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Musings inspired by Philip Kennicott's Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning


I knew I had to read Philip Kennicott's book Counterpoint when I read the subtitle: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. The subtitle of my book Unequal Temperament could be "a novel of Bach and mourning." Of course, it's about more than Bach and mourning, just as Kennicott's memoir touches on much more, but the overlap struck a chord that has many lingering sympathetic vibrations.


Kennicott's memoir is a book to learn from. And I did learn a lot about Bach, and specifically the Goldberg Variations, but what was most thought-provoking to me was a pattern woven into the fabric of the book: practice, meaning not only a way of perfecting performance, but also a discipline, or even a vocation.


I have always been good at practice in the former sense—finding efficient ways to learn skills. In music, it came naturally to me—I didn't need to be taught how to practice in the way that Kennicott did. I suspect that his lack of skills in the art of practicing piano resulted from his natural talent for music. As a child, if I wanted to learn any piece of music on the piano, even the easiest, I had to practice hard. Whereas Kennicott could play piano passably and enjoyably without all that hard work, at least when he was starting out. For me, the work of practice made play possible, and indeed, work transformed seamlessly into play as I practiced, so that, phrase by phrase, I was rewarded immediately with play once I'd done the work. For Kennicott, it seems, play stopped when practice started. Practice didn't have the immediate payoff of allowing him to play—he could already play, so he just played and didn't put in the work to achieve a deep knowledge of the music. Real practice was a distraction from play.


This is how I make sense of Kennicott's astounding statement, "I'm … not sure I love music at all." It's more complicated. "Music is not a pleasure in any simple sense of the word. It is an obligation, a duty, an obsession, an ineradicable part of my life." I would use the word vocation for this kind of dedication, which implies to me a more profound understanding of one's object of devotion.


Kennicott's sense of obligation is more like what I feel for writing than what I feel for music. When I came to the point of deciding how much of my life I could devote to music, I turned away from it, knowing I could never practice enough to play at a level that would satisfy me or do justice to the music. I turned away from making music seriously about the time I turned to writing. In my life, with my level of talent, there is not enough time for music and for writing.


Reading Counterpoint got me thinking about Unequal Temperament's protagonist, Morgan, and her relationship to practice. She is more accomplished—and I daresay more talented—than Kennicott and far more than I am. There is no doubt in my mind that she could learn the Goldberg Variations at a deep and meaningful level. And she would probably play them on her harpsichord rather than her piano, though she might choose to learn on the piano a few variations that could benefit from the dynamic qualities of that instrument.


But when her father dies, Morgan turns away from playing the music she loves and leans into music that requires practice, discipline, work. In that way she has some similarities with Kennicott, who in mourning his mother turns to the work and practice of learning the Goldberg Variations. Morgan's grief is complicated by regrets that she doesn't want to look at, that in the first throes of grief she doesn't have the strength to look at.


Morgan and her father were close, and in her grief she turns away from what reminds her of him: the Baroque music they both loved, his paintings, and even memories of growing up. Kennicott and his mother had a much more fraught relationship, which I imagine contributed to the fraught aspects of his relationship with music. In learning the Goldberg Variations while mourning his mother, he deepens his understanding of his mother's influence on his life and his personality.


I'm talking about Kennicott as if he were a character, and Morgan as if she were a real person. I'm not convinced that's fair, but for a reader who values literature as a practice in empathy, such comparisons become second nature. I can't help but feel the better for it.

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Looking for Peter Grimes

CD cover for Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes

Sometimes something spooky happens when you're writing a story, especially a long story, that tells you it was destined to come into being. I'm not talking about how the pieces of the story fit just right when they fall into place—delightful though that may be, when you have control of the world you're creating, you can make that happen through your own planning and diligence. I'm talking about when something from outside your story's world falls into it and fits just right. That's spooky. For my novel Unequal Temperament, one of those spooky pieces was the opera Peter Grimes.


Of course, I did go looking for Peter Grimes, without knowing what I was looking for. I needed an opera for my characters to rehearse, and opera was not a form of music that I was well schooled in. I'd sung in many choirs, taken voice lessons, and enjoyed hearing soloists sing arias, but I had never had much interest in seeing a full-blown opera production unless I knew one or more of the performers. So my experience of opera and knowledge of the opera repertoire were scant.


Since my protagonist, Morgan, has a day job as a meteorologist, I went looking for an opera with weather. And I wanted it to be a relatively modern opera, so that it would be distant from the baroque music that Morgan loved and from the harpsichord she was avoiding.


I no longer remember the specifics of how I went about this search. I may have found a resource that summarized opera plots, or I may have done online searches with the term opera paired with various weather-related terms, like storm, ice, snow, wind, or rain. However I conducted the search, I soon stumbled upon Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.


Whether fair or foul, weather is omnipresent in Peter Grimes, which takes place in a fishing village. And the unpredictability of weather—the very problem that a meteorologist is charged with solving—plays a significant role in the precariousness of life for the eponymous 19th-century fisherman. And for his apprentices.


It was the apprentices that first made finding Peter Grimes feel spooky. The title character had a habit of losing his young apprentices. Whether it was murder or bad luck, the issues of responsibility and child neglect fit beautifully with one of Unequal Temperament's subplots and resonated strongly with Morgan's fears about parenthood. It felt like a perfect fit.


And then I listened to the music. I fell in love with it at first hearing, particularly the sublime orchestral interludes that were just made for Morgan's appreciation.


As I incorporated Peter Grimes into the novel, it inspired a number of scenes that were integral to story's preoccupations. It was like pulling a tailor-made suit off the rack. Likewise, bits of the libretto floated through my mind as I was writing and dropped down into Morgan's thoughts and dreams, propelling the plot forward to the very destination that I had always had in mind.


That is the way imagination works, I know. But it felt to me like divine intervention. Spooky.

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