Morning porch noodling

Video link

What is wrong with me that I so rarely listen to recorded music anymore? It’s not that I prefer to make my own music; weeks can go by without me picking up the harmonica. But I don’t feel especially deprived, either, because I hear birdsong all day long, interspersed with train whistles and other sounds. And I do love that.

Even more pleasurable, to me, is the feeling of what I can only call musical sobriety. Back in the days of my musical addiction, 15 and 20 years ago, if a record wasn’t playing in the background, I didn’t feel right. And it seemed as if I had to play tunes I liked in order to drown out the annoying tunes that would somehow get lodged in my head on infinite repeat — so-called ear worms.

That turned out not to be the case. Now that I rarely make a point of listening to recorded music, I rarely get ear worms, either. When I do pick up the harmonica, I generally play the same couple dozen tunes, but that’s O.K. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be a real musician. Even at the height of my music addiction, I could never stomach the endless repetitions that true practice entails.

By the same token, I don’t suppose many musicians can fathom how we writers can stand to go over and over the same few words until we get them right. Writing poems and practicing songs seem as if they should be closely related practices — they have, after all, a common origin, and are still closely allied in most oral traditions. But for me, as a free verse poet, melody is a serious distraction. Now that I’ve finally gotten the incessant tunes out of my head, I’m able to hear the sounds and rhythms of language much more easily. Poems come to me now like they never did before.

I’m not trying to suggest, however, that what works for me might be good for anyone else. British poet-blogger Dick Jones says that playing in bands for a few decades improved his writing enormously. It sounds as if his initial motivation differed a bit from mine; I never had much ambition to “set the world alight with my deathless prose and incandescent verse” the way Dick says he did when he was young. Playing bass in public sounds like just the medicine he needed.

Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don’t notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm and just enjoyed the simple process of getting to grips with a musical instrument.

And, over time, this attention to the medium over the message had its kickback into writing. For the first time I started to write poems principally for the sake of the statement made and the craft of putting it together.

Dick and I may have been following parallel courses, though. Because it seems to me that we’ve each stumbled on a discipline that has taught us a little better how to listen.

13 Replies to “Morning porch noodling”

  1. Wonderful video, Dave. It’s so peculiarly American, in the best possible sense, both in sound and image.

    And how about that flowing mane you’re sporting! More side-shots please. I gather somebody else was doing the filming? Or did you set the camera up in some clever spot?

    I too hardly ever listen to recorded music nowadays. If I’m working it’s a distraction and if I’m not working, I can’t be bothered to switch anything on.

  2. Tapping my foot along with you… That was fun. BTW, what’s the name of that third tune – pretty catchy!

    I have to admit to wondering how you were able to keep a beat going with that ovenbird competing with you. You’re blessed, I think, to have all that birdsong right outside your door.

  3. Isn’t your hair long! Bootiful!

    That was great, especially here in my own early morning. I enjoyed reading that straight after Dick’s. I was never a strongly musically inclined person, but it surprises me how little music we have around now, especially as background. I quite like serendipitous musical moments though and sometimes I realise when I’m stuck in a particular mood that in fact the right music would get me through it, but I’m out of the habit of seeking it.

    Welcome back smorgasblog. I’d never have dared ask for its return, because I could never understand how you could fit it in, it must be so time consuming. But something kind of went out of blogging for me when you stopped it, it’s such a great nexus, not to mention that head-swelling sense of pride when one gets on it!

  4. Very nice! Love the noodling. I don’t hear that often in my neighborhood.

    Your discussion about the relationship between poetry and music is interesting. I find in the presence of live music, I often write–there’s something contagious about the process of creation as well as the process of learning to listen.

  5. Hi Dave, I am here via Lucy’s site. I am interested in what you said about the relationship between music and words, since as a singer I put my words and melody to the music of other musicians in collaborations and to my own.
    I have never been able to listen to music in the background. It conflicts with the soundscape in my head. I wouldnt call it ear worms though, it is too much a part of me. If I put recorded music on, it is to listen to it, and is usually because I am working with it in some way!

  6. I love music and go through phases of listening to a lot of music but I love silence too and certainly I can’t write poetry or reviews or even blog posts while listening to music. I certainly don’t have music on in the background all the time, I like to hear the birds sing, specially at this time of year.

  7. I go through phases, I’ve just been in a major musical one, now I’m preferring the quiet (probably cos the kids had a week off school). I have always found silence very oppressive but if something is too loud, you’re right, I can’t write. Ah, you’ve just finished playing, I had you open in another window, very cool, you look just like I’d pictured you too, great vid, really enjoyed it.

  8. Thanks everyone for the kind comments about the video. As for the hair, I don’t actually care for the look much myself, but am too cheap to go to a barber – and besides, a ponytail is extremely low-maintenance. So it’s mostly laziness.

    I didn’t dress up for this at all. I figured that since I don’t really have any photos of myself here, aside from the one in the self-portrait series, regular readers might appreciate seeing what I usually look like, blogs being such a visual and personality-focused medium. (Maybe I’m getting more conformist in my old age, too?)

    Natalie – I set up a tripod and filmed it with the video setting on my digital camera. The memory card only has room for a three-minute video, so I had to take the camera down and upload the first bit to my computer before filming some more. Hence the sudden shift in the middle: although the tripod didn’t move, I wasn’t able to keep the exact same angle.

    Laura – The last tune I played was “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine.” I’m not sure of the one before that. Some old hornpipe or another.

    I think birdsongs are easy to tune out because they are essentially atonal. For the same reason, I also find them much more engrossing, with a few exceptions: tufted titmice and towhees both have annoying songs, I think.

    Lucy – Yes, I should have added that on the relatively rare occasions when I do listen to music now, the effect is much more overwhelming.

    I’m glad to hear you’ll be following the smorgasblog. Now that the posting process is more automatic, the only real “work” involved is keeping up with the feeds in my reader.

    Lene – Thanks for visiting. You’re right: live music is definitely something special. I should make more time and effort to take it in.

    Nancy – Thanks. Glad to hear that the Morning Porch hasn’t gotten too repetitive for you yet!

    Hi Rosie – Good to hear from a singer. Your relationship to recorded music sounds very healthy and creative. It may not be entirely dissimilar to the way I interact with other people’s poetry, reading it as if I were just discovering it in my own unconscious, allowing it to echo down deep.

    CGP and Johemmant – I hear you about the phases, and I guess my own practice fluctuates as well. But these days, I really only immerse myself in music when I’m drinking, which isn’t often. (I keep thinking I should try to be a better alcoholic, but the rewards of sobrietry are too many, and besides, I value my sleep.)

    CGP – Yeah, I guess a lot of employers disable Flash so that people won’t be tempted to watch videos all day. Unfortuately, it also means you won’t see the flash audio players at qarrtsiluni, for example.

  9. Freebird! Freebird!

    Just kidding. I’d really rather hear Turkey in the Straw. ;)

    Very nice – I was surprised by the long hair too.

  10. Just dropped back to say that I have shared your videos with my boys…..the wobbly fawn, the porcupine (eery, like warring old man) and the skunk, they were well impressed, they’ve never seen the last two up close. So thanks for that :)

  11. Rurality – Freebird! Freebird!
    That’s funny – we used to call that out at punk shows. Guess it became a universal joke sometime in the mid-80s.

    Jo – Hey, that’s cool. I hear that kids are a very tough audience.

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