Nathan Thrall Longlist Interview
6 October 2023
How does it feel to be longlisted?
To say I was completely thrilled when I heard the news would not quite capture it. Time’s Echo took ten years to create, and drew on all my capacities as a writer, as a critic, as a researcher, and as a historian. And because I felt that telling some of these stories from the wartime past required an emotionally honest grappling with some very dark material, writing the book also asked a lot from me simply as a human being.
I wanted Time’s Echo to carry the reader on an immersive journey and to open up these vast vistas of culture, history, music, and memory. It does so in part by telling many stories drawn from the lives of four composers but also from the societies around them. Along the way, the book invites readers to rethink their own sense of connection to history as well as their entire relationship to music — what it can do, how we might listen differently, what we might come to hear. Cumulatively, it’s a lot to ask of one book. I therefore knew from the outset that, for this vision to not only cohere but also carry a reader along in a compelling way, all the disparate elements would need to be unified by certain qualities in the writing itself, in the feel of its subjectivity, in its sensibility and voice. All of that was an extraordinary challenge.
Given this context, to have the book now recognized in this way is deeply meaningful on a personal level. I also hope the book’s inclusion on the longlist will help some of its stories – assembled from the fragments of lives forgotten or erased – reach more readers, and thereby bring to the memory of their protagonists some small measure of the dignity they were denied in their own lifetimes.
How did you conduct your research?
I conducted extensive archival research, which was a journey all its own that took me to five countries and to many places intimately connected to the history at the heart of the book. I ultimately chose to write about several of these research trips in Time’s Echo itself, with the hope of bringing readers with me to these sites and conveying something of the feel of these landscapes, the experience of being there. I thought often of a comment from the scholar and artist Svetlana Boym, who wrote that excavating the past requires “a dual archaeology of memory and of place.”
This book of course also stands on the shoulders of the work of many specialists from different fields. It could not have been written without the benefit of these rich bodies of secondary literature produced by biographers, historians, and other scholars from a number of disciplines.
Once I had completed my research, the next question was what to do with it. A book on these topics could be approached in the manner of a traditional academic study, but I did not want to write only for readers with specialized knowledge of these subjects, or only for people who already knew they cared about classical music or about the history of this period. Time’s Echo does offer perspectives and new research that I hope will feel intriguingly fresh for those groups of readers, but it ultimately becomes a much broader project. It is a book not just about the music of memory but about the memory of music — that is, an exploration of what art can help us recover and remember. I do hope this approach will resonate with a much wider audience. At this deeper level, the book is an invitation to grapple with the legacies of history, to find new ways of living with the ghosts of the past, and to renew or reimagine the presence of art in our lives today.
Is music able to communicate the unspeakable?
Yes. But the meaning of that “yes” depends entirely on what is meant by the word unspeakable. In the nineteenth century, this idea -- music’s special ability to communicate feelings, soul states, and inner truths that lie beyond the province of language -- was a favourite trope of Romantic writers and other artists. And they were essentially right. We can be deeply moved by a piece of music that has no words, and keenly aware that it has expressed something powerful yet still untranslatable. A painting can do that too of course. But music does it differently.
In our own time, the question comes to mean something else entirely: can music describe the unfathomable barbarism of two world wars and the Holocaust. Of course not in any complete sense, but it can signal what language cannot, it can make moments in the distant past feel urgently alive again; it can burn through what the survivor Jean Améry once called “the cold storage of history.”
Is music uniquely capable doing these things? I do think it possesses some special and deep affinities with memory itself – and I explore that terrain in Time’s Echo. But this should not become some kind of competition. Each art form has its own distinct way of gesturing toward, indicating, summoning the contours of the modern unspeakable. They peer from different angles into the same abyss.
Right now, for me at least, questions like these feel particularly timely and even urgent. Not only are echoes from this period sounding all around us, but we have entered the twilight of living memory. The generation that survived the years of the Second World War and the Holocaust is fading by the day, and it therefore seemed like an important moment to ask how art in general – and music in particular – can serve as another bridge to the past. I was inspired by one of Theodor Adorno’s less frequently quoted comments about art after Auschwitz: “Because the world has outlived its own demise, it needs art as its unconscious chronicle.”
Are there contemporary equivalents to these four composers in terms of the music of remembrance?
There are of course many composers and musicians in other genres today creating their own musical memorials. I wanted to write about the particular generation of composers whose lives bridged the profound rupture represented by the Holocaust, and to trace how they transformed an art form once used to carry forward the utopian dreams of German culture (think of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) – into an art form that could mourn the demise of those very dreams at the hands of that very culture. I hoped that returning the music to its history might help bring a new sense of meaning to the music on both sides of this rupture, the odes to joy as well as, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Mann, the odes to sorrow.
What are you working on next?
I am exploring various ideas for a new book project but they are all still at early stages. With Time’s Echo published less than a month ago, I am also working on creating some immersive words-and-music programs that aim to open up the world of the book, and its approach to listening, with the help of live performance. It’s been amazing to see how audiences and many musicians themselves are responding to these programs. For me they also feel, in a significant way, like coming full circle — by reuniting the ideas of the book with the art form that first gave them life.