Before the Great Disruption, I wrote in coffeeshops; coffeeshops, bars, bookstores, sometimes the park. The noise and activity around me seemed to occupy the wandering part of my mind and it was easier to concentrate in the way I need when writing. This concentration is different from the kind I summon putting together IKEA furniture or filing my taxes; it’s more loose, associative, surprising. I wrote most of my novel, Cloud Diary (C&R Press) at local coffeeshops.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that classical pianist Glenn Gould liked to practice new pieces with his vacuum cleaner running, at a time when vacuums were much louder than today. The noise, he said, helped him to find the music. He’s notorious for humming while he plays and on many early recordings the humming is audible—he’s not humming the music itself, but some skeletal structure only he can hear, possibly supplying for himself the noise or distraction of the vacuum.
The external noise seems to block some of the internal noise and the spill of images, thoughts and feelings I’m trying to bring together can be recognized more clearly. Writing becomes a form of translation, of finding a language to contain these seemingly disconnected and uncontainable elements.
Anyway, I need the noise, the activity, to write and sometimes the public activity is enough, but sometimes I need music. Most often, it doesn’t matter much what the music is. Often, it’s loud, rhythmic, keening. Now and then, though, a piece of music connects itself to a scene and brings its own voice. The music never has to do with activating a memory or conjuring a nameable mood, nonetheless something catches. The middle section of Cloud Diary is essentially an extended conversation that deepens, falters, and resolves over the course of 24 hours. The secret to the tone of that conversation I somehow found in Sigur Ros, a series of three deep cuts, Ba Ba, Ti Ki, Di Do. I can’t explain why or how.
I can’t explain because the connection is fragile and fleeting, but also because to put an explanation into words would nullify its value. The center section of the novel is the explanation; only it’s not an explanation at all but a response.
In the months before the publication of Cloud Diary, I posted an open call for musicians to respond to scenes from the book with original music. Those who replied were sent a short synopsis and a selection from the book of around 500 words. Here’s the synopsis:
Sophie and Doug have a defining relationship in their twenties which unravels when Sophie is the victim of a violent assault. Eight years later, Doug learns of her terminal illness and they meet again. At this meeting, Sophie asks Doug to help her kill herself. In the next weeks, they prepare for the suicide while remembering and rekindling their relationship.
The musicians knew nothing else about the novel. There were no restrictions or rules. Some who responded were acquaintances, some were friends, many I did not know. The selections came from many genres—bar songs to bluegrass, folk to avant-garde. Some were wholly original, some pulled lines from the text to build a song. The Cloud Diary Music Project received 23 original pieces of music from 19 musicians and groups.
As a kid, I was obsessed with space and space travel and I read a lot of science fiction: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein. I can recall images, characters, and plots from these books if I try, but one story I read when I was 9 or 10, has cycled in my memory consistently over the years.
In Philip K. Dick’s The Preserving Machine, Doc Labyrinth invents a device to convert great music into living creatures. He’s concerned Beethoven or Bach might not survive a coming apocalypse and hopes that through this transformation they might be set free in the wild, fend for themselves, then scooped up in the future and converted again into beautiful music.
Things don’t go as planned for Doc Labyrinth. A few years after releasing the creatures into the nearby forest, he finds every animal has evolved in order to survive and flourish, and to place the Bach bugs back into the Preserving Machine does not deliver Bach at all, but a whole new music which to Labyrinth’s ears is brutish and ugly.
All writers are envious of musicians; we know that music communicates directly in a way words rarely can. Yes, music is a language, with a syntax and vocabulary, but the listener doesn’t have to understand the language to be moved. Whereas everyone has at least a rudimentary knowledge of spoken language—how to construct thoughts and use it to interpret the thoughts of others—we don’t have to know anything at all about the structure of music to be enriched by it.
So, a twinge of envy always arose when I checked my inbox and found a new contribution to the Project. It didn’t last, of course. Jealousy was overcome by excitement and, occasionally, tears. So often the music found its place to the heart of the scene, caught the wisp of its core, or tilted the scene in its own way. This is not to say the music sounded as I had imagined it should; it never did. It was, rather, an interpretation, a translation.
In the writing of Cloud Diary, most scenes or sections did not correspond to specific music, but I want to share two that did because it illustrates a conversation developing—first music, then text, then music again. The embedded links will take you to the music itself and, in addition, the Cloud Diary links give you the text the respective musicians received.
Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Ros created Ba Ba, Ti Ki, and Di Do in 2004 and released the cuts together as an EP. What begins sounding like a music box slowly sinking into still water gains force over the course of 22 minutes to something first insistent, then demanding, before collapsing into chaotic noise. This isn’t something you’d call a song; it’s probably studio noodling they tinkered with and released, but it took hold of me, without reason, in the way music can. There’s a fragile tenderness struggling to make itself known throughout these pieces; or that’s what I say now, having completed the middle section of the novel.
In this section, Doug and Sophie meet at Sophie’s house for the first time in eight years. Tentative at first, they slowly ease into each other, sharing their separate lives, tenderly avoiding old wounds. The conversation lasts into the night—they fall asleep together on the sofa—and into the next morning.
Kim Church, an author herself, finds the aching quality of longing and sadness in the scene. Kim’s voice is steeped in heartache and resolve, the tattered perseverance that drives us to engage in love again and again. This wounded resignation is palpable in Use the Back Door and when she sings Nobody told us what we were put here for, the line speaks of both acceptance and regret, even before Steve Sollod’s lap steel swoons to full force in anticipation of the meeting.
There’s a lot I could say about Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but one of the things that stays with me, bobs often to the surface of my consciousness like a corked bottle, is the juxtaposition of orange and blue in the scene where Alice and Bill have the confrontation that drives most of the film.
Alice (Nicole Kidman) and Bill (Tom Cruise) are having one of those nonsensical, damaging arguments spouses enact. Cruise is on the bed in the warm orange light of the room, Kidman pacing, returning to but not entering the ravishing blue of the bathroom behind her. This blue is completely unnatural and absolutely alluring, especially when framed by the doorway and the orange of the outside room.]
Kidman, in white, stands as the bridge between the orange and blue. I don’t know what this image means; I don’t care. Perhaps it means something, or perhaps it’s just beautiful; beauty doesn’t need meaning. Whatever it is, this scene is alive for me in a way most rarely are. The blue in the room behind Kidman returns like a remembered kiss—something impossible, surprising, breathtaking.
These tiny revelations are woven into my life, as immediate as music, as complex as a novel, as simple as a single note. They’re something more than just memory; they’re talismans that somehow give me strength.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea feels like an album recorded in a fevered delirium. It’s one of the best evocations of what it means to be in your twenties, artistic, aimless, and bursting with ambivalence and ambition. Jeff Mangum’s voice is raw and wavering, and he sings as if he’s been told he’ll never be allowed the chance again and has nothing to lose. After all that has come before, Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2 closes the album with the astonishing line: Don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.
The fever, the exuberance, the delicate expectation of loss in the song held something for a scene after the attack that eventually drives Doug and Sophie apart. The two are nothing obviously alike. The song is brash and wailing, the scene quiet, nearly closed in upon itself.
Weeks after the assault, at Sophie’s insistence, she and Doug attempt to make love again. They’re trying to find their ways back to each other, awkwardly grasping toward a place in their past as a way to overcome the present.
Saxophonist/composer/sound artist Laurent Estoppey’s selection, Away is Never Far Enough, captures the rush and chaos of conflicting emotions and the struggle to bring them into coherence. It’s a harrowing piece, borne from a deep ache, resolving itself in a swell. This resolution isn’t definitive; it’s as if the ache itself has simply receded under the skin. Still, within the swell is something akin to a release.
Doc Labyrinth’s Preserving Machine presupposes art as the creation of objectively immutable objects and, by extension, expects they will conjure the same general feelings and thoughts in anyone who experiences them. He’s dismayed when the musical creatures don’t return to the exact form they had before, when their music doesn’t evoke the response he’d anticipated. He’s dismayed when they change. He can’t imagine that music might have a life, even a will, of its own.
The story gives us no clue as to how the transformed Bach bugs sound when returned to the machine, only that Labyrinth found the music horrible; he was expecting Bach. But perhaps the music sounded like Bartok or Messiaen, the bugs having interacted and adapted to the world around them in the intervening years.
Labyrinth’s Objective Art Object is a monolith; it doesn’t allow us in. He expected the Bach bugs to stand tall, away from us, inviolate; the Schubert lambs to protect their innocence by only speaking to each other. Art shouldn’t protect itself. And it can’t, anyway.
The Cloud Diary musicians, like Glenn Gould’s vacuum and the best coffeeshops, filtered out the presumptions and expectations in my own work, and responded directly. There were no explanations or qualifications from either side.
In Alejandro Zambra’s essay on translating and being translated, Translating a Person, he writes about the effect of reading his own work in another language. He reads and speaks English but writes in Spanish. He’s asked to read from the English translation of his work at an event and has to find a way to make Megan McDowell’s translation work on his tongue.
“The afternoon I spent reading Megan’s translations…for long passages I forgot that I was the one who had written those books. Or, to put it more exactly: for long passages I forgot that those words corresponded to something I had said/written in another language.”
Zambra takes on the voice the piece gives him in English and it’s different from his Spanish voice. The text has left his hand, passed through another, and now he must re-interpret it. In translation, the work steps away from the author. The writer himself must adjust to the new form. It’s a distinct picture of what happens whenever a work is read, when the reader makes it their own.
I doubt that Philip Dick considered The Preserving Machine to be his best story, but it has remained within me in a way most stories haven’t. I don’t believe Kubrick schemed to place that particular blue as the pivotal moment of his film, though I have no doubt he took great care in choosing it.
When I wrote that I didn’t care what the image—the blue and the orange—means, I wasn’t completely truthful. It emerges again and again in my memory precisely because I do care. What I really meant was I don’t want to worry the memory—prod it, dissect it—until all I have are its constituents splayed and pinned before me. I want it alive. I want a conversation, not an autopsy.
The work I’m interested in—as a writer, as a reader—is this call and response. Not the kind where the audience sings along with a band, shouting the chorus when the singer turns the mic toward them; not the kind where the responses are printed in the hymnal. In a true call and response, the next call is always conditioned by the previous response.
After placing parts of Cloud Diary in the hands of musicians, then expectantly, excitedly listening to their translations as they arrived in my inbox, I came to the novel in a new way. Though it hadn’t yet been published when I listened, it had entered the world on its own. Engaged in conversations. Made friends. This is what the musicians gave me: I became simply a node in the continuum of response that nurtured the book.
And, once Cloud Diary begins to bloom, I can caress it, revel in it, protect it, but I have no say in how it grows. Or what it means.
I can read it then—though this is really only something I do when reading to others—and take on what appears to be the voice of the novel. Even, what appears to be the voice of the writer of the novel. The text has gone on without me now; it has its own life to live. A book is never finished as long as it’s in someone’s hands. Now and then, I get a report that Cloud Diary has been seen, on the street or in a Zoom, living its life. Now and then, we talk. As it is with all old friends, it’s good to catch up.
And that blue—that Kubrick blue—one day I’ll write a piece about that, and it will have nothing at all to do with color.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Steve Mitchell is an award-winning writer and journalist, published in CRAFT Literary, december magazine, Southeast Review, and Contrary, among others. His novel, Cloud Diary, is published by C&R Press. His book of short stories is The Naming of Ghosts from Press 53. He is a winner of the Curt Johnson Prose Prize and the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Prize. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. Find him at: www.clouddiary.org
Peace and Noise is part of a series, titled Mirror Box, which combines memoir with film criticism by examining films important to the author at different times in his life. Wheel of Sleep (Melancholia) was published by CRAFT Literary. Exorcism by Proxy (Billy Jack) appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Never Far Enough (Bonnie and Clyde) appeared in Red Fez. He is currently working on an essay which incorporates Exorcist II: The Heretic.