“It was our third time playing the Godfather theme since lunch …” begins the last of the five stories that make up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. Entitled “Cellists,” the story returns us to the Venice of the opening chapter and to one of the same bands whose members make their dreary living servicing one of the cafés on the Piazza San Marco with the appropriate aural ambience. But this “live” music—meant to provide an “authentic” experience for the crowds of visitors—is deadening to the performers themselves. Indeed, this is less musical performance than mechanical reproduction. These bands are practically machines, the players more often scanning the masses of tourists for a familiar face or useful distraction: “Look it’s Warren Beatty with 10,001… It’s Kissinger.” The imagination that should be engaged by music-making is instead numbed by it. It is a good opening line, conveying an immediate sense of the grind of serving as an ersatz CD looping back automatically to the beginning of the playlist. Yet, the lifers condemned to this sentence seem to take it with little complaint, taking solace perhaps in the camaraderie of Schadenfreude, when a musician tries to escape and fails.
Classical music figures prominently only in this last story, where it represents a kind of promised land. In this closing tale one of the musicians—a young Hungarian cellist—tries to break away from the daily grind and improve himself. He is coached by an American visitor who approaches him after having heard him play in a tourist concert in a church—a venue one step up, but only a low one, from the drudgery of the cafe. Presenting herself as musical guru, the American tourist convinces the young cellist to subject himself to intense coaching sessions that seem to explore the deeper metaphysics of music in contrast to the shallow and mindless repetitions of the piazza musicians. Their encounters amount to a parody of the transcendental communion between musical mentor and protégé. “He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate them into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.” But even gullibility, the suggestibility can lead to greater heights of expression: music in this hackneyed view is a form of self-discovery. The cellist explains to his friends still laboring back on the piazza that “I could suddenly see something … A garden I’d not yet entered … A garden I’d never seen before.” Crossing the piazza later, the cellist grants himself “the luxury of an almond cake with whipped cream, his sense of elation barely contained.” He does not comment on the ubiquitous music that sifts through the air.
It turns out that the American is herself something of a fraud and in fact doesn’t play the cello, hasn’t touched the instrument since she was eleven, but claims nonetheless to be able to unlock the inner musical soul of actual players. In the end the young cellist’s intended break from musical servitude fails. After leaving Venice in the aftermath of his extended encounter with the American, the cellist is spotted among the tourists again on the piazza by the narrator, who is in the midst of a set. The cellist is wearing a suit, and the narrator imagines that he might now have “a day job now behind a desk”; perhaps he disillusioned to find out that that garden is a mirage that he has left music altogether, but one suspects that he is back in town to earn some money playing his cello for tourists in one capacity or another. If the cellist turns up again on the piazza, and the narrator’s not playing, he hopes to have a word with him. Playing in the band is like working on the assembly line: you can’t leave your station even to catch an old acquaintance. The other band members—mean-spirited in contrast to the gentle narrator—will be happy to learn of the failed jailbreak.
The subtitle of Ishiguro’s collection tries to strike a romantic tone, or perhaps pose in Five Stories of Music and Nightfall and the tales within try to draw us into the emotional lives of musicians and music lovers far beneath the upper echelons of success either in love or money. The aspiring and the already thwarted are here as central figures or as foils for the stunted desires of other has-beens and would-bes.
The first story of the collection climaxes—if such a word can be used for this heavily sedated work of fiction—with an open-air serenade from a gondola. The context suggests more of barcarole than a nocturne, I suppose, except that the what’s being sung is an American popular song plundered from Sinatra: One for My Baby, that sort of thing. All is wrapped in a nostalgic aura, a kind of melancholy reverie for the impossibility of musical fulfillment, and therefore, too of love. In “Crooner” the piazza guitarist narrator accompanies a washed-up Dean Martin-type on a gondola as he serenades the wife he’s about to leave for a younger, more glamorous woman. The crooner hopes the move will freshen up his image and jumpstart his career. It’s a deeply ironic enactment of that old cliché “They’re playing our song.” The has-been singer himself had been admired by the guitarist’s own mother back in Poland: loss and regret rise up with the nocturnal song. The guitarist’s only chance to play with a big-time “artist” is for the prelude-to-divorce proceedings. This brush with greatness is a short furlough from the penal colony of San Marco.
Now a Hollywood talk show host, that wife abandoned in Venice turns up in the penultimate story at a flash-and-filigree plastic surgeon where she meets the jazz saxophonist narrator. No surprisingly, he too has been left his wife, but not before her new man has agreed to pay for the expensive and experimental surgery for the jilted jazzman in the hopes that this will get him in the recognition his talent alone could not. The guy can play but he’s ugly. Worse, he let’s himself be talked into the painful surgery and the foolish plot of this implausible narrative, which gives perhaps the clearest sense in the volume that these characters reflect Ishiguro’s own whimsical, indeed condescending, imaginings about the lives of musical journeymen, rather than the reality of that existence.
In “Malvern Hills” a music school drop-out heads to his sister’s café in the countryside to get away from the daily disappointments of the London scene. Like the venues in Venice, the Malvern restaurant survives on the tourist trade. Our narrator is working hard developing his own songs and rather less hard paying for his keep by bussing tables, much to the grumpy dismay of his brother-in-law, who one night has the nerve to dispatch the sister to tell the songwriter to stop his strumming so he can watch the telly in peace.
The songwriter doesn’t make music for the tourists in the café but rather does so alone out in the woods and meadows of the surrounding hills. There he chances on an odd Swiss couple who’d earlier visited the café and been nasty about the service. The couple is a musical duo that plays weddings and hokey festivals in Switzerland, with a few forays beyond its borders. There is talk from the woman about the ineffable qualities of real music and similarly cloying metaphysic before she reveals that her marriage seems to have reached its final chorus, too. One can be fairly sure that our singer-songwriter narrator will also be defeated by his musical obsessions.
This lower level of music business is promising terrain for understanding the nature and function of music of the everyday and of the musicians who make it, —and for what it means to live for music but be defeated by it. But Ishiguro cannot find his way to those tempting literary rendez-vous. Having served my time playing five weddings a day, each book-ended by Wagner on the front end and Mendelssohn on the back, I have a sense of the purgatory of putting yourself on musical auto-pilot. That these characters are so passive and pliant almost makes one think they deserve the fate Ishiguro condemns them to.
This is the perfect book for those parents who want their street musician twenty-five-year-old to pack up his guitar, count up his coins and apply to law school.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org