Saturday, October 16, 2010

I am an MP3 Player

Octet for Strings, Bryant Park

I never learned to play a musical instrument, and yet I can say without hesitation that music has been just as much, if not more of, an influence in my creative life than literature or the visual and plastic arts. There was always music in my home, recorded and live, as daily background but also as a special event to look forward to and dress up for (when did people stop caring enough to wear nice clothes to the opera?), and I was lucky to grow up with an indirect awareness of, or a conscious participation in some pretty interesting periods for popular music, not to mention technological advances in how it is preserved and delivered…but mostly music taught me what life is about at its best and worst, giving me sensations and expectations way beyond the everyday that made me restless, often unsatisfied, sometimes miserable, but kept me questing for bigger and better things.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 The Rockwall, circa 1978

For who I have become and how, blame the Rolling Stones. Blame Jim, Jimi and Janis. Blame crooners, bluesmen, jazzmen, rockers, folk singers, punks, funks, metalheads, pop stars, and especially blame those first of the mad misfit freaks and rebels to guide my wounded, seeking soul , Beethoven, Vivaldi, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Monteverdi. Did they make me this way, or did the way I am draw me to them? This I will never know, but so many of my memories and associations are tied to music, which came first no longer matters, it’s all one.

Manhattan Alleyway

While contemplating this post, I was flooded with these memories. How to fit into one brief personal essay everything that music means to me? Not only do certain songs help identify dates on the calendar of my life for me by what I was hearing on the radio, but they also identify the states of mind or experiences for which they served as soundtrack . When I walked by the Manhattan alleyway pictured above a few years ago, I immediately thought of the Brighton alleyway featured in a scene in the movie adaptation of the Who’s Quadrophenia, but more than that, I lived the scene, I started quoting dialogue from the movie under my breath, and feel how it felt watching it for the first time in a theater in November 1979 as a teenager,  and every one of the dozens of times after that I’ve seen it since, or the hundreds of times I’ve played the album.  Within seconds of this multi-memory flashback, I was so fully transported back in time, I almost expected to catch a much younger version of myself, awkward and angry, mirrored in a shop window.

Brighton  Alleyway

That’s what music is about for me – transport, transcendence, transformation. One amazing piece played a million times for a million people has the ability to speak to me and touch me directly, intimately, as if no one had ever heard it before, as if I had never heard it before, and yet, it knows me, deeply and passionately.  When I went Googling for an image of the real alley filmed for that movie , I was actually surprised to find so many hits, as if I were the only one who could have such a connection to this scene! Turns out, it’s famous.  Fans actually go to Brighton to visit, photograph and autograph this alleyway like a shrine. One guy even filmed himself in the role of Jimmy recreating every detail down to the spinning camera angles coordinated with the music in those few moments of film!  For this guy too, I suspect, the Who’s music has the power to be around him and inside him at the same time, moving him body and soul. He just had the nerve to film himself feeling what I’ve kept in my head all these years! 

It isn’t just about rock n roll, the percussion that seem to come from my own heartbeat and makes it impossible not to get up and dance, the hot guitar riffs that lick my nerves like flickering fire, the wailing sax and huffing harmonica that make me want to stand in the rain with steam rising off me and howl at the moon.  Blood on the Tracks.  Muddy Waters.  Blank Generation by Richard Hell.  Music that will always understand what I have in me in a way no human being can. In the mid 90s, I had the honor of attending a performance of Mahler’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Georg Solti. I had never heard the piece before. I was only just letting go of the mindset that much as I enjoyed it, classical music could never touch me like my good old rock n roll.  I think I stopped breathing the second Solti raised his baton and it was at least three days before I started breathing again. Just thinking of it makes my head swim to this day, because the music was so big it literally made me dizzy.  After that, cassettes of classical music started to pile up next to my rock collection.

On so many occasions, music has saved my life.  Bach’s Double Concerto.  Barber’s Adagio.  Borodin’s Nocturne. To know that there was such truth and beauty in existence, even at times my own life seemed false and ugly, made a rejection of life impossible. I remember walking along Central Park one afternoon many years ago, lost in dark thoughts, feeling quite dead inside and detached from everything around me as if I were sleepwalking.  I approached a sidewalk vendor with tables full of cassette tapes in boxes and two small portable speakers from which, slow and quiet, yet cutting through the noise of a busy city street, emerged a sound unlike any I had heard before.  It was Albinoni’s Adagio and it perfectly echoed my movement and my mood. I stood there glued to the spot for the entire piece,  9 or 10 minutes long. As I write this, I can feel that same sense of simultaneous paralysis and utter liberation. I can feel the gray hexagonal cobblestones under my feet, smell the strange blend of urban and natural smells from the traffic of 5th Avenue on one side and the park on the other, and how isolated I felt, yet how welcome, as this mournful music walked me away from darkness and into something bright and beautiful. To know that one human spirit was capable of creating this thing and delivering it across centuries to another human spirit just at the moment they were needing  to receive it, made humanity not such a bad thing.  I bought the tape that day, and as long as there are cassette players, that’s the version I will always play, and I will always be standing in that spot on the cobblestones when I hear it.

The Conquest of Technology

I recently acquired an MP3 player. When away from my home musical system, which consists of a radio/tape/disc player the size of a toaster, a long extension cord for my headphones and a lot of old cassette tapes and CDs, I had been using a Discman in public that made people laugh at the old fart playing  music on what looked like a wired frisbee.  I admit, it’s cool to have dozens of my favorite albums carried in my pocket and ready to be heard anytime anywhere, but in general the whole idea of a portable sound system is a bit redundant to me and seems only really useful to block out outside noise. There is already a vast musical library burned into my brain made up of the thousands of albums that have become part of me over the years, to the point where certain conversations provoke just the right song quote, and certain situations trigger the mental playing of entire albums.  I sometimes forget what I was intending to do by the time I get to the other end of the apartment, but I can still recite all the lyrics to “American Pie” and recently played both Tommy and Exile on Main Street in their entirety in my head during the second half of a marathon which required a little good old fashioned rock fuel to get my fighting spirit back in those last hard miles. Dr Jimmy and Mr. Jim propelled me across the finish line and I didn’t know whether to cry, hug, or kick someone!

 Blue Guitar

Not that everyone has to serve a dual or triple muse, but I think it can only enrich the creative spirit if you can feel creativity in different ways through all your senses.  After all, past centuries not only valued but required a working knowledge of some aspect of all the arts to be considered a well-rounded individual, something we’ve lost in modern times with so much specialization.  I think it’s interesting that many of the artists I’ve met here on Blogger have a strong connection with music, either because they play, or are lifelong fans, or include the occasional music video or audio clip in their blogs that fits perfectly with, and enhances their other content.  As deeply connected as I feel to music just listening to it, I cannot even imagine the pleasure of holding an instrument and making it sing.  I think it’s enough that when I listen to my favorite music, I feel as if I am an instrument, held, and singing.


  1. Cool Black & White motives !
    Happy weekends to you.

  2. Gabriella, magic words. I have always thought of music as the soundtrack of my life. Thank you for such a great post.

  3. G., another fantastic thoughtful and beautifully written, as well as very funny at times! It is so much about place and how memory and the music inside you are so intimately connected to place...and what wonderful descriptions you've written of these moments in time. I feel as if I just saw a film of you transfixed by the Adagio there at the street vendor's table. I used to wonder whether it was language, or music, or the visual arts, which for me, had the largest capacity to transcend and lift me off the ground. But now, I know, any and all of the arts, at any given moment have the capacity to make the walls dissolve. What power there is in the creative human spirit.

  4. Wong - good to see you here! I am so glad you liked the images here - I do try to have a little bit of everything for everyone! Happy weekend to you too.

    Luis - Thanks for your words - it's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way, which I sort of knew already, but it's always good to hear! Where would we be without our music?

    Patti - this was an easy post to write, especially when I realized that all these hours I've been spending crocheting I hear the same albums in my head whether I have my MP3 player on or not! I just opened that door and so many memories came through, I had to limit myself to just a few to describe. And the best thing is, I know there are other pieces out there, and books, and artworks, yet to discover that will lift me up and out of myself the same way. Life is good.

  5. Gabriella, you can add one more person to your list "who have strong connection with music".
    All i do in my life has a strange link with music. Every moment reminded have a important soundtrack.
    Maybe this happen cause i have the custom to emphasize some hour of my day listening some noise, so this way it always be alive, even knowing the silence is very important too.
    I use my mp3 to ignore the world, it makes me feel alone in the middle of the crowd. Sometimes i need it.
    I´m glad you`re sharing these great sensations. We could talk about it for hours.
    So, i´ll share one thing, now i´m liistening to "Freedom and its owner", from Kings of Convenience.

    Kisses, bella!

  6. Crissant, dear - I knew you would be! And as I'm typing this, I went to look for Kings of Convenience online, so I'm listening to Freedom and it's owner right now too! I like it! Kisses to you.

  7. why did you take so long for start your own blog ?
    at least i am reading it NOW !

    music... would i be a painter if wasn't bcause of music ?

    a sad factor widely know
    how a most impassionate song
    to a lonely soul is so easily outgrow
    but don't forget the songs
    that made you smile
    and the songs that made you cry
    when you lay in awe
    on the bedroom floor
    and said" oh smather me , mother
    the passing of time
    and all its crimes
    is making me sad again
    the passing of time
    and all its sickening crimes
    is making me sad again
    Yes, you're older now
    and you're clever and swine
    but they were the only ones that tood by you
    the passing of time leaves empity lifes
    waiting to be filled
    the passing of time leaves empity lifes
    waiting to be filled
    i am here with the cause
    i am holding the torch
    in the corner of you room
    can you hear me?
    and when you're dancing and laughing
    and finaly living
    hear my voice in your head
    and think of my kindly.

    do you
    loveme like you used to ?

    rubber ring

    I always remember this old song when i am thinking about my colection or the impact of music in my life .

    by the way: i still have a big collection of casset tapes.

  8. I agree, your post are always so intresting and well done, it is a pleasure to read it

    yes are magic words...

  9. Thanks for the lyrics, Caio! That is exactly how I feel! So - why did it take so long for me to start a blog? The short answer is that I was too busy having the life sucked out of me at a 9 to 5 job! All these writings were just trapped inside me waiting to come out. I am so glad they have found the right audience of sympathetic souls like you! Hold onto those cassettes! Best to you, my friend.

  10. Cara Laura! Your comment seems so short compared to Caio! But it means just as much to me - for you are one of those sympathetic souls I mentioned in my reply to him. I am so happy I can share these words with you and know that they give you pleasure! Sending hugs to you.

  11. I love to read your posts,these essays show your talent to write. I do love to listen to all kinds of music too,depending on what mood I'm in or want to get in.When painting I often play classic music, Portuguese fado music,Turkish bellydance music etc. depending again on what I'm painting but for me the music has to relate to the emotion,the feeling that I try to paint.
    Music is one of the very, very good things in life and I can't imagine a world without.

  12. Hi, R - thanks so much for your kind words about my writing! I'm glad you enjoy my posts and are a music lover too! I always listen to music when I work, it helps put me in that mindset of being "elsewhere" away from daily life and daily concerns. It really is one of the good things in life! Enjoy your week.

  13. Awe..... loved, loved the post. I am also a huge music girl. I do play the piano but my real passion is my guitar that I don't know how to! It stares at me every day and I've promised myself to get lessons.
    I too enjoy all kinds of music. I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel's, *concert in the park* when I was thirteen and thinking about how much their lyrics moved me. Sad songs, happy songs, get up and dance songs, country, folk, opera, classical, rock n roll.... if it speaks to me I listen.
    Thank you for the great post!!
    Btw.... I'm coming back as a rocker just so you know!!

  14. Wait - I thought you were already a rocker chick? Those shit-kicking boots of yours must be from your next life...

    Thanks for the comment, you! And don't let that guitar languish too long...

  15. If I am dating myself well so be it but I did get a chance to see Jimi Hendrix live which changed my life. As a non-musician as well music has been an integral part of my day to day.

    This is a great post.


  16. Robert, I envy you! I was old enough to appreciate the deaths of the three J's but not enough to have ever seen them perform. On a recent visit to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I practically had - no I did have - a religious experience listening on headphones to Little Wing while surrounded by Jimi memorabilia, including one of his small drawings of an eagle. Amazing! Thanks for stopping by, glad you liked this one!

  17. Finally, I feel a little better, so I can read
    your so wonderful post..
    I think, that you touched everybody's lifestyle.
    It doesn't matters what kind of music one preferes! If it's Rock, Jazz, Pop or Classical!
    The moment of discovery is important..
    I remember myself. I heard in my parents house
    Chopin Etudes for the first time and this marked
    my taste for classical music.
    But now, when time is passing by (and with a more trained musical ear) I love more and more
    the very early baroque operas.

    You, dear Gabriella, have such a gift with forming your thoughts into beautiful words.
    Thank you for that!

  18. Monika so glad to see you here and know that you are feeling better! It's funny how our tastes change over time, isn't it? But the love for music remains, regardless of the kind. You make me want to listen to some Chopin today! Thank you my dear, it means so much to me that you enjoy my words!

  19. loved this post gabriella.

    Amazing how music can strike a chord in our heart or soul in a particular time or place. invoking mood or memory. I also find that music has strong connections to time and place.

    my grandmothers family all played instruments, and I have just found a CD with a walz on it that was written and played by them in the 1890's. its such a treasure.


  20. Hi T, I had a feeling this one would touch a lot of artists out there with a love of music and/or actual musicianship in their backgrounds! I love that you found that treasure of a recording! All I have is one old cassette tape that we made of my grandmothers singing traditional Italian songs back in the 1970s, with my brother accompanying them on acoustic guitar. It's not much but it's priceless. Best to you.

  21. First of all great, wonderful images.
    And a wonderful post.
    Music is a nessecity for me, just like breathing and drawing/painting. I can't do without music. And music also has a huge impact on my art.
    There's lot of music in my life, my love is a musician and once i was a rock chick doing performances. ;-) If i feel down or tired i play loud and heavy rock music and that always gives me energy.

    As i wrote before, i can't do without music, it was my very first love.


  22. So good to hear from you, my dear! I know you have a musical background and that this post would touch you! You remind me that not only did I grow up in a household full of music, but I don't think I ever had a close friend or seriously dated anyone who wasn't either a musician or a huge music lover, or both! I cannot imagine what it's like not to have that close relationship with music...and you are SO right, rock music can change your mood in a moment from being sad and empty to suddenly being full of energy and confidence again, ready to take on the world! Thanks for stopping by, and kisses to you.