Indian Music, Sans Sitar | The Nation


Indian Music, Sans Sitar

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"Tears dim my eyes: earth's child I am again." This line from Goethe's Faust was used by Adorno to define the position of music, because it strongly suggested to him, in the example of the earth claiming Eurydice again, how remoteness must come back into the world. In Philosophy of Modern Music, he wrote, "The gesture of return--not the sensation of expectancy--characterizes the expression of all music, even if it finds itself in a world worthy of death."

About the Author

Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar is the editor of World Bank Literature (Minnesota) and the author of Bombay-London-New York (Routledge)...

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Adorno's sentiment is one that Seth would understand. His book's cover shows Il Padovino's painting of Orpheus Leading Eurydice Out of the Underworld. As it was with Orpheus, it is music that offers the people that populate Seth's novel a chance to restore, amid shattering loss and yearning, a measure of worldliness and grace.

The suitable boy in this novel is a violinist, Michael Holme. He is racked by the ten-year-old memory of his estranged love, a talented pianist named Julia McNicholl. This yearning remembrance is entangled in the very music he hears, plays, breathes:Bach, Haydn, Beethoven. Michael plays in an English quartet, the Maggiore, but when he thinks of what had brought to life the voice in his hands, he recalls his past in Vienna, where Julia and he were students and lovers...before he had a breakdown and left, without a word and himself wordless. The novel is an account of his journey back to her. It is also a story of Julia's loss of hearing and her struggle with, and through, music to find her own self again.

Thankfully, this book isn't about the charms of therapy. It poignantly reveals what haunts loss and eludes recovery. As Julia tells us, after noting how much she has learned in her lip-reading classes even as she is beginning to go deaf, "But, as one of my teachers once pointed out, you will never be able to learn from the lips alone if someone has lost her glove or her love."

In the notes for the book he was planning on Beethoven, Adorno remarked that "the question in all music is: How can a whole exist without doing violence to the individual part?" The dream of the whole is the drama behind many of the relations in An Equal Music: couples, musical quartets, even the relationship between players and their instruments. The labyrinths of the ear lead to more complex, shared spaces:

A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians--sitting, standing, shifting, sounding--all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty. And above us here in the apse the strange figure of a naked man surrounded by thorns and aspiring towards a grail of light, in front of us 540 half-seen beings intent on 540 different webs of sensation and cerebration and emotion, and through us the spirit of someone scribbling away in 1772 with the sharpened feather of a bird.

In other places in the novel, the question of the individual's relation to the whole takes a more recognizably political cast. Narrator Holme has his origins in a butcher's family in a northern English town. A visit to his working-class home provides an occasion to speak of urban decline in a period when "everything civic or social was choked of funds." It is with feeling and repressed fury that Seth also mocks the venality of bankers and auctioneers. Art in such instances has its stakes in the public sphere: "My small radio, which plucked music from the public air, was everything to me; I would listen to it for hours in my room. As with the public library in Manchester, I don't see how I could have become a musician without it." The loss that persists as a shading around the private one is the public ruin. Talking of his hometown, Michael says that "the town which had been the home of the co-operative movement lost its sense of community."

If we recall Adorno's injunction that the answer to the question of the whole and the individual depends "on the general state of the productive forces of music at a given time," we can appreciate the full force of the narrator's lament: "These sainted powers will starve you of music as surely as the damned. Leave music to those who can afford indulgences. In twenty years no butcher's son will be a violinist, no, nor daughter neither." At these moments, Seth moves away from the romantic overvalorization of genius and the imagination--and An Equal Music becomes, as a whole, a sensitive and finely controlled exploration of the structure of feeling that words, music and love produce.

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