Academic Criticism

The Color of Sound: Hearing Timbre in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Arizona Quarterly 74.3 (Fall 2018).

Current Book Project Abstract:

Addressing both British and American literature, Narrative Durations: Time at the Intersection of Music and the Twentieth-Century Novel shows how the twentieth century is an era of experimentation with musical time. While most scholars turn to philosophical and scientific paradigms to understand evolving conceptions of temporality in the twentieth century, authors and composers constitute vital interlocutors in that conversation. By examining novels in which music and temporality play essential roles, this project posits that musical terms such as leitmotif, counterpoint, timbre, and overtone, which govern conceptions of time in a musical work, affect literary renditions of temporal perception. Such a study fosters a cross-disciplinary analysis where evocations of music transform a text, where the shared qualities of duration, rhythm, metric experience, and voice reap a distinctive formulation of reoriented literary time.

Scholarly efforts to isolate musical experience manifest in layers of unproductive rhetorical disassociation that use metaphor and analogy to claim, for instance, that James Joyce’s Ulysses is like a fugue. In E. M. Forster’s 1927 narrative treatise Aspects of the Novel, he notes: “When people apply rhythm or pattern to literature they are apt not to say what they mean and not finish their sentences” (102). Here Forster addresses the problem of understanding musical import in twentieth-century literature overall, where assessing music in a text without a methodology of comparison means grappling with a stubborn, centuries-old paradox of contained disorder. “There is an imaginary in music whose function is to reassure, to constitute the subject hearing it,” as Roland Barthes writes in his 1977 study Image-Music-Text (179). Tracing the controlled imaginary of music in a text means accepting a transformation of contemporary awareness, where bodies exist in space and time, where one listens to and creates alternative environments that provoke new experiences, and in turn, where musical systems continually redefine what it means to be human.