The Arrival by Shaun Tan: Musical Walls and Bridges

Attending the 2019 Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature was an utterly amazing experience. Both Stockholm itself and the Congress located in Norra Latin—a historic high school now turned conference center in Norrmalm—offered me a continuous deluge of warm collegial camaraderie, stunning urban and riverside views beneath an overcast sky, scholarship that advocates for the marginalized in all its forms—and coffee, lots and lots of coffee… There were so many things about the trip that offered me a chance to feel at home. Yet, of course, I wasn’t home, and the trip also constantly reminded me of my foreignness, from pedestrian-car interactions (no stop signs!) to prices in krona, and from the sight of cathedrals and cobblestones and the letter “å” to the unremitting child-consciousness of Swedish culture. This is why for my first post-Stockholm post, I decided to explore a children’s book that deals more intensely with the concept of foreignness.

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The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Hodder Children’s Books (2006)

Text: None! This is what one might call a wordless graphic novel, each page filled with pictures in various orientations. I had heard of this book before, though never read it, and then it came up in a keynote presentation on the second day. While browsing a book display during one of our frequent fika coffee breaks, I saw the recognizable cover picture accompanied by a single unexpected word, “Ankomsten”, the Swedish translation of “The Arrival”. For a moment I felt like the quizzical man on the cover, staring at a little alien creature, considering the odd mixture of familiar and unfamiliar that a foreign word can conjure.

Picture: The pictures are arresting, powerful, and intricate, rendered in muted tones and depicting a fantasy/futuristic setting that nevertheless references turn of the century America, specifically the experiences of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. The basic idea behind the book is that there is a man who leaves his family and travels to an entirely new metropolis, a place where absolutely everything is unfamiliar, strange, and foreign. He—and we as readers—struggle to make sense of this new place as the character seeks food, shelter, work, and above all human connection. Gradually and with the help of kind people he comes to understand the ways and codes of this place, reminding me of a George MacDonald quote from Lillith: “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.” It is a timely, challenging, and moving book, important for children and adults alike to engage with.

Music: This book entrenches readers in the complex and painful process of learning, specifically of learning to navigate through and within an unfamiliar culture. Music, as an expression and carrier of culture, appears twice in the book and vividly communicates this shift from confusion to understanding. The first picture below depicts the arriving man’s first encounter with this new world. 

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The man is confused at this point in the story, and we are thrust with him into the middle of an alien world. The invasive protocols of immigration services, the goings-on of bustling people in the streets, the appearance and behaviors of new animals, everything is overwhelming to his senses. The street musicians appear ominous: rendered in very dark hues with dower faces and surrounded by rat-like birds, the otherworldliness of the instruments they play—which include a space-age violin and an accordion with a serpentine tuba bell—is palpable. The concept of “noise” is useful here, as is an oft quoted definition by Anna Tsing: noise is the “awkward, unequal, unstable creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2004, 1). The oddity of the picture and the imagined music—some of which seems to be visibly shooting up out of the tuba bell into the sky—is meant to create a wall of noise. Unsettled by difference, the man has no opportunity to come to grips with its discomfiting significance.

[Aside: Tan’s imagined world of organological difference is actually remarkably similar to our own world. Modern western culture has a very limited notion of what instruments are “normal”, and in the margins of time and space lie instruments that display the human capacity for imaginative music- and/or noise-making. Below: A) a French piano accordion from 1880s on display in MIM Phoenix, B) John Matthias Augustus Stroh’s mechanically amplified Stroh violin invented in 1899, C) Adolph Sax’s trombone à pistons from 1876 on display in MIM Brussels, E) a ca. 1900 harp-guitar by Cesare Candi of Genoa, and F) Linda Manzer’s 42-string Pikasso guitar of 1984.]

The next musical encounter in The Arrival offers fresh possibilities for the newcomer on his journey towards musical and cultural understanding. After befriending a family and learning their own traumatic story, he is invited to dinner. Shared food, conversation, and laughter lead to an after-dinner musical concert, and a new relationship to this culture’s music. We see each member of the family happily contributing to this delightful Hausmusik experience. The father plays a miniature version of the street musician’s trumpet accordion, the mother plays a turnip-shaped ocarina with glowing orb of musical warmth, and the son sings—with his Pokémon lizard!—while strumming on a four-stringed circular guitar reminiscent of a Chinese ruan

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The newcomer’s relationship with this family offers him a bridge toward understanding the meanings of music in this foreign place. Within the safety of a warm domestic setting he is able to draw near enough and to sit still long enough to listen with open ears and to ask questions of the performers in order to approach understand. Tan’s two images of music in The Arrival illustrate the contextuality of whether we interpret something as noise or as music. Relationship opens the door.

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:
 

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!