Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guest Post: Steve Mitchell


  [Let this music play until further instructions.] 

  In the Fall of 2017, in anticipation of the publication of my novel, Cloud Diary, I began approaching musicians about responding to short scenes from the novel in any manner they chose. By early 2018, 19 musicians had responded with 25 original pieces. 

Writing, music, art: they don’t travel in a straight line. The roots of their narrative tunnel and curl, vanish and re-appear, spreading outward, never quite resting. It’s impossible to say exactly what art does, and while the arts speak to our connectedness, they also accentuate the vast gulfs between us: the breadth of interpretation, of response, and the uniqueness of that response.

Sometimes, in my process of writing, it happens that a piece of music takes on a value. It’s not an inspiration exactly, but it stakes out an emotional territory that’s not obvious or causal. An innocent bystander might never see the connection, but the music helps to form an interior landscape I return to throughout the writing.

Cloud Diary (C&R Press, 2018) is the story of Doug and Sophie, their intense relationship in their twenties, then eight years later when they meet again. Even before I’d begun the writing, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea became an anchor for the early part of Doug and Sophie’s life together.

Raw, loose, and loud, Neutral Milk Hotel has a dangerous, wailing nakedness, the kind which might pivot in an instant into something necessitating an intervention. I wanted that feeling around Doug and Sophie: a messy vulnerability, a life with dirt in the corners, a life of rummaging in couch cushions for change to do laundry, of hoping your more established friends invite you to dinner because it’s two days before payday.

 Yet, in contrast, I needed very quiet, still places within the book and a different kind of music could come into play then.

 The story of Doug and Sophie is one of intimacy, and powerlessness in the face of tests upon that intimacy. It’s intensely personal, in that it’s focused almost solely upon them over eight years of their lives.

In the middle section of Cloud Diary, the tone changes, becoming quieter, a bit more melancholy, as Sophie and Doug meet again after their separation. Their meeting is tentative at first‑‑‑there’s a lot of history to address or avoid---then tender, then more demanding than either might have imagined. In the writing, Neutral Milk Hotel was replaced by Sigur Ros; very specific Sigur Ros tracks from a 2004 ep, BA BA TI KI DI DO. That’s what you’ve been listening to.

In Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Preserving Machine, Doc Labyrinth invents a machine that converts great music into living creatures. He’s concerned that Beethoven or Bach might not survive a coming apocalypse and believes that through this conversion they might be set free in the wild, fend for themselves, then be scooped up in the future and converted again into beautiful music.

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Things don’t go as planned. A year or two after releasing the various creatures into the nearby forest, Labyrinth finds every animal has changed in order to survive and flourish, and that to place the Bach bugs back into the Preserving Machine does not deliver Bach at all, but a whole new music.

As contributions to the Cloud Diary Music Project began to appear in my inbox, I was reminded of Dick’s story. All types of music were represented here, from barroom songs and bluegrass to electronica and avant-garde classical.

Each person who submitted knew very little about the book as a whole. They’d simply received a short scene and a three-sentence synopsis. (One likened it to peering through a hole in a construction fence. He could only see a couple of beams and girders, imagining the rest.) Each was creating something whole from a mere glimpse, in the same way a simple exchange overheard between strangers can become, for me, the basis of a short story.

The music you're listening to now was written and performed (with Steve Sollod) by Kim Church. Kim is a writer herself. It’s a response to a fictional scene written, in part, as a response to the music of Sigur Ros. In the scene, Doug and Sophie struggle with their future over a late night and a morning, working to rekindle old bonds, or perhaps establish new ones. There’s a darkness hanging over this scene. And a stillness.

When we write, we are translating feelings, images, conversations; we’re collating them, bringing them together, and then threading a needle of words to create something. It’s not a record, not a historical document; we are translating experience into another language.

This is what we do when we read. We gather the words and form our own images, feelings, history, even music, around them. They become our own. Every translation is different. Every read text is unique.

This is true even of our own work. Now, when I remember Sophie turning to Doug in the middle of that night and asking, quietly, “Can you just hold me. For a moment…”, I hear both Sigur Ros and Kim Church. They are distinct views of the same scene.

Because, once our creatures scuttle or dart from the nest they become their own beings and they, like Doc Labyrinth’s musical creations, will transform as they explore and chart the world for themselves.

With luck, they’ll learn to survive on their own. We may or may not recognize them when they do. 


Kendra Harding’s Lover Leap was written in response to a different scene within Part Two of the book. Music for this piece: Lucy Dacus, Historian / Big Thief, Capacity Steve Mitchell is the author of Cloud Diary and co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC       

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