The Words Beneath the Sound: Music Inspired by Literature

As Virginia Woolf famously observed, the best writing often begins with a rhythmical “wave in the mind,” an inner tempo around which syntax and diction are arranged, a guiding beat of artistic intuition that, when struck upon, makes it nearly impossible to set down the wrong word. Other writers have similarly expressed the importance of heeding the aural resonance of language, of prioritizing sound over sense and music over meaning, and ceding control to the mysterious cadence that can string together words so that they beg to be spoken aloud. Poetry, of course, is chief among literary forms for its emphasis on rhythm, a relationship overtly celebrated in illustrious works such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs, or Whitman’s polytonic verse. John Taggart, a poet greatly influenced by the composer John Cage, even argued that the very goal of poetry is to create “sound objects” where poems cease to pursue metaphor and become more like mini-operas, arrangements that achieve the effect of compositional scores.

Unsurprisingly, the interrelation between music and literature also flows in the opposite direction, with composers taking inspiration from authors. Consider The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Master and the Margarita), Guns N’ Roses’ “Holden Caulfield” (The Catcher in the Rye), or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath). Instances are equally prevalent among classical works—to cite examples from just one career, the Welsh composer Donald Ibrahím Swann (1956-1967) wrote a full-length opera of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, set music to J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings, and wrote scores to accompany the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the list of music inspired by literature is predictably vast and continually expanding, often in innovative ways. Here are four recent compositions that, though notably diverse, are united in holding words as their muse:

1. The Trial, by Philip Glass

An icon of postmodern symphony and arguably the most popular living composer, Philip Glass grew up steeped in literature, the son of a professional librarian. It is somewhat expected, therefore, that Glass draws significant influence from writers—to date, he has composed 25 operas with a literary basis, including works inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, Doris Lessing, and Allen Ginsberg. His most recent, The Trial, is an adaptation of the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka. Released as part of the 2014/2015 season at the Music Theater Wales, the opera features eight singers who play multiple roles, an orchestra of only 12 instruments, and a libretto by playwright Christopher Hampton that closely adheres to Kafka’s text while still leaving room for interpretation. “[Kafka] saw the political and social world we are involved in with a clarity that very few writers have ever seen,” says Glass in a video produced by the London Royal Opera House. “He could see what was happening, and he could describe it. Sometimes the music can follow the picture exactly; the music is right on top of the image. But if we start moving away from it—and that’s what we do in the theater—it allows the spectator to help invent the story.” With this emphasis on collaboration, Glass adds a new layer of life to The Trial, lending the sense that Kafka’s compelling yet unfinished novel is, in a way, still in the process of being written.Continue Reading

“Another Way to Honor the Book”: An Interview with Odette Drapeau

33-Lettres à un jeune poète

Bookbinder Odette Drapeau has been internationally honored for her modern and dynamic approach to what is often considered a traditional craft. To Drapeau, the book is both “a visual and tactile object where the container and content can connect to generate other visions.” While continually experimenting with new concepts that transform her practice, Drapeau also remains committed to what she calls the true nature of the book—being easy to use and inviting to read. Her professional career spans more than 40 years, from her early studies under book-gilding specialists in Paris and Montreal, to her most recent solo exhibitions at the Lower Saint Lawrence Museum in Québec and Historical Library of the City of Paris. Drapeau is a native of Montreal, where she lives and works.

Lara Palmquist: I first encountered your art through this year’s Nobel Museum Book Binding Exhibition, where your bindings of books by recent laureates Mo Yan and Alice Munro are currently on display. Can you talk about your process and goals in creating these two works?

Odette Drapeau: The Swedish Bookbinders Guild celebrated Nobel Prize-winners Alice Munro (2013) and Mo Yan (2012) at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm by inviting bookbinders from China, Canada, and Sweden to participate with titles from these two remarkable authors.

I felt at home with Alice Munro’s great sensitivity and intense femininity. Creating a “back to back” binding of Runaway allowed me to join the English version to the French translation, choosing white leather for the French and pink for the English. I wanted to unify those books while making them distinctive. Mo Yan’s writing also captivated me—reading his work was a pleasant discovery. Because the meaning of color is very important in China, I chose red and orange to bind a French translation of his two stories “Le veau” (The Calf) and “Le Coureur de Fond” (The Distance Runner); those colors bring luck and happiness.

LP: As a bookbinder dedicated to continually pushing the boundaries of your artistic practice, you have engaged with several unusual materials, including marine leather. What first inspired your interest in fish, ray, and eel skin, and how do these materials continue to inform your work?

OD: I have been dedicated to marine leather for more than thirty years. My discovery of fish leathers— tanned in Gaspésie, Québec—emerged as a lever to unlock change. Suddenly, I had a new medium to work with, a flexible and durable material offering rich natural colors, inviting textures, and varied shades. These new elements enabled me to begin creating original bindings in arrangements comparable to pictorial works without sacrificing the 3D structural contribution of the classic binding.Continue Reading

Dear, Dear: The Intimacy of Letters


Nobody writes letters anymore. Sometimes the lament strikes me as cranky, romanticized (I once heard a radio interview with a woman who’d decided to homeschool her children in large part because their school had cut out cursive writing). But it’s true that I’ve saved many of the rare handwritten letters I’ve received in my life: notes from friends; the letters my dad sent me during my first months of college, which I read, then, with visceral rushes of homesickness; cards from my grandmother, in a large, looping script so beautiful it almost makes me understand that homeschooler’s impulse. The handwriting is what does it, I think—the shapes of the letters as familiar as the contours of a face. We only write letters from some distance, but they seem to close that distance.

In epistolary-form stories, this sense of intimacy is part of what writers are after. Actual handwriting is of course not in play in a typeset story or novel, but the sense of a written voice is. Fictional letters, when done well (and it is so very hard to do them well), give the reader a wonderful little jolt of recognition—a sense that we’re actually meeting the character who’s written the letter for ourselves, unmediated. In stories that present us with letters from multiple characters, we also get the pleasure of assembling the narrative from these parts, arbitrating amongst these voices. As Ross McMeekin shows in his great review of Ashley Davidson’s epistolary story “A Daring Undertaking,” a story told in letters lets us feel that we’re snooping and then making up our own minds.Continue Reading

Depressing Graphs for Writers

Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?

We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!

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“Death!/ Plop.”: The Instructive Power of Very Bad Art


In the basement of three small theaters in Massachusetts lives a collection of some of humankind’s worst artistic efforts: the Museum of Bad Art. Everything in the collection is gloriously, earnestly bad (the curators reject anything that seems bad by intention). You can go there. You should. The photograph above is just a first taste. Sunday on the Pot with George will impress you with the richness of its detail. You won’t soon forget Lucy in the Sky with Flowers—those frolicking legs! Or Peter the Kitty, with his cluster of feet and unsettlingly human expression. Or Johnny McGrory and his spiffy hat. Or The Cupboard Was Bare (just look at it. I’m not sure what to say). You may in fact be seeing them when you close your eyes until the day you die.

The Museum of Bad Art has a literary cousin that has also brought me joy: the anthology Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn and Ross Petras. It’s a treasury of fabulous failure. Julia Moore (1847-1920) seems to have had a poetic obsession with dead children (see “Little Libbie”). Solyman Brown (1790-1876) penned the educational “The Dentologia—a Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth.” The editors deemed “A Tragedy” by Theophile Marzials (1850-1920) the worst poem ever written in English; its first two lines read, in their entirety, “Death!/ Plop.” But my own favorite is “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese, Weighing over 7,000 Pounds,” by James McIntyre (1827-1906):

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze—
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto. […]

Of the youth—beware of these—
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o’ Queen of Cheese.

We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

The rhyme scheme is something, but it’s the actual addressing of the beloved cheese that gets me. And the cheek-squeezing/biting, and the whole last unexpected stanza.Continue Reading

The Things I Haven’t Read

aaaLegend had it that a famous scholar of nineteenth century American literature visited my college to lecture, and someone asked him a question about Melville. He began his answer with “While I’ve never read Moby-Dick…”

At this remove, I still question the man’s scholarship and sanity—but I do admire his honesty. For writers, there’s a lot of pressure to read (or at least to have read) everything contemporary, everyone important or promising or underrated—and that’s on top of the classics we were supposed to have conquered years ago. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling like a failure as a reader. I may have read Ulysses, but if I haven’t read The Goldfinch yet I can’t take part in the conversation. (People who aren’t writers always look so disappointed in me. I imagine the thought bubble as “You haven’t read The Goldfinch yet? But I thought you were a writer!”) I imagine it’s the same for English teachers and reviewers and booksellers and librarians and copy editors.

I think it’s time we follow the lead of that crackpot anti-Melville Americanist, and embrace our own reading failures. I have some I’d like to get off my chest. To wit:

book 1

Never read it.              (Buy: book | ebook)

– I have never read a word of Willa Cather. Although I could tell you a lot about it, I have not actually read “The Metamorphosis.” I have started, but never finished, a Pynchon novel.

– It takes me at least two minutes to remember the difference between Jacques Cousteau and Jean Cocteau. I think I’ve got it straight now that one of them was a red-hatted deep-sea explorer (or possibly some kind of pirate?) and the other was a poet who might have started a restaurant. But I could not tell you, right now, which is which.

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One Gift Guide to Rule Them All

It’s getting late, people. And your literary friends expect brilliant Festivus gifts from you. So let’s get cracking! Here’s something for everyone on your list.

For the English major:

gift glassesThese fake blood page markers and some hipster glasses. (Remember: your goal is not to educate the English major. Your goal is to get the English major laid by other English majors.)

For the poet:

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, now out in paperback. And some tea. (Don’t poets like tea?) And, let’s face it, a loan.

For your relative who mostly just watches Jersey Shore and reads US Weekly:

A subscription to Tin House or Ploughshares or American Short Fiction. Because she’ll be like, Whaaa? but she won’t be able to return it and you’ll have spent $20 supporting literature, so ha.

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Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

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From the Slush Pile: Don’t Fall Flat

256px-Alfred_Hitchcock_NYWTSAlfred Hitchcock says, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  That is absolutely true for the stories that are being passed on to editors. It is your job to tell the story but get rid of the boring bits. A reader wants to travel seamlessly from scene to narrative bridge and back again.

But how? Here are the simplest techniques.Continue Reading

The Coffeeshop You Meet in Heaven


It’s a good start. But we can do better.

The New York Times blog recently highlighted a website called Coffitivity that plays ambient coffee shop noise on an endless loop to help you work more productively from home. I can only assume they previously deduced, through the same vigorous scientific trials I myself have undertaken, that Barista Noise is marginally more helpful to the creative process than Screaming Toddler.

I think it’s a little sad to stream the noise, though. You’re just going to sit there wishing for a mocha—and who’s going to bring you a mocha? Not the toddler.

The coffee shop (we’ve known this from the beginning) is the ideal place to work. You’re wired; you’re dressed; you’re in society but not fully participating in it—the perfect writer’s vantage point. There are bathrooms nearby, and someone to call an ambulance if you crash your head too hard on your computer.

But as long as we’re bringing things up to date, I have some improvements to propose.

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