The Books Behind the Music
Five Books, Five Musicians, and Five Acts of Musical Literary Criticism
The writing of books and the creation of music have more in common than you think. They both begin in quiet rooms and end, hopefully, with the approval of many people. They're both basically hobbies—leisure activities transformed into industries thanks to the goodwill of armies of fans. In the last 10 years, the storage of books and music has changed on a fundamental level, transforming the economics of publishing and music in ways that are still unfolding, and this transformation has brought the art forms closer together, too; Kindles play MP3s, and lots of folks read books on their iPod Touches.
Just as many musicians aspire to write novels (the first three to come to mind: Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Josh Ritter), every book nerd secretly longs for a piece of the rock-star action. So when Levi Fuller asked me to take part in a special edition of his clever quarterly music anthology Ball of Wax—about which I have already blurred the lines, referring to it as "the McSweeney's of music"—by assigning books to local musicians, I was excited. Though I don't know anything about making music (apparently, you can "read" notes, but I've never been able to puzzle out how that works), I'd have at least a tiny part in the creation of an album's worth of songs.
Fuller assembled a team of five musicians: himself, Ryan Barrett of the Pica Beats, Alex Guy (a viola player who has backed acts such as Mirah, the Dead Science, and the Pharmacy, as well as performing under the name Led to Sea), Joshua Morrison, and Johanna Kunin (a Portland artist who records as Bright Archer). I interviewed each of them about their history as a reader, their lyric-writing process, and what kind of lyrics they enjoy. A couple of very interesting spontaneous conversations about lyrics—the weird marshland between books and music—broke out. I'm ashamed to admit that I was surprised to discover that these musicians were well-read; I don't know what kind of dunderheaded coke-fueled rock clichés I had in mind, but Fuller chose a literate bunch.
After the interviews, I assigned each of the musicians a book. This is harder than it sounds. I tried to choose knockout books, the kind of brilliant stories that are unimpeachably, inarguably good. And I wanted the assigned books to play to each musician's strengths but also stretch their comfort zones a little bit, too. Reading is a collaboration between the author and the reader, and so these songs, at best, would be duets across years and mediums. Fuller, for example, is a relentless experimenter—one night, he'll be performing prog rock, the next night, it will be a quiet folk set, and then he and his country band will whip something up on the weekend—and so I assigned him the least bookish of the books, Maggie Nelson's poetry collection disguised as a series of paragraph-long essays about the color blue, Bluets.
Morrison prefers more classically narrative lyrics, so pairing him with The Last Samurai—Helen DeWitt's audacious novel about a pair of geniuses, a mother and son, who ride the Tube back and forth all day for warmth—seemed appropriate. DeWitt's intellect strains at narrative in compelling, frustrating ways, fracturing the novel into a kaleidoscope of perception; I thought she'd dance well with Morrison, whose childhood love of Sherlock Holmes suggests that he's no stranger to literary geniuses. Kunin's Bright Archer songs are intensely personal, with a strong sense of identity; giving her Seattle author Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order, about two people with multiple personality disorder who fall in love, felt as though it could be inspired, or disastrous, or an inspired disaster. And Alex Guy is probably the best-read of the lot; her assured, layered songwriting would work best with the already knotty levels of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is a novel disguised as commentary on a long poem. (We'll get to the fifth assignment in a minute.)
Over the next couple of months, the musicians read, reread, and finally wrote five songs in response to (and in collaboration with) their assigned books. They'll each perform their five songs at Fremont Abbey on Friday night, and everyone who attends will get a Ball of Wax CD with three songs from each performer. The end result is impressive. A couple of the entries, like Morrison's "Red Devlin," amplify moments in the narrative; they could serve as songs in musical adaptations of the books. Bright Archer breaks herself into a chorus of occasionally discordant voices to make a tone poem about the armies we hide inside our personalities. Led to Sea dances around Nabokov's narrative complexity just as skillfully as I'd hoped she would, and Fuller excitedly accepts Nelson's invitation to wonder at the myriad stories hidden inside the color blue.
But the most surprising song on the album to me is Barrett's "They Don't Know." The book I assigned Barrett, Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, is an intentionally offensive novel about clones, sexual misbehavior, and sociopaths in the distant future. Island inspired a late-career John Updike to make a blustering fool of himself in a New York Times Book Review piece that challenged the darkness of literary misanthropes like Houellebecq in favor of more vaguely optimistic work. I thought Houellebecq's darkness would mix well with what I see as the inherent cheeriness of Barrett's Pica Beats songs. And Barrett does several straight interpretations of the book, but finally, as though he can't hold it in any more, he unleashes "They Don't Know," an outright refutation of Houellebecq's "fatalist tale" about the world "power[ing] down" into an orgy of "animal will."
Houellebecq talks a good game, Barrett says, but he doesn't know any more than you or I; sneering doesn't make you any more of an expert than hoping for the best. It's an act of musical literary criticism, and with that simple, happy affirmation of a pop tune, Barrett successfully makes the case that Updike never could. It's the most dramatic result of the project, and it's emblematic of the goodness to be found here: Barrett and his fellow musicians have captured the magnificent moment when a conversation brings something new into the world that was never there before.