Thursday 15 February 2024

Paul Munden, "Unclassified: Nigel Kennedy in Chapters & Verse"

Paul Munden is an award-winning poet, editor and screenwriter living in North Yorkshire. He has published six poetry collections, including Asterisk (2011), based around Shandy Hall, where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. He was director of the UK’s National Association of Writers in Education, 1994-2018, and a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Leeds, 2019-2023. He is currently an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra, Australia.

About Unclassified: Nigel Kennedy in Chapters & Verseby Paul Munden
Nigel Kennedy is one of the world’s foremost violinists. His achievements have been met with great acclaim, not least his ability, both as performer and composer, to move across and blend an extraordinary range of musical genres and styles, resisting any notion of classification. Yet he remains a controversial figure, having rocked the classical music establishment with his radical innovations and uncompromising views. 

Paul Munden has followed Nigel Kennedy’s musical journey for many years, and in Unclassified sets down his reflections on everything he has gained from that experience. From a poet’s perspective, he writes about Kennedy’s recordings and performances, indeed the poetry of his playing. A sequence of chapters exploring various themes is interspersed with original poems, the idea deriving from Kennedy’s own improvised transitoires between movements of a concerto.

The first ever study of Nigel Kennedy’s exceptional talent, Unclassified delves into complex questions: about the relationship between so-called genius and unconventional behaviour; the true purpose of education; the freedom of the interpreter; connections between music and poetry, music and sport; and the role of the artist as advocate of political and humanitarian causes. It speaks to fans and detractors alike; to musicians, both professional and amateur; also to the general, curious reader not only about music but a wealth of associated cultural issues. 

You can read more about Unclassified on the publisher's website here. Below you can read an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, followed by an introduction to one of the poems.

From Unclassified, by Paul Munden

Above all, I wanted to explore why it matters that everyone should, as the eighteenth-century writer Laurence Sterne puts it, 'tell their stories their own way': tell stories, or write poems, play music, and indeed live life with truly individual purpose. Sterne’s great book, the utterly unclassifiable Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, revels in eccentricity. And as my book became increasingly eccentric, I thought 'yes, that’s as it should be.' How else to do justice to a maverick musician, described by his one-time girlfriend Brix Smith as 'a cross between Mozart and Keith Moon'?

Sterne, godfather of eccentric art, became a presiding influence in my creative explorations. His notorious digressions became instrumental to my musings on where the mind roams when we listen to music. I decided to borrow his non-textual interventions: the black page, marbled page, blank page and the 'flourish of liberty' – his various incitements for the reader to bring their own imagination to the artistic adventure. 


An example of how these elements come together is at the end of Chapter 5. An anecdote about Kennedy’s free-wheel driving across the Malvern hills is followed by 'an artist’s sketch, made a few centuries earlier, by Laurence Sterne, describing – with an inter-textual flourish of the pen – how his character flourishes his stick in the air, saying "Whilst a man is free—."' 

Free Verse

it starts with a mischievous smile
a sideways 
glance at the passenger
who doesn’t at first realize
the car’s out of gear
and that the driver’s taken his feet
off the pedals
though something feels
strangely at ease
gradually picking up effortless speed 
down the empty road
but just as she’s beginning to enjoy it
he takes his hands off the wheel
thrusting them in the air
before rummaging 
in the dashboard clutter for an Ornette 
Coleman cassette 
and ramming it into the deck
so that now as it plays
she can’t hear herself think
above her own scream blending
with the saxophone’s wail
and the claret and blue jaguar
with its already indecipherable scrawl
is becoming a blur
that she sees from afar
careening down the hill
with herself inside
cowering from the broken white 
lines like silent gunfire
streaming into the bonnet

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