On the surface, "Strings," a short story by Kelley Eskridge, is an interesting tale that uses music as a metaphor for how society can force artists -- in this case, musicians -- into living false lives. Lives that have hollow centers where individual artistic expression should be.
Below the surface, "Strings" grew out of a strong reaction to seeing violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg perform on television -- a reaction that takes on a different life in fiction, and then, in a strange twist, returns many readers back to the story's inspiration. These readers seem to be on the same wavelength as Eskridge, and envision Salerno-Sonnenberg as the protagonist. Which is interesting because Strad, the protagonist, is the antithesis of Salerno-Sonnenberg. But like the unwanted phantom music in Strad's head, the inspiration that sparked "Strings"'s inception lurks around the edges of the words trying to break through. The result is a tale that produces a strong resonance in readers who are also musicians or knowledgeable lovers of music.
When Eskridge watched the biographical profile of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on television, she was struck by the violinist's intense focus when she performed -- as if the violin was a part of her body and she channeled the music straight from the heart. As Eskridge puts it: "She was amazingly passionate about her music, she vibrated the entire time she played. She was right there, inside the music. I found it attractive and I identified with it."
Eskridge recognizes Salerno-Sonnenberg as someone who has not only figured out what she has in her as far as music is concerned, but how to express this inner interpretation of sound through her violin in ways that others can experience and understand. In "Strings," Eskridge tackles this idea of an artist's need to let what's inside, sparking that creative urge, come blasting out. In Eskridge's words: "Music seemed like a perfect metaphor, and the best way to make the blasting-out point was to put Strad in a situation where she was required to keep it all in, and examine what it would take to make it come out anyway." She takes this metaphor and wraps around it a provocative story that vibrates with music of its own.
The society that Eskridge builds in "Strings" punishes those who stray even a single note from the work composed by certain masters that have been selected as the only music that can be performed or listened to or even hummed in the street. Monitors make sure that no one twitters even a motif that hasn't been penned by one of these masters.
She passed a woman who smiled and then wrinkled her eyebrows and gave Strad an odd look. It was only then that she realized that, like so many others, she was humming as she walked. But the music that buzzed in her mouth was the alien music that she had thought was safely locked in her head. She knew the other woman had heard it; then she began to wonder who else might have heard, and she spun in a circle on the sidewalk, trying to look in all directions at once for someone with a hand-held recorder or a wallet with a Monitor's badge.
In Strad's world, hitting accidental wrong notes makes a performer suspect and any hint of improvisation leads to disciplinary hearings and even possible expulsion from the Conservatory. Eskridge's musicians are kept in mental boxes so tight that they're allowed to play music to mechanical perfection but can't add their own heart and soul to the performance.
Into this environment where musicians can't let what's inside them come out, Eskridge introduces Strad, a successful violinist who appears, on the outside, to be a model musician content to follow society's limited interpretation of what sounds are music and what sounds aren't. But on the inside, she is engaged in a frightening battle with music from deep within her mind. Music that has nothing to do with the works created by the masters.
. . . it slid away like the rain down the windshield of the car, dropped into the steady beat of the tires on the wet road, thud-DUH thud-DUH, the rhythm so familiar and comforting that she relaxed into it unguardedly and was caught and jerked into the welter of other sound that was also the car and the road and the journey: thwump thwump of the wipers, the alto ringing of the engine, the coloratura squeak of the seat springs as Guarnerius leaned forward to make an earnest point, the counterpoint of the wheels of the cars around them, thudduh thudduh THUMPthump-thump THUD-duh and no matter how hard she tried, she could not make it something she recognized; she had no music for it.
These unwanted sounds horrify Strad. She's a Stradivarius, after all, not just an ordinary Violin -- a soloist, able to perform to perfection the most difficult music composed for the violin. She has reached the top of her profession and the last thing she wants is to be at odds with something from within her own mind that could destroy her career with one minor slip of her fingers on the strings.
After the final bows, she stood behind the narrow curtain at the side of the stage and watched the audience eddy up the aisles to the lobby and the street and home. She could tell by their gentle noise that the current of the music carried them for these moments as it had carried her for most of her life.
Nausea and exhaustion thrust into her like the roll of sticks on the kettledrum. And something else, although she did not want to acknowledge it: the thinnest whine of a string, phantom music high and wild in a distant, deep place within her head.
At the beginning of the story, the only glimpses that others get of Strad's, as yet, subconscious need for individual expression, are her occasion inattentiveness to conversation and her telling the Stage Manager to put a sock in it when she won't stop apologizing to Strad about why Piano isn't at a rehearsal. Strad has yet to realize that her uncharacteristic impatience with the Stage Manager is her inner mind reacting to the fact that Piano is at a Conservatory disciplinary hearing for alleged improvisation. Little does Strad know at the time that her encounters with Piano will impact her world in the most unexpected ways.
Strad thinks that the only truth in music is what society allows her to play on her violin. As the story progresses, she realizes that society's dictates aren't necessarily her personal truths and that the violin is an empty vessel that she fills with the creations of others. She thinks that the violin is somehow tied to her own love of music. Then in a dream, her violin betrays her and plays on its own the music in her own mind.
She closed her eyes as the water cooled around her neck and knees; she remembered the music at the end of her dream. She recognized it: the distant, maddening music that she had heard earlier; the haunting melody that stirred her hands to shape it; the illegal music that she could never play.
When she tried to stand up, her hand slipped on the porcelain rim, and her elbow cracked against it. The pain drove the music from her head, and she was grateful.
Also hovering around the edges of the story is the idea that soloists have a greater struggle against this inner music -- at least those performers who survive long enough to become soloists. Because he can't control the music in his head, Piano comes dangerously close to washing out before he has a chance to become a Steinway. Perhaps the inclination towards having an inner music is what makes these musicians excel above the others. The biggest hint that an inner music is stronger in soloists is the undercurrent that flows between Guarnerius, a cellist, and Strad. They both seem to be fighting against something within themselves. We know what is bothering Strad and can only guess at Guarnerius's personal demons. This can also explain why Guarnerius is such a sour character who has too extreme a reaction to Piano's disciplinary action, as if he doesn't want to be around someone who even hints at giving in to the music in his head. He also thinks he sees signs that Strad is about to lose control over what her mind wants her fingers to do.
"Oh yes, I've noticed. It hasn't shown up in your music yet, but it will. Bound to. One of these fine days you'll be on stage and your hands will slip on the strings, and then we'll see what it's like when the Strad loses that precious control. . . ."
Guarnerius's drunken outburst leads Strad to wonder about what is going on in his own mind: "She remembered that he had made bad mistakes that night, and the Monitor had been there."
The moment of truth for Strad comes when she waits backstage to take her turn in the Competition where she has to face challengers to keep her status as a soloist.
All her years of Stradivarius. All the music that she had played, always with the correct amount of passion and control. All the music that she had been in those moments suddenly swelled in her; she heard every note, felt every beat, tasted every breath that had ever taken her through a complicated phrase. She felt dizzy. A pulse pounded in her stomach. Her hand, and the violin, began to tremble.
These tremors -- involuntary movements happening at the worst possible time from Strad's perspective -- actually happen at exactly the right time. Her body is telling her what her soul needs to survive. What looks like symptoms of typical nervousness before a performance are signs of anticipation to the blasting out of what's inside of her.
Eskridge chooses the perfect metaphor for her blasting out theme because music performance is one of the few acts of artistic expression in which the physical action of a human is essential for making a work of art accessible to others. Her description of the blasting out doesn't have to be contrived, as it would be for a writer or an artist. The depiction of a writer scribbling or typing with creative abandon, or an artist dancing around a canvas slashing at it with a paintbrush, can't show what's going on inside their heads. Every note a musician plays reflects what's inside her head, while at the same time taking on the more difficult task of recreating and interpreting the inner music of a composer whose only means of expression is the limiting medium of musical notation. Music performance is an artistic endeavor where the artist gives art directly to the recipient. In the end, Strad's music bursts forth and she has reached full liberation without her violin in her hands, has reached the ears of her audience with her inner music, and has broken away from tying music to the masters and to her violin: "Her hands were empty. She was full of music."
Musicians often cringe when reading passages that have to do with music, sometimes because of wrong or incorrectly used terminology, other times because it is clear that the author doesn't understand the underlying essence of music and performing -- undermining the description or point of the passage. It is difficult to convince readers of the truths within a story if the key words aren't on pitch.
The truth in "Strings" rings out because Eskridge doesn't try to use the mundane technical vocabulary of music. In her quest to bring out Strad's inner music, she digs under that music and pulls out the essence of what it's like to perform music on an instrument.
Her practice was painstaking. She wrung the piece dry. Every note, every phrase, every rest was considered and balanced. Every nuance of tone and meaning was polished until the notes seemed to shine as they shot from the strings.
Eskridge knows that musicians, like all artists, have to reach into their souls to skillfully execute what we expect those notes on the page to sound like. Whether from Eskridge's own knowledge of or experience with music, or from her understanding that performing music is no different from any other creative endeavor, she captures, as in the above passage, the musician's world. Not the ease with which a Salerno-Sonnenberg hammers out a concerto in a public performance, but what occupies most of a musician's time -- the continuing quest to perfect their art through endless practice.
Eskridge has performed an extraordinary feat in "Strings." She has written a story that peels the characters down to their most basic functional form, yet emerges with a portrait -- executed with materials not yet discovered for the creation of everyday art -- of the living, breathing human being who inspired the story to be written. Rarely has a story captured the essence of music or the essence of a musician as well as "Strings."
C.A. Casey is a Music Editor for Strange Horizons.
All direct quotations from Kelley Eskridge are from the Virtual Pint #4.
Read "Strings" online.
Visit Kelley Eskridge's Web site.