July 15, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Amy Martin's illustrated Symphony City is the first book I have read from McSweeney's McMullens, the new children's imprint from the celebrated and respected literary publisher, and I am impressed.
Martin's illustrations of a lost young girl being guided through the streets of a city are simple, yet captivating, moving, and bursting with color, and propel the story with little need for text. Symphony City's visual portrayal of music (and its power) is as strong as any comic I have read.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Martin, in her children's book debut, delivers images of meditative calm; in each spread, blocks of translucent color fill in the background, leaving the contours of the pictures' subjects--hands playing instruments, bodies, buildings--outlined by the white space that remains. Martin succeeds in capturing a world of sound using only visual cues; lyrical yet militantly unsentimental, the book's cool appearance is reinforced by the face of the girl, whose lean features could be an adult's."
In the winter of 2010 I made a children's book for the brand-new McMullen's imprint at McSweeney's. It's called Symphony City, and it's about a little girl who gets separated from her adult on the way to a free concert and finds herself alone and lost. As she makes her way home, ambient street music guides her and transforms the city into a surreal and magical landscape. I can't get a thing done without music on. These are some of the songs that made this unexpected and fast-paced project happen.
I was introduced to Teenage Fanclub last summer, and it's one of those moments where I can recall exactly where I was (in my car, near Griffith Park) and what I was doing (driving a friend to get pie and coffee) when I heard it the first time. Shadows came at a moment in my life where I was letting go of a very long and hugely formative relationship, and for the first time in months, I could see what was ahead of me as clearly as what was behind me. It also became the soundtrack for a trip I took to the Pacific Northwest later in the summer, and I have a very clear memory of walking through Seattle for the first time, by myself with headphones on, and then spending four days in that same friend's house in Portland, surrounded by guitars, keyboards, records and recording equipment. During that trip I decided that I was going to leave Los Angeles for the Northwest, where I live now, and that heart-racing feeling of being in exactly the right place was overwhelming. That sum of experiences is pretty much exactly the narrative of Symphony City.
I was really lucky to have a great music program at my public school in Michigan. I spent eight years in band, and got introduced to some amazing pieces of music that I would still include in my list of absolute favorites. My senior year of high school we played Dvorak, and I've been in love with the New World Symphony ever since. The whole thing sounds like an adventure, and this movement in particular is so evocative of rolling waves, ships, and finding shore. About eight minutes in, the piccolos start this really sweet, staccato motif that sounds like birds, immediately followed by this enormous swell of brass, strings and timpani that feels like what I'd imagine the first view of land would feel like at the end of a very long trip. That piccolo sound was the inspiration for using birds as a visual motif that carries through the book.
I am so, so in love with West Side Story. I saw it when I was ten years old during a trip to visit my old babysitter in college, and I was awestruck. I can remember how the programs smelled, and what the seats felt like. That was the first time I recognized music's power as a storytelling device, and became aware of how melody could become theme, and then create tension, character, irony and landscape. This particular song, which Tony sings before he ever even sees Maria for the first time, is so romantic and optimistic, and simultaneously foreshadows love, death and disaster. It's heartbreaking and buoyant and openhearted. This piece is also very much about Tony's relationship to himself, New York, music, and love. He sings it during one of several long, daydreamy walks alone through the city, singing to himself about possibility and longing. I can relate.
No band has had as much impact on my own creativity as DCfC - I have kind of a weird synesthetic relationship with their music. When they go big and atmospheric, my brain absolutely floods with images. "Unobstructed Views," from their new album, is doing that for me on the book I'm working on right now, but for Symphony City, "Marching Bands of Manhattan" was a big inspiration. It is so gorgeously produced; the sound is expansive and cinematic; thematically, it's exactly the kind of the romantic, generous sentiment I'm most drawn to; and the metaphors in the lyrics are all about scale, scope, and landscape. Also, it's a great song for running, which is a huge part of my process.
I'm a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens. We're from the same place, and I vividly remember listening to the Michigan album the first time in my apartment in Los Angeles, and being overwhelmed with homesickness and love for the nearly forgotten places where I'd spent so much time as a child - specifically, the woods around the coast of Lake Michigan. I spent a lot of time with the BQE album during the first month of drawing Symphony City. The action in those pieces really clearly evokes the excitement and energy of being in a crowded and thriving urban space. In the second month of drawing, while I was traveling again through the Pacific Northwest, I had kind of an emotional meltdown, and spent three days in Vancouver and about a week in Seattle and Portland (and then a week in LA plus a drive to Big Sur/San Francisco and back) listening to the title track on continuous repeat. I guess the freakout that was happening in the song echoed my own and neutralized it enough that I could still get work done. Apologies to my traveling companion.
This song didn't necessarily have a direct impact on this specific project, but it's a good example of a piece of music that, for no obvious reason, just has a consistent and profound physiological effect on me. My heart beats faster, my mind races, I feel weightless and euphoric, and just totally connected to every thing and person in the world. That alchemy is what this whole book is about.
Amy Martin and Symphony City links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
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)
weekly music & DVD release lists