An Essay on the Compositional Features Found in Edward Gorey’s Works
I have been a life long collector of the illustrated story genre. It’s a moving picture with dialogue and drama. It combines several mediums and, therefore, talents join to create universes with imaginative journeys to explore. Akin to the 1890 Dickson Kinetograph, a primitive motion picture camera, images are presented one frame at a time. With Edward Gorey you get the writer and the illustrator in one glorious package, a master of both mediums and of the illustrated-story art form.
Gorey had a deep knowledge of the history of film and especially enjoyed the silent film genre which were executed in hues of black and white. With film you get constant motion from the presentation of hundreds of thousands of individual pictures called frames. With Gorey you get a handcrafted work of art on each page of a book with or without text. The action leaps out from the page, so to speak, and often outside of the framed illustration leaving much to your imagination.
And that is where inspiration arrives if you’re an artist absorbed with the world of Edward Gorey. Because many of his drawings are characters in motion, and the action is left to your imagination, you get a sense of tempo that is imbedded in his works. And because his works are modern short narratives, compositional aspects can be deduced from his oeuvre when composing music with Gorey as a subject matter. Since the pleasure of music is basically intrinsic, composers, knowing this, compose music that allows listeners to use their imagination or their bodies to move together with the beat in creative gestures e.g., ballet or the musical.
Modern musical compositions are rarely very long works, many are heard within a 2–8-minute range. One single Gorey book can be read in the same amount of time and, typical to modern music, there can be climaxes but often there are none to be heard. So, to with Gorey. Because of this and of his mostly insistent use of these techniques: dada relationships, surrealism, and his use of non sequiturs you could make the case for an atonal musical score where the situational independence of frames, characters and text create a dramatic effect. In music, notes are the highlights of this compositional style, there is no tonal center and therefore every pitch gets equal weight. Which is exactly what I did when I composed my first Quartet in his honor. Found on Starry Night, this 6-movement atonal work was inspired by Gorey’s works.
There is a sense of motion in Gorey’s illustrations that is also true of my own music, as I reflect upon it. I have had reviewers mention this. Momentum is a necessary element in music. The forward projection, be it sound, frames, turning the page to discover an alarming or surprising or hilarious outcome or situation, keeps your interest and entertains. Music has to do the same or it can be ineffectual. Knowing this, Gorey, keeps us suspended in anticipation, another key musical element necessary to keeping music interesting.
The careful use of dynamics is important in music, and you can feel it in the denseness of the pen and ink cross hatchings, a characteristic feature of Gorey’s works. To illicit emotions or an emotional response Gorey uses a lot of cross hatchings, which can provide the reader with a sense of drama, fear, tension, excitement, alarm, surprise, suspense, dread, or sheer horror and shock! In music, dynamics, or a gradual concentration of instruments over time can build dense layers of sound that gives us the above sensations.
Each Gorey book has its own rhythm. A strong, regular pattern of forward movement (my music is often shifting patterns over time) is what makes each Gorey book unique. So, to with form. Form, or purposeful lack thereof, is essential in all art. Edward’s books come in all shapes and sizes and within each there is a consistent theme which is developed to great effect. Be it a wordless pictorial of Edwardian B&W grandness and mystery (The West Wing) to a colorful, playful cheeriness with danger lurking (The Wuggly Ump), Edward’s sense of form is impeccable. The expansion and development of ideas is never lacking, nor should this be the case for great music.
Style is ubiquitous, genius abounds, and life is so much better having Mr. Gorey’s creatures, characters, and humorous and disquieting situations dance for us in the Goreyian Universe of charm and delight.
In 1927, Daniel Gregory Mason published a book entitled Artistic Ideals that I recommend aspiring artists read. Containing great insights into the artistic temperament, Mr. Mason advances that artists need to have these six intrinsic qualities to produce great art: Independence, Spontaneity, Workmanship, Originality, Universality and Fellowship. Never have I easily identified with the concepts stated within a musical tome.
A quick summarization: Understanding that art has been the creation of individuals who persevere despite herd pressure, independence is the fundamental artistic ideal. The artist needs to be absorbed acting spontaneously in the art process itself. From spontaneity comes freedom, freedom to express oneself unspoiled by concern for the fate of the musical product. Great art is created out of the void, arduous toil, and mental labor. Good workmanship consists of understanding that you are a fascinated participator vis-vis the artistic process, avoiding marketplace demands. You discover beauty and excellence through the longest path, the most arduous journey, and in solitude which leads to obscurity, the price of originality. True originality is slow growing and a powerfully slow disciplined intention, time being your ally. Universality implies discovering beauty, taking an impersonal view of the world and your art knowing that egotism and universality does not mix; philosophic truth is universal. The artist's business is not to find an audience but to find the right attitude towards one. There is a necessary relationship between the work of art and its audience. Art is not only expression but also a means of address (to an ideal), addressing ourselves to others, hence the fellowship, the artistic process being essentially social.
This book is a rare gem of great insight and wisdom that rings true today as it did 100 years ago.