I’m starting a new series of posts dedicated to exploring references to and uses of music within children’s literature, specifically picture books. Music functions richly within the intermedial dynamics of picture books, which Perry Nodelman describes as an art form demanding constant alteration between two modes of communication—visual and textual— and “as a result of these unusual features, [they] have unique rhythms, unique conventions of shape and structure, a unique body of narrative techniques” (Nodelman, 1988, viii). Adding music to this unique textual and visual genre provides yet another mode of communication, which both compliments and complicates an already wonderful genre. Let us begin!
Du Is Tak?
by Carson Ellis
Candlewick Press (2016)
Picture: This is a visually gorgeous picture book. Ellis frames up an insect-sized scene of an old log, and lingers there for the entirety of the book while seasons shift, adventures ensue, life is lived. The passage and cyclicality of time are of foremost importance: a single green plant provides the dapperly dressed invertebrate characters with many opportunities to experience the gamut of life’s emotions (puzzlement, excitement, leisure, horror, joy, letting go); a flamboyant caterpillar disappears into a cocoon in the first pages, metamorphosing near the end, and is followed by a second caterpillar at the close; and shifting seasons bring about changes to the foliage and landscape, most dramatically in the cleansing blankness of a winter’s snow.
Text: Ellis pairs these pictures with a delightfully innovative conlang (constructed language) of her own devising. (It appears to be nominally Germanic in syntax and phonology.) Readers are invited to speak “nonsense words” that are given meaning by the pictures. This technique highlights the nonverbal (shall I say “musical”?) power of communication through such things as gesture, intonation, addressee, and context.
Music: The bulk of the action happens in scenes of daylight. Yet three panels present us with a nocturnal version of the world: muted and dark colors, a starry night sky, and an absence of all characters apart from a single grasshopper perched upon a branch of the log directly over the caterpillar’s cocoon. In his [four] arms he holds a violin, which he plays introspectively, head bowed, eyes closed. Ellis employs a common technique: a string of musical notes emanates from the instrument and into the air. Remarkably, the notation symbols are not random (most examples are!). In the first two night scenes Ellis uses an eight-note rhythmic pattern made up of grace notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes that then repeats. Additionally, she provides a general melodic contour that gives enough information to show us that the notes are a quotation of a real piece of music: Gnossienne No. 1 by Erik Satie.
Erik Satie (1866–1925) was a French composer who was influential for his avant-garde experiments that modernistically challenged musical tradition and expectations. (He wrote minimalist background music which he termed musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), included cheeky/ironic/impossible/overly dramatic narrations (in-score texts) in his music, and took as his programmatic subjects such things as the social lives and adventures of sea cucumbers.) Satie constructed his own cryptic term “Gnossienne” in three (perhaps seven?) compositions that share several generic characteristics: slow tempos, no barlines (known as “free time”), unconventional forms/melodies/harmonies, and strange in-score texts.
In the first two night scenes, Ellis’ grasshopper plays the opening theme of Gnossienne No. 1. I find the music hovering, yet heavy, improvisatory, as though playing with and reacting to half-remembered fragments. Follow along to a recording with sheet music performed by Klara Kormendi.
The third night scene directly follows the second. In the face of the decaying flower, we witness the dramatic release of the transformed caterpillar, which bursts out of its cocoon as a dancing moth. Eyes closed, she is the introspective one now, absorbed in the soaring exuberance of her dance. The grasshopper is on his feet, leaning forward eagerly, eyes wide and fixed upon this wonderful sight. He continues to play, but his tune has changed to match the sweeping gestures of the moth: twenty-five eighth-notes concluded by a dotted quarter note.
Again, Ellis quotes Satie, this time Gnossienne No. 3. The third theme (fragment?) of this piece builds up momentum in a cascading sort of way, and bears the mysterious in-score text “Munissez-vous de clairvoyance” (“Acquire clairvoyance”). The grasshopper seems to be in the process of “seeing clearly”, standing as it were upon the overlap between life and death, gazing at the resurrected Muse, reifying the power of the moment with music that is both free of time and full of repetition. Listen to the performance by Daniel Versano starting at 0:35.
Ellis masterfully communicates through the richness of the picture book genre. Her static frame allows us to notice fine details and dwell upon growth and decay, life and death. Her invented language prompts us to find significance within/beyond/despite words. Music is hidden in this picture book, frozen as a string of symbols leaping from a grasshopper’s violin, yet the quotations of Satie’s haunting compositions, once deciphered, invite us to imagine unheard melodies that bind together memories, emotions, and meanings in new ways. May we all have eyes to see clearly and the courage to play our song in all of life’s seasons.