At the crossroads of music, literature and art, with Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Chris Gollon
Monday, March 3, 2014
Philip Clark happens upon a forgotten street in the heart of London and finds the root of inspiration within the music of the city
Looking down through a standard-issue street grate on a standard-issue traffic island in the middle of an increasingly standardised Charing Cross Road – precisely at the point where it intersects with Old Compton Street, West End shops slicing through Soho’s playground for grown ups – the musically minded cannot help but be reminded of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, and how Strauss suddenly drops his listeners far below the surface of his futurist harmonies and high-rise orchestration to hear what is, in essence, a Bach fugue; or those game-changing moments in Mahler symphonies where ländlers and funeral marches get ground to dust; or when you figure out finally that Charlie Parker’s bebop anthem ‘Ornithology’ was constructed over the harmonic grid of the 1940s pop song ‘How High The Moon’.
Traces of an abandoned, forgotten London lie marooned under that street grate. By 1896, the year Strauss composed Also Sprach Zarathustra, Little Compton Street had ceased to exist, and who could fail to be touched by the sad fate of this little street, and by its lingering imprint? What had been Crown Street metamorphosed into the Charing Cross Road we know today and, as the urban topography was redrawn, Little Compton Street vanished into a hole in the ground. Which some might think fitting for a street with such a strikingly undistinguished history. The hell-raising French symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were regulars at the Hibernia Pub at 5 Little Compton Street during their extended London sojourn which ended in 1873, but otherwise the street was just another regular city thoroughfare: Londoners drink, Londoners eat, Londoners fall in love, Londoners whinge about the cold, Londoners laugh, Londoners argue, Londoners go to work, Londoners come home; and two tired and emotional French symbolist poets amble back towards their lodgings on Royal College Street in Camden.
And as you eavesdrop on this history mislaid – gazing through that street grate with your 21st century eyes, back 120 years, way back to the 19th century, skipping the 20th century altogether – your sense of time becomes muddled and disoriented as memories that are not properly yours come flooding back. That flash of recognition when you realise there is a Little Compton Street is matched by an equally powerful and poignant realisation. Today, the only earthly trace of Little Compton Street left are the period London street signs which are resting just beneath (current) London street level, white lettering on a blue enamelled background, as a second sign reiterates the same information underneath: ‘Little Compton Street’, black ink on brick. Under those street signs generations of Londoners drank, ate, fell in love, whinged about the cold, laughed, argued, came into work, went back home, had new ideas, recycled old thoughts – a fugue of activity that is tantalisingly at hand, but emphatically lost for good. Ancient street signs are more than obsolete masonry; by illuminating the past they become part of who we are today.
In music, travelling through time is entirely feasible. Scores, it is true, are only capable of moving forwards in hours, minutes and seconds, but composers can manipulate overlays of historical time as freely as their imagination allows. But maps are notated scores too, pictorial sets of instructions designed to guide you towards your destination, your route and tempo a matter of interpretation. The typography and street names are typical of an earlier age, but the surrounding contours are instantly recognisable – a late 19th-century Soho map reads like an arcane transcription of a much-loved composition. But measured against today’s lie-of-the-land, the mapping of Little Compton Street throws up an intriguing little notational dilemma. Little Compton Street apparently ran west to east, jutting out of Soho across Crown Street (now Charing Cross Road) and dipping into New Compton Street (which itself no longer exists; it stood where Blackwells’ bookstore dovetails into an office block). So why do the remaining street signs point north to south, implying a street that ran parallel with what is now Shaftesbury Avenue?
And why, during performance, in the third bar of the central Andantino of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue does the tempo suddenly halve without any written indication? Follow the literal letter of Gershwin’s notation, and like Little Compton Street, the score will head you off in the wrong direction. An air of collective amnesia surrounds the actual physical imprint of Little Compton Street, but the convention that in the slow section of Rhapsody in Blue performers need to read more into the notes than the notation implies is an anomaly that has filtered down through the generations and people unfailingly conform. Delayed beats in waltzes and tangos are not written into the notation either because you can’t notate a ‘feel’ anymore than you can tweet a smile. Notation is the means not the ends. As ideas grow and the territory is redrawn, notation – and maps – must adapt.
The reach of this essay, too, has grown and evolved and only through the process of writing have I discovered what it needed to be and how I needed to notate it. What started with the innocuous enough desire to interview the novelist Will Self about his 2011 article for The Guardian – ‘The symphony and the novel: a harmonious couple?’ – suddenly wasn’t enough. Lines of enquiry I couldn’t have envisaged when I started began to open up. Asking Self, and other non-musicians, about how music had transformed their creative practice felt simplistic, presumptuous even. Was the question I ought to be asking more about if music can transform the creativity of the prose writer? But even this revised starting point eventually took me somewhere entirely unforeseen.
Self’s novel Umbrella, published in 2012, changed everything. As someone who observes with horror as once great cafés buy into the chain-store mentality and the sites of Soho record shops of many years standing re-open as purveyors of pointless dolphin-friendly organic mango-based snacks – the very rationale of city living dismantled, Sports Direct instead of HMV, Bruckner usurped by footballs, commerce snuffing out culture and imposing a non-identity on communities with very specific histories, a drab corporate theme park taking over where viciously escalating rents push real people investing real emotions in real city life increasingly to the margins – I found Self’s book illuminated a century’s history; a fantasy about real London people with their real London voices.
Self’s narrative leapfrogs around 1918, 1971 and 2010, chronicling streets that might no longer exist. Audrey Death is suffering from the brain disorder encephalitis lethargica which has locked her brain inside a deadening, one-dimensional now – the contrast with the vividly layered temporal scheme of the book relating her story couldn’t be starker. She exists but doesn’t live, that flash of recognition when you realise there is an Audrey Death matched by a poignant truth: Audrey Death is terminally dormant. But Audrey’s psychiatrist, Dr Zack Busner, chooses to take a very different view and time begins ticking again for Death as Busner, experimenting with an untested but highly potent drug, gradually awakens her senses.
Music is pivotal to the book, both as a structural device and as a frame put around concepts of memory, time and place. Umbrella is perched structurally somewhere between two Modernist literary classics: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The homage to Joyce is made explicit as Self’s title hat-tips a line from Ulysses – ‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’ – but for a novel that consciously riffs off Modernist technique, Self’s opening gambit could easily be mistaken for a classic slice of postmodernist fancy. Zack Busner arrives for work at Friern Mental Hospital in 1971 with the opening line of The Kinks’ ‘Apeman’ looping through his mind – ‘I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man’ – a far from arbitrary choice of song. The Kinks were North London to their core – East Finchley, Muswell Hill, Friern Barnet. Self is giving us a place, while reminding us that Zack Busner, who in his 1997 novel Great Apes had the misfortune to transmogrify into an ape, is a canonical character in his writing. You think the temporal layering of this novel is complex? Well, Busner has an existence outside Umbrella too.
This theme introduced by way of an in-joke – Busner’s ‘Apeman’ brain-worm representing music as a mechanically induced memory – solidifies into a fully-fledged leitmotif as the young Audrey Death visits the Aeolian Showroom in central London where she hears a pianola mechanically reproducing Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Minor. Sixty years later, as Busner’s experimental drugs are drawing Audrey out of her illness, she begins to superimpose Brahms’s melody over the rhythmic footsteps of a fellow patient. Brahms helps reawaken Death – the Brahms UnRequiem – and the present superimposes itself over the past, the vast corridor space of Friern Mental Hospital in 1971 suddenly is the London of 60 years earlier; corridors as streets; different strains of Self’s multi-layered structure shaking hands across the decades.
Self’s jettisoning of traditional paragraphing convention throws the narrative open and time becomes unruly and open-ended, like an all-seeing meta-fermata has been drawn over what would otherwise be standard-issue symphonic form. Comparisons with On The Road – typed out originally onto a scroll which, when eventually published as Kerouac intended in 2007 stretched to one 300-page paragraph – that’s opposed to the sanitised, paragraphed version which simultaneously made Kerouac’s name and broke his heart when it appeared in 1957 – are inevitable but I’m not sure how well the comparison stacks up. Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness journeys towards infinity, whereas Self folds his narrative backwards and forwards through time. There are what look like paragraph breaks in Umbrella, although admittedly not many, and their function has been subtly repurposed to mark abrupt jolts in perspective and time, like disjointed camera angles. Self notates dialogue and sudden thoughts in italics, the implication being that the former is spilling out of the latter – a polyphony of chatter and voices. Dashes take precedent over colons. Commas are dimmed to a minimum, and any device likely to highlight the artificiality of time unfolding on the page has been purged.
A few days after I interview Will Self, I bump into him again in Soho, on Old Compton Street, a block away from that street grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road. My fear earlier in the week had been that our interview might be about to falter. The high comedy over of Self discussing how an interest in music had been triggered during his early teens – ‘I listened to the Miles Davis Quintet and the Schubert Quintet in C and heard definite musical congruence and distinct affinities in shapes. And then it became clear what this sort of music was called. I liked that genre of music called "quintets"’ – was he about to boot the premise of my essay into touch? ‘Frankly I’m rather mistrustful of writers who attempt to unite music and the novel,’ he tells me. ‘Because music is not a diacritical form whereas literature very definitely is and, as a writer, you always have to be aware of literature being self-critical and self-reflective as a potential modality to avoid its pitfalls. And clearly that is very different from music. This is why Mahler is so interesting. Of all the great symphonists, he is the most literary. His music is strongly expository at the same time as being highly self-critical. Yes this is beautiful, but why is it beautiful? What happens if I introduce some dissonance? Is it still beautiful for you? If I chuck in another 80,000 violins and a choir does that help? This music is about the loss of the sweetness of life, a sense of lost profundity which is why, I think, he resorts to sweetness – is that going to help you cope with bitterness of life?’
Setting up his Guardian article, Self told us that he arrived at an understanding of symphonic music during his forties, but the full story, it transpires, is slightly more involved. During his twenties and thirties isolated pieces kept him in their grip – in particular Brahms’s German Requiem and Jessye Norman’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs – but he began to hear (as opposed to just listening to) symphonic music when, 12 years ago, he was nursing his baby son in the dead of night. Sibelius’s Second Symphony appeared on BBC Radio 3: ‘And suddenly I could hear melody and harmony and, most importantly, tonality,’ Self recalls, ‘and that’s what started me investigating the whole symphonic tradition.’
I ask Self to think back over the novels he has created since that epiphanical moment – The Book of Dave, The Butt, Liver, Walking to Hollywood and Umbrella. Were these fresh insights into music, into symphonic form in particular, suggestive of approaches and techniques hitherto out of reach? ‘Since the symbolist poets the idea that you can treat language as an informational system and also as purely a sonic form is there, and any prose writer worth their salt should be conscious of that, and what you can do with it creatively. I’ve always been interested in the discrepancy between how you hear things and how you listen to them – that listening is a socio-culturally conventional way of interpreting what people say, but then there is the exterior level of just hearing the sound. Since my earliest books, I’ve transcribed demotic speech phonetically, precisely to notate the inner music of speech.
‘But even before my discovery of Sibelius, I’d listened to enough symphonic music to understand the ways in which writers might be thought to draw on music – how motifs could be introduced and developed and recapitulated; theme and variation form; how novels could be viewed as being broken down into movements. I was aware of all of that. But thinking over the books I’ve written since 2001, I have, it’s true, played around with form more. Umbrella, a single movement; Walking To Hollywood, a classic symphonic form in three movements, and all about movement, with a symphony, Mahler’s Sixth, at the heart of it. So it’s there. But this is not the same as trying to write words like they are notes. Implicitly though my writing is concerned with music and sound.’
In his article Self alluded to what he considers a conceptual hitch in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. The ‘little phrase’ dreamt up by Proust’s fictional composer Vinteuil, which becomes a literary idée fixe as the form develops, ‘only ever summoned up in this reader a petulant desire actually to hear what the bloody thing sounded like’; while Anthony Burgess’s novel in the form of a symphony, Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements, ‘is musically unsatisfying – while as literature, it’s near-unreadable’, arguments which lead Self towards an unexpected conclusion. By the midpoint of the last century, he says, Modernist composers had realised that the game was up for symphonic organic unity, but in literature, despite Modernist wizards like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Modernism never properly caught on. He signs off by monstering the American novelist Jonathan Franzen whose bestselling 2010 novel Freedom ‘toddles realistically along like Modernism never happened’, hugging up to ‘cosy certainties’ and ‘taking refuge in the apparent harmony of the past.’ As a retort to the challenges of Modernism – to what Self identifies as the all-seeing, all-judging narrator being killed stone-dead by Sigmund Freud as he yanked open awareness of the subconscious – Franzen’s A-to-B storyboard narrative, tensions generated and then neatly resolved over a teleological approach to time, is a hopeless non-starter.
And with this function of a traditional God-like narrator questioned, all that can remain are studies in individual consciousness, which like music, can only be played out in the continuous present. Joyce and Mahler were kindred artistic twins, Self thinks, the ‘resigned affirmation’ of Molly Bloom’s endpoint in Ulysses mirroring the ‘self-actualising fatalism’ of Mahler’s fragmenting finale in his Ninth Symphony. But Self’s assertion that concertgoers flock to hear Mahler whereas ‘hardly anyone makes it through Ulysses nowadays’, and therefore the Modernist strain is in a healthier state in music than in literature, is enough to stop the music-specialist dead in their tracks. To the musician, ‘Modernism’ is synonymous with the 1950s avant-garde – Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti – and it takes a voice from outside to remind us that Mahler was a vital part of ‘small m’ early 20th-century modernism, taking his place alongside Joyce, Kandinsky, Eliot, Beckett, Schoenberg and Picasso. (And the implication that modernism in music has ‘caught on’ with audiences who might ‘flock’ to hear today’s Modernist music is a more complex question than Self admits. Despair etched on the faces of ‘music lovers’ who schlepped to last year’s Proms to hear the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony only to be confronted by 40 minutes of hardcore Helmut Lachenmann in the first half suggested, regretfully, a classical musical culture divided by its common language.)
Joyce deployed colour as ‘modal effect’ while the rhythm of his punctuation was ‘integral to the meaning of his sentences rather than a bothersome adjunct’ – Self views Ulysses as representing a ‘grand exercise in the contrapuntal’. He marinated his writing in music not because he had made a conscious decision to word-paint with sound as elevated decoration, but because sound is an inseparable part of how individuals relate to the continuous present of their environment. How is the creative purpose of the prose writer transformed by music? The better, bolder question is how could the writing of any author engaged with the challenges posed by literary modernism not be transformed by music?
I phish for further examples. ‘There’s plenty of evidence in the prose of Franz Kafka that he was aware of atonality and the impact of Modernism on music,’ Self tells me. ‘Kafka is inherently aware of the possibilities of music either being in accord with cultural mandated sound – and therefore tonal – or emotionally disturbing and disruptive and therefore atonal. He’s an absolutely painstaking writer about the movement of human form and much of his discussion about the distinction between tonality and atonality is placed within the context of movement. Analyse his writing as a description of bodies moving through space, and the ambient sound they make, and by definition, it becomes musical, like in the first few pages of The Metamorphosis. Whenever he writes about the telephone ringing in The Castle, it’s always referred to as "an instrument". The very idea of using a phone, rightly, freaked him out and he had to get other people to make calls for him. Clearly, in The Castle, he’s thinking through the role of recorded sound and trying to understand its emotive potential.’
‘The point about realism is that realism is bigger than stream-of-consciousness,’ Self continues. ‘Stream-of-consciousness writing becomes schematised, since obviously that isn’t what consciousness is. Consciousness is words; but trying to put consciousness into words is necessarily more artificial than realism, which is more forgiving and broader. And I wonder if there’s an analogy with the 12-tone system? Is 12-tone music in fact a subspecies of tonality? One of the many ways within tonality that you can organise sound, ranged from the completely dissonant to the completely assonant?’ And certainly there is an analogy to be drawn between free atonality – as epitomised by Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire – and his later schematised serial pieces.
Self scoffs at the suggestion of Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and eventual biographer, that Kafka was somehow ‘unmusical’. ‘Brod once claimed Kafka couldn’t tell the difference between The Merry Widow and Tristan and Isolde, but I think he missed what was actually a very clever and subtle remark of Kafka’s. Brod fancied himself as a bit of a composer and set one of Kafka’s poems to no-doubt terrible music, and I think this was Kafka’s way of letting him down gently. Look, I can’t tell the difference between Lehár and Wagner – how would I know if your setting’s any good?’
I mention Thomas Mann: ‘But haven’t you always found his prose hopelessly clunky? Apparently he’s fine in German, but reading Doctor Faustus you wonder at the inadequacy of the translation – how can it be that this guy obsessed with music reads so unmusically in English?’ But even in translation from über-expressive German, Kafka’s descriptions of Gregor Samsa – that unlucky individual who wakes up one morning to find that he has metamorphosed into an insect – are harmonised with an itchy physicality: an interior atonality. As he describes Samsa’s attempts to lever himself out of bed, Kafka deploys three separate words to invoke sound: ‘There was a loud thump, but it was not really a crash. His fall was broken to some extent by the carpet, his back, too, was less stiff than he thought, so there was merely a loud thud, not so very startling.’ ‘Thump’, ‘crash’ and ‘thud’ are hard-hitting words with which to classify noise, especially noise, which as Kafka subsequently reveals, is actually not so very startling…or is it? The insect-sized noise of insect-sized insects evaporates towards the periphery of our hearing; but if you’re an insect magnified to human proportions, like Gregor Samsa, your brittle and clanking body parts might indeed produce a deafening, petrifying din.
This journey towards sound – down through secreted layers, listening into the innate music of the city being rendered as art – was hotting up, and was about to take me east, from Soho to Hackney. My interview with Will Self was at first hinged on doubt, but my time with the writer Iain Sinclair begins with words that make me slap the Dalston air with joy: ‘Even though I may have a tin ear,’ he muses, ‘I think the underlying structure of everything is musical. The kind of notation you have in music, you try to impose those sorts of specifics on prose. A page of text is a score, most definitely.’
Sinclair’s writings concern London. But books like Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital, Ghost Milk and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire are not ‘about’ London in any classic sense of biographical historical narrative, and nor are they, as some discombobulated reviewers on Amazon were clearly expecting, Lonely Planet-styled travel guides. Sinclair’s writings concern London, and are deeply concerned about London. ‘The rhythm of Iain Sinclair’s life has always gone something like this: walk, write; walk, write; walk, write,’ the journalist Rachel Cooke once wrote; and the Sinclair approach begins from walking, slowly and deliberately, observing and meandering with a purpose, zoning into the city’s keystone resonances and topographies, journeys that step outside of the structures imposed on the city by money-men and corporate avarice. Sinclair’s books, powered by rage, are celebrated for the barefaced beauty of his prose – intense poetics bludgeoned by stark, enraged documentary. His essential message? London is an intricately harmonised ecosystem, but threats to the city’s well-tempered tuning are escalating; from vainglorious politicians razing communities to the ground to house their ‘Big Projects’ (most notably the Millennium Dome and the Olympics); and from the brutal impact of corporations packing every spare city inch with their brand identity, reducing London to real estate ‘opportunities’, deals done by those who don’t see, or respect, space or history.
Lud Heat, published in 1975, Sinclair’s rigorously constructed melange of prose and poetry, presented these ideas in embryo. ‘The old maps present a sky-line dominated by church towers,’ the book begins, and my musician’s brain can’t help but be excited by the fact that he identifies eight churches – St Alfege’s (Greenwich), St Anne’s (Limehouse), St George’s in the East (Wapping), Christ Church (Spitalfields), St Georges (Bloomsbury), St Mary Woolnoth (Bank), St Luke’s (Old Street) and St John’s (Horsleydown) – an octave of structures designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (who died in 1736) around which old London was tuned, grounding the city in a precisely composed urban tonality that, Sinclair needs us to know, operates an unavoidable pull over everything occurring within its orbit. There are dissonant and dark overtones. The Jack the Ripper murders, the mythologies of which Sinclair plundered for his 1987 novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, all took place under the shadows of these same churches. But tonality, by nature, will hit points of crisis that either resolve or otherwise dive deeper into a chaotic eddy. But tonal centres remain forever as permanent markers around which people instinctively orientate themselves.
‘Markers’ is a key word for Sinclair, and his writing is fixated around our unease and bewilderment when these urban anchor-points are tampered with or destroyed. ‘I felt partly consciously, partly unconsciously,’ he explains, as I ask how intentionally Hawksmoor expected that his eight churches would become markers, ‘that he had a grand sense of London as a spectacle, especially if you looked down from the top of Greenwich Hill and saw these very specific alignments of the buildings he’d worked on in Greenwich, with St Anne’s precisely in the middle. Then you could have a vision across London where these buildings would be markers, like compass points.
‘He wanted people to look at his churches in a very particular way, and would think nothing of having terraces of houses knocked down if they got in the way. He wasn’t just taking on a commission to squeeze in another building. He wanted it to be grand; he wanted it to be uplifting and he was well versed in the history of architecture. Christ Church in Spitalfields is a chronological history of architectural periods, Roman to Gothic, put in one long stack. And musically that’s the most complex – the vibrations of each of these stylistically different layers somehow remaining in harmony.’
I pick Sinclair up on that word ‘vibrations’: ‘It’s a very 1960s word, isn’t it? But these buildings tremor; there are tremors in the stone, movements in the air, rhythms that my writing tried to tune into. Lud Heat is not so much an invention, it’s a recognition – being there in that atmosphere and sensing that certain terrain has vibration, a narrative which you need to tune into. I responded to those patterns, and the displacement of what the churches did in terms of the surrounding area, which might apply to anything: a tree, a canal, a pub. Some places do that to you, and if you engage with them a history can be found and a history can be invented.’
The point being that past histories remain as resonant harmonies in these buildings? ‘Very much. The stone – which has been transported across from the coast to here – could be "sounded" for historical resonances and narratives. It’s come with fossils; this cliff that brings with it the shriek of gulls and the sea has been walloped down on the marshes of East London and, literally, it’s possible to tap the building and produce a vibration. Each of the churches has harmonics and resonances and beats of a different kind. They all have their own music. St Anne’s is darker and much more earthy. St George’s, partly because it’s a shell of a church now, has a lighter and airy tone.’
Again my musician’s brain salivates. Sublime Pythagorian proportion, the idea that vibrating sounds are linked into a mathematically pure overarching system, and an idea popularly termed ‘music of the spheres’ – a reality of physics from which all music inevitably flows – is an intoxicating one. The tonal system functions by locking notes into place around the gravitational pull of anchoring, fundamental tones. Does Sinclair perceive a comparable relationship between the eight churches – mathematical proportion not only within each church, but also unifying them as one recognisable tonality?
‘Absolutely. The three churches in the East End are very much connected. Christ Church, St Anne’s and St George are a kind of interconnected block with St Alfege’s. And then St Luke’s is only partly Hawksmoor – he designed the obelisk but the body of the church is John James, and this is not quite part of the same system. St John’s in Horsleydown, which is gone now, is just a rim of bricks in an office building, and again feels slightly different, just outside the main system. The dominant harmonies [Sinclair means ‘dominant’ not as musicians understand the term – i.e. a note a fifth away from the tonic – but in its civvy-street meaning of ‘main’ or ‘central’] are the East End churches; they set out the major themes and the structure. There will be sidebars, elements that do different things and move away from this, but that is the dominant theme we’re going to be with and we will return to. And these churches represent a funerary structure for me – an elegy to forms of history and memory that were now no longer accessible.’
But a history vanished is a history waiting to be reinvented – or even invented. Lud Heat originally appeared via Sinclair’s own cottage-industry publishing outfit, the Albion Village Press, in a tiny print-run of books, but its ideas had an unexpected afterlife. As a book-of-delights in its own right Lud Heat became the very definition of a ‘cult book’, and when the novelist and London historian Peter Ackroyd wrote Sinclair’s discoveries into his 1985 novel Hawksmoor (‘I would like to express my obligation to Iain Sinclair’s poem, Lud Heat, which first directed my attention to the stranger characteristics of the London churches’) those same ideas were communicated to a larger audience. ‘These churches seemed like a structure that was playable into the contemporary world,’ Sinclair says, ‘like finding a very peculiar score and not having the instruments exactly, but thinking you could make them sound again in terms of them coming back to life through people recognising that potential score. Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor picked up on those motifs and made a piece of music that could be enjoyed by a much wider audience.’
After the barefaced beauty of language and pure mathematical proportion, now comes the rage. Hawksmoor designed Christ Church, St Anne’s and St George’s-in-the-East in the outline of a triangle, and painstakingly shaped his other churches to make a star formation. But as the stampede of never-enough urban development snowballs, spilling over boundaries that were considered sacred for centuries, these meticulously assembled urban harmonies – markers that connect us to London’s fundamental leylines – are being willfully trampled over. Today, walking from Liverpool Street Station towards Brick Lane, via Christ Church Spitalfields, is a melancholic undertaking. The pulverised shell of Spitalfields Market – a market with roots back to the 1630s – is now held in the grip of an abusive embrace by a utilitarian Norman Foster office block, this once thriving market, with its independently-minded marketeers, fallen prey to that same unyielding and aggressive chain-store massacre that has scooped the heart out of Soho. The music of Spitalfields Market has been airbrushed away and auto-tuned, like a collective cultural decision was taken to deny the difficulty of Beethoven by, on the quiet, smoothing off his ‘awkward’ harmonic corners. Or like some spivvy goon lobbying a Cheryl Cole track into the middle of Bach’s B Minor Mass.
Or perhaps the situation is ever more serious and urgent, like the tonal system itself – not just the music it incites – has had its potential for expressive nuance and individuality ironed out by offstage, shadowy forces. ‘For generations and generations,’ Sinclair says, ‘the two zones were separate. There was a buffer zone between Spitalfields Market and The City, and suddenly that was gone. And then the tide ripped through and everything was sucked into a world of pop-up shops and chain restaurants. To cross the zones, you used to walk through narrow alleyways, as if travelling through time, and access to The City felt like a somewhat dangerous, rather thrilling journey. You crossed a zone between the financial centre and the world of Brick Lane, where different immigrant groups had settled; they didn’t want to impinge upon The City and The City had no interest in impinging upon them. And then they did. The buildings got bigger and bigger and cast increasingly dark shadows over these old gothic tracings, which became marketed instead of just being speculation.’
The London of 1969 – the year Sinclair arrived from his Welsh hometown of Maesteg – was still visibly scarred by the Second World War. In Hackney, where Sinclair bought the house he still lives in today, bomb damage and outside toilets were a fact of everyday life: ‘You were in a world which had changed a couple of inches since the war – and suddenly it changes enormously overnight.’ Sinclair’s latest book, American Smoke, returns him to those late ‘60s roots, and offers something unexpected to those who assume his interests are purely London-centric. Sinclair bought his Hackney home using the proceeds from a television film he made about the Beat poet and close Bob Dylan associate Allen Ginsberg, and this new book tells the story of how engaging with Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and poets less widely known like Charles Olson and Gary Snyder sharpened his sense of how to write about place, and one’s own place within whatever place you call your own.
‘I remember coming across Kerouac,’ Sinclair recalls, ‘during that grey English period, the late 1950s, when the whole Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin affectation of provincialism and small-town Englishness, their sense of distrusting what’s foreign, felt so inward turning and against what I wanted to do. These people were terrified of pretension, which meant they were terrified of ideas and keeping an open mind.
‘I was repelled by that way of looking at things, but with Kerouac, the rhythm of the prose and the jazz realities of how you could jump about with language was liberating. English novels all had this predicable structure. Characters would appear, do this and that, then a resolution. But Kerouac is totally open-ended: not going anywhere necessarily in terms of narrative plot, not resolving anything. He hears Charlie Parker in a bar and puts those rhythms, as he understands them, into his writing and it becomes a riff, or a solo, as he picks up on that same energy. Characters in On The Road – Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty – were lightly fictionalised or mythologised versions of real people, and I learnt that you can use your diary and look at local particulars closely; which becomes a structure and then a book.’
The cultural divide between this 1950s American counterculture – road trips fuelled by bebop, drugs, sex and everlasting idealism – and ancient London churches might feel irreconcilable, but with his typewriter as amplifier, Sinclair sang the inherent music of both. Joyce and Kafka tell us that sound is inseparable from how individuals relate to the continuous present of their environment. And when the balance of urban harmonisation is threatened, art becomes duty bound to sound those specifics as a way of re-injecting them with life: sound as socio-political critique. London was once proud to be chronicled in song: The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’, The Jam’s ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, ‘Primrose Hill’ by John Martyn and ‘Another Camden Afternoon’ by The Stranglers. But the grand metaphor powering this essay – cities as sounding boards of millions of ideas emanating from the millions of people who live there and all you have to do is take time to stop and listen – might not be feasible in the near future if those same millions of people are pushed out, or decide to bail because London resembles any other clone city.
Political concerns trickle down into the marks writers etch on the page, the score transformed by deep urban listening. Sinclair’s desires to traverse areas of the city once open to all, and now gobbled up by the private sector, where their fate is to be placed behind enclosures and guarded by CCTV, are constantly thwarted. No Sinclair book is complete without at least one verbal punch-up with a bumptious security guard. ‘My kind of writing,’ he explains, ‘is not allowed to exist in this world of endless construction – of suddenly running up against the enclosures of the Olympic site – of being endlessly questioned by security guards and having a really crappy version of language thrown at you, a language of lies and sloganeering which is, by extension, going into the ripping down of buildings. The way that the London landscape is being manipulated therefore becomes a literary argument – an argument about what is language. I’m not involved with any particular political party or group agitating for any specific form of behaviour. What began with the Hawksmoor churches – the process of walking, of being out in the territory and asking "what is this?" – this is how I’ve behaved for a very long time. This is a social and cultural anger that derives from the base of what I do.’
The afternoon I visit, Sinclair is deep into the copy-editing process of American Smoke, the heat of his big ideas temporarily parked to one side while he argues the toss with his editor via email about whether that colon should actually be a semi-colon – an argument about what is language. ‘In absolute terms,’ he says, ‘it may mean very little to anyone else, but for me it’s really very, very important. The slight difference of deciding to use a comma to smooth things across faster, or to allow the more accepted semicolon to stretch and separate the words are big decisions. And I made them, and now I’m having them challenged.’
My own sometime composerly angst over how to accent a note, or whether a particular phrase should be slurred, and if so where, pinches again and I remind Sinclair of our starting point – that text can be a score, that words can be notated as purposefully as notes. Sinclair’s literary style is as instantly recognisable as two bars of Thelonious Monk, or a phrase of Stravinsky. The writing steps out of the walking. The rhythmic pace is adamant and relentless, the structure punctuated by digressions: a new corner turned, an endless parade of thoughts, deductions and observations. Half sentences slam. And then the perspective typically becomes wide-angled: ornate descriptions, packed with adjectives hanging off adjectives that challenge you to keep up. This concentrated engagement with the function of language aims a giant two-fingered salute in the general direction of all those disingenuous slogans and ugly distortions of language that have become a habitual feature of modern day life: ‘Team GB’, politicians presuming to speak on behalf of ‘the British people’, the synergy between paradigm shifts that, while pushing the envelope, are thinking outside of the box.
Reading Sinclair rewires connections in your brain and, like listening to Morton Feldman’s reconfiguration of melody and form, sensitivity to language is reawakened; you are obliged to learn to read in a new way. But the continuous present of being in a particular place with Sinclair is not all it seems. The language, by design, is flexible enough to drop you – abruptly – into moments of historical reflection. And Sinclair’s punctuation can suddenly turn dissonant and hiss back at you, the syncopations of his sentences deliberately aiming to trip up your eye and brain. Sinclair has been working on a piece for the London Review of Books about a walk he took around Gravesend and Tilbury on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, revisiting the setting of his 1991 novel Downriver: ‘And as I wrote, sentences were getting longer and clotted and full of more complicated forms of insult alongside single short sharp graphic images and I needed to find a balance between these two things. There, anger directly formed the language.’
I wonder to what extent Sinclair feels his language to be composed – plotted carefully word-by-word – or whether these forms emerge from a process akin to improvisation? A long pause. ‘I’ve got techniques and forms that I’ve worked out how to do,’ he says, ‘but I want to able to improvise beyond them, to stretch and push and change. When it goes well, without thinking, that is what happens – listening into the writing and then taking it a couple of beats further and faster than you can imagine.
‘It’s like practicing scales. I’ve gone in everyday and done this thing over and over and over and over and over until I know how to do it. But to avoid becoming boring and repetitive you need to subvert these techniques that are so well known to you. When I started writing novels back in the 1970s, I mapped structures out with big charts that almost looked like music scores – colours for different characters with lines mapping how they moved. I wanted a picture that showed all the inner workings even though many critics thought my writing was free and formless. Now any pre-planning goes out the window quickly and the writing follows from the writing without obeying any previous structure. I might write in pre-planned blocks, but what’s happening in there is looking for a way out of there – for something exciting enough to make me want to go back and write the next bit.’
And Sinclair’s words dance through my mind as I try to draw this essay to an end. It’s now Thursday morning and I should have filed it yesterday – or even last week, or preferably last month – but I couldn’t get the beginning right. Those first three or four paragraphs were slumped uneasily on the page; snarled trains of thought lacking clear structural definition. And what’s more the page looked untidy and disorderly. Words resonating as sound can only re-resonate as words if those words are harmonised; and visually on the page. And that’s what this essay needed – a point-of-view on the visual relationship between sound and image, and the painter Chris Gollon’s name was but a Google search away.
When I made contact, I couldn’t have guessed how seamlessly Gollon’s ideas would dovetail with Will Self’s unearthing of continuous present narratives, ideas which themselves overlap with Sinclair’s historical layers. I meet Gollon in Soho, near Old Compton Street, a block away from that street grate in the middle of Charing Cross Road where I’d bumped into Self a few months earlier. And there’s a Hackney connection, too. In 2000 Gollon’s 14 Stations of the Cross, newly commissioned by the Church of St John in Bethnal Green, became a media talking point. Just why had the church handed Gollon, an inveterate atheist, this plum assignment? The answer came back: well, who better to grapple with questions of faith, the same questions being asked by people the church wanted to attract through the doors, than an atheist?
And as we sit down to talk, exciting news: Gollon has begun collaborating with a composer! His project with the Beijing-born composer Yi Yao will be exhibited on July 9-13 at Henley Festival, with Yi Yao and her quartet giving two performances each evening for all 5 nights. ‘It’s a proper, full collaboration,’ Gollon explains. ‘I was involved with a project at Durham University four years ago, the idea being to see what I could produce after spending three months with nine academics. I’d listen to their words, and translate them into imagery. And they were shocked to see their words produce images. And so they’d write more words and I would produce more images, and subtly repaint my first images after reading their responses. Ideas snowballed, and we all ended up exploring areas we would never have otherwise gone.
‘The idea I put to Yi was that we approach this project in the same way. I thought about the 15th century idea of a predella – an altarpiece comprising different scenes that you view as a continuous landscape; the continuous representation of different events in different times. Yi got excited about this idea of moving across time. I began with one image and she wrote a piece of music and then I fine-tuned my image to her music; and then I made a second panel based on the music she’d written. And, after thinking about each other’s responses, we both changed and altered our work in retrospect.’
Thinking about Will Self’s continuous present, I want to know more about how zoning into Yao’s music heightened Gollon’s sense of how to journey through the continuous representation of a painting. Like Sinclair, he begins with a ‘tin ear’ get-out clause: ‘I don’t know the first thing about how music works technically, but for me some music moves sideways and other music comes forward. When I was working on the 14 Stations, Bob Dylan was always on my mind. The music travels along with his words, sideways, which became important to the idea of a journey.
‘Music suggests images to me. There are notes that go through Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The piece hangs in the air as it moves through changes of colour and the pacing of the music and those changes of colour strike me as being extremely visual. I used to think the best way to show off the colour red was to surround it by its complimentary colour, which is green. But if you surround red with grey mixed in with red, the bright red looks redder than red could ever be. These ideas are in the work of Matisse of course, but when Yi is building to a crescendo, I can build a crescendo with colour rather than form. I can build colour to show form.’
I relate this back to musical harmony. The C major triads with which Stravinsky puts his Symphony of Psalms to bed sound so obstinately ‘C Major’ because of the subtleness of the surrounding harmonic connections and shadings. The process Gollon describes is, of course, a familiar one to musicians. Sometimes you want to let primary colour harmonies ring out; but more often composers and improvisers want their harmonic shadings to be more nuanced and unforeseen; harmonic inflections that tease our deeply ingrained associations. Or squash them altogether. ‘This sounds to me,’ Gollon replies, ‘like you’re describing the difference between what painters call "saturation contrast", like my example of how to use red, and "complimentary contrast". I don’t understand the technical side of what you’ve just told me, but I can feel music allowing me to "hear" colour. Music helps me navigate these transitions between different colours and then translate it to painting.’
The conversation turns to George Melly, the jazz singer and art critic, who Gollon knew well and I once interviewed. During our interview, Melly was very damning of a book he’d just reviewed that argued Cubist art and 1930s jazz had similar aspirations in terms of structure and colour. George was having none of it. And much affectionate laughter at the memory. But Gollon sees the connection between visual art and music as one possible way through a potentially troubling impasse. ‘I like to be spontaneous and I never make preparatory sketches. Francis Bacon said that accidents jolt the nervous system and images go straight to your brain. Preparatory sketches can’t do that and this project is about finding these places I wouldn’t normally go. Easel painting has been declared dead pretty much since easel painting has existed, but at a time when most people relate to imagery through film, painters to find new ways to relate their work to people.’ Gollon tells me that one potentially undermining problem – that music can only move forwards in time – will be solved by having his imagery projected forwards and backwards: tripping up our sense of time and messing with the visual punctuation.
Time is an unknowable force. Standing on that street grate on the middle of Charing Cross Road and noticing Little Compton Street for the first time, time dissolved and sounds were heard. My natural response was to write about it, but it’s taken me longer than I’d dared think to string together the evidence and arrive at conclusions about why the discovery of a forgotten London street moved me so deeply. I’m devoted to the inner music of cities, and I’m distraught that those urban songs and chorales, which after all are sung by us, the people who live here, are being so callously dismantled. Seemingly insignificant streets have histories and dignity too. That little lost street sang a song of woe, and sounded a warning. I listened in and created this symphony.