing, Specific Authors, Science Fiction and American Culture, Professional Writing, Philosophy and Theology at a number of universities, colleges, arts and cultural institutions in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. A former faculty member at UC Berkeley, she accepted a lectureship at the University of Wales in 2004 and was appointed Writer in Residence in 2008. She returned to America in 2009. A professional writer and consultant of rare experience, her work spans Hollywood, Academia, Business, Law and Literature.
Dr. Solow is a strong proponent of the traditional Liberal Arts, the Fine Arts and the Utilitarian Arts as separate and equally respectable entities, an advocate for Wales and a patron of literary endeavours. She speaks several varieties of English, Intermediate Welsh and rusty French.
She is married to Herbert F. Solow, the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios in Hollywood and has two sons.