Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Musical Excursion*

As I type this, music pours through my headphones, a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello, recorded by the great Pablo Casals in the middle of the last century. Hearing Casals play on my iPod, I can’t help but think of the time I heard this same piece played by Slovakian cellist Josef Luptak. While sitting on wooden pews in a stone chapel in an Austrian castle, as Josef reached the end of the sarabande, we saw mist settle on mountains just barely visible from the tiny arched window. And, almost as a miracle, in the silent space between movements, birds sang. Everyone was still. For a moment we inhabited together a sacred space made possible by Bach, by Luptak, by his listeners, by the setting, and, wonderfully, by some random, improvisatory birds. How I’ve wondered (for five years or more), do I write this? Should it be written?

While nearly everyone has some kind of powerful experience with music—hearing, performing, practicing,
dancing—we often have difficulty expressing music’s effects, its means of moving, comforting, or energizing us.
Descriptions often seem either cold and technical or florid and vague. In both deliberate and serendipitous ways, this
excursion encourages us to find in our musical encounters generative energy for poems, stories, and reflective prose,
to engage our bodies, memories, and intelligence in ways that might hint at the deep connections between language
and music, between story and memory as it appears in song.

Embodied Listening
Begin this excursion with one of these three exercises, each designed to generate a draft that can be focused or
expanded by responding to the questions below.

Option One: Choose a recording of a very familiar piece of music, one you’ve listened to, sung, or played countless
times. As you listen to the song, make a list of all the associations you have with the piece. When/how did it come
into your life? When do you catch yourself humming it? What do you think of the composer/performer? With whom
have you shared your appreciation for this song? What other songs/artists make music like this? Once you’ve made
your list, set it aside and listen to the song again.

This time try to forget your past associations with the music and attend instead to your body’s response to the
music. Do your muscles feel relaxed or tense? What happens to your breathing? Have you shut your eyes or left them
open? As the sound fills your head, how do you react? Does your heartbeat quicken or slow down? Do you dance, or
tap your toes, or play the drums with your pencil? As soon as the music ends, close your eyes and sit with these
physical sensations for a few moments (as long as you are able). When you open your eyes, what sensations remain?
Set your two lists side by side and listen a third time. What aspect of the music itself—tempo, lyrics, rhythm,
repetitions, variations, instrumentation, etc.—seems to connect the two lists you’ve made? What questions about the
performer or the composer arise for you? Not referring to your memorial associations or you own bodily experiences,
how would you describe this piece to someone who has never heard it? Would you put it in a genre? Would you
prescribe uses for it (perfect for a romantic evening, great to work out to, the best commuting tune, etc)?
Now, write three short poems (6-10 lines each), or three paragraphs (from a first person point of view), each
drawing from one of your lists. What theme, character, emotion, or experience begins to cohere from these three

*This is part one of an exercise I'm drafting for this course when I teach it again in the fall. Options two and three will come tomorrow, with other aspects of the excursion to follow. I'd be interested in reading responses to this excursion. You'll note that, in this version, the excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.


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