Wednesday 12 January 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I was recently on a train, travelling from Gatwick airport to London with my earphones and mp3 player on. Up until then my little device had behaved itself, sending up tunes that were suited to my mood: I'd just said goodbye to my mother, who had stayed with us during the summer. I wanted music that was neither of the weepy type, nor of the uplifting kind. My mp3 had seemed to copy my brain's instructions fairly well; I did not have to press once the 'skip' button as I made my way to the train station.

The book I'd brought with me to read on my way back to London also fell in the 'neutral territory' category. It was 'A History of God' by Karen Armstrong, a British author who has written extensively about religion, its origins and influence. However, whilst I welcomed the distraction the book brought me, how it took my mind off my mother's return to Cuba and the fact that I would not be seeing her again for some time (years maybe?), I had no reason to suspect that both my brain and my mp3 player had colluded, unintentionally, to give me a little surprise.

Halfway through my journey Gil Scott-Heron's 'Did You Hear What They Said?' kicked off on my mp3 player. This song is a powerful lament about the loss of a young person's life, the circumstances surrounding it and the author's blatant refusal to believe something like this could happen. Precisely at that moment I was finishing the first chapter of my book, 'In the Beginning'. To be even more exact, I will quote the fragment I was reading as Scott-Heron's melody reverberated in my ears:

"Despite his earthbound approach and his preoccupation with scientific fact, Aristotle had an acute understanding of the nature and importance of religion and mythology (...) Hence his famous literary theory that tragedy effected a purification (katharsis) of the emotions of terror and pity that amounted to an experience of rebirth."

Unlike Karen's 400-page treatise on religion, Gil uses only twenty-six lines to express his incredulity and anger. Out of this twenty-six verses, though, nine are repeated throughout the tune. This renders his song poignant and cathartic, especially as it crescendoes towards the end. Listen to the final stanza and I dare you to remain dry-eyed: "Did you hear what they said/Yeah did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/About his mother and how she cried/They said she cried, 'cause her only son was dead/They said she cried, 'cause her only son was dead/Woman, could you imagine if your only son was dead/And somebody told you, he couldn't be buried/hey, hey, come on, come on, come on, come on/this can't be real."

Reading and listening to music at the same time are like the coloured lines I see in those charts in The Economist magazine. One indicates domestic growth, whilst the other points at per capita spending. At some point they will cross paths, but this happens very rarely. I admit that I like listening to music whilst I read, usually of the non-intrusive variety. Jazz and classical music get thumbs-up whereas anything with words in it is either skipped or muted. However, this attitude puts me in the pro-Muzak group, an association I strongly dislike, as I'm all for listening to music with intention, not as if one hated it so much, that it has to go and stand in a corner like a child that's been grounded. There's another quandary when you listen to music (with words) whilst reading. In the best case scenario the lyrics will add value to the book you're reading. Yet, do you really need that addendum? After all, the reason to read a book is to immerse yourself in the plot (in the case of fiction). The downside, on the other hand, is that you might end up paying more attention to the music - that's what usually happens, doesn't it? - and will forget about the plot. Then, why bother to read at all?

But occasionally, especially when I'm on the go, book in one hand, mp3 player in my pocket, I don't mind tunes with words in them. In fact, sometimes the phrases on the page complement the lyrics in my ears. That's what happened with that Gil Scott-Heron song. I've listened to it many times; it's one of my favourite tracks by the so-called grandfather of rap. And yet, on that train journey from Gatwick to London, I was moved by it more than at any other time. Mathematically speaking, it was the combination of both 'neutral' and real elements that did it for me: non-fiction book about religion+electronic gadget churning out high-quality pop+my mother's return to Cuba=reflection about the end of polytheism and the start of monotheism in the world and the consequences of this transition.

Gil's song builds rapidly due to its short duration. Still, even after having heard it countless times that second verse is probably one of the more distressing ones I've ever heard in my life: "Did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/Did you hear what they said/They said,they shot him in his head/a shot in the head to save his country/a shot in the head to save his country/Come on, come on,come on,come on/this can't be real." Involuntarily, as I listened to these lines, I somehow created an internal debate where on one side I had Scott-Heron's harsh, poetic reality playing against Karen Armstrong's explanation of Nirvana on the other side: "We are told that Nirvana is a permanent, stable, imperishable, immoveable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter and the place of unassailable security..." Well, no, it isn't, if you get shot in the head and then can't be buried.

I already anticipate posters leaving their comments this week to be split between those for whom silence should be the only companion when reading (or writing) and those who don't mind the nasal intonation of an Amy Winehouse or the drunken inflection of a Tom Waits when diving into the depths of Borges, Munro or Chesterton's works. What I've personally found is that when I listen to music whilst reading not only does the world around me change slightly, but also the one inside.

© 2011

Next post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 16th January at 10am (GMT)


  1. Hola Cuban,

    I read you back and forth, trying to understand your mixed feelings of missing your Mom, of riding the train, of what Karen Armstrong was saying (I read the book and tried to recall what she wrote about In The Beginning, and it made me want to go home and pick the book off the shelf and look it up, I may do that this evening) and of you listening to the melody of the song (is it really a rap song?) and what the singer is saying. I was multi-tasking with you and multi-feeling the emotions and thoughts that could be invoked by your experiences (did you notice the fellow passengers? were they too listening to their MP3, hauling luggage and trying to answer their phone?).

    All in all, I tried to sense who won you. Your Mom, Karen Armstrong or the singer? I gathered it was the singer.

  2. I'm with you on both counts, Cuban. I love a well-chosen song to accompany my reading -- it's like a double whammy to the soul if it works out right. I recently posted about a road trip I made to San Diego this week and a song that I listened to -- I hoped that those who read the post would listen to the song while reading it --
    On another note, have you heard about Karen Armstrong's compassion project? She is such a beautiful writer and person --

  3. Oh, and this is an incredible post on so many levels -- I think you should try to publish it somewhere beyond your blog.

  4. Yes, agree with Elizabeth above, and sharing the multi-tasking feelings with Ocean Girl as well.

    Fascinating examination into how artforms can interact with each other, and the enhancement of one that may result. I am impressed by your brain though - I couldn't do two intense things at once. I really do prefer to read in silence, but strangely, when writing, I like background talk and activity (public places) or, absolutely best of all, a Bruce Willis film on the tele in front of me.
    No, I can't work that out either - I think Bruce must serve to engage the 'entertain me' side of my brain whilst leaving whatever intellectual capacities I have free. Then again, I often write whilst listening to Radio 4 or the World Service. Can't do music though - it engages me too much.

  5. Wonderful post. I don't believe in coincidence.

  6. And then there is the impact that music might have on the writer. I understand that Stephen King has rock music (or at least loud music) blasting whle he writes. I don't know if that is an acurate recollection, but I know that when I write fiction I am intentional about either using silence or using specific music for a given scene. And I wonder, if the data existed, whether readers and writers would find that the same music used during the writing would be the same music that a reader would find compatible with what he or she was reading.

  7. Synchronicity: is that the right words for the intersecting you experienced. Poignant farewell to your mother. What did she say as she was leaving? Forgive me for intruding.

    As for me: if music is on when I'm reading, it's usually muted. Bass vibrations intrude. Even the muted music fades out more and more as print takes over--that's where my head is. Lately, I love doing one thing at a time. Time seems to slow down.

    I'm still saying goodbye to my dead mother. She lives in my head--sometimes.

    Warm regards from South Beach

  8. What did my mother say as she leaving? The same most mothers all over the world say to their sons, especially if he is the only one: "Look after yourself". And no, you weren't intruding, Mim.

    Who won me? My feelings. Gil was the defying voice, Karen was all reason and balance, whilst the memory of waving goodbye to my mum has lingered since.

    No, the melody is not a rap song. I would describe Gil as a spoken word performer, even though that would be falling way short of his talents.

    Elizabeth, I read about Karen's project, when she first announced it in The Guardian. I think it's a great idea, even if it does fall in the woolly side of things. But sometimes you need a little bit of idealism in your life to keep you going. Not everytihng has to be raw and harsh reality. Self-alienation, in moderation, can be just the medicine the doctor ordered.

    Tonight I had a similar moment to the one described in the post. I was reading 'Ulysses' (just started it really) and I had Al Di Meola's 'Elegant Gypsy' on and at the end of the second track, 'Midnight Tango', there's a percussion solo that seemed to echo Stephen Dedalus' thoughts.

    Listening to The Boss's 'The River' now. Air-punching never felt so good! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  9. First of all, I'm not going to blast you for listening to music while reading. I don't understand why anyone would. I do feel and have been told by others all my life that multitasking actually means that you end up not being truly attentive to anything. I understand and believe that to generally be a fact.

    But I don't believe it to be true in this case. The combination of arts has been used forever as a way to reach a deeper meaning. Especially the combination of words and music.

    I hope your mother reached Cuba safely and that you'll see her soon. It's hard to be separated from loved ones.


  10. I enjoyed the song. It was moving. Soothing if you don't pay attention to the lyrics. Thank you Cuban.

  11. ¡Cuban! Te acabo de responder el último mensaje que dejaste en mi blog a fines de diciembre. Feliz año para ti también, hermano. Te vuelvo a hacer el cumplido -y no porque me hayas dicho algo similar-, este look que tienes ahora está súper. ¡Me encanta! Saludines.

  12. Read the quote while listening to the song! You can't recreate other people's epiphanic moments, but I see what you mean.

  13. Art and religion are intimate experiences. Philosophy is like trying to understand both of them. So when you have all three collide at a fragile moment (such as leaving your mother and not knowing when you might see her again) the impact was just an the ultimate experience. Wonderful.

    Also, I always always write my fiction with music. I feel the lyrics, rhythm, passion, and flow unlock doorways in my mind that otherwise would not open if I did not listen. Excellent & eloquent thoughts here (as always).

  14. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    "whether readers and writers would find that the same music used during the writing would be the same music that a reader would find compatible with what he or she was reading."

    Judith, that would be an experiment worth investing time and resources in, I assure you! :-) What a great idea. For instance, right now I've got Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' on (Autumn). Could James Joyce have been writing Ulysses almost a century ago to the sound of the Italian composer's ode to the seasons? There's food for thought.

    Greetings from London.

  15. I rarely listen to music when I read, although when I write I try to find just the right stuff for the mood I want to create. (Often having a really hard time to find just the right thing - anything with words is out - I use that as an my excuse for not writing much!)

    My kids, like most people of their age, listen to music constantly. It helps to keep them focused in certain activities, while I view it as a distraction from some.

    I can certainly appreciate your music/prose intersection, though. Your brain makes the most amazing connections!

  16. The main way that I "use" music is when I'm writing - if I can find a song that gets me into the right mood for a particular scene, I know the writing will flow more smoothly.

    I don't typically read and listen to music at the same time, because I like to give each my full attention. And I'm not a natural multi-tasker!

  17. I can definitely relate to the alignment you felt. When I wrote my memoir I needed to put Italian songs on, and with words and music taking me back, I could then feel a magic pull, back in time and space.

  18. Remarkable post, Cuban, I echo what Elizabeth has said.

  19. Fascinating post ACIL! I really enjoyed it. Personally, very timely. I have only recently taught myself how to listen to music and read at the same time. I have finally figured out how to filter some of the other 'noise' I hear on a daily basis. How to tune into specifics. I used to be of the mind that, as you said, silence be the only companion to reading. But much like certain lyrics to a song can inspire in me a word or an idea to put down on paper, to write, they can work to amplify the words already on paper.




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