Music for a Pandemic, Part 2

Stress rules in our lives right now: financial stress, security stress — how safe are we now? — health stresses, familial stresses. Politicians do nothing to alleviate these stresses but just add to them, especially the White House: there is a special stress watching their incompetence and narcissism and abdication of responsibility when they need to be leading and governing effectively. It’s painful to hear from friends in other countries who cannot understand how the president was elected when he was so clearly unqualified and a buffoon.

I returned to my fulltime job this past week and added a layer of stress I’d forgotten. While I know I am fortunate to have my job, my gratitude really doesn’t touch the stress that goes with returning after a four-month absence. What could go wrong, went wrong, especially with technology.  I found myself seeking ways to relax or take my mind off what I had encountered in the office. By the way, I do love my job, and it was wonderful to see my co-workers and boss again, but as with anything, there are good days and bad days.

Last time, I wrote about the first couple of months of lockdown in my life and the music I listened to based on my primary emotions at the time. This time, I want to write about coming out of that black hole of emotion at the beginning of the lockdown and being able to see some hope and the beginnings of a new normal way of life. This includes the return to work, riding public transit morning and evening, wearing a face mask everywhere (not as a fashion accessory!), and seeing people I hadn’t seen in months.


If Bach is my go to composer for soothing, calming music, Beethoven is my go to for energy. Even his Andantes possess a driving force. The past few months I’ve been drawn to his extroverted and inspiring music like the Ninth Symphony and the Emperor Piano Concerto. But the one piece that continues to pop into my mind when I’ve needed a lift and a smile is his First Piano Concerto, especially the final movement. He demonstrates that he was writing jazzy classical music long before Gershwin. Listen to the whole movement but especially starting about 2:36.


laughter music

Beethoven makes me laugh often. I’ve written about music humor at this blog before. Then there’s the unintended humor that I’ve been finding lately. For example, I’m not sure that Stravinsky meant that sforzando chord toward the end of his Firebird Suite to be funny, but ever since I heard some orchestra musicians talking about watching the audience as the music approaches that chord to see who jumps in his or her seat when the orchestra plays it, I have found it to be a giggler moment. I doubt very much that Beethoven intended the opening of his Fifth Symphony to be funny, but it always makes me laugh. And then there’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, written immediately after the end of the Second World War, and expected to be triumphant music. This symphony always brings a smile to my face.

passionate music

I’ve been drawn to what I call passionate music, whether that is in a spiritual sense or in an emotional sense. For the spiritual, I go to Anton von Bruckner’s symphonies, especially the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth. For emotional passion, Peter Tchaikovsky fills the bill, whether his ballet music or his symphonies or concertos, his music is passionate to me. I also like to listen to my “happy” music composed by Antonin Dvorak because of his lilting, dancing rhythms. I feel this music in my body and I just want to move.

As we learn to live in our new normal with the coronavirus, music can help us cope. What I would find truly unbearable is a world without music.

Music for a Pandemic, Part 1

Self-isolation has reminded me of what astronauts must endure before going into space. They not only need to be “clean” of any pathogens, but they must be able to endure the psychological strain of being alone for long periods of time. Introverts find this less of a strain than extroverts, to be sure, and not since the first manned flights has the U.S. sent astronauts alone — usually there’s a crew of at least three and with the shuttle there were more. But there is a psychological effect of traveling at high speeds through a vacuum surrounded by blackness and far stars and galaxies. And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of psychological effect from self-isolation due to the pandemic.

Since March, one way of dealing with it: I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Primarily classical music, but some classic rock and movie music. I can almost chart my emotions based on the music I’ve been listening to. Have you had the same experience? Or maybe you don’t realize it.  And sometimes the absence of music says something, too. Think about it: we are a music culture. I’ve thought back to what music specifically helped me.


Initially, I sought music that would calm my nerves and fears. I listened to news reports about the virus, of course, but not all the time. What drew me was all music, a variety, a reassurance that humans had created such diversity of sound and continued to create it. So, I listened a lot to my local public radio station, KSJN, or streamed it on my computer while I worked online. It soothed my nerves to hear the on-air hosts talking about music, to listen to the variety of music they chose, and since I listen to this station a lot, all the voices were familiar.

From there, I moved to the music of J. S. Bach. I find his music soothing because of its clarity, its gorgeous melodic lines, its harmonic precision. I find Bach sublime in the best of times, and when I’m nervous and afraid, its clarity calms me.


Bach also comforts, and I am drawn to solo instrumental music when I’m looking for soothing and comforting music.  I played the piano, so that is usually where I start. I listened to a lot of solo piano music by Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. And then I moved on to Mozart, specifically his piano concertos.


After the first six weeks, and especially after witnessing the federal government’s incompetence and chaos in its response to the pandemic, anger became my dominant emotion. I was especially angry at the lack of respect, consideration, and compassion for other human beings, such a shocking thing to see in America. I began listening to Anton von Bruckner’s symphonic music for its humanity, its spirituality, and its massiveness of sound that I could immerse myself in. A favorite is the Finale of his Symphony No. 8.


I still feel frustrated at times, and a couple months ago, I often felt frustrated and angry. I found myself listening to a lot of choral music during this time, as well as the music of Johannes Brahms. I have always sensed a longing in Brahms’ music, of what specifically I guess only Brahms knew, or perhaps he didn’t and that’s the reason it came out in his music. At any rate, I longed for change, for solutions, for effective treatments for the coronavirus, for normal life again. I felt frustration at how slow everything was moving. Oddly, in addition to Brahms, I found Verdi’s Requiem helpful in expressing the anger and frustration I felt, especially in the Dies Irae.


Underneath all of these emotions was a terror so profound and immense, that I could not approach it straight on, but had to come at it through the music I listened to. Who wants to think about how terrified they are? I fall into the high risk group that usually has a rough time of it if infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and I was terrified of ending up on a ventilator, surviving but not being myself every again, or dying. For some people, perhaps the theme music to the movie Jaws captures that terror — indeed, not knowing what danger lurks beneath the surface is especially terrifying. For me, though, the composer who most effectively captures terror in his music is Dmitri Shostakovich.

next time

In Part 2, I’ll share the music I’ve been listening to for the last month or so and the emotional reasons for my choices.

Stay well, everyone.

First Page, First Chapter

Facing the blank page. Every writer confronts that blank page. This moment can be a joy, or a daunting blank — not only the page but a blank mind as well. I really don’t think there exist any surefire fixes for this moment, ways to work into and out of it. The moment exists and I’m about to do it again.

Although not all the prep work is done — I still have character work and a little more work on America 2050 to do — my imagination has been pushing at me, nagging at me to just start writing, for pete’s sake. When it’s like this, I think of my imagination as a six-year-old me breathlessly telling stories to our dog, Patty, or to anyone who’d listen. My Grandma Yager occupied a royal place on my list of recipients for my stories. She told me her stories as well. At that age, I told stories about Bunny Rabbit, my imaginary friend, or about my adventures with the neighborhood kids. Now, I’m telling stories about a 36-year-old symphony orchestra conductor from America who struggles with PTSD and a guilty conscience, his choices and his secrets.

I already know what happens in chapter 1 of Perceval’s Game, the fourth novel in the Perceval series. Evan conducts concerts in Toronto, Canada and people from his past show up to surprise him. Is he happy or dismayed to see them? Does he trust them? How will they affect his plans? Because he does have plans that will take him on a highly dangerous journey through his past. Those of you who’ve read Perceval’s Secret know the pain and danger that lurk in his past.

So, what’s the first sentence, the very first sentence of the first chapter? I’ve been thinking about it all week. The first page needs to pull in the reader with an intense grip. Homer knew this when he told (or sang) The Iliad. The first verse of this epic poem not only sets the stage for the story, but summarizes the story in a way that pulls in the reader with the question: How did this all happen?

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/ and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,/ hurled in their multitudes to the House of Hades strong souls/ of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting/ of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished/ since that time when first there stood in division of conflict/ Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

— Richard Lattimore’s translation in the 1951 University of Chicago Press edition.

When I’m thinking about first sentences and first pages, I return often to Homer for inspiration and humility. He knew his audience and he played to them. My audience today is my six-year-old self who wants a fun, suspenseful, and thrilling story. She can be a tough audience. What first sentence will pique her interest? What first sentence will spark questions in the reader’s mind that will encourage him or her to read the next sentence and the next?

MC Escher: Paradox of being a writer

It’s time for me to slip out to play with my imagination. And you know the thing about first sentences and first pages? The first draft is the perfect place to play around with them. I will most likely revise them many times before I’m satisfied.

Whoever says writing is easy doesn’t really write.


Review: FITZPATRICK by Richard Carr

Self-isolation has turned me into a burrower into my personal library for books to read. I bought Fitzpatrick by Richard Carr in 2018, along with his chapbook Our Blue Earth. I read the chapbook right away and put the poetry collection away for another day. Well, another day arrived last week! I’m glad I let some time pass so that I could read Richard’s poetry again with an uncluttered mind. And this collection proved to be an interesting diversion away from the pandemic.

Fitzpatrick is an artist. He paints. Carr approaches him from 4 different angles: the bartender in his favorite bar, his best drinking buddy, his wife, and his work. It was like going from standing far away to standing nose-to-nose with the man. And while the blurbs on the back cover describe this collection’s aim as “the search being the mystery and nature of art,” I read these poems as being biographical, a search for the artist, and how is an artist defined. In that regard, the bartender is the impersonal public who recognizes the human being but doesn’t really know the artist; the drinking buddy is closer, a guy who shares Fitzpatrick’s sense of the world up to a point; his wife is closer still, but even she does not really know that part of him that imagines and sees his paintings in his mind before he puts them on canvas; and then there’s the work itself, a series of poems describing paintings by an “I.” I wondered about that “I,” as if it were really Fitzpatrick speaking about the work he never talks about with anyone else.

I actually thought the best description of Fitzpatrick came in the 7th poem of the “His Wife” section: He was a pyramid, and in some tiny, deep chamber/a pharaoh folded himself for sleep. The wife recognizes his protective and defensive exterior, its silence, its stone hardness, but also that deep down inside himself he is the king of his life, with all the problems, frustrations, and excesses that means. What is not said explicitly is that pyramids contain lots of corridors and rooms, and could be an analogy for the mind, and the pharaohs inside are entombed.

Carr’s choice of words to paint images is one of his strengths, and its in fine form in this collection. For example, he describes the drinking buddy as “a smudge trying to catch a cab.” That drinking buddy in the next poem describes Fitzpatrick as “a dark snowbank splashed by trucks.” In the previous stanza, Carr writes “He tensed when someone opened the door/and let in a snake of wind.” In poem No. 12 of the drinking buddy section, Carr writes the drinking buddy saying, “His wife staged the opera of his public life.” And with every poem in the drinking buddy section, I felt I was learning just as much about the drinking buddy as Fitzpatrick. This was true for the other two sections about people as well.

Richard Carr

These are unsentimental poems in this collection, Carr “groping in the darkness of his own creation” for not a revelation about the mystery of art, but for what it means to be an artist as seen by people in the artist’s life. The work becomes a reflection of how the artist — or Carr — sees his art, and perhaps sees himself through his art. In the poem “Self-portrait,” he says “I am a harlequin.” A clown, an entertainer, a fool? I know that feeling. In the final poem, “Evening Lights of a Great City,” he states, “I can’t paint what I mean.” This is the frustration of all artists — taking the meaning in the mind/imagination and putting it out in the world so that it is seen and understood, but once it enters the world, it’s not the same. Composers are astonished the first time they hear their music performed because it’s never really like what they’ve heard in their imaginations, and the system of notating music cannot capture completely the sound and meaning.

I thought this was a lovely collection and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. I especially liked the change of direction that this collection has taken compared with previous collections of Carr’s poetry that I’ve read. Being a writer, I could relate to these poems, the striving to reveal, the frustration, and sometimes the success. I think this collection was an unqualified success, and I’d recommend it to readers who love poetry.


Yes, indeed. The first draft of Perceval in Love is done! I had not imagined at the beginning of the year that I would finish it this year, much less in June. I’m beyond pleased. It needs work, of course, but I’m well on my way to achieving my goal of getting the first drafts of novels 2-5 of the Perceval series on paper before working on revisions. Except for Perceval’s Shadow. The first revision of that one is done.

What’s next?

Yesterday, I worked nearly all day compiling notes for the revision work on Perceval in Love and I didn’t finish. I did some organizing also — the research, for example. Tidying up. For the next week, I plan to continue working on cleaning up my notes, writing character notes, and completing the book’s outline for future reference.

After that?

On to work on the first draft of the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game. I’ve already been doing some work on characters, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what will occur in the first 3 or 4 chapters. I’ll probably sketch out an outline of those chapters and see how far I get. I remember when I wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow, I sketched ahead 2 or 3 chapters from where I was so I always knew where I was going. I know what Evan Quinn needs to accomplish in the fourth book. The story will really be in how he does it and if he manages to get out of America alive.

Silver Lining

So that’s the silver lining for me of having to self-isolate because of COVID-19. I’ve been able to write and write and write. It has kept me sane and taken me outside of myself and the present world.


All good things must come to an end. I expect that I will be returning to my fulltime job at some point in the coming weeks. We have a preparedness and re-opening plan, and I’m going through the training so I’ll be ready. That’s fine. I’ll just return to working on the novels on weekends.

And I get my hair cut this coming Saturday!