Kate Bush and Musical Ekphrasis

It’s ok for musicians…

Writers who use works of visual art as a stimulus for their writing are often derided for stealing another’s inspiration. The suggestion often leveled at poets in particular is that they are being lazy by taking ideas from a pre-formed works as a kind of creative short-cut. Borrowing a ready-made concept rather than developing their ideas from scratch. The same derision is not passed on to visual artists and musicians who often take literature as their starting point.

Since classical times, visual art has borrowed extensively from written works, and today inter-cultural borrowing is as popular as ever.

Musicians too have often borrowed from literature. Kate Bush’s first hit single ‘Wuthering Heights’, the song that catapulted her to fame in 1979 is based on the book  by Emily Bronte. It transpires however  that Kate drew her inspiration from a television dramatization, itself an interpretation of the original. In the 2014 BBC documentary about Bush (‘Running up that Hill’ link below) there is a clip where Kate describes how she came to be inspired:


Kate describes how she was inspired for the song Wuthering Heights. BBC4 Documentary ‘Running up that Hill’ (2014) at minutes 4:01 – 5:30

“Well I saw a series on the television about ten years ago, and it was on very late at night, and I caught literally the last five minutes of the series when she was at the window trying to get in, and it just, really struck me, it was so strong. Then I read the book.”

“I read the book before I wrote the song because I needed to get the mood properly.”

Later on in her career Kate again wrote a song based on a book. Her 1989 song ‘The Sensual World’ from the album of the same name is based on the final scene in Jame Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and the passionate soliloquy of Molly Bloom. The final words are:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “


Neil Gaiman talks about Kate Bush and James Joyce’s Ulysses at minute 45:17 – 46:48 of the 2014 BBC documentary Running up that Hill.

In the documentary Neil Gaiman shares his thoughts about Kate’s homage to James Joyce and his joy, as a ‘bookish boy’, in finding an artist who made music based on books. He says:

“And it goes all the way back for me to Wuthering Heights. This is somebody who’s not afraid of books. This is somebody who’s not afraid of reading; somebody who’s not afraid of writers and who’s not afraid of translating, being an intermediary, being a door between the world of books and the world of rock”

The idea that an artist who interprets another’s work may be lauded as a cultural intermediary, a kind of cross-cultural ambassador is in direct contrast to the criticism leveled at poets for their ‘translations’ of visual culture. In the instance of the poet this has been seen as nothing short of thievery.

BBC4 Documentary 2014

Where to find relevant material in the documentary:

minutes 45:17 – 46:48 – Neil Gaiman talks about Kate’s reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses

minutes 4:01 – 5:30 – Kate Bush Talking about her inspiration for wuthering heights. That came from watching a television series of the book. Then she read the book. Neil Gaiman talks about being a bookish kid looking out for music inspired by books.

Running up that Hill was frst Aired on Fri 22 Aug 2014 21:10  on BBC Four.

‘This documentary explores Kate Bush’s career and music, from January 1978’s Wuthering Heights to her 2011 album 50 Words for Snow, through the testimony of some of her key collaborators and those she has inspired.

Contributors include the guitarist who discovered her (Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour), the choreographer who taught her to dance (Lindsay Kemp) and the musician who she said ‘opened her doors’ (Peter Gabriel), as well as her engineer and ex-partner (Del Palmer) and several other collaborators (Elton John, Stephen Fry and Nigel Kennedy).

Also exploring their abiding fascination with Kate are fans (John Lydon, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) and musicians who have been influenced by her (St Vincent’s Annie Clark, Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes), Tori Amos, Outkast’s Big Boi, Guy Garvey and Tricky), as well as writers and comedians who admire her (Jo Brand, Steve Coogan and Neil Gaiman).’

from the BBC4 webpage: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dzswb

Kate Bush ‘The Sensual World’ Lyrics

Mmh, yes,

Then I’d taken the kiss of seedcake back from his mouth
Going deep South, go down, mmh, yes,
Took six big wheels and rolled our bodies
Off of Howth Head and into the flesh, mmh, yes,

He said I was a flower of the mountain, yes,
But now I’ve powers o’er a woman’s body, yes.

Stepping out of the page into the sensual world.
Stepping out…

To where the water and the earth caress
And the down of a peach says mmh, yes,
Do I look for those millionaires
Like a Machiavellian girl would
When I could wear a sunset? mmh, yes,

And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world
You don’t need words–just one kiss, then another.

Stepping out of the page into the sensual world
Stepping out, off the page, into the sensual world.

And then our arrows of desire rewrite the speech, mmh, yes,
And then he whispered would I, mmh, yes,
Be safe, mmh, yes, from mountain flowers?
And at first with the charm around him, mmh, yes,
He loosened it so if it slipped between my breasts
He’d rescue it, mmh, yes,
And his spark took life in my hand and, mmh, yes,
I said, mmh, yes,
But not yet, mmh, yes,

Mmh, yes.

Songwriters: BUSH, KATE
The Sensual World lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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