The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Making Music with Ernest Gaines

Irvin Mayfield with his trumpet. Photo courtesy of the artist

When a Big Read author and a National Council on the Arts (NCA) member get together, beautiful music is made---literally. In a project that has been some eight years in the making, jazz musician and NCA member Irvin Mayfield is composing a tribute to Ernest Gaines, the award-winning author of nine novels, including Big Read selection A Lesson Before Dying. The two men have been meeting in Oscar, Louisiana, at Gaines's ancestral plantation---five generations of his family have been born here---located two hours outside of Mayfield's New Orleans home. In the shadow of the church that Gaines restored, they have discussed everything from trees and gospel music to Whitney Houston's funeral and the power of fiction. The result of their collaboration will be performed by Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on November 30 at the Joy Theatre as part of The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society's Big Read program. I recently spoke with Mayfield about translating words into music, the one shot we have at creativity, and what makes Gaines a brilliant writer.

Click here for more information about the performance on November, 30.

NEA: Can you talk about the collaborative process between you and Mr. Gaines? I know Mr. Gaines has said that music is very important to him---does he have strong opinions about how something should sound?

IM: I want him to be really comfortable with what I was writing, so that's the first thing. The second piece of it is really being well-informed. I've read every book the Mr. Gaines has written---I've actually read them now twice. What I was able to in this second go around is read them and then have a lot of discussions with him about characters and ideas. Recently… I played him some excerpts of pieces---he's very pleased with the frameworks.

My imagination expresses itself primarily through music and his does primarily through words. Where we're meeting is not him telling me about music he loves and me telling him about books. We're meeting on a much higher philosophical level. For instance, there's a theme that I wrote for him and I was kind of playing around with the idea of nature…. He loves trees. And you can clearly tell he loves trees, even though in his books he doesn't necessarily spend a lot of time talking about this kind of tree or that… But you could see this is a man who loves his land, and loves the place he is from…. I don’t know if you have ever loved a place like that but, imagine loving a place where you put your hands down in the dirt and you love it. So there's a song that is about just loving a place. That's an amazing thing to be passionate about, space and your environment. So these are the types of themes we were talking through.

[We] obviously talked through the church. Am I writing a song just about church? No, absolutely not. What I did tell him about is that I remember growing up and hearing a lot of the black church stuff… [Gospel] is something that you will not find in any other country, any place, that is a fundamentally an American thing… So we were talking about that sound.

These are the sorts of concepts and things we talk about. It gives me a perspective of saying, “Okay, when I create this song or this piece, I am trying to give people this emotion.” What I am trying to do is give you a notion of something. That's the power of art, when it reinforces things that you know, things that you remember. When you sign on for the path of integrity as an artist, that's where it comes down to. Where's your integrity? Are you just going to write about a tree? This tree is this tall, and has this many leaves? Or are you just going to say that that tree was looking at me? You think of the tree as an old man, you see the tree, you greet one another. When you write a song are you going to have to tell people it’s a tree, or will people be able to listen it and get that same feeling from a song that they get when they sit under a tree? That's the business of art. Art is the translation of emotion into another form. And that's what we are always trying to capture.

NEA: How do you take these conversations that you have had with Mr. Gaines, and also his text, and translate them into music?

MAYFIELD: You know, there’s a song that I wrote that's a statement from Gaines called "The Truth in a Lie.” He told me that there is more truth in a lie than there is in a truth. This is the kind of stuff he says. And I am sitting there, like, “Okay, what the hell does that mean?” And he says if you want to truly learn something about a society, or community, or group of people, you must read fiction. Non-fiction is too restricted---there's not enough in there…. In the arena of fiction…it’s all available, nothing is off limits. And that's basically the premise that Ernest Gaines is working from. When you sit down with him, he says that and this, and it is what makes him a brilliant writer.

It just took me, how many, five minutes to explain this whole thing; he said it with, "There's more truth in a lie that there is in a truth." So for this song, how you can come up with this theme that is [as] rich? Can I come up with a theme that makes you say, “Man, there is a lot in that”? There are songs all the time that I play that people say, “Man, who wrote that? That's a great song." Sometimes it’s the most simplistic song in terms of melody, but there's a richness to it. So you know, dealing with Gaines, I mean, this is how the discussions affect what you do

NEA: Do you remember your own first experience reading his work?

MAYFIELD: Absolutely. First book I read was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I thought she was a real person. When we talked about the book in school and I found out that she was made up, you have to reconsider everything. Then it became less about Jane Pittman and became about him. So then I got interested in his other stuff. I am the kind of guy that I am not satisfied unless I have a certain amout of fiction that I am reading all the time. I love to read the biographies…but I am not satisfied without some Hemingway. I just reread Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I am not satisfied without that.

It came to point with Gaines that I fell in love with his books, because in every book, [there is a section] where he shows off. Where he lets you know that you don't ever have to worry about writing a book like him. In the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, it was when Jane Pittman first tries to leave and she ends up at this black guy’s house who is pretty cynical. He goes on for about four or five pages, which is impressive, of a discussion of why Jane Pittman was never going to make it to the North…It was brilliant. I know people who talk like that. That is most amazing thing about it.

And in A Lesson Before Dying, it is the letter the prisoner writes in the end that is written incorrectly. I mean, he's so genius sometimes that you have to think this man is crazy. In my Father's House, it is the emotions that the preacher is feeling in dealing with the crazy son. He takes a couple of pages just to get out what has happened. Every book he has, there’s this section where one [character] writes about it, but Gaines becomes the person and you experience it with them. I said, "I notice this in every book, what do you call it?" And he says, "Genius."

NEA: Has working with him throughout this process, has it changed how you read his work?

MAYFIELD: It has not changed how I read, but it has changed my ambition in my own work. My ambition in my work is really about the creativity and the imagination of it, as opposed to the technicality of it. When you decide to play jazz growing up, or classical music, there is a high mandate if you want to be like the greats of technical facility… I think what is really missed a lot is that we all have an opportunity to create. I am only here for a short period of time, when you really look at it. Being alive, we get, if we are lucky, 90 years. Maybe a 100 if you are the luckiest of the lucky. So what am I going to say while I am here? How creative and how imaginative can I be? And the other thing that made me think about it, that really all of this stuff  from the telephone you are on right now, to the tape recorder that records things, to the pen you write with, to the trumpet I use, all of it was created out of someone's imagination.

That's the huge disconnect I think we have on a daily basis going through life. We believe things are real and tangible, but all this stuff is temporary and intangible and [made from] imagination. We have the ability to add the color to it, the goodness, the richness, the soul. That's what we have the ability to do with our imaginations and creativity of our thoughts. So for me, Ernest Gaines’s work and talking with him and being mentored through this process, that's the unspoken thing that I have taken away from it. You have one chance, one opportunity. Make sure it is imaginative and creative.

NEA: How do you think the tribute you create will influence the way the audience thinks about or reads Mr. Gaines?

MAYFIELD: I hope that this piece reminds people that there is a great dude that is here and around right now. He's a genius, and his name is Ernest Gaines. And when you read his work, it adds value to your life. It added so much value to my life that I had to dedicate an entire work to it. I would hope that that's the thing people can really take away and I think if they enter through that door, there will be a lot of different rooms they can go through in terms of when they actually start digging into the work.

Click here for more information about the performance on November 30, 2012.


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