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Writers on Music

This week in Kitchener-Waterloo we’re performing a concert that I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s called “Writers on Music,” part of our Intersections series. As many of you know, the premise of Intersections is to combine orchestral music with other disciplines, and that we have done! From food, to neuroscience, to yoga, to quantum physics, the we’ve found a way to broaden the conceptual canvas of orchestral music, and connect it to the world of ideas.

The writers and music idea is an obvious fit, but it’s taken years to actually make it happen. I have no idea why I hadn’t asked Words Worth books (a fantastic bookstore in Uptown Waterloo) about collaborating before. But finally, I did. They helped find the authors (both Canadian), who had written novels with a “musical atmosphere.” They selected Wayne Grady, and his novel Emancipation Day. It’s about racial identity, “passing,” and family dynamics. Its soundtrack is jazz of the dance-club variety. Next was Miriam Toews, and her novel All My Puny Sorrows. Her book is about a concert pianist who is plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide, and her family members who are trying to pull her back into life.

Once the books were chosen, I realized that there was a challenge with creating the program itself. One novel features jazz, but we’re not a jazz orchestra; the other features piano music, and we are not a piano. I thought it was essential to feature this music in the program, because it’s the soundtrack for the novels, but there was more to do. The solution I came up with was to turn the tables halfway through each interview. We’ll have music respond to words, by playing jazz and Rachmaninov piano music; the authors will briefly read from their novels; I’ll interview the authors. But then the the tables will turn, and the authors themselves will have to respond to music they hear. I sent both Wayne and Miriam “unmarked music” by living composers. Knowing nothing about what they are hearing except the sounds themselves, their assignment was to write a response to what they heard. Luckily, both authors were game. I can’t wait to hear their responses.

Why did I do this? Because I like the crosscurrents of music and words, and the way the direction of the concert unexpectedly turns. I like how it feels, at least in my head. I also thought that it would inspire the audience as well. So many audience members are at a loss for words when describing the music they hear (or so they tell me). That’s a good thing of course, because the best music should go beyond words, and hit expressive points that are difficult to describe, but easy to feel. On the other hand, I think having a writer respond to music in public will resonate with an audience that has been listening “passively.” It will encourage discussion – one idea will lead to another – there may even be arguments!

Through this, I want to remind the audience that great music is not meant to be listened to passively. Actually, it requires our greatest attention – an energy similar to, say, reading a novel. My dream audience would be like a giant book club: social, argumentative, committed, engaged with the work and with each other. This week, we’re going to try to make this happen.