March 1, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Melissa Pritchard's new short fiction collection The Odditorium contains eight ambitious and fantastic stories that transcend genre while fascinating with their language and historical figures brought to life.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"Studded with arcane words, apt and ingenious metaphors, Pritchard's exuberant prose is perfectly suited to carry the antic freight of these often bizarre, always cerebral stories."
The eight stories in The Odditorium took shape as I exhumed human "curioddities," to borrow Robert Ripley's coinage, attempting to conjure historical persons dwarfed by neglect or mythicized and made into hollow giants—each one imprisoned, unmoving, within glass cabinets of half-fact and false fact. I listened to almost no music as I wrote these pieces, since it seemed to take every last aural wit I possessed to "hear" what a specific time and place, what specific persons, might sound, look and think like. So the original playlist for this collection is largely subliminal, made up of quaint, sublime, sorrowing or frantic compositions and ghostly harmonies, sung by voices begging redress, exoneration, new life and breath.
These pieces of music feel like the perfect accompaniment to the finished story.
"Pelagia, Holy Fool"
"Calvary Officer's Party: Traditional Gypsy Song"
Anna Karenina soundtrack
Performed by Radmila Ivanova, Viktor Rapotikhin, Yura Schchukin, Yura Slatsov, Maria Vengelevskaya, Rada Vengelevskaya
I have little faith in recorded history. I doubt its accuracy and distrust the conventional wisdom about who and what should be remembered. I prefer delving for my own bits and peculiar shards of history. To uncover, for instance, the fact that Pelagia, Russian staretz and Holy Fool for Christ, tried, without success, to warn Czar Nicholas I of his fast approaching doom when, disguised as a peasant, he sought her divinely inspired madness. Or that Pelagia stuffed rotten, sprouting potatoes down her ample bosom while uttering clairvoyant prophecies. When I listen to this traditional Russian Gypsy song, I see a flaxen-haired Russian girl spinning about in her village of Arzamas, spinning wildly, as the other villagers urge their bewitched dervish on. A few, not least among them her future, unholy fool of a husband, take whacks at her twirling flesh with peeled willow switches. But Pelagia, future saint of Mother Russia, oblivious to common pain and common affection, only spins faster, twirls higher into rare, ascendant, untranslatable enlightenment.
"Lakota Flag Song"
The West soundtrack
Performed by Black Elk Voices
It would have done a better justice to sharpshooter Annie Oakley had I included some version of the Quaker hymn, "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple" in this list. But it is this "Lakota Flag Song," sung by Black Elk Voices, that brings the nineteenth century's near genocide of Native American peoples and specifically, the assassination of Chief Sitting Bull, most passionately alive for me. At one point, both Navajo and Lakota cultures and traditions were a part of my experience. Attending Lakota Sun Dance ceremonies for six consecutive summers, I heard music much like this, drummers and voices giving strength, honoring dancers fasting and piercing flesh under a brutally hot sun, making a red blanket for their people. When I listen to this profoundly stirring song, I see Sitting Bull, shaman, warrior, tender father to his own children as well as to his adopted daughter, Annie Oakley, a man who never understood the insatiable greed of whites, wasichu, how they could walk, unseeing, apparently unfeeling, past hungry children. In this Lakota song to Tankashila, grandfather, sorrow is transmuted into prayer, hard grief into a peoples' communion with the divine.
"Ecorché: Flayed Man"
"Ave Maris Stella" ("Hail, Star of the Sea")
from Claudio Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin)
Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, the revolutionary Venetian composer (1567-1643), was a bridge of sound between the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music. In this justly famous 1989 recording, Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine is performed, live, in Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Directed by John Eliot Gardiner, with The Monteverdi Choir, The London Oratory Junior Choir, His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, and The English Baroque Soloists, the piece I have chosen, Ave Maris Stella, or "Hail, Star of the Sea," is, for me, a hymn of praise and awe both to Mary and to the young prostitute whose body was used to model a waxen female form of great intricacy and haunting beauty, a wax model you can visit today, enshrined within its crystal and rosewood case in Museo La Specola, Florence. Perhaps Felice Fontana, the museum's famed eighteenth century wax anatomist, listened to this sublimely sweet hymn as he fashioned her face, her limbs, her womb. Perhaps Il Cinzio, the corpse collector who had purchased the prostitute for sex hours before he would have to carry her perfect corpse to the museum's anatomy studio, may—or may not—have heard ghostly strains of this praise song to his Beloved, as he snored, drunk and splayed, beside the city's mass, common grave.
"Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital"
"Partita No. 3 in E"
Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by Yehudi Menuhin for an exclusive 1943 BBC Archive Recording
When a friend heard I was embarking on a novella set in England during the Second World War, he sent me this 1943 BBC Archive Recording. To listen to the radio announcer… "this is the BBC Home Service…" and then to the Bach prelude for unaccompanied violin, played by Yehudi Menuhin, is singular enchantment. Twenty-seven year old Menuhin had flown to London from the United States "to give his services to war charities," and had been "decorated with the Cross of Lorraine for his services to the fighting French," the day before this impassioned recording. The "Partita in E" was the one piece of music I allowed myself to listen to while working on "Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital." To hear it was to feel, viscerally, wartime London, and to understand the vital service the BBC provided its listeners, lifting a nation's morale through exquisite sound. It also conveys Captain Brown's stoical, romantic temperament, and the reverberant tragedy of his choice to ignore the dictates of his heart and conscience in favor of imposed duty and military achievement.
"The Hauser Variations"
"Variation 25" from The Goldberg Variations
Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by András Schiff
I had been obsessively listening to András Schiff's stellar recording of Bach's The Goldberg Variations around the time I summoned up nerve to begin the story of Kaspar Hauser. Wondering what narrative form I might use for this story, I suddenly seized on The Goldberg Variations. "Variation 25" is considered one of Bach's greatest works, as well as the central moment of the entire opus. It is the music of the Passion and conveys humanity's paradox—forever caught on an axis mundi of sacred and profane, between mortal and immortal worlds. "Variation 25" has been called "the black pearl," by Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and for me, it mirrors, in its glorious adagio composition, Kaspar Hauser's imprisonment in a dungeon, his release into a brief fame, followed by his inexplicable murder. The French philosopher, mystic and social activist, Simone Weil, close friend to Albert Camus, once said the only question worth asking is this: "Why am I being harmed?" This is the foundational question I pose in attempting to relay the true story of Kaspar Hauser, and "Variation 25" is its musical accompaniment.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
This haunting, unsentimental song, written by Canadian Robbie Robertson and sung by Levon Helm, has long been one of my favorite contemporary musical evocations of the South following Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in April, 1865. If, as some suggest, the South has never recovered from losing the Civil War, this song manages to convey its collective sorrow, wounded dignity and pride. My story, "Patricide," is a twentieth century piece, set in Richmond, Virginia, in a hotel visited by the equally scarred, enigmatic ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe and the South's anguished version of itself. Although this song has nothing directly to do with "Patricide," it evokes the context and tone perfectly.
"God Bless America"
Performed by Kate Smith
I love this November 10th, 1938 debut radio recording of "God Bless America," written by Irving Berlin especially for Kate Smith, one of that era's greatest radio stars.
As I considered what songs might best convey Robert Ripley, his Odditoriums and his personal fact checker, Norbert Pearlroth, (including "Let's Make Love Like Crocodiles," Fred Astaire's "We're in the Money," and Cole Porter's delightful "You're the Top,") I finally decided on Kate Smith's patriotic song, one she hoped would become America's national anthem. Much of Ripley's enormous popularity came from timing as well as showmanship. He distracted people—first from the Great Depression, then from World War II—by dazzling them, by giving them, as "ordinary" Americans, faith that the common citizen was an extraordinary being, capable of astonishing (if bizarre) feats. His plundering of other countries and cultures to add to his vast collection of "curioddities" would be rightly considered an insult, a form of high ignorance today, but during his long career, Robert LeRoy Ripley gave millions of American fans what they wanted and perhaps needed—both the weirdly exotic and the mundane-turned-magical. His was a unique form of patriotic entertainment during two of our nation's most challenging times—a crippling economic depression and a World War unprecedented in brutality. So it seems fitting to banner Ripley's life with this live recording of Kate Smith belting out "God Bless America."
"The Nine-Gated City"
Performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble
I cannot imagine a more fitting musical accompaniment to the story of Sidonie Recoura, an American freelance journalist visiting India, torn between her own hedonistic nature and her desire to write about sex slavery in the brothel districts of Delhi. This ten minute piece, co-composed by Ravi Shankar and a young Philip Glass, was released in 1990 as part of the album Passages and combines East and West in innovative ways. After a slow introduction, Shankar's melodic raga begins, first with a single saxophone, then two. The middle section freely interprets Shankar's raga before the piece concludes with a recapitulation of the theme. The overall effect is dreamily interior and deeply lonely, a subtle crosscurrent between Sidonie's quiet rapture and rising despair. "Offering" is sublimely matched to "The Nine-Gated City," the story of a woman losing her way between two incompatible, opposing worlds in India, experiencing self-dissolution before choosing death and rebirth in the ancient, holy, befouled waters of the Ganges.
Melissa Pritchard and The Odditorium links:
California Literary Review review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Southeast Review review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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