Music & Literature Comes to Houston!

There are countless reasons I feel fortunate to call Houston home; the cost of living, the warmth of its residents, the seemingly endless restaurant (and coffee house) choices, but no more fortunate than when I consider the art and cultural events that increase each year. Case in point; one of my favorite literary journals, Music & Literature, has recently relocated to Houston. On Friday March 23rd they will present their inaugural Houston event at Brazos.

For anyone unfamiliar, Music & Literature is one of the most exciting and esteemed literary publications in the world, not to mention one of the most unique. Boasting an editorial staff based in Paris, Berlin, New York and now Houston, Music & Literature has published works by such writers as László Krasznahorkai, Alejandra Pizarnik and Éric Chevillard as well as musical pieces from Mark Turner to Victoria Polevá. Besides the physical publication itself, Music & Literature organizes events around the world based on the themes of their editions, mixing both readings and musical performances. Smart, discerning, with a constant emphasis on international writers and musicians, editions of Music & Literature are always available at Brazos.

Music & Literature is the brainchild of Taylor Davis Van-Atta, a recent Houston implant. I had the opportunity to interview Taylor, whom I now feel lucky to call a friend. For anyone curious about Music & Literature, this Q and A gives readers a comprehensive idea of the vision and purpose of this renowned publication (as well as the good fortune of having them call Houston home).

Mark: How did Music & Literature originally come into being? What is its origin and also your own background, which obviously informed it?

Taylor Davis-Van Atta: My background is as a reader and a violinist, but my interests in art extend beyond the forms that headline our project. Music & Literature is a nonprofit arts publication, at once broadly defined and intensely focused. Shot through all of our activities is our mission to publish and promote outstanding artists from around the world whose work resides on the fringes of Anglophone culture, or beyond it. The project is an expression of ongoing frustration, in a way, but also of great joy and passion for our featured artists as well as for those who contribute to the issues, to the website, and to live events. The project as a whole is intended to be an international forum for the kind of art that exists for its own sake, and for that reason — as well as for reasons of national and institutional provincialism — struggles to find its audience.

As you know, lack of translation is a central concern to M&L. Arts coverage in English is largely ineffective in part because it tends to focus on individual works, and space is not afforded to address that work within any broader context. This is not an effective way of having a meaningful exchange about the arts. M&L intends to push this shortcoming to the opposite extreme by exploring an underrepresented artist’s entire career through 100+ pages of new and newly translated work, and situate that artist within multiple contexts — and in so doing, stretch the traditional form of an arts magazine.

MH: I’ve always thought Music & Literature was a really singular publication. It combines both the world of international literature and avant-garde music. What is your vision of Music & Literature? How do you see it yourself?

TD: The impulse behind the project is the same as it was at the beginning: there’s a desire to read every word by a writer like Kafka, Melville, or — to choose a more recent example dear to both of us — László Krasznahorkai. And there’s a desire to listen to every progression from a composer like Schubert, Beethoven, or Kaija Saariaho. Following that completist impulse is part of the vision, and it’s where the energy for the project come from: our staff works directly with the artists featured in M&L over a course of one to two years, immersing ourselves in the complete works of superlative artists while curating a portfolio of new work that, we hope, expresses and makes accessible the thing about that artwork which, as Gertrude Stein stated, “rings the bell.”

So in a sense, the project is what it has been over five years: an uncompromisingly and shamelessly uncommercial venture! But it has evolved, happily enough. At the outset, when I was the sole member of staff, the project’s aesthetic was, naturally, a reflection of my own, but thankfully it has quickly evolved as our editorial staff has grown — there are eight of us now — and the enthusiasms expressed through the project are more diverse and eclectic while remaining true to a certain curatorial vision. Daniel Medin, co-editor since M&L no. 2, has been central to the project’s evolution, as have Jeffrey Zuckerman, who oversees the work published on the M&L website, and fellow editors Madeleine LaRue and Matt Mendez. Our design editor, Camille Gajewski, beautifully revamped the look and feel of our print editions starting with M&L no. 7, and we recently brought aboard Jesse Ruddock and Eugene Ostashevsky to help build our capacity to cover modern jazz and international poetry.

MH: You’ve had an incredible list of writers and musicians contribute to Music & Literature in the past. What are some of your personal highlights, pinch yourself artists if you will, who have agreed to contribute? How do you target potential contributors to a given artist’s portfolio?

TD: The first piece that arrived for M&L no . 1 is still a personal favorite: “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music” is a beautiful meditation on the nature of melancholic art by the late Norwegian writer Stig Sæterbakken. Later, when we devoted a portfolio to Sæterbakken’s career in M&L no. 5, Karl Ove Knausgård agreed to include in translation a portion of the eulogy he gave at Sæterbakken’s funeral, which conveys the sincere admiration he had for Sæterbakken — who actually makes a funny and thinly veiled cameo in Knausgård’s My Struggle!

Likewise, it was a thrill to publish first-time translations of César Aira and Enrique Vila-Matas as part of the portfolio on Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik (M&L no. 6). The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, Spanish viol player Jordi Savall — for many years I’ve admired their work, so it’s been extra special to be able to present their writings. I’ve been listening to Maya Homburger’s baroque recordings since before I was forming memories! There are so many others… In each case, though, it’s been an excellent translator who has made it all possible, among them George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet (Krasznahorkai); Ben Moser and Ana Fletcher (Clarice Lispector, M&L no. 4); Jordan Stump and Daniel Levin Becker (Eric Chevillard, M&L no. 8); Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Can Xue, M&L no. 5); Cecilia Rossi and Emily Cooke (Pizarnik). Again the list goes on, and I have to apologize for not being able to list them all by name here. Translators are the ones keeping the flame alive, and their labor is typically less visible than the efforts of others involved in the exchange of world literature. We do our best to honor translators as the artists they are, and give them equal billing alongside authors.

In terms of process, translators are the first recruits to a new portfolio, that is, after a featured artist has agreed to collaborate on the project. Issues typically involve forty or fifty or more contributors, so there tend to be a lot of moving parts during their development, sometimes even right up to the week we submit it to the printer! This often leads to unexpected opportunities and can sometimes complicate others. The portfolios we end up publishing don’t reflect exactly those envisioned at the start, and I think the mix of research, planning, and spontaneity is part of what gives each issue its spark. In the end, we want to offer readers an intimate experience with the featured artist and her work, and this goal is what guides the editorial decision making.

MH: Now that you’re based in Houston how do you see Music & Literature transforming (or adapting)?

TD: I think it’s inevitable that the project will evolve to complement its new home city. It’s been a pleasure to begin delving into the Houston arts scene over the past few months, and while our staff and programming will continue to be situated around the globe, both in practice and in aesthetic, our organization will evolve to better reflect the vibrancy and diversity of Houston. There’s a lot of well-earned pride and excitement in this city, and I’m very much looking forward to investing in, and contributing to, the cultural landscape.

MH: Music & Literature put on some amazing events that coincide with their most recent issues, events all over the world. Can you describe what these are like?

TD: The events series has been another essential aspect of the project from the outset. It’s key to fulfilling our mission of cultivating new audiences for deserving artists; the project’s impact would be limited if we weren’t able to give audiences a firsthand experience. Like the print editions, M&L events are multidisciplinary, often multi-lingual, and showcase a variety of forms and perspectives. We always offer live musical performances alongside readings, conversations, and often visual displays. It’s another fun part of the project: to translate each issue from the page to live representation.

MH: Who are some writers and musicians that you’re excited to be working with, or would like to work with in the future?

TD: Recently, I’ve been revisiting another Norwegian writer, Jon Fosse, and his most recent books and plays to appear in English. Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has been a fascination for many years. We have a few portfolios in the works, and are constantly reading and researching other possibilities. Readers can prime themselves for forthcoming issues by visiting our website, where previews of work by future featured and contributing artists can be found. We wear our fascinations on our sleeves!

Image List: 

1. A scene from a M&L issue launch at Paris' Shakespeare & Co.

2. Kaija Saariaho presents at the launch of M&L no. 5 at Scandinavia House NYC

3. Maya Homburger and Barry Guy perform at an M&L bookstore launch in Paris.

4. Deborah Eisenberg presents Dubravka Ugrešić during an M&L event at Columbia University.

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