‘Music goes to a part of the long-ago brain’
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 poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Soundtrack by Michael Stears, Enya
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)