November 5, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Plotted: A Literary Atlas shares fascinating maps for an impressive range of literary works.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"This is a rewarding excursion across the literary landscape that will be cherished by map enthusiasts as well as bibliophiles."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Plotted: A Literary Atlas is a collection of illustrated maps based on 19 famous works of literature. It's my first book and took about a year to complete. I've never really taken on a project as large as Plotted. Most of my career I've worked as a magazine editorial illustrator, which usually works on a two-week cycle from start to finish. I've done gallery map shows based on movie maps, some which are pretty large, but a film is not a book. Books are huge. And deep. And consuming. This lent the time during the creation of Plotted a distinctly episodic feel. Big blocks of time, sometimes months, I really only recall as Watership Down time, or Huck Finn time. . . . Honestly it's a bit of a haze, albeit a haze filled with great books. Certainly one of my constant late night companions was music. Towards the end of the day it was nice to stop living in words (I was often listening to the audio book while painting), and just paint, and listen to records or just shuffle everything and see what comes up. So since 19 songs makes for a nice playlist, I thought I'd do run down from the table of contents and pair a song for each piece. Some are intuitive, some are linked to the narrative, some are the soundtrack to the movie playing in my head while reading the book.
1. The Odyssey - "I'm Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin')" by Candi Staton: This is one of my favorite records that I kept coming back to during Plotted. I've been a fan of Candi Staton's soul stuff for a long time, especially her 60s/early70s soul. She's just one of those underrated, overlooked voices that made some great records, and singles. Why the Odyssey? Well, this one hit me while I was doing the painting. Penelope and Odysseus have this attraction - it punishes them again and again. Other women tempt and seduce Odysseus, but he can't break away. Neither can Penelope. They're locked in these orbits of each other and the yearning power of "Prisoner" just hits that note for me: passion and pain.
2. Hamlet - "Father to Son" by Queen: I love Queen. In fact I could almost do this whole list with Queen. They're constantly in heavy rotation. This one was fairly literal. The opening: "A word in your ear, from father to son" just struck me while I was doing the Hamlet map. Characteristic Queen pomp helps. Nobody does pomp like Queen, especially 70s Queen. It's a big and bombastic, but also a dark and sensitive song. The song was written by Queen's guitarist Brian May, my favorite all-time guitarist and a great songwriter. May taps something in the tonality about an importance of lineage, of knowledge passed down that make it both an anthem and prayer wrapped in the majesty of sweet layered guitars and a proto-metal rock instrumental middle section.
3. Robison Crusoe - "A Small Stretch of Land" by Mersault: Scottish band Mersault is a weird pastiche of pop folk and electronica, and I keep coming back to their Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues record. This song in particular is just a sweet, open, lonely call to someone. There's a beauty in the song that echoes not only the tranquility of an island, but Robinson Crusoe's burgeoning faith. His Island of Despair begins as his prison, but becomes both his home, and his teacher. The Island teaches him how to be patient and grateful. It's a song for watching a sunrise.
4. Pride and Prejudice - "A Fine Romance" by Ella Fitgerald and Louis Armstrong: It's hard not to have Louis' and Ella's duets corrupted by rom-coms and Yankee Candle store soundtracks. But in my opinion, they are just too good to be ruined. Ella is at the height of her mature singing voice, and Louis - well, Louis is the best ever. The song (written by Jerome Kerns and Dorothy Fields in 1936) is a classic, and while written for the film Swing Time doesn't really swing until Louis and Ella do it. It's verbal play, all done with combative affection, and expertly phrased music illustrating the classic "Odd Couple" relationship. While Darcy and Elizabeth may not be Oscar and Felix, there's certainly an element of the playful versus the stuffy. "A Fine Romance" is an Austen-esque conversation for the twentieth century - laced with biting humor and playful misdirection, but flowing under that is deep feeling, and idiosyncratic beauty.
5. A Christmas Carol - "Just in Time" by Nina Simone - from Nina at the Village Gate. I'm not sure why Nina Simone feels like Christmas to me, or why she sounds better to me when there's snow on the ground. She just does. She's a warm blaze, pushing light and heat into the cold. She gets to me the way this story still gets to me which is to say at a deep down level of my lizard brain. Even with all the reworks, low budget remakes, the commercialization of Christmas, A Christmas Carol is a beautifully told, beautifully structured story. I think it's because it's Dickens most efficient stories. It cuts right to the bone in 5 short chapters. I'm not a huge Dickens fan, but A Christmas Carol - while certainly not devoid of Dickensian flourishes - sparkles. It's magic. Scrooge's catharsis feels so honest, and sweet. Simone's redemption in "Just In Time" has that same grateful relief of coming in from the cold.
6. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass - "Don't Hit Me No More" by Mable John: This one is perhaps a bit on the nose. I was listening to the Stax/Volt Complete Singles Collection 1959-1968 quite a bit wile working on Frederick Douglass, and this one is hard to ignore. You just don't run across that many physical violence songs. While John's masterpiece is about domestic violence, there's a justified defiance. Mable John sings it like a prizefighter. It's a confrontation, and John knows she is just and her words give her strength and power, much in the way they did for Douglass.
7. Moby Dick - "Roll Down" by The Revels: I grew listening to "Nowell Sing We Clear": a band of singer/musicians led by Tony Barrand and John Roberts who sang old forgotten English carols and wassails. If you're ever looking for good Christmas drinking songs, they're the best. "Roll Down" is from a record of sea-shanty's by The Revels I bought while looking for more of Barrand and Roberts work (they sing the lead parts in the track). It's actually a "faux-shanty" written for musical in 1977, but it's just a great song. So much of Moby Dick is a fight against the ocean, tempered with the awe and beauty. For me it's best framed by the sound of a chorus of unaccompanied men blasting out a shanty, trying to assure themselves it they'll survive the coming storm.
8. “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” (Emily Dickinson) - "Malaria Codes" by The Octopus Project: Emily Dickinson's ode to a snake is a characteristically brilliant, clever and economical piece of writing. It's strange and beautiful. The human revulsion of snakes is turned to a fascination. "Malaria Codes" has that otherwordly feel. Created with all fairly conventional sounds, their combination is familiar and yet foreign. I'm a big fan of instrumental music, and this song in particular has the feel of a poem - a succinct thought in music played out over three and a half minutes.
9. Around the World in 80 Days - "Somebody to Love" by Kalyanji Anandji: I found this track on a compilation called "Sitar Beat Indian Heavy Funk" (Vol 1). It has that manic Bollywood energy, channeled through a classic Kink's-esque riff but ramped up to eleven, perfect for Verne's round the world race against the clock. It's British Invasion rock as played by the British Invaded. It's nearly "Benny Hill Theme" pace and relentless drive pair really nicely with Verne's travel epic, with that taste of distinctly Indian color.
10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - "Range Life" by Pavement: Chaos, humor, the backdrop of American Un-exceptionalism, the half formed ideas of adolescent morality, and the need for freedom from absolutely everything . . . That's Huck Finn for me. It's a little punk rock, a little country, and just a big beautiful mess. Huck Finn was one of those books that was a constant revelation of the author's genius. That Sam Clemens could sure write a book. Pavement's sprawling "Range Life" is a favorite tune of mine. There's a yearning for an America that never was and never could be, but yearned for nonetheless. It's kids bored watching a sunset on summer evening wondering when the good stuff in life will happen, not realizing it's happening at that very moment.
11. A Report To An Academy - "Ford Mustang" by Serge Gainsbourg: I don't think people think of Kafka being "funny." It can be hard to see his work without the dark overtones of unease: things out of place, strange transformations. A Report is a piece written from the point of view of the "strange thing" - an ape who becomes a man (for all intensive purposes). Humanity is the "other," and we look pretty ridiculous. Gainsbourg's "Ford Mustang" has a similar mischief. It almost sounds like a psychedelic language tape, sung in French, with very English/American products and words laced throughout. I can imagine American tourists in a smoky Parisian club smiling at the English words, not realizing the song is sort of mocking them. The song is Gainsbourg's mirror held up to modern culture and the image we see is attractive but utterly ridiculous. At least Kafka is nice enough to let us in on the joke.
12. "Library of Babel" - "High Above a Grey Green Sea" by Colin Stetson: Stetson uses circular breathing to play continuous looping arpeggios on the saxophone, while singing through the saxophone. It makes an incredibly large haunting sound. I got to see Stetson play while living in Philadelphia. Before he played this song (a personal favorite) he told a story about what a friend thought of when she heard "High Above A Grey Green Sea". She told Stetson about a report she had heard about a whale who been recorded all over the ocean singing in wavelengths that other whales wouldn't respond to, and maybe couldn't even hear - cursed to wander alone. That sort of futility is terrifying yet strangely defiant. Borges' narrator in describing the hellish Library of Babel, equally claustrophobic and expansive, has that same note of futility as that whale: alone, awash in nonsense. The only thing for the narrator to do is try to figure out, even though he knows he never will. Stetson has that same searching quality, throwing thousands of notes into void waiting for one to echo back.
13. "The Lottery" - "Trouble" by Cat Stevens: Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery" is so good. It's the best "Twilight Zone" episode that was never filmed. "Trouble" has the same charm, but with those minor notes, and hints of dissonance that just feel . . . a little wrong. It's musical foreshadowing. In Steven's clever dark little song, it's never resolved. He's always trying to turn away from trouble. But that darkness was always there and always will be, and you can't run from the terrifying inevitability.
14. Invisible Man - "Black and Blue" by Louis Armstrong: In Ellison's Invisible Man his narrator wishes in the prologue that he could play 5 records of Louis Armstrong's "Black and Blue" simultaneously, turned all the way up. Armstrong's song is a poignant plea for recognition of inequality. And like Armstrong, Ellison makes points that still need to be heard by white America today. There are things white people will never get. He's right. Prejudice is insidious. As much as we don't want it to be, it's part of American culture. Armstrong's "Black and Blue" is slightly less direct than Holliday's "Strange Fruit", but that only makes it more universal. It's not a condemnation, it's just a blues song filled with humanity. It's not asking for justice, just a little empathy and Ellison's narrator is looking for consolation. There's a feeling in Armstrong's blues like that only by telling the truth can there be some understanding. Reconciliation is still a long ways away.
15. Waiting for Godot - "Reincarnation" by Roger Miller: Waiting for Godot is not an easy one to pick a song for. But when all else fails, there's Roger Miller: the jester/philosopher of country music. If you don't know Roger Miller, you're wrong - you actually do. He turns up like a bad penny in more cultural contexts that seem to make sense. From his big hit "King of the Road" to his rooster character in Disney's Robin Hood, to winning a TONY for his Huck Finn inspired musical "Big River,” he is everywhere, and nowhere, perfect for "Godot". Beckett's play is a . . . comedy? Absurdist comedy? Tragicomedy? Well, it's very funny to say the least, partly insane, partly super-sane, and vaguely cyclic. It pairs nicely with Miller's wordplay and sing-song simplicity in taking on a tenet of Eastern philosophy. It's a big question played out in small thinking, nicely packaged. Like Beckett's play, "Reincarnation" could loop forever, making you laugh - and driving you crazy.
16. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" - "True Blue" by Dirty Beaches: Dirty Beaches is an interesting band. Alex Zhang Hungtai, a Taiwanese-Canadian singer/songwriter/wizard created the sometimes solo project/sometimes band out of a mix of sampling, old surf, hip-hop, rockabilly, and . . . nebulous darkness. I don't really know how else to say it. His 2011 "Badlands" would be a perfect soundtrack to O'Connor's family vacation gone wrong. "True Blue" is a love song, but while born out a white bread doo-wop aesthetic, Zhang's song is fragile and murky. It's the window of a house filling with water, waiting to break. It's great serial killer music, in the David Lynch-ian vein. I think O'Conor's Misfit would like it, which scares me, because I like it too.
17. A Wrinkle in Time - "Give Up the Ghost" by Radiohead: I once put this on a mix of "Songs for a Low Earth Orbit." It feels like music for seeing things for the first time, with gasping deep breaths and widening eyes. It's a song for processing the sublime. L'Engle's planet hopping classic is trippy and bizarre, and was my first real introduction to science fiction in literature. It has that sense "anything is possible" and the joy and fear that go along with tit. L'Engle reveals a larger world, and deeper universe full of good and evil, science and emotion against a backdrop of stars. Sounds like Radiohead to me.
18. Watership Down - "Mr. Rabbit (Album Version)" by Paul Westerberg: Richard Adams' epic about rabbits is the only rabbit epic I know of. Much the same way that Westerberg's "Mr. Rabbit" is one of the only rabbit songs I know of. The funny thing is, there's a weird parallel. In Adams' book, the rabbits tell each other stories about "El-ahrairah," a rabbit mythological character who's part hero and part trickster. Adams calls El-ahrairah the inspiration for Br'er Rabbit. It turns out "Mr. Rabbit" is a traditional song written about Br'er Rabbit, so in a way, it is about El-ahrairah. It's a small world, and even smaller when you're talking about rabbits.
19. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" - "Group Autogenics" I by The Books: The Books were a NYC born collaboration of guitarist/singer Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong. Their music is mix of sampled sounds, and electronic and acoustic instrumentation, voice and found audio. It feels very self aware - often seeming to comment on itself. This song in particular with its montage of old self help tapes feel like like a dynamic between an inner and outer voice. Leguin's "Omelas" uses a similar device. The author interrupts the story to reveal a secret about the city of Omelas, and a secret about ourselves. It's a self-aware story, almost a parable. As with the chorus of self help gurus in the song, the more we are told things are okay, the more we're sure they aren't.
Andrew DeGraff and Plotted: A Literary Atlas links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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