Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas




October 2007

"Great music is a psychical storm, agitating to fathomless depths the mystery of the past within us. Or we might say it is a prodigious incantation."
Paul Elmer More [1864-1937]


Sound or Silence?

Dear Reader,

In May, my husband and I traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts to see the Joseph Cornell retrospective. If you are not familiar with his boxes and collages, it's well worth a Google or a trip to a library or bookstore with a decent art section. Cornell, who died in 1972, lived in a small world; he never traveled far from his home in Flushing, Queens. It was his imagination and what he created from it that was boundless and inter-stellar.

The exhibit offered glimpses into his personal life, such as family photographs and letters. There was a small recreation of his studio, augmented by photographs that showed Cornell's immense and orderly collection of "stuff." He collected ephemera, such as twigs, glass, cork, sheet music, and magazines, to use in his boxes and collages. As we slowly progressed from gallery to gallery, we viewed his complex artwork under dim lighting, necessary because of its fragility.

Prior to this exhibit, I did not feel particularly connected to Cornell because I had only seen small, isolated examples of his boxes. The beauty of a retrospective is that curators borrow a sizable number of an artist's work from many phases his or her career. It is safe to say that I've become an avid admirer of Joseph Cornell's work.

Instead of the church-like silence frequently found in museums, the main gallery was infused with selections taken from Cornell's record collection. I was delighted to notice that I own much of the same music as he did.

I cannot make art without music. I cannot write with music playing. It is that simple. I do not want to embark on an exploration of which parts of my brain are engaged, but this is a major difference in my creative process. As I write this, the sound of the electric saw from across the street is making it difficult to concentrate. However, prose writing is easier for me than writing poetry, so I try to ignore it and continue. When I write poetry, I need to hear the sounds and rhythms in my head, to play with words, to hear how phrases bump or flow. No wonder there's not enough room for both.

I head into the studio and decide first what music will fill my space. It doesn't take long before I have loaded four CD's into the changer. How do I choose from my large collection? It's much like having a particular hunger. I never crave "food." It's always something specific: pasta, green peppers, ice cream, popcorn, or a tomato sprinkled with salt.

Do I want big and emotional? I reach for anything Leonard Bernstein conducted or composed. Do I want ethereal? I reach for Kathleen Battle. Or Leontyne Price. Or Enya. Do I want sarcastic and cynical? I reach for Steely Dan. Do I want grand? I reach for Verdi, Bizet or Beethoven. Do I want my heart wrenched? I reach for Mahler. Or Copland. Or Gershwin. Or Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. Do I want to sail on a surreal sea? I reach for Miles Davis. Or John Coltrane. Or The Modern Jazz Quartet. Do I want bliss? Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, or Prokofiev.

I'll end with ten frequently played CD's, with the acknowledgment that ZZ Top and Annie Lennox are reserved for long drives alone in the car. There is no particular order and if I were doing this next week, it would probably be a different list.

  • Stravinsky's "Firebird"
  • Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kiji"
  • Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps"
  • Copland's "Appalachian Spring"
  • The Modern Jazz Quartet's "No Sun in Venice"
  • Ella Fitzgerald's Songbooks: Gershwin, Cole Porter
  • Erroll Garner's "Concert by the Sea"
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The Sky Is Crying"
  • Copland's "Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra"
  • "The Joy of Bernstein"

I promised myself I would stop at ten. What music accompanies your muse? Or do you make art in silence? Can you write with the music blasting? Contact me and tell me how sound or silence underline your creative process: