Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

July 11, 2022

Julian Mithra's Playlist for Their Book "Unearthingly"

Unearthingly by Julian Mithra

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Julian Mithra's Unearthingly finds meaning in a ghost town in this powerful and haunting collage of a book.

Sabrina Imbler wrote of the book:

"Unearthingly resembles a spoonful of sand laid out under a microscope — how multifarious and unique the small shards can be. Julian Mithra assembles a mosaicked story with fragments of an imaginary archive where rocks speak as freely as people. Mithra guides the reader through this conjured underworld, whose darkness and obscurity ultimately rouse all the other senses."

In their own words, here is Julian Mithra's Book Notes music playlist for their book Unearthingly:

“Largo,” From the New World Symphony No. 9 by Anton Dvorak (1893)

The sublime immensity of the Rocky Mountains. The wild promise of their illimitless cougars and grizzlies. Dvorak captures the swell of possibility in his new home, America. Yet, this classical piece is already an accretion of even deeper sounds. Dvorak’s black colleague, Harry Burleigh introduced him to negro spirituals and he drew on their idiom to create the second part, Largo. I listened to this symphony mornings while writing, swept up in some of the romance of snowy peaks and verdant valleys, yet hearing beneath the romance, the underbelly of hope for people whose experience wasn’t reflected in frontier progress. Similarly, the Mexican American immigrants to Goldened, my fictional boom-n-bust mining town, must carve optimism from rotten wood.

“Miner’s Refrain” by Gillian Welch (1998)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include something by Welch as steeped as she is in rural destitution and ennui and the quintessential “worried song.” Laboring for their private reasons, archeologists, bears, miners, badgers, and little girls all find themselves “down in a deep dark hole” in Unearthingly, grateful for any little ditty to keep them going. I first listened to Welch during a lonesome housesit in LA where I’d wake up at twilight and fall asleep at dawn, spending the wee hours writing freelance articles. Even the freeway hum lessened and I got a hint of what it would be like to live in a house underground, insulated by sod, windowless, snug, sweeping the bare dirt floor.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by the Carter Family (1935)

Imagine this song playing on a wobbly radio in a store, maybe before gathering to listen to FDR’s fireside chats on the state of the Depression. In this song, the speaker laments her mother’s recent passing, and asks whether the circle will be unbroken, meaning that she is anticipating being united in the afterlife with those who have passed before her. Meanwhile, she must suffer alone. Cheeky, a tomboy exploring underground spaces, struggles with making sense of her mother’s shameful and mysterious passing. She even resorts to contacting God since her tía and tío refuse to discuss death. Her mother’s loss is a secret absence without ritualized grieving. I especially love the “hitch” in the rhythm of the lines “by and by, Lord, by and by” and “in the sky, Lord, in the sky,” that sounds like they’ve lost a bit of time that can’t be recovered.

“Only Skin” by Joanna Newsom (2006)

Newsom’s fragmentary magnum opus, Ys, only numbers five looooong compositions, this one a few seconds shy of 17 minutes. It begins in the middle of something, “and there was a booming above you,” and moves horizontally from ocean shore to festering volcanos, and vertically through time. Jarring disorientation and rare reprieve were qualities I hunted for Unearthingly. The simultaneity of too many tender, inchoate forces at play to process coherently. More specifically, geologic forces in “blameless flames,” the watershed’s “estuaries of wax-white,” and emotional landscape, like the anecdote with dogs killing/not killing a bird. Pop sentiment sandpapers against folk quatrains against operatic epiphany. I wanted all the archival contradictions and ruptures to be as rough as these blistering time signature hiccoughs and rhyme patterns. Visible seams.

“The Big Ship” by Brian Eno (1975)

While Cheeky finds refuge in the literal underground, I wanted to protect her from the events of the surface world. The abandoned mines, root cellars, tunnels, and caves cradle her in womb-like insulation where she can heal herself through poetry. Underground, she attends to her “lower” senses of touch and smell, loosening her grip on language, so I wanted to include instrumental tracks that encourage listening without a story. This delicate song, twinging melancholic for the first act, bathes the bay in a dependable wash of low-note synth and lets the other instruments pile on top, playful as dolphins. It never abandons you at sea. This ship is so big, we are all on it. We feel every wave and surge.

“Vastopol” by Elizabeth Cotten (1958)

Cotten devised her own playing style, left-handed and, on this track, with an unusual open tuning nicknamed Vastopol. I love how it sounds like referencing a place of vastness. We listened to a lot of Smithsonian Folkways when I was a teen, especially recordings by Alan Lomax. Those beloved albums may have been my first conscious experience with white field collectors and salvage ethnography. Later, I developed critical scholarship around museum anthropology. Several collectors show up in Unearthingly, circumscribing ancient Puebloan ruins, sugar beet harvests, fossils, and arrow points. Their efforts don’t ever manifest as expertise, so I’d like to play the research subjects Vastopol, like a lullaby to let them sink peacefully back into obscurity.

“Pythagoras, Refusing To Cross The Bean Field At His Back, Is Dispatched By The Democrats” by Tony Conrad (1995)

Violin drone extraordinaire. Music that requires my entire body’s consent, not just my ears and brain. At my lover’s house crammed with audio and recording equipment, we’d listen to Slapping Pythagoras and let the skylights darken. I’d near the edge of grating discomfort, hardly breathing, before plunging into honey bliss as tones shifted and converged. Much like having a body. Embodiment discomfits many of the non-human subjects, like chalcedony wanting to quake into an aquifer, or the wave that disrupts an idyllic marsh, or the foxes hunted for their foxfire. There’s no escape from the body. How claustrophobic. There’s no escape from the body. How joy.

Julian née Sara Mithra hovers between genders and genres, border-mongering and -mongreling. If the Color Is Fugitive (Nomadic Press, 2018) stages an escape from frontier taxonomies and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Their chapbook of trans* anagrams Kaleidoscope is forthcoming on Ethel Press.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.