Tuesday, 21 February 2017
A note from the editor on 'The Music'
Philip Connor is an editor at Unbound. He wrote the following after the first editorial meeting with Matthew Herbert to discuss the book.
I'm on the bus home from the National Gallery, where I spent the afternoon with Matthew Herbert discussing his book, The Music, which he is about to finish. I’m Matthew’s editor at Unbound and this was our first editorial meeting.
Two weeks ago I finished my first read-through of the book. When I finished I was struck by an undeniable feeling of oh fuck. I was blown away by what I'd just read, the scope of it, the uniqueness of it, the ambition. Reading the book was like using a new part of my brain – we’re used to visualising images when reading; we’re less used to imagining sound. It’s a monumental shift. Our imagination is well exercised in picturing things, unbelievable things, even impossible things, but for most of us it is less used to imagining sound. It was like my inner ear that composed sounds had lost its virginity.
Sound is typically dictated to us, either by music or in books, by specificity: the cock crows, the watch ticks, the baby cries. The description adds flavour to the scene, but it is not the thing itself. They’re sounds we know. Or sounds we imagine we know. Only rarely do we read about sounds we recognise or that are outside our aural vocabulary. Only rarely are we invited to imagine sound.
In The Music, sound is not just flavour, it’s the main course, the dessert and the fucking wine. The book is a description of an album Matthew will never make, but that could be made given infinite time and infinite resources. But it is much more than a description of music – the book is full of stories and people, full of narrative and ideas.
The book is a cacophony of sound, but it is much, much more than a list of noises, in the same way that a story is more than a list of words or a person more than the sum of their parts.
On one level the book is characters and moments and themes that intertwine through the whole thing – they are written down as in every other book. But on another level, the book was asking me, forcing me, to conjure the sounds it was describing, trying to hold them all together to imagine this noise, this song. There was something akin to translation about it, something foreign and unusual that made me use a completely different part of my brain than I am used to using while reading. In fact, it is a part of my brain I’m only used to using while writing. In short it was asking me not just to read, but to create, to compose, to collaborate.
What startled me out of the book’s spell was the realisation that what I was imagining, the sounds I was creating for myself, would be completely different than what anyone else would imagine while reading the same thing. Here were sounds we know, but also sounds we couldn’t possible know. The amazing thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter – the brain, the imagination, jumps in and fills in the noise. I am constantly looking back at myself and asking, where did you get that sound from?
The thing about The Music is that you can almost hear it; not almost because of any lack of description on Matthew’s part, but because it lives right on the edge of your imagination.
As far as I know, what Matthew is attempting has never been done before. The challenge for me as an editor is, what the hell can I bring to the table? How can I be of any use to Matthew? Is it only a matter of tidying up the language? Is Matthew the only one with the licence to work on this thing? What the fuck was I going to do?
I read the book for a second time this morning before meeting Matthew and it started to fit together. I think I better understood what he was trying to do, having been through it once, and could, on a second sitting, sit back and enjoy the music (sorry). I began to see the aspects of the book that are album-like – various elements in different chapters that came up again and again, the pacing and position of these chapters and how they sat alongside one another, fast in some places, slower in others.
Like all of Matthew’s work, it was immediately clear that no part of the book was by accident. It was rigorously thought-out and planned, it was thoughtful and serious and considered. It was also clear that Matthew was far down the conceptual road. The question for me was how to follow him to a point where I could be of any help. How could I learn enough about this book so that I didn't simply sound stupid talking about it?
Then I had to consider the job I was supposed to do, making it the best book it could be and getting it out into the world. How do you let readers into a book like this? How do you make it accessible without compromising the vision? How do you make it as rewarding a reading experience as possible without losing the concept the book is built on? How far do you push it?
As an editor I am often the first reader of a book. The thing I’ve learnt – but often forget – is that all authors want readers, and the thing an editor needs to be first and foremost is a concerned reader. Authors want and need someone to care about their book, to consider it, to engage with it, and when necessary to challenge it and criticise it until it’s better, or the best it can be.
And so I met Matthew today and I told him, simply, what I thought. I told him many of the things I’ve just written. And then we talked: about what he wanted the book to be, about the influences and motivations, about what was important and less important, about what he felt precious about and what he felt not so sure about.
These conversations are so important, they give you both – author and editor – a clearer view of what you’re trying to create. I began to see the book in a whole new light: not as an album at all, or rather not just as an album, but as a collection of stories told through sound. Matthew walked me through the characters in the book, who they were, what had inspired them, what they were supposed to mean. He told me what he knew about them and what he was leaving up to the reader to decide. He said, at one point, “It’s like Star Wars, I want to suggest planets without actually describing them.” He is, I think now, providing dots for the reader to join up.
At one point Matthew played me a track he's made of hundreds of people's favourite sounds mixed together. I put the headphones on gingerly, not quite knowing what to expect. It was hellish. Awful. It was screaming and agony and fire and brimstone. “Our systems don't work,” he said by way of an explanation. “If you listen to the rainforest, all the animals sing together, each animal has found its place so it can be heard. The whole thing is in harmony. The system works. Ours doesn't. That’s what the book is about.”
We got closer and closer to describing the book in a way that makes the most sense to me now, having read it, having spoken to him about it. What makes the book unique is that its primary means of communication is aural. The Music is a novel told through sound.
Suddenly that made total sense to me. Of course this is how a musician would write a book. It is in their nature not to approach things through the eye but through the ear. Matthew was simply using the medium he’s always used – sound – to tell a story. That it was done through words was both the attraction and beside the point.
He builds the reader a story, not through picturing it but through hearing it. How the sound of a father tapping a doll against a fridge, or someone sitting in a car at a crossroads, or ice forming beneath someone’s skin tells its own story, or rather tells a story in its own way.
Immediately, both of ours jobs, Matthew’s and mine, seemed easier. I left the National Gallery feeling like I had a grip, that I knew what we were aiming for now. We were going to tell stories in a completely new way; we were going to tell them not just in imagery or dialogue or old-fashioned narrative; we were going to tell them through sound, through music.
Matthew said at one point, “I find this difficult to tell you.” He was talking about the characters in the book, who he has spent so long with, mostly alone. It's not the first time I've heard something like this. Authors are not always able, or easily able, to tell others about their work. They are too close to it, too tied up in it, too precious or finished or sick of it. They need an intermediary who can translate it for them, who can put words on it that others can understand. That, after all, is what an editor is for.
Philip Connor is an editor at Unbound. You can follow him @philipconnor42