Rockin' in the Ph.D. World

May 5, 2010

There are plenty in higher education who devote themselves to interpreting rock and roll as literature. Fewer devote themselves to the interpreting literature as rock and roll.

But that is what four California academics — three at Stanford University and another at the University of California at Los Angeles — set out to do with their band, Glass Wave. The group, formed two years ago by the Stanford literature professors Robert P. Harrison and Daniel Edelstein, recently released its self-titled debut album.

Inspired by a line in Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” the band’s moniker is consistent with its modus operandi: writing rock songs based on canonical works of literature. The 11-track album adapts themes and narratives from Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov, and sets them to musical compositions, generally in the vein of 1960s and ’70s progressive rock typified by groups such as Pink Floyd, The Soft Machine, and Supertramp.

Glass Wave’s songs tend to emulate the roomy, improvisation-friendly style those bands pioneered. Harrison, who chairs the Italian and French Department at Stanford, plays lead guitar in the band while splitting songwriting duties with Edelstein, and is liable to embark on a Pink Floyd-style solo on any given song. (The professor mailed a copy of the album to legendary Floyd songwriter Roger Waters, but has not heard back.) “The ’70s tradition that I grew up with is very alive in this music,” Harrison says. “The ’80s and ’90s did not happen for me musically.”

What happened instead was graduate school at Cornell University, where Harrison studied Dante and earned a doctorate in 1984, and a professorship at Stanford — during which time he set aside his ax and set his creative energies to authoring books and, more recently, hosting a weekly radio talk show where he discusses life and literature with guests.

At the end of one semester in 2008, Harrison and Edelstein decided it would be fun to lead an “exam review” by performing adaptations of the course texts set to classic rock hits. (Edelstein wailed a summary of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, to the tune of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”) Harrison’s brother Thomas, a literature professor at UCLA who has taught courses on the music of Pink Floyd, joined on bass. In the audience was Christy Wampole, a doctoral candidate in French and Italian with training in cabaret and 20th-Century chanson, a French folk form. Later, Wampole would come on board as the band’s lead singer. The group also brought in Colin Camarillo, a local jazz drummer, to keep time.

Translating existing works of literary art into the differently-dimensioned art of pop music is a creative process quite unlike that of writing a book or hosting a radio show, says Harrison. Merely superimposing Poe or Shakespeare on to a piece of music, he says, would not do; their lines are too dense. Recasting a poem or essay as a song, Harrison says, requires the translator to keep a minimum of words and fill out the rest with instrumental language — the chord sequences, phrasing, and instrumentation, which can do as much to establish a tone or reinforce a theme as pages of literary exposition.

Some bands that have attempted similar projects have tried too hard to acquit themselves of any sacrilegious tampering and have wound up with verbose, overburdened songs, Harrison says. Glass Wave takes a different tack. Instead of synopsizing plots, the songs attempt to “open up new narrative possibilities,” says Wampole. “They try to retell unheard perspectives of certain characters from the books.” In other words: Less Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, more Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "I grab you by your neck to stay / you splash and fall and swim away," says Echo to an incorrigible Narcissus. "Give me a friend to ride the waves / A companion to the grave / to the grave, my grave," pines Frankenstein's lonely monster to its creator.

“It’s intimidating if you take literature as seriously as we do… realizing how risky is such a translation process, because it would be very easy to just parody or travesty the original text,” Harrison says.

“This kind of music really stands or falls on how much it translates into aesthetic pleasure,” he says. “It has to succeed musically first and foremost. The lyrics can be absolutely fantastic. But if the music sucks, it’s going nowhere.”

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