Son of Librarians

written by Sid Richardson
2018 GLFCAM Dana Lyon Fellow, Cycle 5

What is it about music that invites comparisons and collaborations with other art forms? Today, music is often paired with film, dance, visual art, literature, poetry, and various other media. We may even take for granted these unions as they have become ubiquitous in modern culture. Multimedia is after all a hallmark of postmodernism. Perhaps it is the intangibility of music that lends itself so well to pairings with the other arts. Unlike with visual arts, one does not immediately perceive a musical form in its totality. Instead, one must wait and listen to the work as it unfolds before one can grasp its shape. This elusive quality in music draws the listener into an enchanting and fragile world in which a shared experience is paramount.

In my own work as a composer, I am fascinated by the intersections of music and literature. Many of my recent works explore the liminal space created by these distinct art forms, which offers pathways into fresh creative spaces. My interest in literature and poetry has developed organically from childhood— ever since I learned to read, my nose has been buried in books. As a youth I devoured fantasy novels, non-fiction accounts of naval history and exploration, magazines, biographies, you name it. Both my parents are librarians, so I was fortunate to have virtually unlimited access to any book or publication I wanted to track down. My love of reading was tempered with my love of music, which I also pursued avidly through a variety of music lessons in piano, viola, bass, and voice, and with friends in garage bands, jazz combos, and school orchestras. My competing interests were reflected in my undergraduate studies at Tufts University, where I majored in music and classics. I would jokingly tell dubious adults that I was training to write epic songs. After a formative spring spent studying abroad in Paris in 2009, my love of composition took the driver’s seat, and I doubled down with graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory and Duke University. I never gave up on my interest in the written word.  As it turned out, my doctoral dissertation focused on investigating the confluence of literature and music.

My dissertation composition Red Wind (2017) for narrator, soprano, and chamber ensemble demonstrates many of the artistic benefits of my fascination with music and pre-existent text. A collaboration with Duke professor and poet Nathaniel Mackey, the piece sets selected verses from his sixth collection of poems, Blue Fasa. Professor Mackey works in the areas of modern and postmodern literature in the U.S. and the Caribbean, creative writing, poetry and poetics, and the intersections of literature and music, which in turn make him an ideal subject for my own study. I encountered him at a roundtable discussion in the Department of Music at Duke with composer-performers Andrew Raffo Dewar and Taylor Ho Bynum of the Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quintet in 2015. From there I began my exploration of his series of fictional novels From a Broken Bottle, Traces of Perfume Still Emanate and his serial poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “mu.” I was intrigued by Mackey’s style, which draws heavily upon avant-garde music traditions, particularly jazz, frequently citing artists and compositions that form the basis for his own musings and fantasies. He has a rich background in music, which includes an album Strick, released in 1995 by Spoken Engine Co. and co-written with multi-instrumentalists Royal Hartigan on percussion and Hafez Modirzadeh on reeds and flutes. For many years, he hosted "Tanganyika Strut," a weekly radio program on Santa Cruz public radio station KUSP, which showcased jazz and world music. His work engages heavily with intertextuality among ethnographic, literary, poetic, and musical sources.

Inspired by his poetry, I attempted in Red Wind to amplify many of the musical elements found in the source material and to add new meaning to them. The work forced me outside of my comfort zone in that I went beyond my typical concert-music language to include harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements from jazz, bossa nova, ragtime, and other genres cited in the poetry. I also included quotations from a number of diverse composers such as Luciano Berio, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Claude Vivier. I was lucky enough to have the Red Wind recorded at Duke University, with Mackey narrating his poetry alongside members of ensemble-in-residence Deviant Septet, augmented by soprano Mellissa Hughes. The results were encouraging; the music brings new meaning to Mackey’s original texts by highlighting elements signified therein. Musically, I devised various methodologies for incorporating the source materials into my compositional process that have invigorated my writing and pushed me to explore new avenues that I wouldn’t otherwise have pursued.

Since Red Wind, I have continued to experiment with literary sources, particularly Mackey’s works. Bass Cathedral, the fourth installment of his fictional series From a Broken Bottle, Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, became the subject of another of my dissertation pieces, this one taking the shape of a clarinet concerto for wind ensemble. It was much different dealing with purely instrumental music instead of spoken and sung text, but this more abstract setting was also an exciting challenge. Mackey’s series follows the progress of the protagonist N., a multi-instrumentalist and composer, and his fellow bandmates in the ensemble Molimo m’Atet, formerly known as The Mystic Horn Society. Taking the form of letters written from N. to one Angel of Dust, the novel catalogs the band’s experience publishing and touring a new record entitled Orphic Bend. Bass Cathedral for clarinet and wind ensemble springs out of one poignant, recurring aspect of the novel: the imagery of balloons. Early on in the story, while listening to a test pressing of their album Orphic Bend, the band remarks that upon the very first note plucked by bass player Aunt Nancy a balloon emerges from the point where the needle and the vinyl meet. To the surprise of the band, balloon after balloon containing fragments of text rise from the record. The idea of the text within the balloons inspired me to incorporate these texts into my compositional process in a variety of different ways ranging from constantly rising gestures imitating balloons to ciphers embedded in the harmonic fabric of the work. The result is a phantasmagoric piece that tries to capture the energy of a free-jazz performance in a concert work. It was premiered in February at the Boston Conservatory with David Angelo on clarinet.

My explorations into the confluence of literature and music have proved fruitful and invigorating. I find inspiration in other art forms as well. During my time at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music I am working on a new string quartet for the Del Sol Quartet, which was inspired by the jewelry of René Lalique. As I continue on my musical journey, I’m always looking forward to discovering art forms that incite my imagination and stimulate new, shared experiences with audiences.


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Composer Sid Richardson writes concert music that imbues modern idioms with emotional grit and cerebral wit. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Sid is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Music at Duke University in Durham, NC. Find out more on Sid's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank