Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Strange Sweet Song"

Adi Rule grew up among cats, ducks, and writers. She studied music as an undergrad, and has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Rule is a member of, and has been a soloist for, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Boston Pops. She lives in New Hampshire.

Rule applied the Page 69 Test to Strange Sweet Song, her first novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
[Mrs. Bigelow presses "play" again, and more birdsong hisses through. It is the same song ... almost, Sing thinks. Something’s not right.

She realizes what the strange, many-lined staves are just before Mrs. Bigelow says, "Here are sonograms of the two different songs I just played you. Left to right represents Time, and low to high is Frequency. The smudgy lines that look like notes are the sounds the birds are making. As you can see, the second song – which is the juvenile – is just slightly different from the first. He hasn't quite learned it yet."

Pencils scribble things in notebooks. Sing wonders what everyone’s writing. She looks at her doodle. A shepherdess in a flouncy dress.

"We don't have any silver-eared laughingthrushes here," the teacher says. "But I brought a couple field guides to help you. You're each going to choose a common local bird -- nothing too hard to find, please, since you'll have to study it -- and learn its songs. Birdsongs can be quite lovely and inspiring; several famous composers, like Olivier Messiaen, have even tried to imitate them in their works. I'll give you until the end of class to choose your species."]
This was one of my favorite bits of research for this book. You can find sonograms of birdsong online, and they're absolutely fascinating. They look a little bit like written music.

Sing's (the main character) story is about her struggle to find an identity as a singer despite the long shadows of her celebrity parents. She knows her parents' influence has advanced her training and career -- she hobnobs with world-class musicians and attends a prestigious conservatory -- but she doubts her own worth as an artist. This excerpt, a description of a juvenile bird learning songs from its parents, encapsulates that struggle in a very obvious way, but also has undertones of judgment. The song is described as being "not right," and that the bird hasn't "learned it yet," as though the song the juvenile sings is less worthy.

Sing ends up choosing crows for this assignment, mostly as an act of rebellion, since crow song is harsh and grating. But as she studies them and learns to appreciate the ways in which they communicate, she starts to question what beauty is and what song is. Her connection to the crows becomes an important facet of the story, and a parallel storyline involving one crow in particular intersects in a major way with her own near the end.
Visit Adi Rule's website.

--Marshal Zeringue