Do you listen to music when you write? Have you ever thought about setting your words to music, and if so, what would that sound like?
Knowing how susceptible I can be to influence, I’ve become more careful about what I listen to during my creative process. Gloomy music on the stereo can steer a poem into melancholy. Too often, I find lyrics heard in the background make their way into what I’m typing. When I write, I don’t listen to music with words at all--I want all of the words to be my own, as much as anyone can own words.
Despite distancing myself from it when writing, I love music and spent years wondering how to bridge the gap between my musical and poetic passions. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great singing voice, and though I have respect for spoken word, I’m not a performer. In the mid-90s I gave a poetry reading at a rave, crouched behind the leg of a folding table the whole time, whispering into a microphone and begging the DJ to turn down the mic gain until my voice was virtually inaudible.
However, I discovered that the accompaniment of music is a welcome addition when performing my work and not just because the focus isn’t all on me. When words and music work together, they can create a whole that’s greater than its partial sums. Music is capable of transcending linguistic differences, expressing feelings that can’t easily be translated into words. I wanted to be able to access that power, though I’m still playing with various ways to do so.
Last winter, I was asked to collaborate with Stratus Chamber Orchestra here in Denver for their Dreams and Aspirations-themed concert. I eagerly accepted the opportunity but realized it was a challenge. How could I create a new, longer poem centered around a theme that could easily veer into cliché and have it ready for rehearsal in only a couple weeks?
Though I have written a few poems for friends’ weddings, I’m not comfortable with writing poetry on demand, so I took guidance from CAConrad and created a poetry ritual. I wrote down my childhood dreams and my current dreams, which was more difficult than I expected. I then cut them into strips, and each night, paired a childhood dream with a current dream, rolled it into a scroll, and put it under my pillow. I did this for four nights, until I ran out of dreams. In the morning I’d wake up and immediately write down everything I could about my dreams and what I was feeling. I then combined those notes with other texts I’d written about the ritual and dreaming, cut about 80 percent of it, and shaped the final orchestral piece.
While compiling the long poem, I listened to the music I’d been assigned over and over again: Charles Ives’s “The Gong On The Hook And Ladder,” a discordant, somewhat atonal piece that drove my partner out of the house and sent my dog into hiding for the several hours it looped on my stereo. It was an important part of the process, as I wanted to absorb the work’s frenetic energy, hoping that it would infiltrate my poem.
When it came time to rehearse, the conductor handled the hard part of deciding how and where the vocal sections would be interspersed with the orchestra. Unlike some of the other writers in the show, I didn’t read my work overtop the orchestra playing; instead, the words framed the music. I loved watching the other performers, seeing how different people found their own ways to convey their work. Everyone had a different approach, some more narrative, some more abstract, each creating a gorgeous atmosphere for reflection heightened by musical accompaniment. The two nights of performances felt like quite a success, with the immersive seating night (where the audience is seated within the orchestra, as shown in the video), almost selling out.
The orchestra piece made me want to experiment more with setting my words to music. When my friend Carl Ritger—who records and performs under the moniker Radere—mentioned a poem of mine that he loved, I suggested we turn it into a song, and he readily agreed.
The first step was to record the vocals. I spent an evening with a mic in hand, reading a couple poems over and over again while Carl ran the feed through various delay pedals and effects, all the while fiddling with settings on his modular synth setup.
I read each poem more than 20 times. It was more fun than I had expected. The repetition enabled me to loosen up and try various ways of reading: Poetry Voice, NPR Voice, Spoken Word Voice, and many others, until I settled into a voice that felt authentic and mine.
My favorite way of reading the poems was at a whisper—it seemed to fit the theme and tone of the pieces. I was inspired by a poetry performance given by a couple friends of mine, Gabrielle Lessans (who has poems forthcoming in Inverted Syntax) and Danielle Ferrara, at a salon in Boulder last winter. The two of them read their work over William Basinski’s Watermusic (coincidentally one of my favorite pieces to play in the background while writing), as their act Pop Philosophy. They sometimes whispered, sometimes raised their voices, and usually spoke at the same time, which created a weaving effect. Their performance wasn’t rehearsed, yet it worked: the themes from the different poems played with each other as they intertwined, created a third meaning out of two separate pieces. It felt like an invocation—spellbinding and almost witchy.
There are many ways to play with integrating words and music, all you need is a phone or a laptop. You don’t need to spend years mastering an instrument; instead, spend a couple days getting to know a program like Ableton, GarageBand, or FL Studio. Use the mic on your phone and play with layering. Think about the soundtrack your life would have, what your poems or stories would sound like interpreted musically.
Would writing with the intention of setting your work to music change what you write about, or how you write it? Do you care about rhyming and meter, or would your song be more freely constructed? I’ve been asking myself these questions lately. I may never arrive at a final answer, but I’m having fun playing around to find out.
Listening list (some things I listen to when writing):
Monolake: Hong Kong
Silent Season: Campfire Stories series
Mysteries of the Deep series
GAS: any album, but especially Königsforst and Zauberberg
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Vol II
Windy and Carl: any album, but especially Consciousness
The Caretaker: any album
Jo Johnson: live sets and albums
Pole: CD1 or CD2
A Winged Victory For The Sullen