Zoë Morrison on music and language in her debut novel
We’re delighted to be hosting an event next week with Zoë Morrison – a talented new voice in Australian fiction. Morrison will discuss her debut novel, Music and Freedom, with author Alice Pung. Find more details and booking information here.
In the lead-up to this event, we asked Morrison what role she saw the language of music as playing in her story. Here’s her response.
I started playing the violin when I was three and the piano when I was five. Daily practice was part of life, and I was in orchestras, ensembles and choirs. Later on I studied piano at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. That music is a language – indeed a mode of existence – is so commonsensical to me, so natural, that I seldom talk about it.
In Music and Freedom I think the language of music is partly a metaphor for voice: having a voice, being silent, or silenced. (And even if you have a voice, whose truth is it speaking?) It communicates unexpressed feelings, terrible experiences, political ideas, hope, doubt, transcendental love. Sometimes the music conveys romantic ideas and stereotypes that are untrue but serve certain character’s interests. It also does the opposite: expresses a truth so important to a character, yet so unarticulated, that music is the only way.
I started writing Music and Freedom when my relationship with music began to change. I was at Oxford University doing a doctorate on social exclusion and I had fallen in love with theories of social justice. My research was in an infamous council housing estate on the outskirts of town. I would catch the bus away from the dreaming spires then back to them. At the same time I was also performing in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest concert hall in continuous use in Europe, but I was starting to wonder what the point of it all was. Playing the same music people had played for centuries. How did this connect with all that I had been seeing and hearing?
On a trip back to Australia I bought a book on writing by Kate Grenville. Doing an exercise in a café in London an elderly woman called Alice Haywood walked onto a page. I knew that she had once been a concert pianist, had crippled hands, was close to death, and had started hearing music from the wall of her Oxford house, but I knew none of the reasons for these things. I started working on a novel in the Bodleian Library instead of academic papers.
For many years I tried to write Alice’s story and failed. But Alice was persistent. When I lived in Oxford I sometimes thought I could even feel her presence walking just ahead of me down a dark, narrow street in Jericho, the suburb she once walked in (of course, the woman had never existed).
Alice hears a note through a wall and it will not go away, it won’t be silenced. She thinks she is imagining it; she probably is. Music takes her on a journey that ultimately demands she make a decision about what really matters to her, and what love is. Her story showed me, again and again, that it is never too late to begin again, and to be free.