Writing About Music

Forestwander.com

Writing music.

In words.

Is simply not possible.

I tried. In my first published book, Notes of a Piano Tuner, I wanted desperately to convey the thrill of hearing a certain piece of music played on a freshly tuned piano. Everything about that time and place added to the intensity of those few bars—an old wooden church house twenty miles out a dirt road in the Arkansas Ozarks, an old upright piano that had somehow survived a century of use to remain remarkably musical, and a rainy late spring afternoon. As the storm front moved on to the east, a green cast permeated the outside air. A wasp buzzed against the nearby window, one of those tall narrow windows with watery glass common in old churches where they needed the light but didn’t want congregants distracted by whatever went on outside.

Moist air carries sound waves better than dry air. The combination of moist air, the resonance of the old church, the magical ancient piano, and the harmonies of that particular music transcended anything I could say with words. The waves rolled up from the soundboard, bounced off the high church ceiling, and resonated through my chest like a physical force.

Well, it was a physical force.

My hair stood up. I got goosebumps.

There’s something about fourths and fifths that does it for me. And old hymns, which make full use of fourths and fifths. Simple, basic harmonies.

An acoustic physicist could probably explain it. The mathematics of tuning never quite penetrated my skull. My dad taught me to tune by ear. I didn’t want or need to understand that when a string produced a fundamental pitch, say the note ‘A,’ it also formed partials. Partials were, predictably, partial vibrations of the string which produce other pitches. So for the note ‘A’ vibrating along a single string, the partials also vibrated in tones of fourths, fifths, other octaves and so forth up into an entire overtone series.

For more than you ever wanted  to know about overtones, check out this article.

Complicated stuff and mostly irrelevant to a tuner who works by ear. My dad, I, and now my son understand these things internally.

To the point, the strings on the old upright in that church still created perfect overtones. As those chords rolled from my fingers, the overtones blended with the fundamental notes I played to create such a rich experience that I actually got tears in my eyes.

I wanted to share that. When I wrote that story, I tried to think of how to convey my experience. I considered writing the actual music on the page, but unless someone knew how to read music, that notation would mean nothing. I blathered on about feeling the effects of the music but that alone wouldn’t make someone’s hair stand up.

I ended up writing the words that accompany that particular sequence of music thinking that if someone heard the words, they would hear the music.

Well, maybe some did. But unfortunately, most readers evidently took the meaning of the words as the message I wanted to convey and never heard the music at all.

Wrong. Not even close. I didn’t want the message of the words to have anything to do with my story. The message of the words wasn’t my message. In fact, they were about as far from my intent as they could possibly be.

The words were “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” etc. I wrote the entire first verse, because those were the notes, the harmonies, the chords and overtones of my experience.

As a result, a lot of readers of my book assumed that I had been ‘saved.’ That my awestruck experience resulting from that loaded afternoon had to do with finding God, getting religion, and all the rest of that stuff.

I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. Not what I meant at all.

And it strikes me now that religion is a lot like that, all about the words without hearing the music.

A Journey West, Part 3/5

T.SanLorenzo

San Lorenzo River

Part of my agenda for this trip to Santa Cruz and environs had to do with a novel I’m writing. I arrived with a list of locations to scout. Thanks to Ginny and Jeb’s patient chauffeuring and on other days my daughter’s use of a borrowed car, we managed to tour neighborhoods, the campus, the business districts, and the beach. I made copious notes.

Questions arose. Why is the San Lorenzo River dry at the crossing of Highway 1 and full of water further downstream near the coast? Why is Fire Break Road shown on the map stretching from Empire Grade down to the backside of campus but doesn’t exist in the real world?

alemany

Alemany Farmers Market, Bernal Heights, San Francisco. First farmers market in California, established in 1943.

A flurry of investigation resulted in answers. The San Lorenzo is dry because of a two year drought, and the lower riverbed holds captured water because of a sand bar blocking the mouth where it drains into the Bay, creating what amounts to a long lake. No answer on the missing road.

california-san-francisco-fishermans-wharf-1

Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, on left. Courtesy http://www.planetware.com

We spent a day in San Francisco, tracking sites of my fictional events. The Alemany farmers market is surrounded by steep hillsides with rows and rows of colorful houses built literally wall to wall.

deste and me

Deste and I walk toward the point at Golden Gate

The Embarcadero  stretches along its long waterfront up to the Presidio—shops, wharfs, boats in sheltered marinas, mobs of tourists.

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Jeb and I ponder a large outcrop of serpentinite rock at the point. First pier of Golden Gate Bridge looms above. Photo courtesy Deste Campbell.

We walked along the old airplane landing strip, Crissy Field, and pondered the Civil War era red brick structures at Fort Point. Directly overhead, traffic thundered onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The narrow drive skirted a sharp embankment of crumbling pale green serpentinite that slopes down to sea level.

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Standing on top of concrete bunker where guns were once mounted. Presidio, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Jeb Campbell

We drove up along the west-facing oceanfront cliffs of the Presidio where groves of redwoods shelter World War II artillery batteries. Ghosts of men in uniform seem to emerge from hovering redwood thickets. The urgent need to guard against invasion left its acrid residue in the air, in the massive concrete bunkers, along the pathways carved through the rugged terrain. What threats, real or imagined, kept these men awake at night, shivering in the cold coastal wind?

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Burma Superstar, San Francisco

Lunch involved Ginny’s son Warren and his family at a hole-in-the-wall place on Clement Street serving Burmese food. After a wait on the sidewalk made friendly by a bench and hot tea, our party of eight was seated at a large round table.

How does one describe a Burmese feast? Savory catfish chowder, thick lentil/cabbage soup, lamb curry, coconut chicken rice noodle curry, tea leaf salad, crisp samusas—the large lazy susan kept turning as we sampled our way to gluttony.

Sated by our delicious meal, we said our goodbyes to Warren and his family. Our search for story settings then led south along the coast following the “Great Highway.” Densely populated streets disappeared behind us as the road merged with Highway 35. Soon our path became Skyline Boulevard as we neared Daly City. Our objective? The great and powerful magic spot at Mussel Beach, where the San Andreas Fault leaves land and enters the Pacific.

mussel rock

At Mussel Rock, looking north by northwest along the trajectory of the San Andreas Fault.

We missed the turn-off, assuming that such an important spot would be well marked. After doubling back, we found Mussel Beach disappointingly under-developed and lacking any signage that might describe the forces at work underfoot. The narrow shelf of land broke upward to the east with a steep eroding hillside and to the west down a sharp crumbling embankment to the turbulent surf below. Offshore, waves pounded the tilted outcrops of broken rock which continued the fault’s northward journey. The mostly paved ‘park’ area rolled and humped over conspicuously-disturbed ground. Multiple patches in the asphalt provided evidence of the fault line’s restless character.

houses at Mussel B

Mussel Rock shown with neighborhoods behind it. Rock outcrop from previous photo appears lower right.

Hovering above the precarious cliff faces and uneven terrain, housing developments cling to steep hillsides and beg the question of how anyone could in good conscience build houses literally on top of a major fault. The neighborhood centers on an elementary school and seems inhabited mostly by lower income residents. I took notes for my story as we rejoined Skyline Drive.

rr tracks Los Gatos copyThe drive back south along Highway 280 tracked the trajectory of the infamous fault. The miles-deep gash forms a valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the less dramatic hills and rolling lands of the southern Bay communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, and Santa Clara. For part of the distance, San Andreas Lake glimmers in the day’s bright sunlight. Angling west onto Highway 85, and then Highway 17, we soon crossed over the fault itself at Los Gatos. The four-lane road jagged and bumped as it crossed the extended disturbance.

Then back to Santa Cruz. It struck me at this point that highways and landmarks tell only part of the story of what it means to be here. Less specific but more important is the feeling of the place. A unique scent permeates the air—pine, salt, kelp, eucalyptus. And something else I can’t name. It lingers in my clothing, on my skin.

The light is clean, thin, sharp. Fog rolls in and drapes over the roofs, hides the tree tops, waxes and wanes along the shore so that at one moment you see the lighthouse on the point, the next moment it disappears.

The whole place sits on an edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of light. The edge of visibility.

Here is the edge of North America, not part of the land mass that comprises the bulk of the continent but a sliver of earth’s crust emerging from the sea to shove eastward and cling to its reluctant partner continent. The energy of the rebel, the upstart, the adolescent swells from this nascent ground, lending its attitude to the human settlements that occupy it. From the shore eastward for a hundred miles, this new land presses its case, shoving up mountains and sliding along the tear called the San Andreas fault. Countless other faults branch off from it, all mute testimony to the mind-boggling forces at work on our planet.

You can’t live along the California coast and not feel the energy of this subterranean collision. What better place to set a novel that deals with the frontiers of human consciousness?

Oh, Writing

Performing Arts 0063Wake up. Shower. Dress. Computer—Pandora on New Age Electronic, email two accounts. Facebook sometimes, if I’m not deep in a project.  All that angst and friendly chatter impacts the story, the dialogue, the next scene that has penetrated my dreams, followed me to the toilet at one a.m., hovered around me until this moment.

This moment, when I start to write… Wait, make a cup of tea, get a glass of water. Eat a pear to stave off serious hunger, to buy at least an hour before I have to deal with food. Get the document open, remind myself of where I quit the day before, edit, equivocate, pep talk about how I’ll get there, how it will work out, how to let go and let the words flow.

Finally, the hunger becomes overpowering. It’s 9:30 a.m. I’ve barely geared up into the mind-frame of the story, what century I’m in, what character is speaking through my voice. I tear myself away to the kitchen for a bowl of granola, not in itself a major task, but then I’m reminded that I meant to do dishes yesterday, and the goldfish is swirling frantically in the tank, signaling in big gorps that it’s past feeding time.

And then there’s the guilt that comes in looking at cat food bowls now empty, cat water below their preferred level of freshness, dog food bowls also down to a few crunchies, and laundry wrinkling in the dryer. I should tend all these things, check the folder of bills due, write some checks, go to town for groceries.

NO! Carry bowl of granola to desk, sloshing milk on the floor (clean it up later) and get back into the story. The person. The scene. Belly shuts up loaded with granola and milk. I have maybe three hours now before my body makes other demands. Well, yes, I need to pee.

The hunger starts around eleven, but I sip the cold remnants in my tea cup and try to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head. What will you have? Do you need to cook? What about grocery shopping? Finally angry with a hunger headache hovering in the top of my head, around 12:30 I peel myself away from the desk, the plot, the people, and try to find something to eat.

The kitchen is a wasteland. Oh, sometimes I’m very good and prepare a stew or chili or a pot of beans, anything that might work for several meals. I can eat stuff I’m tired of if I’m hungry enough. Open a can of blackeyed peas and have it with a bread and butter sandwich. Heat up the meager leftovers from last night’s supper, left in a thoughtful moment for this very purpose. I can no longer force myself to eat microwaved one-dollar frozen entrees, and peanut butter and honey on crackers is pretty much on its way out as well. Lunch, in other words, is hell.

But—I must eat, because I live inside a freaking biological entity that requires food. Once the belly is silenced, I’m back to the computer and this thing that drives me, this play of words, this world—multiple worlds—screaming for release from inside my head. More hours. My hips ache. My back aches. I want never to do anything but write, but the plants in my solar porch are shriveling. The floor begs for a broom. I have errands to run.

Cholesterol is gathering.

And phone calls, oh please God not the phone. Relatives, friends, whoever thinks it’s his or her duty to wish me a happy birthday, or Merry Christmas. Chat. Please take note. My happiest birthday truly would be a day left utterly and serenely alone, perhaps food served at my desk, the house cleaned while I don’t watch. Bills paid by magic, without me wrangling over every last dime, juggling which gets paid first, which waits until a bit more money finds its way into my accounts.

It would be dishonest of me not to say that I own two deeply mortgaged commercial rental properties, a total of sixteen units in one which are rehearsal studios for rock bands, and a total of ten units in the other which are low-cost entry level downtown business spots for fledgling entrepreneurs. These properties also have bills to pay and endless drama. Vacancies and eager new faces come and go. It’s a business. It’s how I pay my home mortgage, electric, and the numerous and sundry costs for existence in this world. Well, maybe not new clothes this year… I thank myself often for having the foresight oh so long ago to pursue these bits of real estate. Without it, I’d be working in some else’s employ into the dim days of my antiquity.

Never mind the dream that someday, with due diligence and supreme good fortune, this play with words might actually produce meaningful income. I can’t think about that. It’s too much to hope for, too out of the norm for all us who stumble along this writerly path.

So by four or perhaps five p.m. depending on the story, the people spilling onto the screen at the stroke of the keys, my creative juices finally dwindle to a drip and my writing day ends. In all, if I’m blessed with the least possible number of distractions, I’ve been able to write/plot/dream a total of eight hours. I collapse on the couch to watch mindless television, have a drink (or not) and deal with the last demon, that monolithic hurdle of What To Have For Dinner.

The body is relentless. As are the plants, cats, dog, goldfish gorping again at me from his tank, the dirt caked on my hapless Honda, the twigs and other debris littering my porch, the dust bunnies taunting me from the corners, the laundry still wrinkled in the dryer.The evening sinks into a war between my guilt for so many shortcomings and quickly jotted notes as one, perhaps another, plot point resolves itself in my subconscious.

The bed looks good, refuge, haven. But by the time I’ve wrestled my night’s sleep thru distant gangs of howling coyote, a relentless full moon, and the continuing bits of dialogue slipping in and out from wherever it lives, I’m ready to get up. It’s dawn. The story calls.