This is a rather grumpy review. I found the writing in this anthology by and large ponderous and forced, too self-consciously “literary.” I think that is pretty clear from the review overall but I note in the penultimate paragraph I give a fair bit of praise. I barely recall any of the stories except “Blue Note Heaven” and the premise of Jim Steel’s.
“All art aspires to the condition of music.” Walter Pater’s famous axiom is directly invoked in one of the stories in this anthology of speculative fiction linked by the theme of music, and is one of the first quotes that springs to mind when considering the artistic challenge of capturing music in words.
Another well-known quote about music and writing is Frank Zappa’s — “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Like sex, like religion, like love, music is one of the more difficult things to write about. In a few bars, music can evoke emotions, passions, memories and desires. All of this can seem clod-hopping on the page. Writers about music either seek refuge in the technical vocabulary of the conservatory, or write not about the music but about the sociology, the fashion, the politics, the personalities, or the history related to it. Look at the music reviews (in any genre) in your local paper — how many of them fall back on clichés, on regurgitated press releases, and how few make you approach the piece in a different way?
What is a writer to do? My own sense is that (as with writing about sex) a direct approach will invariably fail. Sentences, paragraphs, pages will seem heavy-footed and all too literal, compared to the immediate access music grants to the senses. All the stories in Music For Another World are well crafted, readable, and in that most damning of phrases of faint praise, interesting. Few leave much of a lasting impression, however, and overall I was left with a sense of disappointment.
There are definite highlights. Cyril Simsa’s opening tale, “The Three Lillies,” is an atmospheric vignette set in a subtly altered Eastern Europe that is the closest any story in the collection comes to the condition of music. Jim Steel’s “The Shostakovich Ensemble” is a clever alt-history story in which Dmitri Shostakovich was purged in the Twenties, the USA never entered World War II and the Iron Curtain fell across the Atlantic, and the post-punk music of the late 70s and early 80s (like all music) is under the control of a centralised state agency. Chris Amies’s “Cow Lane” has something of the sweaty frenetic energy of punk, married to a delicious frisson of the supernatural. Vincent Lauzon’s “Festspeel” is an engaging epistolary piece which becomes a meditation on being maimed and encounters with the alien.
There is wit and imagination in abundance. There is literal space opera (Jackie Hawkins’ “Figaro”), there is an afterlife segregated between secular and devotional music (David H Hendrickson’s “Blue Note Heaven”), there are Bruckner-devoted Manicheans hurtling through deep space (Sean Martin’s “Deep Field”) These are all entertaining, diverting stories, in their own way.
I realised something when I came to consider why the stories, well-crafted etc. as they were, didn’t engage as much as they could have. Music features in all the stories, not only as a background or plot point, but as something integral. Indeed, it is the transcendent power of music that is key in almost all the stories. So all feature passages of prose bordering on purple describing the moment of transcendence. And here is where the authors hit the heavy-footed, all too literal (in every sense of literal) factor mentioned above. Simsa’s story, so brief it is more of a parable really, is the one that comes closest to the condition of music. Perhaps transcendence is best hinted at, approach from the side, than described literally.