Engaging Interdisciplinary Conversations

Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN, USA

Timothy D. Saeed
Northern Vermont University
Lyndon, VT, USA

Petermann, Emily. The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction. Camden House, 2014. $85.   

The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction was first published in 2014 by Camden House. This year the book appears in its paperback edition, with Boydell & Brewer. As its author Emily Petermann notes elsewhere, the new edition contains no drastic changes: a paperback version of the book seems to be an opportunity to remind the audience of the acuteness of interdisciplinary links that literature may inspire and strengthen. However, it responds to the changes of the environment shaped by interdisciplinary dialogues. Conflating at least two fields—literature and music—The Musical Novelpotentially contributes to the ongoing conversation regarding teaching across disciplines.

The overlapping of music and literature has been extensively discussed in various settings; but Petermann’s edition engages with the finessing of theoretical basics which advance the discussion of artistic works, emerging at the borders of various arts. Interdisciplinary teaching invites multiple ways of approaching texts in the manner that facilitates the development of diverse connections. Teaching that involves dialogues with and across various fields promotes not only new ways of pedagogical delivery and presentation, but also new ways of thinking and communicating: thinking in a fluid way and communicating in a flexible manner. Petermann’s work in its own way provides some tentative guidelines for teaching and for thinking in an interdisciplinary way.

Consisting of two chapters which are preceded by an introduction and followed by concluding remarks, The Musical Novelneatly follows conventions for the discussion of theoretical and methodological nuances of the texts that evoke connections to musical works. In the opening chapters, Petermann lays out frameworks that she advances to elaborate on the notion of intermediality, which she defines as “any crossing of medial borders within a given work or media product” (17). Petermann attempts to finesse the definition of intermediality, while clarifying differences between multimediality, transmediality, or intertextuality (18-20). In her further observations regarding the overlapping of literary and musical elements, Petermann brings attention to, so to speak, anatomical changes that literary works may undergo while interacting with musical pieces. No surprise, the book is heavily focused on those structural components that travel from the field of music to the realm of literature. For her analysis, Petermann chooses texts representing contemporary American literature: Albert Murray’s Rain Whistle Guitar(1975); Wilson Carter’s Be-Bop, Re-Bop(1987), Toni Morrison’s Jazz(1992), Stanley Crouch’s Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome(2000), Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations(1991), Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations(2002), Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw’s Variations(2009), to name but a few. The last three novels are united by the name of “Goldberg-novels” (145) that have direct structural and content references to J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The Musical Noveldoes not engage with the issues of contemporary pedagogy: at least not in a direct and immediate manner. However, the research itself grows out of the interdisciplinary environment and invites dialogues across fields, providing space for questions about interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The phrase “to teach in an engaging way” probably rings a bell: we aspire to encourage students to actively respond to the topics covered in multiple classes, which, paradoxically, inherently invite interdisciplinarity, but which are not perceived as such due to formalities and conventions. For example, music and literature, as well as painting and literature or literature and computers, a prioriestablish strong interconnections. Thus, a number of composers show a keen interest in writing; and vice versa, their literary counterparts are fascinated with music pieces to the extent when they directly or indirectly incorporate musical allusions into their writing. The overlapping of digital spheres and literature is, no doubt, of a particular acuteness today. Despite these transparent connections, oftentimes in our classrooms there seems to be a barrier that prevents the conflation of at least two works that are conventionally placed in different subject sections. What seems to pose some challenges for teaching interdisciplinarilyis a set of conventions which are rather often problematic to re-set. This challenge, partially, comes from the formalities that the institutional environment resists to give up: isn’t it our Enlightenment heritage that asks and encourages us to keep things categorized and rationalized?

The very notion—the musical novel—invites the blending of the two fields, contributing to the flexibility of an interpretative act: readers listen while reading and listener read while listening. This strategy can be transferred to the classroom when teaching music and literature. When teaching survey classes, for example, on music or literature, we look for ways that will assist our students who have diverse career goals and priorities with finding their angles to approach texts (understood in the broadest sense) in a productive and promising way. In this sense, interdisciplinary courses are not only an opportunity for our students to explore multifaceted nature of musical and written texts: classes that are based on cross-disciplinary interactions provide them with new ways to explore the potential of their future careers and to exercise their research and creative freedom. Petermann’s book illustrates how music can be incorporated into teaching literature, and vice versa, how literary works can help expand the understanding of musical pieces. The book offers a number of points that can stimulate in-class discussions, as well as students’ individual explorations of interdisciplinarity.

Some of the claims that Petermann proposes can undoubtedly be disputed. For example, her attention to literary structural elements that stem from jazz improvisation is intriguing, but it raises questions regarding both technical execution and performance: a written text functions differently from, let us say, live performance that incorporates improvisation. Even when understood as a metaphor, the claim that a text absorbs improvisation on a structural level will ask for convincing evidence. Detailing how written works imitate a “textual riff” (74), Petermann asserts, “[b]ecause text and music share the ability to produce a linear phrase—a melodic unit in music, a linguistic phrase in text—it seems reasonable to look for textual riffs as short phrases or clauses, generally shorter than a full sentence, but longer than a single word” (72). Although the examples that the author provides are rather insightful in terms of musical peculiarity of novel structures, they leave much space for questions and counter-arguments. In this regard, it would have been productive to explore the difference between musical rhythm and textual rhythm.

Another observation that appears controversial is the assertion that “music can only speak in the present tense” (179). While it is true that music affects listeners in the mode of “here and now,” it is perhaps also true that memory can activate past experiences of music performances. On the other hand, aren’t literary texts experienced in the present tense, at least in terms of an immediate act of reading? Although these points shed light on the perception of musical and literary pieces, they invite further elaborations.

An extensive chapter is devoted to content borrowings. Here particular attention is given to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This choice may seem legitimate; however, it also raises questions about other famous musical works which are left either underexplored or unnoticed. Richard Wagner’s musical and theoretical works which evoke the concept of Gesamtkunstwerkand which appear to inherently gesture towards the dialogue not only between literature and music, but also between arts in general, could have been incorporated in a more detailed manner for the discussion of music and literature collaboration. Waltzes, which are extensively incorporated into a number of literary works of different time periods could also have strengthened Petermann’s claims regarding structural and content negotiations between literary and musical pieces.

In spite of detailed theoretical conversations about music and literature, this book offers some pedagogical suggestions by bringing attention to nuances, which can be perceived on an intuitive level. The analysis of musical and literary works which evoke apparent interconnections is an advantage that stimulates opportunities for interdisciplinary discussions. Thus, when investigating jazz variations Petermann refers to Toni Morrison’s Jazz. In “Composition, Performance, and Reception in Novels Based on Goldberg Variations,” attention is drawn to structural and content elements of Bach’s masterpieces which appear productive for literary works. This combination of the classical and the contemporary can yield particularly dynamic debates, in which students will explore how to establish connections not only across fields, but across time and space as well.

The MusicalNovelnuances novels’ borrowings of musical structural elements and provides a number of technical terms and notions. At times the book reads somewhat overloaded with musical terminology, impeding the understanding of how literary textual narratives are constructed. In spite of these shortcomings, which can be a matter of personal taste, The Musical Novel presents an opportunity to re-set expectations for reading books and listening to musical pieces. This research exemplifies how to encourage and incorporate interdisciplinary discussions into routine classroom activities, not a specialized setting of an exclusive seminar. Moreover, the pattern outlined by TheMusical Novelcan be advanced to other areas: movies, songs, painting, etc. Petermann offers a well-researched book which will be an excellent read for graduate interdisciplinary courses. In addition to research strategies, The Musical Novelinsinuates strategies for teaching and learning across disciplines.

Author Bios:

Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN, USA), where she studies Slavic literatures. Her research interests include memory studies, bilingual writing, Soviet literature and culture, American literature, transculturalism. She participates in the Indiana Summer Language Workshop, teaching Russian. Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed has a PhD in American literature: her dissertation focuses on the transformation from modernism to postmodernism, as exemplified in Richard Brautigan’s works. She has taught College Composition, American Literature, and ESL.

Timothy D. Saeed (PhD) is Assistant Professor at Northern Vermont University (Lyndon, VT, USA), where he teaches courses including Music Theory and Piano Performance. His research interests include theories of expressive performance and analysis, form in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music, and Schenkerian analysis. Dr. Timothy D. Saeed has been a performing pianist and accompanist for the past seventeen years. He has served as a soloist and an accompanist in Stockton, CA; San Francisco, CA; Berkeley, CA; Albuquerque, NM; Baton Rouge, LA; and Johnson, VT. He has also served as the staff pianist at churches in Baton Rouge, LA and Albuquerque, NM.