Musical Imaginaries in Vikram Seth's an Equal Music

By Smith, Hazel | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2009 | Go to article overview

Musical Imaginaries in Vikram Seth's an Equal Music


Smith, Hazel, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Despite the spectacular rise of interdisciplinarity in literary studies, the representation of music and musicians in literature has been an under-theorized topic. Work about the relationship between music and literature has sometimes, as Stephen Benson points out, been dogged by unconvincing comparisons between literary and musical form (5-6). However, Benson's recent work points to fruitful developments in "musico-literary discourse," an area in which "musicology is newly attentive to literature and literary studies is newly cognizant of musicology" (4). (1) In this essay, I suggest that musico-literary discourse can usefully extend beyond even literary studies and musicology into psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, and cultural analysis of the musical profession. To this end, I employ an unorthodox mix of cultural and psychoanalytic theory, music cognition, and recent musicology to examine the way Vikram Seth, in An Equal Music, narrativizes musical meaning and its repression through "normalization" in professional music-making.

An Equal Music is unusual for the dedication with which it raises questions about the meaning of classical music and its performance in Europe in the late twentieth century. The novel, through a potent mixture of realism and allegory, creates a dynamic interplay between the two opposite faces of musical meaning: its apparent autonomy, and its social mediation. It evokes the subjective and affective experience of playing and listening to music, but also explores the degree to which the power structures and socio-economic arrangements of the musical profession in London in the late twentieth century--with their attendant pressures towards normalization--enable or deflect that experience.

The novel can be read as a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend in that it celebrates the power of music but also warns of the dangers of looking back. The plot centres on a love affair between the pianist Julia and the violinist Michael, who is a member of a string quartet, the Maggiore. The two had formerly been lovers in Vienna, where they were both music students, but their relationship subsequently broke up. When they are reunited ten years later in London, it is gradually revealed that Julia, now married with a child, is turning deaf. Despite this, Julia and Michael become lovers again, and Julia plays with Michael's quartet on a European tour. When they separate for the second time, Michael, the narrative's focalizer, suffers severe psychological trauma but is ultimately rehabilitated by the power of Julia's playing in a public concert. Through this narrative trajectory. An Equal Music suggests that, while musical meaning can seem to be hermetic, it is always mediated and modified by the social and political contexts within which it is composed, performed, or received. The novel projects these ideas about musical meaning and production partly by throwing them into relief through its focus on two kinds of disability that are the "others" of musical meaning and the musical profession: deafness and neurosis.

Therefore, while An Equal Music might seem to romanticize the imagination, I argue that it actually intercepts the private with the social aspects of musical production and reception. To make my case, I apply to the novel a confluence of theoretical approaches that shift the concept of musical imagination to that of musical imaginary. This shift makes a fitting connection with respect to musical experience between the Lacanian concept of the imaginary (Lennon) and the widely disseminated idea of national or social imaginaries. The term musical imaginary has also been employed by Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh to convey the way in which music can anticipate or retrospectively capture socio-cultural identities (35-36).

Here I employ the term musical imaginary more broadly, to link three distinct aspects of music and music-making: the psychology of playing and listening to music; the discourses, histories, and ideologies that surround those experiences; and the relationship between these and their broader social context.

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