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Review: A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti

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How do you begin to discuss the narrative, historical, and cultural impact of music on the human experience? Do you explore the sounds of nature? Provide anecdotes about the gold record aboard the Voyager? Tell the wild story of an enormous organ that took fifteen years to build, was blessed by a bishop, and then caused an avalanche when played? All of this, and so much more, is found in Luis Sagasti in A Musical Offering, another wonder of a book published by Charco Press.

Some of the most exciting and experimental pieces of art are ones that attempt to communicate another form of art entirely. Video games that unfold like novels; movies that emulate the aesthetics and storytelling structure of comic books. A Musical Offering falls into this unusual bracket of art: a piece of experimental fiction that explores the human relationship to music itself. Music as the soundtrack to historical events; the personal stories of composers and musicians like Beethoven and John Lennon; the song of the loneliest whale.

A Musical Offering

a musical offering sagasti

There is no singular narrative in A Musical Offering. Instead, across seven chapters which vary wildly in size and tone, we are taken across a constellation of stories which interlink with one another. They cross over and under like shoelaces, sometimes relating to one another and other times not at all. Each chapter’s title gives us a theme and a tone: Lullaby, Silences, Wars. We are then, within each chapter, told multiple stories or given little snippets and anecdotes about music as it pertains to those concepts: war and death, birth and childhood.

Many of the stories and anecdotes in A Musical Offering explore the lives of historical figures like Canadian concert Pianist Glenn Gould, whose actions, life experiences, and approach to music run through the entire book like a thread, Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, and Wanda Landowska, a Polish Harpsichordist who knew Leo Tolstoy.

Glenn Gould acts as a pseudo-protagonist across the breadth of A Musical Offering, but every page of this book is cut into fragments, each one taking us on a musical journey across battlefields and concentration camps, through concert halls and atop stages, and even into the vast reaches of space and the depths of the ocean. It is an unexpected journey, with each step transporting us to somewhere entirely new.


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It is truly remarkable how A Musical Offering not only inspects and celebrates how music behaves, how it is created, interpreted, and repeated, and the impact it has on us as a species, but also how the book itself behaves like a piece of music far more than it does a narrative. It’s only natural, perhaps, that a book about music would behave far more like music than it would a narrative.

A Musical Offering is far more an experience than it is a narrative. It transports us, encourages a wandering mind, offers as many facts as inspiring lines; it provides poetry, silence, humour, history, fiction, and a generous helping of feeling.

Rarely do we comment on a book’s cover during reviews, but this particular cover, designed by Pablo Font, is one of the most striking I’ve seen, and also so spectacularly emblematic of the themes and ideas explored in A Musical Offering. The eye moving from left to right as it does a page, only to see the piano keys transform into bombs, is such an intensely unnerving and provocative experience. And with the book exploring the potential of music as a creative and destructive force, as the soundtrack to human acts of all kinds, as a catalyst, an inspiration, an element all on its own, intrinsically tied to the minds and hearts of people – it’s all so inescapably captivating.

Conclusion

It’s impossible, when reading and writing about A Musical Offering, not to remark on the musical overlaps between the book’s very behaviour and its subject matter. In so many ways, it truly is a musical offering. The book is like a complex prog rock track, moving in waves, shifting frequently in tone, offering us a journey that is more primal and emotional than it is complexly intellectual. The narrative becomes distracted and morphs into something else entirely, travelling through space and time in a flash, to arrive and something entirely different, only to yank us back again with familiar themes and motifs.

There is nothing in the scope of literature that hits like A Musical Offering. It is the literary equivalent of a symphony, mimicking the behaviour and tone of the very subject it explores. Via the book’s content, you’ll be taken on a musical journey across fact and fiction, history and geography. In its expression, you’ll experience an emotional journey unlike anything else a book can offer.

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