Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by award-winning author Sarah Yaw @SarahYawWrites
Soundtrack by Alexis Zoumbas, Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
If you’ve ever spent time with kids, you know that they play out whatever event has dominated their recent life. They need the space to do this, to find peace after a new experience. This is how they register and assign meaning to the things they encounter. This is how they create the map of what they know and how they learn to respond to new events in more sophisticated ways. They have context and reference for what occurs. And when life throws them a curve, they play it out and add that curve to their map. In the event of a, b and c, d can also occur. It soothes them. Life becomes known and thus less threatening. Watching my children play recently, I thought how stories and music do this for me. They give me a place to work through experiences so that I can make sense of my own life. Stories and music, in other words, are my play.
In the mountains of northern Greece, there is a religious festival held each year. People attend the festival to cleanse themselves of mourning and rejoice in the fact that they are still alive. This is literal. The person seeking healing will sit in the middle of the sound. The music is played at them. It’s a vibrational experience as well as a melodic one, they say. The music, its vibrations and its intensity, can get into places that words can’t. It helps wash the person free of sadness and loss. Then the music shifts to joy. It becomes a celebration of the life that remains. Follow this link and scroll down to listen to Alexis Zoumbas play Epirotiko Mirologi and you’ll understand how this music gets to the heart.
When I was a very little girl, it was my habit to fall asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to my father play music. He toured the world with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and his own band The Everyman Band, among others. Here he is playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1975 Coney Island Baby. My parents divorced soon after this. I had no words then to work out my grief; I was too young for the kind of play I watched my children doing recently, but I had all that music, and in that way that music can, it got into me, into my places that needed soothing.
What I love about music is that it touches everyone who can hear it and while it is an individual experience—the mourner in Greece is on her knees, wiping out something very internal, very personal—all who surround her are connected by the sound and the experience. There was constant live music in both my parents’ homes when I was growing up. Someone was singing or picking up an instrument and filling my space with vibration. When I was old enough, I chose the clarinet and became Woody Herman’s youngest fan (and the world’s biggest dork). The clarinet is a reed instrument. Controlling the vibration to make pleasing sounds was how I spent my youth. I was an only child. Done alone, play was not as fulfilling as music; music was heard by others, shared and, therefore, not lonely. I excelled as a musician because it was my birthright and because it was all I had. I wasn’t a reader. I rehearsed music for hours on end. It cleaned out my head. It calmed me. I went to it the way a swimmer goes to water, the way a yogi is called to asana, the way a runner seeks a path. Then, I developed tendonitis; I couldn’t play.
In college, the instructor of my women writers course said: ‘You can take an exam or you can write in the voice of one of the authors we read this semester’. It was the word ‘voice’ that caught my ear. Voice is musical. I may not have been much of a reader or have been all that good at spelling and punctuation, but I understood sound. So I wrote what I heard and this relief came over me. There was all this blocked up teenage, young-adult stuff that had built up since losing music—my sense of belonging, my value, was I lovable? —that I hadn’t been able to move and it started to move and I had once again found the relief of music. And this idea of voice was why. The sound of words, rhythm, dynamic, all of this mimicked the irresistible tension and release of music. The narrative gave me a place where I could explore paths, work through what it meant to be me.
In You Are Free To Go, my first novel, I wrote about a prison. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d chosen to write about a musicless place. Right before I started writing the book, my marriage to a musician had ended and so did the music. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by silence. I wrote about a prisoner who was mourning the loss of his friend; I wrote about a town where people wall themselves off from one another; I wrote a narrative with one moment of music: The characters are in a bar, coming together, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is playing. What else? I can’t know the deep forces that drive us to our subjects, but still I have never been alone like I was when I began writing this book, nor as sad.
A friend of mine recently organised the first musical performance in decades in the prison that inspired You Are Free To Go. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performers and said, ‘I haven’t heard live music in twenty-eight years’. My friend, who had just read how the Nazis brought the prisoners their instruments each day so they could perform for each other, said: ‘I think we can do a little better than the Nazis’.
In You Are Free To Go, a condemned man’s death affects countless lives at all strata of society. Yet, none of the story’s characters, in the prison or outside the walls, are given the relief that music could provide to help connect them to each other, soothe their grief, and help them contemplate the ubiquitous desire to understand how we belong in a world that is fundamentally unknowable. And in retrospect, that makes sense. Writing this story, the music was gone from my life when I needed it most. What I had was this book, the joy of writing it, so I used it to make sense of all that silence around me.
Sarah Yaw’s novel (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College. She fell asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to the music of Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and the Everyman Band. She lives in Central New York. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter @SarahYawWrites