Back in August, Brow
that Nicholson Baker, the virtuoso novelist and critic, had
recorded a protest song about
the construction of a military base on an island in South Korea.
A gentle, understated tune, "Jeju Island Song" mourned the
possible destruction of "a beautiful place I've never been," as
Over the last couple weeks, Baker has returned to
the medium, and brought it to bear on what, in the U.S. at
least, are more controversial topics. "Whistleblower Song," for
instance, is about Bradley
Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who gave classified materials
to WikiLeaks, whom Baker describes as a hero who "deserves our
thanks and respect." The song's lyrics are taken from a
cockpit video allegedly provided by Manning, in which a
pilot says of people below, "When you get on them, just open
them up," and from a text message that Manning wrote to the man
who turned him in, which mentioned "awful things that belong in
the public domain."
Another song, "When You Intervene,"
is about American military involvement in Libya, and includes
the lines, "You weaponized the Arab Spring / And that changed
Apart from "some tunes for
lines of old poetry" described in his novel The
Anthologist, these recent forays
into music are the first songs Baker has written, he told me in
an email today. "I haven't been this besotten, if that's the
word, with music since I was in high school listening to
Sibelius's second symphony with JVC headphones clamped to my
head. It's absorbing to start with a broken melodic motif and
add layers under and over it." He added, "I'm no singer,
Baker has recorded most of the
music in his barn, though "Nine Women Gathering Firewood," the
most recent, he "wrote on a plane to Texas using a tiny portable
keyboard," later singing it "into a green and gold Chinese-made
microphone at my kitchen table while the crows called outside."
He has been helped, he explained, "by software manuals and
how-to videos." He cited another YouTube video, by a user named
Kirobaito, as an example of "what protest songs are all about."
Kirobaito sings "The
Green Fields of France" by Eric Bogles "in his room, into a
jittery webcam, leaning over his guitar, with the flag of
Scotland behind his head... I defy anyone to listen to this
performance and not be moved," he said.
I asked Baker why he chose to respond to recent
events with song rather than by writing something about them.
"Part of it," he told me, "is that it feels less like carping
than an essay. The other part is that you can be truer to the
grief you feel."
Baker has more to say on the subject in a short
piece posted today on The
New Yorker website.