When I was 13 or so, I raced through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, finishing the final volume, The Amber Spyglass, on Christmas eve. I carried the complex melancholy of the ending around with me for weeks afterward in defiance of holiday cheer. 

Recently, I realized that Pullman is also a classical music fan. Music figures only abstractly in his young-adult masterpiece, in the rhythms of his sentences and in the tactility of his descriptions of the air; he speaks about it often on Twitter, which he uses enthusiastically despite the occasional pile-on. We spoke by phone from his home near Oxford about his distaste for classical singing, the analogy between melody and story, how the constraints of genre encourage creativity, and what music he wants played at his funeral. 

VAN: You’re an advocate for classical music in schools. Is that how you first got in touch with the artform? 

Philip Pullman: It was and it wasn’t. I had a peripatetic childhood. Before I was 11, my family had lived in Southern Africa and Australia and traveled around the world by sea, so we never had a piano. I never had a chance for piano lessons, which I regret very much in later life.

But I always listened to a great deal of classical music. I love the sound it made. I remember crouching over the little transistor radio in the kitchen in our house when I was 16—it was the only place where you could get any reception—and listening to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” which I immediately loved. Every so often, we’d go a nearby city or a town that had a record store and I’d buy what interested me. The first classical record I bought was the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, a very old-fashioned recording with a huge orchestra.

My parents belonged to a kind of Reader’s Digest classical music recordings club, and every month or so a new record came through the mail. I got to know things like Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite, which is still a favorite, Liszt’s “Prélude omnitonique,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” popular classics really. I picked it up piecemeal like that. 

I like all music. That’s not quite true. I don’t like what used to be called “light music,” which is light classics. I don’t want to listen to that, but I love jazz, pop music and rock and roll from the early ‘60s to the mid-’60s, the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s. Pretty much everything else I’m not interested in, but the whole of classical music is where I feel most at home. Apart from sacred choral music. I don’t really care for sacred choral music, whether it’s Monteverdi or Elgar or whatever. I just don’t like the sound of it.

Not even, say, Bach cantatas?

Up to a point. I think the human voice is an unsatisfactory musical instrument. I’d much rather hear the piano. There are few voices I listen to with pleasure. One of them is Ellla Fitzgerald. From the classical field Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is about it.

Why is that? 

I’m too aware of the person. Too often, they’re good at one thing but they’re not very good at another thing. The reason why I like Fischer-Dieskau is that his articulation was so superbly clear that you could hear every word he was singing. Because of the kind of training a classical music singer has to have—they have to be heard over an orchestra—they have to stress certain aspects of their voice at the expense of others. What survives is vowel sounds. You can hear an opera singer hitting all the right notes, but you can’t really hear what they’re saying, and I don’t feel satisfied with it. Fischer-Dieskau on the other hand is always on the note and very clear about it too.

I would have guessed that your problem with classical vocal music—in particular opera—is that it often has pretty ridiculous text. And I thought that might bother you as a writer. But you’re saying the issue is that you can’t understand the text.

That’s right. You don’t always understand what language they’re singing in, which is a great crime. The texts of opera can be completely absurd, but you get such good bits in it. “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment”—the high Cs, it’s a glorious thing. It’s ridiculous, but I don’t care. You get lovely noises like that and the words don’t really matter.

I’ll go to any concert with a full orchestra or chamber music or a piano recital with pleasure, but I take a bit of persuasion to go to opera, and I wouldn’t set foot in a church to hear a cantata or an oratorio. No thanks.

It seems like your first experiences with music were largely mediated, through radio, vinyl, and CD. What were live musical experiences that stuck with you after your childhood traveling around the world? 

In my teenage years we lived in a pretty isolated, rural part of North Wales. To hear any live instrumental music, you had to go to Liverpool. I just never did; it was too far. Occasionally we had a few days’ holiday in London, and on one of those occasions I went with some friends to the London Philharmonic, playing among other things Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, which I was very impressed by. But until I came to Oxford as a student there was very little music that I managed to hear live. 

The reason I ask about live concerts is that rereading His Dark Materials, it struck me how important it is in the book that the air is a physical thing with texture. I think music is one of the best ways that we have of understanding that, because air is invisible. Is there any connection between music and the sense of air as having texture? 

That’s very interesting. There is and it doesn’t have to be something I’ve explored in fiction. I have thought about music and I like talking about music to musicians and asking simple, stupid questions like, “What is a melody?” Which interests me because you can have a composer who knows all the technical stuff but just can’t write a tune. I’m thinking of Max Reger, for example.

That’s a good example. 

And you get someone like Dvořák: tunes and melodies poured out of him. It’s such a mysterious thing, a good tune, but if you’re a composer, that’s guaranteed immortality. If you write tunes that people love, you’re never going to disappear.

Do you think there’s an analogy between a composer who can write a great tune and a writer who can write a great sentence? Is it true of a writer that if you write a great sentence you’re guaranteed immortality?

I don’t think in terms of sentences. The equivalent to a tune isn’t a sentence. It’s a story. That’s the equivalent. If you think of something interesting and write about it as well as you possibly can, that’s the job of a storyteller. I’m a storyteller rather than a literary stylist. I try to write with whatever degree of elegance I can summon up, and I do like to play around with language and to find interesting metaphors, but my main interest isn’t writing beautiful sentences, it’s writing interesting stories. I want to make the reader turn the page. I suppose the equivalent of a good melody is a good story. Think of a great fairytale or a myth—it’s something you can tell in your own words, you can tell it to somebody else. 

I’m also curious about the idea of genre as a motor of creativity. There are a lot of composers who found that the limitations of genre helped them be inventive. I wonder if it’s the same for you with… “young adult” sounds derogatory and I don’t mean it that way, but this kind of adventure story.

No, but I know what you mean. I’d rather not think in terms of the expected audience though, because you’re lucky to have any audience at all. Just tell your story as well as you can, think of the best tunes you can and keep your fingers crossed as far as the audience is concerned. 

But genre is an interesting thing. Why do composers write sonatas? Well, because the sonata is an interesting form. You’ve got a template which you can play with or against. You can be absolutely classical about it, or you can twist it. You can manipulate it. You can raise expectations which you then thwart.

The great thing about a genre is that the audience knows what you’re doing and can and appreciate it when you do something new. The great Athenian dramatists, Euripides, Sophocles and so on, they told stories that the audience knew, but they told them in ways that surprised them because they played with them. They did things with them that the audience wasn’t expecting.

That’s behind every kind of art performance. A story is a kind of performance, a book is a kind of performance. Because the work of art, whatever it is, an opera or short story or a poem, isn’t complete until it’s been perceived, until an audience has heard it, a reader has read it. The perception of it is part of the completion.

I’m just reading a fascinating book about quantum physics, Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli. He tells the story of the early days of quantum physics, when the young Heisenberg put himself into exile on this wind-swept, cold island in the North Sea and worked out the theory of quantum mechanics. The thing that puzzled him and puzzles us still—puzzles Rovelli as he writes the book and puzzles me as I think about it—is that a universe seems to need an observer before certain things can happen. [Schrödinger’s] cat—is it dead or alive? Only the audience, only the observer can establish what it is by opening the box. The same kind of thing is true of works of art. They’re not fully complete until they have been listened to attentively by an audience—a book read attentively by a reader.

There was a little kerfuffle on Twitter the other day because you had said that classical music deserves to be paid attention to.

Yes, I remember somebody wanted to know what music would be good to do some other work to, to revise for an exam or something like that. I thought, “Well, that’s not what Schubert wrote it for. What he wrote it for was to be listened to, and to be moved by.” The thought of somebody using one of his piano sonatas as music to do something else to seemed rather grubby to me. There’s plenty of background music, much of it from the baroque, any amount of Marcello or Vivaldi stuff which frankly doesn’t need to be closely listened to. It’s quite agreeable to have it in the background.

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I remember trying to study to classical music when I was a teenager and always stopping to just listen to the music.

I know what you mean. You want to know what happens next. Just like a story. 

Do you think there’s something almost metaphysically important about paying attention to a work of art? You mentioned the universe has to have an observer for certain things to happen. Is there something essential about active attention to you?

Yes, there is, but I don’t think and I don’t mean that one should always listen in an attitude of reverence, on your knees as it were. Music is tough and it’ll put up with all sorts of bad treatment. It shouldn’t have to. [But] it doesn’t matter if it does because it isn’t actually damaged by it. 

People often say to a novelist, “Don’t you feel upset when they take your book and make a lousy film out of it?” Well, there are two answers to that. One is, the money is quite a consolation. The other is, the book is still there. There’s no law that says when you make a novel into a film, the novel has to be burned. 

It’s still there and the music is still there. Even if somebody is playing ping pong or something while Schubert is playing in the background, Schubert will recover. Schubert will be alright. He won’t be damaged by it.

Is there anything particular that you love about Schubert? You’ve mentioned him a few times now.

The loveliest things of Schubert are so lovely and so apparently effortless that it almost passes belief how these kinds of things have come into existence. I’m thinking particularly of the last piano sonatas, of the “Trout” quintet, the string quintet and several of the songs.

I also became a passionate lover of the music of Nikolai Medtner who is a very odd little byway of Russian piano music. I heard a bit of Medtner on Radio 3 one day. I’d never heard of him but I liked the sound of it, and when I next saw a record, I bought it, and immediately fell in love with it and started haunting the radio for every single performance of Medtner that I could find. Medtner is still a huge favorite of mine. I couldn’t count the number of recordings of his music that I’ve got, but I always buy a new one.

Why Medtner? 

It’s just that I never weary of it. It’s a test for me of a pianist’s authenticity of purpose, if I can put it like that. Medtner is full of good tunes. He wasn’t a Max Reger. 

Do you think there’s also some pleasure in having a particular favorite composer who’s not as well known as Schubert, Beethoven or Chopin?

Yes, some people do have a little out-of-the-way favorite. I just fell in love with Medtner. I’ll happily listen to any Medtner that I can get my hands on. Not so much the songs; it’s that human voice thing again. But he is glorious. I want him played at my funeral, please. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.