Musical Meditation

The blog is late again this week: it’s been a very busy teaching week, which has helped with my need to keep my mind busy. 😊 I’ve been leading a summer writing workshop with Writopia Lab in Washington DC. Writopia is a terrific organization that works with young writers, ages 7 through high school, and I’ve been having a great time with a group of very smart and creative teens. It’s fun to see how the next generation of storytellers is shaping up!

This week, I wanted to depart a bit from the subject of the past couple of weeks, though what I’d like to share today is still connected with the larger topic of mental health. I’m putting this out partly as a teaser, and partly as a way to motivate myself to follow through on a plan I’ve had for a long time.

As both a writer and a musician, I’m always interested in the ways in which these two art forms can dovetail, feed, and support one another. For several months now, I’ve been planning an online course which I’ll run through my website. Called “Musical Meditations,” this course is meant to support writers in particular, but also artists in general, and anyone who would find some music-inspired creative work helpful to their mindset and well-being.

In today’s post, I’m offering a sample of what the course is meant to do. It’s designed as a group of four sessions which will take place over four weeks, though participants can work at their own speed.

Each session will begin with a recording of selected piano music. Each recording will include multiple pieces, but they will all be by the same composer. Participants will first be asked to listen to the music and free-write, or journal, any response they have to it, or anything it brings to mind. This is the meditative part of the exercise: freeing the mind by letting it go wherever the music leads.

After the free-writing exercise, participants will be given information about the music they just heard. Each of the four course sessions will feature a different composer, belonging to a specific period in musical history and writing in distinctive ways. Participants will learn about the composers’ lives, the stylistic choices they made in their music, and why they wrote the types of works they did.

Participants will then be given a specific writing prompt based on the music they heard. This prompt will in some way tie into the historical period the featured music belongs to, events in the life of the composer, and/or the construction or style of the music. For writers, this prompt may help create a new idea for a story, poem, or essay. For other artists, playing around with the ideas might support work in another art form. For all participants, the prompts are meant as a fun mental exercise to stimulate creativity.

Below, I’ve included a recording of a work by Claude Debussy. Debussy (1862-1918) is a French composer belonging to the Impressionist era in music history, which covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist composers loved to create washes of color in their music by using rich and often dissonant harmonies, and fully exploring the ranges and capabilities of the instruments they wrote for. Their fascination with musical color parallels the interests of Impressionist painters like Monet, who worked during the same time period. Like their colleagues in music, Impressionist painters wanted to create rich palettes in their work, fully exploring the potential of colors and how they could blend in new ways.

In the Debussy recording presented here, you can hear how the composer uses the full range of the piano, and how he creates a lush palette of sound that explores beautiful and startling dissonance. This piece, “Pagodes,” is the first movement of Debussy’s three-movement suite Estampes. The title of the whole work translates literally as “woodcuts” or “etchings,” and in each of the three movements, the composer intends to evoke a specific place, as one might create an image for a picture postcard. The first movement, “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”), evokes an Eastern flavor with the sounds of chimes and gongs.

If you’d like, I invite you to listen to “Pagodes” and, either while listening or afterward, free-write or journal in response to it, letting your mind travel wherever the music leads. I often find this is very helpful for calming and centering the mind, especially in times of stress or agitation. Then I’d invite you to consider the following prompt:

Debussy creates an image of a place he loves, through the use of particular harmonies and musical sounds. Consider a place you know well and can visit in your mind. Evoke it as vividly as you can on paper, using all details that make this place special: not only what you might see or hear there, but what you might taste, touch, or smell. Describe all of this to bring this place to life. [And for writers, the following additional prompt: does this setting suggest any sketch or lead to a story or other piece of written work?]

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be putting together the full course on my website, and will post an update or two as it’s getting ready. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed today’s sample!

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