Music and the City - Dundurn
Jul 07, 2022

Music and the City

Long before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a musician. I think this is because I found music less polite, more visceral, than literature. But I failed to become a musician, so I fell back on writing—much like Alexander, the protagonist of my debut novel, In the City of Pigs.

The music Alexander likes is classical music of the twentieth century, a period in which artists began pushing against the very limits of what composition could do. It seems to me that this music captures the experience of living in a modern or post-modern world far better than the written word can, because it exists at the very edges of representation. What crystalizes the discordant complexity of the metropolis better than the demented strings and clattering woodblock of Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis?

When I started writing this novel, I knew that it would be about two things: avant-garde classical music and urban space. As Alexander took shape as a character, I realized that the urban space I was really interested in was Toronto, a city that has undergone vertiginous changes over the past generation. Unlike other cities I have lived in (like Istanbul), which have long and storied histories, Toronto has always felt uniquely post-modern to me. One is constantly confronted by the anxieties of growth and development in its foundation pits and condo towers, the neighbourhoods that seem to transform overnight, the quixotic efforts at historic preservation. One is aware that the buildings in the oldest parts of the city are poor copies of colleges in Oxford, warehouses in Liverpool, and temples in Rome.

Because Toronto is the largest city in a settler colony, all of this development, and the cultural industries that are both reliant on and threatened by it, relies on forms of violence that are ongoing. In this country, Gothic façades and Baroque operas are invasive species. I wanted to wrestle with the fact that many of the things I love—about Toronto, about classical music—are tied up with things I hate. The yearning, conflicted music of composers like Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, and György Ligeti provided the inspiration I needed to dive into the problem without feeling I needed to solve it.

I live in England now, and the thing I miss most about Toronto is the sense that the story of the city is still being written. Novelists like Austin Clarke, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and André Alexis (to name but a few) have deepened my sense of what the city is and what it could be. I hope readers of In the City of Pigs will see it as a modest contribution to this impossible, ongoing project.

André Forget was born in Toronto and raised in Mount Forest, Ontario. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Puritan, and his work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers in Canada and the United States. He splits his time between Toronto, and the United Kingdom. Learn more here.