Book Review: A Musical Offering

“When a child first learns to hum a melody, the child stops being music and instead becomes a receptacle for remembering it.”

A Musical Offering, by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), is a challenge to define. It tells numerous stories but in short vignettes that weave into and around each other – a sort of counterpoint style of writing. Its frame is music and the effect various pieces have on a variety of listeners. As with a new musical composition – however enjoyable – it is not until the finish that it may be fully considered and appreciated.

The opening chapter explains why Bach was commissioned, by a Russian Count, to compose what became known as the Goldberg Variations. In the twentieth century these gained a wider audience thanks to recordings made by Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The importance of the length of the silence between each variation is explored as is the circularity of the work.

The discussion segues into the story of Scheherazade. I had to look up who this character was – she is a storyteller in the collection of Middle Eastern tales brought together in One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as the Arabian Nights.

There follows a series of reflections on lullabies, then the music of the Beatles. This is the first of several threads that weave in contemporary culture and historical figures. The work of artist, Jackson Pollock, is included.

By the end of this first chapter, the structure and style of writing had been established but I was unconvinced that the stories being told were worth pursuing. Early on certain similes and opaque suggestions had grated.

“an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back”

“the slower pace of the later version is that of someone who knows we only leave a circle before taking the first step”

I was also irritated by the assumption that the reader would recognise and understand references to people and artistic endeavours. As well as Scheherazade, I had to look up Virgil and Dantes to puzzle out their inclusion. I pondered if the author was writing for someone better read than me (whatever better read actually means).

There were, however, thoughts being shared that I enjoyed despite their sometimes tenuous conjunctions.

“Every mother carries a Noah’s Ark in her womb (after all, there are forty weeks of gestation and forty days of flood). We’ve all been the animals in the Ark before descending to the earth.”

The second chapter delves deeper into how silence is perceived and completely hooked me. The discursions teased out fascinating accounts of people’s behaviour. Revered art is depicted as merchandise – investors driving up price then storing the work in a warehouse. The tales of two of John Cage’s musical compositions – 4′ 33″ and ASLSP – are as bizarre as they are brilliant to share. It is pointed out that there is never true silence if we pay attention.

The tale of The Great Organ of Himmelheim had me checking if it was true – not that it mattered given the joy of considering why such a thing would be built.

A poignant chapter on music in a time of war again kept me fully engaged. Man is capable of such atrocity yet also beauty.

As well as sharing interesting stories, the author philosophises on wider issues. I enjoyed his thoughts on sending music into space. I also learned about the wood used by Stradivarius – why it was special. I didn’t look up if this factoid was true – by now I was engrossed in each of the digressions and interested in how they would be brought together. The denouement adds an element of circularity to all that has gone before.

After my initial concerns I was drawn into this work and thoroughly enjoyed reading each interwoven tangent. Fact and fiction may have been blended – I remain unsure – but it has been done to impressive and immersive effect.

A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press.

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