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The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“Fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.”

The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. The trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered music “a laboratory for feeling and time.” Perhaps because we experience music with our whole selves, with sinew and spirit alike, it is impossible to consider it merely as a sound. Like light, it seems to be both particle and wave; a vessel, a form, a space for working out who we are and what we long for — an essential language for our inner storytelling, which is the narrative pillar of our identity. In consequence, the most powerful and enchanting storytelling, be it a fairy tale or a novel or a biography, has a certain symphonic quality that lends it its power and enchantment.

That is what Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) — one of the world’s most beloved storytellers — argued shortly after he revolutionized the literature of the imagination with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, in a beautiful essay titled “The Shape of Music,” originally published in a special 1964 children’s literature issue of the San Francisco Examiner and included a year later in Evelyn Rose Robinson’s excellent anthology Readings About Children’s Literature (public library).

Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak writes:

Vivify, quicken, and vitalize — of these three synonyms, quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life, the surging swing into action, that I consider an essential quality in pictures for children’s books. To quicken means, for the illustrator, the task first of deeply comprehending the nature of his text and then giving life to that comprehension in his own medium, the picture.

The conventional techniques of graphic animation are related to this intention only in that they provide an instrument with which the artist can begin his work. Sequential scenes that tell a story in pictures, as in the comic strip, are an example of one technique of animation. In terms of technique, it is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his forgotten first children’s book.

In a sentiment evocative of Italo Calvino’s insistence on the art of quickness as essential to the magic of storytelling, Sendak adds:

The word quicken has other, more subjective associations or me. It suggests something musical, something rhythmic and impulsive. It suggests a beat — a heart beat, a musical beat, the beginning of a dance. This association proclaims music as one source from which my own pictures take life. To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book.

In Sendak’s creative process, music — actual music, not merely the notion of musicality — becomes a kind of Rorschach test as ideas begin to take shape under its clarifying force:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction. I find something uncanny in the way a musical phrase, a sensuous vocal line, or a patch of Wagnerian color will clarify an entire approach or style for a new work. A favorite occupation of mine is sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk [demonic spirit from Jewish mythology], and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters and covers celebrating libraries and reading.

Sometimes, Sendak notes, these associative flights of musically propelled fancy become a kind of personal time machine, unlatching “childhood fantasies that are reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen.” Reflecting on “music’s peculiar power of releasing fantasy,” he recalls the centrality of music in his early memories — “the restless, ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making” that are a fixture of childhood’s make-believe — and wrests from it a universality:

All children seem to know what the mysterious, the-riding-fiercely-across-the-plains (accompanied by hearty, staccato thigh slaps), and the plaintive conventionally sound like; and I have no doubt that this kind of musical contribution is necessary to the enrichment of the going fantasy. The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood. It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words — beyond the words yet available to a child — and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.

Signed original drawing by Sendak from the front end paper of his extremely rare 1967 illustrated edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

This musical quality, Sendak observes, is not only the chief animating force of his own work but also what he looks for in the work of artists he admires — artists who “achieve the authentic liveliness that is the essence of the picture book, a movement that is never still,” which children recognize and savor as native to their own experience. He points to André François and Tomi Ungerer

The sympathy I feel between the visual and the musical accounts for my liking to think of myself as setting a text to pictures, much as a composer sets a poem to music, and I have found that telling a story by means of related, sequential pictures allows me to “compose” with assurance and freedom. I do not, however, equate the musical approach to sequential drawings.

Sendak elevates William Blake — whose classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience he would come to illustrate in a rare gem of a book three years later, and who would would go on to be his greatest lifelong influence — as the highest master of quickening by means of musicality. (Blake’s particular musicality calls to my mind Aldous Huxley’s notion of music as a conduit to “the blessedness lying at the heart of things.”)

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

With an eye to “Blake’s incomparable genius,” Sendak writes:

How beautifully his Songs of Innocence and of Experience could be set to music, and how beautifully Blake did set them. The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his mystical poetry. His ingenious and wonderfully ornamental interweavings of illustrations, lettering and color visually animate the spirit of the poetry and create a lyrical vision of otherworldliness. And it is all expressed with an economy only the masters achieved.

Reflecting on the most resonant expression of this musical analogy in his own work, Sendak points to his lovely collaborations with the poet Ruth Krauss — so enchanting partly due to Krauss’s particularly uncommon originality, and partly due to poetry’s general quickening quality — and writes:

Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme, and perhaps the last page from I’ll Be You and You Be Me is the simplest expression of my devotion to the matter of music.

Art by Maurice Sendak for I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss (1954)

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s lyrical reflection on the source of music’s supreme power, then revisit Sendak’s symphonic illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, and his wonderful conversation with Studs Terkel about creativity, storytelling, and the eternal child in each of us.

Photograph of Maurice Sendak by Sam Falk


How to Disappear: The Art of Listening to Silence in a Noisy World

“Silence is the presence of time undisturbed.”

“There is… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1972 taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. But where does the modern soul go to pasture on awareness and commune with the cosmos in a civilization increasingly savaged by noise? Where do we find, and how do we protect, those places where, in the lovely words of the poet Wendell Berry, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives”?

Governed by the passionate belief that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has devoted his life to locating and conserving that gravely endangered species of sensorial experience and planetary poetics. Inspired by the writings of the visionary naturalist John Muir, who believed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Hempton has spent thirty-five years picking out Earth’s rarest nature sounds, equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing.

Gordon Hempton inside what he calls “Nature’s Largest Violin” — the giant log of a Sitka spruce, a species prized for crafting acoustic instruments due to its rich vibratory sensitivity. (Photograph courtesy of Gordon Hempton.)

Emanating from his collection of more than 100 recordings from silent places is the idea that “there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat” — a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and the quality of presence. What emerges is the embodied awareness that silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed.

Planted partway between conservation and celebration, Hempton’s lovely One Square Inch of Silence project offers a sanctuary of silence drawn from the Hoh rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington — “very possibly the quietest place in the United States” and certainly one of the most ecologically diverse.

Silence is the presence of time undisturbed. It can be felt in the chest. It nurtures our nature.

Hempton delves into the science and animating spirit of his work in this wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which is how I first encountered him years ago and have remained enchanted since:

Complement with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired picture-book about the art of listening to your inner voice amid the noise of modern life — then revisit Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”

HT Kottke


Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Rare, Arresting Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories by the Irish Stained Glass and Book Artist Harry Clarke

“And the man trembled in the solitude…”

“I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations… I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her poignant poem “Possibilities.”

Old fine-lined illustrations and classic tales that outgrim the newspapers’ front pages, twisting the grisly into the sublime, come together in a rare 1933 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (public library), with illustrations by the Irish stained-glass and book artist Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931), whose visionary work influenced the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and French Symbolism movements.

“I would call aloud upon her name.” (Available as a print.)
“The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic,… upon the interior surface of a funnel.” (Available as a print.)
“I saw them fashion the syllables of my name.” (Available as a print.)

Nearly a decade after I first featured Clarke’s black-and-white illustrations from an earlier edition, I walked out of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair victorious with a rare surviving copy of the 1933 edition, featuring 33 plates. Peppering the striking black-and-white line drawings and several dramatic illustrated lithographs, printed on glazed paper and pasted onto the regularly printed book — the legacy of Arthur Rackham’s innovation, which had revolutionized the business and technology of book art a quarter century earlier with his epoch-making Alice in Wonderland edition.

“He shrieked once — once only.” (Available as a print.)
“In death we both learned the propensity of man to define the undefinable.” (Available as a print.)

Clarke’s haunting, terrifying, yet lyrical illustrations become the perfect visual counterpart to Poe’s haunting, terrifying, lyrical prose. Here is a succulent bit from a fable titled “Silence”:

And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded far in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called upon the hippopotami which dwelt upon the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I cursed the elements, and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest — and the rain beat on the head of the man — and the floods of the river came down — and the river was tormented into foam — and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds — and the trees crumbled before the wind — and the lightning flashed and the thunder fell — and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled within the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the saber craft.” (Available as a print.)
“They swarmed upon me in ever-accumulating heaps.” (Available as a print.)
“There flashed upward a glow and a glare.” (Available as a print.)
“But there was no voice throughout the vast, illimitable desert.” (Available as a print.)
“It was the most noisome quarter of London.” (Available as a print.)
“His rooms soon became notorious through the charms of the sprightly Grisette.” (Available as a print.)
“Say, rather, the rending of her coffin.” (Available as a print.)
“And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me.” (Available as a print.)
“An attachment which seems to attain new strength.” (Available as a print.)
“The colossal waters rear our heads above us like demons of the deep.” (Available as a print.)

Complement with Clarke’s arresting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, then revisit other visionary artists’ takes on literary classics: Arthur Rackham’s transcendent illustrations for The Tempest and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Margaret C. Cook’s sensual paintings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.


Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

“What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.”

Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Spreads from Little Tree — a Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life.

Complement Iyer’s exquisite Autumn Light with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on reconciling our yearning for permanence with a universe predicated on constant change, Marcus Aurelius on the key to living with presence while facing our mortality, and Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor love letter to seasonality, then revisit Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness.


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