Mortality and Music

Writing has changed my relationship with music. For years I collected music and listened to it obsessively, constantly thinking about what to play next. I curated mixes for every road trip and spent hours attentively crafting CD’s for friends, always seeking the perfect combination of songs. When I found Farhad Manjoo’s 2006 article about the iPod anthologized in one of the composition textbooks I taught, I immediately incorporated it into my lessons, eager to discuss it with students. ‘Music,’ I thought, ‘does inflame my ADD and encourage my OCD.’

As a grad student, I wrote papers while listening to hours of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada, music repetitive enough to drown out other noise yet to allow for focused thought. Looking back through chapters of my thesis brings to mind 10/09/76, Geogaddi, or 11/17/97 instead of passages about the interstitial exchanges of identity formation from Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture.


Fiction requires a different kind of focused thought. The immersive quality of trying to inhabit another world is different from the puzzle piece arrangement of an argument. An argument proceeds with intention; fiction tumbles around like a  kaleidoscopic. Each addition the writer makes becomes part of a new pattern with different colors and symmetries. The potential combinations are endless.

Music, even repetitive or droning stuff, distracts. Maybe it’s because I am a better listener now. It used to be that I sought music based on its critical standing and interpreted both its context and content. Music became as much about taste as discovery. I tried to absorb every work I laid my hands on, but it inevitably led to countless roots and branches of influences and progeny. Soon I listened to simply check the artist off my list and move on, without actually hearing it, and then I began writing more often.

Now when I want to listen to music, I make time for it. I sit down and listen to tunes occasionally rather than constantly. Similarly, when I sit down to write, I shut out everything else.

Perhaps my need to create discrete occasions for music and writing is a matter of getting older and realizing my mortality, knowing that only so much time remains for me to do what I love. (Given that I’m only 33,  my preoccupation with death only stands to get worse.) Or perhaps I lacked confidence in my own process, thinking I needed to aid it somehow, a mistaken understanding of the muse.

But there are easy answers too. I needed to explore as many sounds as possible for one reason: I wanted to be sure of what truly gets me off.  A three minute song feels like a planet when you take the time to listen. A half-page passage feels like another life when your writing is focused.


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