Messiaen’s Warbles and Woolf’s Waves

Comp-lit major wins prestigious Class of ’21 Award for thesis on “reading for gesture.”

By Brittney Corrigan-McElroy ’94 | June 23, 2020

Can a reader visualize the actions of a fictional character in the same way that a musician interprets notes on her instrument? Comparative literature major Kate Ehrenberg ’20 explored this concept of “reading for gesture” in her senior thesis, which examines Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel, The Waves, and enigmatic composer Olivier Messiaen’s work for solo piano, Catalogue d’oiseaux.

An accomplished musician herself (trained in organ, piano, composition, and conducting), Kate came to her thesis topic after spending time in France and studying influential French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who was fascinated by the music of Messiaen. An ornithologist as well as a composer, Messiaen evokes birdsong in his 1956-1958 composition and incorporates the movements of birds into written instructions for the performer throughout the score. Her interest piqued, Kate began to draw a parallel between Messiaen’s work and the descriptive interludes of the natural world that occur in Woolf’s 1931 novel.

Kate’s research focuses on the role of the body in the experience of the reader or performer. As her professor Nathalia King notes, “Kate’s thesis is a tour de force that opens new grounds in comparing literary texts and musical scores. Her work identifies and defines a concept of ‘gesture’ to compare how a reader ‘inhabits’ the literary text and how the performer ‘inhabits’ the musical score. Kate argues that a reader tracks both literal and figurative descriptions of motion in the text by means of tacit embodiment—and that this ‘kinesic energy’ sustains the reader’s capacity for empathic connection with literary characters. Similarly, the performer’s particular use of embodied actions to transform a score into musical performance are fundamental to the subtle uniqueness of each interpretation.” 

Kate describes her thesis as “a product of what I learned at Reed.” She credits Prof. King’s course on description and narration for opening her eyes to the many ways to read a book, decentering what’s normally centralized to get at more subtly embedded aspects of the text. Her experiences in Prof. Ann Delehanty’s French classes taught her to write and research well, in addition to how to pose questions and think historically. And Kate’s piano lessons with instructor Denise Van Leuven expanded her ideas about the role of the body in playing and interpreting music.

The Class of ’21 Award was created by members of the Class of 1921 and is given to a “creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” When asked how she felt when she found out she’d won the award, Kate didn’t hesitate: “Grateful”. She credits her success in large part to the support of her thesis advisor, French professor Luc Monnin, for his patient guidance and faith in her project.

The other winner of the Class of ’21 Award this year is history Noam Bentov ’20, whose thesis is titled Raider’s Land: Violence and State Power on the Black Sea Steppe, 1475- 1718. Expect a full report soon!

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Students, Thesis