I love finding weird connections between artists, musicians and writers. While it’s easy to conceive of artists drawing inspiration from one another in the present day, it’s intriguing to see how artists of the past were influenced by one another and how that translates to the present. In my Wikipedia wanderings I discovered some interesting links between Russian literary great Leo Tolstoy, Czech composer Leoš Janáček, and the contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Each are masters in capturing the sensation of the aching, wonderful, terrible, beautiful nature of life, and were influenced by one another in intriguing ways.
Let’s start chronologically with Tolstoy, who is best known for Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (By the way, I am firmly on Team Tolstoy in the Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky debate, just throwin’ my bias out there!) In his later years, Tolstoy composed shorter works that capture his exceptional insight without the insane page count. His novella The Death of Ivan Ilych is one of my favorite philosophical pieces, and at only 134 pages it’s much easier to handle than carting War and Peace onto the bus.
Tolstoy’s short story The Kreutzer Sonata , which was inspired by Beethoven’s music, was forbidden by the Russian government when it was published in 1889. It was banned in the United States in the following year, with Theodore Roosevelt calling Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.” Surprisingly, the radical content was Tolstoy’s argument for abstinence against the “swinish” nature of relationships.
In 1923, Czeck composer Leoš Janáček was inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata in his creation of String Quartet No. 1. Describing his influence, Janacek wrote that he “was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” Janáček’s piece captures a sense of infatuation mingling with fear.
In turn, Janáček proved to be an inspiring force nearly a century later for internationally-acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami. In Murakami’s 2011 novel IQ84, Janacek’s Sinfonietta plays a recurring role, starting from the first page as the orchestral piece plays from a taxi’s radio.
An excerpt from IQ84:
She closed her eyes again and concentrated on the music. She knew nothing about Janáček as a person, but she was quite sure that he never imagined that in 1984 someone would be listening to his composition in a hushed Toyota Crown Royal Saloon on the gridlocked elevated Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo.
And now to come full circle, Murakami discussed the influence of Leo Tolstoy’s storytelling techniques in his novel Kafka on the Shore:
“That’s how stories happen — with a turning point, an unexpected twist. There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
The intermingling influences of Tolstoy, Janáček and Murakami which span generations show the timeless nature of philosophical and aesthetic concepts. We can play a major role in others’ lives without ever actually meeting them. It reflects the causal connections between individuals that transcend space and time, how ideas can go beyond one’s corporeal existence.
I’m surprised I’ve been able to restrain myself and not write more about Sufjan Stevens on this blog. This whole damn thing could be about Sufjan, ask my roommates or family, I never shut up about him! It would probably be a hybrid of Between Hipsters and God There is Sufjan Stevens, an RSS feed of his Tumblr, and Google Maps screenshots of his apartment in Brooklyn. Kidding! I don’t know what his address is… or else I would have made a shrine to him outside of it (maybe a bust of him made out of bubblegum a la Helga Pataki).
ANYWAY, in November he released Silver & Gold, a five-disc collection of Christmas music recorded from 2007-2011. This release follows Songs for Christmas (recorded 2001-2006), so we have a full decade of Sufjan Christmases, folks! Unlike his first collection of Songs for Christmas, the latter half of the aughts got a bit, uh, kooky for Mr. Stevens. He veered in the futuristic, chaotic direction featured in 2010’s The Age of Adz. it’s interesting to listen to his work and hear how his sound has dramatically evolved, from banjo and flute to drum machines and auto-tune (seriously).
One of my favorite discs from Silver & Gold was Christmas Infinity Voyage (2008), which shows the experimental, electronic direction he was heading in Adz. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” exemplifies Stevens’ skills in refurbishing seemingly soul-less Musak tracks, turning the choral bore into an metallic, psychedelic 9 minutes of near-insanity.
One respite from the madness is “Christmas in the Room,” which features that beautiful/sad hybrid that Mr. Stevens has crafted so masterfully (see “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “To Be Alone with You,” “John Wayne Gacy”). The video contrasts with the acoustic sound through a set of vibrant abstract images set against darkness, keeping in line with the spirit of Christmas Infinity Voyage‘s futuristic feel.
I visited my family in Portland for Christmas, and as our tradition of the last few years, we had a Sufjan-themed Xmas, dancing around to Infinity Voyage and his just-released Chopped & Scrooged rap mixtape (yes, that exists). While playing around with lights I noticed the delightful blurring effects against the Portland skyline, and forced my family to go onto the freezing sixteenth floor balcony for a midnight celestial photo shoot. (There was champagne involved, it wasn’t THAT bad.)
‘You must be a Christmas tree – you light up the room.’
We had a good time playing around and seeing the unexpected results from the light patterns… hopefully we captured a bit of Sufjan’s seemingly unending exuberance.
If you care to listen to more of Sufjan’s ** HOLIDAY MAGIC ** (even though, uh, it’s January), it’s all available to listen to on his website for free. He released it on the public domain for your listening pleasure because he is just that kind of guy. SUFJ YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME!