Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.

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  • Paul Phillips mentions in passing the prescient Burgess work, “1985”.

    Burgess’s trilogy on Malaya, “The Long Day Wanes” is a marriage of musicality, language and dialect “cavorting” in a multiracial context, with great glimpses of a new world aborning.

    The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy, also published as The Malayan Trilogy, is Anthony Burgess’s novel cycle about the anxiety-laden British withdrawal from empire and reminds one a bit of the 2005 Richard Grant movie “Wah-Wah” about the later end of the British hold on its Swaziland colony in the late 60’s.
    The three volumes are:
    • Time for a Tiger (1956)
    • The Enemy in the Blanket (1958)
    • Beds in the East (1959)
    The title taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses: “The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: / The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. / Push off, and sitting well in order smite / The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die.”
    The protagonist of the work is Victor Crabbe, a teacher in a multiracial school in a squalid village, who moves upward in position as he and his wife maintain a steady decadent progress backward.

    The emergence of Asia is one theme:
    “The whole East was awake, building dams and canals, power-houses and car factories, forming committees, drawing up constitutions, having selected from the West the few tricks it could understand and use.” (Blanket)
    Language, musicality and American pop culture is another:
    “Robert Loo had sucked in hundreds of polyglot street songs with his mother’s milk, absorbed the rhythms of many Eastern languages and reproduced them on wind and strings. It was Malayan music, but would Malaya ever hear it?” (Beds).”
    “But the sounds of Malaya are swamped by the influence of the American jukebox.” (Beds)
    For more context to be used in conjunction with this Paul Phillips ROS interview:

  • I’ve nothing against jazz, but since my stint in Jazz Choir years ago I’ve pretty much ignored it, because Burgess is right: it is more fun to play jazz than to listen to it. I’m no musician, and so I’ve never played classical or rock, and I love them both. But jazz? Meh. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it.

    • Jazzman

      All I can say to this comment is “de gustibus non est disputandum”

      Well that’s not all I can say… For me, playing jazz is loads of fun, especially if the players are simpatico but as there are so many players who are instrumental improvisational virtuosos with huge ears (not the cartilaginous appendages), listening provides a transcendental state that is rare in my life (well it’s not so rare as I listen to music quite often) but little else affects a similar mental state.

      I would never be able to master the technique and ability of many (most) jazz players even if I had the time and inclination. Listening to their creations (and they are truly novel creations each time they play) allows me to appreciate the time, technique and talent that is demonstrated in their work to say nothing of the chord it strikes in my psyche.

      Classical music to me is a composer’s form, it doesn’t give much opportunity for players to imbue the pieces with their own creativity, but a sophisticated computer could easily play the “punch cards” and few would be able to discern a difference. Lang Lang is a notable exception to that rule as are some of the Jazz/Classical hybrid players such as Ted Rosenthal or Danilo Perez. Popular music is increasingly about rhythm, poetry and showmanship and very few pop performers speak to or inspire me. I tend towards novelty pop such as They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies, or Randy Newman. I also still like folk, bluegrass and the All Star Shoe Band. Modern country, I find cloying and many times depressing.

      Jazz (like memories) is made fresh daily and offers a player to stretch beyond the instrument, technique and the tyranny of the changes. Each session allows one to be the best or worst or just average self but it is in that artistic moment that the magic happens in the ear of the behearer.

      Peace to ALL,


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  • Potter

    I love the idea of listening to Debussy for color! More familiar for me is to look at some paintings for it’s music.

    Thank you for a very interesting conversation and introduction to Burgess’s music… and the wonderful excerpts.

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