“At UNO [in the Jazz Studies Program] we are at the edge of trying to create completely new things,” Irvin Mayfield told an audience largely of creative writing students from Lusher High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He was explaining to the opening session of The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s 2011 Words and Music Festival how his UNO colleague Victor Atkins came to compose a suite of music based on William Faulkner’s “The Barn Burning.”
Mayfield, who composed another piece on commission from the society for a prior festival, explained the “ways music and literature can fit together,” and “how a word can mean something in literature and something completely different in music [in which] the word diminish means a certain sound but obviously in literature it means something else”; how a musical diminish can be used to illustrate how Faulkner used language to diminish the unsympathetic protagonist of “The Barn Burning.”
“I’ve worked on many projects, soundtracks, what you might call program music but I had never taken a work of literary art to music,” Atkins told the audience. Casting about for an approach, he used Ellington’s Shakespeare-inspired “Such Sweet Thunder” suite as inspiration and a model. He read numerous Faulkner stories over the summer and was fascinated in particular by the closing section of “The Barn Burning.
“I kept returning to it. I knew that was a source I could use as a theme.
“I felt the passage at the end of the story needed some explanation, so I worked on an introductory piece to sequence in and I kept going back and finding more things. I felt the sequence would make it more of a suite than a sequence of tunes, something that would tell the story. So I started at the end of the story and worked my way back.”
A professor at the University of New Orleans Jazz program, he also wanted “to create something that could be improvised on but could still tell a story.”
Atkins played two pieces, the first inspired by a line from the opening scene of the trial in a country store, explaining that Snopes’ son, fearing he would be called to testify against this father, “he felt no floor beneath his feet.” Stymied by how to convert that to music, he took all the letters of the line that represented musical notes and “made a song from it. This is kind of fun like a puzzle.”
He used a lot of musical “neighbor tones” in a piece he composed for Snopes’ wife, to contrast with the wandering, neighbor-less life of a family of sharecroppers forced to move from place to place by the father’s compulsion to commit arson.
The first part of the festival’s “For Teachers and Students” program ended with Mayfield reading from his recent book, “A Love Letter to New Orleans,” and playing a related literary (and lovelorn) inspired piece, “Romeo and Juliet.”
The morning concluded with novelist and GQ critic Tom Carson, judge of the 2011 festival student writing contest, discussing the making of a winning manuscript. “This is a little intimidating,” he said, casting a glance back at the ornate, Italianate altar of St. Mary’s Italian Church in the old Ursuline Convent complex, then proceeded to neatly outline his advice to the creative writing students.
“My advice is only important if I am the judge every year,” he began modestly. “If I knew the formula I wouldn’t tell you because then you wouldn’t write like yourself.”
That caveat out of the way, he advised the young writers, “the more you write for yourself and trust your imagination the more likely you are to reach readers who are on the same wavelength and those are the readers you want. It’s not exactly writing what you know, but what feels right to you.
“Trusting your imagination does not mean a lack of discipline,” he added. “Having an imagination is like getting a pony for Christmas: wonderful, but what are you going to do with it? You have to saddle it and get it to take you where you want to go.”
He said the winning story, “Nerve Endings,” about a high school-aged pianist whose fingers unaccountably begin to grow longer and longer, “is completely preposterous but the language is completely commonplace and ordinary and that makes it believable.”
Other advice included a typical caution for aspiring writers: Get rid of what is unnecessary and think about where you are going to begin, how to turn the situation that inspired the story into compelling words on a page.
The morning ended with NOCCA creative writing student and Metairie resident Ruth Marie Landry reading an excerpt of “Nerve Endings” and, as Carson suggested, the Murakami-esque equanimity of the protagonist in confronting her bizarre condition carried the story beautifully.
“She’s the real expert on how to put together a winning story,” Carson said.
Local writer Mark Folse offers this special dispatch from the The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Words & Music Festival 2011.