Garth Greenwell is a remarkable novelist. Like vocal lines, his sentences explode with vibrating, irrepressible energy while still assuming classically beautiful forms. What Belongs To You (2016), his debut novel, about collisions between guilt, grief, desire, and openness in the relationship between an American high school teacher and a Bulgarian hustler, was long-and short-listed for several prestigious awards and has been widely translated. Greenwell followed an untraditional path towards prose writing, including stints as a teacher, poet, academic, and singer. We spoke on the phone this winter about his formative experiences hearing and making music, and about the similarities between bringing prosodic and musical shapes out of the body and into the world.
VAN: What was the beginning of your attraction to singing?
Garth Greenwell: I started singing when I was very lost. I had just come out, I had just been kicked out of my father’s home. I had also failed freshman English, which was why I was in the school choir to begin with—I needed some additional credits. Singing gave me something to cultivate in myself. It gave me something to think about and a source of value. I had come to feel that there was not a great deal of value in me, and here was something I could do that felt valuable. First came the physical sensation of singing, and inextricable from that the experience of having a teacher who I admired find something admirable in me. I mean, the physical sensation of singing was remarkable, something I had never experienced before. I had never sung seriously before; no one had ever taught me as this teacher did what it was like to sing with your whole body. It was amazing to me that there was anything so big inside of me—in a real way it suggested an entirely new sense of scale in terms of how I thought about myself. Of course, all of this was bound up with the fact that my singing elicited a response from other people. And this teacher, as part of teaching me how to sing, introduced me to opera and classical singing more broadly. He was an incredibly accomplished singer himself and had exquisite taste and knowledge when it came to recorded singing, and he gave me tools with which to think about listening to Joan Sutherland, to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And that began the process of understanding that when I sang, it wasn’t just a value generated in me, but that I was stepping into a tradition of value and of connoisseurship—and a tradition, I began to slowly realize, of gay connoisseurship. “Opera saved my life” is a melodramatic thing to say but for me it is quite literally true. It gave me something to care about, a reason to think that I myself was something to care about.
Because I could sing I was able to get out of Kentucky and go places where I found a much more congenial world. I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy when I was 16 years old for two years, and everything that happened followed directly from that. It was transformative. All of a sudden I was in this very small, very intense community, the greatest concentration of brilliance I have ever experienced. The way in which I found a path as a writer and before that as a scholar came from Interlochen.
What was your fach? What was your first repertory?
I didn’t start singing Lieder until I was in college, because somehow I was instilled with this very unbending idea that one should only sing in languages in which one could speak. But in high school, discovering the French repertoire was wonderful—singing Fauré for the first time, and Henri Duparc, whose output consists of an incredibly small number of very beautiful songs that I sang and loved singing. Also Ravel and Poulenc. When I got into college and did begin singing in German my favorite Lied composer was Hugo Wolf, whose songs I continue to adore and to find revelatory.
I didn’t get to sing very much opera, and certainly not much in the grand tradition. Mostly Mozart arias. But what I very quickly got excited about was contemporary repertoire. An early passion, and it continued to be a passion, was the music of Benjamin Britten, who is still my favorite composer for the voice. The second opera I ever saw live was Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” in a brilliant production at the Kentucky Opera in Louisville, when I was 14. It was revelatory to me: in terms of the musical language, in terms of the English tenor style, lighter and more flexible than the grand tenor style, but also in terms of the dramatic force, the way the story was constructed and told. I had not read any Henry James before I saw that opera, which was an introduction to a way of dealing with narrative material that I think was foundational to everything that I do as a writer.
Britten sets great texts, and sets them so well—he’s one of the only canonical composers to set English texts convincingly.
Yes! It was really serendipitous that Britten entered my life early and struck such a chord, because being obsessed with Britten is an extraordinary literary education. My first introduction to John Donne was in Britten’s settings of the sonnets, my first introduction to Thomas Hardy was in Britten’s setting of Winter Words, my introduction to Rimbaud was his setting of Les Illuminations, my introduction to James was his setting of Turn of the Screw, my introduction to Thomas Mann was Death in Venice. These were all writers who would become central to my literary aesthetic. So in a way it almost seems providential to have seen it at 14, even though my prose writing was still many, many years off.
Britten’s prosody is better than anyone else’s in English, with the only exception being Purcell. And the music is an interpretation. I think Britten’s settings of John Donne are themselves the best interpretations of John Donne I know. And his reading of Death in Venice is the best reading of Death In Venice I know. The music is not in any way servile to the text, but stands alongside and is revelatory of it. Approaching text, many operatic composers sought a weaker text, they were drawn to an absence or lack in the text that the music could fill. Until Britten, more or less, among major composers only Verdi had chosen these monumental works to set, and almost uniquely in the history of opera wrote music that was equal to and in full partnership with the textual material. Verdi’s “Otello” is remarkably the equivalent of Shakespeare’s play. But I don’t know anything else in opera that is like that, until Britten. There are the great partnerships, but that’s different from a composer turning to a classic, independent text with its own indisputable greatness and trying to compose something that will be the equal of that and that will stand alongside it—different and independent and autonomous. I’m so eager to see the new Kurtág opera because he’s trying to do the same thing with Beckett, and the reviews I’ve read make it sound like he’s succeeded. In which case he will join this very select group of opera composers who have managed to write music and to create works of drama using truly great material.
At what point after conservatory did you realize that singing would not be your life?
It was during conservatory, at the Eastman School of Music, and I realized rather quickly. Part of it was a frustration with my instrument, which wouldn’t do all the things that I wanted it to do. More profound than that, though, was the fact that I came to music so late, which I realized meant that I would always be limited in the ways in which I could engage intellectually with music. As a singer, that isn’t always hugely important. Singers often come to music late—we don’t get our instruments until puberty—and are famously often dull when it comes to the more abstract or intellectual aspects of music. But I was drawn to contemporary music, to working with composers, which became my favorite thing to do; and I was drawn to complex music that I knew I could not hear with the clarity that people around me could hear it.
The most important relationship I developed at Eastman—really, the most important relationship of my life—was with Alan Pierson, who now conducts the brilliant contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound. I was a freshman and he was a first-year master’s student. He and I developed an incredibly intense and ongoing friendship. Alan is the kind of person who was playing the piano before he could speak, who could read music before words: music was his first language. I saw how he could open up a Ligeti score and hear it—he could see on the page structures and relationships I knew I would never be able to see. As a singer, I felt there were parts of my brain that were important to me that were not being used, because they were never going to pick up this language. And that became increasingly frustrating for me, and increasingly sad. The other thing that happened is that my junior year at Eastman I took a poetry class with James Longenbach, and he inspired in me a passion for poetry that was equivalent to the passion I felt for opera. I realized that when it came to language, I could look at a poem and see the structures and correspondences that Alan saw in these complex scores, and that I could engage much more fully as an intellectual consumer of the art. And that appealed to me.
As you moved from consuming language to producing it, did you find that your sense of how language exists in space and time and the body was still rooted in the song repertoire you prefer?
Yes. I’m drawn to the kinds of sentences I’m drawn to because I was an opera singer. I’ve talked before about the way that I think singing, in the bel canto style that was my first education, is an education in the relationship between language and time, and the emotional charge that can be generated by suspending language in time. I think the whole structure of aria-recitativo, where the aria is a kind of suspended or expanded moment, is fundamentally a lyric way of thinking about time. First opera and then poetry trained me in that. When I’m writing I never think of another writer’s sentences, but I do think of singers. When I’m struggling to give shape to a thought, or struggling to find the right shape for a sentence, I will very often have the sound of a particular singer singing a particular phrase in mind. In all those ways my musical education was a literary education in disguise.
And the music that most excited me was not really music that had a straightforward relationship with functional harmony or melody and accompaniment. I was drawn to music that moves in more mysterious ways. The French composers who I was drawn to were pushing functional harmony to the breaking point. Debussy did actually break it. It’s music that is in touch with functional harmony but not really bound by functional harmony. That feels analogous to my sense of narrative, to the kind of books I want to write as opposed to a straightforward, realist novel in the 19th century tradition. The formative aesthetic experiences I had were with music and engaging with music as a singer. The deep preferences and prejudices I have about what art should do and the kind of art I want to make were set when I was 15 years old and first exploring music.
The most profound way that singing shapes my relationship to literary art has to do with the physicality of language. Nothing could give you a more powerful sense of the physicality of language than opera singing. This is something that I feel very strongly, almost in a synesthetic way. Sentences twist and turn for me in a way that I feel in my body, physically and intensely, because I was a singer and because when singing a sentence in a musical phrase you feel the energy of that sentence in a particular way. Britten is drawn to Mann and James and Donne and Hardy; he likes syntax that is recursive, that falls back in on itself, and that is in turn highly articulated in the music. Singing Britten art songs inculcates a sense of how these sentences are falling back on themselves, are interrogating themselves, are changing course. All of that shapes and is central to my sense of the possibilities of English syntax.
Is this still the music that excites you? Do you still sing?
I didn’t sing for a long time. When I left conservatory I made this very melodramatic vow that I would never sing in public again. And for a long time I didn’t sing at all, even privately, for the practical reason that I was living in apartments. Singing is a loud art; it’s hard to adapt it to apartment life. I also told myself a story: that I would be sad, having sung at a relatively high level of accomplishment, if I tried to sing at a lower level of accomplishment. And then a couple of years ago my boyfriend and I moved in together and rented a house in Iowa, and I would sing a little bit when he was gone. Then this year, since mid-August, I’ve been writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. As part of the gig they put you in an enormous house on an immense amount of land, on 70 acres, and I have lots of unstructured time. I’ve begun to sing again with my full voice for the first time since I was 22, which has been a fascinating experience. I had forgotten the pleasure it gives me to sing with my full voice, to make this enormous amount of sound. It’s been interesting to see how my voice has changed. Male voices mature very slowly. I’m 40 now, and it can do things now that it couldn’t do at 21. And it’s fun to engage with singing in a way that feels totally separate from anxieties about accomplishment.
When we moved into the house in Iowa I set up a writing room for the first time, and bought myself a nice electronic keyboard. I was never a real piano player, though I had to study piano as a voice student, but I decided I wanted to have it in my office so that as I was reading about music I could play examples, sound things out. Then I started playing a little bit of Bach every day. The keyboard has headphones, so I don’t have to worry about bothering my boyfriend, or about him hearing all the mistakes I’m making. Playing Bach for half an hour a day has become a profound thing for me. It’s a way to experience thinking outside of language, which was something I had forgotten I enjoyed so much about actively making music. So I guess that was preparation for starting to do things like singing Britten’s “Winter Words” in this house in Mississippi, just for myself, without worrying how it will sound or how someone might hear it—which feels like a very pure engagement with Britten, and with Thomas Hardy. It makes me unbelievably happy. ¶