Posts Tagged memoir
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 my guest is classical oboist turned memoirist Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler
Soundtrack by Mendelssohn, Wagner, Elliott Carter, Keith Jarrett
I have always approached listening to music as an activity with dedicated purpose. When I YouTube the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, recorded in 1949 by the great Russian violinist David Oistrahk, I sit quietly. I listen intently. Whereas many use listening to music as an aural inspiration to enrich a meaningful calling such as writing, I can only view music as a powerful life force which has had profound implications for me. Because music was, for over 25 years, my profession. My memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, tells of my experiences as a professional oboist in New York City during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, in which I attempt to unpack what it takes to be a hardworking classical musician. Juxtaposed to this, my personal narrative as a damaged young woman sings in opposition, accompanied by all the dangerous life choices I made. Ultimately, discovering and then performing music actually saved my life.
I was eager to write about events that elicited exceptional results, both professional and personal, both beautiful and awful. What does being on stage at Carnegie Hall really feel like; what must a musician endure to maintain excellence; what happens when things go very wrong in a concert; and what transpires when music takes over and musicians surrender to the sway of something more powerful than themselves? But also, how might writing about the music I love tell my readers something important about me in a way that further illuminates the personal narrative of my life. All this.
When something is a forever thing, such as music, it is natural to want to be enveloped by these wonderfully organized sounds and use music as a companion to almost any activity. When writing my book, my challenge was not to decide which music might inspire me and then coax out my best work. Rather, my task was to mentally catalogue all the music I’d ever played; all the musicians with whom I’d performed; all the teachers who taught me everything and very little; all the conductors I’d dismissed because they knew nothing, or revered because they understood absolutely everything; all the concerts that changed my life, or humbled me and brought me to my knees. I had to think deeply to remember, and also dredge up what I longed to forget.
Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner will always represent a song of prescience and possibility. Performing this music in a church in New York City literally gave me the courage to wrench myself from a violent husband. This profound composition, written for the birth of Wagner’s son, touched within me a place of naïve clarity. During the concert, I became aware that my current life would need to change. This notion – an urgent imperative, actually – washed over me while I was playing the oboe. Somehow, I was able to glean the realization only through music.
When one cannot do something, there is always the option to give up if results are not reached in a reasonable time frame. But for a musician, nothing creates more urgency to succeed than a concert engagement. When I was invited to perform the Oboe Concerto by American Composer Elliott Carter, I took this difficult music into my hands, practised it, lived it, hated it, and cried a lot. All because I couldn’t play the thing. Not even close. Panic quickly set in because I was certain I’d finally be identified as the fraud any artist deeply believes themselves to be. Trying to play Carter’s music is how I became bedfellows with pure, endless failure. I’d turn over during fitful sleep and kiss this devil on the lips. Finally, after many months the music showed me the way. I ultimately mastered it and thereby found my love for it. More importantly, I learned to not allow any difficulty to dictate my future. That music lesson was a life changer.
Rock-star jazz musicians are not always odd, or unapproachable, or just too big for their britches. Sometimes they are just the nicest people on the planet. And sometimes they hire a random oboist (you) to premiere and record their oboe concerto, solely on the basis of hearing a tape of your playing. That piece is played often on classical radio stations for years and years to come. And sometimes that is a boost you badly need, because many times you are facing the next impossible piece of music. And it makes you very humble and grateful because you’ve learned that music is the great equalizer among musicians. There is no low or high; no strata of fame. No. When musicians collaborate, music is simply the smartest thing in the room. And yes, thank you, Keith Jarrett.
Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves. It is always a willing and available companion. Because when music resonates, those sounds remain in the universe forever. Sound never fully dissipates. We know this because scientists are now listening to noise that originated over a million years ago. No other art form – not visual, not drama, not dance, not even writing – can claim this distinction of eternity. Simply put, there is not a person on Earth who hasn’t connected deeply, in some way and at some time, with music. It is an aural glue to feelings, memories and hope.
Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for 25 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in LitHub, PANK, Psychology Today Magazine, Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here and you can tweet her as @MarciaAButler
My guest this week has written a memoir of life as an international concert oboist, juxtaposed with a parallel narrative of a precarious and troubled personal life. I first came across her on The Literary Hub, where she wrote about how she left the very worst experience of all out of that book. It was so haunting that I contacted her and asked if there was any way she could write a piece for this series. She has, and the result is a trip through music that has helped her remember, or dredge up the times she preferred to forget, and moments when music helped her make life choices because of the clarity and discipline of playing. Stop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Marcia Butler.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by travel memoirist, novelist and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard @cathryanhoward
This past summer I sat down to write 70,000 words about a three-month backpacking trip I’d taken in Central America in early 2008. I soon found that while it was easy to remember the things we’d done (there was a travel blog, a travel journal, a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring to refer to, a best friend to double-check with and a thousand photos to help jog my memory), I found myself struggling to recall—and so, recreate—exactly how I’d felt.
I turned to music for help.
There were songs we listened to while on the road that would’ve been obvious choices for memory-jogging, but I wasn’t trying to go back in time. (And I also find music with lyrics fatally distracting while writing.) What I was really trying to do was to create an authentic mood in the present similar to the mood I’d been in back then, that would enable me to write about the trip’s events with a depth of feeling that the passage of time might have otherwise made shallow.
And I found the perfect soundtrack—or soundtracks, rather. When you need music to help conjure up a specific feeling (and conjure it up quick), for me, there’s one obvious place to turn: movie soundtracks, which have been written to serve just that purpose.
The pick-up truck
I’m not exactly your typical backpacking gal (or even her third cousin twice removed) as the book’s title—Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America—suggests. For the first month I had to bite back a growing desire to pick up my backpack and go home, and an anxiety about the fact that I hadn’t yet. This all changed when, quite by chance, I got to ride in the back of pick-up truck through the stunning highlands of Honduras where I realised how lucky I was to be experiencing such a thing. To help bring back that feeling of pure joy and sudden elation, I listened to Gumption, a piece by Hans Zimmer from The Holiday soundtrack.
For those thirty minutes, I constantly reminded myself that I was backpacking. That I was in Central America. That I was in Honduras. That I was in the back of a pick-up truck, headed to a Las Vegas that didn’t have a strip, climbing up a mountain covered in luscious tropical forest and while enjoying an uninterrupted view of the countryside that expanded with every turn of the wheel.
And I recognised what a privilege it was to experience such a thing, and I could forever consider myself lucky to have done it.
I thought, I am so lucky that I’m here. I’m so glad I came. This was a fantastic idea.
Me, the Starbucks addict.
Me, the five-star hotel devotee.
Me, the reluctant backpacker.
The only true fear I felt during our trip was when for a reason that is still a mystery to us, a bus we were travelling on got mobbed near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. In the midst of it, our backpacks were stolen from the roof rack. It was hard to write this scene while preserving the confusion I felt while it was happening, to do it without diluting it with facts I’d learned since. Writing this, I listened to Iguazu by Gustavo Santaolalla, from The Insider soundtrack. It creates for me an atmosphere of underlying danger, sinister events that are unfolding quickly, and there’s something about it (the charango, maybe?) that evokes a feeling of a foreign, unfamiliar place.
We had to come home eventually and when it came time to leave, I became unexpectedly upset. Cruelly our travel plans had our second bus leaving as our first bus pulled into the station, and so our goodbyes to the rest of our six-strong travel group had to be done suddenly, speedily and unexpectedly. I wasn’t at all prepared — for saying goodbye, or for being upset having to. One of the most hauntingly sad pieces of music I know has a suitably sad title: The Letter That Never Came. It’s by Thomas Newman and from the soundtrack to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. To me, it sounds like sadness with roots: a reflection on the past, a move into a new future, a person changed by the events in between. Perfect, in other words. I put it on repeat the night I wrote the last chapter and by the end—and ‘The End’—I was more upset than I’d be on the day!
It was all a bit like Dorothy at the end of Return to Oz when a stone-faced Ozma cruelly sends her back to Kansas before she’s ready.
Damn that Ozma.
And damn that bus.
We did our best to run around to everyone with a hug and a goodbye, but it was a quick scramble, and we needed to get on the bus, like, five minutes ago. We waved over our shoulders as we ran onto it, and grabbed two seats at the back.
The last we saw of our little group was Dan, sitting on everyone else’s backpacks in the bed of the pick-up, a half-smile, half-smirk on his face, waving to us as our bus pulled away.
As the scene faded from the view, Sheelagh and I turned away from the windows.
And started to cry.
Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, blogger and self-publisher from Cork, Ireland. She is the author of two travel memoirs (Mousetrapped and Backpacked), a novel (Results Not Typical) and a ‘sane person’s guide to self-publishing’ (Self-Printed). She can usually be found dividing her time between the desk and the sofa, on Twitter at @cathryanhoward or blogging on www.catherineryanhoward.com.
And incidentally, in this festive season you can get episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life for free on Kindle – but hurry to the Kindle store right now as the offer vanishes after December 30…