Thursday, May 22, 2008

Musical Excurstion--Part Three*

Option Three: Attend a live performance, rehearsal or ritual use of music (a worship service or patriotic gathering, for instance). In addition to listening closely to the music, pay attention to what you observe and what you experience in your body. Attend to the way the musicians (which might include you) move and use their bodies to produce sound (fingers, breath, muscles). Notice also their emotional reactions and facial expressions. How do their “feelings” translate into sound? Observe how various musicians work together, or how a solo performer engages or ignores her audience. What about this social experience of music makes it differ from listening to a recording? To what uses is this music put (is it an escape, a source of connection, background music, a didactic force)? How does the “utility” of the music affect your sense of its artistic value? Describe as well the physical space in which you encounter this music. In what ways do the walls, the floors, the benches affect the sound and sense of the music?

After you’ve left the venue, either right away of some time later, try to recall the experience in as vivid detail as you can, focusing especially on the music you remember. Which musical quality stays with you? And which non-musical detail remains?

Deep(er) Contexts(and how they might find their way into your writing about music)

1) With a bit of research, identify the narrative elements you would need to know in order to better understand a musical work—setting, character, point of view, conflict(s). If it’s a love song or an oratorio, what’s the story that structures the piece? What moment in the biblical or mythical or historical record is being portrayed? What elements of that narrative are left out? Which characters disappear and which are emphasized? Who is “telling” this part of the tale? Consider “finishing” or “unfinishing” the story with your work.

2) What kinds of cultural conflict or personal upheaval pervaded the artist’s world when the work was made or performed—a war, death of a beloved, divorce, illness, moment of cultural excitement, etc.? How are these events present in the work, implicitly or explicitly? Or how does the work move away from these conflicts, masking them, or using the music as a sanctuary? Is the work in protest to the situation? Is the work about coming to peace with its surroundings? By knowing the conflicted situation within which the work emerged, how do you feel closeness or distance from its work?

3) In contrast to chaos and conflict, investigate the typical habits, manners, and patterns that might have been part of the work’s emergence (or the lives it represents). What work was done as this song was sung? Who has made love with the music in the background? Where does this Bach chorale come in a typical Lutheran service? How might the work itself or the objects to which it refers have had daily, practical uses in the lives of people? What do these details add to the structure or pattern of your poem, story or essay? How do they change your sense of the work to which you’re attending?

4) Biographical context, especially the way a particular work either represents a period of an artist’s life or affects his or her life, is unavoidably attractive. Read a biography of the performer or composer and see if the work you’re listening to has been mentioned. How did the creator of that work view it? What might the artist have said or done just before the work was made? What obvious or hidden impetus led to the work? How did she feel once it had been completed? What did he claim to intend that is missing or (indeed) present? What effect did this work have on his reputation? Where did she rank the work in relation to other pieces? If this piece is highly popular, how might the artist feel about it now? What technical problem did the artist work out in completing this sonata or symphony?

5) Find one or two primary sources, such as diaries, artistic statements, interviews, photographs, films that can be woven into your poem or prose, either implicitly or explicitly. Consider using a quotation from one of these sources for an epigraph or as a concluding line. Consider arguing with the artist’s words directly, using the music as evidence against him or her.

6) Investigate the artistic movements/trends/techniques that your work uses and to which it responds. To what other artists was this composer paying close attention? With what contemporaries (or traditional masters) is this composer or performer conversing? What does he steal? What does she alter? How does the work represent a movement or school of art or music? Find the movement’s founding statements and consider them as part of your poem.

7) What kind of critical and/or popular reception has this work enjoyed? How has this reception changed over time? Where in this procession of responses is your own reaction? Is the work popular or obscure? Who knows about it and what uses do these audiences make of the song (for instance, in what weird commercial would you see or hear this piece)? Can you use some of the critical comments as language for your work? Can you make the audience/critics characters in your fiction or poem?

8) Consider the song as an object/artifact (think of the film “The Red Violin”). Who has owned the vinyl record or the sheet music? Where has it been sold? What near losses has it survived? How many times has the song been performed? What marks have those encounters left on the work? What changes have occurred in its uses (for instance, going from ritual use to concert performance)? How might the earliest performers of a tune think of its current use? How do you know?

9) When I learned that the sarabande was a dance, it changed my entire sense of Bach’s first Unaccompanied Suite for Cello, demonstrating the power of terms to affect what we hear. That sense changed even more when I realized it was a dance that had been banned for its suggestiveness. Investigate one or two of the musical terms that apply to your piece of music. What difference does it make to you to understand the structure of 12-bar blues or to know the difference between andante and allegro? How would you contrast the official definition of a musical device with your actual experience of the piece?

Writing the Song

Poetry offers a very strong way to give a verbal representation of sonic and rhythmic experience, emphasizing in language an embodied encounter with a piece of music. A range of formal choices can follow from your response to the piece. If you note repetitions, you might consider a formal poem that can offer its own sonic pattern of repetition (a pantoum, a villanelle, or a sestina, perhaps, or a use of anaphora or rhyme). You might offer alliteration, assonance of internal rhyme as ways of heightening the musical qualities of language. Or you might be attentive to metrical variations and caesuras.

In your fiction you might highlight the memorial functions of a song. Consider how various artists, styles or tunes offer good ways to invoke setting—era, culture, etc. Explore the ways various characters use music as a way or marking their lives, as a kind of unofficial soundtrack of experience. Or explore a ritualized experience for your characters and its connection to song (the way a hymn suggests home, or the function of lullaby as it passes from one generation to the next). How can you create entire scenes around a particular musical instance—teaching, learning, hearing a song? What social exchanges require music (think here of the role of dance in Jane Austen’s or Edith Wharton’s novels)?

Non-Fiction offers many ways to examine the effects of music on individuals and communities, as well as to examine the difficulties in communicating musical experience to others. Focus on a particular element of you own growth in musical awareness and try to describe how it happened. What did it take for you to collect all of the vinyl versions of a particular artist’s work, and why do you value them over others? Or what happened when you stopped practicing the piano, as your parents wanted, and then picked up the guitar or gave up music in favor of driving your car downtown looking for girls/guys? What did it mean when you formed or broke up with a band? How do you miss or embrace singing hymns or being part of a choice? Or what has music meant to you in especially difficult or joyous times, and how has that changed over the years?

*This is part two of an exercise I'm drafting for this course. Again, please post poems or send responses to this excursion. You'll note that, again, that this 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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