Music, repetition, and identity in Bernard Mac Laverty’s Grace Notes

“The same sound but with a different meaning”: music, repetition, and identity in Bernard Mac Laverty’s Grace Notes

Gerry Smyth


THE last decade of the twentieth century witnessed a proliferation of novels dealing with the subject of music. I shall leave it to some enthusiastic young scholar to undertake a full inventory, but even a cursory browse of the bookshelves and catalogues is enough to confirm the trend. The scene was set in 1992 by Toni Morrison with Jazz, a difficult novel that attempted to reproduce the elaborate systems of early-twentieth-century African-American music in literary form. More recently, high-profile examples have been provided by Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. (1) As these texts demonstrate, moreover, “music” was very liberally understood by their authors, encompassing the traditions of classical, jazz, and rock/pop. Although neither Rushdie’s nor Seth’s novels was particularly well received (critical orthodoxy maintaining that the authors will never repeat the achievement of Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy, respectively), together with Kay’s striking debut all three reveal a widespread tendency toward the invocation of musical matter through the medium of extended prose fiction.

Another such novel is Bernard Mac Laverty’s Grace Notes, a work not only about music on a number of related levels, but one that also attempts to invoke musical effects and to incorporate musical form into its own structure. (2) In this, it makes intertextual reference to a long (though infrequently considered) tradition of what in this essay I shall refer to as “the musical novel.” At the same time, as a story about contemporary Northern Ireland, it engages with a (critically orthodox) tradition of colonial and postcolonial fiction foregrounding questions of representation, resistance, identity, and voice. These traditions–the well-known one concerning the novelistic representation of (sub-)national identity, and the lesser remarked one concerning the novelistic representation of music–have productively cross-fertilized at a number of points in Irish cultural history. In this article, I describe the type and provenance of those moments of productive cross-fertilization before considering how Grace Notes adopts and/or modifies a range of issues attending upon the musical novel.


What could account for the rise of the “musical novel” during recent times? One might speculate that the contemporary novelist’s concern with music represents a response to the fin de siecle growth of interdisciplinarity in the critical languages that service the creative arts. Cultural Studies offers one such obvious language, less concerned with traditional disciplines (whether creative or critical), it seems, than with the organization and dissemination of power across a range of discursive practices and institutional sites. Cultural Studies–indeed, modern criticism in general–is by and large theory-driven rather than text-driven; it tends to read the text in terms of a range of a priori precepts rather than granting it the courtesy of an immanent response. The provenance and effect of such a practice is the subject of ongoing debate; but, in the meantime, the currently dominant critical mood might be described as holistic rather than discrete, and this may have created, or at least contributed to, a general intellectual/academic zeitgeist in which the musical novel can flourish.

Rather than representing some entirely new departure, however, the admixture of artistic concerns in the musical novel in fact partakes of a well-established tradition. The novel, it turns out, has always been fascinated with music, and at some points in its history this fascination has become an obsession. (3) Perhaps this development should not come as too much of a surprise: the modern form of the novel and the tradition of classical art music developed alongside each other from the early eighteenth century, although for much of their shared history, the latter has represented a far more respectable (understood in the bourgeois terms that set the standards for artistic decorum) than the former. The novel has in fact suffered an inferiority complex with regard to what is widely seen as its more developed, better patronized, and frankly more popular sister art form. With its invocation of ritual elements such as rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, poetry may have been a reminder of language’s link to music; fiction, however, remained primarily story-oriented, mortgaged to the remorseless logic of the bourgeois realist narrative and its attendant discourses: character, plot, plausibility.

Jealous of their poetic and musical rivals, novelists made a virtue of the verbal medium within which they worked, with the consequence that the novel developed into a mass form during the nineteenth century. Novelists clinging to an image of themselves as artists rather than “mere” story-tellers, however, continued to envy what they perceived to be the more favorable medium of their musical counterparts. Such envy helps to account for the ubiquity of musical references in the writings of a host of modern(ist) novelists, most notably Forster, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Beckett, Hesse, and Mann. The attraction of music for these writers, as Alex Aronson suggests in his extended study of the subject, was that it was both transcendent and historical at the same time. Specifically, music alerted the writer to “the existence of a non-verbal reality more expressive than speech and conforming to the dictates of inner time beyond anything that the novelist’s language could communicate.” (4) Simultaneously, it enabled the writers to dramatize much more fully than language ever could the tension (supposedly essential but actually consequent on the evolving bourgeois imagination) between individual expression and social compulsion. I shall return to this duality presently but, meanwhile, the significant point to note is that music became much more than an occasion for the development of narrative or the explication of character; in many cases it replaced verbal language-narrative as the principal expressive medium. By the period of the high modernist avant-garde, in other words, the time seemed ripe for some kind of rapprochement between fiction and music.

Unfortunately, western art music had been undergoing its own agonies throughout the nineteenth century and was in no position to entertain the offer. Two related problems beset the composer during the Victorian era: on the one hand, what could he (almost invariably “he”) do but construct elaborate yet essentially vapid glosses to the harmonic, melodic, and structural discourses apparently perfected in the work of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven? On the other hand, the world had changed so rapidly over the course of the century that those discourses now seemed radically inappropriate for any meaningful expression of the human condition. Haunted by an Oedipal anxiety of influence on one side, and a fear of redundancy on the other, twentieth-century western art music unsurprisingly existed in perpetual crisis, characterized by a series of determined efforts to “leave home.” It is in this context that one may begin to understand the appeal of serialism, as well as the various challenges–for example, electronic and aleatory music, as well as the use of a range of “noisy” effects such as syncopation, chromaticism, dissonance, and atonality–that proliferated both within and without the academy throughout the past century.

The effect of such developments was curious, to say the least. While fiction was turning to music as relief from the banalities of verbal language-based narrative, many composers and music critics were rejecting the kind of music (and the effects it supposedly generated) coveted by these writers, and were instead searching for what they considered to be more appropriate modes of “musical”–now sufficiently problematical so as to be punctuated within quotation marks. Thus, at more or less the same time the novelist E.M. Forster was invoking Beethoven in Howards End (published 1910) as the measure of his own artistic failure, the composer Igor Stravinsky was preparing (with The Rite of Spring, first performed in 1913) to seriously challenge, if not demolish, the tradition of romantic/classical music, which took Beethoven as one of its principal reference points. (5)

Such seemingly abstract critical negotiations are linked to one rather obvious creative problem, which is the fact, as Aronson puts it, that “language is a singularly inept vehicle of expression when it is called upon to say something adequate about the content of a musical work.” (6) How can the novelist convey a definitionally aural expression (music) through a principally visual medium–that is, the written word as it appears on the page? (7) Although initially presenting itself as a problem to do with medium, the standoff between music and language eventually emerges as one between different models of the musical novel. On the one hand, the novelist may choose to focus on individual human consciousness in specific sociohistorical settings, as mediated through musical discourse. Interesting in this respect is the fiction of Roddy Doyle, for whom (popular) musical discourse invariably functions in tacit conversation with novelistic discourse. Doyle deploys music as a means of alluding to absent (yet fully recognizable) alternatives for characters who find themselves in greater or lesser degrees of crisis. Whereas this function is thematized in The Commitments, in the later novels, music, although not formally incorporated into the narrative, becomes an important index of the individual’s relation to the various collectives–family, community, state–in which he finds himself. This condition also characterizes Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which contemporary rock music provides a series of historical reference points against which the story “proper” unfolds.

It might be argued that the novelist’s invocation of musical discourse in this way is in danger of missing the point entirely–that is, that music represents a qualitative difference in the signifying economy, and that such an appropriation violates its essence. But this in turn begs the question of music’s “essence,” which is to say, its fundamental property and condition as a mode of human expression. This is the issue broached by a second category of writer who, accepting the novel’s debasement before music, chooses to focus on what is widely perceived to be the latter’s “essential” function as an indication of truth beyond the ability to represent. In Seth’s An Equal Music, for example, the writer seems concerned to celebrate music (and to invite the reader to share that celebration, both by reading the book and by purchasing the accompanying CD!) as the primary human medium to the degree that it intimates mysterious levels of meaning that must remain impervious to rational engagement.

But such an understanding brings its own problems. On one level, the postulation of music as an ultimately recondite discourse categorically downgrades the validity of any historical (and thus effective) explanation of its impact and/or practices. The result, as one reviewer of An Equal Music put it, is “to imprison music in a sentimental idealism–ahistorical, anti-intellectual and fundamentally uncreative.” (8) There are other ways, especially for the novelist, to write about music that highlight its effectivity as opposed to (or at least as well as) its ineffability. More significantly for present purposes, however, problems accumulate around the issue of representation, and more specifically around what Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his description of the difference between the modern and the post-modern, terms the “unpresentable.” Lyotard writes that

modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one.

It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents;

but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer

to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure…. The postmodern

would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in

presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the

consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the

nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations,

not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the

unpresentable. (9)

An Equal Music is obviously “modern” in these terms, because although Seth is quite clearly alluding to the “unpresentable,” he does so within the terms of a straightforward realist narrative in which a linear plot is driven forward by discourses of “recognizable consistency”–which is to say, causal plausibility and character identification. Here, indeed, we have “matter for solace and pleasure” as music’s numinous beauty is set against the narrator’s loss of youth and love to create an atmosphere of wistful nostalgia.

Music performs specific functions within the novelistic tradition, then–focusing issues to do with the relationship between reality and representation in ways that literary discourse alone cannot. Grace Notes, as we shall see presently, is addressed to the dialectic described above in its representation of, on the one hand, a specifically historicized music–music that emerges from and impacts upon specific sociopolitical contexts–and on the other, a music that speaks to (supposedly) transcendent human truths. The novel is, moreover, self-consciously responsive to the ways in which the formal aspects of one medium–music–mitigate those of another–fiction. But Mac Laverty’s celebrated novel is not only about music; it is also about Northern Ireland. Another set of issues arises, therefore, in relation to Ireland’s traditional dual status as a “troubled,” yet “inherently” musical, culture.


While the late twentieth century witnessed the re-emergence of the musical novel, it also saw the development of an institutional/intellectual formation in which issues of race, ethnicity, space, and power came to exercise a powerful influence on both creative and critical practices. It may be no more than coincidence, but two of the texts mentioned at the beginning of this essay are by high-profile, successful authors (Seth and Rushdie) regularly designated “postcolonial” in the critical literature which attends their work, whereas the remaining two are by writers (Morrison and Kay) who focus self-consciously on issues of identity, ethnicity, and gender. All four novels are by non-white artists writing from perspectives that might be defined as “oppositional” in outlook and tenor. This alerts us to the possibility of a connection between the politics of resistance (including quite centrally postcolonialism) and the systematic utilization of music as an alternative mode of expression within novelistic discourse. (10)

Like Kay’s Scotland, the status of Ireland (which Ireland?) as a postcolonial country (island? republic? province?) is questionable, to say the least. Nevertheless, it remains a commonplace of critical literature to say that Irish fiction represents a discourse in perpetual crisis, and that this crisis may be seen as a reflection of a violent, disrupted history. (11) Although describing both a coherent cultural concept and a recognizable social practice, in other words, the phrase “Irish novel” is one under erasure, describing as it does a discourse in which each term constantly interrogates and mitigates the other. With its connotations of displacement and fragmentation, there is something about the word “Irish” which threatens any normative model of novelistic discourse; conversely, there is something about the word “novel,” with its drive toward heroic self-possession and narrative closure, that problematizes the “Irish” qualifier. Without exoticizing (and thus annulling the challenge of) the situation, one may appreciate how this created the context in which specifically non-novelistic practices–in effect, a peculiar Irish modernism–could emerge and thrive. (12) This in turn provided a space for the exploitation of signifying systems alternative to the traditional novelistic conventions of narrative, language, and character. One such signifying system, as is clear from an overview of the tradition, is music.

If the phrase “Irish novel” is problematical, the phrase “Irish music” is similarly under erasure. To understand the crucial role that music has played in modern Irish cultural history we have to turn to the beginnings of cultural nationalist discourse in the latter half of the eighteenth century. For it was during that period that the notion of an inherent Irish musicality–a notion extant but never fully politicized during the medieval and early modern periods–was consolidated. (13) This notion of the Irish as an essentially musical race continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. Irish music, as Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone argue, became locked in to “a specific ethnic category based on the assumption that there was an identifiably Irish musical style that existed as an expression of the people, a reflection of their innate feelings and sensibilities.” (14) As they go on to suggest, moreover, this assumption continues to influence modern Irish culture:

In terms of music, the essentialist notions that underlie dominant

conceptions of “Irishness” (and which are most characteristically applied

to Irish traditional music) can be seen on the one hand as ideologically

conservative and analytically restrictive, privileging “nature” over

culture and alluding to a deep essence of Irishness that withstands

historical change. On the other hand, the need to mark difference,

especially in the global discourse of popular music, might also require the

“strategic” mobilization of aspects of this “Irishness” precisely to

identify and mark out a space in the global “noise” where the experience of

being peripheral might be articulated (and a firm political belief or sense

of cultural identity asserted). (15)

The latter “hand” is a postmodernist variation, enabling a range of musicians from the popular and art traditions to “quote” their Irishness without being implicated in any form of essentialist politics. (16) But even a brief glance at the contemporary Irish cultural landscape shows us that it is the former “hand” that remains dominant–which is to say, there can be no doubting that music has emerged as a central element of modern Irish culture, supporting historical interpretations of a supposedly unproblematical “Irish” identity, and modern creative initiatives that attempt to trade thereon. But if postcolonial theory has taught us anything, it is that critical engagements which turn on an “inherent” cultural capacity (such as musicality) invariably reproduce the systems of thought that they were constructed to oppose. (17)

Although it is possible to observe these two factors cross-fertilizing throughout modern Irish cultural history, the primary arena in which the crisis-ridden genre meets the notion of an “inherently” musical race is the work of James Joyce. And, although music permeates all of Joyce’s writings, his short story “The Dead” and the eleventh chapter of Ulysses (the one designated “Sirens” in the various author-sanctioned schema) have proved most fertile for analyses of Joyce’s musical fiction. (18)

Both texts deploy the notion of an inherent Irish musicality, with narrative and character developed against the background of a society in which music performs important functions. But Joyce manages to expose the limitations of received narrative forms in a culture possessed of a fractured, “nightmarish” history. Related to this point, “The Dead” dramatizes the tension between what Terence Brown describes as “the music with which an Irish Catholic middle class at the turn of the century could feel comfortable and a music which speaks for a more vital, dangerous territory of the national consciousness.” (19) That is to say, different kinds of music (on the one hand, the well-made songs associated with Thomas Moore and the polite society represented by the Morkan sisters and their guests, and on the other, the ballad tradition associated with Michael Furey) represent different versions of Irish identity–the first an expression of a modernizing class “who wished to escape the nightmare of history and to settle for a comfortable, eventually constitutional, nationalism”; the second an intimation of older forms of national desire based upon an “elemental passion,” one that threatens and eventually fractures “the elegant complacency of an Edwardian Dublin social occasion.” (20) If “The Dead” is about music and its ability to dramatize the tension between social memory and individual experience in an Irish historical context, “Sirens” stands as the most famous experiment in any tradition (with the possible exception of Jazz) in blending musical and literary form. Narrative temporarily surrenders to noise in that chapter, with meaning organized in existentially elevated musical, rather than historically damaged linguistic, terms.

Joyce’s work functions as the bridge between the two broad areas of interest discussed thus far, then: music and fiction, and music and Irish identity. On the one hand, Joyce invokes a specifically musical system of signification to explore the crisis of early-twentieth-century novelistic discourse and the deeper historical crisis of the western subject which the novel had traditionally served. This is Joyce the (proto-post-) modernist. Whereas the short story attempts to recuperate the “unpresentable” (in this case, “the dead”) through a discourse of nostalgic representation, the chapter invokes the good musical form of the fuga per canonem precisely to point up the tendentiousness of all forms of representation, in Lyotard’s terms, “to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” (21) At the same time, Joyce’s engagement with music is overdetermined by his location within a national cultural tradition in which music performs specific ideological functions. This is Joyce the (proto-) postcolonialist. In this reading, the short story reveals the implication of different musical discourses within different decolonizing narratives, while the chapter articulates a self-consciousness with regard to the role of language in the formation of subaltern identities.


I want to suggest that, as a latter-day Irish musical novel, Grace Notes is in implicit dialogue with the developments described above. Which is to say, Mac Laverty’s novel is located in the interstices between linked, though distinguishable, cultural-critical narratives–one concerned with a (supposedly) generalized politics of representation, the other with a specific national-historical tradition. My argument here is that Mac Laverty organizes this text in such a way that the latter is resolved in terms of the former, by which I mean that the Irish colonialist problematic is represented as a specific historical instance of a deeper human problematic, one focused on the relations between the unique and the general in human affairs, and more suggestively upon the function of repetition at both the cultural-historical and the phenomenological-individual levels. The musical novel, as we shall see, is the ideal medium for this kind of artistic treatment, for it enables the theme of repetition to be engaged at both the formal and conceptual levels, thereby fostering a quasi-organic cycle of theme, repetition, and variation within the text. Finally, I want to suggest that Grace Notes withdraws from the radical implications it sets in motion, that its musical (and, by extension, political) vision is circumscribed by the classical bourgeois frame of reference within which it operates, and that despite its incorporation of significant musical elements into its form, Mac Laverty’s novel eventually succumbs to a “modernist” aesthetic that, in Lyotard’s terms, offers the reader “matter for solace and pleasure” rather than a stronger sense of the “unpresentable.”

Grace Notes is an unusually structured work, being divided into two almost exact halves. Part One–which in plot terms actually post-dates Part Two–introduces us to Catherine Anne McKenna, a young composer living in Glasgow. At the outset of the narrative Catherine is returning home to small-town Northern Ireland for her father’s (Catholic) funeral. We learn of her troubled relationship with her parents, her current depression, her musical education in Belfast, Glasgow, and Kiev, and her encounter with various characters and situations. Part Two takes the reader back to the period preceding the death of her father, during which time she lived on the small Scottish island of Islay with Chris, a feckless English charmer with whom she has a baby. Narrated largely in free indirect discourse, we read of Catherine’s pregnancy and labor, and then of the onset of a debilitating post-natal depression caused in part by her inability to compose and in part by her partner’s submission to alcoholism. After an epiphany on the Islay beach, Catherine returns to Glasgow, at which point she begins to write a work encapsulating many of the experiences broached throughout the earlier part of the text–sectarianism, familial strife, the joy and terror of motherhood, the apparently universal emotional economy of hope and despair. This two-part work, entitled Vernicle, is commissioned by BBC Scotland for a series celebrating folk themes or instruments; the instrument Catherine decides to feature is one of the icons of loyalist culture, the Lambeg drum. The last few pages of the book describe her nervous attendance at its first performance, as well as the work itself in extended detail. We may infer that shortly after the performance she receives word of her father’s death, and returns home for the funeral, which provides the focus for Part One.

Mac Laverty attempts to engage with music on a number of levels from the outset. In the first two pages, Catherine hears cars going by in the rain, a man whistling, an engine idling, airport jingles and announcements, workmen hammering and sawing, a baby crying. The narrative makes immediately clear, in other words, that her apprehension of the world is dominated by sound, by the ear rather than the eye or any of the other senses. Life is noisy, the novel suggests, and when noise is formalized by human perception it becomes music. (22) Mac Laverty bypasses the notion of the Irish as an inherently musical race, however, by refusing to ally music with any particular tradition of national identity. Rather, music becomes the medium through which identity and otherness may commune. Thus, noting the seven syllables in the opening lines of the Kyrie (Kyrie Eleison) and the Credo (Credo in unam Deum), Catherine makes a connection between her own life and the mass she is trying to write:

Seven in all. That was her. A mythic number. Seven little claps in all.

Catherine Anne McKenna. Mysterious. The first voice like a precentor.

Followed by others, each of whom is a precentor to the rest. Grace

notes–notes which were neither one thing nor the other. A note between the

notes. Notes that occurred outside time. Ornaments dictating the character

of the music, the slur and slide of it. This is decoration becoming

substance. Like a round in Granny Boyd’s kitchen. Or Purcell’s Songs of the

Tavern. Soarings. Voices slipping. Joining folk music and art music. East

and West. Male and Female. (133) (23)

Although not stating so much at this point, this list of conjoined opposites will eventually also encompass Protestant and Catholic, Loyalist and Republican, Nationalist and Unionist. What these latter traditions cannot countenance, and what music precisely enables us to perceive, are, metaphorically speaking, the “grace notes” that constitute life itself above and beyond the human ability to formalize. Our characteristic species inheritance is precisely this desire to formalize, it seems, to turn events into rituals, rituals into traditions, and traditions into markers of identity. What this process misses, however, is music’s inelutable anti formalism. Musical discourse fetishizes form–noise only becomes music, after all, when it is formalized–but this is paradoxical because what is ultimately valued about music is its mystery, its ability to present the unpresentable, to intimate to the listener things unapproachable through traditional forms. Thus, Catherine’s use of the “Protestant” drums in Vernicle functions for her as an affirmation of life in general rather than a celebration of one particular kind of life.

In this way, Mac Laverty brings a tradition of Irish musical fiction into creative dialogue with the tradition of Irish political fiction. More specifically, the cross-fertilization of musical and political discourses is thematized throughout Grace Notes with reference to a phenomenon that performs a significant function in both aesthetic and political discourses–the phenomenon of repetition. That is to say, repetition is an important rhetorical resource in both literature and music; at the same time, it features as the predominant characteristic of Nationalist and Unionist discourses in Northern Ireland, fixated as they both are with preserving the past through practices and rituals of repetition. At this stage, I want to look at some of the ways in which Mac Laverty represents one medium of (musical) repetition by means of another (literary) medium, and how he deploys both to reflect on a sectarian society that has traditionally fetishized the ability to repeat the past without transformation.

In Fiction and Repetition, J. Hillis Miller describes two kinds of literary repetition: one, “Platonic,” based on similarity and “grounded in a solid archetypal model that is untouched by the effects of repetition”; the other, “Nietzschean,” based on difference and giving rise to “ungrounded doublings which arise from differential interrelations among elements which are all on the same plane.” (24) In his essay “On Repetition,” Edward Said points to a similar discursive economy. Making a connection between the use of repetition in Vico and Bach, Said (who is renowned as both a music and postcolonial critic) notes that in a composition such as the Goldberg Variations “a ground motif [the cantus firmus] anchors the ornamental variations taking place above it. Despite the proliferation of changing rhythms, patterns, and harmonies, the ground motif recurs throughout, as if to demonstrate its staying power and its capacity for endless elaboration.” (25) Said opposes this form of repetition (obviously of the “Platonic” variety described by Hillis Miller) to one in which a repeated figure “degrades” rather than “enhances” the prior enunciation. (26)

Although Said does not make the connection, the musical equivalent of this “Nietzschean” or “degraded” repetition would be serialism, a system of musical composition in which, as Daniel Albright (in the context of an interesting essay on music in Beckett) puts it,

you must sound each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, the scale

that counts every semitone in the octave, before you repeat a note; and you

must sound the twelve notes in the same order every time, though they may

be gathered into chords at pleasure. This procedure ensures a kind of

unity, in that certain melodic shapes are likely to recur, but it also

ensures that unity will not derive from the persistence of a tonic note,

since no note has greater prestige or frequency than any other note. (27)

On one level, Grace Notes implicitly supports a kind of signifying practice in which repetition “degrades” rather than “enhances” any notion of “a solid archetypal model,” an “original” against which repeated forms might be measured. Repetition in this sense does not copy (repeat) the “original” but changes–contrary to received notions of temporal linearity (and the political systems relying thereon)–its meaning. (28) Like Joyce in Ulysses, Mac Laverty wishes to show how “[al repeated sign always refers back and illuminates a play of identity and difference which cannot entirely be appropriated by a reading directed towards a totalized meaning.” (29) Thus, it is only when she distances herself from Northern Ireland that Catherine can articulate the emotion she felt on first hearing the Lambeg drum during a childhood walk with her father. Because of her father’s relation to the drum’s sectarian heritage, the emotion could not be expressed without in some way denying him and in some respects herself. The novel may thus be understood as Catherine’s search for a means to express the sounds that have impacted on her identity, but in such a way as to avoid repeating the relationships which set the limits on her father’s life.

Grace Notes thus functions as a plea for political tolerance based on the notion of a form of repetition that does not reproduce an “original.” Repetition is thematized in the text as part of the process–simultaneously artistic and sociopolitical–whereby Catherine refuses to be used by the past (her father, sectarian tradition) but instead finds the strength and courage to use it as part of her own ongoing project of creative self-identity. By incorporating the “Protestant” drums into her work, she metaphorically kills her father; at the same time, however, she salvages him as a positive, creative influence on her own life, the independent life she must lead if she is not to remain the sum of the influences to which she has been exposed.

The themes of repetition and tension between generations obviously recall modernism in general, and Joyce in particular. But the thematization of repetition in this novel is also linked with Joyce’s attempt to install musical discourse at a formal level within “Sirens.” The text works continually to point to the differences that occur when themes, emotions, and situations are repeated in different contexts, or when they are remembered from alternative perspectives–what the narrator refers to as “the ability unique to music to say one or more things at once” (275), or (focalized by Catherine) the ability both to appreciate and to articulate “the same sound but with a different meaning” (275). This capacity is signaled throughout the text by a series of linguistic puns and homophones: “linseed oil” and “Lynn C. Doyle” (24), “Bartok” and “bar talk” (25), “pressing” (ironing) and “pressing” (urgent) (49), “stand” (arise) and “stand” (tolerate) (108), and so on.

As in Joyce, this theme is also borne out at a formal level. Thus, the bells Catherine hears early in the text (50) remind her of the bells on a strap used for childhood chastisement. The taped bells which sound as her father’s remains are being removed to church (56) excite in her emotions of loss and guilt, while also making intertextual reference to all the other Catholic funerals that have taken place in this sectarian society. However, these generally negative connotations are mitigated by the bells she hears (123-24) when visiting the composer Melnichuck in Kiev, bells that create in Catherine an infectious “excitement and joy,” and whose description–“Tin-tinn-ab-you-la-ish-on”–recall the seven syllables that will in time respark her own creativity. Because of the form of the text, no straight-forwardly linear relationship exists between these moments. The plot–first childhood, then Kiev, then funeral–is belied by the narrative–first childhood, then funeral, then Kiev. We may assume that Catherine’s negative response to the taped bells at her father’s funeral (56) relates to her negative experience of bells in childhood (50), but we will eventually learn that it is also a response to the positive experience of bells in Kiev (123-24). We may also assume that the “excitement and joy” Catherine felt on hearing the bells of Kiev were a response to the negative connotations carried from childhood. All these moments are then positively reclaimed and formalized in the final appearance of the bells (274) as part of the second movement of Vernicle, the orchestral composition that closes the novel.

It is in respect of this musical work, and more importantly its place within the text’s double structure, that the issue of repetition is presented most forcefully. In the first movement, the Lambeg drums are male, minatory, and hostile, in conflict with the main orchestra:

Insistent, cacophonous rhythm. Disintegration. The tormented orchestra

tries to keep its head above the din of these strangers. The black blood of

hatred stains every ear…. Their aggression, their swagger put her in mind

of Fascism…. A brutalizing of the body, the spirit, humanity. Thundering

and thundering and thundering and thundering. When the drums stopped on a

signal from Randal the only thing that remained was a feeling of depression

and darkness. Utter despair. (272-73)

These are the connotations that set the limits on her father’s understanding of the drums, while the depression and darkness recall Catherine’s own emotional state after the birth of her baby and the breakdown of her relationship. After despair comes joy, however:

The second movement is the other side of the arch…. At the moment when

the music comes to its climax, a carillon of bells and brass, the Lambegs

make another entry at maximum volume. The effect this time is not one of

terror or depression but the opposite…. The Lambegs have been stripped of

their bigotry and have become pure sound…. On this accumulating wave the

drumming has a fierce joy about it. Exhilaration comes from nowhere. The

bell-beat, the slabs of brass, the whooping of the horns, the battering of

the drums. Sheer fucking unadulterated joy. (273-76)

Repetition thus preserves the original while also transforming it; in a different context, the same drums (signifying aggression and despair) have created a different effect (exhilaration and joy). Catherine has repeated her father’s engagement with the drums, but created her own meaning from them. This transformative aesthetic, moreover, is borne out in a more general sense by the form of the text. The artistic triumph comes at the end of the narrative (277), but the form of the text then sends us back to the beginning (3)–Catherine arriving back in Northern Ireland for her father’s funeral–at which point her doubts and fears reemerge. The musical joy she experiences at the end of Part Two is then repeated by the personal joy she experiences on holding her baby again on her return to Glasgow (138). (30) Whereas the plot shows us Catherine slowly healing herself in artistic and personal terms, the narrative reveals the extent to which impressions of linearity are belied by a series of overlapping internal temporalities in which joy and despair coexist, and in which the past subsists within, even as it is transformed by its repetition in the present. This insight in itself depends in large part on a second reading, one which repeats the first (the same pages are read) but this time with a knowledge of the significance–indeed, the existence–of key themes and structures. (31)

The overall effect is to reveal the illusion consequent on the conventional perception of time as linear, and everything that rests upon that erroneous perception. What I mean by this is that the possibility of a repetition that both retains and transforms the original is obviously intended by Mac Laverty to resonate in the political context of “the troubles.” We may be doomed to repeat the past, but aesthetic experience (Mac Laverty’s, Catherine’s, the reader’s) also helps us to move toward a realization that every repetition represents, despite itself, a transformation, and that this contributes to a liberation from the notion that effective identity resides only in the ritualized repetition of originary essences. We can (indeed, we must) acknowledge the past, but we do not need to be enslaved by it. Music, the novel suggests, is the principal modern cultural practice affording this insight, because it remains unencumbered by the necessity for narrative progression, and because it uses repetition to point up possibilities for transformation rather than replication.

A series of repetitions thus infuses Grace Notes: the two parts of the text, the two parts of Vernicle, Catherine’s personal oscillation between despair and joy, Northern Irish society’s paradoxical fetishization of the past through rituals of originality, the text’s demand for a second reading. The novel is about music–which is to say, it uses musical discourse to dramatize the overlapping tensions between the personal, the professional, and the political. Catherine’s artistic crisis simultaneously mirrors and is caused by a wider social crisis into which, as a late-twentieth-century Irish woman, she has been born. The insight she gains as an artist–that the same sounds can mean different things in different contexts, and that this process is ultimately inscrutable–resonates in sociopolitical terms also, registering as a plea for tolerance and respect for difference. At the same time, Grace Notes does not try merely to present these things, but to encode them in the form of an organic text that is itself doubled, with incidents, motifs, and insights repeated so as to reveal their different impact in different contexts. Mac Laverty’s book, in other words, clearly aspires to the musical, attempting (like “Sirens,” Jazz, and to a certain extent Trumpet) to actuate musical forms and effects rather than just represent them.

Although Grace Notes implicitly opposes the notion of repetition as the sign of originality, a question mark remains over the extent to which it actually supports a form of “Nietzschean” repetition for which, as we have seen, the musical equivalent would be serialism. Music (generically considered) is celebrated by Mac Laverty as that which “unhomes” us by virtue of its ability to transform through repetition; yet the musical imagination validated in and by the text is resolutely “homed,” nostalgically wedded to a narrative of unalienated identity. That same imagination in fact falls well short of a full-blooded serialism in which music would be entirely “unhomed,” in which sounds repeat systematically but without reference to a home key. The text’s guiding aesthetic could legitimately be described as neo-romantic; the composers valued by Catherine belong to (or at least are routinely claimed by) the tradition of European expressionist art music–the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, at a lesser level, of Purcell, Vivaldi, Janacek, and a host of other composers name-checked throughout the text. Even the fictional character of Melnichuck (who seems to be a composite of Arvo Part and Einojuhani Rautavaara) writes music into which “[thousands] of years were compressed,” music that expresses for Catherine recognizable emotions of “pain and love, joy and loss” (226). As with An Equal Music, however, the tradition of twentieth-century anti-expressionism gets very short shrift indeed, as when Catherine characterizes a piece by Stockhausen as ugly, ineffectual, totally abstract, a theoretical conspiracy of lies (260). (32)

In Lyotard’s terms, then, Grace Notes is resolutely “modern,” ultimately offering “the reader … matter for solace and pleasure” by virtue of the “recognizable consistency” of its form. No rational person would wish to experience pain and loss, but at the same time we are assured by our ability to recognize them, and more importantly by the possibility (around which so much bourgeois culture is organized) that we can modify our behavior and our circumstances so as to realize their opposites: love and joy. Vernicle repeats and reflects Grace Notes insofar as both attempt to present the unpresentable, sustained by the conviction that, in art as in life, form is everything. This in turn is directly linked to Mac Laverty’s political vision, which might be described as typically liberal-humanist, registering as a plea for tolerance in the face of otherness, or simply a recognition of the otherness that informs identity. Grace Notes seeks to accommodate identitarian discourse, rather than (as with serialism, or Lyotard’s “postmodern”) to question the signifying framework within which identitarian discourse functions as “reality.” And just as the limits of musical expression are set by the (invariably bourgeois) context in which the artist works, so liberal humanism is entirely enmeshed with the (nationalist-colonialist) values and practices it seeks to modify.

(1) Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Picador, 1998); Toni Morrison, Jazz (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992); Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999); Vikram Seth, An Equal Music (London: Phoenix House, 1999). Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994; London: Vintage, 1998) by Louis de Bernieres offers perhaps the most successful example of the trend.

(2) Bernard Mac Laverty, Grace Notes (1997; London: Vintage, 1998); future references to this text will be incorporated within the main body of the essay. Other recent Irish novels dealing with music include Roddy Doyle, The Commitments (1987; London: Vintage, 1990); Dermot Bolger, Father’s Music (London: Flamingo, 1997); Brian Keenan, Turlough (London: Vintage, 2000); and Joe Ambrose, Too Much Too Soon (London: Pulp Faction, 2000).

(3) See Alex Aronson, Music and the Novel: A Study in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) for an overview of the tradition.

(4) Ibid., ix.

(5) In Chap. 5 of Howards End (1910; Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1960), Forster wrote: “It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has even penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it.” (31)

(6) Aronson, Music and the Novel, 21. Contemporary rock singer-songwriter Elvis Costello once put it rather more pointedly: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

(7) Musicological analysis proper is the task of musicologists–that is, individuals trained to elucidate the formal and historical aspects of the musical text. Such a discourse might be incorporated into the novel as part of a Bakhtinian carnival of voices; as such, however, it would possess no disciplinary force, and no sensible person would expect to consult a novel as an authority for understanding counterpoint in Bach, Mozart’s melodic imagination, or Beethoven’s structural genius.

(8) Nicholas Spice, “Mooching: Review of An Equal Music by Vikram Seth,” London Review of Books 21:9 (29 April 1999), 16.

(9) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 81.

(10) Rushdie, especially, has exploited the elisions within narrative fiction as a means of exposing the partiality of that particular model of western subjectivity which the novel was in part responsible for developing. It was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later he would turn to the mode of expression–music–through which western novelists have traditionally expressed their skepticism toward the validity of received narratives and their autonomous, self-present subjects.

(11) See David Lloyd’s essay “Adulteration and the nation” in his Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput, 1993), 88-124, in which he discusses “the dislocation of the colonized culture” (100) alongside the postcolonial critic’s “nostalgia for the universal position occupied by the intellectual in the narrative of representation” (124). “Dislocation” and “nostalgia” have been the principal impulses of Irish critical discourse since the famine.

(12) Of the enormous critical literature on the emergence of Irish modernism, Seamus Deane’s Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Luke Gibbons’s Transformations in Irish Culture (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996), and Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995) have been particularly influential.

(13) Musical ability was the one redeeming native feature noted by Giraldus Cambrensis in his History and Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1982). On the significance of music for the first Celtic revival of the eighteenth century, see Gerry Smyth, Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 54-64.

(14) Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, “Hybridity and national musics: the case of Irish rock music,” in Popular Music 19:2 (May 2000), 181.

(15) Ibid., 182.

(16) On the function of this strategy in relation to the work of a number of popular musicians, see Kieran Keohane, “Traditionalism and homelessness in contemporary Irish music,” in Jim Mac Laughlin, ed., Location and Dislocation in Contemporary Irish Society: Emigration and Irish Identities (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), 274-303.

(17) Such indeed has been the burden of all the major Irish critical engagements with postcolonial theory; see Lloyd (1993), Gibbons (1996), and Kiberd (1995).

(18) James Joyce, “The Dead,” in Dubliners (1914; London: Panther, 1979), 160-201; “Sirens,” in Ulysses (1922; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 245-79.

(19) Terence Brown, “Music: the cultural issue,” in Richard Pine, ed., Music in Ireland 1849-1998 (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), 39.

(20) Ibid., 42.

(21) Umberto Eco has discussed the possibility of considering the entire text of Ulysses in musical terms, specifically the three-part sonata form. See The Middle Ages of James Joyce (1962), trans. Ellen Esrock (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), 47.

(22) On the relationship between music and noise, and the implication of this relationship in questions of social power, see Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977), trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). This revolutionary study is based on the dual premise that “[for] twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, it is audible,” (3) and that “[listening] to music is listening to all noise, realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political” (6).

(23) Although grace notes are an established aspect of western art music (representing the composer’s desire to accommodate various “timeless,” “hidden,” or “leaning” sounds), they are also the distinguishing characteristic of the Irish singing style known as sean-nos (meaning “old style”), a style that fetishizes the singer’s ability to improvise vocal ornamentation.

(24) J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 6. The dichotomy upon which Hillis Miller bases his study derives from Gilles Deleuze’s Difference et repetition (Paris: Universitaires de France, 1968) and from various Derridean sources. On Joyce’s use of repetition, see Udaya Kumar, The Joycean Labyrinth: Repetition, Time, and Tradition in Ulysses (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

(25) Edward W. Said, “On Repetition,” in The World, The Text and The Critic (1983; London: Vintage, 1991), 114.

(26) Although lying beyond the scope of this essay, there is yet another aspect of repetition which bears upon musical discourse–namely, the repetition consequent upon late capitalist economics and its peculiar semiotic regime, founded as it is on mass production and the ubiquity of simulacra. See the chapter on “Repeating” in Attali, Noise, 87-132.

(27) Daniel Albright, “Beckett as Marsyas: music and modernism in Beckett,” Bullan: An Irish Studies Journal 3:2 (Winter 1997/Spring 1998), 34-35.

(28) Repetition is thus linked to expressionism–the idea of a correspondence between emotion and meaning–which has itself been the central issue of music aesthetics since Eduard Hanslick rejected it in his study, On the Beautiful in Music (1854), trans, and ed. G. Payzant (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1986). In recent years the debate has evolved into a standoff between neo-Platonists (who maintain that composers express–and thus repeat–preexisting meanings) and nominalists (who reject the notion of art as expressive of abstract phenomena, emphasizing instead its performative–and thus transformative–character). For representative discussions of each proposition see Peter Kivy, The Corded Shell: Reflections on Musical Expression (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), and Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968).

(29) Kumar, Joycean Labyrinth, 48.

(30) In another twist on the repetition theme, Mac Laverty seems to comprehend the joy of creativity as an essentially female emotion, closely connected with the joy of birth. Although dominated by men, in other words, music is indelibly linked to the feminine, constituting as it does a polyvocal alternative to language and its relentless drive toward monoglossic meaning–hence, the description of the emotional/aesthetic context within which Catherine composes: “She feels she is carrying this rhythm within her, she is pregnant with it–the way she sometimes carries her creativity with such care–like a brimming beaker, determined not to spill a drop” (234).

(31) The effect is similar to that engineered in The Magic Mountain, whose author explained that it was only during a second reading that the reader is able to “really penetrate and enjoy its musical associations of ideas. The first time the reader learns the thematic material; he is then in a position to read the symbolic and allusive formulas both forwards and backwards” (qtd. in Aronson, Music and the Novel, 32).

(32) One reviewer referred to An Equal Music’s “gleeful philistinism” in matters of modern and postmodern music (Adam Mars-Jones from the Observer, cited in Harvey Porlock, “Critical List,” in The Sunday Times: Books, 4 April 1999, 2). Despite his well-documented antipathy toward modern music, Joyce is the modern writer whose technique (especially in Finnegans Wake) functions most obviously as a response to serialism, and who in turn influences what Timothy S. Murphy calls `the post-serial avant-garde,’ including John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Luciano Berio. See Murphy’s essay “Music after Joyce: the post-serial avant-garde,” Hypermedia Joyce Studies,, 1-11.

GERRY SMYTH is Reader in Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. His Decolonisation and Criticism won the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS) Michael J. Durkin Prize for best book in literary criticism/cultural studies in 1999. His most recent book, Space and the Irish Cultural Imagination, was published in 2001. Smyth is currently working on a history of Irish rock music and is editing a special number of the Irish Studies Review on music in contemporary Ireland.

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