Innovative Pinscreen Animations of Kafka’s “Before the Law”, Gogol’s “The Nose” & Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (1932-1972)

What do Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and Modest Mussorgsky have in common? They stand alone among their peers for their darkly humorous sensibilities, fascination with the grotesque, imaginative takes on cultural traditions, and a predisposition for the proto-surreal. Like the odd figure lurching through the first movement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, they are gnomic artists: enigmatic and ambiguous, given to the aphoristic in stories and tone poems of monstrous and marvelous beings. It’s easy to imagine the three of them, or their works at least, in cryptic conversation with each other.

We might imagine that conversation as we watch three works by these major European artists—all of which we’ve featured on the site before—animated via the painstaking pinscreen method pioneered by husband-and-wife, Russian-and-French duo Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker. The two invented the technique in the 1930s. Dedicated to this extremely labor-intensive process, they made 6 short films over a period of 50 years, including adaptations of Kafka’s “Before the Law,” narrated by Orson Welles, Gogol’s “The Nose,” and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

We know the Mussorgsky piece as a terrifying vignette from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Seven years before that marriage of classical music and animation came out in 1940, Alexeieff and Parker released their version, at the top. Steve Stanchfield at Cartoon Research calls it “one of the most unusual and unique looking animated films ever created.” Its “delightful and at times horrifying imagery… challenge the viewer to comprehend both their meaning and the mystery of how they were created.” The same could be said of “The Nose” (1963), whose improvised soundtrack by Hai-Minh adds dramatic tension to the eerie animation.

Each of these films uses the same method, a handmade pinscreen device in which thousands of pins are pushed by hand outward and inward for each frame to create areas of light or dark. The pair intended to move beyond the flatness of conventional cel animation techniques and capture the depth and contrast of chiaroscuro. They achieved this through the most achingly slow process imaginable, yet “the illusion of dimensional drawing in animation has rarely been created better,” Stanchfield writes, not even in the most sophisticated computer-generated imagery.

Alexeieff and Parker’s “Before the Law,” from a parable in Kafka’s The Trial, takes a picture-book approach to the animation that would reward younger viewers. Welles’ narration anchors the production with even more than his usual gravitas. In 1972, they returned to Mussorgsky, in the short Pictures at an Exhibition, above. Here, after a prologue in French and the stylizations of the opening Prelude, the figure of the “The Gnome” appears, a translucent homunculus hatching from an egg and dancing across the piano keys. I like to think Mussorgsky, Kafka, and Gogol would find this imagery irresistible.

Related Content: 

Kafka’s Parable “Before the Law” Narrated by Orson Welles & Illustrated with Pinscreen Art

Night on Bald Mountain: An Eery, Avant-Garde Pinscreen Animation Based on Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece

Nikolai Gogol’s Classic Story, “The Nose,” Animated With the Astonishing Pinscreen Technique (1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Rarely-Seen Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy Are Now Free Online, Courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery

We know Dante’s Divine Comedy—especially its famous first third, Inferno—as an extended theological treatise, epic love poem, and vicious satire of church hypocrisy and the Florentine political faction that exiled Dante from the city of his birth in 1302. Most of us don’t know it the way its first readers did (and as Dante scholars do): a compendium in which “a number of medieval literary genres are digested and combined,” as Robert M. Durling writes in his translation of the Inferno.

These literary genres include vernacular traditions of romance poetry from Provence, popular long before Dante turned his Tuscan dialect into a literary language to rival Latin. They include “the dream-vision (exemplified by the Old French Romance of the Rose)”; “accounts of journeys to the Otherworld (such as the Visio Pauli, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani)”; and Scholastic philosophical allegory, among other well-known forms of writing at the time.

By the time the Divine Comedy captured imaginations in the period of incunabula, or the infancy of the printed book, many of these associations and influences had receded. And by the time of the Counter-Reformation, the poem most impressed readers and illustrators of the text as a divine plan for a torture chamber and an encyclopedia of the tortures therein. Whatever other associations we have with Dante’s poem, we all know the nine circles of hell and have an ominous sense of what goes on there.




No doubt we also have in our mind’s eye some of the hundreds of illustrations made of the text’s gruesome depictions of hell, from Sandro Botticelli to Robert Rauschenberg. Illustrated editions of Dante’s poem began appearing in 1472, and the first fully illustrated edition in 1491. By the late 16th century, the poem had become a literary classic (the word Divine joined Comedy in the title in 1555). By this time, the tradition of depicting a literal, rather than a literary, hell was firmly established.

It was in this period that Frederico Zuccari made the beautiful illustrations you see here, completed, Angela Giuffrida writes at The Guardian, “during a stay in Spain between 1586 and 1588. Of the 88 illustrations, 28 are depictions of hell, 49 of purgatory and 11 of heaven. After Zuccari’s death in 1609, the drawings were held by the noble Orsini family, for whom the artist had worked, and later by the Medici family before becoming part of the Uffizi collection in 1738.”

The pencil-and-ink drawings have rarely been seen before because of their fragile condition. They were only exhibited publicly for the first time in 1865 for the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth and of Italian unification. Now, they are on display, virtually, for free, as part of a “year-long calendar of events to mark the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death.” This is an extraordinary opportunity to see these illustrations, which have until now “only been seen by a few scholars and displayed to the public only twice, and only in part,” says Uffizi director Eike Schmidt.

Much of the promised “didactic-scientific comment” to accompany each drawing is marked as “upcoming” on the English version of the Uffizi site, but you can see high resolution scans of each drawing and zoom in to examine the many tortures of the damned and the grotesque demons who torment them. Learn much more at Khan Academy about how Dante’s literary epic in terza rima left “a lasting impression on the Western imagination for more than half a millennium,” solidifying and reshaping images of hell “into new guises that would become familiar to countless generations that followed.” If you like, you can also take a free course on Dante’s Divine Comedy from Yale University.

via MyModernMet/The Guardian

Related Content: 

Why Should We Read Dante’s Divine Comedy? An Animated Video Makes the Case

A Digital Archive of the Earliest Illustrated Editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1487-1568)

Artists Illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Botticelli, Mœbius & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ursula K. Le Guin Stamp Getting Released by the US Postal Service

Here’s one thing that’s going right with America’s decaying postal system. They write on the USPS web site: “The 33rd stamp in the Literary Arts series honors Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), who expanded the scope of literature through novels and short stories that increased critical and popular appreciation of science fiction and fantasy. The stamp features a portrait of Le Guin based on a 2006 photograph. The background shows a scene from her landmark 1969 novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” in which an envoy from Earth named Genly Ai escapes from a prison camp across the wintry planet of Gethen with Estraven, a disgraced Gethenian politician. The artist for this stamp was Donato Giancola. The art director was Antonio Alcalá. The words “three ounce” on this stamp indicate its usage value. Like a Forever stamp, this stamp will always be valid for the value printed on it.” The postal service has not said precisely when the stamp will be released.

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Related Content:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

When Ursula K. Le Guin & Philip K. Dick Went to High School Together

Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Animated Video Makes the Case

“Tell me,” said Beloved, smiling a wide happy smile. “Tell me your diamonds.”

The unforgettable portrayal of Beloved, the mysterious, 20-year-old woman (Thandie Newton)—who appears in Sethe’s (Oprah Winfrey) home mysteriously just as the infant ghost haunting the family disappears—leaves an indelible image in the mind’s eye in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film. We may learn about the history of slavery in the U.S. through a wealth of recovered data and historical sources. But to understand its psychological horrors, and the lingering trauma of its survivors, we must turn to works of the imagination like Beloved.

So why not just watch the movie? It’s excellent, granted, but nothing can take the place of Toni Morrison’s prose. Her “versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds,” wrote Margaret Atwood in her 1987 review of the novel. “If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.” The novel’s American gothic narrative recalls the “magnificent practicality” of haunting in Wuthering Heights. “All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s merely natural for this one to be there.”

“Everyone at 124 Bluestone Road,” the Ted-Ed video lesson by Yen Pham begins, “knows their house is haunted. But there’s no mystery about the spirit tormenting them. This ghost is the product of an unspeakable trauma.” Demme’s film dramatizes the horrors Sethe endured, and committed, and tells the story of the Sweet Home plantation and its aftermath upon her family. What it cannot convey is the novel’s treatment of “a barbaric history that hangs over much more than this homestead.”

For this greater resonance, we must turn to Morrison’s book, written, Atwood says, “in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” The novel brings us into contact with the human experience of enslavement:

Through the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe’s mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best—which wasn’t very good—and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined. Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions humans ever devised…. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.”

Morrison’s fictionalizing of the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved mother who killed her child rather than let the infant become enslaved to such a future, “points to history on the largest scale, to the global and world-historical,” Pelagia Goulimari writes in a monograph on Morrison. Morrison uses “Garner’s 1856 infanticide—a cause célèbre—as point of access to the ‘Sixty Million and more’: the victims of the Middle Passage and of slavery.”

Perhaps only the novel, and especially the novels of Toni Morrison, can tell world-historical stories through the actions of a few characters: Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and Beloved, the angry ghost of a murdered daughter and a desperate mother’s trauma and the traumatic psychic wounds of slavery, returned. Learn more about why you should read Beloved in the animated lesson above, directed by Héloïse Dorsan Rachet, and discover more at the TED-Ed lesson’s additional resources page.

Related Content: 

Hear Toni Morrison (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)

Toni Morrison’s 1,200 Volume Personal Library is Going on Sale: Get a Glimpse of the Books on Her Tribeca Condo Shelves

Toni Morrison Deconstructs White Supremacy in America

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

A Look Inside William S. Burroughs’ Bunker

When everybody had one or two vodkas and smoked a few joints, it was always the time for the blowgun. —John Giorno

From 1974 to 1982, writer William S. Burroughs lived in a former locker room of a 19th-century former-YMCA on New York City’s Lower East Side.

When he moved on, his stuff, including his worn out shoes, his gun mags, the typewriter on which he wrote Cities of the Red Night, and half of The Place of Dead Roads, a well-worn copy of The Medical Implications of Karate Blows, and a lamp made from a working Civil war-era rifle, remained.

His friend, neighbor, tourmate, and occasional lover, poet John Giorno preserved “The Bunker” largely as Burroughs had left it, and seems to delight in rehashing old times during a 2017 tour for the Louisiana Channel, above.




It’s hard to believe that Burroughs found Giorno to be “pathologically silent” in the early days of their acquaintance:

He just wouldn’t say anything. You could be there with him the whole evening, he wouldn’t say a word. It was not the shyness of youth, it was much more than that, it was a very deep lack of ability to communicate. Then he had cancer and after the operation that was completely reversed and now he is at times a compulsive talker, when he gets going there is no stopping him.

According to Burroughs’ companion, editor and literary executor, James Grauerholz, during this period in Burroughs’ life, “John was the person who contributed most to William’s care and upkeep and friendship and loved him.”

Giorno also prepared Burroughs’ favorite dishbacon wrapped chickenand joined him for target practice with the blowgun and a BB gun whose projectiles were forceful enough to penetrate a phonebook.

Proximity meant Giorno was well acquainted with the schedules that governed Burroughs’ life, from waking and writing, to his daily dose of methadone and first vodka-and-Coke of the day.

He was present for many dinner parties with famous friends including Andy WarholLou ReedFrank ZappaAllen GinsbergDebbie HarryKeith HaringJean-Michel Basquiat, and Patti Smith, who recalled visiting the Bunker in her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids:

It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes. You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door… he camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun and his overcoat.

All Giorno had to do was walk upstairs to enjoy Burroughs’ company, but all other visitors were subjected to stringent security measures, as described by Victor Bockris in With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker:

To get into the Bunker one had to pass through three locked gates and a gray bulletproof metal door. To get through the gates you had to telephone from a nearby phone booth, at which point someone would come down and laboriously unlock, then relock three gates before leading you up the single flight of gray stone stairs to the ominous front door of William S. Burroughs’ headquarters.

Although Burroughs lived simply, he did make some modifications to his $250/month rental. He repainted the battleship gray floor white to counteract the lack of natural light. It’s pretty impregnable.

He also installed an Orgone Accumulator, the invention of psychoanalyst William Reich, who believed that spending time in the cabinet would improve the sitter’s mental, physical, and creative wellbeing by exposing them to a mysterious universal life force he dubbed orgone energy.

(“How could you get up in the morning with a hangover and go sit in one of these things?” Giorno chuckles. “The hangover is enough!”)

Included in the tour are excerpts of Giorno’s 1997 poem “The Death of William Burroughs.” Take it with a bit of salt, or an openness to the idea of astral body travel.

As per biographer Barry Miles, Burroughs died in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital ICU in Kansas, a day after suffering a heart attack. His only visitors were James Grauerholz, his assistant Tom Peschio, and Dean Ripa, a friend who’d been expected for dinner the night he fell ill.

Poetic license aside, the poem provides extra insight into the men’s friendship, and Burroughs’ time in the Bunker:

The Death of William Burroughs

by John Giorno

William died on August 2, 1997, Saturday at 6:01 in the
afternoon from complications from a massive heart attack
he’d had the day before. He was 83 years old. I was with
William Burroughs when he died, and it was one of the best
times I ever had with him.  

Doing Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist meditation practices, I
absorbed William’s consciousness into my heart. It seemed as
a bright white light, blinding but muted, empty. I was the
vehicle, his consciousness passing through me. A gentle
shooting star came in my heart and up the central channel,
and out the top of my head to a pure field of great clarity
and bliss. It was very powerful—William Burroughs resting
in great equanimity, and the vast empty expanse of
primordial wisdom mind.

I was staying in William’s house, doing my meditation
practices for him, trying to maintain good conditions and
dissolve any obstacles that might be arising for him at that
very moment in the bardo. I was confident that William had
a high degree of realization, but he was not a completely
enlightened being. Lazy, alcoholic, junkie William. I didn’t
allow doubt to arise in my mind, even for an instant,
because it would allow doubt to arise in William’s mind.

Now, I had to do it for him.

What went into William Burroughs’ coffin with his dead body:

About ten in the morning on Tuesday, August 6, 1997,
James Grauerholz and 
Ira Silverberg came to William’s
house to pick out the clothes for the funeral director to put
on William’s corpse. His clothes were in a closet in my
room. And we picked the things to go into William’s coffin
and grave, accompanying him on his journey in the
underworld.

His most favorite gun, a 38 special snub-nose, fully loaded
with five shots. He called it, “The Snubby.” The gun was my
idea. “This is very important!” William always said you can
never be too well armed in any situation. Of his more than
80 world-class guns, it was his favorite. He often wore it on
his belt during the day, and slept with it, fully loaded, on
his right side, under the bed sheet, every night for fifteen
years.

Grey fedora. He always wore a hat when he went out. We
wanted his consciousness to feel perfectly at ease, dead.

His favorite cane, a sword cane made of hickory with a
light rosewood finish.

Sport jacket, black with a dark green tint. We rummaged
through the closet and it was the best of his shabby clothes,
and smelling sweet of him.

Blue jeans, the least worn ones were the only ones clean.

Red bandana. He always kept one in his back pocket.

Jockey underwear and socks.  

Black shoes. The ones he wore when he performed. I
thought the old brown ones, that he wore all the time,
because they were comfortable. James Grauerholz insisted,
“There’s an old CIA slang that says getting a new
assignment is getting new shoes.”

White shirt. We had bought it in a men’s shop in Beverly
Hills in 1981 on The Red Night Tour. It was his best shirt,
all the others were a bit ragged, and even though it had
become tight, he’d lost a lot of weight, and we thought it
would fit.  James said,” Don’t they slit it down the back
anyway.”

Necktie, blue, hand painted by William.

Moroccan vest, green velvet with gold brocade trim, given
him by 
Brion Gysin, twenty-five years before.

In his lapel button hole, the rosette of the French
government’s Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and the
rosette of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
honors which William very much appreciated.

A gold coin in his pants pocket. A gold 19th Century Indian
head five dollar piece, symbolizing all wealth. William
would have enough money to buy his way in the
underworld.

His eyeglasses in his outside breast pocket.

A ball point pen, the kind he always used. “He was a
writer!”, and sometimes wrote long hand.

A joint of really good grass.

Heroin. Before the funeral service, Grant Hart slipped a
small white paper packet into William’s pocket. “Nobody’s
going to bust him.” said Grant. William, bejeweled with all
his adornments, was traveling in the underworld.

I kissed him. An early LP album of us together, 1975, was
called 
Biting Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on
the lips, but I didn’t do it .  .  . and I should have.

Related Content: 

Call Me Burroughs: Hear William S. Burroughs Read from Naked Lunch & The Soft Machine in His First Spoken Word Album (1965)

How William S. Burroughs Influenced Rock and Roll, from the 1960s to Today

William S. Burroughs’ Class on Writing Sources (1976) 

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

What’s Entering the Public Domain in 2021: The Great Gatsby & Mrs. Dalloway, Music by Irving Berlin & Duke Ellington, Comedies by Buster Keaton, and More

“The year 1925 was a golden moment in literary history,” writes the BBC’s Jane Ciabattari. “Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were all published that year. As were Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, among others.” In that year, adds Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain Jennifer Jenkins, “the stylistic innovations produced by books such as Gatsby, or The Trial, or Mrs. Dalloway marked a change in both the tone and the substance of our literary culture, a broadening of the range of possibilities available to writers.”

In the year 2021, no matter what area of culture we inhabit, we now find our own range of possibilities broadened. Works from 1925 have entered the public domain in the United States, and Duke University’s post rounds up more than a few notable examples. These include, in addition to the aforementioned titles, books like W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s A Daughter of the Samurai; films like The Freshman and Go West, by silent-comedy masters Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton; and music like Irving Berlin’s “Always” and several compositions by Duke Ellington, including “Jig Walk” and “With You.”




These works’ public-domain status means that, among many other benefits to all of us, the Internet Archive can easily add them to its online library. In addition, writes Jenkins, “HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1925 available in its digital repository. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform, or rearrange, the music.” And the creators of today “can legally build on the past — reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs.”

Does any newly public-domained work of 2021 hold out as obvious a promise in that regard as Fitzgerald’s great American novel? Any of us can now make The Great Gatsby “into a film, or opera, or musical,” retell it “from the perspective of Myrtle or Jordan, or make prequels and sequels,” writes Jenkins. “In fact, novelist Michael Farris Smith is slated to release Nick, a Gatsby prequel telling the story of Nick Carraway’s life before he moves to West Egg, on January 5, 2021.” Whatever results, it will further prove what Ciabattari calls the “continuing resonance” of not just Jay Gatsby but all the other major characters created by the novelists of 1925, inhabitants as well as embodiments of a “transformative time” who are “still enthralling generations of new readers” — and writers, or for that matter, creators of all kinds.

Related Content:

Free: The Great Gatsby & Other Major Works by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Safety Last, the 1923 Movie Featuring the Most Iconic Scene from Silent Film Era, Just Went Into the Public Domain

31 Buster Keaton Films: “The Greatest of All Comic Actors,” “One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time”

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hemingway Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Essential Bradbury: The 25 Finest Stories by the Beloved Writer

The late Ray Bradbury wrote a dizzying number of short stories over a career that spanned nine decades. Authorized Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, author of the bestselling The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury and the indispensable companion book, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews makes sense of Bradbury’s voluminous short story output by selecting “The Essential Bradbury,” the 25 finest tales by the beloved writer.

Bradbury wrote defiantly across genres: gothic horror, social science fiction, weird tales, fantasy, and contemporary literary fiction. He is, perhaps, best known for his 1953 chef d’oeuvre, Fahrenheit 451, but Weller (and Bradbury’s late wife of 56 years, Marguerite for that matter) argue that Bradbury’s finest work came in the form of the short story.

Weller’s “Essential Bradbury” includes some cool, never-before-seen ephemera, culled from the biographer’s personal archives. Sam Weller worked with Ray Bradbury for 12 years. You can read his “Essential Bradbury” here.

Related Content:

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An Animated Ray Bradbury Explains Why It Takes Being a “Dedicated Madman” to Be a Writer

Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Writing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Each writer’s process is a personal relationship between them and the page—and the desk, room, chair, pens or pencils, typewriter or laptop, turntable, CD player, streaming audio… you get the idea. The kind of music suitable for listening to while writing (I, for one, cannot write to music with lyrics) varies so widely that it encompasses everything and nothing. Silence can be a kind of music, too, if you listen closely.

Far more interesting than trying to make general rules is to examine specific cases: to learn the music a writer hears when they compose, to divine the rhythms that animated their prose.




There are almost always clues. Favorite albums left behind in writing rooms or written about with high praise. Sometimes the music enters into the novel, becomes a character itself. In James Baldwin’s Another Country, music is a powerful procreative force:

The beat: hands, feet, tambourines, drums, pianos, laughter, curses, razor blades: the man stiffening with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the woman moistening and softening with a whisper and a sigh and a cry. The beat—in Harlem in the summertime one could almost see it, shaking above the pavements and the roof.

Baldwin finished his first novel, 1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, not in Harlem but in the Swiss Alps, where he moved “with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter under his arm,” writes Valentina Di Liscia at Hyperallergic. He “largely attributes” the novel “to Smith’s bluesy intonations.” As he told Studs Terkel in 1961, “Bessie had the beat. In that icy wilderness, as far removed from Harlem as anything you can imagine, with Bessie and me… I began…”

Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, has gone much further, digging through all the deep cuts in Baldwin’s collection while living in Provence and trying to recapture the atmosphere of Baldwin’s home, “those boisterous and tender convos when guests like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder… Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison” stopped by for dinner and debates. He first encountered the records in a photograph posted by La Maison Baldwin, the organization that preserves his house in Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France. “I latched onto his records, their sonic ambience,” Onyewuenyi says.

“In addition to reading the books and essays” that Baldwin wrote while living in France, Onyewuenyi discovered “listening to the records was something that could transport me there.” He has compiled Baldwin’s collection into a 478-track, 32-hour Spotify playlist, Chez Baldwin. Only two records couldn’t be found on the streaming platform, Lou Rawls’ When the Night Comes (1983) and Ray Charles’s Sweet & Sour Tears (1964). Listen to the full playlist above, preferably while reading Baldwin, or composing your own works of prose, verse, drama, and email.

“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyperallergic. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”

via Hyperallergic

Related Content: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

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The Best Music to Write By, Part II: Your Favorites Brought Together in a Special Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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