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September 9, 2009

Book Notes - David Small ("Stitches")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

David Small's graphic memoir Stitches is captivating, the most impressive autobiography graphically told since Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.

Small recounts his youth with his unpredictable mother and emotionally distant father in hauntingly dark panels that convey his isolation perfectly. Small is a Caldecott-winning illustrator and author of critically acclaimed children's books, and his talent for storytelling with both his brush and through dialog is evident in this autobiography. Stitches may just not only be the year's best graphic memoir, but the year's most stellar memoir in any medium.

R. Crumb wrote of the book:

"David Small evokes the mad scientific world of the 1950s beautifully, a time when everyone believed that science could fix everything....Capturing body language and facial expressions subtly, Stitches becomes in Small's skillful hands a powerful story, an emotionally charged autobiography."

In his own words, here is David Small's Book Notes music playlist for his graphic memoir, Stitches:

Some readers have described my graphic memoir Stitches as "a childhood from hell." So be it. I felt that a direct accounting of events, as candid as the intrinsic propaganda of pictures would allow, was the most appropriate form for the tour of my personal netherworld. To do this, I wanted music in the background that was, in effect, as devoid of adjectives as the book I was trying to make.

For this particular project I found that most music has too much attitude, atmosphere and insistence on a way to feel. My usual combinations of Beck, Brubeck and Miles simply weren't working for me. Neither did I want Bartók, Schnittke or Hans Werner Henze pulling me away from the drawing board and slamming me about the room. Even my favorite minimalists, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, had too much color in them for the aural wallpaper I was seeking. (My book would be like the black and white films I love. Color generally confuses the issue. )

For a long time I worked in silence. The silence out here on edge of the prairie can be intense. I missed my music.

Then, one day, I recalled a CD I had disliked when I first heard it, the Kronos Quartet playing Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet. What frustrated --and even annoyed—me on first hearing of this music was its complete lack of resolution. It climbed without achieving any height. It advanced while going nowhere. It changed without alteration. Strange, a music that --aside from a certain creepiness-- asked nothing from the listener, which was not by my standards a "listening" experience at all. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was, in fact, exactly what I had been wanting: a music lacking modifiers.

One reviewer has compared Feldman's late music (and please note, it is only the late works I'm recommending here) to viewing a night sky full of stars. Another likened it to Charron's boat bumping against a pier, waiting to transport riders across the Styx. What Feldman himself had in mind was a music that equated the experience of looking at his beloved Turkish rugs, "symmetrical in basic design but with constant variation and displacement in the detailed execution of that design." [From the liner notes, StQ2, Mode Records.]

Here are the albums I had in constant rotation for the nearly four years it took me to draw Stitches:

Morton Feldman
String Quartet No. 2 (1983)
Flux Quartet

Label: Mode
"Addictive … despite its huge length [6 + hours!!] …I would recommend this to anyone who wants a life changing experience." –Roger Saxton

Morton Feldman
Violin and String Quartet (1985)
Christina Fong and the Rangzen Quartet

Label: Ogre/Ogress
"…as obsessive in [it's] tranquil way as Cocteau's opium drawings… here magnificently realized on this Ogre/Ogress two-disc release." – Walter Horn

Morton Feldman
Piano and String Quartet (1987)
Aki Takahashi, Kronos Quartet

Label: Nonesuch
".a powerful, evening piece, one that can set an extravagant, crystalline musical mood." –Andrew Bartlett

I should add that, of the 5-discs set of the String Quartet No. 2 (comprising the walloping 6 hour, 7 minutes and 7 seconds it takes to listen to the whole thing), I generally listened to only the last 3. In the first two discs there are some brief but loud, jarring passages that, to me, seem like flaws in this otherwise euphoric masterpiece.

Despite the poetic descriptions given above, and my own opinion --that this is some of the most gorgeous music ever written--Feldman is definitely an acquired taste. People who don't appreciate Minimalism in music (most of humanity, I suppose), would probably rather listen to paint dry.

How to listen to this music? While you are reading Stitches! While you are drawing or writing your memoirs. Please: not with the family running around … not with anyone or any thing demanding your attention. Don't try to "get" anything from this music, just let it carry you down along the mnemonic corridors of your mind.

And, if you're interested, go to the Stitches website where, along with my video, you can hear a few minutes from Feldman's monumental String Quartet No.2.

David Small and Stitches links:

the author's website
the book's website
the book's video trailer
excerpt from the book

Barnes & Noble review
Booklist review review
Detroit Free Press review
Dispatches review
emilyreads review
Entertainment Weekly review
ForeWord review
GalleyCat review
Garden Lust review
Grovel review
I Love Rob Liefield review
ICv2 review
Iron Inklings review
Kalamazoo Gazette review
Kidliterate review
Lansing City Pulse review
Lori, the Comic Book Goddess, Talks About Comics review
Los Angeles Times review
Market Block Books review
Northshire Bookstore's Blog review
No Cure for Comics review
Reading Rants! review
Sarah Miller: Reading, Writing, Musing review
Seeing the World Through Books review
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast review
Slate review
Stacy's Books review
Wilson Knut review

4 Color Rebellion interview with the author
BookPage interview with the author
Graphic Novel reporter interview with the author
New York Times profile of the author interview with the author
Publishers Weekly comics essay by the author about why he wrote the book
USA Today profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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