Tag Archives: sound


camel bells on the front porch, june 2011

1peal \pēl\  n.  1:  the loud ringing of bells 2: a set of tuned bells 3: a loud sound or succession of sounds.

2peal v. :  to give out peals: RESOUND

She thought of the word peel, how it meant an unfolding, a stripping away, of layers of paint, of onions, of clothes. And then she thought of the word peal, the eruption of sound, suddenly and forcefully, cascading across the air. Peel, she thought, separation. Peal, she thought, an evermore echo. The force of the “p,” the screech of the “ee” sound, the lullaby provided by the “l.” The words sounded like what they described, both of them.

Why she thought of this now was a mystery. She didn’t remember how the word had been summoned up but here it was, wanting to be considered, asking her to make connections and to consider sound. She had a memory of when she was young, nine maybe, and she had participated in a bell choir. She had wanted to play the littlest tinkliest bells, but those were taken so she was sent to the other end, to the large bronze bells, the ones that sounded like gongs, like a heart throbbing. It took all of her energy to shake them back and forth and all her control to do so without smacking herself in the face. It was then that bells shifted in her mind from a light and airy sound to something heavy, something substantial, an honor, perhaps, or a burden.

That was a long time and a world away from this small room, where she sat in bed alone, waiting for no one. Soundless, she went through her days, so she played with memory, remembering the way words resonated, like the symphony of “Carol of the Bells,” the strong line of the cello’s bow in Pachelbel’s Canon. She was memories without associations. She held them with nothing to tie them with: balloons without ribbons, kites without strings, a lion cub untethered.

So the unfolding was a sort of bliss, each new memory a new world, forgotten and now remembered. But so too was it agony, when she could not place it, when she didn’t understand why she was remembering or who she really was.

Appeal, appealing, repeal, pealing, peeling, peal, peel—like clothes, like onions—peeling, pealing, repeal, appeal—things like strawberries, like the nape of a neck, the crease of a hipbone—appellant, appellate, appease—to please, to make oneself invisible—appear—a vision, a sight for sore eyes—appearance, appearing, appetite—to hunger, hungering, for something, a hunger unfounded, insatiable, unmet.

She looked down the bed at her toes and saw a twitching.

p.s. Yesterday, at a local bookstore, Antigone’s, I purchased a string of bells to hang outside my house. Upon inspection of the tag when I went to hang them at home, I saw these were “camel bells” from India. In India, bells are not a frivolity, a surplus, an addition of pleasant sound. They are a necessity. They order life and signal warning, in many different facets. These strings of bells, like the ones I have, are attached to camels, the ships of the desert, to encourage them to move forward in their arduous treks through the hot desert. I trust they will serve as a good reminder, especially on laborious days, to keep rhythm and pace and, perhaps, to lighten up a bit.


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Billie Holiday, using her voice

on·o·mat·o·poe·ia (ä-nə-ˌmä-tə-ˈpē-ə, -ˌma-) [Late Latin, from Greek onomatopoia, from onomat-, onoma name + poiein to make]  n. 1 : the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss) 2: the use of words whose sound suggests the sense

A poet friend of mine said recently that he writes by sound. He hears the sound a poem in his head before he knows the actual words and content. He can hear the rhythm, the progression, the qualities of consonants and vowels.

It makes sense to me because his poetry has a real resonance on several levels. It is about the actual words, but it is also about their arrangement and about the ways they clash and clang up against one other. Or the way they rush together like running water, the way they cull and stand, like a still pool.

This week in my creative writing class, we have been talking about voice. Some students expressed frustration at the chapter in our book that discussed voice, because, they said, it was too abstract. It felt as if the book’s authors were speaking in generalizations: you know it when you know it, you have to experiment but you have to work to find what feels true to you. I can see how these proclamations can feel frustrating as they do not provide a road map to finding your voice. Then again, while not the most practical information, at least it is information that is true. I think of how often over the course of my life, I have been given instructions as guidance to things that really are uninstructionable. Yes, I said uninstructionable. The truth is, in art, in life, in our physical bodies, we have to find our own voice.

About a year and a half into my MFA program and into writing my first book-length manuscript, language began to break down for me. I was writing narratives and somehow these narratives were not sufficient to do what I wanted to do, to explore the territory I was navigating. One day, in the midst of a good deal of psychic anxiety over how the hell this thing was going to come together, I sat down to write about the landscape of Louisiana. I began to type descriptors—colors and geographic features and events—the words that made me think readily and instantly of the place. The words just rushed out, but they were story in the way I had been telling stories, they were words connected to, reacting to other words. In ten minutes, I wrote and finished and what came out was a prose poem about Louisiana. In the words and the space between them, I was finally able to articulate the struggle I have with this complicated place that is so incredibly powerful and beautiful and also full of tremendous sorrow. Opening myself up to the option of focusing on this lyrical relationship of words allowed me to perceive what I had already written in new, exciting ways, and this process resulted in the creation of many more lyrical pieces that securely anchor the pages in between chapters. These pieces also help to explore ideas and emotions that cannot be experienced using a straightforward narrative. Without paying attention to my intuition, these pieces would have never emerged. These poetic sections also helped me to revision the rest of my manuscript in a way that allowed me to open up room and keep writing.

I guess this is one of the keys to voice: being able to see outside the parameters of what one has done with language before. To use your voice, on some level, is to follow your intuition and instincts and allow the necessary sounds to surface.

I think this is always the greatest challenge as a writer: to not merely get the story down but to reveal the story using the right words for a given narrative or piece of information. This is why we agonize. This is also why, when we get it right, the words resonate in our bodies and in our mouths. We know we have said something true.

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1strum \ˈstrəm\  noun : an act, instance, or sound of strumming

2strum \ˈstrəm\ verb strummed  strum·ming

transitive verb 1.  a : to brush the fingers over the strings of (a musical instrument) in playing <strum a guitar>; b: to play (music) on a stringed instrument <strum a tune>           2. : to cause to sound vibrantly <winds strummed the rigging — H. A. Chippendale>

intransitive verb

1: to strum a stringed instrument 2: to sound vibrantly

strum·mer noun

(definitions this week taken from merriam-webster.com)

I took piano lessons for eight years. I started when I was six. I don’t remember if I asked for lessons or whether my parents just signed me up. In any case, the decision would have been a logical one as I adored music. From an early age, I loved to sing and did so pretty much all the time to anyone who would listen. My dad remembers me sitting fixated in front of the television as a young child, watching ballet and opera. As a toddler, I carried around my Fisher Price tape recorder with attached microphone everywhere I went.

I was always very moved by music, but as memory serves, I never really enjoyed playing or practicing the piano. I appreciated the delicacy of the movements of fingers over the keys and the sort of sweetness that emerged when a classical piece was played by someone who understood the instrument. It’s just that I always had the feeling that that someone was not me.

My father played the guitar in the evenings when I was small. If he knew more than two songs, I don’t know them. My memories are of dancing around in my Annie nightgown and accompanying him with my toy tambourine to the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog” and Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love.”

When I was in seventh grade and a guitar class was being offered at my new school, I decided to take it. I packed up my dad’s old Takamine in a soft case and toted it with me to school. The first week we learned “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (This was a logical choice for the instructor: All of us attended a Catholic school and the entire song is two chords: G and D). We also learned to pick the riff to “Can’t Touch This”: neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer (And by now, you should be able to pretty accurately assess my exact age). I scanned the room that first day, and I noticed quickly that I was the only girl there. I didn’t know hardly any women who played guitar. I had vaguely heard of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but I hadn’t heard of Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I didn’t belong, and I quit.

Dar Williams

In college, I met my friends Julie and Sarah, who both played guitar, and I became curious again. I was also exposed to a world of music I hadn’t heard before. I found a home in contemporary folk music and here there were women playing guitars all over the place: Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, Erin McKeown, Lucy Kaplansky, And yes, some of my early attempts at finger picking were to songs from Jewel’s first album.

I got a guitar for Christmas my freshman year of college and I began to play. And immediately, there was something different here than with piano. From that first strum, I felt a current in my body. It sounded like a heart beat. It sounded like a footstep. It sounded like the hitting of a boot on a plank of wood, like the hollow clang of a metal, like a voice echoing in a tower.

Woody Guthrie

Also, I was really, really bad. It took me three hours to make chord changes, and initially, I couldn’t sing when I played unless I phrased my singing in time with chord changes. But I didn’t care. There was something about the sound that kept me coming back. There was something about the sound that was satisfying, even if I wasn’t good. There was something about the sound that made me want to be better at making it.

The music I am most attracted to is music that over all else feels sincere. I love music that is sung on porches or in living rooms. I love music that has imperfections, where voices crack or one note is picked a lot louder than the rest. It gathers its beauty not from its proficiency but from its earnestness. It is beautiful because I can tell that the person making it needed to make it. This music is made to fill a void or to celebrate a milestone. This music is made because in the making, life becomes a little easier. Or suffering is shared. Or something needs to be said and this is the way to say it.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

One of the definitions of strum is: “to cause to sound vibrantly.” I guess this is what drew me to the guitar and what draws me to folk music, to the blues, to old country. There is a vibrancy in these songs that ultimately reminds me of what it means to be alive—in all its loveliness and heartbreak, in its seamlessness and messiness.

A few years ago, a very talented singer/songwriter friend of mine and I recorded some songs together. We had sung together in college and after years apart, we reconnected and we sang again. The first time we attempted to record one song, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” we did it in parts. I played the guitar. Then I sang. Then she did. But it felt mechanical. It didn’t work. We decided to do it the way we actually performed it. And when we sang, I played guitar and we harmonized, singing together with eyes closed because we didn’t need to look at each other to know when to begin or when to end. And that creation of sound is one of my favorite moments.

Elizabeth Cotton

Just a few songs that come to mind in relation to strum:

Disclaimer: Some of these don’t have “strumming” at all, the first one is acapella, actually. Many of them are finger-picked. But I mean strum as in “to sound vibrantly.”

Hazel Dickens “Little Pretty Bird” (even though there is no strumming involved in this one; it’s acapella)

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings “Time (the Revelator)”

Stephen Foster “Hard Times (Come Again No More)”

Elizabeth Cotton “Freight Train”

Woody Guthrie “Do Re Mi”

Dar Williams “If I Wrote You”

Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice”

Mark Erelli “The Only Way”

Lucinda Williams “World Without Tears”

Joni Mitchell “A Case of You”

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee “A Better Day”

Doc Watson “The Coo Coo Bird”

Patty Griffin “Sweet Lorraine”

Po’Girl “Old Mountain Line”

Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”


*It’s funny that this word is assigned this week as I’m playing a gig with an old bandmate Mark at The Neutral Ground in my hometown New Orleans.

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