Thursday, 3 November 2011

Music and writing and music

"Can you listen to music and write? What song did you hear today?"

I laughed when I read today's prompt from NaBloPoMo because I had just turned the music off in preparation to write.

Generally the answer to the first question is "no".  As a musician I have spent a lot of time learning how to really listen to music.  It's hard to break the habit of something gained through close practise.  I love all kinds of music, but find that when I sit to write, I need to give the writing my full attention.  If there is music playing it feels like my brain is split and neither the writing nor the music is being paid the attention it deserves.

While the answer is generally no.  There are certain kinds of music that I find really conducive to both discipline and creativity.  If I'm feeling the need for music, I'll reach for these.

Phillip Glass' music is excellent.  Top of the list is the soundtrack to The Hours.

J.S Bach is also close to the top of the list.  The cello suites played by Yo-Yo Ma are glorious.  I also love the Brandenburg Concertos, the two-part piano inventions and the concertos for two and three pianos.

James Rhodes' album of piano music, "Bullets and Lullabies" is a newly discovered wonder.

These works of art all have many things in common.  At first glance Philip Glass and JS Bach may seem to be worlds apart, but their music conjures the same feelings in me.  The music is very ordered, repetitive, hypnotic.  In a way it is relentless.  I love the feeling of momentum, yet I can also happily fall asleep with this music playing.  Its regularity is meditative. The music is instrumental - I can not write under any circumstances if I can hear human voices. My mind wanders and I end up seeing what I'm hearing appear on the computer screen.  This music is reflective of my mood.  If I'm feeling light and optimistic, the music feels the same.  If I'm sad, I hear the dark notes.  Either way it feeds my soul.

The soundtrack to "The Hours" is one of the albums I always have with me.  When I travelled around Spain and Portugal in 2003 I had it on mini disc and it got me through the overnight train trip from Madrid to Lisbon.  My seat was right near the doorway between two carriages and I was in a non-smoking car.  Not long after we had left Madrid it became clear that my non-smoking car was full of smokers who were going to be up and down throughout the trip to get their fix.  Philip Glass saved me.  I carry this album and several other works by Glass on my iphone.

My relationship with Bach is a long one and much happier than the one I have with Mozart.  As a piano student who did not have to be persuaded to practise (I genuinely loved playing - as long as it wasn't scales) I would take anything on.  Throughout high school I played in a wide range of settings.  Usually I was preparing for exams as well as the big Toowoomba eisteddfod.  I regularly played at school assemblies, chapel services and concerts.  And I was in hot demand as an accompanist for various choirs (if I wasn't singing in them) and for other girls who played flute, violin and other orchestral instruments.  Occasionally I would be hired to play at weddings or funerals held in the school chapel.

Bach's setting of Ave Maria was a favourite first piece.  I found Bach's music to be robust and rhythmic but still lyrical.  I craved to have access to a harpsichord to get the real sounds and precision into the music.  I was thrilled to be presented with a very special edition of Bach's collected two part piano inventions.  There was a whole competitive section devoted just to them in the eisteddfod.  I hoped to be able to recover from the Mozart debacle by playing Bach.

The set solo piece for 12 or 13 year olds one year was a movement from a Mozart sonata.  He and I never got on, unless I was singing the soprano part in a choir performing his Requiem.  I couldn't hear the music.  I couldn't play the music.  It never sounded right.  It never felt right.  It was in E major with four sharps. Sharps and I had always struggled.  Flats made more sense to me.  I dreaded the moment when my teacher would ask me to play it.  I would labour to the end of the first page and the teacher would intervene.  She would sit at the piano and explain Mozart was delicate and needed a lightness of touch and she would demonstrate.  How was she making that sound from the very same page of music that just sounded like a jumble of notes when I played?  I would try again, resentful, with gritted teeth.  I resolved to love it.  Even that didn't work.

The date of the competition loomed and we contemplated withdrawing my entry.  Never to be easily defeated, I refused to withdraw and slogged on.  It never improved.  As I sat in the audience listening to my competitors I realised I had made a terrible mistake.  Everyone was going to laugh at me and I would be booed off the stage.  Neither of those things happened, but I really wished I hadn't insisted.  I hung my head. I railed against Mozart.  I took to Bach instead.

My first venture was invention number 14.  Lively.  I enjoyed playing it.  It was a popular choice that year and I chose a tempo that was too slow.  I paid particular attention to the remarks of the adjudicator - both hands carried the melody and were in a conversation with each other.  I held this advice close and chose number 6 the next year.  I was highly commended but didn't receive a placing.  I already knew I would choose number 13 next.  The boy I had a crush on had played it and I fell in love (with it, or him - I was unclear at the time.)  My choice paid off and I was placed second the following year - the first time I had received a placing in the solo piano competitions.  I still turn to number 13 and play it and love it just as much.  I don't play Mozart.

I had the privilege of attending James Rhodes' last concert in the Melbourne Recital Centre last Friday night.  I'd spent two days of professional development and was intellectually exhausted.  It was a wrestle to get there. From the moment I sat in the magnificent hall and focussed on my breathing I was glad I had persisted.  On more than one occasion I sat listening with tears spilling down my face.  The more I breathed the more the tears rolled.  I knew the music was helping me move from my intellect to my emotional core.  I felt wonderful!

Music is an incredible, amazing thing - able to stir emotions, evoke place, arouse memories or just put a tune in your head that you can't stop humming.  I remember that it was "Careless Whisper" playing when I finally slow danced with Paul Czislowski at the grade 9 social. David Schwenessen went with Jimmy Barnes' "I'd die to be with you tonight" and it is The Bangles' "Manic Monday" that puts me right back with Jason Schutt.

Is it any wonder I generally can not write with music playing.  There's just too much going on.

Now that I've finished, I'm going to resume listening to Justin Townes Earl.  He's Steve Earl's son and I'm loving his album "Harlem River Blues".

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