Jazmina Barrera studied English literature at the UNAM, where she has also taught English classes. She has worked as an editor in and writer for printed magazines and digital media; she also contributes to the magazine limulus.mx. She won the Latin American Voices essay award in 2013 and her book of essays, El cuerpo extraño, was published by Literal Publishing. She is currently a grant recipient as an essayist at the Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas.
“I seemed to hear, at a certain moment, a distant music.
I stopped, the better to listen.
Go on, he said.
Listen, I said. Get on, he said.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to the music.
It might have drawn a crowd.”
“The Dead,” the Joyce story, takes place on Christmas Eve. Snow falls across Ireland. The familial evening plays out with its discomforts, its feast, its speeches, and its goodbyes. While people slip on their coats and hats and gradually leave the house, someone plays an Irish folk song in an adjacent room.
If you draw close enough, the subtle notes resound like the most powerful orchestra. I examine the marks engraved into the metal, the tiny, slender keys, vibrating with every turn of the crank. A music box is a living score that reads its own content. It requires only the impulse of a hand and the music makes itself: you make it, but it makes itself. It’s the piano and the pianist. In a poem by Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince says that sounds touch the spirit and make music, there, too. “Music is feeling, then, not sound.”
A few chords on the piano and a voice singing an aria. In English, aria is air. Gabriel, the protagonist of “The Dead,” tries to “catch the air that the voice was singing”: recognizing the aria means capturing the air itself.
I have owned four music boxes in my life. The first, now lost, was a wind-up doll, dressed in pink and wearing a straw hat – a birthday gift from my grandmother. After turning the crank, a gloomy tune played while the doll slowly moved her head. I didn’t know where the melody came from then. Years later, on the subway in Paris, a man with a turban, a long beard, and a microphone got on to sing songs in Arabic; in an attempt to enliven the moment when he walked up and down the car and asked for change, he left the Middle Eastern version of my doll’s melody playing on the speakers. I pulled out my cell phone and recorded it. Later, I played it for my mother and she told me it was the song from Love Story –that melodramatic account of an impossible romance I would later see, nearly in tears, even as I acknowledged how saccharine it was. “The sweet love story that is older than the sea,” “till the stars all burn away,” sings the voice in the original song.
The sad doll was a strange gift from my grandmother, who was always telling jokes and humming the cha-cha-cha. The music sounded solitary, born of itself, as automatic as the doll. One day I brought her to where my mother and a cousin were cutting sunflowers that grew wild in the garden. After a few moments, my cousin, who would have been six years old at the time, halted his labors and approached me to say that the music was making him sad.
Gretta, Gabriel’s wife, pauses on the staircase, lowers her eyes, and listens to the song that speaks of the rain and the cold: “My babe lies cold within my arms…” In the distance, the song sounds painful, illuminates the air with sorrow.
The second box was round and made of multicolored metal; it had a pane of glass revealing a little cat puppet that danced before a sunny landscape to the rhythm of a circus tune. It was a happy scene, but listening to it still makes me a little sad. Though light, the music sounds distant, as if it came from another world, a cold world, like the metal in its notes, a world of memories, cold as the world of the dead.
Gabriel wonders what a woman standing on the stairs, in the shadows, listening to distant music, is a symbol of. Gretta wonders what song it is. The Lass of Aughrim, she is told. The music seems to upset her.
I was fifteen when I went to Paris for the first time. Walking alongside my mother one day, she told me she remembered a shop near the Palais Royal that sold only music boxes. To get there, we crossed the esplanade where several men were playing pétanque among the trees – perfectly aligned and trimmed, French-style. The shop was still there. Years later, I went back to look for it and found it closed for the immovable French summer holidays. Peering into the window, I eagerly studied all kinds of music boxes:
There were boxes with dolls atop them that turned in circles to the rhythm of the music. Boxes like jewelry boxes, which made the dancer spin when the top opened up. Boxes, like mine with the cat, that had a glass lid covering a puppet in motion, shaped like a clown, a tiger, an elephant. Exposed boxes, the cheapest kind, that actually weren’t boxes at all, but rather just the metal mechanism. Vastly expensive boxes decorated with nouveau marquetry designs, and others that resembled moviolas, where you insert a perforated strip of paper and the box plays the music dictated by the little holes. Beside them was a sign that read Nous pouvons composer pour vous.
There was a list on the window of the songs you could choose for the box of your preference, a mix of classical, popular, folk, and Hollywood music: Rigoletto, Nabucco, Carmen, Darling Clementine, La vie en rose, The Sound of Music, La polonaise, Claro de luna, Amazing Grace, Tristesse, Love Story, Les yeux noirs, Nocturne, Hello Dolly, Joyeux anniversaire, Memory, [Minuet de Beethoven], Edelweiss, My Way, La Valse d’Amelie, Frére Jacques, Que será será, Ode á la joué, Singing in the Rain, Ave María, Le lac de cygnes, Sous le ciel de Paris.
Under the Parisian sky, during my first trip, it rained. Sheltered by the shop, I compared each and every box and, ignoring the clichés, I chose one made of smooth wood, round, that played “Swan Lake.” You turn the golden handle, let it go, and the music plays ever slower, softer. It moves away.
As a little girl, I had an animated Japanese movie version of Swan Lake. I watched it again and again; I could hum the music from memory. I was entranced by the princess’s metamorphosis into a swan and her evil usurping twin, the most captivating character ever invented. Years later, as a result of my growing fascination with fairy tales, I came across the Russian folktale that inspired Tchaikovsky, “The White Duck.” In this story, a witch usurps the place of a princess and turns her into a white duck (hence the swan). Before Stevenson, before Borges, this was the first tale of doubles that I loved.
Some fairy tales are like music boxes, perfect mechanisms in which everything fits together and all conflicts are ultimately resolvable. Such stories contain a magic that, like music, is born of itself, doesn’t question itself. And there are fairy tales, like this one, in which winter, swans, and the white of the snow sound like cold metal. They are stories that emerge from an uncertain past and yet have somehow always been there.
Images from his life rise up from the past and take over Gabriel’s memory. The past is distant music. Gretta’s body is music within reach of Gabriel’s touch. Gretta confesses her story, why the song saddens her – because it reminds her of young Michael Furey, who used to sing it to her, and who died of cold, died for her. Without realizing it, Gabriel is suddenly there, too, listening to the distant melody sung by the dead, with the snow coming down outside.
Watchmakers used to make music boxes. These objects called for their precision, their detail, and their refinement. They forged the microscopic music while, above, there was a god, the meticulous watchmaker behind the perfect machine of the universe. Image and likeness: harmony on earth imitated the harmony of the earth’s creation, the music of the spheres. John Donne promised that in heaven “there shall be … no noise nor silence, but one equal music,” and when the apocalypse arrives, said Dryden, “music shall untune the sky.” How could it be otherwise, if Pythagoras had already discovered the correspondence between chords and mathematics? The movement of the celestial bodies produced a sound that we humans could no longer hear. The stars’ constant shifting yielded a perfect harmony. Music was a ladder toward the cosmos.
My fourth music box, which I bought in a Mexico City bookstore, and which is just the mechanism without the box, plays Stairway to Heaven, another fairy tale. Music boxes grant us only a melody and, at most, some kind of accompaniment, a counterpoint – but that’s enough for us to remember all the instruments and the voice that says: “your stairway lies on the whispering wind.” A music box is a musical synecdoche. It’s a distilled music, radiant as the stars made of the burning metals that will build them. Its music is a harmony subject to chaos. Its sound waves rise, disperse themselves across the universe, and perhaps they echo, as distant music, in other worlds.
(Translated by Robin Myers.)
Robin Myers (New York, 1987) is a founding editor of Mexico City Lit.