Two worlds married in perfect harmony

EVENT: Novel Sounds: Harding, Galgut, Galloway and Rose-Innes (Saturday, 24 September; Fugard Theatre)


Paul Harding, Damon Galgut, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Steven Galloway read from their latest novels, accompanied by music specially composed for this event. Featuring Brydon Bolton (double bass), Mark Fransman (alto and bass clarinet) and Robert Jeffery

Words to music was the call, and it looked to be a good one. The theatre was a murmur of hushed voices and dimmed orange lights. Creators of notes and words sat on stage: four writers to the left, legs crossed, books in hand; and an ensemble trio to the right. They exchanged snippets of conversations, glancing at the audience, waiting for the starting gun. A tall man with a huge, deep voice introduced the writers and musicians: “You’re in for a treat,” he boomed.

A quartet of writers accompanied by a trio of maestros, playing music written especially for the readings: an wonderfully innovative idea. Strings came courtesy of Brydon Bolton on the double bass and cellist Robert Jeffrey, and the breeze of an alto and bass clarinet bestowed by Mark Fransman.

Paul Harding – a former drummer, fittingly – sounded the bell by reading from Tinker, his debut and Pulitzer-winning novel. There aren’t many writers who can credit that behind their names. He told of a father losing himself, a son chasing after him, scissoring around in memory and reality. As the son leapt about, searching for clues, so the music jerked, up in the air, not with the father, not with the son, and the audience watched spellbound as their combined efforts combined the loss.

Damon Galgut read from his Booker-winner In a Strange Room, described a leaving behind of a city, roaming into the hills and mountains. As it spoke of the rhythm of walking that envelops one as the steps stretch out into the distance, so the music percolated through the audience. Bells jingled and chimed, softly and randomly at first, then joined by the tenor of the clarinet, and finally steady, a backdrop to the words of Galgut.

Steven Galloway read from his poignant The Cellist of Sarajevo. A haunting description of Sarajevo under siege, the loss of life and meaning and humanity were achingly, and aptly, set to Robert Jeffery’s cello. The cello wept for what it heard, the music grieved for what the writer told it, a beautiful complement, the saddest obituary you ever heard.

The coda was Henrietta Rose-Innes, accompanied by cello and bass. As she read from her brand new Nineveh, launched at this very festival, the music now mimicked the sounds portrayed in the book. When her beetles ran about, you could hear them springing from the instruments. When knuckles cracked, so did Bolton’s bow on his bass. The sounds were convincing, you believed them, be it mouth or music that told you so.

It was a striking night. The music highlighted, bemoaned, convinced and dragged the audience along as required by the words as they flowed or stuck or got lost. The event brought together the spheres of music and literature, scoping out the possibilities of interaction between these worlds, bringing them together in different ways, clasped together as they danced on the stage.

Saturday night was both an accord and a contradiction at once. The author conjures up words and then locks them down into pages, a life in miniature. The musician takes this little world, reworks the words into sounds, not for the mouth but for the instrument. The input is laid out for him word for word, the music is his answer.

But then! this lyrical duet became a solo performance, where two exquisite worlds collided. In the moment of fusion, the music was no longer merely responding to the text; nor were the words just syllables put to music. Together they achieved a climactic crescendo, where sounds melded to create something new, a novel sound.

The man with the booming voice was right: it was an extravaganza of note.