Music as Substance and Form in Grace Notes

Music as Substance and Form in Grace Notes

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Music as Substance and Form in Grace Notes


In the novel Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty, Catherine's growth as an artist through the story provides both substance and form to the story.


Early on in Catherine's life, she was taught and influenced by the people close to her. Miss Bingham was her first formal teacher. She taught Catherine things she seemed to have known beforehand: "Miss Bingham says it's all inside her head and all she has to do is draw it out" (99). Miss Bingham also gave Catherine her first manuscript jotter, taking her on her way to becoming a composer. Catherine's family was also a big influence. Granny Boyd taught Catherine songs they would sing in "the rounds of the kitchen" (145). In contrast to Miss Bingham and Granny Boyd, it seems as if her father wanted to have more control over her music interest. When listening to the Lambeg drums, her father called it "Sheer bloody bigotry" (258), yet Catherine thought it interesting with the complex rhythms. The strongest influences on Catherine, as with most children, come at an early age, and for Catherine this all happens in her home town.


There are also outside influences on Catherine's development as an artist. Catherine first saw Huang Xiao Gang at a composition workshop at the university. Huang talked about "pre-hearing and inner hearing" (33), and other ways of thinking of music in very non-western methods. Catherine remembers the 'pre-hearing' and 'inner hearing' quite a few times later, when she has ideas about music. Catherine also learns while visiting the composer Anatoli Melnichuck in Kiev. She does not actually learn directly from Melnichuck, but learns about things when she is there. When she visits the Refectory church she hears the bells in the bell tower, making a reverberating "Tintinnabulation" (124). Catherine as well hears the monks in the church singing. The singing came without warning, "it was not sacred singing - there was a lightness to it" (125). The singing there at the Refectory church reminded her of Granny Boyd singing 'The Bell Doth Toll'. The outside influences in Catherine's life gave some contrast and some interesting aspects to her music.


The influences and teachings in her life all come together to create Vernicle, which is played for the BBC at the end of the novel. Her music comes in two parts, like "the bilateral symmetry of a scallop shell" (273).

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The first side of the 'shell' begins quietly, gaining momentum. The music is simple, just a few notes repeated. Catherine is absorbed in her music, and she thinks "How can a thing have drama if you know what is going to happen" (271). At the climax of the ascent of the first half, there is a burst of the Lambeg drumming. It cuts through the music quickly, and harshly. The darkness of the rest of the orchestra reminds Catherine of her depression and it startles her. Soon, all that is left is the drums, and then nothing. The other side starts up again, with the orchestra quickly gaining momentum again. The Lambegs enter yet again, this time not in darkness, but they work with the music to produce a very different sound. The music is "Her faith" (276).


The music played out for the reader in the great description Bernard McLaverty gives has very strong parallels to the novel as a whole. There are several times when the music's structure ties in very well with the structure of the plot. After Catherine has Anna in the second part of the book, she gets very depressed, and then begins to get better after she visits the beach with Anna. This section of the story has the same structure as the music in the way that after Anna's birth, Catherine is generally happy until a night when her thoughts get the best of her, and dark thoughts continue to repeat, like the Lambegs in the first half of the music. It continues to be dark until Catherine takes Anna to the beach, and she begins to relax and get better. A new repetition comes into play, in the form of Catherine walking. The second side continues until Catherine begins to conceive music in her head, bringing her to the end of the piece of music. The novel in itself is also a representation of the music, having two symmetrical parts, ending in climactic fashion the last one much stronger. MacLaverty uses the musical style very well in structuring his novel.


Bernard MacLaverty's usage of music throughout the novel, both in the plot using Catherine's growth, and in the structure using the same structure from Catherine's music Verincle, gives a very interesting and unique way to create a great novel.

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