Trust a drummer to know about silence. Over on Radio 3's Private Passions last Sunday, Stewart Copeland, late of The Police and more recently not unknown to opera houses, was talking to his fellow composer Michael Berkeley. I'm saving his comment, about how the beauty went out of modern music when it became an algorithm rather than a sentiment, for my official rant about what might happen to academic creative writing as it finally follows music into universities. But he said so much else which made sense to me as a writer.
The thing about drummers (I've a feeling he'd refuse to be called a percussionist) is that although all music exists in time, percussion has no sustaining pedal, no lungful of air, no length of a bow, to hold the note. Neither, of course, do words: once a word is said or read, it's over. Poets get closest, because they can assume that we'll hear the sounds as well as the sense, and with both we'll try to do the overlapping, the chords, the echoes, the harmony and the counterpoint, for ourselves, if only by re-reading the poem. But we prose writers have to assume that our readers' experience is nothing else but reading one word after another to the end: we have to earn our re-reading.
And so, Copeland said, just as visual artists work with negative space, the arts which work by putting one beat/word/foot in front of the other work also work with silence and stillness. In music, his examples were reggae, and the Arabic music of his diplobrat childhood in Beirut, (but I also thought of the Scotch Snap in a strathspey, and the inimitable way that Viennese musicians push the second beat of a waltz in the opposite direction). There, in the lift just before the next beat strikes is "That little hole that sucks you in, that absence that creates impact when there's a presence... It's a very potent force." And then there's the silence between movements, and though I dislike the snobbery of those who scorn the applauders, I do prefer it when there's room to breathe - and think, and feel - where the composer intended. I wonder if Copeland ever regrets the way that the beginning and end of a rock song, played live, is always swamped with noise?
You can see where this thought's going, can't you? Poets play with enjambment, because simultaneously ending a line and refusing to let it end has a different effect from an end-stopped line where sense and sound coincide. And so, of course, can novelists. That pause that isn't a pause, at the end of a paragraph or a scene or a chapter, is fraught (in the proper sense of 'freighted') with energy. But how much can you control what the reader will find when they're sucked into in "that little hole": a space which contains... what? John Cage's 4'33" takes the question to its logical conclusion, by being nothing but space, but in fact he has the presence of the concert hall, audience, soloist, surrounding the absence of the music.
It's made more interesting and complicated for writers and readers, though, because, while music takes as long as it takes, in fiction we're running several kinds of time at once. There's the infinitely expandable and compressible way we can tell a story, entirely independent of the time those events it took for the characters. In fiction you can live a year in a sentence or a minute in three pages, so what's in the sentence that would be there, if you hadn't put a double-line-space instead? And what's in the three minutes after the chapter ends? Then there's the time it takes to read, and that we really can't control: some readers take two (chapters) daily at bedtime for weeks, others don't sleep till they've finished the book as the sun rises. Does an ordinary day between chapters work as an echo-chamber for what's in the spaces, or is total immersion the only way to hear what's in them? You can't control how readers read.
And then there's how writers read. I'm not sure I'd agree with the writerly equivalent of Copeland's assertion that "musicians have terrible taste in music", but I do think he's got a point. As he says, sometimes we and they "listen to the wrong things; they're listening for either the dreaded competition or... they're stealing ideas... but never for the right reason, which is just to emotionally respond... This applies to your own music... You start to go for things that are clever, and that stimulate you intellectually, and you're ready to move on from the elemental, visceral things." As I was thinking about in Leaving Eden, I think it's not wrong for a writer to read with their intellect, but rather a necessary and natural aspect of training for their craft. I also think that intellectual excitement can itself be elemental and visceral. The brain, after all, is an erogenous zone: in Brainy and Sexy I was exploring whether it's possible to write novels which really succeed in conjuring emotional and intellectual responses. What's a mistake, whether you're trying to write a crossover novel that a publisher will buy, or trying to use Gamelan instruments ("which aren't in tune with the next village, let alone a symphony orchestra") in a classical concerto, is to lose the truly elemental, visceral things. And many of those won't be in the words at all: they'll be in the black holes between them.