After winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for
fiction, Michael Cunningham’s novel "The Hours" became
the basis for 2002’s acclaimed movie version, which not only
starred Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Ed Harris, but also
won Nicole Kidman a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal
of Virginia Woolf.
This weekend, the 51-year-old author and Brooklyn College professor,
a Cincinnati native, will be the focus of a Brooklyn Philharmonic
concert titled "Words and Music." The Philharmonic
program is an unusual one, juxtaposing excerpts from Cunningham’s
novels (which the author will read), with the orchestra, led
by conductor William Eddins, performing music that either inspired
or appears in his works’ narratives.
"It’s an attempt to blur the lines a little bit among three
different art forms – movies, music and literature," Cunningham
explains in an exclusive interview with GO Brooklyn from his
Manhattan home. "The reason, of course, is that none of
this comes out of nowhere. Not only does music come from other
music and books evolve out of other books, but books can also
evolve out of music."
Cunningham’s work is Exhibit A. In addition to "The Hours,"
his other novels are 1990’s "A Home at the End of the World"
and 1995’s "Flesh and Blood" (all published by Farrar
Straus & Giroux). He freely admits that music has been important
to the creation of many passages in all three novels, so it was
with excitement that he agreed to sign on for the Philharmonic’s
"[The Philharmonic] wanted to do an evening of ’The Hours’
with Philip Glass and me, to include music that Philip wrote
for the movie," he says. "And they wanted to include
music that was influential in the writing of my books – I always
listen as I write – music that felt germane to the books, which
had to do with the writing of the books. So, an evening of all
that music coupled with some short readings from my novels was
just too good an offer to turn down."
Glass’ score – which earned an Oscar nomination – is represented
by "A Suite from ’The Hours,’" which is, in everything
but name, a piano concerto in three movements. The piece is a
commission from the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony,
and long-time Glass collaborator Michael Reisman will perform
the demanding solo part.
Cunningham, who often listens to Glass’ music while writing,
was thrilled that Glass was enlisted to compose the score, but
adds, "It was slightly spooky that a musician who had helped
engender my writing was going to write the score for the movie
based on my novel.
"What I love about his music is a certain kind of intensity,
a kind of lushness, a certain fearlessness about beauty. Writers
today tend to sneer at beauty, tend to dismiss it as sentimental,
and I don’t feel that way. I like these auditory reminders that
beauty is alive and well."
Also on the program are excerpts from Verdi’s classic opera "La
Traviata" and contemporary composer Steve Reich’s "Eight
Lines," two works that rarely, if ever, have shared the
same stage. But to Cunningham, both Verdi and Reich are equally
"Any music that involves a sustained and intense emotion
is useful and is inspiring to me," he notes, "whether
it’s ’La Traviata,’ which is nothing but emotion, or ’Eight Lines,’
which is much more abstract but equally penetrating to me, and
full of a kind of force that I feel in Verdi’s music as well."
As for Franz Schubert, whose haunting "Death and the Maiden"
quartet will be heard in an orchestration by Gustav Mahler, Cunningham
relates an epiphany of sorts, associated with hearing Schubert’s
music while writing.
"When I was trying to write about Virginia Woolf in ’The
Hours’ – most particularly when I was writing about the day of
her death – I was having a very hard time doing it, trying to
imagine an intensely private moment in the life of a real person,"
he explains. "I didn’t want to be lurid or gratuitous. I
wanted it to feel real, and while listening to Schubert, I began
to feel my way into it. [Schubert’s] utterly unsentimental sadness
made it possible for me to write that scene. I owe it all to
Even after the acclaim for both the novel and the movie "The
Hours," Cunningham still finds it hard to believe that a
novel that explores the parallel lives of three very different
women who lived many years apart was actually filmed and released.
"I told my agent, ’Whether this book sells or doesn’t sell,
no one’s going to want to make this into a movie,’" he says
with a laugh. "I was wrong."
Now that he’s conquered both page and screen, all that is left
is the stage.
"It will be my first appearance on the BAM Opera House stage,"
Cunningham says with only a hint of trepidation, "but, since
no one has ever asked me to do this before, it very well may
be my last!"
The Brooklyn Philharmonic and author
Michael Cunningham perform "Words and Music" at the
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place
in Fort Greene, Feb. 14 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20, $40 and $55.
Tickets are available by logging on to www.brooklynphilharmonic.org.
For more information, call (718) 622-5555.