Power had never understood this. It thought if you killed off enough of the population, and fed the rest a diet of propoganda and terror, then optimism would result…
My romance-person is a collaborative pianist. During one of your tours through Munro’s Books in Victoria, he pointed to Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. The premise—part historical fiction and part postmodern obsession with the perpetual existential crisis of the Artist’s role in the making of society—intrigued me.
That’s the theory-boy within talking.
I hoped Barnes’ novel would give me some insight into the mind of a classical musician. Maybe I’d find some new conversational points with my romance-person. Not that we have a hard time holding a conversation—I’m just interested in his world and world-view.
That’s the romance-boy within talking.
Although I am not musically inclined (I pursue a life of words), the last half-a-year has been spent enjoying whimsical musical escapades such as The Magic Flute. So, I recognized some of the nods to composer behemoths, including Bach, Mozart, and Poulenc. But The Noise of Time takes place in mid-twentieth century Soviet Russia, so other than the communist thinkers that rear their heads (Marx and Lenin), I’m a stranger to the Russian musical and intellectual landscape.
Now I have some wonderful talking points with my romance-person.
But there is one thing missing in this study of a distinguished Soviet composer…There is no portrait on your walls of Comrade Stalin on your walls…
Barnes brings us the story of a neurotic man, Dmitri Shostakovich (who is a real musician—check out this sample of his work), who is never quite content with his life. Despite his rise to fame as Soviet Russia’s greatest composer and musical import. Despite avoiding assassination by the Power, Stalin, time and time again.
This isn’t a biography. The Noise of Time is historically influenced postmodern fiction.
Through a fractured narrative, jumping from fragment to fragment, foregoing chapters, Barnes probes the question of the Artist’s role in the shaping of society. As the Soviet Russian industrial machine accelerates, it’s the work of musicologists and composers that engineer society.
Every note, theme, and impression are scrutinized by the Power (the State) for a hidden message. Shostakovich makes the mistake of releasing an opera—Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—that, the Power claims, sympathizes with anti-Russian sentiments. It doesn’t engineer the right kind of citizen. It leads a citizen’s thoughts to wander into the realm of criticism of the Power, ultimately corrupting their souls.
Nevertheless, Shostakovich desperately works to preserve the positive reception of his music, his career, and his life. He is just a lost soul in the noise of time.
So, Dmitri Shostakovich frets for most of the novel. But he never fears death. He doesn’t fear the erasure of his family and friends, and the omnipresence of Stalin in his life. (The Power is everywhere, and an agent of the government wonders why Shostakovich lacks a grand portrait of Stalin in his study).
Instead, Dmitri fears for the life of his music. Will his symphonies last the test of time? What does it mean to compose to please Power? Will he ever be free to write the music he likes and without constraints? Will he be a composer remembered till the end of time—or will his music fold up with the closing of communist Russia? It’s a never-ending existential crisis that, admittedly, becomes exhausting by the novel’s last page.
What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music…
I enjoy the themes that Barnes tackles in The Noise of Time (because I’m part theory-boy). Barnes paints a portrait of Soviet Russia that is reminiscent of Plato’s Republic. Art, music, and all things that the human mind creates either corrupts the soul or nurtures the soul for the benefit of the Republic.
Stalin and his comrades even come to represent, I think, the Philosopher King, which Plato believed would best lead the Republic. At one point, Shostakovich is tasked with brushing up on his Marxist political theory.
Indeed, Stalin’s vision of a communist society needed to consider the utility of art in the engineering of society. Not only were material resources limited, but so was time. Content has to be curated in such a way that it promotes the values, ways of life, and the utopia that Soviet Russia was supposed to represent.
We don’t live in that much of a different society. The means of artistic production, however, is owned by a different Power. That of money and advertisers. A song’s utility is measured in how much profit it can extract from each note and accompanying lyric. A song’s use is calculated in how large an audience it can create.
Whether in a capitalist society or a communist, the composer, the writer—the artist—submits their integrity to the Powers that be.
Even with the death of Stalin and a regime change, Shostakovich finds that there is no real freedom in what content he can put into his art. The oversight of composition might have been less tyrannical, but the necessity to survive remains. No matter what he becomes a sellout. If there is any parting wisdom Barnes offers us with his characterization of Shostakovich’s career, that being the sellout is a necessity of “making a living” as an Artist.