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Friday, March 21, 2014

Music while writing--and while not writing--

follower of Hieronymus Bosch, "Concert in the egg."
Wikipedia Commons, from Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
Q: What sort of music do you listen to while writing, and how does it vary? (The question is from Sienna Latham of the fascinating Hindsight, located at the intersection of art and museum on the web. Have a question of your very own? Leave on in comments.)

A: Perhaps I am a bit strange in this regard. I'm always seeing online playlists for writers--what they listened to while writing such-and-such a novel. But I have a great capacity for blotting out background noise (very useful when one has been raising three children, though one needs to have internal radar set for the "wrong" sort of noise, and also possess the ability to move back and forth between children and the depths of a manuscript) and so I never trouble myself with playing music. In fact, it seems strange to me to think of doing so.

What would I do it for? To me, it seems like the attempt to find a distraction when I neither need or want distraction, and I would tune it out anyway. But what do other people who don't blot sounds out want it for? Is it that one doesn't quite like writing and wants to be distracted to some degree? I'm always bemused by the many writers who claim to dislike writing and to love having written. (I don't think I would write if I felt that way. Should one admire people who write despite that feeling, or be troubled that they force themselves to do what they don't like?) Two of my children like music when they do homework... So is it to be amused? Is it to set a mood? Is it to let words ride on sound that "fits" the subject? To be "inspired"? Aside from the fact that I would block out the music anyway, I don't need mood or inspiration to be created by something outside myself. There's something I am missing, it seems. Writers are alike in some ways, different in others. I suppose this is a way I am different. (But I never think the particulars of how people write are significant.)

That said, I do sometimes find myself writing a poem after listening to music. Because music is an awakening force... and in me, it tends to wake up words.

What other part does music have in my life, then?

Some time ago I was shanghaied into the soprano section of a choir at the little Episcopal church that James Fenimore Cooper turned into a Gothic bandbox on his return from Europe. I have two or three practices per week and sing in public at least once a week. So I probably sing more than most people my age. The choir sings Haydn, Humperdinck (the real one), Bach, etc. I'm continually surprised to find myself in a choir (me?) and singing in public, and I have threatened to write a comic novel called Choir. In the time I've been singing, we've had quite a few people in the arts in the choir--painters Deborah Guertze, Yolanda Sharpe (a wonderful mezzo-soprano), and Ashley Norwood Cooper.

As for my life at home and on the road, I hear a good deal of music but not in any systematic way. The last CDs I bought for my fall book travels were Mike Scott and the Waterboys, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, and also an anthology of songs made from Yeats poems.  Obviously that's because I have a Yeats mania. (I sometimes pick up other intersections between books and music, like the Tiger Lilies version of Edward Gorey--or, for that matter, as when composer-videographer Paul Digby sets one of my poems. See five videos of poems at youtube.) I don't bother with being "up to date," but my daughter makes me CDs of her favorite new music for book trips, and I listen to a lot of classical music--medieval and Renaissance music, along with Mozart, Britten, Taverner, etc.


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  2. Oddly enough, I no longer listen to music while working (reading, studying, or writing), though I did in the past and preferred Mozart and his contemporaries, but now I can (and do) have the television on almost all the time (usually TCM or History channel -- preferred -- or the 24 hour news channels) -- not for the visuals but for the "white noise" background sound at very low volume. This is perhaps odd considering my recent rant about noise in libraries.

    1. I wonder if I did when I was younger--don't really remember. With a family of five people, I came to appreciate silence more, I imagine.

      Yes, that is odd, though electronic noise is not the same thing as the real thing--much easier to blur and ignore and set at the volume you desire, I suppose. And you can't turn off your library noise. Have you tried those French earplugs of soft wax? I have forgotten the name.

  3. If I were to use earplugs, I would still have the visual distractions of animated, inconsiderate library patrons. Grumble, grumble, grumble! Besides . . . it is part of my curmudgeonly mystique to complain rather than either find a solution or tolerate distractions. Growl!

    1. Well, I like curmudgeons, so there! Though you could wear tinted glasses and ear plugs... Or maybe a low-brimmed hat!

  4. The sound of silence is rather beautiful.
    Music? That is for listening to.
    It's rather like good food? One can sit down and enjoy it fully, or one can eat 'on the go' all day and just swallow calories.
    Actually - I'm all for the latter. HAHA!

    I could no more concentrate on writing while there was music in the background than compose music with other music in the background!

    When painting? Yes. I love music sometimes for that.
    Writing and music composition are too alike. Music would just disrupt those endeavors for me. Both are structured, time-based. linear forms of expression. Music and poetry, or 'sound' and spoken narrative can and do complement one another - but in the creative process I find that they conflict!

    1. I was thinking afterward about the temporality of each, how you keep tipping forward with each word, and how the words contain expectation. Yes, it's a conflict to me as well.

      Silence is beautiful, especially when it was recently broken by many voices. As it will be this morning--kids arriving soon! Dratted early dismissals... XD

    2. That was so nicely expressed!

      If only parents also had early dismissals! Oh dear… life is wonky sometimes!

    3. Parents and early dismissal? Perhaps the British had the right idea with boarding schools. On the other hand, home schoolers never have early dismissal .... do they? This leads to a question: is parenting compatible or incompatible with creativity? Has anyone ever studied and written about the correlations?

    4. Paul,

      Going away to do book events is my early dismissal. And the rare nothing-to-do vacation...


      Cooperstown in one of those places with a boarding school tradition, and so some children disappear from public school around 6th to 8th grade...

      Home schoolers can accomplish the work in an 8-3 school day in much less time, and so if they have a good situation (good teacher), they can really excel because they can do much more challenging work. If you have a good fit with a child who is eager to learn and parent who can teach... But a parent needs to be a parent, and if schooling gets in the way of that number one demand, that's it; he or she should stop.

      I have written and talked about that issue of parenting and creativity because people often ask me when they realize that I have three children. Women ask me. And it really depends on what people want. For a while I was a professor and a writer. I didn't particularly think an academic setting the right one for a writer, and I also thought that I could do two big things well but not three. I left academia and became a mother of three children and a writer. That's a pretty big financial sacrifice, but I would make the same decision again. Today I still am mother and writer, although I also do events and the occasional week-long gig. It's somewhat easier now that one child is away in school a lot of the time, and one is working, so I only have the youngest at home all the time. But there are new time-consuming things to do and new worries as children grow older.

      Parenting is so very "compatible with creativity" that it will eat up a good deal of creativity! So is teaching. I feel that I have a good balance of work and parenting, but making the choices I made was a risk.

      I haven't paid much attention to research on the topic--have preferred the hands-on sort of learning about the subject. When my children were small, I often solved the problem by going on less sleep, which is not a very good solution, healthwise. But I recommend marrying somebody who likes to cook!

  5. I used to listen to a great deal of music at one time, but never as background music. But then I rarely listened to "popular" music(?). My practice of listening to music began to wane when I became more and more deaf. Hearing aids of one kind or another has never done the trick. Thus I can listen to some Shostakovitch for example, but very little Mozart, in whose music large sections become 'pitchless'.

    One kind of music I regularly listen to is Gregorian Chant which presents me with no problems, thank goodness.

    1. Oh, I'd never thought about partial deafness choosing your music--I know it becomes hard to hear where there is background noise, but that's about all I knew. Another wonderful thing about growing older... earwise, what bothers me is tintinnabulation.

  6. CLICK HERE for some more comments, some by or about painters. I've had enough painter friends who paint while listening to music to think that it must be very common. Perhaps it's because they're not competing temporal art forms? At any rate, we can say for sure that it's a recent thing in the history of painting, as one wouldn't be able to manage or pay for a quartet of musicians in the corner of one's studio in earlier centuries... But perhaps painters liked to sing as they worked, way back when.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.