What role does music have in good writing?
I was fortunate to have piano lessons when I was a girl. In Canada, if students are learning classical music, teachers usually follow the Royal Conservatory of Music progression from grades one through ten and utilize the books for each level. These lessons include theory as well as musical scores for students to progress in.
Very early, I decided that classical was not my preference, and, after I’d completed four grades of the Royal Conservatory program, I convinced my mother to send me to a teacher who could help me learn pop tunes. That involved learning how to chord so when I used sheet music of popular songs, I only had to read the right-hand score, improvising with my left hand using chordal variations.
Playing the piano and singing to my accompaniment gave me enormous pleasure when I was young and still does when I can make time for it. But I’ve also learned to appreciate classical as well. And while my main pleasure when I’m at the piano is to play jazzy music, I have learned to love more “serious” music as well.
Not long ago, my husband and I attended the San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto #1 featuring soloist Christian Tetzlaff. The exhilarating performance is still reverberating within me, the work a stunning blend of instruments and tonal shifts. The opus also challenges any concert violinist to demonstrate his/her best relationship with his/her instrument and the score. Tezlaff not only lived up to the test, but he also surpassed it. He was one with the music and his instrument: in fact, he became the instrument.
I was particularly entranced by a long section where the violin has a dialogue with itself. One minute it sped along as if on a noisy interstate. In the next instance, there was an abrupt shift into a slower tempo and an almost imperceptible sound from the instrument itself. Back and forth this dynamic went. I felt I was overhearing Russia’s soul communicating with itself, the strident, militaristic aspect of the country’s life that its president Putin embodies, and the more melancholy, soulful quality of its great artists. It was electrifying from start to finish.
I left Davies Hall wondering how I, as a writer, could get a transfusion of Shostakovich’s dynamics into my writing. I would like to snare my readers right from the beginning and keep them enraptured with my characters and their movements as they (readers and characters) find their way through the narrative of a short story or novel. It’s a daunting task. At best, I might set off enough sparks and generate something of a fire that will infuse my fiction. But it takes a special verve and vision to sustain it. I would love to hear how other writers do it.
I do know that music is never far from my mind as I’m composing sentences and watching stories emerge from them. I’m aware of the phrasing and tonalities of various words, the differing textures that vowels and consonants create. Music seems to be at the heart of all good writing.
Lily Iona MacKenzie
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 165 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy was released in 2019. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011, and Prolific Press published my poetry chapbook No More Kings in March 2020. I blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
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