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Blowing the Horns of Elfland
Ellen Kushner and the Magic of Music
A conversation with Jeff Berkwits


Ellen Kushner
Ellen Kushner
Born in Cleveland, Ellen Kushner went to Bryn Mawr College then graduated from Columbia University. Her first novel, Swordspoint, is something of a cult classic while her second novel, Thomas the Rhymer, won both a World Fantasy Award and a Mythopoeic Award for best novel of 1990.

Sound & Spirit at WGBH
Ellen Kushner Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Horn of Elfland

Sound & Spirit
For many music fans, sound holds a special magic that can be both enchanting and invigorating. A well-crafted tune can literally bewitch a listener, carrying him or her away to distant galaxies or fantastic realms and energizing both the spirit and the imagination. In that regard music is quite similar to speculative literature. It also has a mystical element that can at times be even more powerful than the printed word, according to noted fantasy novelist and radio host Ellen Kushner. "Nobody understands how music works, and that's what makes it magical," she states. "Although someone can be a great composer, just as in a fantasy novel someone can be a great wizard, how they work their respective magics is still a mystery. That's the wonder of it."

That sense of wonder is important to both music and literature, which Kushner sees as being thoroughly interrelated. "I cannot read unmusical writing," she says bluntly. "It doesn't have to be eloquent or florid, but it does have to be musical. That may mean using dashes in sentences, or putting 'he said' and 'she said' at natural breaks in the dialogue. The descriptions can vary. The length of the sentences can vary. Even the vowels you use in a word can vary, depending on what's happening and how you want the work to sound as you're reading it. For me, however, everything comes from text, although I admit text comes from sound so it's sort of like a snake eating its tail."

The interaction of music and words is readily apparent in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, published in 1990 and winner of both the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards. The prose tale recounts the Medieval ballad of True Thomas, who upon meeting the Queen of Elfland is tricked into becoming her slave. Ultimately he is released, but not before gaining the gift of prophecy, which becomes both an advantage and a hindrance as he returns to the mortal world. Kushner studied that story and dozens of other works of folklore to better understand and incorporate their elements into her lyrical book.

"There is a particular diction to ballad language," she explains. "There are standard ways of describing things and standard rhythms to saying things. Lines like 'I saw the queen, and an angry queen was she' are typical. I tried to give my work those rhythms. The characters are talking, as it were, in ballad speak."

This harmonic compositional style was even apparent in her first novel, Swordspoint, though the tale itself featured no overt melodious elements. "There were no musical instruments, and nobody sings, but I wrote it very musically," Kushner notes. "I paid a great deal of attention to rhythm, cadence and tone." Ironically, the book was labeled as 'mannerpunk,' an adapted musical moniker coined by critic Donald G. Keller for works that broke with the agrarian, Tolkienian fantasy tradition. "Mannerpunk tended to have an urban edge," continues Kushner. "In its way it was meant to be as cutting edge in fantasy as punk rock was to music in its time."

With the May, 1997 release of The Horns of Elfland, an anthology of short stories that combine the themes of music and magic, her uniquely lyrical literary vision should become even more evident. This collection, which she is co-edited with Keller and novelist Delia Sherman, was issued by Roc Books and offers speculative insights from 15 writers (including Kushner) into the enchanting energy of music. These tales, most of which have a contemporary setting, include a jazz-based fable from John Brunner, a story about a player piano from Gene Wolfe and a yarn set in the world of hip-hop by newcomer Ray Davis.

Not surprisingly, communicating the importance of the interconnection of music, literature and human experience is vital for Kushner. "I'm not a professional musician," she states, although she has occasionally played guitar in coffee houses and bookstores. "I'm also not a trained musicologist. Yet when I find out about something interesting I want to share it with you." This desire is the cornerstone of her nationally syndicated radio program Sound & Spirit. The weekly show, produced at WGBH Radio in Boston and distributed by Public Radio International, is a celebration of the magical power of music.

"Why music and magic?" Kushner writes in the introduction to Solstice, a story by Jennifer Stevenson from The Horns of Elfland. "Well, besides the fact that all of us love them both a lot, around the world and through the ages people have believed that music is full of power, and that magic needs music." It's clear that for Kushner and fans of speculative sound, music is not only meaningful but also mystical. In that sense music, in all its forms, truly is magic.

Copyright © 1996 by Jeff Berkwits

Jeff Berkwits publishes ASTERISM: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music, and is also a contributor to publications such as Science Fiction Weekly and Outré. He has been a speculative fiction fan for most of his life and has fond memories of reading The Hobbit aloud with his family around the dinner table.


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