Lost in a fairy tale

Illustration from The princess in the chest

I don’t usually talk or write much about my non-musical writing. One reason for this is that I don’t really know what I’m doing when I write what I call “non-nonfiction” (is it fiction? poetry? I have no idea). That world has become more important to me over the past few years, however, and I thought I’d say a little bit about it. I just completed a new piece titled From a fairy tale. You can read the text on the site here, or you can just let Valeria Vasilevski read it to you:


From a fairy tale is the text for the newest composition by composer Frances White (my wife), to be premiered next month (details below). I’ve always written fiction and poetry, but the only writing projects of mine that have gotten off the ground at all have been the ones that formed the basis for collaboration with Frances. Her example and encouragement have given me the nerve to actually create something and stand behind it, and her music has created living, breathing worlds for my words.

Our most successful collaboration thus far has been The old rose reader, which I wrote for her to use as the basis for a piece for violinist Mari Kimura. Everything clicked with this piece, and Mari has played it all over the world and released it on CD. The old rose reader was the first piece that got me started with fairy tales.

The central story in The old rose reader (“Reine des violettes”) is in the style of a fairy tale. It was not based on any specific story, and was very difficult for me to write: it went through many, many versions before it settled where it is. I had doubts about it, but talking with people after performances of the piece, so many wondered where I had gotten the story. It pleased me that it sounded authentic.

The success of “Reine des violettes” got me to thinking about a project that Frances had been talking about for years and years: an opera or other setting of the fairy tale “The princess in the chest”. This story appears in Andrew Lang’s The pink fairy book and was always a favorite of Frances’. Emboldened by The old rose reader, I started taking notes towards a libretto in 2004. I finally started drafting something in 2008, but it soon grew too long, too complex, and too unwieldy to work for any kind of musical treatment. I added back stories for the original characters, added wholly new ones, and worked out multiple plot possibilities. I became lost in the world around “Princess”, and I shelved the project four years ago.

A few months ago, Frances was asked to write a new composition for Parthenia, the wonderful and adventurous viol consort with whom she has worked before. When I was working on the “Princess” libretto, we talked about how the sound of the viols was a perfect match for that world; we definitely saw a role for the Parthenians in whatever “Princess” turned out to be. Frances is always pushing to make ideas into something real, and so she suggested we do something “Princess”-related for the new Parthenia piece. It gave me the idea of writing something very short, based on just one scene from the story. It would be something that wouldn’t really need plotting, but which could imply plotting.

The result is From a fairy tale, which will be premiered on November 8th in New York at a concert sponsored by Random Access Music (RAM).  In her music, Frances didn’t set the text. Instead, the text is a setting for the purely instrumental music that she wrote. In concert, Valeria will read the story, and then Parthenia will play it.

I’m excited about what came out of this process. It allows for all the massive confusion of my earlier work to continue, but as an invisible, hidden structure behind the new writing. It’s like some monumental nineteenth-century panoramic painting: you can’t see it whole, but you can focus on individual scenes. These little fragmentary miniatures make it clear that there is a larger context, a larger story, but you don’t necessarily have access to that except through inference and intuition. I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but now at least the audience can become lost with me.


3 thoughts on “Lost in a fairy tale”

  1. Pingback: From a fairy tale « rosewhitemusic.com

  2. Katharine Norman

    Wish I’d got around to reading this posting earlier, Jamey – I love the text (and the reading), but it also really resonated with how I feel about writing – of the non-nonfiction kind. That mass of back story and apparent confusion that lives behind those few (one hopes) honed, gleaming narrative distillations. (So, you know you’re also a composer, really, right?) I now have to hear Frances’ piece …. !

  3. Pingback: Site-specific writing : The piano in my life

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