ON WRITING FOR THE EAR

Originally appeared in Brevity (2009)

Some years ago, back when Clinton still presided, I found myself in a Parisian lingerie boutique with my then-girlfriend. And I tried, as all men must, to appear harmless.

I was in my mid-twenties then, living in Montmartre near the crypt where the Jesuits took their first vows of chastity. I was going to write fiction, speak French, learn to be a better man—all fantasies. But I tell you that lingerie was real. Though not especially comfortable for Then Girlfriend to wear. So instead of the Aubade Fleurs de Pommier bra-panty-garter ensemble, she bought pajamas, and the relationship never recovered.

When Brevity agreed to publish my essay about that experience, "Future Ex Buys Pajamas," I asked if they might also like to post the audio version, and to my delight they eventually did. I wanted Future Ex to be experienced as audio; that's where the essay belonged. It's a confession.

And I also knew while writing it that when we speak of memoir in such a way, when we brand it "confessional," we're effectively shelving it among lesser art forms. But I was nonetheless drawn to the form. It worked for St. Augustine—and really, who would hesitate to lend their ear to a penitent? Part of what makes confessions seductive (and uncomfortable) is their intimacy. To try to bottle that, I wrote the essay orally, speaking the words as I typed. No sentence was set before I could say it in a way that felt whispered in the dark.

This meant, as a practical matter, that I had to write shorter sentences, fewer clauses, less decoration. And I was mindful of using a spoken idiom. A more difficult question, though, was how to create a soundscape, a radiophonic voice and texture that furthered that intimacy.

Here's where I started. The first paragraph of Future Ex, spoken slowly, into a pretty good studio microphone, an ElectroVoice RE20:

Nothing special here. I'm no actor, and certainly no vocal performer. I tell myself this is a good thing. Radio personalities, with their practiced vocal modulations and cadences, often seem to skirt the edge of condescension. No danger of that with my flat vocal.

But how to create a sound that feels close? One way to get there, I thought, was to route the vocal through a telephone speaker. The tinny texture of telephones is, in a way, the aural equivalent of 8mm film, intimate, flawed, private, lo-fi. Here's that same audio played back through a handset:

Nothing dramatic, but still—a decidedly lower-resolution timbre. A voice transmitted by copper wire. It's a simple manipulation, maybe even something of a gimmick. But out of this simple distortion a persona, albeit a slightly creepy one, does begin to emerge.

I also wanted to get some music going. Even if music sometimes feels like cheating. I remember Ira Glass mentioning once, several years ago in an interview, that he wanted to stop using music in This American Life. He feared music was a crutch that concealed a story's rough seams. But when I tuned in last week, he was still playing that same Trainspotting song. And he should. Because it works.

Music can reach us in places that words cannot. And music can reach us at higher levels of intensity because sound, unlike language, is a physical force exerted upon us, literally pressing into our flesh. English words set in print, no matter how well written, can never be enjoyed by someone outside the language. Sound, on the other hand, doesn't care what language you speak.

Which is why you must like—unless you're dead inside—the song "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. Intellectually you may hate ABBA, and your argument for doing so may be airtight. But that melody, like it or not, has a way of bypassing our coolness filters, our various hipster-defense mechanisms, flooding the cortex with aural cracksmoke. The term "guilty pleasure" was invented to account for this disparity between music we want to like (Weezer) and music we actually do like (the theme from Rocky).

My next step was to beat the bushes in search of a tune. I started by auditioning dozens of songs, and then hundreds, voicing the text aloud while doing so. It's fairly easy to find music that sounds decent. But finding music that's perfect is difficult. Finding music you can afford is even more of trick. Here's that same vocal paired with a track by Aphex Twin:

I like this—or thought I did, until I submitted the project to a contest and the judges yawned. I know at least one reason why. In trying to create an essay that felt intimate or overheard, I'm pretty sure I was seduced by music that sounded great, but didn't advance the essay's central idea. Aphex Twin, while beautifully produced and performed, is, in effect, too musical, too lush, and bends my confession toward Hollywood.

So I turned to music of another sort, a composition by the great composer and accordionist, Pauline Oliveros. Among her specialties is the drone. Here's a clip of Oliveros and her collaborator, Stuart Dempster, from Deep Listening, a stunning track entitled "Ione":

Pauline Oliveros makes recordings in hyper-resonant locales—caves, cathedrals, underground cisterns. And she uses all kinds of crazy instrumentation like trashcan lids, lunch boxes, whatever. One peculiar quality to her music is, after a few minutes, you can almost cease to hear it. Her compositions fall away until what you hear, or think you hear, is an amplified version of your own consciousness. "Ione" is less a musical performance—to my ear, at least—than an articulation of what it feels like to be alive. Which makes me think my short essay, twined with Oliveros, was moving closer to completion.

At this point I thought I was done. I thought I could just stitch together the audio and have a sandwich. But after about two weeks of sitting with the result, I began to hate it. I don't know why, exactly. I will say the text began to feel, buried in that Oliveros drone, like a lie.

This happens sometimes. A certain sound (or a certain image if you're working in film) will expose your text as a lie. Sometimes this is because the text itself is a lie—because, as a writer, you're lying. But sometimes it's because the media is bending your text into something it was never intended to be. In any case, I'd worked this text over pretty hard. I believed in it. And so I kept searching. Eventually I turned toward an experimental German group called Cluster, and here—at long last—is the result. Is it perfect? Certainly not. But I do think it's better, and better is good enough for today.

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