American Music and the Contemporary Novel

Dr. Emily Petermann, Universität Konstanz


In my work on the musical novel I have explored many of the ways a novel can imitate or evoke elements of music, whether the riffs and improvisation of jazz or the theme and variations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A recent development in literature’s engagement with music involves the role played by emerging technologies and the way they not only transmit musical content to the listener, but very strongly condition the form the music takes and the way we listen. Music is still often considered ephemeral and transcendent, with a strong focus on the context of performance and the role of audience interaction in a musical event that is momentary and fleeting, especially with regard to jazz. Yet at the same time, there is a new recognition of music in its recorded form as an object and a commodity, whether an LP record or a file to be downloaded from itunes. Furthermore, these technologies coexist; records are now collected and venerated in a nostalgic mode while music moves into the digital sphere of legal and illegal downloads, of participatory cultures of online sharing. Literature’s relationship to music can tell us not only about its idealization as a non-referential and thus ‘higher’ art, but about the way music is mediated by technologies that change historically and have a profound impact on how we experience music.

This talk will first outline the features of the musical novel, using novels inspired by jazz as case studies. This section draws especially on Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar (1975) and Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992), illustrating the way they imitate musical rhythms, structural devices from the riff and call and response to the chorus structure of a jazz piece, as well as aspects of the live performance situation, especially improvisation and audience interaction.

In a second step, I focus on two musical novels that foreground not the musical structures themselves or on the originary performance, but rather the mass media of musical expression: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) and Arthur Phillips’s The Song Is You (2009). Both celebrate songs – incorporated as records in the former example and digital files on an ipod in the latter – as symbols of taste, as carriers of memory, as means of establishing interpersonal connections, and as media that condition our thinking. The comparison of these novels with their focus on different musical technologies enables an exploration of modes of listening as characters experience their lives through the lens of popular music.

Bio Note:

Emily Petermann is an assistant professor of American Studies and is working on a post-doc in the subversive potential of nonsense literature in the Literature department at the University of Konstanz. She is a founding member and coordinator of the Word and Music Association Forum (since 2009) and co-editor of the volume Time and Space in Words and Music (Lang 2012). Her monograph, The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception, was published with Camden House in 2014.