September 2, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Andrew Ervin works literary magic in his novel Extraordinary Renditions. Vividly exploring Budapest's past and present in three linked novellas, Ervin's true mastery of the language becomes apparent as the stories converge.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"With dexterous sensibility and fluid prose, Ervin’s protagonists find liberation from the onerous strictures of Budapest’s Nazi and Communist past."
Here's a short look at the musical life of Extraordinary Renditions.
Béla Bartók, "Konstrasztok"
If there's any one piece of music that can explain how the three parts of Extraordinary Renditions fit together, this is it. Bartók completed his "Konstrasztok" in 1938, a tumultuous time in his native Hungary to say the least. It's scored for piano, violin, and clarinet, three instruments that don't always play nicely together here; the contrasts, as the title suggests, are clearly more important than the harmonies. There's an amazing recording from 1940 with Bartók himself on the piano, József Szigeti on violin, and Benny Goodman of all people on clarinet. Even if Szigeti appears to shit the bed every once in a while, or maybe because he shits the bed every once in a while, this recording has meant a great deal to the development of this book as a whole.
Béla Bartók, "14 Bagatelles"
The first novella in the book is named after another Bartók composition. The protagonist is an elderly Hungarian composer named Lajos Harkályi who survived the Holocaust. In a flashback to the infamous Terezín ghetto, he transcribes the original piano piece for solo violin. This section of the book has fourteen chapters and they correspond with the time signatures ("andante," "grave," "vivo" and so on) in various ways. The only recording I've heard—though there are certainly others out there—is by the pianist Zoltán Kocsis.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")
There aren't many recordings of contemporary Eurocentric art music that sell a million copies the way this once did, and the way Harkályi's Symphony No. 4 ("Musik Macht Frei") does in the world of Extraordinary Renditions. In my first apartment in Budapest, back in 1994, my girlfriend (now wife) and I lived next to a man who had survived several concentration camps. We gave him a copy of David Zinman's recording, which we could hear just as clearly through the walls.
Pavel Haas, String Quartet No. 2 ("From the Monkey Mountains")
That Terezín really did have such an amazing musical life is still almost impossible for me to fathom. For example, Hans Krása's opera "Brundibar" was performed there more than fifty times. The CD "The Music Survives" will make an excellent For Further Listening compilation for people interested in the music of the Holocaust. For me personally, Haas's String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1925, exemplifies all too clearly what was lost during the greatest horror of the 20th century: Haas was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
"Brooking the Devil"
Pubic Enemy, "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos"
"Brooking the Devil" is about a black U.S. soldier named Brutus who is stationed at a NATO base in southern Hungary. "They wanted me for the army or whatever/ Picture me giving a damn I said never/ Here is a land that never gave a damn / About a brother like me and myself…" Chuck D deserves one of those MacArthur "genius" grants. He's an invaluable American voice whose influence will be felt for generations, in large part because Public Enemy managed to work within the system in order to critique it.
Fela Kuti, "Mr. Grammarticologylisationalism Is The Boss"
The spoken-word intro to this track gets right to the burning heart of colonialism: "They called our languages 'vernacular.' So English was the real language you had to speak in schools, so everything was in English." And while everyone talks about the rhythms in Kuti's music, and his radicalism, it's the keyboard tones here that just floor me. They carry the authority of a church organ, but the song preaches something I feel like I can actually buy in to. Then those horns…
The Roots, "I Will Not Apologize"
As far as I'm concerned, there isn't a better band in America right now. In a few years we will look back at the records they're making today the way we do Monk's from the nineteen fifties or Coltrane's from the sixties. More importantly, though, the Roots simply rock. "I Will Not Apologize" samples Fela Kuti and it's the best of both worlds, Afrobeat and hip-hop. I'm honored that I got permission from Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter to quote from this song, which is on the Rising Down record named, yes, after William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down.
"The Empty Chairs"
Poni Hoax, "Budapest"
The French band Poni Hoax captures the atmosphere of Budapest here as well as anything I've read since Tibor Déry's Love and Other Stories (New Directions, 2005). The song, like the city, combines many different styles into something unique. There are references to "Transylvanian guns" and even a "burning synagogue," both of which figured into the book. I can see my characters Melanie and Nanette grooving to this at the birthday party on the Danube.
Craig Elkins, "This House"
The former frontman for Huffamoose now lives in California and is working on a solo record. There isn't a more brutally honest songwriter in America. You know how when you're reading Roth or Yates you sometimes find your innermost thoughts—thoughts you didn't even consciously know you had—getting exposed to the entire world? "This House" does that. "We are doomed / Then we got nothing left to lose / Might as well take a shot at honesty." It's the perfect song to describe the disintegrating relationship between Melanie and Nanette. It's devastating.
Das Racist, "Chicken and Meat"
Das Racist's self-released mixtape Shut Up, Dude is an hour of post-colonial theory you can dance to. I'm a sucker for any hip-hop that references Gayatri Spivak. Once a day or so I catch myself singing (terribly) lines from "Chicken and Meat." "People eating bacon all across the nation!" It would make a great soundtrack for the newly cosmopolitan Budapest.
Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"
What can you say about "Strange Fruit"? If you don't get goose bumps every time you hear this song you're just not paying attention. Finishing Extraordinary Renditions in the deep South gave me a whole new appreciation for this song, which is as powerful as any work of art ever created on this landmass. Those funeral-dirge block chords can stop your breath, sure, but it's that little guitar part throughout that make me question what I'm doing with my life. In Extraordinary Renditions, a remix of this song that keeps popping up, but Holiday's version is where it all begins.
Andrew Ervin and Extraordinary Renditions links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
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