Books and Music at the Heart of Independent Publishing

The Rhythm of Prose and the Rhythm of Music

April 15, 2013 | by Faber Social

Tags: Events, RJ Ellroy, Soundtracks

Hans Christian Andersen said, ‘Where words fail, music speaks.’

Gustav Mahler said, ‘If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.’

I have always believed that some fundamental connections exists between the rhythm of prose and the rhythm of music.

As both a writer and a musician, I can see it. More accurately, I can feel it. More times than I can recall, I have read back a sentence and just felt that there was one syllable too many. The rhythm wasn’t right, that was all.

Some of my greatest inspirations for storytelling came from noir Golden Age of Hollywood classics – Strangers on a Train (based on a book by Patricia Highsmith, screenplay by Raymond Chandler, directed by Hitchcock; what more could one ask for?), The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, White Heat, and dozens more. Even now, when I think about the real art of storytelling and how it translates to film, I think of Carol Reed, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder and John Huston.

Of course, there are the screenplay greats, writers of such brilliance that their turns-of-phrase and killer one-liners have entered the very psyche of our culture. WR Burnett, author of such noir classics as Little Caesar and The Ashphalt Jungle also penned the screenplays for the 1932 production of Scarface and 1963’s The Great Escape. John Michael Hayes wrote incomparably brilliant screenplays for such films as Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. Even Raymond Chandler himself, remembered primarily for his novels, wrote not only Hitchcock’s Strangers … but also co-wrote the screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s classic, Double Indemnity. The directors were exceptional, the scripts second-to-none … but then there was the music.

Who can forget Anton Karas’ zither in The Third Man. Karas, until then an unknown wine bar performer, wrote the score, and the central theme itself spent eleven weeks at Number One on Billboard’s chart.

And then there was the shower scene in Psycho, that discordant Bernard Herrmann string sequence that lends itself to evoking images so much better than the images themselves could conjure up. Just that alone reminds me of my grandmother when she said, ‘The best pictures are on the wireless …’ Even Hitchcock himself was reported as saying that ‘thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music …’

And then we think of Maurice Jarre’s score for Lawrence, Tiomkin’s High Noon, Rota’s The Godfather, Bernstein and Sondheim’s On The Waterfront, and we begin to understand that there is not only an inextricable link between the power of film-making and music, but an inherent and inextricable link between storytelling and music.

Recently I published a novel called A Dark and Broken Heart. Bearing no real relevance to the content of the chapters, the chapters are nevertheless titled with the names of sixty-one songs by the same band. Why, you might ask. Simply because it seemed so very real to me that the tense and frenetic emotions inspired by those songs was the very same tense and frenetic atmosphere that I wanted to create with the story. It was also an acknowledgement to the man who wrote those songs, a little homage if you will, for music accompanies me in everything I write, everything I do, everything that I am.

And so, perhaps both Andersen and Mahler were equally right. It always comes back to words and music, one standing for the other when either one will not suffice alone.

— RJ Ellory, along with SJ Watson, Sophie Hannah and others, will be appearing at Faber Social’s Crime evening on Tuesday 7th May – find out more here.