Singer, Piano Man, and Fugue

Margot Singer, novelist and professor of English at Denison University, shared her inspiration for and read sections of her novel, Underground Fugue.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 13, 2017)—In 2005 a man wearing a suit and tie washed ashore in Kent, England. Found by police officers, wandering the streets, soaking wet, he neither spoke nor wrote anything when he was handed a pen and pencil. Instead, he drew a picture of a grand piano and, when provided one, sat and played intricate classical music for hours. He instantly became a sensation. Many people called the tip line saying they recognized him; they claimed he was a neighbor, a famous movie star, or even the ex-husband of a Danish politician. Writer Margot Singer first heard about the Piano Man, as he became known, while she was driving home one day, listening to the BBC. “It’s what public radio calls a “driveway moment.” I was sitting in my driveway and suddenly felt inspired by this story, the Piano Man. That was the beginning of writing my novel, Underground Fugue,” said Singer.

Underground Fugue tells the story of two migrant families who become next door neighbors  in London. Esther, the main character, is an American art conservator who left her life in New York to take care of her aging mother. Their neighbor, Javad, is an Iranian neuroscientist with a rebellious, college-aged son named Amir who likes to explore the tunnels under the city. Javad and Esther develop a friendship that is suddenly disrupted by the terrorist attacks on the London underground in 2005 and Esther’s suspicion of Amir’s involvement.

Singer’s novel is an exploration of what it means to be a migrant, to flee, to reinvent yourself, and to live in close proximity to people who are unlike you. Singer’s father’s family were migrants—Czechoslovakian Jews who left Europe for Palestine in 1939, just in time to escape genocide. Growing up, Singer would often visit her family living in Israel where she was in a strange, in-between area of feeling connected to these people as her family but having very different life experiences. These visits were times of reflection for her about the meanings of identity, family, and community.

Underground Fugue illustrates many contemporary concerns with political violence, displacement, and migration which overshadow our dialogue today. Like these concerns that hover over contemporary life, the figure of the Piano Man hovers throughout her novel. “In a way, the novel is shaded by the figure of the Piano Man even though it’s not really about him . . . his experience reminded me of a psychiatric fugue,” explained Singer. A dissociative fugue is a type of dissociative disorder where the subject is plunged in a state of reversible amnesia, unable to remember their identity, personality, memories, or other identifying characteristics. This state often can last for days, months, or even years. When the Piano Man appeared, a dissociative fugue was one of the circulating rumors.

A fugue is also a musical composition structured around multiple voices, built on one short subject, or theme. Involving two or more voices, a fugue includes the initial introduction of the theme, development, and a resolution. While writing, Singer listened to fugues, allowing their structure to influence the writing of her novel; she intertwines several voices, using each character’s perspective to tell the story. As Singer read sections of her book, the phrases rose and fell like musical themes, some sections rising in force and impact while others were soft—words cascading like droplets down the page.

She was especially intrigued by Bach’s The Art of Fugue, his last, unfinished composition, leading her to leave some parts of her story unanswered. “I feel like life doesn’t have tidy resolutions and neither should novels,” she said. “I wanted Underground Fugue to end like a skater gliding off into the distance—you sense where they are going, but you don’t see the end.”  

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. Hannah is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Picture Courtesy of Dominik Scythe,