The Index of Porosity | Adam Mars-Jones | Granta

The Index of Porosity

Adam Mars-Jones

I don’t normally have troubled nights, but for several weeks in the autumn of 1987 I found it difficult to get to sleep. I had a short visiting fellowship in Cambridge and was staying in Leckhampton, a hostel that was part of Corpus Christi College but sat at the end of a considerable drive on the other side of the river, beyond Queens Road. My duties were light, the fellowship being designed to allow the lucky fellow plenty of time for his or her own work. It’s a formula that sounds propitious but doesn’t actually suit my habits, as I’ve come to learn. Away from my routines I felt a bit lost, and anxiety of a particular kind filled the space made available.

Every gay man of the period who wasn’t celibate or well established in monogamy was likely to have fears, ranging in their intensity from moderate to obsessional, about the possibility of his exposure to HIV. My own fears were both rational, since my lover Michael Jelicich was already showing symptoms – he died a year or so later – and overpitched, since I had known his status when we met. (Michael made a couple of visits to Cambridge but was based in London.) Though we more or less avoided taking risks, ‘more or less’ is not a soothing formula in the wee small hours. There were grey areas in terms of sexual behaviour but they seemed to shift from month to month. What was the relevant shade of grey, anyway – pale or dark?

At night I would wander around the grounds of Leckhampton, quiet even by day, listening to a cassette on my Walkman. I’m sure I had other tapes but there was one that came to monopolise the miraculous little machine. It was the 1981 recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, less famous than his first recording in 1955 and vastly different from it, though at the time there was no element of connoisseurship in my listening. I didn’t know the first version by Gould, nor any other. I hadn’t heard the piece at all before I bought the cassette.

I did know, or had been told, that the piece had been written to beguile insomnia, and there was a certain satisfaction in recruiting it for exactly that purpose. Still, if that was the mildly pretentious reason for the first playing it had no bearing on subsequent ones. The distance the music travelled without the need to announce novelty, the fresh starts that were also serene continuations, all of this conveyed an implacable consolation. I remember the way Side 1 ended with a variation in the minor. A little run of rising notes was slowed teasingly down, so that the last two of them became a sort of present, something extra added to a moment that was already complete. This suspended resolution was also an irresistible invitation to take the cassette out, reverse it with a clatter, clunk the play control and embark on what becomes, with the technology dividing unity into halves, a return journey to the repetition of the theme.

The music’s reassurance was formal and even architectural rather than emotional. Certainly what I hear when I listen to that recording now is Bach’s music passing through Glenn Gould’s hands – I’ve learned to filter out his crooning along. I’m not reminded of myself in mortal dread.


Is music absorbent? Is it dyed by the listener’s emotions so that they become fixed in its fabric (for that one person, naturally)? Perhaps there’s a spectrum involved, from which it might be possible to compile an Index of Porosity. At the high-absorbency end would be most popular music, whose success depends on the welcome it offers to chains of association (‘Oh, I remember where I was when I first heard this. . .’). These associations become the materials of a fond recall, the nest in which nostalgia will hatch. Bach’s music would be at the other end, where the porosity quotient is close to zero. It’s like a wall treated with anti-graffiti coating.

As if to make my argument for me, two film-makers of the 1990s accompanied acts of horrible violence with well-known pieces of music. In Reservoir Dogs a psychopath tortures a captive policeman with a razor, eventually severing an ear, all the while bopping cheerfully to Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. Quentin Tarantino knowingly contaminates a song that was designed to be infectious and charming. It doesn’t have the option of rejecting a new association but must accept it, like a dog returning to the home where it was abused, helplessly wagging its tail as it goes. There must be married couples who danced to the song at their wedding, but flinch at the loping bounce of its opening every time they hear it. Its aura has darkened. It isn’t the same.

The year before, in The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme had featured parts of the Goldberg Variations over a scene in which Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter kills and mutilates the two guards who stand between him and freedom. In this he was following Thomas Harris’s novel, where Lecter chooses to listen to a Glenn Gould recording, though it was Jerry Zimmerman who played what we hear in the film. But has anyone ever listened to the Goldbergs and felt the disturbing presence of those images? In the 2001 sequel Hannibal, Ridley Scott seemed to want to raise the stakes, using actual Glenn Gould this time – the 1982 recording – to accompany a scene that combines sophistication with savagery, a dinner party in which the mind-controlled heroine innocently eats human brain. (The music is not part of the scene in the novel.) Again the frisson fails to deliver. Music can’t be poisoned if it didn’t consent to be consumed in the first place.

John Updike in The Witches of Eastwick (the 1984 novel, very different from George Miller’s film) made what could seem an even more determined attempt to sully Bach’s music, with an extended scene in which Jane, one of the witches, casts a spell (one that will manifest as a malignant tumour) while playing the D minor Suite on her cello. It’s an extraordinary literary performance, seeking to turn music that is often seen as transcending personality into a vehicle for supernatural malice – it’s Jane’s playing of the cello that potentiates the cancer. Yet the moment the book is closed the spell falls to the ground. You can listen to the D minor Suite immediately after reading the scene and not hear anything of the sinister effect that Updike has worked so hard to produce. Chuck buckets of ugly human motivation over the music of Bach and its sheen is unaffected.

This seems to me characteristic of classical musics (including for instance Indian ragas and the ‘big music’ of the Scottish pipes), that they resist annexation, in contrast with popular music, which insists on it. Personal associations simply slide off classical music, while the various genres of popular music behave like different shapes of pasta, all of them designed to mop up the sauce of the moment. Why does this sound so snooty, as it clearly does? Popular music is where the money is, it’s where the fame is, but the classical musics are patient. They don’t need to make the first move.

I can give an example from closer to home, with music that is much more obviously emotional. In November of 1997 my mother Sheila was given a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. She turned down the not particularly promising regimes of medication that might have given her a little extension of life. From one perspective it all happened very quickly. When she took me to the opera for my birthday in late October she didn’t cough (certainly not to any antisocial degree), but she died not far into January. From another perspective there seemed to be any amount of time available, and Sheila made something remarkably like a controlled descent into the grave. I was slightly surprised that she went on reading novels after her diagnosis – I had somehow imagined that such a short future militated against the enjoyment of fictional worlds, any exploration of ‘what if’s. When she was reading Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs she might say dreamily, ‘I must get back to dear Maggsy.’ The last novel she read was an advance copy of Barbara Trapido’s The Travelling Hornplayer. I thought it quite a tribute for any writer to be paid, that her imagination held its own against the forces of death, though I have to say poor Barbara Trapido’s face rather fell when I mentioned the circumstances at the launch party for the book a few weeks later. We hadn’t met before and haven’t since. Altogether she must have received a peculiar impression of me.

I’m the middle brother of three, and since I lived nearest it had made sense for me to move back into my parents’ flat during Sheila’s dying. I remember telling her with mock briskness, ‘Terminal illness is no excuse for not trying new things.’ She certainly had her first taste of cavolo nero only a few days before she died – I only wish that her verdict on it (and mine) had been more enthusiastic. I hadn’t yet learned how to bring out the best in that particular brassica.

We listened a lot to Schubert’s song cycle ‘Die schöne Müllerin’, sung by Ian Bostridge with Graham Johnson at the piano, music that was new to both of us. It’s plain that the impulse to explore it came from Trapido’s novel, where the cycle is a strong if not dominating presence (the chapters are named after songs), though I had forgotten that fact until I refreshed my memory about the book just now. This time it’s not a question of words not having the power to pin music down. It’s more that my ego would rather not acknowledge being directed to a canonical masterpiece of music by a novel – preferring to think I had moved towards it spontaneously, turning on my stalk like a sunflower. I knew the ‘Winterreise’ cycle, after all, and a fair few individual Schubert songs.

I remember the effort of programming the CD player to omit the tracks on which Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau read Wilhelm Müller poems from the same group, ones that Schubert didn’t set. By pressing the shuffle button I could have introduced some capricious extra drama, but there was a logic to the order of the songs, an implied narrative even if, lacking German, we had to seek it in the booklet of the CD. We did sometimes listen to the last song (‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’) in isolation, occasionally repeating it as soon as it had finished. It’s by far the longest song in the cycle, slow and hypnotic though with an odd sprightly bounce in the accompaniment, and a Wiegenlied is a lullaby. By implication the river in which the protagonist has drowned himself wishes him a good sleep.

When I happened to meet Ian Bostridge I thanked him for singing my mother so smoothly to her death (as if it had been his choice!). I realise that, on the evidence of what I’m writing here, my conversational openings tend towards the overpowering. It should be said in my defence that the occasion was a memorial service rather than a book launch, so I was likely to have a less destabilising effect on the mood. I’ve listened to the CD any number of times since then, and it has never reminded me of the circumstances of my first immersion in it. The music reminds me only of itself.

My brother Matthew and I washed Sheila’s body and dressed her for the coffin, not something that had been planned in advance, an act of great intimacy though a surprisingly matter-of-fact one as I experienced it (can’t speak for Matthew). We did the washing with some stephanotis-scented bath gel, and it seemed a sensible precaution for me to use up the rest of the bottle in my own baths thereafter, so that the fragrance had more than that one association. Smell operates in such a deep part of the brain, and I didn’t want to be ambushed by loss after subliminally recognising someone’s perfume in a crowd or at a party. I’m not sure this was a realistic fear – it was probably triggered by a Ruth Rendell novel in which the killer is triggered when exposed to a particular scent. (One woman wearing the perfume is spared because the wind is blowing the other way.) It did no harm to make sure.

At Sheila’s funeral service, another song featured that we had listened to during her last days and weeks – Elizabeth Poston’s ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, which I think appeared on a newly acquired Christmas CD, perhaps given away with a magazine. She had wanted it included not just for its piercing though somehow prosaic beauty but because it was written by a woman. I’ve heard it many times since, I’ve even sung it in a carol service with a local choir of amateurs, and again it doesn’t bring back the emotions that accompanied my first hearings of it. It isn’t porous. It hasn’t absorbed the subjectivity that once surrounded it.

Perhaps the various art forms are jealous of each others advantages, without of course consenting to give up their own. Referential art – literature and the cinema – might covet the abstract immediacy of music. Art forms that rely on physical presence (dance, theatre) might cast longing looks towards photography and film, for their ability to reproduce and radiate outward indefinitely from their source.

Is there in fact a jostling for dominance between the art forms, some barely suppressed competitiveness? If all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, then music isnt in a position to congratulate itself by saying so. Music is powerless to make statements. It may evoke but can’t describe – if music had the power to describe it could tell you things you don’t already know, when in fact it can only remind you of things you already feel.‘The Hebrides’ overture isn’t ‘about’ those islands unless you know its name, and even if you do it can’t tell you where they are. Mendelssohn’s music doesn’t include map references.

There are art forms that depend on presence (dance, for instance) and those that glory in an indefinite reproducibility, such as writing since the invention of the printing press. Technology necessarily plays a part – until sound recording arrived (the dizzying acceleration from wax cylinder through LP and DVD to internet streaming), music was richly confined in the moment of its performance. Film showings, before the advent of home video, were in practical terms almost as unrepeatable as theatrical performances. Anyone who wanted to see Rear Window or Vertigo in the 1960s and 70s had their work cut out – Hitchcock had withdrawn five of his films and even after his death in 1977 was biding his time on the far side of the grave for the right moment to consolidate his reputation.

Funerals call for a delicate set of musical decisions, but the balance is easily upset when the deaths keep coming. My generation, or at least its gay cohort, had its bellyful of whistling-in-the-dark novelty choices in the Aids years, with the coffin of a young man going into the flames to the strains of ‘The Time Warp’ from The Rocky Horror Show. My friend Ron Davis, remaining true to his character, left money for a performance of a Mass by Tomás Luis de Victoria, an eccentric taste that has since become (almost) mainstream.

Weddings and their analogues require a different approach. When my partner Keith King and I wanted to formalise our relationship in 2008 (same-sex marriage not then an option), we learned that we could bring a CD with us to the registry office in Brixton Town Hall to be played before the ceremony. We spent a weekend trying to whittle down our choices, something that should have been enjoyable given our very convergent tastes and shared love of out-of-the-way repertoire. It was actually rather frustrating.

For me a liking for classical music (a liking rather than a passion) was part of a bundle of cultural assumptions – my father sight-read with difficulty but had picked up the guitar in his teens and never quite put it down. My mother dabbled in the piano and went as far in late life as taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint at the City Lit. I can’t account for Keith’s affinity with classical music, an interest alien to his family. It’s as if he was born preloaded with the Third Programme (this was the 1950s), in the same way that computers come with apps and features already installed.

For heaven’s sake, the man can identify Hummel’s music from stylistic fingerprints! I’m not sure Mrs Hummel could claim as much.

At Slough Grammar School, Keith and his best friend Jeremy Black wrote art songs together. Keith wrote the words and Jeremy the music, though they could probably have done it the other way round (Keith played the cello). They sent their offerings to a composer they both admired.

It’s a fair bet that in the 1960s the British composer in receipt of the plumpest mailbag was Britten, with Walton and Tippett perhaps wrangling over second place. Instead these teenagers sent a sample of their work to Elisabeth Lutyens, best known for her film scores. I imagine her as slightly baffled at the breakfast table when she opened the envelope, though she sent an encouraging response.

Film music, even when written by classical composers, is almost always approachable. That’s its job, to insinuate itself, to create or consolidate a mood without necessarily even being noticed. Lutyens’s music for films was not like that, but then the films were a special case. Her style was astringent and often atonal, and she found her niche writing scores for Hammer and Amicus horror films, where the mood was allowed to do more or less anything as long as it wasn’t soothing.

Lutyens’s music was not on the shortlist when we were trying to choose music suitable to celebrate an intimate partnership, but nothing else sounded right. Our search for something sheerly beautiful produced something more like stasis, a frozen stillness smelling faintly of lilies. Our choices seemed closer to something deathly than a celebration. The music that we liked refused to sprinkle happiness in all directions as we wanted it to. Once again the specific emotions we tried to project onto it could get no purchase.

Then Keith took out a CD from its case outside my line of sight and placed it on the tray of the player, selecting a particular track with the remote control. ‘We could always have this,’ he said. It was track six of Bernard Herrmann’s The Film Scores, played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Yes – thanks, Keith! – it was the stabbing music from Psycho.

We let the CD play on without any particular intention, but by the time it had finished the decision was made. We would declare our commitment to each other after hearing not Martinů or Hovhaness (and get to the back of the queue, Hildegard of Bingen) but music with a strong current of unease. Perhaps to guard against being too blithe, against pushing our luck? Lustrously pulsing orchestral jazz giving way to an alto saxophone hauntedly wailing, the main title theme from Taxi Driver.


Photograph © Alamy, Statue of St Cecilia

Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones is a writer and critic living in London. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 and 1993. His fiction includes Box Hill and Batlava Lake, which are short, and Pilcrow and Cedilla, the expansive first parts of a semi-infinite novel. The third instalment, Caret, will be published in August 2023.

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