Consider the Celesta

When thinking about writing as analogous to musical expression, rich, nuanced, multi-tonal instruments like the piano and the narrative voice of the guitar come to mind. Each of us has a litany of memories connected to those sounds, and just like potent writing can call us to righteous action or turn us into emotional, bumbling dolts, each of us can tap into reservoir of powerful feeling associated perhaps with the the piano or guitar.

However, let me take this opportunity to appeal to the piano’s weirder, higher, smaller (but just as expressive) cousin: the celesta. The tinkering, ethereal noise created by its keys striking internal steel plates (as opposed to piano’s suppler and more resonant strings) is one most probably immediately associate with Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The composer was among the first few to use the instrument. Céleste means “heavenly” in French.

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While the rich, operatic scale of the piano with its full seven octaves and three pedals for added expressivity calls to mind the masterful writers of the Western cannon, brooding exquisitely and pondering existential questions, scooping up Pulitzer Prizes and thrilling English majors world-wide, my own writing process is clearly on much less of a grand and portentous (as well as dignified) scale.

The celesta has just four octaves, and written music for it sounds a full octave higher when it is played. This smaller range and tinnier sound seems more metaphorically apt for discussing my own voice as a writer. However, far from being relegated exclusively to the realm of the precious and spritely, the celesta makes odd appearances to create the most disparate of moods:

Through Buddy Holly, its optimism and sunniness reach the pop sublime:

It can then switch back to eerily tranquil, foreboding and world-weary in the hands of the Velvet Underground:

It’s even played by Iggy Pop himself on Raw Power’s “Penetration,” which is about as far as you can get from another classic celesta sound: the opening bars to “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” from Mr. Rogers.

The celesta can also be moody, sullen, and introspective (another area where my own writing process is particularly similar), as it is on Gustav Holst’s “Neptune” from his Planet Series:

It can even become expansive and goosebump-inducing-ly operatic in the hands of Ennio Morricone:

Perhaps this is what I’d like to think is most parallel between my own writing and the celesta (what is the point of making a comparison about yourself if not for an ultimately flattering reflection): it has singularity of voice. In a world so besotted with pianos, all vying for bravado, importance, and grandeur, the celesta offers humor and wit along with its variety, which is really the best I can aim for as a writer myself.

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