Ahhh, nothing beats dinner and a show, especially when said show combines literature and music. On May 1, we donned our finest and flocked to Hugh’s Room in Toronto’s West End for the inaugural Torn from the Pages: An Evening of Music and Prose, part of the Globe and Mail Open House Festival. Musician and author Dave Bidini hosted the event, with proceeds going to PEN Canada and Frontier College.
The evening’s theme was interpretation. Presenters selected books from a single publisher’s catalogue, in this case the venerable Coach House Books. Authors read from their own works or those of others, and musicians interpreted the books into a song or two.
After we finished our salads and entrees we settled back for the show. First up, local poet Matthew Tierney read two poems from Jeremy Dodds’s acclaimed Crabwise to the Hounds, and two from his own book, The Hayflick Limit. He had the crowd tittering with Dodds’s “Epileptic Acupuncturist,” and snagged me with the lines “The mind is a terrible thing/to keep chaste.” The Prince Brothers then set Dodds’s book to music. The combo of the chorus—“acrobats in waiting rooms/flipping through magazines”—and the slide guitar had me reminiscing about watching planes fly overhead in the fields near the Vancouver Airport. Who knows how these associations work.
Sheila Heti, writer and creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series, was next, reading selections from Darren O’Donnell’s Your Secrets Sleep with Me. In addition to being a writer, O’Donnell is the artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, and one of Heti’s favourite theatre artists. Selina Martin, in white vinyl boots, then took the stage. Blame serendipity: Martin’s song was based on many of the excerpts that Heti had read. If the nodding head of the mustachioed man in the front row was any indication, they both pulled it off admirably.
We then moved west to Winnipeg. Writer Charles Molgat read from Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, based on Maddin’s film of the same name. Wearing a hockey sweater emblazoned with the logo of My Winnipeg’s mythic Black Tuesdays, Molgat read about major moments in Winnipeg history, including razing the Eaton’s to make way for an ice rink. Manitoba-born singer-songwriter Paul Linklater confessed he chose My Winnipeg as his book to interpret because it was the only one that he could watch on DVD … and even then, he never got around to watching it. He could have fooled me. With his wife, Donna, he played two songs, backed by a delightfully effervescent drummer.
Are you catching the rhythm of the evening? Welcome to intermission, and strawberry sorbet.
The second set was more streamlined, as writers read from their own works rather than others’. Andrew “Double Threat” Wedderburn, himself a musician, read from The Milk Chicken Bomb, a novel about, among other topics, vindictive lemon seeds and how many crumpled balls of foolscap a ten-year-old boy can fit in his mouth before the sodden wads of paper become stuck. For the record, the answer is four. Cuff the Duke’s guitarist Wayne Petti’s sartorial perfection was an ideal introduction to his (by his own admission) creatively titled song “The Milk Chicken Bomb.” Confidence abounded.
Playwright and novelist Claudia Dey did an amazing reading from her debut novel, Stunt. Takeaway advice: always match your outfit to your book. With her black shirt and pants, red boots, and long necklace that mimicked the rope on the cover, Dey coordinated perfectly with Stunt. The Billie Hollies were magnificent in their rendition of Dey’s novel. You might not think a French horn, clarinet, autoharp, stand-up bass, electric guitar, and operatic vocals are the obvious choice to interpret a book about family, the darker parts of ourselves, and tightrope walking. But you’d be wrong.
The night closed with a reading from the bestselling Canadian poetry book of all time. And no, the reclusive bard of Montreal did not make an appearance. Christian Bök’s reading from Eunoia was my personal highlight of the event. Eunoia, perhaps more than any other work in the program, demands to be read aloud. Dressed in a grey suit, Bök even reminded me of David Byrne. He issued a disclaimer—NSFW (Not Safe for Work)—before reading excerpts from the expletive-laden Chapter U. His performance, with its vitality, cacophony, assonance, and expert pacing, merged music and literature so successfully that further musical interpretation was hardly needed. But boy, was it welcome. Dave Bidini and Bidiniband then finished the set with a song that used all five vowels, plus y, and even a range of consonants. Their version of Chapter U set a man dancing solo between the tables. NSFW, indeed.
When the lights came up, we turned to each other, sated and beaming. The evening was a resounding success. An event with such a multitude of performers necessitated numerous set changes, and the transitions were all fairly seamless. The music breathed new life into the texts, if not tearing then gracefully easing them from the pages. Funds went to incredibly worthy literacy organizations. The merch table was swamped. And the paprikash was delicious.