Music and My Creative Process
Listening to a musical piece again and again competes with walking, staring, talking to myself and plants and trees, talking to myself and mentally to my dogs, closing my eyes to enter dimensions, and other secret ways of “systematized derangement of all the senses” - for the biggest temporal chunk of my writing processes (the presumption is, we share the same neural pathways towards enhanced imagination, so it’s safe to say, trust me, alcohol doesn’t work).
Since poetry is my tool of expression, it seems reasonable to presume that internalizing music makes prosody a bit easier. It’s no longer true that emotions make us human. Animals have emotions, as do plants. What makes us human are the ways we pattern emotions towards the “beautiful” - a word that should naturally invite suspicion these days. If art were supposed to mimic and mirror the ethos and zeitgeist of an age in which it participates and defines, our generation seems long past confining beauty in cages of pleasing aesthetics. Cacophony and dissonance can find few eras like ours in arguing for and situating in the aesthetics of, for instance, hate and anger, which by inevitability aspire for theoretical conditions. It bears reminding ourselves how often we’ve heard that the best paintings aspire towards music, that architecture is “frozen music,” and that the perception of the musical in other fields of inquiry and expression like astronomy is nothing new and goes at least as far back as the ancient Pythagorean schools and their “music of the spheres.” More than ever it’s our generation’s responsibility - especially we who express through written art forms - to uphold love, care, kindness, generosity, gratefulness and other positive platonic values as civilization’s sine qua non.
Music is the essential artifice to which emotions find natural affinities for expression. For my poem “The Soloist” (Liquid Imagination, Issue 20, February 2014), I listened for two days to Itzhak Perlman’s rendition of John William’s theme to “Schindler’s List.” I’ve never played the violin, but verisimilitude makes me internalize Perlman’s language, capture his rhythmic and emotional quirks, and mirror and echo his violin’s speech and speech patterns:
The wailing voice he freed from his Stradivarius
Slicing their composure like stem, the bow
Seesawing on strings fiddling roots of longing.
The way he snapped and scattered sonata’s twigs,
The rosined sound, like sword of a samurai
Swaying to the mind’s winds. Grace of hip
Swivels as eyes in the dark coveted the lover
Behind the trills. They swore the bartender
Appeared in the painting behind him when
He squeezed unripe notes. The nun heard her
Unborn child cry. Asked which part fluttered
The candles’ pulped scents, old folks recalled.
Doubting the warbler’s marble stare,
The widow’s face soured, as if she tasted
Midnight’s rind. The actors sat till cockcrow,
Stunned like the goldfish that stopped breathing
For a minute after the slowing arpeggios.
The poet was found hanging upstairs,
By a thread the unfinished poem cursing
God for not making his body a violin.
Remembering the way to the shoal, they
Spent all week resetting their timepieces.
And the orchard keeps cracking, yesterday’s
Piths pushing up, zests of an end’s parting
Lingering in the air – orphaned by his
Heart beating for someone elsewhere.
For my poem “On the Balcony” (The Penmen Review, Southern New Hampshire University), I didn’t have to listen again and again to the first movement of Beethoven’s “The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor ‘Quasi una fantasia’, Op. 27, No. 2,” popularly known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” I could play the piece when I was eight or nine years old. I just played it in my mind while writing this poem:
On the Balcony
Beethoven knew my life
Would take this turn and slow,
Seeing me leaning for hours
Watching window panes turn
White from yellow, then gray,
Listening again and again
To how he emptied the music
Of its vast and endless longings.
He waited for night’s sacramental
Wafer to appear in the window,
Its full light on the piano.
He had become deaf, yet how
Clearly he heard it hold, the way
It asked him to be on the balcony
As it drifted in the cold.
That was when his sonata
Slowed, diminished notes
Bridging centuries, finding me
Through the wish wormhole.
Stars are now lonelier together,
The wind spreading a promise of net
It won’t keep. Silence doesn’t mean
Cicadas have stopped singing,
City lights keeping vigil growing
Fewer, fewer with sonata ending.
Gravity is the Earth’s tongue.
I am the elevated host,
Consecrated for the pavement’s
Yearn for communion.
I’ve since published several poems born from listening to a musical piece/song again and again: “The War” (Eye to the Telescope issue 33, July 2019) inspired by “The World that Came After” by Lords of Black; “The Illusion” (Blood Moon Rising Magazine, #77 anniversary issue, July 2019) inspired by Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” cover by Stryper; “The Car” (Alien Buddha Magazine Anthology on Music, 2019, which includes two other poems of mine inspired by Yanni Live at the Acropolis instrumentals); and more. Song lyrics influence my diction, as I adhere to Dylan Thomas’ “gaps and holes for things that are not the poem to creep, crawl and thunder in,” which is among my guiding principles for the poetry collection I’m writing called, “Biology of Consciousness.” I deliberately disrupt phrases, interrupt cadences, clip thoughts, to mimic the mind’s quirks and patterns of movements as I’ve repeatedly noticed. It’s my strategy for creating visual and sonar echoes for reader participation in the poem’s creation and it’s final version in the reader’s mind.
For the majority of these poems I had an idea about what poem to write, before trying to find the music/song to listen to again and again to internalize the rhythms I wanted for the idea. It’s different with my poem “the god.” I was wondering what to write, wandering on YouTube, watching heavy metal videos, until I encountered Disturb’s cover for “Sound of Silence.” When I heard the words “bow and pray to the neon god they made,” I knew I had my poem. Those words stirred me so much I initially made it the title of the manuscript I’m working on.
I listened to the Simon and Garfunkel original and several other covers, but I stuck with Disturb’s version. I was going to write about our obsessions as humans. The tonal evolution and progression David Draiman so skillfully brought to fruition created my momentary formal version of obsession: something that starts peacefully with our need for answers, reinforced by constant speculations, pushing us towards our propensities for invention - a visceral progression evolving its vibratory fields in the mind (and in the poem), till stance and viewpoint become solid as granite or thin ice, collapse of our suppositions always impending. I was tempted to write a sestina, but I wanted to challenge myself to pull it off with four quatrains and lines that seldom go past ten syllables. I wanted to echo the growing anxiety, the emotional bottleneck:
After “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel cover by Disturbed
we silenced a billion howls for your coat,
a billion trees cut for your teeth. praising
your neon blight, we stripped the light.
in the millennia of your becoming, your
ageless fall into prayer. we put words in
your mouth so comfort us. we gave you
power so save us, our birdlessness your
footstool. the blind shall prophesy, the
deaf read minds. lions shall lie down
with lambs, children speak in tongues.
sacrilege the disturbing, of silence.
of where we go from your sacrifice.
oh thirst, oh our dwelling’s bole and
burst, you are both deity and offering.
in darkness we chant your holy flame,
raising your tar and tin, your name.
Aware of the poem’s elements of horror, which are reinforced by darker moments in the lyrics of “Sound of Silence,” I submitted it to Blood Moon Rising Magazine. The poem was published (#77 anniversary issue, July 2019) with four other poems of dark aesthetics, including two poems inspired by listening to a musical piece/song again and again.
Reading my poem “the god” in its published version on Blood Moon Rising Magazine, I ask myself, what bears possibilities of horror more than our daily, ordinary obsessions? Of all the Stephen King novels I’ve read, “Dolores Claiborne” to me is the most horrifying. No vampire or werewolf can match the vicissitudes of daily horrors, ordinary lives and living edging closer to collapse, not so much because of our actions or inactions, as because our obsessions also carry burdens of what might turn out to be horribly wrong. As what one of my favorite Filipino authors has written in one of his columns, “We are all just one health disaster away.” That is the ultimate horror, which is only one reason why our vampires and werewolves and aliens and predators are more ravenous than ever. In other words, more fun.
I’m not alone in this endeavor of listening to a musical piece again and again to write a music-inspired poem. Albert Einstein said, “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Plato describes music as “a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.”
I presume this strategy of literary inspiration has been utilized, whether deliberately or not, since the earliest days of poetry, when artistic exchanges centered around the song. It’s seems easier to conclude that song anteceded poetry - that is to say, artistic expression started as song and then evolved into poetry. The classic, archetypal image of this transformative moment of our artistic distant past is the community round the bonfire.
Poet, editor and Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association Grandmaster Marge Simon shared her poem, “Chasing the Serpent,” mentioning that a musical piece she listened to again and again inspired it. I asked her what song/musical piece inspired her, and she said she couldn’t quite remember. I understand this, as it happens to me all the time - forgetting which musical piece inspired which poem. Her inability to remember implies that she’s been using this inspirational tool of listening to a musical piece again and again as fulcrum in creating the poem. Here is Marge Simon’s poem, “Chasing the Serpent”:
Chasing the Serpent
By Marge Simon
The disk round and smooth
slips into the player …
starting soft, then crescendos
to a vast ocean vista,
the sky, a sheet of slate
waves parting –
it was a big one,
a dragon breathing notes aflame,
the power of its impact
pulled me forth into that churning sea,
chasing the serpent
with its scaly and slippery skin.
I grabbed its whipping tail,
but it coiled around my wrists
as no bondage I’ve ever known,
I became the music, making love to the notes,
over and over drinking from that spicy cup of bliss
sucking froth from the shining dragon’s lips
believing I’d found an unchangeable joy,
as its fiery breath caressed my neck,
I fell to earth
not unlike a prayer.
I venture a guess that a piano piece inspired her, “ing” sounds and assonant Os reminiscent of pings/zings/oms of piano tones and timbres, chordal notes or arpeggios, tercets like refrains holding the poem together. The longest lines cushion like the sustain pedal held down longer. Reading her poem again and again to get the musical feel repeatedly flashed the ouroboros image in my mind, echoic returns to the tercets like the serpent swallowing its tail. Marge’s poem strengthens my proposition that listening to a musical piece again and again contributes to symbiotic interactions and balance of sound and sense, forms and contents, making the poem a deep experience, an intricately wrought mandala (or ouroboros) of feelings, sibilant and susurrus as vibrations travel across the body’s aural system or anatomy as emotional points of touch. I believe our hearing sense(s) to be closer to our emotional constructs, dynamism and mechanisms than our seeing sense(s).
I knew by instinct music rewires the brain. Self-study in this “crash course” age seems de rigueur, if not inevitable. I scoured the internet. Children studying music are said to have faster brain development, their auditory pathway with a fast-tracked evolution after only two years. Musicians are said to have larger corpus callosum, implying a deeper interface between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, more symmetrical patterns of brain activities shown under the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It sparks my interest how listening to our favorite music is supposed to create more neural connections that positively affect our brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) - especially as region governing self-awareness and empathy. Since a lot of my poems have been shaped through listening again and again to heavy metal music, I was glad to discover that powerful music with heavy tunes “encourages deeper, abstract and visionary thinking.”
I remember that while listening to Fazil Say’s Kumru Ballad again and again, I’d see a pianist in the woods playing to ghosts and simultaneously hear words from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. I would later write two poems, “Balladeer” and “Figurine,” both published on Danse Macabre, and included in my collection of speculative poetry, “Pan’s Saxophone” (Weasel Press):
The left hand asking the question of trees,
The right hand holding out the breeze
From the crown, chirps in a minor key,
The air glimmering ebony and ivory.
Leaves reflect the light rain, the sunset
With the golden line that keeps repeating,
The left hand chording timelessness,
The right hand sweeping a space
In the cemetery vaster than absence,
Higher octaves of longing, serenity’s
Pedal sustaining, solitude as ghosts
Materialize, lost for centuries, wandering,
Circling the piano and the pianist,
The dead trees, their grief echoing
The moment stills into glass,
The raven lifting off the page
To carve the word “Nevermore”
In the mind’s chamber door,
Time a condensation of its
Intensities, caving in upon
Brevities, on the precipice
Of its crumbling, made more
Fragile by its self-annihilating
Desire for the fleeting
The first time I listened to a musical piece again and again, to assist me in creating the poem, was in 2000. I was confined in the House of Hope, a Christian drug rehabilitation center on Mactan Island. Our center director assigned me to the office to help with paperwork, as I had a track record as a published poet, fictionist and journalist. I wrote press releases, edited some pastoral lectures. I helped edit the annual House of Hope magazine. I always had earphones on. Since heavy metal music was banned in the center, I listened to classical music, and neoclassical pieces from, I remember, Yanni and Kitaro. One afternoon I had the urge to listen to Yanni’s “One Man’s Dream” from his album “Live at the Acropolis.” I began writing the poem’s lines, approximating, I remember, the first four notes of the bass or F clef as sonic structure. I used alliteration as a recurring motif, to echo chords broken into arpeggios, assonant with a rainy feeling. I calibrated the poem’s emotional progression through orchestral imagery I interpreted with my own personal touches, improvising, using free association, intuitive self-affirmation, my brain presumably rewiring, for memory and reflex reaction to be fluid, natural. I finished the earliest draft of “The Dancer” that afternoon. The poem went through countless rewrites. After finishing my one-year confinement for drug treatment, I resumed my writing life, submitting an early version of “The Dancer” to Nick Joaquin, then literary editor of The Philippines Graphic Magazine, who published the poem in 2002 or 2003. More than a decade later, when I was preparing my full-length collection, “Multiverse” (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, New York, May 2019), I rewrote the poem several times. While rewriting I listened to the Yanni piece again and again. The final version of “The Dancer” that made it to my full-length collection:
Rain settles pianissimo:
Two sets of footprints
In the fallow field.
As if on cue, the sun appears.
Virtuoso fingers pluck
The story like leaves
Signals her to begin her dance:
The wind like silk curtains
She pulls, her hands blooming,
Unblooming, shaping air syllables,
Foot courting foot
He fiddles her body's language,
Keeping twists bound, turns sound.
Meld of melody and motion
Measured in sways, merges
Of forms fractured in her
Her eyes closing
His violin stringing her heart
She hears only echoes
Of his absent hints
Not the rain growing louder
Not notes flowing like water
This personal form of the creative process burrowed deep in my subconscious. I seldom write without listening to music. The last few weeks (starting mid-November, 2019) I’ve been writing poetry using the short story’s form. I plan to come up with a collection ready for submission in 2020. For seven poetic stories my rhythmic cushions were Madonna’s La Isla Bonita and Tony Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart. For the 8th and 9th stories WASP’s Wild Child.
The last two days I’ve been obsessively listening to Lord of the North’s “Apollo,” featuring Seth Jackson on lead guitars. The guitar piece births my poem, “The Guitar”:
Plucking, strings luring
like sunflowers, the heart
teachable. Intros I play
again and again, notes from
the A-minor chord making
me remember Frost’s minor
bird. My desire to polish
echoes the fault in me.
Learning by trial and error,
mastering through measure,
I practice left fingers to
anticipate, right fingers
to lead, the music flawed
but whole, brief as sunlight
through windows, brevity
Jonel Abellanosa: “I live in Cebu City, the Philippines. My poetry and fiction are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review and Chiron Review; and have appeared in hundreds of literary journals and anthologies, including, Rigorous, The Lyric, Poetry Kanto, That Literary Review, Loch Raven Review and The Anglican Theological Review. My poetry collections include, Meditations (Alien Buddha Press), Songs from My Mind’s Tree and Multiverse (Clare Songbirds Publishing House), 50 Acrostic Poems, (Cyberwit, India), In the Donald’s Time (Poetic Justice Books and Art), and my speculative poetry collection, Pan’s Saxophone (Weasel Press).”