This morning I was listening to a CD (remember CDs?) of Juan Martin’s “Painter in Sound.” It is an album with the conceit that each track was written for/inspired by real paintings, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. The very first track also features its painting on the cover of the CD case: David Hockney‘s “A Diver” (called “The Diver” on the CD). Hockney is well known for his many variations on the Los Angeles swimming pool and its swimmers. You can both see this particular painting and listen to the track in question here on YouTube.
I noted as I was listening just how much a musician’s personal experience comes into play when composing music intended to reflect a non-musical concept or image. Have a listen to the track if you like, and consider how your own experience with swimming and pools meshes with the music.
By this act of creation and reflection, the composer is saying “this is how this painting affects and inspires me.” The listener may disagree, perhaps intensely. After all, consider the range of possible “swimming pool” experiences there must be. What if you’d nearly drowned as a child in a clear blue pool under a clear blue sky? Your associations with that painting will be in stark contrast to the competitive diver, or the person who had their swim bottoms pulled off by accident or prank before a crowd of peers.
Writers deal with more literal ideas than the musician, of course. Even poets can set the word “terror” somewhere near the phrase “swimming pool” and so cement the association in a more concrete way, relatively speaking.
But a writer is making a blithe (and common) mistake if they assume that a phrase, an object, or an action all mean the same things to all people. The writer must take this reality to heart when attempting to communicate emotion and experience. And, importantly, they must accept that readers will change what the writer has written. Inevitably, the reader will hold their own lives to the mirror the writer creates–and, aside from the strictly technical or literal, all writing is in this way a mirror whether its creator likes it or not.
It is for this reason that I am firmly in the camp that disassociates who a writer is as a person with their writing (or a painter with their painting, and so on). But that is a topic for another essay!