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Jane Mendelsohn on American Music
The first moment of inspiration for American Music came in 1996 when I learned the remarkable fact that there was a secret formula for making cymbals. I was in Maine for a reading of my first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, visiting with a writer friend and her husband. He is a member of the Zildjian family, the same family that has been making cymbals for centuries. I was fascinated by his story on many levels: the idea of a secret formula, the family history dating back to 17th century Turkey, the resonance and romance of music through the ages, and my own fantasy that there might be a secret formula for making symbols too.
I immediately envisioned a story about a woman searching for this formula, desperately, somewhat pointlessly but also movingly, as if it were the secret to life itself. I pictured her trying to work through a loss by realizing the simultaneity of all things, that memories, like symbols, and the sound of cymbals, contain all time. That idea changed over the years, but essentially remained a deep part of the book.
A while later, I heard from a friend who does bodywork about a man who refused to lie on his back. I began imagining a tale about why he wouldn't and started thinking of a character who was a soldier. The two ideas: the secret formula for making cymbals and the soldier with his mysterious reason for not lying on his back simmered in my mind as I started researching.
When I read about the history of cymbals, I was struck that these instruments developed in 17th century Turkey by an Armenian alchemist were so central to American music. I read about jazz and learned that it was the shift to leading the beat with the cymbals instead of the drums that marked the beginning of swing. It interested me that such a quintessentially American art form could be traced so clearly to a moment in time so distant and different from America in the 1930's, which was when swing began. And I was also struck that Istanbul in 1623 was a place of cosmopolitanism, a vibrant melting pot of cultures.
I was at this point in my thinking about the book, and living in New York City, when 9/11 occurred. That I had been writing about Islamic culture and its relation to 20th century America felt uncanny. And when we went to war, the fact that I had been writing about a soldier felt uncomfortable. I put the book away for a while. My daughter was two, and not long after, I had another baby.
But I could not stop thinking about cymbals and about the soldier. I worked on the book in my head while I pushed my daughters on the swings in Washington Square Park, the destruction at ground zero so close but at the same time, in the playground, seemingly very far away.
Eventually, the strands I had been working on came together, found each other in a way, in one larger narrative about families and love stories and the world that goes on while war is happening someplace else. Of course I am still searching for that secret formula.(Photo © Nick Davis)
This digressive novel by the author of I Was Amelia Earhart probes intersecting tales that emerge from the work done by a masseuse-cum-shaman. Honor is a 21-year-old physical therapist at the Bronx VA hospital; Milo Hatch is a particularly traumatized patient who was severely wounded in Iraq. During Milo's treatment, both he and Honor begin having visions of people they don't know. The narrative breaks up in pursuit of the stories behind the visions of the late 1930s love triangle between Joe, a saxophone player and law student; his wife, Pearl, unable to have children after many miscarriages; and Pearl's cousin, Vivian, who shares with Joe a passion for jazz. (Mendelsohn provides, for instance, a tidy excursus on the significance of cymbals in jazz, tracing their provenance to 17th-century Istanbul.) The fallout from Joe and Vivian's messy affair connects back to present day, yet the music evoked by this ponderously embellished work remains a vague, distant noise. (June)
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Jane Mendelsohn's evocative novel "American Music" (2010) is a story of American loves, American dreams and American music, as exemplified by the saxophone, the cymbals, Count... Read morePublished on July 26, 2013 by Robin Friedman
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