Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Songs That Have Hummed Me

Some time ago I stopped being able to listen to music when writing. First I had to cut out music with words, then strong rhythms, then all forms of percussion. For a while I listened to movie scores, but soon they, too, took over, dragging me away from my own stories and into the movies whose scenes they orchestrated, ditching me in sweltering, neon-stained New Orleans, or dangling me from Lincoln’s Beard on Mount Rushmore. That left me with lullabies, etudes, and chamber music, a Debussy nocturne, a Mozart quartet. Like one of those people with horrible autoimmune dysfunction, I found I could no longer listen to anything while working but an occasional Brandenburg concerto or two—a diet of pure salade frisée. Then the concerti, too, wore out their welcome. And the rest was silence. 


But not quite. For I don’t mean to suggest that music hasn’t been very much a part of my writing. It always has been. It’s that the music hasn’t always been playing except virtually, as a sort of aural hallucination, a CD spinning around in the back of my brain. One way or another, always, in writing, I’ve had music somewhere on my mind.

But there were days when I worked to real music. My first unbearably bad unpublished novel I wrote to strains of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody played over and over again—to the displeasure of my college roommates, who suffered it continuously despite attempts to drown George out with the Boss and Steely Dan. What did Gershwin or his rhapsodies have to do with the novel I wrote? Nothing, really, except that the novel was set in New York City, and no music reminds me more of New York—or at any rate of the New York of my (and perhaps everyone’s) dreams—than Gershwin’s (think of that opening clarinet glissando in Rhapsody in Blue rising up, up, up into the stratosphere—like those stainless steel vaults crowning the Chrysler Building; music to build skyscrapers by).

My second (and slightly less bad) novel I wrote almost exclusively to George Winston’s Thanksgiving. Titled The Sidewalk Artist, it was the story of a successful Madison Avenue advertising executive who quits to become a chalk gypsy or screever, someone who draws on sidewalks with colored chalk. Here, too, the relevance of the music was unknown to me then. But in hindsight Winston’s spare, deliberately melancholy composition (played in bare feet) perfectly suited a melodramatic tearjerker set during a harsh New York winter, wherein my protagonist finds himself living among urchins in an abandoned rail tunnel under Grand Central Station. It was music to feel sorry for your protagonists to.

Sometimes the connections between songs and stories are obvious; other times they need a Freud to rout them. When I wrote “The Girl in the Story,” one of the stories in Drowning Lessons, why did Ruby Tuesday keep flitting through my brain? Easy: because the real-life prototype of Stephen O’Shan (a.k.a. Colin David McDoogle)—the luckless leprechaun of an Irishman whose girl the narrator sleeps with—and I dropped acid together once in his garage loft, and spent most of our subsequent trip “digging” that song (a fine song, by the way, to dig to on acid; by five in the morning I was convinced that I had written it).

And does Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor go with “My Search for Red and Grey Wide-Striped Pajamas” because the tune was written into the plot of the story, or was the tune written into the plot of the story because it was in my head at the time when I wrote it?

Honestly, I don’t remember.

Other cases offer more mystery. Why, when writing “The Wolf House,” a story about a gathering of old high school chums for a comrade’s funeral, did I play the score to Bridge on the River Kwai? No idea, but today I can’t read or even contemplate that work without hacking my way through a sodden Burmese jungle en route to destroy a bridge built by a fanatical British Colonel (Alec Guinness) for the Japanese army he despises.

And what does The Blue Danube have to do with a story about an African-American caretaker in charge of the last remaining survivor of the Titanic disaster (“The Sinking Ship Man”)? Oh, yes, now I see: In the 1958 film A Night to Remember as the gloriously illuminated ship (actually a large model) steams past the camera we hear strains of Strauss’ most famous waltz as played by the ship’s band—the same band that, hours later, in the movie and according to legend, would play ‘Nearer My God to Thee as the doomed liner nosed under).

You see that movie score music plays a big part in my writing life, maybe because what I mainly ask of music is what I demand of my work: that it take me places: not just to physical places, but that it transport me in and out of various moods, something movie scores are designed implicitly to do. And so when I wrote Life Goes to the Movies, my forthcoming novel about a Vietnam Veteran-turned filmmaker who goes over the brink of madness, I listened continually to Alex North’s jazz-inspired theme for A Streetcar Named Desire—logically, because the book is about movies, but specifically because the novel’s antagonist, Dwaine Fitzgibbon, puts the narrator in mind of a young brooding Marlon.

I will end on this note: that music—songs especially—can be dangerous, especially if and when we ignore their implications. For better or worse, there are usually reasons why they are there, in our heads or on our CD players or ipods. Two summers ago, at a writer’s colony in western Massachusetts, while drafting a novel I played two songs over and over again —not while I wrote, but mostly in my Honda Civic while rolling around the countryside, enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. Both songs were by the Beatles. One was Ticket to Ride, the other Yesterday. I came home to learn that my wife of twenty years had decided that she didn’t want to be a wife anymore.

More recently, on another fellowship at another colony (where I steered clear of love songs, thanks very much), I listened obsessively to The Moldau, Bedrich Smetena’s tone poem tracing the course of the Volga river in Czechoslovakia from its humble origin as a series of sparkling streams merging, past a hunt in the woods and peasants celebrating at a wedding along its banks, through a moonlit night and thunderous rapids leading it towards its own triumphant wedding with the open sea. The first time I heard The Moldau I was five years old. In his ratty laboratory at the bottom of our driveway my inventor papa kept a small turntable and a short stack of records, including some Maurice Chevalier recordings and a ten-inch, 78 rpm Decca recording of Alfred Wallenstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 1952 rendition of Smetena’s masterpiece. That the record was full of cracks only added to its appeal. Five years old and smitten with Smetena! But for me it wasn’t Smetena’s music as much as it was my father’s, belonging to him as much as the smells of solder flux, orange rind and scorched metal from the sanding machine and the lathe that filled his laboratory. Now, forty–six years later, the theme reasserted itself as that of a novel (“The Man in Blue”) about—among other things— a Czechoslovakian-German-Jew survivor of World War II, who owes his survival, in part, to a daring escape from a Nazi labor camp into a moonlit river. As with Drowning Lessons, water courses through this work, too, supplying its major metaphor. But the theme of water itself runs not just through my novels, essays and stories, but through my life. There are no accidental metaphors.

And there are no accidental songs or pieces of music. Which is to say: songs don’t lie. Not if they’ve gotten into your head, they don’t. And all music, if it works at all, works subliminally.

Whether we play music consciously or not, by accident or by volition, or even if we don’t play it at all, still, that won’t stop music from playing us.

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