I first became immersed in the writings of Italo Calvino in the late 1980s, a few years after his death. They connected immediately in my mind to the Beckett stories I had pored over so assiduously as a student, but the sumptuous prose and elaborate labyrinths of form and meaning gave Calvino’s books a good deal more warmth. He made despair a many-splendored thing; in his hands, the heaviest material leapt off the pages as on the wings of Pegasus.
At the end of the 1990s, when I turned my hand to writing string quartets, the words from the end of Calvino’s Invisible Cities came to me as a wellspring of purpose. Having described, over the course of the book, Kublai Khan’s empire in fantastical, alternately uplifting and disturbing detail, Marco Polo lays out the choices one has for proceeding into the future. His advice got me started on a cycle of quartets, making each one a concentrated essay on an independent topic; taken together they would describe a vast, variegated landscape.
But in the twelve years I spent composing the first five quartets of this cycle, Calvino stayed untouched on my bookshelf. I wanted to avoid referencing his words and ideas; I wanted the music to come from my own observations and limitations, rather than dealing in second-handedness. Calvino lit the spark, but I’ve been stoking the flames.
Now that I’m in the initial stages of drafting the sixth and final quartet, Calvino has climbed down from my shelf once more. Reading and analyzing Invisible Cities again for the first time in fifteen years, I am even more entranced and befuddled by the seeming circumlocutions that always turn out to be as precise and succinct as possible, given the subject matter. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino discusses five literary values: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity (a sixth, consistency, was planned, but his death intervened). In order to follow the speedy, dramatic shifts of perspective that result from his application of those principles, I’ve found that I’m best off reading the words aloud, and making hand gestures to illustrate the words as I say them, in a kind of sign language improvised by a person who doesn’t speak sign language. I will state the obvious: this kind of reading is best done alone, because the resulting convolutions would appear insane to any observer. Reading this way, though, helps me take in the full weight (or full lightness) of each word, retaining a shadow of its value while the succeeding words speed off in the opposite direction.