BEAT:LITT – how libraries make stories come to life in the intersection between literature and music

Katinka playing her tender tunes at a BEAT:LITT event at Roskilde Library September 2020. Photo courtesy: Sofie Jekel

To me libraries are very much about stories; stories that move us and connect us. Stories from which we learn and grow – both as individuals and as community. Literature and music are both powerful mediums for those stories, and through Roskilde Libraries BEAT:LITT program we seek the intersection between the two when we invite musicians to give artist talks about the books that have made lasting impressions on them.

In this article, music librarian at Roskilde Libraries Anya Mathilde Poulsen (mail: anyap at roskilde dot dk), who launched the concept, unfolds the format

Enjoy

Christian

When I was a teenager, music was my greatest passion. It still is. And I can positively say that a large part of the books which I borrowed from my local library were discovered via bands and solo artists whose music I loved. 

These books were not artist biographies. They were novels, poetry, short stories, plays and so forth – books or writers that had been mentioned by my favourite musicians in lyrics or interviews. As a teenager in a small and often lifeless Danish town in the 1980s, music became my road map into the amazing world of literature. It was The Smiths referencing 19th century English/Irish poetry with a line like “Keats and Yeats are on your side, while Wilde is on mine.” It was The Cure leading to Albert Camus and existentialism. It was David Bowie and his short-lived fling with the Screaming Lord Byron persona whose silk turban and gold make-up made the teenage me curious about the real Lord Byron. Who was he, what did he write, what did he do in real life? 

A different kind of library progam

My fascination with the intersections between music and literature is still strong and became the inspiration for BEAT:LITT, an event format which I conceptualized at the Roskilde Libraries a couple of years ago. 

On BEAT:LITT nights, a Danish musician or band play a short concert on the intimate stage in the music section of the library. Before the concert, the artists take part in a talk about their favourite books and writers. These atmospheric evenings draw significant numbers of people to the library, so (luckily) it seems that I am not the only person with a combined love of music and books.

The musicians are asked in advance to send us a list of books or authors that they would like to talk about. Most do. Some forget. Either way the conversations remain fascinating and bring about a heightened awareness of many different kinds of writers and literature. 

Danish musician Kira Skov talking with Anya Mathilde Poulsen about some of the literature that have made an impact on her life and music. Photo courtesy: Peter Høybye

Katinka and the literature of the body

About a week ago, rising Danish star Katinka was our special guest. She had chosen three books by contemporary authors Tine Høeg, Cecilie Lind and Olga Ravn. Books she had read recently, after becoming the mother of twins, which led to an intriguing conversation about, among other things, how the mother body is portrayed in literature and about the challenges and prejudices that the music industry throws at female musician who become mothers. 

Katinka and Anya Mathilde Poulsen in conversation at BEAT:LITT. Photo courtesy: Sofie Jekel
Photo courtesy: Sofie Jekel

Katinka also talked about her long lasting love for the classic Danish author Herman Bang, famous for his “stille eksistenser” (“quiet characters”), and how she was a “late bloomer” when it came to reading, which was a bit of a problem in her bookish family. However, the vintage Danish children’s book “Snøvsen” became her awakening. What she loved about that book was the way it deals with images and metaphors, making them real, and she explained how she saw some of the same mechanisms at work in the literature she cherishes in her adult life, such as the Nobel Prize-winning words of Herta Müller and Svetlana Aleksijevitj.

Photo courtesy: Sofie Jekel

Revitalizing vintage books

At another BEAT:LITT night, the young, successful Danish musician Bisse passionately recommended the autobiography of the Danish priest and poet Kaj Munk, who was executed by Germans toward the end of World War II.

It may have been a surprise to many in the BEAT:LITT audience that a young, hip musician would choose a book published in 1942 which had to be dug out from our library basement depot. But Bisse’s passionate reading from it made a convincing case that it was a fascinating read. In this way, the format also revitalizes vintage literature which might otherwise be relegated to a life on dusty shelves. 

The same night included recommendations of the literature of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who wrote under a list of heteronyms (not just other names but complete other identities that Pessoa constructed for himself) as well as the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose incredibly long sentences is mirrored in Bisse’s way of writing lyrics.

Some might call this “difficult” literature but Bisse made it vibrant and relevant. 

Danish artist Bisse du out old literature and made it vibrant and relevant. Photo courtesy: Hanne Katrine Rasmussen

Easy to find artists for the talks

When searching for artists for the format, we always look for musicians who display a very clear interest in and connection to literature in their own art. Finding relevant artists has been absolutely unproblematic so far. Many musicians are avid readers and enjoy the possibility of talking about art apart from their own releases.

Danish musician Ida Gard guested us in connection with her album Womb, an entire album based on inspiration from Mikael Niemis cult novel Popular Music from Vittula. It turned out that she had also visited Niemi in the north of Sweden and shot at beer cans with him.

Sometimes we turn the format on its head and invite writers who play music. This was the case when Danish poet Caspar Eric visited BEAT:LITT with his band SUPAPAWA. That particular artist talk revolved around the influence of hip hop and artists like Lil Wayne, Chief Keef and Beyoncé on Caspar Eric’s poetry.

Exhibitions and podcast as added value

In addition to taking the audience on journeys into unexpected territories in the literary world, the BEAT:LITT concept also opens up the potential for other ways of highlighting the recommendations of the artists.

An exhibition with the books and music is a given. Furthermore, we record the talks and publish them on our podcast channel Lydspor Roskilde, making it possible for listeners throughout Denmark to enjoy the talks and be inspired by the books discussed. The Podcasts can alos be found on Spotify and Podimo

Music as a bridge to information and learning

It is my firm belief that music is a powerful medium when it comes to learning about the world we inhabit. Bruce Springsteen has a line that goes: “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” There is more than a little truth in that. I do not mean to dismiss the value of teachers or of formal training. What I mean is that there is a fascination value in music, which can serve as a very direct bridge to knowledge.

Music is tightly connected with pleasure.  We put on songs because we feel like it. It is for enjoyment, rarely something we have to do. When you get curious about references in a song or when a musician mentions other kinds of art, for instance literature, and you start researching those references, you may pass through a gateway into vast fields of knowledge fueled by interest rather than obligation.

This is a unique force in music and something which deserves much more attention than it has been given in general so far. There are more library formats built around this waiting to be conceptualized, I’m sure, and I believe there is a lot to be gained by exploring this more deeply in the future.

Words by Anya Mathilde Poulsen, Roskilde Libraries

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