Music: The Power to Transform, to Forget


Music, like most arts, and reading, allows the listener to create and lose themselves in imaginary worlds. call this the suspension of disbelief. Two books illustrate this principle.

The first is Bel Canto  by Ann Patchett.bel cantoIt  is the story about a botched kidnapping-hostage taking by a radical  freedom-for-the-people  group. The setting is a unnamed South American country, though to me it felt like Argentina. argentina(That may be the result of seeing Evita one too many times.)

One of the hostages is a world renown opera singer, Roxane Coss who sang for the birthday celebration for the president of a Japanese manufacturer the country was hoping to persuade to locate a factory in the impoverished country. The Japanese president is a lover of opera and  more particularly of Roxane Coss.  Opera and Coss are his passion outside of work. The relatively small guest list for the concert is full of notables, wealthy ad important people from around the world, lovers of opera for the most part. A lowly priest attends as well. He is in heaven — an opera lover in the presence of an angel. The venue is an intimate setting, the living room of the Vice-President’s mansion.  The badly botched kidnapping goes on for weeks. Obviously the terrorists had not read Terrorists for Dummies. The loss of life in the beginning is incidental and the result of accretion, through the passage of time, not by any overt act of the terrorists. Gradually the situation transforms itself into a modified Stockholm syndrome where both the terrorists and the hostages become like family and friends. Each began to identify with the other. Emotional ties develop that are destroyed in the inevitable end.

Between the beginning and the end, at some point, Coss starts singing daily in the mornings, more to keep in practice than anything else. Its effect? The hostages find that they can imagine a new world, where opera is like mass or a daily devotional. They lose themselves in this world, day by day, piece by piece, until the world outside does not exist. The concerts affect the terrorists more gradually, After Coss’ accompanist dies, the soon-to-be second accompanist just starts playing one day.  Later on, one of the terrorists starts singing. Both have natural born talent that is fostered in this closed-off world that one day must end.

The power of music is also illustrated in Zhu Xiao-Mei‘s The Secret Piano. secret pianoIt is the story of her life. She is a classical pianist from China. She tells about her and her family’s life under Chairman Maom during the time of the Cultural Revolution as well as about periods before and after. At the heart of her story is the love of her companion, her piano. piano It is what keeps her sane. Music, even after it is virtually banned, finds its way into a labor camp where Mei was sent off. Music becomes a secret agent. It transforms the world of some of the artist internees. It allows them to defy a system that equates music and most other art with dissent and revolt. Music keeps the artists alive and gives them hope that they will one day be free once again to devote themselves to their life’s work. Music is a best friend, compatriot, and lover.

The Secret Piano is unlike Bel Canto because the artists revile their placement in the labor camp. Life, her youth, has been stolen from Mei. There is no world inside the camp that she wishes to preserve.  Bel Canto is the opposite. The epilogue is a testament to the attempt of two hostages to preserve their former world through physical ties and memory. They must recreate their life inside the mansion. If they do not, the world they are now living in will break apart and cease to exist.  This reader found this part of the epilogue unreal, though I felt the hidden physical pull between the two hostages.  Other than that, Bel Canto and The Secret Piano were nuggets of excellent writing. I look forward to other books by Ann Patchett.