Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Contemporary troubadours

For writers who are also at play within the realm of music, inspiration is drawn from all sides.

Haunting notes of jazz, blues and rock, mixed mesmerisingly with the Indian raga, are echoing through the moonlit skies of Hay-on-Wye. Amit Chaudhuri has appeared at the Hay Festival in two guises - for as well as being an award-winning novelist of books such as The Immortals, and being professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, Chaudhuri is a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical traditional whose beguiling album This Is Not Fusion was an ambitious experimental project bringing together eastern and western music.

His latest compelling album is called Found Music, and Chaudhuri's music and novels offer a fascinating exploration of the boundaries not only within but between art forms.

It is a boundary explored by an array of writer-musicians: those novelists who also moonlight as musicians, or are in bands and write and perform music as a twin profession by sunlight, too.

Louis de Bernières has played for many years in The Antonius Players, delighting audiences not only with his words but also with his flute, mandolin, clarinet and guitar. Simon Armitage's brilliant book Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist evocatively details his adventures in both poetry and pop lyrics. Vikram Seth uses music as a poignant trope in An Equal Music and is a keen musician.

The list - and the beat - goes on. A whole range of prestigious writers (of both prose and song lyrics) have been exploring the interesting connection between the two art forms.

De Bernières created one of the most famous instruments in the English- language novel (now translated the world over) - the eponymous Captain Corelli's mandolin. Music weaves throughout the 1994 novel as a powerful metaphor as well as plot-device: in contrast to the brutality of war is the beauty of the music and its power to transcend the divisions caused by nationality. The novel is written in an intensely lyrical style, further expressed in de Bernières' poetry and music.

"My vocation for writing definitely came first, but I grew up during the era of the singer-songwriter," explains de Bernières. The musical landscape was filled with the inspiring likes of Bob Dylan, Ralph McTell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. "They were where music and literature melded together for people like me." His admiration for these guitar players led to him trying to play ragtime like McTell and Bach like John Williams or Segovia. He was also influenced by his mother, who knew many folk songs: "I thought she had the most beautiful voice in the world."

The psychological as well as stylistic connection between the forms is noted by de Bernières, whose latest book is the wonderfully witty collection of short stories, Notwithstanding: "Both writing and playing are a form of psychotherapy that you can practise on yourself," he tells me. "If I am denied either of them for any length of time, I start to feel very jumpy and uneasy," he explains. "This is because writing and playing are egoless states. The absolute concentration on something other than yourself is a release from the prison of the self."

The durability of the printed word, however, outlives the transience of live performance: "Live performance is far more stressful than writing, but for the same reason it is much more exciting. It is, however, hopelessly ephemeral, and the long-term satisfactions of literature are correspondingly greater." Nevertheless, performing, he notes, forces you to keep in practice and develop a constantly evolving repertoire, which "greatly increases the private enjoyment of simply playing to yourself at home".

Gigs have been at the heart of the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage's life and literature. Armitage, who is artist in residence at London's South Bank Centre and whose latest book is the splendid collection Seeing Stars, offers an account by turns hilarious and moving in Gig, which focuses on his musical adventures.

In his 40s, at the suggestion of a schoolfriend, Craig Smith, Armitage and Smith formed a band, named (after much debating) The Scaremongers. Armitage evocatively details being a young student, dreaming of musical stardom while hammering out songs in a bedsit. But can they really call themselves a band, wonders Armitage, until they have actually performed live? He then explores what makes a "real musician", considers his wide sphere of literary and musical influence, and muses on the difference between writing poems and song lyrics: while the former is a process of building up, the latter is stripping down.

Listening to Armitage's songs, it is clear that his talent as a wordsmith is apt also for the medium of song lyrics. His adeptness at breaking down boundaries is evident not only in his musical projects but his latest project at the Southbank Centre, aiming to bring poets of every nation together for the 2012 Olympics, noting the parallels between poetry and the Olympics that stretch as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Being both a writer and musician, notes Chaudhuri, is like speaking in two different languages; it is necessary to be attuned to their distinct registers and constraints. He quotes the bilingual poet Arun Kolatkar: "I keep a pencil sharpened at both ends." As a musician, Chaudhuri finds the need to be in "constant practice and a state of readiness", like a sportsman. However, "as a writer, you need to be patient, and in a state of receptivity".

At age 12 he decided he wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Aged 16, he became a convert to Indian classical music, "practised like a madman" and, 10 years later, became a performing artist, and then a recorded one. In 2004, his project in fusion/non-fusion began after he thought he heard the riff to Layla while singing the raga Todi.

Even those writers who do not play instruments themselves weave music into their themes, including Lyrics Alley by the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela. "For me, the lyrics are always just as powerful as the music itself. l grew up on Bob Marley. I thought I would like to write stories and novels that impacted others just like a Marley song. I think I was aiming at the spirituality in the lyrics, the sense of resistance and hope."

Can the two vocations get on harmoniously?

"There is sometimes a conflict between being a writer and a performer, although I regard them both as part of being a troubadour, which is what writers originally were", explains de Bernières, praising the festival culture for restoring this ethic. "I think I will always be a writer first and foremost in the public eye, although in private, I devote more time to music," he muses, partly because he has ongoing problems with his right hand that hinder his music practice.

However, he says: "I have one or two projects in mind that might at least enable me to leave some contribution to music behind me when I go."

And those new musical projects will surely strike a chord with his audience.

Updated: January 18, 2011 04:00 AM



Most Popular