Sunday Soul Music

Soul MusicEarlier this week I finished re-reading what might be my favorite Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Soul Music. When I introduced you to Pratchett and Discworld I mentioned that each novel has its own theme. Nearly all the novels use the same groups of characters, but each revolves around a unique theme (and usually one of the character groups, although cross-over is frequent).

Soul Music is about “music with rocks in it” (in other words: rock music). It’s technically one of the “Death” novels (which is to say that the Discworld avatar of Death is the main character), but it prominently features the Wizards in supporting roles.

And Death’s grand-daughter, Susan. And the spirit of Buddy Holly.

Think of music as a living thing that exists on its own, a thing with life and will and the desire to be. In some sense, we only discover music. The notes existed long before the first one was ever struck. We only find them in the universe of possibilities.

[I wrote recently about how we can treat any text as a single number along an infinite number line. The same is true for any tune.]

Discworld DeathSoul Music is Pratchett’s 16th Discworld novel, which places it in the latter part of the first half of the 39 extant tales. He wrote it in 1994, ten years before symptoms of his early-onset Alzheimer’s showed up.

The point is, he wrote this story at the prime and peak of his writing powers and Discworld.

The entire novel is a fabulous read, but some parts were so tasty I bookmarked them so I could share them with you.

This novel suggests the universe began with a chord. A power chord.

“The Listening Monks of the Ramtops have trained their hearing until they can tell the value of a playing card by listening to it”. The best among them say they hear some tiny sounds just before the chord. They say it sounds like someone counting, “One, Two, Three, Four.

The very best of them say there’s even a fainter sound that comes before. That one sounds like, “One, Two.

anthillSoul Music also introduces another favorite bit (pun intended) of mine: the ant-powered “computer” (later named “Hex”) created by the young (nerdy) Wizards in the High Energy Magic (HEM) department.

I think this is a brilliant creation. Pratchett has ants (lots of them) running around glass tubes, and that is the Discworld analog of bits running through computer wires.

Pratchett uses the idea of life metaphorically. Cities have life (which, incidentally, is the theme of the Discworld novel, Reaper Man). Ant hills and bee hives can be seen as single beings made of individual parts. Belief creates life on Discworld; Gods become real and alive if they are believed in.

“The universe danced toward life. Life was a remarkably common commodity. Anything sufficiently complicated seemed to get cut in for some, in the same way that anything massive enough got a generous helping of gravity. The universe had a definite tendency toward awareness. This suggested a certain subtle cruelty woven into the very fabric of spacetime.

“Perhaps even a music could be alive, if it was old enough. Life is a habit.

People said: I can’t get that darn tune out of my head.

“Not just a beat, but a heartbeat.

“And anything alive wants to breed.”

Cover of Hitchhikers Guide to the GalaxyThat man can sure turn a phrase. Or a concept.

The richness of his imagination, and the depth and power of his writing, make him my favorite science fiction author, bar none.

I was asked recently if Pratchett was better than Douglas Adams‘ and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

While Adams created a seminal work, a forever classic in the field, Pratchett is a much better writer even so. Pratchett is extraordinary! His books are deeper and more engaging and extremely sharp and cogent. At least that is my take.

Here’s another example of Pratchett’s skill with a phrase:

“Every note was sharp as a bell and as simple as sunlight — so that in the prism of the brain it broke up and flashed into a million colors.”

What an amazing and simple description of a beautiful tune. Music has great power to touch us; it always has. It reaches inside us to places only it can touch. It acts like an ink blot, and we see ourselves reflected by it.

Buddy Holly

Imp Y Celyn

One of the fun parts of reading Soul Music is picking out the music references.

Our hero’s name is Imp Y Celyn. We learn that Y Celyn is a regional family name that refers to a leafy bush, like holly. We also learn that Imp means a new shoot or bud.

I’ll let you put two and two together.

Some of the dialog consists of phrases from song lyrics. As an easy example, one character exclaims, “Hah! That’ll be the day.”

Bat Of HellOf all the music references, one (for me) brings down the house. Pratchett sets it up early. A character (the Librarian at the Wizards’ University) becomes “infected” with the “music with rocks in it” meme and goes off to make… something. For many chapters there are hints of things gone missing and furious activity.

When we finally meet his creation, although Pratchett never gives it a name, we recognize it instantly as one of the most famous rock album covers ever. How Pratchett puts it together, how he describes it, and what happens next, is sheer delight. (And it’s one of my favorite rock albums.)

Appropriately, I’ll leave you today with some music. The first one is a new favorite of a tune that’s been around a while. I like the remake better than the original. I like the arrangement, I like the bass track, I like the vocals, I like the rhythm track. I just plain love this rendition. Kinda cool words, too:

Here’s a little bonus treat:

[Sorry, Dead Link]

Music with rocks in it, sex and baseball! Can’t beat that!!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “Sunday Soul Music

  • dianasschwenk

    I may have to read that one day since I adore music too!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You definitely should hit the library and get it! It would be really interesting to see what you think of it. By the 16th novel, there’s a fair amount of back history to the place and characters, but each novel does stand alone. So the main story and all the music references would be there, but you’d be missing a lot of the “depth” that explains who the characters are and why they act the way they do.

      It could seem silly and strange, but if you take it on faith that it all holds together brilliantly, maybe that will help! (Fair Warning: you risk becoming a Discworld addict depending on how you react to Pratchett’s writing and characters! ‘Tis a sweet, sweet addiction!)

  • Alison W

    This review is spot on, and I am pleased to read of another discerning person who recognises Pratchett as a far better wordsmith than the late and less great Douglas Adams. Yes, I love the HHG books (and loved the radio and telly series back in Those Days; about that unspeakable big screen version, the less said the better), but while they crackle with deathless imagination, most of the storytelling and the actual wordcraft don’t hold a candle to the meanest of Pratchett’s oeuvre. Like, really 🙂

    But I wouldn’t agree about the Librarian’s “creation” being the funniest gag. For me it was the wonderful-and-dreadful pun that had a far longer set-up and only reaches the punchline at the very end. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up the (also great but sadly late) UK folk-rock singer Kirsty MacColl and her most beloved solo hit of the early ’80s…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Deathless imagination,” yes! Good way to put it. Hitchhiker is a supernova, no question; Pratchett creates entire galaxies. Douglas outshines Pratchett… if all you look at is the light, but billions of tiny lights weave such a wonderful world!

      I wasn’t familiar with the Kirsty MacColl, so I missed the chip shop part of the reference. The “looks Elvish” bit still works, though! As you say, that bit starts early (IIRC, Glod says it to him shortly after they first meet, and it keeps popping up). Before everyone carried cameras all the time, USAnians frequently spotted a non-dead Elvis in strange places, so the gag has a general reference plus the MacColl song. It strikes me that that’s just part of Pratchett’s brilliance there. Elves are not one of the races on Discworld you want to meet, and as I recall, music factors into that. So the “Elvish” pun has overtones just due to the role of Elves in Discworld.

      I can see why it’d be your favorite! I have a soft spot for the Librarian and Bat out of Hell is a favorite album (not many albums do I love every song), so I think I’ll cling to my vote, but I thank you for opening up a great novel even more!

      Maybe I can return the favor… researching the MacColl reference, I found a Pratchett wiki page that lists all the references fans have noticed (and some I think are a bit of a reach). There were a number that I knew had to be referring to something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. (I’m now officially embarrassed I couldn’t get “The Surreptitious Fabric.” I thought about it for a long time, too. :()

      • Alison W

        You’re welcome to my ‘deathless imagination’ if I can borrow your ‘Hitchhiker is a supernova, no question; Pratchett creates entire galaxies. ‘ ~winks~

        Ah, there you go – I got the Surreptitious Fabric reference right out of the box! But then I did miss a few Blues Brothers references because I took no notice of anything in that stew of mediocrity except the music itself (and yes, I repeat: stew of mediocrity. The original Blues Brothers short sketches on SNL were sheerly brilliant; the film OTOH was hugely self-overindulgent and pointless. Sometimes a sketch can turn into a fantastic feature-length film, but that was not one of them!).

        I think the Discworld wiki was originally sourced from the Annotated Pratchett File. It’s a noble project but yes, I agree that the well-meaning compilers sometimes stretch a bit too far.

        – Ali

        p.s. BooH is indeed a fantastic album. Bat 2 is pretty excellent too.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sounds like a fair exchange to me!

        I’m with you on the Blues Brothers (and on the excellence of both BOoH albums… in some regards the second even surpasses the first for me).

        I was a big SNL fan in the beginning, but I never liked all the commercials, and it just got old for me after a while. I can’t think of any SNL movie I’ve thought deserved much praise, and a few have been utterly atrocious. (The one about “Pat”, for example, and wasn’t the “MacGyver” parody based on an SNL skit? Too revolted to even try watching the former, and turned off the latter after about 15 minutes.) There are many things in life — and especially in comedy — where a little bit is wonderful, but any more is too much. I think that applies to any SNL skit.

        I just finished re-(re-(re-(…)))reading Interesting Times and The Last Continent. I’m looking (a friend, in point of fact, is looking) for a line from a Discworld book about the proper word for the claws of a bird (but not “talons”). The memory is of a line that goes something like this, “[sigh] Everyone always calls them [talons], but they’re really called XXXXX.” I should probably hit those Pratchett Wikis or even Google, but I thought I’d ask you while I’ve got your attention. Ring any bells? I think I’ll try Small Gods next… it has to be a book with someone authoritative about the anatomy of birds. The [sigh] makes me wonder if it’s Lord Vetinari, perhaps…

  • reocochran

    I love music of all types, times and genres. I enjoy soul music and its gift to rock and roll. I love to hear great voices singing their hearts out. This post had some good ideas of where to get more in depth pictures of soul music. I appreciate your ideas and research, too. Love Meatloaf and also, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong and also, Mavis Staples.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, good for you! Unlike most (white) people (above “youth” age), you didn’t say, “I love all kinds of music [pause] except rap.” It’s gotten to be an automatic thing some people say; almost a reflex somehow. Most of them who say it probably don’t even really know rap music, which makes it a twice-silly thing to say. Truth is, there is some very good rap!

      Me, I like all kinds of music, too! [pause] Except Japanese Kabuki music!

  • Perfect Albums | Logos con carne

    […] cover is so well-known Terry Pratchett referenced it in his Discworld novel Soul Music, which has rock and roll as its central […]

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