On a gorgeous spring evening on the U.S. gulf coast, Music & Literature held its inaugural event in Houston, Texas, and did so in true hometown style, inviting a host of esteemed local artists and musicians to introduce M&L to its new home city and help celebrate many of the project’s featured artists to date. Hosted by Brazos Bookstore, a hub for readers and writers in Houston as well as the broader region, the program—a mix of readings, live music, languages, and generations—was filled with fascinating insights into some truly captivating writers as well as some of the most innovative musical compositions I’ve ever experienced.
Mark Haber, a writer and Brazos bookseller extraordinaire, welcomed the crowd and the publisher of M&L, Taylor Davis-Van Atta, who delivered an anecdote claiming that before his—and M&L’s—relocation to Houston a few month earlier, he only knew one thing about the city: that “there was a place called Brazos Bookstore and they carried M&L.” The project immediately connected Taylor and Mark, the first in a growing number of collaborative efforts that have quickly injected M&L into the heart of the Houston arts scene. (This would be an opportune moment to note that the evening’s program was produced in cooperation with the prestigious Shepherd School of Music at Rice University). Taylor then gave the floor to poet and artist Roberto Tejada, who spoke about the late Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik (whose life’s work is featured in M&L no. 6). Tejada articulated Pizarnik’s influence on him as a young artist before reading several of her poems, including “The Hidden Ones” in Susan Pensak’s English translation followed by the original Spanish version, “Los de lo oculto.” He then read Yvette Siegert’s recent translation of the same poem, entitled “Of Things Unseen,” before discussing the work César Aira has contributed in helping to define the legacy and artistry of Pizarnik, an effort captured in Tejada’s reading from the Aira essay included in the Pizarnik volume. Tejada concluded his portion of the program with Pizarnik’s poem, “On this Night, this World.”
Shifting gears, Taylor then introduced György Ligeti’s work via a tribute written by the “Hungarian giant’s” one-time apprentice, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin (featured in M&L no. 8), then introduced violist Sebastian Stefanović, who spoke more specifically about Ligeti’s Viola Sonata. Stefanović followed with a chilling performance of the sonata’s first three movements, ultimately reaching notes that, in Stefanović’s words, “test the limits of the unplayable.”
After giving the room a few moments to settle, novelist Rodrigo Hasbún stood to deliver his thoughts on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (M&L no. 4), describing her as “a dangerous writer who can threaten our sense of self and questions our certainties about language and life.” He read two of Lispector’s letters that illustrated these abilities—as well as Lispector’s deep humanity. In the first letter, penned to Andréa Azulay, the young daughter of her psychotherapist, Lispector gives advice on subjects ranging from comfort foods to stress-management techniques to writing. In the second letter, written to her sister, Tânia Kaufmann, she delivered an urgent piece of advice: “don’t copy an ideal person, copy yourself—”
Next, harpist Stephanie Gustafson spoke about Kaija Saariaho (M&L no. 5) and the integration of technology and music. In one of the passages recited by Gustafson, Saariaho writes that she’s “analyzing sound using digital means in search of new applications of dissonance and consonance born out of manipulating harmony.” Afterward, Gustafson performed Saariaho’s “Fall” for harp with electronics (part six of the 1991 ballet Maa) with the expert assistance of composer and technician Tim Roy, a piece that seemed to deliberately usher forth a shift in consciousness. The performance brought about a palpable shift in mood and, at its conclusion, deep appreciation from the audience.
Taylor then thanked the crowd and introduced the program’s final participant, translator and playwright Phillip Boehm. Boehm read the witty and absurd fiction A Table is a Table by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel (an artist to be featured in a forthcoming volume of M&L). Bischel’s interrogation of the artificial and symbolic nature of language (and our own blind faith in these things) had the room rippling with laughter. Boehm capped off the night by reading “a tiny poem” of Bichsel’s, which he had translated to English for the occasion:
that’s how it is
a tree for example
is like that
that’s how a tree is
and a tree isn’t like that
and everything isn’t like that
that’s how it is
An atmosphere of community was present in the room as a cross-section of curious readers and enthusiasts lingered around the bookstore to mingle and shop. From beginning to end, the program celebrated the work of inspiring and talented artists, those among our company and those being fêted—an auspicious first step into the public realm for Music & Literature in its new life in Houston.
Special thanks to Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs for providing equipment and technical support for this event.
Photographs courtesy of Mark Haber and Sara Balabanlilar