If one is known by the company he keeps, I have been honored to hang out with some first-rate people in both volumes of Holly Tripp’s Stories of Music.
Tripp had been a marketing writer for over a decade but also played guitar since the age of 16. In 2015, she was inspired by her grandmother’s memories of their midwestern neighbors gathering for impromptu musical performances—“jam sessions” if you will allow. In inclement weather, they even used telephone party lines of the day.
Thus, the seed for what became her two anthologies was planted. Tripp conceived the idea of putting a modern twist on her grandmother’s memories. She wanted to provide “vehicle through which people could share individual musical experiences and celebrate music’s positive influences.” What she came up with what was a hybrid that’s part literary anthology, part coffee table book, part computer interface portal.
In full disclosure, I am a part of these books but prefer to focus on two topics related to these volumes, namely the books themselves as well as their contents—starting with the physical container of each one.
The literary and visual aspects combine narration, poetry, and prose with pictures covering the title’s stated goal of conveying how music touches us in varying ways. The pages combine interviews and essays with more traditional creative writing.
In short, Stories of Music covers multiple genres of music using multiple delivery methods.
The books are slightly oversized yet easily handled. Using high quality glossy paper makes each volume one that can proudly be left out for display, yet they are not heavy in the traditional sense of a “coffee table” book. Instead, they are almost portable and certainly practical enough to carry along for reading or simply leafing through them.
And those pages become akin to a geography lesson of human experience.
As to the content, contributors represent all points of the compass. From India to Moscow to England, Cuba to Uruguay, Indonesia to Bangladesh, Tripp found plenty of ore to mine. Visually, the photographs are both interesting to observe as well as beautiful to delve into, showing many parts of the globe while simultaneously presenting the unifying power of music.
However, these works, as stated in the title, are stories of music.
In her first volume, Tripp incorporated a sonic element as well as the visual and the written, providing QR codes for scanning or the direct URL information. In that way, readers could access portions of the book online for listening to either the entry or its related material.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than Nancy Gustafson’s poem “Swans,” which describes a special rendition of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Le Cygne.” Embedded alongside the written material are three internet entries—the poet’s reading of her own piece, then an interview discussing the origins of the work, and finally a rendition of the musical selection itself as performed by the poet’s sister.
A personal favorite of mine from volume 1 is Jari Thymian’s “For Fourteen Hands,” a poem inspired by a video displayed at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
After snagging several national and state awards for volume 1, Tripp’s second outing proved as rewarding as her first. In addition to being named in state and national book awards, her efforts resulted in winning the International Book Award for non-fiction that year.
One had to wonder how Tripp could match that opening act. Tripp did so in two basic ways. First, she divided the second book into thematic categories, using headings such as “Origins,” “Exploration,” and “Transcendence.” In this way, she was able to group contributors’ work thematically. As if that alteration were not enough, her follow-up volume offers work within three media—reading, hearing, and watching.
For example, Bar Scott’s essay “Heaven” relates how she was inspired to write her poem of that name, a work that began as a musical exercise of improvisation, then evolved into lyrics that incorporate traditional images and phrases in new and original ways. It doesn’t stop there. Going online, we get to hear her perform the piece to her own musical accompaniment while watching the talents of dancer and choreographer Lydia Rakov on a video segment beautifully produced and assembled by Jeremy Bronson.
Of course, while we all may love music in our own way, not all of us have musical expertise.
Two standouts document the insecurities of navigating the musical sphere. The first is seen in Lucy Gabriel’s poem recalling her confusion while encountering sheet music and seeing little else but “Crushed Beetles and Spider’s Crawl.” Meanwhile Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Vrenios’s “Piano at Five” revisits the personal terror of “peering into the dark interior” of a teacher’s enclave with her sheet music “clutched to my gingham flat-chested dress.” She concludes that it all “ends without endings” as she realizes the sounds she produces are “never quite keeping harmony.”
The section marked “Against All Odds” honors just that and contains two standout pieces. The first is an essay by Richard Bauman honoring Paul Wittgenstein, a promising pianist who lost his right arm to a World War I battlefield injury. That injury, however, inspired Wittgenstein to produce a slew of new pieces accommodating that loss, culminating in his own commissioning of Maurice Ravel’s now famous “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.”
A more contemporary reckoning of that theme of overcoming odds comes from Philip See’s autobiographical “Lost and Found.” A musician diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, he drew inspiration from his own father, also a victim of cerebral palsy who overcame the contractures to play piano.
See sums up his views on the healing aspects of music by penning one of the greatest quotes on the power of music ever given, surmising how “music transcends physical limits—whether one plays instruments or listens to them, the brain responds.”
Perhaps if there is a volume 3, Tripp will consider that statement as its cornerstone.
Finally, these volumes have a charitable component with each purchase helping to donate to two foundations: Hungry for Music, a non-profit organization dedicated to locating and providing musical instruments to children interested in learning who cannot afford their own purchase, and Music & Memory, a group assisting those with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive challenges with the use of music.
Up next: Compare and contrast (one great book, the other not-so-hot)