Kiran Leonard has never shied away from his literary inspirations.
A multi-talented songwriter, his academic background affords the Manchester artist's work phenomenal depth, veering from the personal to the political and back again.
New project 'Derevaun Seraun' is out now on Moshi Moshi, and it features five pieces inspired by five works of literature.
Prompted by works penned by James Joyce, Albert Camus, Clarice Lispector, Henry Miller and Brazillian poet Manuel Bandeira, it's a remarkable feast of music and literature.
With that in mind, Clash sought out Kiran Leonard for a special edition of Their Library...
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What is your favourite book and why?
Hermann Hesse’s the Glass Bead Game is phenomenal. I think one of the reasons I like it is because it’s so massive; I’ve never read anything that covers such a breadth of subject matter so well. The central premise is that it’s about this ascetic type who dedicates his life to mastering the titular Glass Bead Game, which is some weird never-exactly-specified amalgam of chess, musical counterpoint, mathematics and meditation. And the complexity and diversity of this game is used as a starting point to talk about all sorts of things: philosophy, pedagogy, spirituality, art, social politics... And it’s written so beautifully. He lived another twenty years after he finished this but never wrote another novel, and to be honest I can understand why. *in Grateful Dead fan voice* It’s a book about, like, life, man. For real it’s amazing!!
What other authors do you like?
Samuel Beckett, who was probably the first Heady-with-Capital-H author I ever came across. I had been listening to Chris Morris’ monologues from Blue Jam and they'd totally bowled me over; the density and the sophistication of them was beyond anything I’d ever heard or read. I was on the Cook’d and Bomb’d forum, and I saw this post with the heading “Anyone know of any literary authors with a style similar to the Blue Jam monologues?”, and the first response was “Check out Samuel Beckett’s novels”.
So I got this anthology of Molloy, Malone Dies and the Unnamable. Malone Dies in particular, bloody hell… so unique, and absolutely beautiful. You’ll cry, you’ll scratch your head, you’ll sometimes get very bored, you’ll piss yourself. So good. Also: shout out to Clarice Lispector, Luís de Góngora, JL Borges, Anna Akhmatova, David Bailey a.k.a 'Food Legend’, García Lorca, John Berger.
What draws you to certain books?
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
You can be influenced by all sorts of things, of course, including books. But there are many styles and techniques that work in poetry or verse that seem out of place or clunky set to music, and vice versa. There is so much more space for context and information in a book, that can be a real thankless bore trying to replicate in a song.
One exception is Góngora, who had an incredible ability to side-step the issue of time in a poem — that is to say, that a verse has to be read from start to finish, and generally you will absorb information from it in the order that it’s read. But his imagery is so dense, and his phrasing is so mangled, that you have to read a verse a couple times, going forwards and backwards, in order to untangle everything. The more you do it, the more images come out of the poem.
And eventually you end up with an incredibly vivid scene you look on like a painting; suddenly the fog parts and it all rushes at you at once. Sometimes his stuff can't really be read in a linear way. I think this effect is more or less impossible with music, because it is so much more stubbornly tied to time than poems are, but I like how he shows to what extent you can distort word order, and how much information you can pack into a small space, without completely sacrificing the accessibility of the text.
What are you reading at the moment?
Don Quixote, cause I have to study it next term. Christ, I’ve never read anything so long in my entire life. It’s very funny though. A lot of its reputation rests on it being the first text that made a big deal out of narrative unreliablity, and this is juxtaposed with how language more than anything else shapes the way we see the world.
There are always two realities in play: Don Quixote’s, informed exclusively by religious scripture and chivalric romance, and everyone else’s, informed by a ‘reality’ that is also fictional, because it is within a novel (a novel which itself is a secondary source from a secondary source, as nearly all the information in the book is supposedly derived from a rushed translation of a Quixote biography written in Arabic).
People get names and the definitions of words wrong, they forget how their anecdotes are supposed to end, their messages are incorrectly conveyed through letters that are misunderstood… each character (not just Quixote) lives in a skewed fiction, formed by the language they hear and read and write, how they describe events and how events are described to them. None of them perceive the real world in a clear, direct sense.
Obviously this issue remains highly relevant. If Don Quixote were alive in 2017 he would probably be online all day, retweeting fake FBI crime stats.
What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
Not Now, Bernard! Chronicle of a brave young boy. Maybe brave to the point of stupidity. Parents were real loser suburbanites.
Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn’t finish?
I got about half-way through a book by Noam Chomsky called Year 501, which is basically a history of atrocities committed by Western states in various parts of the world, from Columbus discovering America up to the election of Bill Clinton (1492-1992; 500 years). His articles and talks are excellent, but a 400+ page enumeration of awful things the Americans and the Europeans have done throughout South America, Africa and Asia was pretty punishing.
I read somewhere once -- and I agree with this -- that what shows in Chomsky’s writing is a particular selflessness; his main goal is to fastidiously collect information on the crimes against humanity that the world at large ignores (Nicaragua, East Timor), and less about writing some gripping yarn to expand his personal legacy as a historian.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
Yeah, for sure! I’ve done that with a lot with books I read when I was younger, cause when you read them many years later you might know more about a certain topic that helps you enjoy the book more. So I got way more out of Animal Farm when I re-read it last summer than when I read it when I was 13 (and knowing about Victor Gollancz turning it down for publication… ya blewwww it, comrade).
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
There are definitely lots of fictional characters I admire, even though their attributes and successes are… totally fictional. Comandante Sem Medo from Pepetela’s Mayombe is one. Very flawed but super brave, and an excellent theoretician. Pepetela was a militant for the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) but foresaw the difficulties ahead with establishing socialism in the country: determining the subtle differences between suppressing counter-revolutionaries and genuine critiques, how to bring the promised radical change in enough time that the people don’t lose hope without doing completely away with personal liberties... That book’s got some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. And obviously, it’s Pepetela’s dialogue, and his theorising. But it’s Sem Medo you’re drawn to. Weird how you can really get behind someone who’s totally made up.
Do you read one book at a time or more than one?
Sometimes if you’re reading something willfully arcane and/or miserable it’s nice to offset it with something light. Marcuse b/w Gary Larson [*italian hand gesture*]
Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
It was a lot of fun collaborating with Dr. Grace Linden on a project for the Manchester International Festival that combined music, visual art and poetry. Her translations of the artefacts were superb (and she is an excellent poet in her own right).
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Kiran Leonard's 'Derevaun Seraun' is out now.
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