Today’s Think Music guest is Paul Lisicky, author of Lawnboy and Famous Builder.
CHORDS OF INQUIRY
I could hear a song, say a pop song on the radio, go home and play my version of it on the piano. This was when I was in second grade, before I started taking piano lessons. I couldn’t read music yet, but I had the ability to transcribe what I heard, in the original key, with the same harmonic structure. Michael, my youngest brother, a symphony musician, calls this absolute pitch. Others might call it perfect pitch. Whatever you want to call it, he has it. He says I have it, too. We wonder if our middle brother, who doesn’t play music, has it. Apparently, bats, wolves, gerbils, and birds can have it. I don’t think it’s a learned thing. Absolute pitch is probably written into your genetic code. Some people, for instance, can curl their tongues and make a little wet flute of them, while others can’t.
I couldn’t curl my tongue if you held a gun to my head, but I can certainly listen to a note and say: G. That made it next to impossible to listen to music while writing. There I’d be, trying to lose myself in the woods, and there was the music, and I couldn’t help from graphing out the structure in my head, making a map of what I heard. I had to work in silence. Sometimes I pressed my palms over my ears, but I dislike silence, as it puts too much pressure on the words. At least some sound from outside–whether its taxi horns or laughing gulls–can help me focus, and maybe those sounds can be pulled onto the page in ways that are beyond my ability to know.
I had a realization not so long ago. If I listened to music that was written and performed in an open guitar tuning, I couldn’t graph the music in my head. By open guitar tuning, I mean tuning the strings to non-standard pitches. In other words: EADGBE retuned to CGDFCE. Think: Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth, Nick Drake. Plenty of examples exist, but those are the ones I like best. Why would anyone retune his guitar, possibly stressing the neck of the instrument? Maybe because you have a hunger for harmonic difference, dissonance; you don’t want things to be too resolved; and you want to sound just like your inner life, which is no small feat. You never get it exactly right, especially as your sense of weather might be changing all the time. Joni calls them her “chords of inquiry.” That seems to be an accurate description by a musician who’s been taken to task for not using the root of the chord.
So– a long way of saying that I can listen to the music of Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth, and Nick Drake when I write. When I hear them, I’m lost, but it’s a lostness that feels like home. I can’t map it. It’s as if the map has been tilted off the NSEW directional and I don’t know where the ocean is, I don’t know where the sun sets. If it were possible, I’d retune the strings of language to a harmonic structure that might make you sit up and say, what the hell’s that? But you’d like it, too. I guess that’s what I’m trying for in my own loopy way, even though I know I’ll never get it exactly right.
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3 Comments Add yours
Hey Paul, I love this post. Having grown up at a performing arts school, music is my first metaphor for understanding everything else. I really also like your gesture towards tuning your writing with a different harmonic structure. I wish that novelists and poets were allowed to write from a Fake Book (jazz standards), so that every stanza didn’t need to be our own detail, as long as every note was you. Covers. Paul’s cover of a familiar paragraph: “Did you hear what he did with that?”
Much current research suggests that we all have innate perfect pitch – as you say, animals often need it – but that language acquisition dulls it so much that it seems to disappear, except for a select few. Why those few (like you and Michael) retain it isn’t known – whether it links to musical ability or whether those who still have perfect pitch are more likely to work at music. Say hello to Michael! And Mark!