Ondaatje, music and archival inspiration

With typically intriguing introspection and detail, Michael Ondaatje talks about his writing inspiration and process in video interviews recently released by The Lousisiana Channel of Denmark. In one he compares poetry to novel-writing. But in the second, he talks about his relationship with music. “The rhythm of music has been the biggest influence on my writing — it’s not Wordsworth, it’s Ray Charles,” he explains. This is no surprise to me; he’s my favorite writer mainly because of the cadence of his prose.

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In that interview, Ondaatje explained that music and writing are so connected that they must sometimes be separated. In his early novel Coming Through Slaughter, though, he didn’t eschew the association, but instead created something that is overtly musical in its style as well as its subject matter. The book tells the story of legendary jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, taking inspiration from a hazy photograph and reconstructing the rest in a sort of jazz riff that draws on the imagined memories of those who knew him. Bolden was reputedly an inspiration to New Orleans jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, but ironically his own playing was never recorded; Ondaatje, however, suggests that even if recordings of Bolden existed we could not fully experience his playing. Musical expression must be interpreted within a context, in part because of it’s physicality —the embodied aspects of the creative act. As one character recalls,

“It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if travelling in a car, passed before he even approached it and say it properly. There was no control except the mood of his power … and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never head him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes – then you should never have heard him at all. He was never recorded. He stayed away while others moved into wax history, electronic history, those who said later that Bolden broke the path. It was just as important to watch him stretch and wheel around on the last notes or watch nerves jumping under the sweat of his head. (Coming Through Slaughter, p 32)”

All we have of Bolden is a hazy photograph, and even that must be ‘translated’ into a clearer image, since it is as imprecise as the recorded sound would be. Finally, one character writes that in consulting with all those who knew Bolden he found that “their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with each one of them.”

This discussion ties in with one of my main research interests: the role of archives in the preservation of a musical tradition. In an age where almost everything can be preserved virtually — with recordings, photographs, videos — it’s useful to stop and the point Ondaatje’s character makes. In the experience of any music we lose a little with each step we take away from its physical embodiment; to learn a traditional song from the notation in a book is to only glimpse a shadow of what it would have sounded like being sung; to learn it from a recording is better, but is still an incomplete experience of transmission. It’s for this reason that some musicians also dislike bootlegged recordings or their performances. For those who were there, yes, they’re a souvenir of the experience, with all the warts and misfirings along with the high points, but for those who were not, they are incomplete and in some ways, incomprehensible.

Of course we’re lucky to have documents of any kind, so as to connect more viscerally with past music and art. And it’s intriguing to think that just as young poets are inspired by the masters such as Wordsworth, and young jazz musicians are inspired by Fats Waller, that synaesthetic inspiration might also be possible across genres, so that a young Ondaatje the writer was inspired by the rhythms of early jazz.

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