I hope someday I get to be included in a study on the role of music in influencing brain functions. Here I am, trying to work on a fellowship application, and I can’t string two words together until I turn on the Bartók Violin Sonatas as recorded by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes. It is apparently the only music to which I can write. Now suddenly my brain is in all-out verbal composition mode and I can produce entire paragraphs of meaningful thought. (Never mind that I’m still not working on the application…)
Does this say more about me or about Bartók?
I discovered this phenomenon in grad school when I had hefty chunks of research/writing to do in addition to my ongoing studio practice. In spite of having numerous ideas to articulate and being, generally, a good writer, I couldn’t seem to stay focused on the activity of writing. The sitting, the typing, the basic organizing of words into sentences required an inordinate amount of effort.
When doing other kinds of activities, I’d always appreciated the drone of background music, but in this case, music made it worse. I tried silence. Also not good. So I started working my way through all of the albums in my collection; all sorts of different genres, styles, artists. I kept returning to classical music, because I figured with all of the research about Mozart and math test scores, something was bound to connect with writing. None of the usual suspects did the trick. Finally I stumbled on this nearly forgotten CD of Bartók Violin Sonatas that I’d picked up somewhere on the cheap but never really listened to.
The Sonatas alternate between dissonant intensity and atmospheric progressions, and for some reason they make it possible for me to write. Maybe they mimic the way my brain processes language? Maybe the complex structure prevents me from being distracted by the music itself and allows me to hone in on the elusive writing spirit? Who knows.
What I do know is that I wrote every single one of my grad school papers, including my thesis, to nothing but this one album. I’m listening to it now. I sometimes try to pretend that I don’t need Bartók, that surely I am capable of writing without him, but inevitably I give in.