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

Dancing About Architecture

Semigarrapatea“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” said Elvis Costello once, probably quoting someone else. And yet, and yet… It is apparently a strong urge to write about (or somehow with) music. The list of creative writing that involves music in some way is long, and grows longer every day with the plethora of author playlists floating around the internet—such as those collected by the music and literature blog Largehearted Boy.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester writes of a musical phrase in a violin sonata that adds coherence to In Search of Lost Time, reappearing across the book as it’s heard by various people, and almost developing a life of its own: “There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time [….] but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.” Forester speculates that one can’t plan on rhythm so much as let it emerge. I would add that revision would be a great time to bring out those emerging rhythms.

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STEAL THIS STUFF: What Writers Can Learn from Over the Rhine

Okay Writers. If you’ve been tucked safely away from Great Music over the last two decades, you may be new to the “aggressively beautiful” music of Over the Rhine.

Today, the husband/wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are invading my column, not just because they’re critically acclaimed songwriters—but because, with lyrics that threaten to cross over into literature (I KNOW), they’re fitting guides for any writer.

And perhaps more significantly: after 20 years and too many albums to count, they’re still crafting, experimenting, and connecting. In fact, tomorrow (Sept 3) they’re releasing a new double-album—as in, too many songs for one record.
Nice problem. (PS. Listen while you read: Stream the new record online.)

Full disclosure: Linford and Karin are friends of mine (we met when Ellery opened for OtR). So as their release date approached, I snagged Linford to tell us about his influences, sources, books he’s loved, lines he’s stolen, his practice as a writer.

Hark, writers of all stripes: This guy knows his craft. Steal his wisdom.
And OtR fans old and new: You’re welcome.

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Red Moon Rising: Playlist for Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon

Red_MoonHB-195x300In my last post I talked about my love of zombies—the blank stares, the hyperfast sprinting, and the social allegory of the undead—and my less-than-love for the resurgence of swoony vampires. In light of the revival of such classic horror monsters, I’m left wondering: what about werewolves? (Or for that matter, mummies—because isn’t a walking mummy kinda-sorta like a zombie? But anyway… Today we’re talking about werewolves.)

There have been a few recent werewolf appearances in books and on the screen: Toby Barlow’s novel-length poem, Sharp Teeth, for example, and MTV’s Teen Wolf series—now in it’s third season. And let’s not forget Twilight’s Jacob Black, the love-torn, angst-ridden teen subject of this Facebook group.

None of these stories, though, have re-envisioned werewolves in quite the way I’ve been craving. I want less teen angst and more action, more imagination and reinvention within the cannon.

Benjamin Percy’s second novel, Red Moon (Grand Central Publishing 2013), finally delivers such a story, and just in time for hammock weather here in Iowa.Continue Reading

Why Poetry Can’t Find its Public

Hey Poets.

I was in LA last month for music work, and I think I found something you dropped:

The public. There, there.

So—Maybe you weren’t sure when you lost it, but you seem pretty certain music stole it. Or film perhaps? Or YouTube cats?

Meanwhile, poetry’s stayed alive. It’s been breeding and cloning; there are more of us all the time! (Thank god; someone’s gotta read our poems.) We’re like the Duggar Couple, happy we’ll always have at least our 19 fans.

But for all our liveliness, poetry’s not exactly on speaking terms with the public. By which I mean, we don’t speak to it. Except in English class.

So anyway, when I found your public, it was like, “Idk, I never hear from poetr—Oh hey! I love this song!”
And then I knew: We have to snag lessons from a genre that beats us out for public love. What can we learn from pop music? Continue Reading

The Suburbs: A Multimedia Extravaganza!

suburgatoryOkay, for my final post about the suburbs (probably), I say enough about books. Let’s talk about what’s really important: TV, movies, music, and even a little art.

On The Tube

TV is lousy with images of the suburbs these days, but of course it always has been.  Recently, shows like “Modern Family,” “The Middle,” “Suburgatory,” “The New Normal” and “The Neighbors” all offer visions of suburbia in varying degrees of reality and/or absurdity. Hapless parents half-successfully improvise their way through child rearing, while children—be they precocious, clueless, nerdy, or self-absorbed—propel plots that force the families to come together in awkward not-quite-harmony. The essential message of these shows is, “This ain’t your grandparents’ suburbs.”

The only problem is that it still pretty much is.Continue Reading

What Do Taylor Swift and Faulkner Have in Common?

Amos Heller. Stadium-ing.Um, the answer is this guy.
Hey Writing World, meet Amos Heller: The much-loved, many-fanned bass player for Taylor Swift.
(And, ahem, for Ellery.)

I’m introducing you to him because—(#truth)—Amos’ literary prowess would put many of us to shame.
When I first I got to know Amos, he was always making reference to some great book or author of which I was maddeningly unaware. At some point, I had to admit to myself that I—the writer in the room—had read much less than my bass player. Dammit.

But let’s be real for a second: Which of us would see this guy with Taylor on the Grammys and think, “I bet he knows his classics”? Or, “I wonder what he has to say about science fiction and culture?” Sadly, very few. And we’d be missing out. 

So I interviewed Amos to begin a new series called “Hey Guys. Other People Read Too”—in which we’ll open the musty closet of the Literary Subculture and let some brilliant minds in.

Everyone I’m interviewing is a wildly successful artist in his/her field, with an enormous following… And each is a voracious reader. By listening to some of these Lovers of Words, maybe we’ll begin to imagine new ways of connecting, of interacting, of being writers in the Wider World…

“Hey Guys, Amos Reads Too”—the interview

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Episodia 1.5: Mad Men’s Tell-Tale Heart

"Now this is the point...Madmen know nothing." --Edgar Allan Poe

“Now this is the point…Madmen know nothing.” –Edgar Allan Poe

For six seasons now, television viewers have been transfixed by advertising phenom Don Draper’s troubled smolder as he winds his way through Manhattan’s boardrooms, bedrooms, and bars. Each episode is loaded with literary jewels for writers to fawn over: the elegant use of space (that office elevator really knows how to open and close a scene); objects that indicate a break in the psyche (cigarettes and glass tumblers, anyone?); and norm-defining costumes (can we appreciate, for a moment, the ways in which Betty Draper’s wardrobe reflects the suffocating gender dynamics of the 1960s, from her A-line skirts and pearls to her pink quilted housecoat?). But to me, these are just icing on this ambition-meets-love-meets-domesticity cake.

The magic trick in “Mad Men” I find so mind-swervingly stunning is how the show transforms its main concern—mid-century gender norms—into the heart of its appeal. This show doesn’t just reveal the evils of those norms, it proves how gender stratification punished the men as well as the women. And most impressively, it explores these dynamics even though the characters themselves—born and bred in this world—are barely aware of them. It manages to do this thanks to what I call “the hidden narrator.”

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“Look Who Made It:” A Playlist for Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove


To me, a new Karen Russell book is literary Christmas. Her new collection tells the stories of characters doing their best to conquer insurmountable odds: addiction, enslavement, the aftereffects of war. The stories explore the strengths and frailties of people; below, I’ve tried to match each one with a song that does it justice.

“Let Your Guard Down” by Emily Wells: To me, this song sounds like the slow passing of years. It speaks to the feeling of having everything and nothing at the same time. In “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” Clyde and Magreb have found a way to dull their hunger, but Clyde still feels an emptiness—an emptiness that’s furthered by Magreb’s growing distance and his insatiable desire.Continue Reading