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September 20, 2017

Book Notes - John Haskell "The Complete Ballet"

The Complete Ballet

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

John Haskell's The Complete Ballet is a marvelously inventive and compelling novel.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Fiction and essay share the stage in Haskell's captivating, erudite novel. . . . In imaginative, analytical, affectless prose, Haskell gives new life to well-known stories danced onstage, constructing interiorities and motivations for the characters, and drawing connections between the emotions of the ballets and his narrator’s story."

In his own words, here is John Haskell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Complete Ballet:

Music, like memory, gets stored away in the brain, pulled off the metaphorical shelf when a connection, either playful or appropriate, is needed. The connection between the events of life and the memory of a tune or lyric or rhythm is unconscious, and like a dream, sometimes it doesn't seem to make sense, but mostly it does, even if the person doing the dreaming, me in this case of The Complete Ballet, can't say what the connections are. However, for these notes, I'll try to give an indication, at least, of what those connections might be.

"My Favorite Things" by Rogers and Hammerstein
This song comes first because, for me, it straddles both the world of Rogers and Hammerstein, the world of narrative musicals, and the world of John Coltrane, a spiritual world of introspective jazz. Growing up my family had the Mary Martin version, and now with my daughter I listen to the Julie Andrews version. Because the book is partly about my daughter I should also mention "Do-Re-Me," also from the Sound of Music, a song I used to sing with her.

Peter Tchaikovsky, "Swan Lake"
At a certain point in her life my daughter loved ballet, and especially Romantic Ballet, which is what The Complete Ballet is partly about. But only partly. It's also about love, and the music played when Odette and Siegfried meet by the lake is full of the exuberance of love and the danger of love.

Pete Seeger, "Shady Grove"
Another song I used to sing with my daughter. The part that goes: "Shady Grove, my little love, I'm bound to go away" expresses an idea of loss that is part of the book.

Bob Dylan, "Mr. Tambourine Man"
My daughter didn't know what a tambourine was but she intuited what "the jingle jangle morning" was, and she loved to sing this song very loud.

The Grateful Dead, "Uncle John's Band"
Another song my daughter used to sing, expressing joy in the part that goes, "Hot damn, I declare, have you seen the light." Also, there's the fact that Tricia Brown, the choreographer, used the song for her dance, Accumulation, a dance I don't mention in my book but was part of my research. I like the juxtaposition of spare, modernist movement with the old timey folksiness the Grateful Dead brought to the song. I'm not saying I ate any magical mushrooms when I heard them play it at the Winterland Ballroom but the song has a lot of associations.

Kurt Weill, "Mac the Knife"
John Gay's The Beggar's Opera became Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, which was made into a film by G.W. Pabst. Brecht shares a birthday with me and he's always hovering in my work, specifically his ideas about how an audience (or reader) might come to a work of the imagination.

John Zorn, "Spillane"
I heard this first on NPR when NPR was interesting. Then I saw Zorn's band playing it in a now-vanished music venue on Houston Street. And by seeing the show I mean I sat in the middle of the musicians, and it might be my imagination but I think I was given a triangle to play. Although the music is contemporary, it sounds like what a film noir movie looks like, and there's an element of noir in my book.

"Falling in Love Again" sung by Marlene Dietrich
This is a song featured in the book. I remember Marlene Dietrich singing it in The Blue Angel, a movie about a man who got in over his head, and what he got in was his own desolation. The song is quite emotional but it's also extremely simple, just words repeated. In that it's a little like Simon and Garfunkel's "Leaves that Are Green."

Neil Young, "After the Gold Rush"
A number of scenes in the book take place in a nightclub called the Crazy Horse West. I associate Neil Young, who had a band called Crazy Horse, with the Sunset Strip, with the whiskey nightclubs that dotted it back in the 1970s, places in which styles of music were given the freedom to incubate and grow. Flying mother nature's silver seed for sure.

Laurie Anderson, "Progress" (or "The Dream Before")
This is where I was introduced to Walter Benjamin's idea of an angel being blown by a storm from paradise, being propelled into "the future to which his back is turned." It's another example of reworking something already known to make it known again, in a different way.

Joanna Newsom, "The Book of Right-on"
For a few weeks, possibly months, I walked around singing the chorus of this song, about shining a light on, and that the book of right-on, it was right on. With all the hopelessness I see in the world it's nice to radiate a bit of idealism.

Radiohead, "How to Disappear Completely"
I've been known to write with this song playing, but until I sat down to write this playlist, I never knew the title, which, in relation to The Complete Ballet, is apt.

Talking Heads, "Cross-eyed and Painless"
Lost my shape, trying to act casual. That about sums up my narrator's dilemma. It's a song that's easy to get submerged in, and also easy to come up for air.

Chick Corea, "Spain"
This is a song that, when I hear in my head, and when I hum the melody to myself, working through the rhythms of the melody, I almost always get lost, losing my place, and although it's annoying, it makes me like the song even more.

Jorge Ben, "Fio Maravilha"
At a residency, with the help of a Brazilian architect, I tried to learn to sing this song in Portuguese. I'm still trying, and part of what appeals to me is the fact that the song, full of emotion, which I thought might be about tempestuous love, was instead about a soccer player.

Joni Mitchell, "A Case of You"
This haunting song, full of emotion, is about love. Also, because Joni lived in Laurel Canyon, it partly haunts my book.

Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel # 2"
Another form of the personal essay.

Steve Reich, "Tehillim"
The music I listen to when I'm writing, for the most part, can't have lyrics. Not lyrics I understand anyway. The voices in "Tehillim" are probably speaking Hebrew, I don't know, and it doesn't matter because the words, while retaining the shadow of their meaning, are released from meaning, which is what writers try to achieve.

David Lang, "The Lost Meeting"
Sound that floats, and floats me when I hear it.

Johann Bach, "Cello Suites"
Almost all of Bach is rejuvenating. I'm not a big fan of his organ work, but The Cello Suites, definitely, and also the piano work and flute work, the duos and trios, calm me while at the same time focusing my unconscious on what it should focus on, the unconscious. And instead of leaving the unknown alone the music seems to opens up what I imagine are the secrets of rhythm and melody and oddly, I see Bach as very American.

Aaron Copeland, "Appalachian Spring"
Speaking of American.

John Dowland, "Come Again"
Another case of the lyrics melting into the music. In this case it's sweetness and purity, and because the song was written in another time, the 16th century, the purity seems real.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, "And I Love Her"
The idea of a cover, an appropriation of a song that becomes a completely different song is, in a way, what I'm doing in my book, and this cover makes the Beatles song more plaintive and raw and emotional.

Lou Reed, "Satellite of Love"
Lou. Romanticism. Death.

Kate Bush, "My Silver Bullet"
When I started writing these notes, for some reason, this song began playing in my mind. I have no idea why but I'm including it because there it was, or really, here it is.

"Bigmouth Strikes Again" by The Smiths
Proof that despair can also be fun.

"Help Me Somebody" by Brian Eno and David Byrne
When I read Amos Tutuolo's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, years ago, I remember being inspired but what seemed to me the innocence of his outlook. Not innocent as in naiveté, but a wide-eyed observance of what is happening in front of our eyes. Then, layered over that, is this song from Eno and Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the title speaks for itself.

John Haskell and The Complete Ballet links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Publishers Weekly review

Literary Hub interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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