Tag Archives: Music

Playlist For a Novel

Flagstaff Mars HillI’m writing a novel this summer, or at least until the semester starts. Without divulging too much, it’s a crime novel, which is a return to my literary roots. I grew up reading detective fiction by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, and others. The novel is (unsurprisingly) set in Flagstaff, Arizona, and mixes fictional and historic criminal cases.

Like most writers, I listen to music when I write. It blocks out distractions and helps put me into whatever mood I need to be in to write, which for me changes from story to story. I try to create a certain atmosphere for myself when I write, something that suits the tone, plot, characters, and setting I’m writing about. For most short stories and essays, I listen to one or two tracks on repeat, usually folk music or classical. A novel, though, is different. I need numerous moods for the story’s numerous characters. So I created a playlist catered to the overlapping atmospheres I want to write in.

The songs in this playlist work together eclectically. Some songs suit a specific character (“The Boxer” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”) while others suit the plot (“No Man Knows My Destiny” and “Runaway”). For a crime novel, I want mostly minor keys and acoustic sounds, with strategically surreal lyrics (crimey music, in other words). More than anything, I want to feel immersed into the fictional world I’m working in, a sense of a world that is closed in, identifiable, and aesthetically comprehensive.

My novel playlist is as follows:

“19th Nervous Breakdown” by The Rolling Stones

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” by Father John Misty

La Llorona” by Sofia Rei

“When I’m Small” by Phantogram

“Sorcerer” by Junction

“The Battle of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin

“Tam Lin” by Fairport Convention

Bye Bye Macadam” by Rone

“The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel

“Runaway” by Nice as F*#k

“Seeds” by Moses Sumney

“No Many Knows My Destiny” by Ryan Biter

“El Mayoral” by Sofia Rei

“Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family

How It Went Down” by Dark Dark Dark

“Man On the Moon” by Moses Sumney

You can find most of the music I’m listening to in this playlist. What music do you listen to while writing? Let me know in the comments. I’m always open to new tunes.



Broken Strings

Today is World Poetry Day, and by tradition on this blog (after having done it once), I’ll celebrate by posting an original poem. But today isn’t just about writing poetry; it’s about reading it. Currently, I’m enjoying Brandon Som’s The Tribute Horse. Let me know in the comments what poetry you’re reading, and I hope you enjoy my own contribution. If not, I have others.


Violins are such distraught instruments,
attention-hungry, stage-front and fraught with stage fright
as they demand burning strings with match-striking speed,
snapping bow hairs. When violinists listen
they can hear the glue dry on the tuning pegs,
can hear the instrument creak under the pressure
of a perfect performance, and still audiences almost never see
the violin at home. The smallest things do the worst damage;
a change in weather alone can pop a string. In silence
they release the pressure; tuning pegs unwind
letting out the strings, freeing them from the chipped bridge.
Violinists anthropomorphized these tools, naming them with anatomy,
the neck and body, not for the romance of it
but to transplant their body’s torment onto an instrument,
to make it suffer with them.
How frail the off-stage violin can be,
letting small things gnaw at it from the inside out,
allowing snowflake-sized details to warp its wood, melt its glue.
But these things are easy to fix. I can tune a violin
but what of the violinist? What of the audience? The streets?
Can we fine tune the weather to make the planet ripe again?
It doesn’t take a petition to tune an instrument
or social media campaigns to rosin a bow.
I can fix a broken string, but there my skills end
in the wake of so many other broken things,
cities, hearts, correspondences, futures. I can mend an instrument
held together and torn apart again by chance,
but for all the brokenness I can only marvel
at musicians with stage presence and their perfect instruments
that never need tweaking, never gather yellow layers of rosin dust,
never slide out of tune with the changing seasons
the way mine always seems to these days.

Copyright Keene Short, 2016.


Dona Nobis Pacem

Northern Arizona University I don’t know where to begin. I know where I want to end, but I don’t know where to begin. I’ll start, then, with what I wanted to blog about today.

This week, Nobel Laureates for 2015 were announced, culminating in today’s announcement that the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia, continuing a trend in awarding the Peace Prize to multiple individuals at a time. I wanted to write about the need for collaborative peace efforts, about the beauty of seeing peace as a cooperative effort, something produced only through group effort, something whose responsibility we cannot place on one individual. I wanted to write about the Arab Uprisings or the history of the Peace Prize. This morning, while the good news was announced, all I could see was tragedy. My home town of Flagstaff, and my Alma Mater Northern Arizona University, became the victim of yet another campus shooting. My heart broke. Today I wanted to celebrate peace, but the day has been dominated by violence.

The week has been dominated by violence. Earlier this week, NAU held its annual Coming Out Monologues, at which a speaker was forcibly removed by the police, making it difficult to trust the police even further. Today, we are forced to trust them because of a different kind of violence. Both instances are not equally tragic, but are worth noting together because of the psychological friction created by their close proximity, and because they do, in a way, go hand-in-hand. State-sanctioned violence and suppression, systematic violence as a tool of censorship, was at play during the Monologues. The shooting today, on the other hand, was part of larger systemic violence.

Hours ago, another shooting in Texas Southern University has occurred. Last week, there was a shooting in Oregon. There have been too many to count. Too many to keep track of. I will admit that I’m surprised one happened at NAU, because of how easy it is for an academic to look at the intersectional issues and rhetorical problems to distance myself from tragedy. It’s the only way a historian can survive emotionally, sometimes. But today I’m broken. Today, I’m in very real pain.

Regarding gun violence: this was not an isolated incident. None of the endless school shootings that have come to define my generation, ever since Columbine, are isolated. They are part of systemic issues in our country related to guns, healthcare, toxic masculinity, and other factors. From here on out, we need to change the conversation entirely. From here on out, those who deny that these shootings are connected to guns are no longer invited to the conversation. At this point, it’s sheer stupidity to believe that lax gun laws will solve the problem, and while such a position has never been valid, we are doing ourselves more harm by allowing a space for such voices to insist upon validation. From here on out, the conversation cannot be about whether guns are part of the problem when they so obviously are. Additionally, many gun-related deaths are connected to gun safety, and if the NRA devoted as much time to educating the public about gun safety as they did to buying politicians, they would actually become a useful institution.

Regarding peace: I am heartbroken. My community at NAU is in greater pain and shock than I can know. I want to be there. I want to be back at NAU this instant to hold my friends and tell them how much I love them, because when I woke up this morning, I seriously questioned whether or not I would see them again, because that’s the climate this country is in these days. Going to a college campus is now a bodily risk. Today should be about peace. Today should be about mediating conflict in a revolutionary space, in a space where the individual can become wrapped up in a positive movement, can become something greater than an individual. Today should be about dismantling oppression through peaceful activism, but instead, today is about grief.

The day is hardly over, though. We can still make this day about peace, even in the wake of violence.

Today, I sought comfort in a piece of music, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” In truth, it’s traditionally a Christmas song, Latin for “give us peace.” I want to take my violin and play this on every street corner in Lincoln. I want to fill the world with this simple, peaceful music. My reaction to violence will always be to produce more art, all the more vigorously if violence increases. I will write poems and play music to drown out the insufferable fire of apathy to collective suffering.

Dona Nobis Pacem

I think the Nobel Prize Committee has the right idea. Peace is a collaborative effort. Peace is a collective effort. Peace is an orchestral effort. It requires a symphony’s unity, and I am only one musician. I don’t want to play music alone anymore.

With my sincerest, fiercest, loudest love for the families and friends of the victims, and the NAU community, its faculty and students, and for every community hurt by gun violence, I repeat,

Dona Nobis Pacem

A Novel That Sounds Like Bach

Typewriter musicStarting a new writing project can sometimes feel like latching onto an umbrella and jumping off a cliff, relying only on improvisation and plain luck to keep me from hitting the ground. The key difference is that, unlike jumping off a cliff, writing is a lot scarier.

The other day, I latched onto a good idea for a novel (lawyers, blogs, Texas). It’s since pulled me over the edge, and there’s no turning back. Fortunately, I have plenty to write about. I pull my inspiration from many sources, the authors I read, the people I talk with. One notion fueling this new novel is that I want it to read like the sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach.

Of course prose and music are two different forms of art, but I’ve enjoyed listening to Bach for over ten years. I enjoy the deliberateness in his music. Nothing is superfluous, allowing the chord progressions to take center stage unhindered by a fixation with virtuosity, and I say this as a violinist who has personally dealt with the pretentiousness of virtuoso musicians and composers.

Instead, Bach patiently jogs along, sometimes as straight 8th notes for measure after measure. The emotions he conveys vary from movement to movement, but they always carry the same deliberate awareness, the same steady pace, putting focus on the chords rather than the structure. Similarly, I want to write prose that invites the reader to go on a run with it on an Autumn morning, that invites the reader to turn corners in an unfamiliar neighborhood but to keep running no matter what they encounter together. Ultimately, I hope to write something the reader can get along with easily, more a friend than a confusing professor. I admit that I am sometimes guilty of lecturing my readers in past stories.

I intend to listen to Bach’s sonatas and partitas while my fingers unravel this novel, but specifically I will listen to Chris Thile performing them on the mandolin. Bach wrote them for the violin, but I enjoy Thile’s rendition more. The timbre sounds more autumnal, more like raindrops or footsteps. And unless I get back to work writing, I may never see this idea to the end.


There Are Heroes and There’s Pete Seeger

This week, Pete Seeger passed away at the age of 94. If you are not familiar with him or his work, he was a folk singer who popularized songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.” He also composed controversial songs such as “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a veiled criticism of the Vietnam War. He was a musician, activist, for a while a communist, and as far as I’m concerned he was a hero. He did not have powers beyond his voice; he could not fly or turn invisible, and he did not hide his identity. Instead, he openly challenged what he viewed as wrong. He was a public figure, not private martyr, as so many heroes are portrayed in our TV and movies today.

Unlike many of our fictional heroes, he was not a cyborg, a CIA-trained assassin, or a mutant from a lab accident. He did not use his fame or wealth to fly around cities beating people up. Instead, he relied on his banjo and his voice to make the world a better place. People like Pete make me wish that our media would create more realistic heroes, activists who use music, art, humor, and speech to save the world, rather than fists, guns, bombs, and money. Such depictions, I think, expose a collective fantasy in which a stranger solves our problems with simple violence. Pete, along with heroes like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rigoberta Menchú, saw peaceful activism as the only solution. In stark contrast, the people we often describe as villains are murderers and dictators, those who resort to brutality and violence to bend the world to their will.

I wish we could see more fictional heroes portrayed accurately. I would like to see people use books as weapons. I would like to see heroes replace guns with speeches and super strength with musical talent. Pete Seeger was a hero, and he challenged the world’s villains with nothing more than a few songs and a little determination. If we can learn anything from him, it’s that truly heroic actions are for the commoner, for you and me and everybody else with a little talent and a lot of ambition. We do not need to have been born on Krypton to save the world when traveling with a banjo on our knee will suffice.

So rest in peace, Pete Seeger. You left us with a brighter world than the one you knew.