Have many of you have read Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’? I can’t remember why I bothered to start reading it. Perhaps it was the title, it had an enigmatic lure of some sort. I'm not going to even try to describe the book here, but I will list some adjectives that occur to me when I think of it: long, infuriating; irritating; convoluted; plotless.
But I couldn’t put it down. After I’d finished it, I wondered what it was all about. What was it about that book that held me in its power? The hold a book can have, without obvious attractive characters, or clever plot, I felt it with Murakami’s ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’. A sense that I was being carried along by a current of words, rather than what they meant.
For the last few weeks I’ve been recuperating from Bell’s Palsy. This is not unrealted to Bolano’s book. You’ll see, in a minute I’ll tie it up. Be patient. The palsy started with a numbness around my lips. I couldn’t blow a raspberry. If I was a professional brass musician, I’d have been in serious trouble. Before the diagnosis, I quietly considered whether I could be having a stroke. I went to my day job (I’m a primary school headteacher) and felt my eye beginning to do strange things, and at this point, other people were beginning to notice.
I was driven to my GP who conducted some tests. I was not having a stroke. (He asked me to wrinkle my brow. A stroke victim can still wrinkle his brow on the side of the paralysis; I couldn’t.) Slowly, creepingly, my face was losing more feeling. My lips, eye, tongue all began to lose sensation.
My GP scrolled through my medical records. “You’re stressed,” he said. “You’re lucky you didn’t have a stroke. You can’t work like this. One month off, at least.”
I ignored him and went back into work the next day. Soon enough I realised I could hardly speak, I couldn’t eat, and I certainly couldn’t drink. I kept spilling coffee down my shirt, on to my trousers. I couldn't smile. And then my right eye refused to close, and the left wouldn’t open. I gave up and went home.
My colleagues were very supportive. They insisted I take time off. For the first few days I woke thinking about work; about emails that needed an answer, cheques that had to be signed, a child whose story I had promised to discuss and had not been able to. If this continued, I wouldn’t get better. I had to find a distraction.
I wasn’t able to write: my eyes opened and closed at random intervals. I had to tape one down, and intermittently feed the other eye drops. I had to find something else.
With no one else in the house all day, I began playing music at window rattling volumes. It was bliss. I cranked up a recording studio that’s been in various stages of evolution over the years, and began composing music again. Very pleasant, it was, to be hunched over the keyboard, my eyes closed in reverie.
At the same time I was trying to make up jokes to donate to the Twitter community. I like making up jokes, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to algebra without doing maths. Here are a couple of seasonal efforts. (Yes, I know, they wouldn’t make it into a damp cracker.)
The salt just bid me 'good morning' and then the pepper said 'how are you?' I suppose those are seasonings greetings.
My daughter wants some felt pens for Christmas. I said I could afford to get her some that no one had even touched!
And so it goes on. There are millions of people out there, furiously tweeting jokes, and some of them are really quite good. Twitter is a madhouse . Twitter is a force for political change. Twitter is dull. But, don’t think you can do what you like on Twitter, you can’t. Here, for example, are Roger Quimbly’s Rules of Twitter. Please take note:
So, having decided I wanted to start composing music again, but needing inspiration, I looked to Twitter. I wondered if I could compose the musical form of the tweet. A ten second opera, or musical. Something that made a point musically, in a few seconds. But what?
In a moment of sublime joy I knew what I had to do. Set other people’s tweets to music. Eureka! It became my sick bed passion.
Some tweets threw themselves at me, others crept up and whispered in my ear. But one by one, each told its own tale. Each was a little mystery to solve, a code to break.
These tiny phrases, unlocked, revealed more than their surface meaning. I began recording the best ones, and as I did, I sang them over and over to find their heart. Because of the palsy, my singing was a bit odd. I sounded like Tom Waits, but with a drink problem.
I had to find the rhythm of the tweet, extract the melody. Some revealed an emotional depth that was sometimes quite surprising. One particular tweet moved me so much I found it hard to sing. Another suddenly revealed itself as a waltz, transparently in three four time.
When my daughter was tiny, just months old, we communicated in a sort of wordless song. I would sing a meaningless phrase, she would complete it. If I hadn’t recorded our wordless conversations, I would think I had imagined it all. But I still have her pre-verbal songs, and lovely they are.
What occurs to me is the underlying music of language, below the meaning of words and sentences, may have a more profound effect on us than we acknowledge. And so, back to Bolano. I know the book I read was a translation, but nevertheless, I wonder whether if some of its hold on me was musical. That between them, Bolano and his translator had created a sort of emotional sound map. Not that I know what that means.
Writing these little songs helped me get better quickly. I was told I should expect to start feeling better in six weeks. In three, I was smiling again. Here are a few of the twongs: tweet into song.