Containers for the Human Music

It is little known outside Ex Libris Philippines that this book club was founded by music and architecture majors during their university years at UP Diliman. 

On a trip to the capital last month, the music section of Ex Libris was able to convene whilst the architecture section was excellently acknowledged through the venue — The Library Cafe at the Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural icon in the Philippines named after our seventh president. 

I took this photo on our way in and it made me reflect on how architecture, literature, and music are the same spirit taking distinct forms and harnessing different planes of space in our lives. 

Although, through the years, I have come across books in which literature and architecture occupy the same space, and it is nothing short of fascinating when they do: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Boris Pekić’s Houses, Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina, Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants, Elif Shafak’s Architect’s Apprentice, and my current read, Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral. And as we can see, when these two meet, sumptuous covers are a given.

In an interview on his book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… so that it becomes “a container for the human music”. 

The idea and the verity of books as containers for the human music… Isn’t that beautiful?

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

How do reading friends try to lift your spirits? One brought me to Solidaridad, the legendary bookshop founded by the late National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, and forbade me to exit the shop empty-handed.

“It’s on me,” they’ll say, and treat books like a drink in which you’ll drown your pains.

Thousands to choose from, and yet I clung to this one as soon as I saw it. I was unaware that 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, wrote a novel about Shostakovich! For an idea of how fond I am of Shostakovich’s music: I performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 on my first solo recital and named a pet fish “Shosta” after him — never mind that this pet fish leapt outside of the fishbowl to his doom and died a very dramatic Russian death.

But I digress… needless to say, I took The Noise of Time home with me and finished reading it on the day the 2022 Man Booker Prize winner is expected to be announced.


It is surprisingly an apt read for a time when many Russian musicians and artists are being cancelled worldwide for not publicly denouncing Putin and the war against Ukraine.

This book suggests that it is not always as easy as it seems to make a public stand.

Shostakovich, who enjoyed international success after his first symphony, dealt with a blow when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a title familiar to NYRB editions enthusiasts) was condemned by the Soviet government in 1948, endangering his life, family, and career. Although the aforementioned work was a success after its premiere in 1934, Barnes highlights the capriciousness of the Soviet state: “What the party had said yesterday was often in direct contradiction of what the party was saying today.” As if under similar laws of energy, Soviet power evolved and mutated from one form to another.

How Shostakovich had never joined the Party initially, but had allowed himself to be seen as supportive of the Party, and how his subsequent decisions played out, appear to be a question between cowardice or courage. But wasn’t this too much to ask from a man who simply wanted to compose music?

What becomes of art when it is suppressed or governed under tyranny — “art made tongue-tied by authority”?

This book has some beautiful answers:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

“Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say or wish for.”

But if those lines still cannot convince one of the purity and the incorruptibility of great art, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 just might.

Luis Sagasti: Fireflies

Scheherazade in A Musical Offering, Penelope in Fireflies. I see what you did there, Mr. Sagasti! The mother weaver of stories of the East, and the mother un-weaver of storytelling of the West. Spun and spanned. And spangled.

“Now I’m drunk, with universe.”

Ever since the two Zweigs that got me through the long wait at the polling precincts, I have only found myself turning pages of several books but absorbing nothing, only to reread the same pages and still end up drifting. The way many people have treated our national elections like they would a mere cockfight is confounding. Your books are beautiful reprieves. Write some more, please. This is going to be a tough ride. We will need more of your magic.

Is there anything to understand?

Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer.

What we can’t be sure about is the question.

Luis Sagasti: A Musical Offering

“Weren’t you just reading The Books of Jacob?” My mom asked when she saw me with this a day after I finished reading Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus.

“Recovery read,” I answered with a wink.

She shot me a questioning look.

“You know how runners do a short recovery run within 24 hours after a marathon?”

She could only laugh and shake her head.

It was the perfect easy run for this reader! In fact, I think every little detail of this book is perfect!

From the cover design, to the French flaps, to the first page that quotes Leonard Cohen:

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?

And truly, if you care for art and music, brilliant is an understatement of how this book is written. Think Apeirogon, think When We Cease to Understand the World but instead of physicists and mathematicians, musicians and artists — Bach, The Beatles, Brahms, Messiaen, Glenn Gould, Rothko, Mahler, Scheherazade… yes, Scheherazade!

Haven’t we already noticed that literature around the world is still undoubtedly under her spell, especially the Eastern Europeans and South Americans? Argentine Luis Sagasti’s musical offering puts us in the shoes of the bewitched Persian King Shahryar.

And we can only dream of a thousand nights more…

Conversations with Edward Said and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What a pleasure to have spent the past few days eavesdropping on these conversations!

My introduction to Edward W. Said was not through my current reading project but through classical music years ago via the Daniel Barenboim connection when they co-wrote an illuminating book and founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra — Said a Palestinian intellectual and Barenboim an Israeli pianist and conductor, bringing together musicians from areas of conflict to show the world that it is possible to create peace among people from these nations, to harmonize, and produce beautiful music. And now, I am reintroduced to Said through the enlightening forewords he has written for many of the literary works I am reading from that part of the world.

As for dear Gabo, I still vividly remember the day my best friend presented me with my first Marquez in our teens and I gave him John Fowles’ The Magus in return. This act of his, which was not entirely innocent, led to a Latin American reading stage that brought me to magical literary adventures.

When asked whether the inability to love is very serious, Gabo replies, “I don’t think there’s any human misery greater than that. Not only for the person afflicted but for all those whose misfortune it is to come within his orbit.” Love is something to be learned, he adds, and even lets one of his fictional characters echo this.

Said on the hand, gave me more lines to note in my journal and reminded me why he was once an intellectual crush.

“I’ve never felt myself to belong to any establishment of any kind, any mainstream. I’m interested in mainstreams, I’m jealous of them, I sometimes, occasionally, envy people who belong to them—because I certainly don’t—but on the whole I think they’re the enemy. I feel that authorities, canons, dogmas, orthodoxies, establishments, are really what we’re up against. At least what I’m up against, most of the time. They deaden thought.”

“I think a lot of this business we were talking about earlier, about politics and culture being separate, is really laziness. There’s a critical establishment that says you’re supposed to only study this, and that’s because you don’t have the time or the energy to study other things. For me it’s a manifestation of laziness and idleness. And all of them, it seems to me, in the end, really don’t advance to anything.”

“And far from being right, I think it’s important to be critical.”

These conversations bring together two significant reading phases of my life. 

What struck me this time was in realizing how much their musical tastes influenced their writings greatly. Chopin among others for Said, Bartok and Caribbean music for Gabo. Because he was a revolutionary says the former and the mixture of the two had to be explosive says the latter. Through this we see that they did not confine themselves to one form of art but saw art as something encompassing rather than something to be compartmentalized. 

Said and Gabo are very much alive in these pages. These great minds that impacted and straddled two centuries while they lived; and even in death, continue to change the way we think, read, and perceive the world; their inspiration consistently outliving the last page of each of their books; saying it in their own distinct way but always reminding us to live as fully and as passionately as we can.