Listening Like a Singer
by Wendy Richmond
Normally I turn on the radio in the morning. But this summer I wanted to keep the early hours separate from the outside world. So instead, I sang. (Fortunately, I was by myself.)
I repeated the same few songs every day. My favorite was Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” about the coming of winter. I pretended I was performing, and concentrated on mimicking the melancholy way that she bends the note on choice words. After a while, I remembered that there was another version by Tom Rush, and I downloaded it. He sings that note straight. For me, the bent note (or lack of it) affects the whole mood of the song. I don’t think I would have noticed this tiny but defining detail if I had not been singing the song so diligently.
In other words, my awareness deepened when I shifted my perspective—from being passive to listening as though I were the singer.
I own a heavily dog-eared book by Francine Prose titled Reading Like a Writer. Its premise is that one of the best ways to educate oneself as a writer is to read very closely. (A sample of the table of contents says a lot about her methodology: Chapter Two: Words; Chapter Three: Sentences; Chapter Four: Paragraphs.) Prose wants readers to apply something specific from what they are reading—like a bold first line from a novel or a taut description from a short story—to help them in their own writing. She cites a time when she was struggling to compose a party scene, and says that James Joyce's The Dead taught her “how to orchestrate the voices of the party guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forward...”
Her book is useful to me as a writer. But after my singing debut this summer, I realized that this type of close reading of any medium can teach a great deal about developing one’s own work, no matter what the medium is. I’m not (nor will I ever be) a singer, but by listening as though I were actually a performer of Joni Mitchell’s song, I was hyper-aware of how a detail can shape a mood. My concentration on a single note became an analogy that serves my work in other areas. For example, I’m currently involved in a video project. The other day, I was editing a series of short clips—each about a minute long—and I was not happy with the feeling they conveyed.
I recalled Joni’s bended note, and it occurred to me that she had gently forced the listener to linger in that moment. I decided to hold for an extra two seconds at the end of each clip. Those 2 seconds made the other 58 work.
A few weeks ago, I found an old DVD of the 2002 film The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name. The movie follows the stories of Virginia Woolf and two women of later generations who were influenced by her novel Mrs. Dalloway. I love DVDs that have extras. In this one, I focused on the interview with the director, Stephen Daldry. He said that his biggest challenge was to make sure that the actors “were all part of the same production.” This was particularly tough because the film constantly cuts between the three women’s stories. Describing one of his solutions, Daldry said, “A lot of the emotion in [Meryl Streep's] scene is expressed through breaking eggs, this very rhythmic action of cracking and separating eggs...in the back of my head I sort of knew that later down the line I’d probably be using eggs in [a] Virginia Woolf [scene] and keep the idea of food in some way...in the different periods.”
After seeing the interview, I played the movie again, this time watching like a director. I paid attention to the food scenes that Daldry had referred to, and looked for the similarities in how the characters handled the ingredients, holding and releasing tension. I was attentive to this because of a related challenge coming up this winter. I’ll be working with students from diverse disciplines who will collaborate with me to develop an exhibition. I need to make sure that my students (“actors”) are all part of the same exhibition (“production”). I had been attached to the idea of imposing a rigid structure, and Daldry’s use of a subtle device—preparing a meal—allowed me to consider finding a background metaphor instead. I’m not a film director. But pretending that I was one, just for an evening, helped me see a way into (or out of) the sticky places in my own work.
There’s a freedom and playfulness that comes with dipping into a discipline outside your own. Especially when you take it seriously. CA
© 2011 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*.