Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Songs #1: Madame Bovary's Waltz

This post is the first in a new weekly series I’m planning: every Sunday I’ll post an audio or video recording of a song that doesn’t show up on any Sweet Soubrette album, because it’s either too new or too quirky, with a little bit about where it came from.
A lot of these songs come from my involvement in the Bushwick Book Club, a loose collective of local songwriters who write songs based on monthly book assignments by the club’s fearless leader, Susan Hwang. Susan’s reading list over the past two years has been incredibly eclectic, including everything from children’s books to reference texts to pulp to classics, and each book requires a different approach, so it’s an exercise that never gets stale. Writing songs for the book club has helped me learn to trust my instincts as a songwriter, figure out different ways to write, and work to a deadline (the songs are performed at our monthly events, so there’s no wiggle room). I love the challenge of having to figure out each time what I’m focusing on in the book, and what that means I’m trying to do with the song, and then trying to make that happen. It’s like having to design a puzzle and then solve it. I also love being surprised every time by the infinite variety that a single text can produce when filtered through the minds of a dozen different songwriters.
This past February the book was Madame Bovary, which as an ostensibly literary person I’d been half-heartedly meaning to read for a number of years. I confess I didn’t especially enjoy reading it (and might have left it unfinished, intellectually lazy as that is, if not for the song assignment). Flaubert is so cynical about all of his characters.The characters who populate the book are small, petty people, and even Emma, the heroine, is so unsympathetic—her contempt for her dull, complacent husband, her intelligence polluted by sentimental tastes and superficial desires, her dreams shaped by trashy novels. She gets involved in an affair, and then another, and creates an elaborate structure of lies to cover it all up, and then she gets in trouble with money, mortgaging everything to creditors in order to pay for the affairs--fake piano lessons, hotel rooms, gifts for her lover. It’s inevitable that it all come crashing down on her head.
But after it did, and the book was finished, I found myself feeling tender toward Emma in spite of myself. She brought it all on herself, it’s true. But what were her alternatives? Not only could she not change anything about her life, she wasn’t even in a position to know what another (more intellectual, more independent) life might have looked like. It can be fatal to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, to have vague desires it isn’t possible to meet in your situation and not be able to change your circumstances. The whole tragedy might have been avoidable if Emma Bovary had just been able to move to the city. So my song ended up being sympathetic to her plight after all. Poor Emma.
(Note: the creaking noise you can hear in a few places in the recording is the sound my rickety desk chair makes when I shift my weight. I decided I kind of liked it.)


Rob Hill said...

This is dreamy. Your creaky desk chair deserves an instrumental credit in the liner notes.

Josh said...

Ellia Bisker - Ukulele, Vocals, Piano, Desk Chair