Do We Deprive Music of Its Mystery by Writing About It?

by Thomas Larson

I want to be an honest man and a good writer. —James Baldwin

Orpheus Leading Eurydice

1. My affinity for language is a given. But how it was given—and revealed more than other affinities that may have had it out for me as well—is a mystery I’m trying to solve. My hunch is that an affinity for words was present at birth, then snapped-to early on by seductive teachers who assigned adventure narratives and lyric poems, and later the stories of Stephen Crane, the novels of Thomas Hardy, the poetry of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay (her marquee name was a poem in itself). The tenderly implied coupling in the woods Tess endured with Alec D’Urberville unfolded so shadily that I had no idea she was being forced against her will otherwise I would have crawled into the novel and run the rapist off in the midst of the act. In such moments, this affinity for the book manifested—a transcendent sense that prose and poetry recognized me as its completion, that I was felt by the writing, meaning that without my moral participation literature was meaningless.

But that wasn’t the well-bottom of my artistic predilection. The inner beacon that called me to be a reader and eventually a writer was also calling me to play music. The entwining of writing and music commingles linear sense and sounded shape, to me, nothing surprising. Which is to say there’s an overlap, an equivalency, and a separation with which these two similarly spirited and self-assertive arts run together in my blood. My artistic sensibility was tuned to language; but some rapacious gnome within, also stirred in childhood, kept using music to mystify and impugn my word bent and its stays, the rebel cause to desacralize my confidence, my expressive facility, my destiny (even in an essay like this).

After all, on the music road, at age eight I first heard a Methodist church choir and I badgered my mother to go for a tryout, which I did and got in; at fourteen, because I saw Benny Goodman swing with a quartet on TV, I took up the clarinet and went right into junior high band; in high school, I was a self-taught guitarist, songwriter, and leader of a Dylanesque folk-rock group; at thirty-three, I earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition, my senior thesis, a knockoff of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel”; finally, on the strength of a performance art-piece for pianist, electronics, and theater, “Kandinsky’s ‘Several Circles,’” I entered the Ph.D program in avant-garde composition at the University of California, San Diego. Along the journey my synchronous affinities for writing and music developed concurrently, journal writer and piano student, hand-in-hand, double fallbacks, fraternal twins. Read more »