Okay, not a ‘musical’ per se, but certainly just as cool: a literary critic inspires a composer to create a musical piece that meditates on time and its suspension.
It’s not a common occurrence that literary criticism inspires musical compositions—but Michael W. Clune’s 2013 book, Writing Against Time recently garnered that singular honor. Clune’s book is concerned with how illustrious writers as diverse as Keats, Orwell, and Roberto Bolaño, create the sensation of stopped time in their works. The book grabbed Christopher Trapani’s attention, and on May 1st, the New-York based composer will debut a musical piece which, like the writers in Clune’s study, evokes a prolonged, unraveling present—stopped time.
Based on Clune’s book, Trapani’s piece shares the same name and employs repetition and suspension to communicate in music precisely that which preoccupies Clune in the written word: how to sustain a single moment.
"Time seems to slow when we perceive something for the first time. The moment of perception swells; the 'fraction of time' expands... In such moments we get a glimpse of the splendor of eternal life, of unfading color, unerased sensation. But these dilations don't last. What if they could?"
—From Writing Against Time
Clune is in good company as far as Trapani’s musical adaptations go; previous pieces by the composer have been inspired by the works of Italo Calvino and Thomas Pynchon. In advance of the premiere performance next Thursday in Brooklyn, Clune will join Trapani in a pre-concert talk to discuss their collaboration and the concept of time as it applies to life and art.
Curiosity piqued by this collaboration, we tapped Michael Clune for a pre-pre-concert talk to ask him a few questions about his book and the music it has inspired.
I became interested in the suspension of time as a result of my experiences with heroin addiction. Reflecting on those experiences after being clean for some years, I came to believe that the key to addiction is not the way the drug makes you feel when you take it, but the way the drug appears when you see it. This partly explains why people quit drugs so many times and yet return again and again. The addictive object has a very particular quality for the addict. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, a vial of heroin will always radiate with the intensity and freshness of an object seen for the first time. If habit dulls perception, the addictive object seems immune to habit. It never ‘gets old.’ In a strange way, the problem of addiction is also an artistic problem. In my literary writing, I want to create an image that will also retain its intensity over time. I began to explore how writers, philosophers, and artists had imagined habit-resistant images, and the result of my investigation is “Writing Against Time.”
I didn’t know Christopher beforehand. He sent me an email saying he’d read the book, and had decided to take up the challenge of creating a time-resistant piece of music. One of the chapters of my book is called “Imaginary Music,” and we traded some emails talking about the design problems involved in realizing ideal music. I don’t know much about music theory or composition, and have already learned a great deal from Christopher. I’m really looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.
I was surprised, in a good way. Most of the people who’ve contacted me regarding the book are scholars, writers, scientists or philosophers. I was grateful that a composer—especially one as accomplished as Christopher—felt inspired by my book. It’s given me an opportunity to become more familiar with contemporary music, and to think more about the relation between literature and other arts.
Michael Clune is Associate Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. In addition to Writing Against Time, he is the author of American Literature and the Free Market, and the notable memoir, White Out. His fourth book, Gamelife is forthcoming with Faber & Faber.