List of things I don’t understand

by James Greer

 

Abbaye de Royaumont, Asnières-sur-Oise. Formerly a 13th century monastery. I stayed here once for six weeks. It was almost perfectly quiet in my little room. Almost.

1. People who can write with music playing, whether loud or soft or near or far, in whatever style or form.

When I listen to music, I do so with every part of my brain, involuntarily. Whatever kind of music is playing, I find myself listening to the production, the playing, the structure, the meaning (both intended and interpreted) the melody, the context, the emotional force or lack thereof, the physicality of lack thereof, the complexity or lack thereof, etc. If it’s some form of rock, and if the production is not too artifice-laden, I’ll try to figure out: what kind of guitar/amp the guitarist is using; whether the bass player has opted for round-wound or flat-wound strings; what vintage synth or modern copy of a vintage synth is being used; what effects pedals or outboard gear the band has managed to borrow or steal; whether the saxophone is really a saxophone or, as is the case on Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” for instance, an ARP synthesizer mimicking a sax; whether the strings are really strings, and if so have they been multi-tracked or instead arranged for a certain number of players, and if so how many and what kind; whether the music adheres to or deviates from Western norms w/r/t tonality and harmony, and so on.

If it’s jazz or hip-hop or reggae or folk or soul or classical or any of the many forms of what once was called “world music,” or musique concrète, or Japanese post-rock noise, or Martin Denny exotica, or so on and on and on, different sets of criteria need to be parsed.

In a restaurant or other public space, where music is piped over the tannoy but at a low level, because I’ve lost a certain amount of high-end in my hearing over the years, except at the very highest end of the audible range, where my hearing is weirdly sensitive (I’m told this is common with musicians who played too loud over a long time), I’m if anything even more attuned to the snatches of organized sound that drift in and out of the normal chatter and clatter of dining. This sensitivity makes more difficult going to restaurants, bars, into buildings with elevators, getting in taxis, or riding in cars with people who listen to the radio while driving. Really just leaving the house presents a range of problems in this single respect, leaving aside the host of other issues, ranging from mild annoyances (driving) to panic inducing terrors (grocery shopping).

Therefore when it comes to writing, music is obviously a no-go. But not just music. My allergy to distraction also applies to television (whether bellowing or mutely flickering), radio talk shows, podcasts, people talking, dogs barking, children playing, angry birds, the internet, cars passing by on the street outside, telephones, the physical presence of another person in the same house where I’m working, the occasional need to eat, the even more occasional need to sleep. All of these things are immensely off-putting. I have only one real requirement in order to write productively: absolute silence for long stretches of time. Days if possible. Several hours at a minimum. As a rule, I write every available silent hour of every available silent day. Excuse me, my neighbor’s kids are screaming in Russian and I have to go yell at them in Russian to shut up. If you ever need to do this, the Russian for “Shut up!” is “Заткнись!

Okay. They stopped screaming. At least for the moment. But now my spell-check has automatically gone into Russian spell-check mode. Which is annoying, to say the least. We’ll have to continue this later. До свидания, мальчики и девочки.