The following profile appeared in the 16 February 2015 edition of Der Tagesspiegel. It has been translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West.
The journal Music & Literature attempts to establish a new canon that cuts across disciplines and cultures—going beyond academic specialization and journalistic caprice.
In their own circles, they no longer need any introduction. No one who cares about new music has to be nudged toward Kajia Saariaho: the Finnish composer’s scintillating, deeply emotional pieces ring out in concert halls around the world. And every reader with the least acquaintance with Scandinavian literature has stumbled onto the obsessive darkness of the Norwegian poet and novelist Stig Sæterbakken—as well as its ramifications in real life: in 2012, the author took his own life at 42 years of age. Then there are the works of the Beijing writer Can Xue, with their shadings of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, which appear so un-Chinese at first glance; ever since Susan Sontag singled out her prose as worthy of the Nobel Prize, she has been an aspirant to Olympus.
Still, the person equally acquainted with all three of these artists has yet to be found. After all, even if names today travel around the globe faster than ever before, the various scenes still stick to themselves, and the gravitational pull of national and regional cultures is often insurmountable. For every successful export there is a failure, especially when expensive translations are necessary. And the market, which is both saturated and dwindling, depends on subventions to self-exploitation: for a long time now, the international and the provincial have gone hand in hand. Neither Stig Sæterbakken nor Can Xue has books in German translation.
The English-language biannual journal Music & Literature, along with its website, is casting a wide net for the fifth time now, seeking to cut across disciplines and cultures in search of a new canon determined neither by academic publications nor newspapers –– especially not American ones. Its blend of rigor and readability is rare even in the European context. A single 150-page section of the current issue is devoted to original texts, interviews, and essays on Saariaho. Equal space is given to Sæterbakken and Can Xue, who is far from overlooked in the United States, as a look at this page will confirm. Nonetheless, all deserve greater attention than they have received up to the present moment. Taylor Davis-Van Atta, who oversees production from Montpelier, Vermont, and who shares editorial duties with Daniel Medin, a professor at the American University in Paris, intends to change that—with the help of events centered around each issue’s themes.
Their eclecticism was already apparent in earlier issues. Where else could the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, whose labyrinths of consciousness have undergone a recent renaissance in Germany, have rubbed shoulders with the married couple Maya Homburger and Barry Guy: he a double bass player and free jazz virtuoso, she a baroque violinist with a penchant for the contemporary? Where else would Australia’s metaphysical conjurer Gerald Murnane meet the Slovakian composer Vladimír Godár and Iva Bottová? And is the volume on the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, his friend, the director Béla Tarr, and the Berlin painter Max Neumann not in some measure responsible for Krasznahorkai’s newfound triumph in the United States?
The history of Music & Literature, which also relies on the active collaboration of the artists themselves, is still too brief to pass a verdict on the nature of this new pantheon it is giving rise to or the quiet authority it hopes to command among future readers and scholars, as is the publishers’ not-so-quiet hope. From Germany to France to England, the areas of resonance are so distinct that what finds listeners here is likely to be shunned elsewhere. What in one country looks like a long-overdue discovery may have the stale whiff of the established in another. In this sense, to produce a magazine for European and American readers poses both a dilemma and an opportunity.