Music was a game they played with the truth, it was the tail of a kite, it was a shadow of an ever-changing ultimate that somehow held its shape in the mind, or seemed to; it was a high folly like no other and could therefore drive men and women mad with desire or sorrow.At the risk of further degrading my intellectual credentials, I should confess that I have very little interest in or knowledge of classical music. I seem to need lyrics, some kind of narrative on which to hang my attention, which is otherwise all too ready to drift. That being the case, I might not seem the person to review Adam S. Cantwell's A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night, which collects three stories of European composers briefly exposed to strange and mystical forces at work on the continent. But, as is often the case, a well-crafted description of something I don't care for is far more interesting than the thing itself. I am enough of a musical illiterate that I don't know all the terminology in the passage that follows, and can't even identify the sound of the music involved, but I do know gorgeous writing:
A clotted texture was woven by sustained dissonances in the piano’s left hand and muted glissandi from the cello. The palette was unrelievedly dark. Then an uncouth rumble arose from the profoundest notes of the piano and built threateningly. They rang out atop one another in a tightly complaining mass. I bowed ghastly harmonics in a rapid tremolo. Soon there was no shape to the music; the piano’s blocks of sound became the airless fabric of the piece. All ten of the Baroness’ fingers plied unheard-of chords of claustrophobic hemitones; the cello picked a twisting path with whining harmonics, as if tunneling through a solid mass. Portrayals of horror in music were nothing new but this was a refutation of movement and freedom in music, the abolition of the line and the abandonment of development.At any rate, these stories are about more than music. They take in the styles of the three composers, yes, but also their biographies, as well as national and continental history at various points in the twentieth century. In fact, I doubt I'm knowledgeable enough to understand all the subtexts of these stories. I'd never even heard of the Austrian poet from whose work the collection's title, and its lovely epigraph, derive. But enough about my limitations.
The first and longest of the three pieces, "Moonpaths of the Departed," features the Austrian composer Anton von Webern. Recently recovered from a nervous disorder, von Webern takes a commission in Slovenia. At a castle built into the entrance of a vast cave, among aristocrats, military men, and other influential figures, he finds his belief in music as a high and noble form of artistic expression challenged by events beyond his understanding. This novelette is rich in elegantly-fashioned scenes of the weird and disturbing, from a seance that calls up the spirits of the distant past, to a claustrophobic journey into the chilly depths of the cave, to a great concert at which the playing of a dissonant music brings forth something unexpected. All these manifestations contribute to the story's thematic sensibility, in which, as in some of Lovecraft's early tales, lurking primitivism threatens to undermine human sanity. And, as the ending of the story suggests, more than the individual's survival may be at stake when certain darknesses slither into the open.
Like "Moonpaths of the Departed," "The Kuutar Concerto" features music as mystical invocation. An embarrassing lapse during a concert leads Jean Sibelius to an evening of carousing, during which he is reminded of an ambitious composition from his youth. What he hopes to do with a hastily-constructed new version of that destroyed early work is not so different in the broad strokes from what von Webern's music did, but everything else about this story is different. Sibelius' combination of pride in his reputation and fear over his limitations, rather reminiscent in content though not in style of Joyce Carol Oates' Gothic stories of the famous, is different from Von Webern's anxious erudition, and the drunken joy of his backstreet wanderings is nothing like the fine castle and dank caverns of Slovenia. Most important of all, the great and terrible powers interested in this music have nothing in common with the horrors of the earlier tale, and offer a different variety of supernatural thrill.
The final piece, "Symphony of Sirens," continues this trend of remarkably diverse variations on a theme. This report on the interrogation of Alexander Mosolov after an inexplicable malfunction of the plane transporting him to the Gulag includes claims that the doctrinaire interrogator cannot reconcile with her staid materialism. His vision of men dancing on clouds, and of an orchestra linking the cities of Europe, is as imaginative and delicately rendered as the other stories, but slightly less substantial. This is no flaw for the story itself, but, after the depth of "Moonpaths of the Departed" and "The Kuutar Concerto," it makes for a weaker conclusion to the volume than I might have hoped for. But that is, as complaints go, a small one, and A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night is, like The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies from the same publisher, a slim collection that nonetheless offers a rich feast of diverse yet thematically linked stories for connoisseurs of the fantastic, of classical music, and of European history.
The author provided me with a review copy of this book.