Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Sound and the Fury: the Malleability of Art

The Sound and the Fury seemed to set out with one overarching goal in mind, which was to prove just how fluid art can be. More specifically, showing that just because a piece of art was created specifically for one medium (such as literature), does not mean that it cannot be translated into other artistic vehicles.


The premise was simple: the night promised three respected Canadian authors reading pieces from their latest works to the audience. Afterwards, both the audience and the authors would be treated to a selection of music performed by the talented Mike Dubue, frontman to the Ottawa based band Hilotrons, which was commissioned to reflect each one of the stories created by the authors.

The first to present was Russell Smith, reading from his new collection of short stories entitled Confidence. The story that he read from, titled “Racoon,” presented the reader with a narrative of frustration—frustration with spouses, frustration with ex-flames, and most importantly, a frustration with racoons (and really, who can blame him?) The story was comedic when it needed to be, yet dark and thoughtful at all other times, all told leading to an entertaining and engaging journey. After he was finished, attention was turned to the projector screens set up around the hall, and Dubue began his performance, “Sexual Shivers.” While not based off of the particular story that was read during the night, the song carried many of the themes found in the story, starting in a melancholy plea, and becoming more aggressive and anxious as the song went on, all while being accompanied by the soft plucking of a violin.  

After the musical number, author Neil Smith took the stage to read the first chapter from his new book, Boo. Taking place in the late 1970s, Boo follows the story of a young boy who finds himself dead, and sent to an afterlife compromised entirely of 13 year old Americans. Told in a light hearted, jovial manner, Boo appears to be equal parts religious satire, and coming of age story. While the reading was short, it left me wanting more, and I found myself leaving the night with a brand new copy of the book in tow (Boo is set for release world-wide within the next couple of weeks). The musical piece that accompanied the reading, “My Heart Will Not,” showed the story in a much more melancholy light, presenting the work in a more sombre, emotional manner than the passage that was read implied, suggesting that the remainder of the book will have a considerable amount of heart to it as well.

Rounding off the trio, Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels read a couple of passages from his new book. Us Conductors follows the fictional life and times of real life composer-turned-spy Lev Termin, creator of the Theremin. For those not in the know, a Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played by conducting your hands in front of a series of antenna, creating sound without any physical contact required. The pieces read to the audience represented Termin as a thoughtful man, who was as anxious as he was proud of his invention, seeing it as the next logical step in the musical world.  While the selections read by Michaels only showed a brief glimpse of Termin’s life, the book promises to be filled with emotion and espionage, and was quick to catch my interest. And this is coming from a guy who had to google what a Theremin was 20 minutes before writing this review.


The final music number of the night was entitled “Subtle Siren Song,” and once again featured Dubue on piano, accompanied by a violin. While this piece was sadly missing any actual Theremin…ing (or is it Thereminizing?), it did use electronic distortion to produce a sound that was both mesmerizing and haunting, traits often found in the instrument that Michael’s novel idolizes.


Part of the main appeal of the night, was experiencing the authors reactions to the musical pieces following their readings, as they had not yet heard the songs until this moment. As Neil Smith described in a question and answer period following the three speakers, the music was able to pull emotions that he had previously experienced regarding characters from his story out of a place of dormancy, and he described himself as almost being moved to tears by “My Heart Will Not.”


While it is hard to say whether the other two authors felt similarly to Smith regarding the musical pieces, what I took away from the night was that it demonstrated just how flexible art and writing can be, showing that even the artists themselves can experience their own work in totally different ways, while still conveying the same emotional message. Representing art not as a concrete structure, but as a collection of ideas and feelings, changing form and expression as the mood sees fit. With something for a wide range of audiences to enjoy, the night was a delightful and thought provoking experience, showing that art was often materializes in the ear of the hearer.