For the last eleven years I’ve been living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Millions of motorbikes weave past each other and my apartment every day. For the most part, I love it. But all that traffic noise and I crave silence. Couple that with being a pre-K teacher where I need to help kids learn how to manage their emotions while keeping my patience? It’s rewarding, but after work I crave alone time, which extends to watching things. I rarely want anyone else’s feelings in my living room unless I know and love them in real life (or want to).
My windows are not soundproof and there is a tower block under construction next door, so I usually need something when I write. I like listening to non-instrumental pieces because I don’t want other people’s words to block out my own. If I don’t have to share the TV, I look for a really trashy creature feature (who cares about those characters?) and mute it, then listen to something relaxing. Quieted horror and chill music are often just the right mix for my story brain. I have a fondness for Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid set to the Deep Focus playlist on Spotify. Now, in the rainy season, it’s all the more perfect.
Lately I’ve been starting my day to Bach’s six cello suites, as played by Pau Casals. There is something in particular about Casals’ interpretation of the Prelude that really draws me in, that reminds me of both waking up with these wide, yawning notes; and of writing, with his rubato style, his ability to make one note swell while depleting others. One of my band directors always said: with rubato, you give back what you take, and it’s a lesson that I think speaks very specifically to writing poetry, with the way poets cleave a line in order to create additional meanings, and more literally with how poets tinker with rhythm, speeding up and slowing down their lines, using velocity and lull to also create meaning. So, when I write, either for my work or myself, lately I will listen to Bach. (Like, right now, for example.) I’ve been listening to Chopin’s Complete Nocturnes as played by Brigitte Engerer too, though I always start my day with Bach.
When I edit, I’ve been listening lately to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I think I am a very easily influenced person, so the hope here is that if I listen to something perfect, I may be able to edit something in a way that improves it. YouTube’s algorithm, as a result of Bach+Davis, began aggressively recommending Nina Simone to me, and as soon as I listened to Sinnerman I fell in love. Turns out Simone uses Bach in her music, and somehow Youtube figured this out for me. This makes the question How have you not heard of Nina Simone suddenly much more existential, because now, instead of an incredulous friend berating me, I’m berating myself. Or the internet is. Or both? Hrm.
I’ve been listening to “Permanating,” a track from Steven Wilson’s forthcoming album To the Bone. There’s a driving piano part the anchors the song (and as a piano player myself, I’m a sucker for a good part). Wilson is a master songwriter, and this is by far his “happiest” song. I played it for my son (who is 7), and he started singing along, especially when Wilson leaps into his falsetto. All told, we listened to that song a dozen times that day.
I don’t listen to music while I write, and when I’m not writing, I’ve got Stephen King in audiobook form to keep me company in the garden or the kitchen or the laundry room. So I get my music fix on satellite radio during trips to the grocery store. 60s on 6, the station’s called, and, except for the interruptions of the deejay, it’s good stuff. Hey, that’s my decade, man.
A few weeks ago, Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys were banging out “Different Drum,” and they zapped me from 2017 to 1967 to 1987 in a few notes. I don’t remember jack about 1967—I was in a womb—but the late eighties introduced me to my college pal and partner in all things drunk, Ani Gasti. He was this gorgeous mix of Black Irish and Basque, gay as all get-out, and in love with Linda Ronstadt.
Ani died six years ago this weekend.
What’s funny is that I’ve been humming “Different Drum” around the house for the past two weeks, filling in the words when I know them, and my husband got a little worried. “You thinking of leaving me?” he asked. I knew it was a joke, but I didn’t tell him that I really was thinking of another man.