The impossibility of translating music into words
Django Reinhardt’s instrumental “My Serenade” was the loveliest song I’d ever heard, and I wanted to write it. I had no idea what that actually meant, but figured there must be a way to translate his notes into words. After all, John Updike had done something similar with his poem “Player Piano”:
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
My paper can caper; abandon
Is broadcast by dint of my din,
And no man or band has a hand in
The tones I turn on from within.
At times I'm a jumble of rumbles,
At others I'm light like the moon,
But never my numb plunker fumbles,
Misstrums me, or tries a new tune.
How hard could it be?
I should mention that I was in my early twenties, had just finished college, and was fairly certain that my first book was going to be published to wide commercial and critical acclaim. I hadn’t written that novel yet, or anything else, but I figured translating Django into poetry would be easy (because poems are short).
I didn’t have formal training in the study of music, but that wasn’t a big deal; this was jazz, man. So I played Django’s song over and over and tried to find words that matched the notes. And I learned something. I didn’t know how to do that.
Then I had another idea. I didn’t have to echo the song, just its theme. “My Serenade” is still some of the loveliest music I’ve ever heard. Django’s solo is full of emotion, gentle and patient and wistful. You imagine a serenade being given to someone, a gift…but that’s not what this song is. It’s a dedication to memory.
In the video here, from around the seventh second to the 50th, imagine the guitarist reminiscing about fond times. And then abruptly, and in a rush of notes, there’s a change. The memories reach the point where love left. The ruefulness and humor are still there (like his contemporaries Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, Django couldn’t help being playful), but the pain comes through. And violinist Stephane Grappelli, Django’s longtime bandmate and partner, carries that emotion through to the song’s end.
That wasn’t something I could write. But for a few maddening months, I tried. I think I eventually ended up with a story about someone drowning, which made no sense. And never got published (a lot of my early characters drowned).
I’m not the only person to fall under Django’s spell. Woody Allen’s hopelessly underrated “Sweet and Lowdown” is a mockumentary about a talented 1930s musician (played by Sean Penn, for which he received an Oscar nod) haunted by his failure to live up to Reinhardt’s talent. The Modern Jazz Quartet released an album named after the gypsy guitarist three years after his death, and the titular song of that album is one of their most famous.
Allen is often reviled, Updike is likely destined to go in and out of academic fashion, and the MJQ was occasionally criticized for their experiments in other genres. But Django is seemingly immune to trend. No one should be surprised if, a hundred years from now, an irritated guitarist is painstakingly trying to mimic Reinhardt’s touch.
“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” the critic Walter Pater famously wrote. So I don’t think I’m alone in trying to capture music in writing — or alone in failing at it. But you listen to a beautiful song, like the whisper of that gypsy’s guitar, and you burn to match it. You can spend years at your desk hoping to realize notes that remain just out of reach. Ideally, you’ll come up with your own tune…but like any first love, that old song will stir something in you. It’s something you can hear, but never touch.
Darn that dream.
Speaking of writing and music, I'm thrilled to be one of the featured authors at this year's Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 21st! I'll be reading at 3:15 p.m. at the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and local singer Sara Jones will be providing musical accompaniment! Not enough for you? The first 30 attendees will receive a free customized tote bag! I assume you're susceptible to bribes.