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.

Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis: Satie and Time

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!

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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.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

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.

  1. 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.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

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.