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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, too 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 that  Gorey develops 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.

Artistic Ideals


 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.

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