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Unlikely Inspiration

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 12:19 AM

Useful guidance from friends.

By Peter Jacobi

Friends often tell me things without knowing they've opened an idea path. Of course, I let them know.

From Berkley Kalin, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Memphis, I regularly receive quotes authored by the famous from every field and profession. I have no idea where he gets them all, but they come along almost daily. I came to know Berkley well after his retirement. He moved from Memphis to enjoy the incredible music scene here in Bloomington. He spent a dozen or more years here, and we became dear friends. Now he has returned to Memphis, where his family lives, but we're often in touch, not just via email but also by cell. For this column, I will share with you one of his emailed quotations.

Velda Kaune, who lives in Bloomington where she studied (at Indiana University), is an avid Wagnerian, that is devotee of the music of Richard Wagner. As a singer with a dramatic soprano voice, she favors the operas of Wagner. As a scholar, she focuses her activities on the study of his operas and an analysis of how artists perform his very-difficult-to-perform music. We have developed an email friendship through which she generously shares what she's lately discovered in the process of her work. I will pass along a couple of her observations.

Both friends have refreshed me. I hope they will you.

This-Message-Is-Just-for-You Writing

Berkley's quote came from the late J. D. Salinger: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

That's a beautiful observation. It stunned me because it could -- if applied by a sensitive writer (and/or editor) -- do wonders in winning over a reader (or many). There are so many gillions of words being communicated endlessly one has to wonder how many get through. We're unable to take in anywhere near the number of words that come our way, not even to speak of those we sit down to actually read. Today's world of communication saturates us. Thus, even the relatively few words sent to you via this newsletter may get lost in the incoming flood, which seems impossible to totally turn off.

So we constantly try to help push our message through with clear writing and short writing and keep-to-the-basics writing and make-it-interesting writing and carefully structured writing and reduce-to-the-most-important-copy writing.

All to the good, of course. All necessary, of course.

But what do we do to make the reader feel he or she would like to know us, feel on a maybe-I-can-call-him (or her) basis, even though actual physical contact may not be possible?

Can we bring friendliness into our writing; genuine I-care-about-you into our writing; warmth into our writing; freshness and spontaneity and closeness and a giving nature and this-message-is-just-for-you (my individual reader) into our writing?

Salinger believed we must try, or at least he yearned for it in his stories. We won't reach everyone so deeply, but if we can reach some at that more intimate level, wouldn't that make you feel good? I'm going to try harder. Not that I actually want a hunk of people to try to call me, no! But I'd like to think Salinger's desire for a more bonding writer-reader linkage is possible and well worth working for.

A Song Is Not a Song Without Words

Velda lives in her music, studies it, sings it, analyzes it, writes brilliantly about it, talks engagingly about it. She could not do without it, which is not uncommon among enthusiasts of any human activity.

I remember, it must be more than half a century ago, attending a rehearsal of Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, this while producing an issue of the company's periodic newsletter. Into the orchestra pit came the conductor, a very aged Tullio Serafin. Actually, he didn't come to his place. He shuffled. That's all he could physically manage. At pit center, he picked up the baton. Suddenly, he was not near 90 but a young maestro of, say, 30, with energy to spare.

A while later, with the rehearsal in a break, he put down his baton and once again shuffled out of the pit, his gait again featuring all the elements of a person burdened by age. When I saw the entire performance several days later, the maestro repeated his entrance and what followed, weighted by the age of many years, then reinvigorated by his music-making. And so forth throughout the evening.

Forgive the memory, which has little to do with Velda, a mature but still vigorous woman. But to move on ... she recently wrote this paragraph, addressing another composer's masterpiece, the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler. Velda is comparing an oboe transcription of one song, performed without words, with a performance containing the words: "I keep thinking about that oboe transcription of the first Kindertotenlieder. I was immediately gripped by how the color of the instrument expressed the heart of the text, and it moved me to tears from the outset. [Baritone Thomas] Hampson brought out the meaning of the text via dynamics, rhythm, tempo, and slight variations of nuance. I had only one problem with it. The WORDS were missing!"

Velda went on to suggest what the oboist might have done to minimize the difference, but for her, to put it bluntly, a song is not a song without words. OK. A song is music, which is notes or tones that are puzzled together into melody, enriched by instrumentation or orchestration, and completed by language. We who write begin our story with letters instead of notes and out of letters puzzle words together, enriched into sentences and meanings, made possible by language. Not so different, these processes. And sometimes, when I'm listening to a concert (and certainly when I go to the opera, which is theater with music), ideas come to me on how I might better express something I've been trying to say. Music can tell me.

Also, consider Velda's words: color, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, variations of nuance, the absence of a missing element (words). Shouldn't these be considered as you labor through your own manuscript or someone else's?

It is guidance from off the side somewhere but potentially useful, wouldn't you say?

Friends like Velda and Berkley help me all the time.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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