The Last Word
Soundtrack to our lives
When I was a kid I was able to listen to music and study. All kids can. It's hard coded in the adolescent brain, this ability to compartmentalize hearing and thinking. Parents can't do that and with feigned incomprehensibility, claim they never could have done so, sort of like erased memory. We all know we did it; it's the type of music our kids listen to that we really don't understand. Nowadays kids plug in their iPods and the stuff they listen to enters the brain seamlessly, and inaudibly to the observers. Sound enhances the everyday glide from class to class and individually arranged tracks accompany them on the school bus. What is most charming to me is when kids share ear buds, These tiny ear inserts are a wonderful new way of listening that is as evolved from headphones as laptops are from quill pens. I was on the VTA bus the other day and two young boys, maybe 12 years old, were listening to the same iPod, each with one of the tiny buds in an ear.
Music is as much a part of me as my height and near-sightedness. I grew up listening to my mother's 45s played on her Philco record player. I rode imaginary horses to the classically misconstrued William Tell Overture, a/k/a the Lone Ranger's theme, and danced to the Peer Gynt Suite. At a very early age I fell in love with Karl Orff's masterwork, the Carmina Burana. O fortuna! From about age 12 on, I abhorred silence. The music I listened to became the soundtrack to everyday life. In junior high we played the Four Tops and the Beach Boys over and over; in high school it was "Give Peace a Chance." In college, the Allman Brothers Band's "Eat a Peach" and Chicago accompanied homework and dorm room gatherings. I played in the band and marching tunes lodged themselves in my inner ear, unstoppable.
With my first published book, I listened to Sade. When I wrote the second book I listened to a lot of Neil Young's Harvest Moon, the third was Lou Reed, and the fourth an interesting mix of Celtic and East Indian. But, by the time I got to the fifth, I knew that if I was to keep putting soundtracks to my work, I was going to be reducing my play list because once a book was done I didn't ever want to hear that recording again.
While I was writing my first manuscript, never published, I listened incessantly to Brahms's Seventh Symphony, coupled with Sibelius's Second Symphony in D Major. The evocative melodies and dramatic chords of both symphonies lent themselves perfectly as an emotional backdrop to the writing. I was writing about ships and sea battles (please don't ask, everyone does pirates when they start out and I was very young) and the music filled in the drama where the writing actually didn't. Since I've been working on the sixth book, I've come to the conclusion that maybe I was again layering drama and emotion with what I was hearing; when the music was absent, the words rang flat. The evocative feelings weren't coming off the page, but out of the music. I stopped listening to music as I wrote, determined that the emotions and drama on the written page should be built out of well-made sentences, not the overlay of music.
Whether singing in my church choir or in the Island Community Chorus, I try to internalize what's on the page, absorb it into my psyche and ‘hear' it from the inside out. It's the same with writing, but backwards. What's in my imagination, what's in my mind, exists there only for me until I get the words out on the paper to share with readers. It's my job to make those dramatic moments work, to evoke some reaction from the reader. After all, they aren't listening to the same music I am. The publisher of a writer I know a little once marketed a recommended play list to accompany one of her novels. Gimmick, or a clever way to get the reader to feel what you meant to write?
I still listen to music as I work at things other than fiction writing, web-streaming WUMB over my office computer, listening to the radio in the truck, or carefully chosen CDs for long trips. But I no longer listen as I write. I miss it, but I think that music is so powerful that it masks the construction of believable emotion. In the way hearing a song from our past will transport us instantly back to a time or place, so too does music played while writing trick the mind.
A composer writes a piece of music with all the necessary instruction to help the musician accomplish what he meant; the musician interprets what he reads, but it is the deliberate design of notes, key and harmonies that create the effect the composer desired. A writer has to find the linguistic chords to achieve the right emotional engagement by the reader. Substituting sound, even something as beautiful as Brahms' Seventh, is cheating.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.