Fiorito, Joe: The Song Beneath the Ice

Courtesy of McClelland & Stewart

Fiorito, Joe
The Song Beneath The Ice
McClelland & Stewart, 2002
Hardcover

First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 2003

Like its title, like its principal protagonist, and very much like its informing spirit, Glenn Gould, Toronto writer Joe Fiorito’s new book, The Song Beneath the Ice, remains, even after close acquaintance, something of an enigma.

The story is built upon an intriguing premise. Dominic Amoruso, a virtuoso classical pianist from Toronto, a performer noted for his fearless sang froid and believed by many in the Canadian music world to be the next great one, after Gould, stops playing abruptly in the middle of a performance, walks off the stage and disappears. Disappears completely, that is – without explanation or communication. No one knows if he’s alive or dead. Assumptions are made, speculations indulged in, conclusions drawn – stage fright, a breakdown, the instabilities of the artistic temperament, genius and madness, etc. etc. – and the music world turns back to its quotidian concerns.

Nearly a year later, however, Joe Serafino, an investigative journalist and Dominic’s friend since childhood, receives a mysterious package in the mail, postmarked in Wolf Cove, North West Territories, full of audio tapes, not of piano music, but of conversations, street noise, the sounds of daily living — which Dominic has recorded, and an accompanying set of notebooks which chronicle the time leading up to the pianist’s abrupt departure, and his experiences since. Much to Joe’s frustration, however, there appears to be nothing else — no indication of his friend’s current whereabouts or condition, nor any guidance as to what use he is to make of the package contents. Uncertain that Dominic is still alive, or who, exactly, sent the package, and hoping the key to his friend’s strange behaviour and mysterious disappearance may be found within the tapes themselves, Serafino decides to launch his own investigation beginning with their transcription. What results, then, is a reconstruction, in quite intimate detail, of Dominic Amoruso’s recent history, providing the reader with a voyeuristic window into the complex existence of a musical genius who has reached a crisis  in his artistic life.

It’s a crisis which may have been shared, at least in certain of its aspects, by Amoruso’s alter ego and musical nemesis, Glenn Gould who also orchestrated a much lamented retreat from the concert stage. As any classical pianist in Toronto must be, Amoruso is dogged by Gould’s legacy, but despite a professed irritation with the Gould phenomenon, Mr. Amoruso shares a number of similarities with his famously neurotic predecessor. Certainly one is meant to draw parallels between the two – Dominic lives in the same Toronto neighbourhood as Gould did, and, like Gould, has hypochondriac tendencies, an aversion to being touched, insomnia, a fascination with pharmaceuticals and a penchant for self-medication. Gould had Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Amoruso has Musorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition – music upon which their careers were built. Both had a fascination with, and eventually sought refuge in, the North. While Gould’s withdrawal into the recording studio was, purportedly, the result of a growing obsession with the idea of creating a “perfect” performance, Amoruso’s breakdown (and as Serafino makes his way through the tapes and diaries, it becomes increasingly clear that it was a breakdown) seems to have arisen from a profound disintegration of meaning in his art and thus his life.

Although apparently maintaining a calm and normal exterior, we learn that prior to his disappearance Dominic was experiencing a rapid deterioration in both his mental and physical health. Beset by increasingly vicious migraines, self-medicating to an abusive degree, distraught over a girlfriend’s callous use of abortion as a method of birth control, worried about the possibility of losing his unique gift (in particular, the synesthesia which allowed him to perceive sound as colour) and disenchanted with the politics and limitations of performance, Dominic finds himself in a crisis of faith, harbouring serious questions about the validity and meaning of his art. From a blue-collar family, he retains a working class skepticism about the rarified world (a world in which it seems artifice is esteemed, and life is disposable) into which his gift has carried him, and its ultimate value. He is, his friend notes, “a classical pianist with a working class stance on the subject of culture.” It takes another death, in the distant north, and the deeply human response that it evokes in the people of Wolf Cove, to allow him to reconnect his art to life.

Returning to our initial comment, the ice of the title proves to be a elusive and complicated image. In one light, it can be seen to represent the interface between the public and private, the set of social conventions which separate the two, upon which the framework of society rests, but beneath which, the private person exists – part of the structure, for example, which allowed Dominic to maintain an exterior which belied his interior turmoil up until the point of collapse. As such, it stands in opposition to art, which seeks a direct communication between the public and private. For Dominic, a virtuoso who has grown weary of simply playing brilliantly, who is looking for a greater meaning for his gift, it is a barrier which must be breached. Significantly, Dominic’s long road back to public life begins during spring breakup, as the ice goes out, in the tiny northern community of Wolf Cove.

The book begins as a fascinating mystery, kept moving along smartly by Fiorito’s terse and economical writing style. It develops, however, into something more – a complex and absorbing meditation on some of the biggest questions that confront a serious artist. Dominic’s struggle can be seen as a search for a unifying theory, of sorts, for music, and, in a broader sense, for art — the concept, the equation, the guiding principle which can reconcile high art and everyday life. Dense with imagery and philosophical, literary and musical references, it does not, however, offer any easy solutions. Like any good enigma, it raises more questions than it answers. My one back-handed complaint is that the story begins as such a compelling mystery, that, as a reader (led astray, perhaps, by misplaced genre expectations) I became so absorbed in interpreting the text as “evidence,” that I was, initially, blinded to its broader implications, and the deeper arguments being developed — a classic case of losing the forest in the trees.

Ultimately, The Song Beneath the Ice is an exploration of what it means to have an extraordinary gift, and, perhaps, to lose it, the obligations of talent, the relationship between virtuosity and eccentricity, the tension between the public and the private, and the true connection between life and art. Like Gould, Dominic’s retreat from the concert stage carried him north. Unlike Gould, however, the north did not, for him, represent a withdrawal into solitude, but becomes, rather, a place of renewal. Because of this, the book ends on a note of tremendous anticipation – when we leave Dominic Amoruso, he is on his way back, confident that he has found a meaningful way, both as a performer and a composer, to continue to communicate through his art. What sounds await his audience? What, one is compelled to wonder, might have transpired had the same been true for Gould? What, then, might the world have heard?

One Response to Fiorito, Joe: The Song Beneath the Ice

  1. Pingback: Low-profile CanLit Classics: five (or so) Canadian books that deserve your attention | Kerry On Can Lit

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