Book Notes – Mary Cappello "Life Breaks In"
Posted on 22 October 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mary Cappello’s essay collection Life Breaks In is a smart and compelling examination of the concept of mood that spans both the personal and universal.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“An illuminating celebration of enveloping moments of being.”
In the early 20th century, Thomas Edison devised a marketing ploy to sell his records with what he called the “Mood Change Chart,” hoping to convince consumers that particular pieces of music could have foolproof effects on their moods. One hundred years later, Spotify offers a category called “genres and moods”—tunes that claim to boost a mood, pick us up, or calm us down. Matching mood to this song or that is neither as easy as these compilations pretend, nor as desirable. If there is one subject under the sun that defies our ordering systems even as it tempts us to apply lists to it again and again and again, it is mood. Mood is essentially listless. Which is why I felt compelled to write a book with mood as companion and muse. Any playlist worth its mood-salt might have to be thought of as a wave that we ride rather than a list that we tick off or apply as a yardstick to take mood’s measure.
When I was working on Life Breaks In, I fantasized that the book would come with a CD. It would be a quirky treasure of a book, one part cracker jack and one part mystery prize. It would be a book like those I loved that had various moving parts, e.g. Joseph Cornell’s Shadowplay Eterniday which “includes an interactive DVD-ROM”—remember those?—”that transforms a user into Alice in Wonderland”; or Steve Roden’s book with inlaid end-page CDs, I Listen to the Wind that Obliterates my Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs 1880-1955; or Brandon LaBelle and Christof Migone’s Writing Aloud: the Sonics of Language. My subject—”mood”—was so multiform and vast, I began to feel it couldn’t possibly be met by writing, alone. Maybe the book could arrive in a box—like the magnificent (and therefore short-lived) “magazine of the arts,” ASPEN (1965-1971) whose subscribers would receive printed matter, a film, and a record. (I had learned about Aspen from a 90 year old friend—the late Georgiana Peacher—who explained to me how her receipt of the issue that contained a recording by Scriabin had changed her life.)
Life Breaks In does include a playlist of music and sounds that figure in my meditations—from physicist’s attempts to simulate the sound at the beginning of time to songs that defined the mood of an era (for me, “Both Sides Now”), or the mood of a domicile (in my family’s home, Vic Damone singing “On the Street Where You Live”—a song that Mad Men brought back in living color—or Enrico Caruso singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” the recording’s scratches as time-borne as his voice). I’m as interested in the versions of these songs that stir me at a core as I am in the shifting contours of their delightfully failed covers (try Leonard Nimoy’s “Both Sides Now,” or “On the Street Where You Live” sung by Placido Domingo, who, however sincerely he ululates, mis-pronounces the crucial line, “on the street where you leave.”)
But I don’t plan to reproduce that playlist here.
With mood as my lure, I only came to understand what I had made after I’d dotted the last “i” and affixed a closing period. What my book really needs to come with is a crank—no, not a type of moody personality, but a wind up wand: Life Breaks In is a Victrola upon which you can place any record of your choice in order to hear it anew: for how it figures in a lexicon of mood as architecture and air; as envelope and sphere; as niche, sound, skin and reverberation; as wave, voice and hue; as temperature and tempo; as making and creating.
If mood is a playlist, it’s the soundtrack of our lives (some people seem to have a vaster repertoire than others). Our moods are as private or as public as our ringtones: for each and every call, I suffuse the world with our song: (a schmaltzy) Fred Astaire singing “The Way You Look Tonight”; when she calls me, I hear the theme song to The Dick Van Dyke Show; when I call her, she hears the graceful racket of a pin-ball machine. Then mood reduces to a formula: you’re the song in my heart; I’m the song in your head: we are each other’s moods.
Or, mood is the sound of one hand clapping. Mood’s the timbre and length of my cat’s meowing (she’s a central player in my book). Mood happens in silence, and is precursor to silence. Most immanent between-time, neither here nor there. Mood finds me when I least expect it, and often enough, but not only, in music, though I admit quite recently to being greeted by the perfect language for mood’s airy staying power in a song: it was Marlene Dietrich singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” the line, and its husk: “I’ve grown accustomed to a trace of something in the air.”
*Nina Simone, “Mood Indigo” from Little Girl Blue (remastered 2013)
“That feeling goes stealing down to my shoes.” And back up, I’d add, out the top of my head, un-doing me. Nobody performs “Mood Indigo” the way that Nina Simone does. For me, it sets the bar high: can writing ever hope to do this? The long instrumental opening matched by the length of the “yoooooouuuuuu.” It’s all after-notes and pause. I can’t say where it’s going to take me or how it will arrive, but it opens to so many simultaneous tonalities, from Bach to blues and back again that I can’t stay blue for long.
*Sergei Prokofiev, “Dance of the Knights,” Op. 64, Act 1: No 13, from Romeo and Juliet
To each person, the book she needs to read to get into a mood, the music he needs to listen to—today, Prokofiev and Henry James, tomorrow, not much different except for replacing Prokofiev with Rachmaninoff. The Russian composers of this era always reach me where it counts. Dissonance undercuts sentiment. What’s the musical equivalent of poetic enjambment? I feel like it’s happening here.
*Steve Howe, “Mood for a Day,” from Fragile, Yes
“Mood for a Day” almost came to feel like one of several bases for my book. One of my brothers, who suffered from depression, taught himself to play it and would fill our row-house rooms with it in that era in which men could shake out their long hair—each man a slender stalk in his sequined cape or poncho, his long and delicate fingers lost inside belled sleeves. It’s the sort of song that wouldn’t mind if you happened to hear it coming through a window—in fact, it may have been intended to be listened to this way: like overhearing someone caught up in the private celebration of a beautiful day who has decided that the best response to such a day is to practice the guitar.
*Caroline Shaw, “Partita for 8 Singers: No. 2, Sarabande,” Roomful of Teeth
Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Singers: No. 2 Sarabande” was what I listened to often enough to get in the mood to write mood. I am perpetually moved by the gorgeous audacity of her work, and of the uncommon journey she took in her arrival at composer. When I share her work with students of writing, they find themselves wanting to invent new words. One student once offered that she felt this piece happened in the space between that moment when, as infants, sounds come out of us, and that moment when we actively create sounds. I am hard-pressed to find a word for what Shaw’s music creates except to say that it brings me to a place of jubilant weepiness.
While conceiving of this playlist, I remembered an album from my early childhood that was one of those foundations of a mood repertoire, inaugurators of a formative “sonorous envelope,” that I write about in the book, even though, alas, I didn’t write about this particular record, and am only remembering it now. It’s an album called Miss Francis’ “Ding Dong School,” and, happily, (though not currently available on Spotify), someone for whom it also must have been important has posted both sides of the album to YouTube. On the very rare occasion that my mother’s mother would babysit me as a child, she would put on this record, and I would dance to the songs for her. I have a vivid memory of that, but hadn’t remembered the actual music until now: in fact, all that I recalled about it—and with a strong attachment—was the sound of a school bell being swung and the color of red Mary Janes. Being able to access the actual songs once more, I now conclude that it is perhaps the wackiest curation of an ideology of mood for wee “boys and girls” on the planet. First comes school, then comes the Marines, with “The Halls of Montezuma.” Children are instructed to march, then asked: “Did you have a good march? Maybe now you are sleepy,” whence marching gives way to dream (a lullaby). The music is pitched to a particular act—skipping, clapping—but ultimately finds its way back again to a march that “Mr. Mozart wrote a long time ago.” Now I remember that the “Turkish March” was my favorite and that my dancing ranged from mock-ballet to a three year old’s version of a high court dance, to whispering into a doll’s ear, standing on tippy toe and rolling around the floor while my grandmother roared with laughter.
I’ve always wanted to emulate the campy sensuousness of girl-woman woman-girl voice—and a bit of the tomboy too—of a song sung by Judy Garland in which the playfulness of childhood lilt perpetually switches places with the husky sadness of the grown person, but that’s impossible. Her mood’s her own, as singular as a fingerprint, and it can’t be reproduced. Garland’s voice and repertoire were important to my book’s composition, but the writing I did about them hit the cutting room floor. “Stormy Weather,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”; “Zing Go the Strings of my Heart”; “A Foggy Day”—Judy Garland sings mood’s weather like no one else, but for this playlist I’ll just include “Zing,” especially in its film context where Garland sings it when she is just 16 years old (in 1938) for Listen, Darling. The comic relief of the mesmerized audience can’t possibly undercut the mood of whatever’s going on between “Pinkie Wingate” and her mother—that exchange of looks!—played by Mary Astor.
*Jimi Hendrix, “Manic Depression”
“Turn-offs” and “turn-ons.” Mood rings and psychedelics. “I know what I want but I just don’t know how to go about gittin’ it.” No, I am not “struggling with bipolar depression” as a Spotify ad just asked while I was searching for this song. Such ads might be the whole reason for my book—the too easy equation of “mood” with the nondescript, meaningless, “depression,” and the missed opportunity to get me some Hendrix-esque “feeling sweet feeling” in the info-cluttter of the digital age.
*Jerry Portnoy, “Mood Room Boogie” from Down in the Mood Room
While working on my book, and as I prepare to perform from it, I’ve been interested in the collaborative creation of what I call “mood rooms.” On one hand, each person’s archaeology of meaningful spaces that has set the tones of a lifetime (in other words, your “mood rooms”). At the same time, I’m eager to create spaces—non-insulating capsules?—with musicians and philosophers, filmmakers and architects: “mood rooms” as places to gather and invent in a newly benumbed or even moodless age. When my friend Russell Potter gifted a mood playlist to me a while back, I was thrilled to discover Jerry Portnoy’s “mood room” boogie, and the catchy, langorous space his harmonica conjures.
*Carmen Consoli, “A finestra”
This song by Sicilian Carmen Consoli is the sort of music I snort. If I am listening to it while driving, I’m likely to go 20 mph over the speed limit and experience a kind of loony confidence. Consoli, and the music of another Sicilian group that I love, Lautari, were gifted me by a Sicilian friend when I was weathering the storms of a treatment for breast cancer nearly a decade ago. Edi Giunta knew what to give me at that time—flowers, in addition to being funereal, can fill the room with nauseating scents if you’re on chemo, and reading had come to a standstill for me. Lots and lots of Sicilian music got me through, as well as a very particular album, Alfred Brendel plays Schubert, the complete Impromptus and selections from Moments Musicaux. (I should probably mention that my father’s side of the family came from Sicily, and my friend, Edi, helped me to access Sicily’s burnished light and scents and complex histories—not only a legacy of a land of grief.) In this song, the singer is looking through a window taking in the intensity of human life (complete with the wonderful comma of an Anglicized “lemon soda”).
*Paul Brody, “Far from Moldova Suite: 1. Persian Hora,” from Far from Sadawi Moldova
When I was living in Berlin last Fall and bringing Life Breaks In to completion at the American Academy there, I had the good fortune of getting to know jazz trumpeter, Paul Brody. I want to bring some of Paul’s recent sound installation work into my public readings from the book—in particular his “Talking Melodies/Singing Stories”—that premiered at a mini-opera house (a mood room?) tucked inside the Kammerspiele Theater’s courtyard in Munich. Paul captures the mood of a person’s voice like no other musician or artist I know. He has created a genre all its own in which he simulcasts, in this case, singers talking about singing, and his musical translations of the rhythms and timbers of their voices. The piece I’ve included on the playlist is not part of this project—it’s not available on Spotify—but opens a window onto some of Paul’s other metamorphic and translational art. This piece was inspired by his time with Alan Bern’s innovative band, The Other Europeans—a group that explores the crosshatch of klezmer and Roma music.
*Tibetan Gong and Singing Bowls
While the power of the contemporary “gong bath” can’t really be experienced in a recording, I’ve included this to give a hint at the phenomenon of modern audioceuticals, the nature of which continue to be poorly understood but that I do a lot of thinking about in my book. It’s probably not a good idea to listen to this while driving.
*Group Autogenics II, from This Way Out, The Books
As soon as you have had a thought, laugh at it. This meta- or mock relaxation track from The Books is simply hilarious, and, in the end, might prove more of a tonic to me than all the gong baths in the world. It also makes me realize how rarely music is a truly humorous affair.
*ASMR, “Cozy Crinkles”
When I was giving a reading from my then book-in-progress and running a workshop at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University last year, a medical student made me aware of groups that have sprung up that call themselves whispering communities who don’t exactly gather but sit alone before their computers to watch or listen to videos in which a young woman crinkles the pages of a book across a very long period of time or taps her fingers on a tabletop while whispering banalities into the screen with the intention of creating an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response a.k.a. an “unnamed feeling”) in her audience—a deeply relaxing tingling sensation that also presumes to elevate one’s mood. In some ways, I feel like such videos (and now soundtracks) reflect a newly minted form of emptiness. Are they another symptom of a collective need for mood rooms? I’m not sure, but maybe I shouldn’t knock them: one audience member told me that my writing produced an ASMR-sensation in her and that if an audio book were available, she’d listen non-stop.
*Mozart’s Adagio in C Major on glass harmonica
There seems to have been a lot of recent attention given to a song known to drive people literally to suicide—”Gloomy Sunday”, which I suppose has something to do with mood, but we might be more likely to be driven mad by any and all music performed on the instrument designed by Benjamin Franklin—the “glass armonica.” I love that this instrument was known both to cure and to cause melancholia. In Ben Miller’s blog on the subject, he quotes Friedrich Rochlitz, writing in 1798:”There may be various reasons for the scarcity of harmonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.” Though the sounds of the instrument would have been received differently in candle-lit parlors ‘neath velvet curtains and tableaux, I’d venture to guess it’s as likely to set our collective teeth on edge today. I recommend not listening to this closing track; beginning again at the top of the list; or, better yet, inserting your own mood almanack playlist here.
Mary Cappello and Life Breaks In links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)