There’s an enigmatic quote that’s often used in critical discussions: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” The straightforward interpretation of its meaning is that the qualities of one art form are difficult to express in another medium. But really, there is a way to dance about architecture; it just defies straightforward logic. It involves impressionistic reflections of the emotional journey created by an effective work of art, something which is beautifully demonstrated by Nokolai Grozni’s book “Wunderkind”.
Niko writes about music like a man possessed. All through the book, he has constructed hallucinatory episodes where the narrator is mentally transported to another time and place by the power of music. In these fantasies, he soars above a decrepit city, falls in love with Chopin’s muse, and rebels against his hostile overseers.
The way I see it, there are three main “characters” in this story: a chain-smoking, hyper-intelligent teenage piano virtuoso, Chopin, and Communism (guess which one is the antagonist). Konstantin attends the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, a music academy in communist Bulgaria in the 1980s. The story is a sort of recast “Catcher In The Rye”, where he fights against the oppression of his teachers and his corrupt country, albeit with the added historical narrative and dramatic weight of growing up in a scary tyrannical society. The communists try to churn out musical robots, and enforce a rigid, one-dimensional concept of musical “excellence”, blissfully ignorant of the fact that real artistic genius often resists traditional education and is difficult to contain. As the most naturally gifted pianist in his school, Konstantin has to grapple with the weight of his innate talent and intelligence, and the conflicts that these qualities create in his immediate surroundings.
But the real hook is the way Grozni writes about music. Grozni weaves elaborate, evocative inner fantasies for Konstantin when he practices the piano or thinks about what music means to him. Grozni’s method of describing music is to conjure up sights, sounds, smells, colours, movement, historical references, and virtually every other type of sensory input, in order to create effective metaphors for the emotional content of a piece of music. His descriptions and fantasies echo the rhythms and cadences of music, without actually dissecting the notes or chords. What he doesn’t do is delve into lengthy mechanical descriptions of sound based on traditional music theory. In this way, he avoids the obvious pitfalls of “dancing about architecture”. Grozni has figured out a new way of evoking the qualities of a non-representational art form in traditional prose. Reading through these digressions is dizzying and exhilarating for anyone who has even a passing interest in music.
Konstantin, as a narrator and lead character, is definitely in the Holden Caufield mold. He’s bright, talented, depressed, and deeply anti-social. Music is the only thing that keeps him tethered to his reality, and in this way the book will appeal to anyone who understands the redemption and solace offered by a highly personal relationship with music.