Tag Archives: music

The Bones of a Leaf

The human mind is an amazing instrument capable of processing data from multiple inputs at speeds that make the fastest microprocessor look like a slow moving cement mixer. Not only that but many of the functions it performs are sorted and prioritized without the owner even seeing or sensing the processes involved. One of the astonishing abilities of the mind is the interpretation and creation of symbols: one thing standing for another thing. Letters form words that the brain then interprets. A picture of shape that is roundish, red, and has a sticklike appendage near the top becomes an apple. I catch sight of a piece of leaf with just the stem and a small part of the base and I see a tadpole swimming on my carpet.

Art, whether written, pictorial, or musical, is the mind’s conscious manipulation of symbols to create images, emotion, and meaning in the mind of the observer/listener. I take something that is not there, create symbols (words or images), and deliver it to you so that you have an experience. Creating words from letters, then forming sentences, all of which describe the world, exterior and interior, is really an astounding activity and yet so many of us, from children to the most humble, can do it. Of course a lot of people tend to stick to the literal, the true, the tangible. It takes another flight of fancy to make stuff up – to make beautiful meaningful lies.

But even the entirely made up should be full of truths eternal. They may be very small, but I believe that even in the most lighthearted or humorous or fanciful piece of fiction writing there should be yet another layer of meaning underneath the obvious. I should be able to paint a picture for you of another reality and underlying my fictional reality is yet another substrate of meaning, of symbol. A really satisfying work of art lingers with you a long time after experiencing it. It’s the movie that makes you keep thinking days later, or the novel that resonates years in the future so that you have to pick it up again, and lo and behold there is even more there than the first time around. It’s the painting that haunts, or the musical refrain that moves you to tears and you don’t know exactly why.

If I can ever write just one novel that has the ability to resonant in the reader’s mind long after they put it down I’ll have succeeded as an artist. If someone reads my words like I can read the remains of a leaf as a tadpole on my carpet then I have done my job.

If Music Be the Food of Love, Eat Local

I have a soft spot for love songs, which is a damn good thing considering it’s the single most popular theme in popular music.  All my love affairs have songs or entire albums dedicated to them – which is probably one of the reasons that I have such a great deal of fondness for the movie High Fidelity with the incomparable John Cusack – who I probably relate to more than any modern actor because of certain similarities in age and aesthetics. In High Fidelity Cusack, after breaking up with his girlfriend, reviews his failed love affairs in terms of the music of his life.  He makes a list of his top five breakups.

In a way I could put together my own play list of failed relationships. I’m not even going to share some of the teen angst ones – but I can tell you that I can still feel a catch in my throat and catch the long ago scent of a lost sweetheart from some golden oldies. I am particularly amused, in retrospect, by my choice of You’re the One by Paul Simon for a passionate affair I had some time back – primarily because I ignored the lyrics (you’re the one, you broke my heart) and I applied it optimistically to the living breathing relationship because she was, you know, the ONE (you are the air inside my chest).  I have found the same strange flip flop of emotion from hope to loss in many of my choices – almost as if I anticipated the end at the start.

What surprises me now is that no song or album has spoken to me in my current love.  This time love came sneaking in on softly shod feet and wrapped warm arms around me and refuses to let me go.  It’s not the love of a young idealistic fool anymore and instead there are many songs, many moods, but not one song needs to be sung.  I don’t find myself moodily attached to a particular refrain because it’s expressing my longing to be more complete with my loved one, it’s also a good thing she doesn’t get jealous when I slip an old lover on the stereo and reminisce some old pain I had.

The Soundtrack of Art

Ok, completely different tangent, or maybe a tangentially related tangent: I do not put music on to write or to paint.

I love music and have a large and eclectic collection in some varied styles that I enjoy.  Another time we can talk about my favorites.  Today I want to discuss why people listen to music for everything.  I don’t have an iPod.  I didn’t ever having a Sony Walkman (remember those, kiddies?).  Right now, because I’m writing and not doing chores (there should always be a difference between those two), I’m listening to the sound of the train.  The train sounds different in winter during a blizzard then it does in summer in clear skies.  It is infinitely more eerie in winter.  It’s almost like a foghorn in tone.  The bell to warn people off the track sounds much farther away, muffled by the snow that falls.   I can also hear the sound the snow plow makes as it passes by, heavy shovel lowered, scraping along the tarmac.  Very far in the distance, so far it’s nearly inaudible, I can hear sirens.

It’s much quieter when the snow falls because much of the sound is dampened by the thick blanket of frosty white.  Sometimes you get that wonderful surprising ‘thump’ as the accumulation of snow grows too heavy for its precarious position on the slanted roof and it comes down in a wet lump and disappears into the snow below.  Only a few days ago I was actually listening to birdsong because there were an earful of Cedar Waxwings outside in the branches of the old apple tree and partaking of the brilliant red of the sumac fruit.  They would cling to the naked branches like dying leaves refusing to give up the ghost.

All of these sounds would be lost to me if I was sitting here with earphones pressed into my ears or blaring out of my speakers.  My life rarely comes with a musical soundtrack.  I often wonder if it’s the movies that have changed the way people go through life, always with music.  When I walk I like to be able to hear the blare of the car horn as I step heedlessly off the pavement, or snippets of a passing conversation made more tantalizing by the lack of context.  I’m even amused by the cars that go by, steel chassis vibrating, bouncing on the tires, as the inmate destroys his eardrums.  Sometimes I catch a phrase of a favorite song on a summer day as someone drives by with their windows down.  Snatched from a random moment like that music retains its evocation.

It’s the constant all pervasive and completely ubiquitous use of music that puzzles me.  All at once it is the most popular art form and the one most abused.  A quiet moment turns your head to a beautiful and provocative painting or sculpture; an erotically set solitaire diamond graces the throat of a pretty woman; a hand woven blanket is sprung from the hope chest and laid upon the guest bed to delight the guest; a bouquet of spring flowers is carefully arranged in the hand blown glass vase.  Music we just put on and ignore.  It becomes the background noise of the supermarket, the elevator, and then our lives.  The lyrics become embedded in our brains, like the refrain, but do we really ‘listen’ when we’re too busy doing something else?

The notes are often distorted or muffled – not allowed to speak with the clarity in which they were composed.

I went to the opera recently.  The sounds produced by the orchestra and the crystalline voices were like a revelation.  They entered through the ear but then poured into the soul and opened up the heart like a daylily to the morning sun.  Each note was clear, even when woven into a tapestry of sound.  The words sung became infinitely more meaningful for their clarity until it wrung emotion from the body like water from a towel.

It is, for this exactly, that I do not listen to music when I write or when I paint.  I listen to music.  I sing and dance to music.  I let it fill me up and then overflow until the house is awash with music.  When I sit down to write or stand before my easel I need to listen to my voice, not the muse of another artist.  I want my own pure thoughts and emotions.  I need to listen to the wind blow, the honk of the car horn, the laughter of a child passing outside.  I need the soundtrack of my art to be my own life.