Monday, October 31, 2011

In War Times

In Which a Science Fiction Author Writing About Jazz Completely and Unexpectedly Illuminates Why I Play Synthesizers

If I was 10 years older I’d probably be a sax player instead of a synthesist.

But I didn’t know that until I started reading Kathleen Ann Goonan’s book In War Times. Goonan writes amazing novels. They’re thick, heavy, and deep. In the best of ways, of course. And they’re filled with music, with jazz. Now I like jazz, but would not call myself an aficionado. Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis, Etta James, even, all favorites of mine along with many others. I’m much more of a rocker, though. But if I’d been born in 1940 or ’50 instead of 1960 maybe I would have turned out much like her characters. 

The beauty of Goonan’s writing is how I feel almost immediately immersed, even though I’ve never been to those 52nd Street jazz clubs, or to the ones in Harlem. And when I was the impressionable age her characters were when they were listening to their first jazz platters, for me there was Switched on Bach, Yes, ELP, Genesis, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Larry Fast, and later, in high school, Tangerine Dream. It was all over after that. I am to this day haunted by the textures of the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. So compelling, so beautiful, and making the movie all that much more intense.

As a preteen, though, my world was filled with the textures of the then new synthesizer. Just like the people in Goonan’s novel discovering the magic of jazz, in my slightly different time I was awakened to the birth of the synthesizer. I remember the disgust and outrage about these new “so-called instruments.” They were unnatural, synthetic, offensive, which was a common complaint. They would cost orchestras their jobs was another. But to me, it was eye-opening. The world of my father humming Greensleeves while conducting invisible musicians on the radio was what I was brought up with, followed by the ’60s with the “hippy” music, thanks to my sister and her DJ boyfriend. But then the synthesizer happened, and that was it for me. And like Goonan’s characters, I was taken in, swept up, and swirled away into a new world. That magical box of textures, sounds previously undreamt of, the joining of music and technology, just as in her book, that happened to me, too. 

If I was just a little older, I might have picked up a saxophone. But it was the Moog that got me instead. But Goonan’s book got me as well, grabbing me in its headlong rush into jazz and physics and world conflict. From the first page it had me, and who knows where it’s going to take me as I’m only 21% in (thanks, Kindle, for stealing page numbers out from under us!). And I admit that sometimes at the end of her books I’m left wondering what I just witnessed, but in some ways that’s half the fun. I’m always left with a “wow,” regardless. 

This is not a review of In War Times, nor is it even that much about the book at all. What this is about is the sense of discovery, the exhilaration, the newness of something that had never been heard before. For Goonan, maybe, jazz. For me, the synthesizer. No, what this is about is her unbelievably accurate description of me, as a kid, hearing the synthesizer for the very first time, with its magical textures that uprooted my world. Even though I’m not actually in her novel of course, yeah, she was writing about me. 

So I’m writing this to say, “thanks” to Ms. Goonan. She somehow managed to finally put into words exactly how I felt, and why I chose the synthesizer to fill my life. Why I had to. Even though the novel was jazz and the ’40s, it was also about me in the ’60s.

Yup. She nailed it.

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