Literature rocks in professor’s band
Thomas Harrison, UCLA professor of Italian film and literature.
Meld expertise in Italian film and literature with a wealth of experience as a musician and you have UCLA Professor Thomas Harrison, bass-playing rocker in Glass Wave, a band that transforms classics from the literary canon into musical anthems inspired by the progressive rock of the ’70s.
Glass Wave isn't your ordinary rock band. It was created by two faculty members at Stanford, one of them Harrison’s brother, Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian, and Assistant Professor of French Dan Edelstein. The band grew out of an initial performance the pair created as an innovative approach to reviewing material in an introductory humanities class.
“They got the idea of doing a review session putting some of those [literary] texts to rock classics like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix,” Thomas Harrison explained. He got involved when “they needed somebody else to play with them, so I decided I would do the bass parts.”
The trio — all of whom had experience playing in various rock bands in their pre-professorial lives — further fleshed out their sound by adding vocalist Christy Wampole, a doctoral candidate in French and Italian literature at Stanford with a background in French cabaret and chanson singing, along with Colin Camarillo, a Bay Area jazz percussionist. The band’s sixth member, Stanford music lecturer Jay Kadis, serves as their sound engineer and also pitches in on guitar and percussion.
Glass Wave, whose name is an allusion to a section of Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” ("Lithe turning of water/Sinews of Poseidon/Black azure and hylaline/Glass wave over Tyro..."), released its self-titled, debut album earlier this year. The band elaborates upon, rather than literally interprets, its sources of inspiration. “It’s a creative contribution to embroider on an artwork,” Harrison said. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a vital purpose to our endeavor.”
Shown from left: Glass Wave's Colin Camarillo, Dan Edelstein, Christy Wampole, Thomas Harrison and Robert Pogue Harrison. Not shown is Jay Kadis.
Such embroidery takes many forms on the album: In the song “Nausicaa,” the princess from Homer’s “Odyssey” expresses a longing for the hero briefly alluded to in the epic. In “Ophelia,” Hamlet’s doomed former love interest bitterly succumbs to the madness that the titular character merely pretended at. And in “Creation,” the Frankenstein monster oft-vilified in pop cultural representations expresses his grief with the frustrated longing of a perpetual outsider.
Indeed, many of Glass Wave’s songs give a voice to outcast characters, most often female ones.
“The idea is to give voice to minor characters that, for the most part, these male authors haven’t privileged,” said Harrison. Some of these characters express themselves in unexpected ways.
“There’s one [song] about ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ about the mother of the daughters, Mrs. Bennet,” he said. “That was a song that emphasized her conniving nature, which is maybe slightly sexual — like maybe she’s flirting with the guys she chooses for her daughters.”
“Bingley in my pocket, Darcy in my wallet. Wickham, he’s my favorite, do it from time to time,” sings Wampole in “Mrs. Bennet.”
But Harrison admitted that the band’s academic contingent has one more hope — that listeners, especially students, might find in their music a pathway to books.
“We also kind of conceive of this as a pedagogical experiment,” he said. “We wanted to promote literature and try to bring it to a consciousness a little better. Students no longer seem to enjoy reading long novels. Of course, music is timeless, so we thought that we could use this other medium.”
The connection between the musical and literary modes is something that Harrison also draws upon for a Fiat Lux course in rock-and-roll lyrics that he teaches each year at UCLA. During the course’s first two years, Harrison presented it as a kind of survey, familiarizing his students with artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Radiohead.
This year, he reworked the class as an intensive look at the band Pink Floyd. Over the course of 10 weeks, Harrison immersed his students in the main albums from the band’s extremely prolific career, which spans 32 years and 14 studio albums, including such rock classics as “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall.” Students listened to an album a week, exploring the connections between the music and the lyrics and preparing an analysis and presentation for a song of their choice. At the end of the course students seemed to have only one complaint: a 50-minute class was not enough.
Harrison might be an aficionado of the Floyd, but his choice of that band might have been serendipitous, given the aims of his own band: Where Pink Floyd used concept albums like “The Wall” to create a cohesive narrative using music, Glass Wave takes pre-existing narratives and gives them new life in musical form.
After all, as Harrison noted, “poetry once upon a time was always sung.”
To learn more about Glass Wave, hear samples of their songs, and order their new album, visit the band’s website.