Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Songs of Earth and Power, by Greg Bear

[Songs of Earth and Power is a combined edition of Greg Bear's two novels, The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, "substantially rewritten" so that they hang together better as a single story.  Recommended by my music instructor.]

Talented musicians, they say, can reach an elevated state of focus, where extraneous thought turns off and the moment is fully attained.  It's as if they become a conduit for the music itself, channeling some pure entity that exists apart from the instrument, apart from the player, the written notes, the composer, or the audience.  Parts click in place, improvisation becomes inspired, and the notes seem to find themselves.  (So I've heard, anyway.)  My man Switters has written about how the debut of The Rite of Spring all but broke polite society a hundred years ago, a piece clearly intended to convey music's connection to this more primitive source.  It's hard for me to imagine that a tightly written score is really the best way to get across that kind of pagan and improvisational sound, and I don't see how it could be played worth a damn without an orchestra full of crack musicians all deep in the zone.  But even a blues riff is light years beyond any notes you could put on a page. 

What is the zone?  Athletes and writers talk about it sometimes too, as do theoreticians.  Is it (in music) the result of extensive practice, where muscle and ear memory team up to satisfy or confound biological expectations of tone and rhythm?  Is it being good enough to express our intuitions about the modes and patterns we've been conditioned to since birth?  Alert enough to make subtle adjustments--right when our inductive brain functions are going full-fire--to connect nuances of tone to similarly subtle emotions?  Or skilled enough that the hands finally respond at the speed of thought?  Is it a non-language conversation between fluent players who are sharing similar ideas?   Are body resources are being siphoned away from cognitive centers (or are brain chemicals being flooded in) to produce a sensation of euphoria?  Maybe!  Or maybe there's a simpler and more appealing explanation.  Maybe it's magic.

Greg Bear couldn't have come up with a better conceit for Songs than this, where music is not just magic, but the Deep Magic, the stuff that worlds themselves are made from.  (Which, to be fair, has often been a song.)  The mystery is introduced in the story when elderly composer Arno Waltiri befriends unassuming youth Michael Perrin at a suburban Los Angeles party.  Michael aspires to be a poet, and Arno forms a bond with the teen over that, and we learn before long that back in the 40s, the old man had gone full Stravinsky on the LA crowd, not just scandalizing them, but literally transporting listeners away to some other plane.  Before he passes away, Waltiri leaves Michael some instructions on how to make the same trip over the hedge by foot, where he finds a small community of lost listeners and other artsy types who inadvertantly got themselves a little too close to the source.  As it turns out, the native fairy folk haven't been governing them especially well.

The first two thirds of The Infinity Concerto read like a certain 1980s-vintage urban fantasy (kind of like these), which shows a contemporary person reacting somewhat realistically to a strange and unexpected  world, not necessarily with high stakes.  Throughout the book, Michael remains fairly calm given his circumstances, and he's even somewhat genre aware.  (I might argue that his reasoned temperament is the only real constant through the story.)  He is not mean-spirited, but he is not gifted with great empathy either (which may seem strange for a poet, but is not for a 16-year-old).  In fact, one of his magic tricks is to bundle up and discard parts of his essential self, and the first thing he sloughs away is guilt, self-recrimination, or anything else that might make him whine.  As his role morphs from confused interloper, to unwitting tool, to full-on Chosen One, we are spared a young man's agonizing about the sacrifices required to save the world.  There are points where I'd expect the kid to offer up a little more understanding for the people he's hurt, but if this story must turn into another Hero's Journey, then it's nice to make the trip with someone who's a little more rational about getting on with it.

The realm of the Sidhe, where Michael ends up, is an interesting place to visit--its vaguely archetypical geography (decaying manor house, border town, wasteland, forest), sudden boundaries, unclear sense of time and distance, spooky inhabitants, and subjective magic combine to give it a sort of half-baked fantasyland feel.  Intentionally so.  The Realm is a world that's a little less real than ours, richer in possibilities because it was not as well glued together by its creators.  It's worked as a home for the Sidhe since they walked out of Earth a couple dozen millennia ago, but the human settlement is one of the cracks that have recently appeared in its winsome fairy-ness, along with (or maybe because of) a rogue half-human mage named Clarkham, who has been busy annoying both worlds for a couple centuries now.  After a long opening stint in town, Michael finally makes it out into the larger Realm, and eventually confronts Clarkham at a broadly telegraphed replica ("all should cry, Beware! Beware!") of Coleridge's Xanadu, where we are reminded that Michael is a poet.  By the time we get to The Serpent Mage, the tired gods have really let the Realm go, and now the Sidhe are emigrating by any possible means, as the whole construct starts to splinter away into the void.  Michael is now faced with how universes are created anyway, and how anyone is going to deal with merging the two of them, if it can be done at all.  Let's hope he knows some crack musicians back on Earth.

I don't have any reason to think that Bear was getting creatively meta with these novels, but the Realm is not a bad metaphor for the books themselves.  They are occasionally lovely or delightfully bizarre, but the story doesn't hold together well enough for its inhabitants to last in it.  It is really inconsistent in focus and scope.  A full two hundred pages are spent in the human and mixed-race refugee camps, and none of those relationships had a convincing impact on the later plot.  Bear's fabulous premise gets diluted to encompass any creative art (hiding a small world in the taste of a fine wine is cute, and while oenology can be inspired to the level of art, I was not convinced that it creates the same elemental thrill as music), and when it's finally about the music again, as it was at points in the second book, I'd kind of forgotten about it.  Here, after long neglect, are a group of players literally rocking worlds as they perform Waltiri's and (why not) Gustav Mahler's lost concertos (didn't they feel anything all the hours they practiced it?).  And there, at the end of things, comes along Mahler himself, along with the likes of Homer, Mozart, and (why not) Hillel--anyone who was anyone in human history--who were totally not long dead, but had been chilling in elfin purgatory, available at just the moment Michael needs a song of power to be improvised on the spot.  As a series of related episodes, these sorts of things are sometimes fun, but I lost faith in anything like a coherent arc, and when the author would go on about the core mythology that bound all the threads together--something about mages and makers of many different races--I didn't find those parts especially compelling.

But here's for putting the creativity back in Creation.  Songs of Earth and Power maybe didn't amount, in itself, to the grand symphony it sensed behind all things, but it had a few nice tunes, and that's fine with me.


switters said...

What'd we say: Russian voodoo with French orchestration?

Did you ever read Hesse's The Glass Bead Game? For some reason this reminded me of it.

Keifus said...

I think that was it.

The core idea of this one was how music can elevate and transport you. I think I must not have communicated that very well in the post (which made me eventually feel a little guilty about the callout). The author was alluding really heavily to the Rite of Spring in the early parts of the novel.

There is an afterword, where Bear says that he'd once had a deeply moving experience at a performance of Mahler's last (incomplete) symphony, and that that was the genesis of the story. That was wrangled into the story too. I am listening to it as I type and yeah, fair enough.

Hesse looks like he's made something quite a bit more purely distilled than the reviewed novel. I haven't read it, but I might.

Inkberrow said...

Ah, fond memories, thanks Switters!. Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game, is my favorite and in my opinion Hesse's most important work. It's certainly his most idealistic and life-affirming--aside from what my Western bias rejects as the navel-gazing juvenilia of Siddhartha--and for Hesse the Darkman that's saying something. "Hans is crushed Beneath the Wheel" is the typical sunny takeaway of a Hesse novel.

I certainly see why Switters made the connection: the Game is a lengthy, multivalent competition of titanic intellects originally selected by merit for quasi-religious service from among the hoi polloi. I'd describe it as a concatenation of Go, chess, Jeopardy, Socratic and scholastical debate, passion play, musical jam session, Good Will Hunting and Scanners. But music is considered the purest and most valuable medium.