The Big Idea: Patrick Swenson
Music inspires us, moves us, and in some ways inhabits us and has the power to change our lives. It’s this power that Patrick Swenson draws upon for his new novel Rain Music — that, and something else as well.
When I began teaching over thirty years ago, it was to teach music. Some who know me may not actually have realized this. I trained in college to be a high school band teacher, and for the first nine years of my teaching career I did just that. During college I also took a concentration of courses in music composition. I had a few compositions performed in concert, including a concerto for trombone and piano. Later, I wrote a processional for brass quintet for a best friend’s wedding.
Music can be programmatic. It has at its heart an almost palpable need to be communicated, like a story. While teaching high school band, I wrote a long five-movement composition for wind ensemble called Memoria in Eterna, based on the classic SF novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, who makes the case that history is cyclical, alternating between creation and destruction. My own high school band performed Memoria at a final concert, and a fellow teacher had his students produce a slide show to project over the band during the performance. Like history, music is cyclical. The question is: can we change the cycle? Can we, as H.G. Wells once asked, change the shape of things to come?
Music’s long been in my blood. It’s something I’ll never let go of, even though I’ve now been teaching high school English for the last two-thirds of my career and haven’t touched an instrument (other than my piano) for a long time.
But still. It’s there. In my blood is the power of music—the magic of music—and this is something I wholeheartedly believe to be true. Music is uplifting and cathartic. It can also be harrowing and bring tears to your eyes. (Try listening to Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Pendercki and tell me you’re not shocked and moved by it.)
In my novel Rain Music, the music becomes my main character’s secret weapon against a coming darkness when he attempts to write his own symphony. His muse—a voice he hears only when it rains—sings a song that has him so enthralled that he uses it for his symphony’s main melody. There comes a time when he believes he can pull magic from it not only to defeat the dark mage of the story, but to regain his own memories.
I wanted to weave the positives of music with its darker possibilities to represent the uncertainty of one’s life. In music there are “accidentals”: markings that can quickly change the key and the tone of a piece for a short while. Then there are sudden stops (caesuras) and grand pauses. There are words—directions in musical scores—such as forte, and piano, and rubato, which can redirect the pace of music in an instant (or over several minutes).
There’s a phrase in music history: Diabolus in Musica, which means “The Devil in Music.” It refers to a musical interval (called the tritone) that clergy in the Middle Ages considered devilish. The idea came about when they attempted to represent, in music, the idea of the Holy Trinity. There was something evil in it, something corrupt, and the devil’s interval was banned from churches. Truman, my protagonist, must learn to harness the many facets of music, including its hidden, secret ones. He attempts to build his own trinity of music.
My first teaching job was at a small K-12 school on the Olympic Peninsula, in Quinault, Washington, smack dab in the middle of the rainforest, where it rains a good twelve feet of rain a year. (It was a good place to . . . ahem . . . get my feet wet.) It is also a place I’ve gone back and back to, and now is the site of my annual Rainforest Writers retreat. I started the retreat because it was important to offer a spot for writers to focus on solitary and community writing in an isolated environment, supported by a collective of contemporaries of like mind and pursuits.
I know how hard it is (particularly with a day job) to get time to sit down and let words pour out. Over thirty years ago, I breathed in the music of Quinault. Much of what happened during the years I lived there slipped into this book. There is something magical that drenches me each year out in Quinault during the retreat, and it keeps me plugging away on my writing, even as it moved me to finish this very personal book. When I started it, the story was going to be set in the Quinault of the 1990s, during the heart of the controversy surrounding the timber industry, old growth forests, and the spotted owl. So much time passed, and so much restructuring of this novel happened, that I had to summon the magic of friends and other writers to not only help set it firmly in the present, but also splice in the past, as if the story were set in two places at the same time.
There’s some of that in the book. If we listen hard enough, I know we can hear the music of the spheres. The echoes. We can cycle back. We can reset.
Who knows what magic the rain and music will bring?