THE london LAUNCH OF MUSIC & LITERATURE NO. 7: burley fisher books / 25 NOVEMBER 2016
Over the last few years, Music & Literature has made its way from a well-kept secret among the well-read to a respected standard-bearer for international literature: all the more cause to cheer for the launch of its seventh issue in London. Held at Dalston’s Burley Fisher Books, a young bookshop with a growing track record of superb readings, the event was headlined by the issue’s leading artist, Paul Griffiths. A writer whose work spans fiction, librettos, and critical works on music, the evening at Burley Fisher was structured to exemplify the breadth of Griffiths’ oeuvre. It’s a small space at the bookshop (at least until their new event space downstairs is opened), with the audience and readers squeezed together, which only made the presentations more intimate, and the musical interludes more intense.
The program fell into three main sections. Firstly, Daniel Medin, one of Music & Literature’s editors, welcomed us and shared with us just how personal a pleasure it was for him to be introducing Paul Griffiths, “one of the finest music critics of recent times, and a creative genius in his own right.” Paul then read his story “Takasago,” which appears in Moon Pavilion, his collection of adaptations from Japanese Noh plays, and is reprinted in Music & Literature. With this reading, he introduced the themes that would run through the whole evening: conversation, collaboration and constraint. The story features an old couple who contest one another again and again: “Every pine is ancient, says the old man, in lineage. / Every pine is young, says the old woman, and green.” A series of contradictions reaches its climax with the two saying “You may think we disagree, but our words lock together like the halves of a double gate . . . our words open like the halves of a double gate.” It was the first of many illustrations of how a single thing—a tree, a word—can inhabit different roles through how they are perceived and used.
Jon Day, a writer and long-time admirer of Paul Griffiths, then stood up to read the first two pages of Griffiths’ extraordinary novel let me tell you. The book uses only the words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet, and tells a version of the story from her perspective. The aim, as stated in Scott Esposito’s published interview with Griffiths, “was to give her something of what she may be.” Jon Day’s reading, within the context of Daniel Medin’s introduction and Griffiths’ own reading of “Takasago,” lay a fascinating groundwork for those audience members new to Griffiths’ work.
The second part of the program was dedicated to Bach’s Sonata no.1 in G minor, played by Beatrice Phillips, the first violinist in the newly formed Eusebius Quartet. The experience of hearing live solo violin music in a small space is remarkable and rare; Phillips’ concentration and energy was contagious, and this spectacular piece of music felt completely immediate. Griffiths introduced the first two movements with a reading of his piece on the sonata, the section on the second movement beautifully reminding us of the coalescing of contradictions earlier expressed in “Takasago”: “One while many. Here is a musician playing music, playing an instrument, playing in the western classical style and intonation, playing the violin, playing alone, playing Bach.” After we had heard the Adagio and Fuga, Griffiths stood up again to introduce the Siciliana and Presto: expressing the hypnotic nature of the third movement, as “it revolves around itself, one line held and turned by another below,” before we’re snatched from reverie in the raucous fourth movement: “There is only one way out: dance.” The fusion of music and literature embodied by the magazine was actualized here, each form casting light on the other.
Fittingly for an evening centered on collaboration and conversation, the final part of the event was an interview with Griffiths by Luke Williams, an author who teaches Griffiths’ novel within his creative-writing course. The two spoke at length about their mutual affection for Samuel Beckett, and how the constraints of music, and particularly instruments, intrigue Griffiths. The example of a piano having only 88 keys was used to show that constraints are built into everything we do; by formalizing one’s own constraints rather than buying into those given, a writer can find the appropriate form for each particular work. As Milton Babbitt said, “Everyone works according to rules, I would just prefer to know what mine are.”
As a conclusion, Griffiths read three very short stories created from Hamlet, but with a new constraint. By cutting 99% of Shakespeare’s text, and not changing the order of the words left, Griffiths created short narratives of a hundred words or less. One of these three Hamlet stories was in fact a premiere, read off a laptop perched on his knees. The experience was that of watching an artist gifted not only with prodigious talent, but also with an incessant creative drive, an innate need to be constantly at work.
Beatrice Phillips and Bach brought the evening to a close, with the Largo from the Sonata no.3 in C Major wrapping up a celebration of a too-little-known British artist continuing and transforming the Oulipian tradition. Seeing him speak, and reading the works collected in Music & Literature, thoroughly underscores how liberating Griffiths finds constraints. In his interview with Luke Williams, he made the point that by limiting one’s pool of words or images, one can cast new light on the words left to use. When such a stance becomes thoroughly internalized, language becomes fresher through usage; in the words of Griffiths’ himself, channeling Borges, “there is no repetition. The second time is always different.”
— James Tookey
— Photographs courtesy of Sam Fisher