Tag Archives: literature

A Nobel Prize for music

Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.

What is literature?

Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).

To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:

The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.

Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.

But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.

The music of words

Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.

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There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.

Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?

By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).

Dylan, wearing a hat and leather coat, plays guitar and sings, seated. Crouched next to him is a bearded man, listening to him with head bent.

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman

After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.

Songs and books

This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.

First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.

Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.

So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.

Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.

Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.

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Real magic

While reading a collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), known as the “father of the Japanese short story”, I came across the following passage (it’s taken from his autobiographical story The Life of a Stupid Man, translated by Jay Rubin):

He suffered an onslaught of insomnia. His physical strength began to fade as well. (…) But he knew well enough what was wrong with him: he was ashamed of himself and afraid of them – afraid of the society he so despised.

One afternoon when snow clouds hung over the city, he was in the corner of a café, smoking a cigar and listening to music from the gramophone on the other side of the room. He found the music permeating his emotions in a strange new way. When it ended, he walked over to the gramophone to read the label on the record.

Magic Flute – Mozart.”

All at once it became clear to him: Mozart too had broken the Ten Commandments and suffered. Probably not the way he had, but…

He bowed his head and returned to his table in silence.

I found this passage particularly powerful, as it manages to convey very elegantly one of music’s most intriguing characteristics: its universality, that is, its ability to reach straight into the hearts of people who lived under completely different social conditions and many hundreds years apart, forging a bond between all those who feel our common humanity through works such as Mozart’s sublime opera.

And that is some real magic indeed.

Art under a cloudy sky

Although cloud watching seems to be reaching ever-higher levels of popularity nowadays, this noble activity has been a favorite pastime of sensitive and artistically inclined individuals long before the advent of modern photographic techniques.

In his nocturnal composition Nuages (“Clouds”), Claude Debussy tried to capture “the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.

Debussy’s visual, descriptive language brings to mind impressionistic images of similar themes. Conversely, painters would also use music as a way to better illustrate the effects of their own art. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “…in a picture I want to say something comforting, in the way that music is comforting.”

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Wheat Field Under Cloudy Sky’ (Oil on canvas, 1890)

A somewhat darker, and at times even disturbing, vision arises in some of Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpieces, such as Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985). Here, the depiction of imposing cloud formations serves as a symbol for the futility and the ephemeral status of human affairs, signifying the tragic dimensions of man’s passing from this world.

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Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985)

In the dedication of Paris Spleen, one of the founding texts of literary modernism, Charles Baudelaire had dreamed “of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme” that could “adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.”

In the opening piece, L’étranger (“The Stranger”), Baudelaire’s enigmatic figure rejects received truths, certainties and conventions, retaining faith only to one’s self and the beauty of passing clouds…

“Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

Your friends? Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.

Your country? I do not know in what latitude it lies.

Beauty? I could indeed lover her, Goddess and Immortal.

Gold? I hate it as you hate God.

Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!”

A pianist amidst the ocean

“You’re never really done for, as long as you got a good story and someone to tell it too.”

(Max Tooney in The Legend of 1900)

In his theater monologue Novecento Italian writer Alessandro Baricco gives a fascinating account of the life and times of Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900, a fictional piano wunderkind born on the ocean liner Virginian who was destined never to set foot on land.

Baricco’s relationship with music is intimate (he has published a book on Gioachino Rossini and worked as a music critic for La Repubblica) and his Novecento is a joy to read. I particularly enjoyed his reflections on the nature and limitless possibilities of music making:

“We were playing because the Ocean is vast and scares you, we were playing so that people could forget the passing of time, forget where they were and who they were. We were playing so as to make people dance, because if you dance you feel like God and cannot die. And we were playing ragtime, because that’s the music God dances along when nobody watches.”

“So think now: a piano. Its keys start somewhere. And end somewhere. You know they are eighty-eight, nobody can tell you otherwise. They are not infinite. You are infinite, and so is the music you can make on these keys.”

Baricco’s story was made into a film in 1998 called The Legend of 1900, starring Tim Roth and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. The film’s magnificent soundtrack is composed almost entirely by Ennio Morricone and it contains some truly captivating piano music. Alongside the Italian maestro, Roger Waters also contributed to the film’s soundtrack by performing and writing the lyrics for the piece Lost Boys Calling.

In the story’s  heartbreaking finale, leaving the Virginian and facing the immensity of real life proves too overwhelming for the legendary pianist. Still, his unique music lives on, if only in the memories of all those who were once blessed to be among his audience.

The High Fidelity lists

“As everyone knows, Al Green Explores your Mind is as serious as life gets.”

(Nick Hornby, High Fidelity)

In case you are already familiar with Nick Hornby’s work, High Fidelity (published in 1995) needs no further introduction. A brilliantly entertaining and yet remarkably insightful take on life, relationships and pop music, it remains a classic of its genre. In 2000 it was also made into a film starring John Cusack as the audiophile Rob Gordon. Rob (whose last name in the book is actually Fleming) is the novel’s main character and a music geek who takes pleasure in coming up with top 5 lists of ex-girlfriends, records, films, artists and pretty much everything else.

A big plus to Hornby’s novel are the many musical tips scattered across the text. A whole playlist full of soulful and funky tunes that can still be enjoyed long after the reading is over, and which also served as a basis for the film’s groovy soundtrack.

So here are my all-time, top five most memorable musical references in High Fidelity in chronological order:

1) Solomon Burke – Got To Get You Off My Mind

2) Otis Redding – You Left The Water Running

3) Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – It’s a Good Feeling

4) Donny Hathaway – The Ghetto

5) Elvis Costello – Alison

Followed by my top five, most memorable quotes from Hornby’s book in order of appearance:

1) “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”

2) “I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. When I’ve finished I’m flushed with s sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am.”

3) “To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do.”

4) “You know the worst thing about being rejected? The lack of control. If I could only control the when and how of being dumped by somebody, then it wouldn’t seem as bad. But then, of course, it wouldn’t be rejection, would it? It would be by mutual consent. It would be musical differences. It would be leaving to pursue a solo career.”

5) “How can you like Art Garfunkel and Solomon Burke? It’s like saying you support the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

A hymn to unfulfilled love

In most cases, books are admittedly better than the movies they serve as a basis for.  But can the same be said about music adaptations? What about all those cases where novels and poems become a chief source of inspiration for great composers, leading to the creation of some of their most stunning and everlasting masterpieces?

I remember reading Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin when I was still in highschool, my teenage mind trying to reconstruct the novel’s theatrical setting and visualize its vivid characters. I would picture Onegin as a proud, fine-looking dandy kindly rejecting the love and pure feelings of young Tatyana, a landowner’s charming and shy daughter of introspective nature. Furthermore, I would try to follow how a silly quarrel could end with the fatal duel between Onegin and his good friend Lensky and how, finally, Onegin’s feelings for Tatyana would change when they would meet again many years later, their roles now having been reversed.

These fading images and scarce recollections of Pushkin’s novel came back to me recently, after watching Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin performed by the Stanislavski Opera at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam.

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I’ve never been a big opera enthusiast, but works such as this always make me think of the considerably powerful effect opera can have when performed convincingly and given the right context. In the case of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music adds a whole new dimension to the familiar story, and it feels as if Pushkin’s masterpiece has been translated into a universal language that brings out its very essence, making it accessible to anyone with enough sensitivity and eagerness to partake in the dramatic events happening on stage.

Although Eugene Onegin touches upon several intriguing themes such as social conventions and the link between reality and fiction, it is ultimately a tragic story about unfulfilled love. It is evocative of the very human cry of desperation on behalf of the broken-hearted that has been repeatedly expressed through art since antuiquity, as in Sappho’s prayer in Hymn to Aphrodite:

Hear and heal a suppliant’s pain:

Let not love be love in vain!

Unlike Pushkin’s dark finale, Sappho’s hymn ends with Aphrodite’s promise to resolve the intense pain and the goddess’s assurance that the reluctant lover will soon know love as intense as that suffered by the poet:

Soon, thro’ long reluctance earn’d,

Love refused be Love return’d.

In Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, it is the sheer magic and moving power of music that serves as a substitute for such divine intervention, bringing thus consolation and a much-needed catharsis to the agony of the audience.