I know I’m not the first Murderati to talk about music. We’ve shared numerous blogs about the kinds of music that inspire us. Some of us find it essential to listen to music while writing, others get too involved in listening to the music to get any good writing done.
I myself cannot listen to music when I write, except when it is piped into a café and presented as background noise.
Of course, to all hard-and-fast rules, there is always an exception. A few years ago I faced a two-week writer’s block. I had never experienced anything like this and I was stymied. I broke through by putting the ear buds in and playing classic rock at volume level “eleven.” It was a con-job on my conscious self, creating a diversion that allowed my subconscious to sneak on through. All my conscious mind knew was that my fingers were typing. I had no idea what was coming out. I broke through the block in two nights, and ended up with some pretty inspired stuff. It was an exhausting experiment and one that could not be sustained for long.
The thing is, I find music so alluring, so all-encompassing, that when I listen I just want to dive in. I can’t focus on the writing. For me, music is the alpha and omega. It is the everything. And I tell you what, I would not be the writer I am if music wasn’t in my life.
Strong statement, I know. But I truly believe my writing is indebted to the music I studied as a child, from fourth grade into my twenties. I played classical clarinet early on and moved to jazz when I entered high school. Once I segued to saxophone, music became downright sexy. I continued private instruction in classical and jazz and my world opened up when one of my teachers introduced me to the fusion artists of the Seventies. Chick Corea, Al Dimeola, Herbie Hancock. I studied jazz performance for a short time in college, at what was then called North Texas State University. There I was introduced to the masters of bop — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon (whom I saw live at the Kool Jazz Festival), and Oscar Peterson.
But I started skipping my Sight Singing and Ear Training class (the class was pure punishment and I was failing it anyway) to follow my English teacher to his office to continue the argument we’d been having for weeks. He was a nationally renowned poet and he knew instantly that I needed some literary ass-kicking. My writing was rife with clichés and it was his job to stamp them out.
At the same time I began discovering writers whose words read like music. I found writers who satisfied my love for music with the music they created in their words.
Authors like, well, James Joyce. How many here have sat transfixed by the words and sounds that roll off the pages of “The Artist as a Young Man”? And, while I’ve never been able to get more than a few pages into “Finnegans Wake,” just listen to this first paragraph:
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggly isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sethers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.”
Okay, so let’s not worry so much about what the fuck this means. Just read it. Out loud. Listen to the music: “…while they went doublin their mumper,” “nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick…” Avoice from afire is “a voice from afar,” but is also the voice of God from the burning bush. There’s a lot more in Joyce than just lyrical sentences and I’m certainly not studied enough to blog about the dimension of his writing. But I can talk about the musicality of his words. And do you hear the Irish accent? Look at the word “thuartpeatrick,” which is “thought Patrick.” Now, read the paragraph in your best brogue. It’s beautiful.
When I read words on a page I hear consonants and vowels that form rhythms of staccato and legato. I hear triplets and eighth notes and the ghosting of jazz riffs leading into melodies and cadences. Words cannot help but create rhythm. Words spoken are sounds and sounds are percussive. Or melodic. And then a combination of both that leads to the phrasing of symphonies.
And we have so many wonderful words to choose our sounds from. We have combinations of words that roll with onomatopoeia, words that click and cough and bend upwards and down, words that modulate into fevered meters, alternating four-four to seven-four to three-four and back to measure one.
The authors whose works I love have an innate sense of the music of words, whether they are conscious of this fact or not. Dickens has his own musical style, which is different from the musicality of Steinbeck. And yet I can be lulled into a state of catatonic stasis from the reading aloud of either.
And maybe that’s why I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time I heard Jack Kerouac read his work. I was watching this hip little documentary called “Whatever Happened to Kerouac” when his voice emerged reading “Doctor Sax.” What I heard was a saxophone solo in spoken words.
I picked up the seminal Beat Generation novel “On the Road” and read it straight through. What surprised me, however, was how slow it seemed to read. There were moments of literary genius, but mostly I felt it needed an editor’s touch. Too many long run-on sentences. It just wasn’t working for me. But then all these Kerouac recordings began to surface and I ended up listening to him read from “On the Road.” And I got it. Once you’ve heard him read you can’t help but read his work with the same energy and rhythm. I soon saw that no word was wasted, each and every word was an eighth or half note that emerged from the intricate, never-ending bebop solo in his head.
It’s no surprise that folks like Zoot Simms and Steve Allen liked to jam with Kerouac, trading musical “riffs” with his musical words. I pulled a You Tube clip from the Steve Allen Show to give you a sense of what I’m saying here. Check it out. It’s about a five-minute segment. Listen to it all the way to the end. If this is your first introduction to Kerouac, then let me now say THANK YOU for letting me be your guide.
And songwriters can be musical poets with their words, too. I can think of a dozen songs by The Beatles and The Doors that include poetry capable of singing on their own, without instrumental accompaniment.
How about this gem of a lyric from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:
“Little old lady got mutilated late last night.”
The alliteration is to die for. Then listen to Zevon singing the line, hear his phrasing, his dragging out of “late last night,” (the dotted-eighth note coming off the upbeat of the first note of the next measure with the word “last”) and you get the full sense of how the sentence works rhythmically. The performance gives the line its true punch, just as Kerouac’s writing comes fully to life through his readings.
It’s interesting how even musical notes on a sheet of staff paper need the musician to complete the picture. I remember my first lesson in jazz performance in college. My instructor put a Charlie Parker solo in front of me and told me to play. Before I got ten bars in, my teacher said, “I can’t believe you’re reading the notes.” I said, “Uh, yeah.” “Don’t read what’s on the page,” he said. “Interpret it.”
It took me a few weeks to get what he was saying. I was reading the notes, but the music required a performance.
Although I always read my work aloud while writing, I never really knew if things were working until I heard Ray Porter read the audio book version of Boulevard. This man, an accomplished actor and veteran audio book reader, performed my work. He took notes on a page and turned them into music.
I stopped studying music because I wanted to communicate in a more direct way. I wanted to deliver cleaner, more thought-provoking messages. Writing seemed to be the answer. So, it’s kind of funny that I’ve come to value the way sound and music have influenced my writing. It’s funny how I needed to hear Jack Kerouac reading his work before I really got the message.
What “musical” writing—from poetry, prose, or song lyric—has captured your eye, and why?