Saturday, December 20, 2008

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.


Jick Hambleton said...

I also have an issue with listening to music while I read, write or study, albeit a slightly different one to yours.

I find music with vocals highly distracting. I end up trying to follow the story of the voice rather than the one on the page.

Luckily I like classical music, you know, the stuff you have to go to a soundproof room in the basement to buy (Could that place be more like a torturer's dungeon? Why not just bolt some chains to the wall while they're at it?)

Opera falls into a sort of middle area. I am a monoglot so most operatic performances are vocally shrouded in mystery to me. Even so, Carmen on full bore is a bit too intrusive while trying to do something else.

Pan Historia said...

Actually I have that issue too, and I could easily make a case for classical music being ok for writing or even for painting, except that I still have a deep emotional connection to the music and I don't want that to color my work.

Viridian Green said...

Last xmas I was given a basic model iPod by a friend who knew I liked talking long walks by myself. It's still in its box, unused. Because like you Wyatt, I want to hear the sounds around me when I walk in the countryside - the birdsong, rustle of leaves, whinnying of a horse greeting me, farmers' dogs barking at my intrusion into their territory, encroaching tractors on narrow lanes. And like both of you I find music a distraction if I am trying to read or write - I find myself listening to the song, it pushes everything else out of my head. I might listen to music to get myself into the mood for a specific character, but I must write in silence (or the closest one can realistically get to it!)