The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Seeing the Music

by Tricia Dower


I’ve had a breakthrough in listening I must share with you, even though you may have been doing this for ages.

Ten days ago Colin and I taped a radio show for broadcast on January 30th. We interviewed John Cimino, the director of Creative Leaps International, an organization that fosters learning through music. John led us through two exercises in purposeful listening.

First, after hearing 30 – 40 seconds of an instrumental piece, we were asked to share how the music made us feel. This was a challenge. My emotional vocabulary is embarrassingly limited: peaceful, happy, sad? Also, I’m not used to listening that way. Music often washes over me, depositing unarticulated images and emotions, sometimes sparking creative impulses, but at a subconscious level. I’m more comfortable expressing a fictional character’s emotions, not mine and, then, only after working and reworking the words. If you ask me my feelings at the height of an emotional situation, I have to get back to you after I’ve processed them. I’ve been doing this since childhood. In my family, emotional spontaneity was for hot-blooded types, not us Anglo-Saxons.

Another exercise was to listen to a different clip and picture a scene. Describe the setting, the action and our participation in it. I was more comfortable with that and got to thinking it might help me write.

So, two days ago, with pen and paper in hand, I played some musical clips and purposefully listened with my latest story in mind. After a few false starts I stumbled onto the music from Cirque du Soleil’s O and the images arrived. A flotilla of canoes, people singing and dancing, a boy stretching his arms over a sunken city — testing his powers, seeing if he could raise it up. The boy’s fevered dreams — frenetic and cacophonous until his muse appears. A little girl twirling around, feeling free for once, her mother watching and smiling. People mourning their dead, sending their cries up to the clouds. I saw the secret smile of the man my protagonist loved. Later, with these images in mind (and the music off), I went back into my story and deepened a few moments.

On Wednesday, I listened to Colin’s weekly show, Concert Studies. This week he played some experimental contemporary pieces I usually have difficulty listening to without close-minded judgment. But hearing through my story, I saw the music and allowed myself to experience its effect. Haunting acoustical horns were dream people signalling the start of their search. Other instruments were my protagonist and her son creeping around a house they would break into, rain on tin roofs, people loudly whispering frightened and angry words. The monotony of a specific drum beat was the tedium of my characters’ lives. It was liberating to enter my story emotionally, rather than intellectually, through music. I don’t think it would have been as effective without specific characters and scenes in mind, but, hey, maybe someday I’ll be good enough at this listening thing to be able to conjure up an entire novel from a single note.

Does music spark or inform your writing?

Photo: John Cimino, director of Creative Leaps International. You can hear him lead Colin and me through a few listening exercises on January 30, 2008, from 4 – 5 p.m. Pacific Time (7 – 8 p.m. EST) via the Internet at CFUV. You can also hear his fabulous baritone voice performing an homage to Cervantes.

3 Comments:

Blogger T. Lee said...

>Does music spark or inform your writing?

Hell, yeah (is the trite answer).

I responded creatively to music before I even wrote. A song lyric, a few bars, a drum beat, all can set me off on a creative conjuring. If not for laziness, I think I might have been a musician. Or a practised one, since I learned to read and create music around the same time.

These prompts you mention, though, are especially interesting to me right now. Thanks for this post, I'm much inspired.

(And congrats on your 'breakthrough'! Learning to listen to 'different' music differently is rather like a language-acquisition.)

Thu Jan 24, 03:09:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger jsnider said...

I have used music this way. When I write poetry it can deepen whatever mood I am already in. I am not sure about fiction writing though. I haven't tried that.

It has always fascinated me how different sounds can evoke different feelings from me so easily and sometimes rather overwhelmingly.

I think it's a great idea to use music to help you write. I am sure many dancers get their inspiration from literature. Oh, and musicians definitely get their inspiration from life--as do well all--so it's all a great cyclical ride.

Thu Jan 24, 09:07:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You women are way ahead of me. More attuned, less locked up, I suspect. Thanks for describing my breakthrough as akin to learning a new language, Tamara. It feels like that.

I can see how music can inspire poetic imagery, jsnider. If I were a poet, I might have discovered that. Of course, if I'd been able to listen to music that way before, I might have BEEN a poet.

Thu Jan 24, 01:00:00 pm GMT-5  

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