Our Art: A Wonderful Friend, A Terrible Master

My brother, Walt Hampton, is a very talented musician and also a highly skilled music teacher.  In fact, if you have a child in public school, it may be that your child’s elementary music teacher uses one of Walt’s books on teaching marimba.  Perhaps the teacher has attended one of the workshops he conducts all over the country.  (I have, and it was great.) Check out this video of one of his Bahuru Marimba group.

MarimbaWalt is one of those creative artists who adapt their art to whatever opportunities arise.  When necessary (and it often is), he creates the opportunities himself.  He writes music for his students, teaches them to play marimba very well, and finds audiences for them—at street fairs, shopping malls, whatever.  He also writes for his rock band, and the band doesn’t wait for plum gigs.  They play at the State penitentiary.  The inmates love it.

I have learned a lot from Walt’s example over the years.  I have seen him make conscious decisions to be a generous artist when his circumstances would have led more naturally to frustration and cynicism.  He has demonstrated that instead of griping about being stuck in Lodi, you decide to like Lodi.  You adapt your music.  You remind yourself that music is more about joy than about attention.

Walt’s contentment as an artist is a deliberate choice.  In his music workshop that I attended, he commented, “Music is a wonderful friend but a terrible master.”  His statement, I believe, is both an encouragement and a warning to all of us in the arts:  we can enjoy what we do and look for ways—however humble and limited—to share it; or we can drive ourselves to despair by dwelling on rejection, criticism, lack of opportunity, lack of pay.  We can spend so much time “creating” that the wonderful creation called life passes us by . . . and we don’t know it until we look back in regret.

As a writer who comes too close to being driven, I remind myself often of Walt’s words.  Whatever gift I may have, I would rather it be a friend than a master.  Wouldn’t we all rather make friends with our art than be controlled by it?  It is up to each of us to define the relationship.



Drowning in Music, Tasting It, Touching It: Imagery For the Indescribable

Last week at a book reading I met author Shannon Huffman Polson http://aborderlife.com/ and heard her read from her memoir North of Hope.  It is a story of her grief pilgrimage, travelling to a spot in the Arctic wilderness where her father and her stepmother were killed by a bear. I bought a copy of the book and am looking forward to reading it.  Looks like a poignant, riveting story.

One thing that especially intrigues me is that into this wilderness narrative Shannon weaves Mozart’s Requiem.  Six musical “interludes” are included in the book, because as part of dealing with grief she sang the Requiem with the Pro Musica choir of Seattle.  When she spoke at her book presentation, Shannon discussed the difficulty of describing music music image for blogand said that writers will often compare it with the natural world.  Here is a sentence from North of Hope that describes the Mozart music in terms of the nature imagery running throughout the book. Notice the way the sentence incorporates the sounds of grief and conveys grief’s overwhelming power.

I am part of the music as a drop of water is part of a river, feeling the currents and eddies flow, the crashing and tumbling and streaming, the whispering and sighing and moaning and rumbling.

When Shannon spoke about how writers gravitate to images from nature to describe  music, her point immediately resonated with me.  The novel I am writing is about two singers, both of whom are very strongly affected by music, so of course my novel includes descriptions of music. I don’t think it’s any easier to describe how music sounds than to describe how wine tastes.  (Think of all those strange adjectives and metaphors wine tasters use.)  Figurative language is essential, because there is no way to press the “play” button for the reader.

In story-telling, the description also has to communicate the effect on the character.  The example above from North of Hope does that.  It is very raw, just as grief is.  The example below, taken from my novel-in-progress, shows music having a different effect.  In this, a twenty-two-year-old Hungarian peasant is listening to a young mother sing to her baby, and his reaction is fascination and longing:  

“Sweet God,” he murmured, for the song flowed soothing and pure and good, quiet but full, richer than spring cream.  He listened almost guiltily as though stealing nourishment from the child and stealing joy from heaven.  A person could die in the presence of such beauty.

So here are some good exercises for practicing imagery:

  • Describe music metaphorically with visual imagery.
  • Describe music in terms of touch sensation.
  • Describe a sunrise or sunset musically.

If any of you out there in cyberland try this, send me your results, or send me your own ideas for imagery exercises!