The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship:
Intermedia, Voice, Technology, Cross-Cultural Exchange
Routledge, Oxford 2016
Hb 202pp GBP110.00
In the introduction to The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship: Intermedia, Voice, Technology, Cross-Cultural Exchange, Hazel Smith notes that ’it is difficult to think of words in isolation from sound and image’ (1). Rather than being simply analogous, words and music function in symbiosis – one ‘illuminat[ing] and extend[ing] the other’ (10). And yet, despite the myriad of forms in which words and music come into contact, academic contributions exploring this relationship remain scarce. Smith’s book, then, is a welcome addition to the study of music and literature and one that lays out fresh ground on discourse of the subject.
The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship offers a concise summary of the musico-literary field, acknowledging contributions from early proponents, particularly those within words and music studies that focus on analogies between the formal qualities of words and music. However, Smith also seeks to depart from this more traditional approach to analysis. She places emphasis on the culturalist approach that has emerged within musico-literary studies over the course of the twenty-first century. It is upon this trajectory that she positions her own work. While The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship follows other recent books in this vein, what makes it unique is the breadth of Smith’s writing. She combines a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of music and literature. Of particular interest to Smith is the notion of what she describes as ‘musico-literary miscegenation’, a concept that highlights both the synergetic relationship of words and music and the hybrid structures they form. She argues that the ‘semiotic and perceptual exchange[s]’ that emerge from the concurrence of words and music can lead to the crossing of cultural boundaries – a theoretical thread that is evident throughout the book’s chapters (23). Smith also pushes the boundaries of her analysis beyond traditional musical and literary texts, outlining the importance of intermedia and new technologies in understanding the evolving symbiosis of words and music and the creative processes that underpin this relationship.
Smith writes that she spent her early career as a professional violinist in London during the 1970s and 1980s – a uniquely informative experience for her chapter on Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (xi). Over the course of her career, she has transitioned into new media work combining her passion for music and performance with creative writing. This amalgam of creative interests underscores her academic research and her original insights into the relationship between music and literature. However, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the depth and breadth of the theories that Smith brings to bear upon the texts within this book, which draw upon and combine several fields including musicology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, sociology, cultural studies and political economy, to name a few.
The first two chapters of the book are each dedicated to an analysis of an early twenty-first century novel. Chapter one, ’Musical Imaginaries, Disability and the Real’, focuses on Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and explores the different meanings of music, a particularly insightful analysis of the relationship between disability and creativity and the tension between professional music performance and the economics of music production. Chapter two, ‘Glocal Imaginaries and Musical Displacements in Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing’, features a collection of analyses that scrutinise the contrapuntal relationship of words and music in relation to geography, race and identity.
Chapter three, ‘Contemporary Poetic Improvisations: Music, Intermedia, Technology’, shifts the focus from traditional literature to more contemporary forms of interaction between words and music. It outlines a history of poetic improvisation in the twentieth century and the genre’s technological evolution, the development of sound improvisation and describes how computerisation of text – via algorithms – has become the new frontier of contemporary poetic improvisation. Chapter four, ‘The Voice in Computer Music and its Relationship to Place, Identity and Community’, reflects on the evolution of computer music and its relationship to voice. Smith threads strands of the themes explored in chapter two relating to geography, ethnicity and identity into her discussion of contemporary computer music and voice. Chapter five, ‘“The Rhythm of Living”: SongTalk, Postmodern Eclecticism and Theological Cosmopolitanism in the Work of Kurt Elling’, describes the work of Jazz Singer Kurt Elling analysing samples of his broad experimentation of SongTalk and the formal limits between words, sound and song. Chapter six, ‘Musico-Literary Miscegenation and Screen-Sound Synergies in Electronic Literature’, delves into the synergies of word and music within the context of electronic literature and includes analyses of several works within the field. The book ends with a brief coda in which Smith offers useful suggestions for future research.
In The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship Smith offers a crucial extension of the definition and conception of both ‘music’ and ‘literature’ within musico-literary studies. She achieves this by exploring both novels and intermedia and applying an exhaustive array of theories to the texts she analyses. In doing so, Smith has forsaken some depth for breadth. However, this compromise is an important one for a book seeking to expand an academic discipline that has confined itself far too narrowly to ’art’ music and literature. In fact, popular music is one of the few forms of music not covered in the book, but even to this end, Smith offers a brief nod to the qualities of freestyle Rap music in Chapter three.
One of the book’s essential qualities is to offer readers many prisms through which to understand the relationship between literature and music, linking the novel and intermedia. As Smith notes, ’One of the aspirations of the book is to create cross-relationships between the chapters about the novels and the later chapters, showing how the same themes or concepts emerge in different ways’ (32-33).
For newcomers to musico-literary studies, Smith’s book is an excellent introduction, not only because of the concision with which the author outlines the topic’s history, but also because of the breadth of theories and analyses with which she explores. This book is an excellent and valuable volume and an important contribution to studies of music and literature.