Echoes of Influence: Music, Social Power, and the Law in Speculative Fiction

Article excerpt

MUSIC, EVEN IN OUR OWN WORLD, POSSESSES AN OTHERWORLDLY QUALITY. Indeed, in the early part of the last century Arnold Schoenberg used the words of poet Stefan George, "I feel a breath of air from other planets," in a vibrantly conceived string quartet with soprano (Salzman 33). Because of the revolutionary impact of Schoenberg's music, George's phrase has since been used many times to characterize the development of radically new music written after the milestone of Schoenberg's Opus 10 (Musical 7).

Without words, music resembles a voice speaking in an unintelligible yet highly evocative language. Like spoken or written discourse, it can act as a medium to represent thoughts, transmit ideas, and incite reactions. Also like discourse, music's interpretation relies on the interplay between the intention of the composer, the articulation of the performer, and the response of the listener. In speculative narratives, music can take on new dimensions, allowing authors to truly imagine it as language and consider the broader implications of music's unique qualities. (1) In this essay, I will argue that speculative fiction not only offers a useful site to explore how music can function as a language but also allows authors to deploy music as a powerful metaphor for understanding the operating principles of political, social, and cultural regulatory systems. In this exploration, I will primarily discuss two texts--Samuel R. Delany's Nova and Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music--that depict music as a means of social influence and control.

Melody and Language

In Samuel R. Delany's Nova, playing the syrynx--a musical instrument that conjures colors, odors, and shapes to coincide with the sound it emits--is likened to the writing of a book. As if to underscore the similarities between the songs of the syrynx and language, one character who is continually working on a novel compares his work to the playing of this fantastical instrument, noting that both generate "statements of significant patterning" (179). The use of this phrase suggests the systematic, matrixed relationships of the elements of a semiotic system. In written discourse, elements (words) are placed in a specific order (phrases and sentences) to create transmittable meaning between the writer and reader. Nova goes on to show that the syrynx's music is as intentional as written discourse, with similar effects. When asked why he is writing a book, the novelist replies to the musician, "Why do you play the syrynx? I'm sure it is for essentially the same reason" (179). The goals of the two mediums may be the same but the syrynx's music makes meaningful "statements" without the need for spoken or written words. The world of Nova is not the only place where the mechanisms of music and language can be observed to blur. The parallel Delany is drawing here between the writing of fiction and the playing of music is reminiscent of the real-world use of the term "phrasing" amongst composers and choreographers to denote the grouping of notes into logical groups. The real-world application of this term to music suggests, at a minimum, that the structure of language offers an intelligible system by which humans can understand the organizational properties of a piece of music.

Current scientific inquiry supports the claim in Delany's narrative that music and language resonate in very similar ways--physiologically--for humans. There is increasing research interest into the similarities between how the brain understands music and how it understands language. Aniruddh D. Patel, a scholar at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, hypothesizes in the journal Nature Neuroscience that "linguistic and musical syntax share certain syntactic processes (instantiated in overlapping frontal brain areas)" (679). In addition, researchers at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language and Child Development at Dartmouth College are pursuing the hypothesis that early music training may facilitate later second language acquisition (Petitto sec. …