ESSAY: The Voice of Music in Experimental Writing

Light streamed into my loft through north-facing windows, and classical music whispered in the background as I sat at my desk, staring at my laptop, waiting for illuminating prose to spill onto the screen. I was disappointed with previous attempts to write my account of events that occurred a year earlier, and with the flick of a finger, deleted one draft after another while saving only a few of the vignettes I’d written. Attempting again, albeit, with some ambivalence, I sought inspiration, yet not a single cohesive thought came forth. My mind was in a muddle.

Where do I even start? 
What is the point of my story?
How do I organize those experiences and get them onto this darn screen?

The music playing from my stereo, once in the background, migrated to the forefront of my mind. It was Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, C minor, Op.13 (Pathetique) played by virtuoso Richard Goode. The sonata’s three movements aroused my curiosity–

Why do I feel such trepidation?
Calm and satisfaction?
How can this music command me to feel such different emotions all at the same time?

I shut down my laptop, set the sonata on automatic replay, closed my eyes, and listened to the entire score, repeatedly, for hours. When I opened my eyes, I realized that my whole story was handed to me on a silver platter by the maestros themselves. The emotions and passions of my past year were right there in the music. 

I was struck by the score’s mood, tempo, and dynamics and how it aligned, inexplicably, with my experiences of walking a path with my elderly, yet high-spirited mother and my friend, Margaret, a pastry chef, for whom I’d become an advocate during her diagnosis and treatment for squamous cell carcinoma of her tongue. 

My reaction to the music was so palpable that instead of following the traditional narrative form of writing in which I had engaged, I decided to experiment with the structure of my memoir as Beethoven organized his piano sonata. I was baffled why this classical piece moved me so profoundly that I would scrap much of what I had written and follow the sonata form as a framework for my story. 

Psychologists and neuroscientists would likely find my visceral connection to music a common occurrence. Studies of brain functions, together with behavioral data (psychology), helped to explain emotional reactions to music. (Juslin et al., 2019, p. 222).

In his book, Musical Emotions Explained, Patrik N. Juslin helped me understand why I was overcome by the sonata that shepherded me through an experimental narrative over a traditional format:

“I hypothesize that the experience of tears during music listening may be conceptualized as a sign of “emotional overflow,” resulting from the combined (and perhaps conflicting) outputs from more than one mechanism. It is a sense of being “overwhelmed” by emotion; a type of mental “short circuit” and “emotional surrender,” which may tend to occur in peak experiences (Gabrielsson, 2011). (It could also occur after particularly intense events that do not involve music, such as surviving a near-fatal accident.) The hypothesis could be tested by composing musical stimuli that effectively and simultaneously trigger more than one mechanism at the same time, and that target opposing affective outcomes.” (Juslin et al., 2019, pp. 492-493).

I did survive intense events expressed in my book, COOKING FOR HER EYES, Transcription of a Sonata, A Story of Music, Food, Love, and Death. As noted in the book’s back cover:

“Susan Rakstang recalls her idyllic life as a child of Japanese American parents and her mother’s cooking lessons of delicious tastes, exquisite fragrances, and the visual art of preparing food, through her fast-paced, frenzied battle with time juggling her responsibilities as a wife, mother of two children, and working outside the home as an architect–a pioneering path not often pursued by women in the mid-1970s. When she retires, her life suddenly takes a dark turn when her mother has a stroke, and her friend Margaret, a pastry chef, receives a terrifying diagnosis of stage-four cancer of her tongue. With both women’s lives hanging perilously in the balance, she spends her days and evenings alternately tending to each of them. Learning Margaret’s cancer treatment will cause horrific pain and temporary loss of taste, Susan develops a pureed food preparation technique for her friend’s meals, focusing on the natural, visual beauty of food–and cooks for Margaret’s eyes.

Blending the detail and precision of an architect, with the color, tempo, and texture of her classical music roots, Susan beckons her readers to embrace their senses as she takes them on her journey of music, food, love, and death. Organizing her story as Beethoven structured his Sonata No. 8, C minor, Opus 13 (Pathetique), she conveys anxiety, joy, passion, sorrow, and resolution–as the maestro expressed in his sonata.”

Before I could transcribe Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, I would first perform the formidable task of analyzing it. Since I was already taking private lessons in music theory through the DePaul Community Music Division, DePaul University, I brought the idea to Dr. Nomi Epstein, composer, curator, performer, and music theory teacher.

With the score in hand, I asked Nomi if it was realistic for me to attempt such a herculean task, and would she be willing to help me work through it, to which she replied in the affirmative. Nomi brought insights into themes, episodes, line phrasing, keys, modulations, and passing tones, and we spent months going over details of the score, chord-by-chord, bar-by-bar, and phrase-by-phrase.

Using ink markers on architects’ bumwad (tracing paper) overlaid on the score, I color-coded most key modulations to refer, at-a-glance, the score’s organizational structure. See the end of this article for photos of the score.

I had been writing vignette stories of events all along, and together with the analysis and color-coded overlays, I began sequencing and writing connections to the vignettes. 

The sonata’s introduction, Grave, made it clear that sequencing would not be chronological. I included an analysis of the sonata in the Appendix–the prologue to the analysis refers to the color-code of each relevant key signature as follows: 

“The first movement begins and ends in its tonic, C minor (magenta), where Grave marks the beginning of the end of my story. I took the opportunity of the brief key modulation to E flat -III (violet), a less ominous tone, lengthened its presence, and took the reader back in time to set up my story. Beethoven modulated from key to key (shown in varying colors) expressing his main themes and its development, creating musical instability, agitation, and tension. As such, I, too, was unstable while dealing with the speeding and ever-changing status and fear for the future of two women I loved. 

While this form appears highly structured, they were, some say, a guideline for Beethoven, who exercised flexibility and artistic license to find the best- suited elements such as modulation, theme, order, phrase length, as vehicles for expressing his emotion and passion. 

I also, did not use these forms as a rigid tenet or prescription for the story, but rather on a macro level as a guideline for order, connecting and sequencing events, and expressing my own emotions. For example, the powerful, Cm (i) opening notes of the first movement, evoked the moment I entered a hospice room and realized the finality of Time and impermanence of life. Although this scene occurred later in the actual sequence of events, Beethoven’s stunning chords of the Grave introduction inspired me to begin my story as such.” 

My analysis is, indeed, a broad-brush overview of the sonata and how my story relates to it. I do not profess to be a music theorist––I’m just a humble writer wanting to express myself through music.”

Thus, I embraced the power Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, C minor, Opus 13 (Pathetique) had over me and completed its transcription to my voice. Knowing Beethoven’s influence is a combination of psychology and physiology, leaves me thinking this experiment of mine was not that of a mad writer scientist after all but rather, one of the human condition.