Music and Civitella

Part five of my blog series, recalling the great luxury of my experience at Civitella Ranieri where I wrote two major sections ofIf Sons, Then Heirs.


At Civitella, I wrote to music for the first time: RachmaninoffLouis Armstrong, spirituals, Miles DavisClifford BrownMonkBrahms,Mahler. Not just on for background, but necessary. Mahler’s Third Symphony was its own tutorial. My dear friend Dan Dietrich introduced me to it that spring, and it bothered me all year. I brought a wonderful recording with the conductor’s 30-minute discussion. Slowly I learned what the piece was telling me, about confidence in the story, in nature, in my own nature, and I began to receive wonderful confirmations: a bag of chicken feet in the staff fridge the day that I decided to write a passage with chicken feet in it; the tobacco farms nearby, music that sang and played to me as I wrote it into the novel.

The best one was this: at one point, I saw in my mind a wealthy lyncher looking at a poor man, also in the lynching party. They were waiting in what would be an ambush. The wealthy man, who had heard Mahler’s Third and thought it a failure, found a phrase coming to him from the section Mahler called “What the animals tell us”: Who will amuse us now that cuckoo is dead?

Then the next morning I heard a Common cuckoo! Very rare. In the wooded area along my morning walk. Sounded so like the clocks, Cuck-ooo, cuck-ooo, cuck-ooo, three times and then with a variation, as if there were a polished brown flute in its little bird throat. Gorgeous, clear, different from the other shimmering, fuzzy cloud of bird chatter, from cheep-cheep sparrow everywhere to delicate, trilling wrens. This was amplified, focused, a gift.


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