Music + Narrative: Summer as an Aural Journal

Every year I make a playlist — or in ancient times, a CD — called Summer Sounds, and its my favorite musical project that I perform every year. I consider it a performance because my friends always know when I’m busy at work in my annual ritual of finding the right the music and presenting it to the world. Summer Sounds has been an ongoing practice since my freshmen year of college, way back in 2004; it’s simultaneously an incredibly fun album for the summer while also being a deeply spiritual intention that has it’s own rhythms of practice.

I try to go into the creation process with an open mind, but there are two questions that guide the formation of any Summer Sounds: Where have I been since last summer, and what does this upcoming summer have in store for me? As part of my preparation to create the mix, I go back and listen to all the previous Summer Sounds playlists, because each album is a time capsule of who I was at that time. When I string these playlists together, I hear the story of my young adulthood, from college to graduate school, on into the formative early years of my music career.

The first volume of Summer Sounds is, in many ways, the most genuine of all my playlists, because I wasn’t trying to create something significant. I just wanted a fun CD for summer vacation. That first album is filled with all the optimism of a young man who just finished his year of college: Classic Beach Boys tunes, “Summer Nights” from Grease, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” (I may not have been out by that time, but we all knew who I really was).

I can trace my own growth in musical tastes throughout these playlists. If the first couple of albums were random collections of songs and genres, then by 2008, I can see the emergence of a distinctive musical palette. That was the year I found my inner guitar hero, because the 2008 album has a lot of classic rock, which has been a mainstay of the Summer Sounds project ever since. Music from Latin America began to make a regular appearance in 2012, at a time when I was offering courses in that very subject. I no longer offer that class, but I still draw on the rich musics of the region every year.

Nostalgia has become an important motif on my playlists as I have grown older. Last year’s playlist was filled with songs of my youth: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Everclear’s “AM Radio,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U,” and Fastball’s “The Way.” These are comfort songs to me; they keep me connected to a younger version of myself who was just beginning to encounter the world. Meanwhile, I think there was only two Top 40 hits from the last 5 years on the 2016 album.

Not every summer was a joyous one, and that’s most clearly reflected in my 2010 playlist, when I graduated with my masters from UNC-Greensboro. Those were the loneliest two years of my life, and the mood was reflected in that year’s songs: The Shirelle’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” spoke to two years of hurt and pain. “Give Me One Reason to Stay Here” gave me the voice to leave North Carolina and come back home to Memphis. Gaga’s “Telephone” reflected exactly how I felt about two years of isolation, trauma, and grad work: “Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t wanna think anymore.” And “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go gave me the hope to know that things could get better, and they did. It’s the most painful playlist to listen to; the music puts me right back to where I was in 2010. But in many ways, it’s also the most genuine of my playlists, because it unapologetically reflects who I was and how I felt at that time in my life.

Creating a Summer Sounds playlist is a two month process journey of reflecting on the year and collecting as many songs as I can, but the hardest part of the whole process is editing it all down to a 55–70 minute album. Not only do I take care to select the most poignant songs for me, but it’s equally important to place these songs in the right order. I will spend weeks arranging songs by tempo, musical styles, keys, mood, and lyrics; the order by which I tell this musical narrative is crucial to maximizing each song’s emotional impact.

So that brings me to this year’s Summer Sounds, the 14th volume in this ongoing collection. I grew so much since last summer. I moved into a new neighborhood to live by myself. I started working a new job, and my piano studio grew exponentially. On a darker note, my mother passed away suddenly in July, and that has become the defining event of the last year. The wounds of grief are still raw and fresh, so I am curious to know how that will color my selections for the playlist. Summer 2017 will be one of grand adventure, with trips to New York City and Spain, and I expect that I will draw music from those two vibrant regions. More will be revealed, so stay tuned!

Oh hell, let’s not forget the most important part: these albums are best enjoyed with the car windows down while speeding along the interstate through the hot summer days. Every song begs to be sung out loud and danced wildly to; in the words of Calle 13, “Todo se mueve:” move your damn body! The creation process for these albums — the reflection and introspection — all happens in the spring, when the world is coming back to life after its winter’s sleep. But the performance and enjoyment of each Summer Sounds happens in the most august of all seasons, with its long afternoons by the pool and late nights on the patio, adventures overseas and escapades at home.

For me, the Summer Sounds experiment is more than a hobby or a fun game to play; each playlist has taught me to appreciate the power of narrative through music. Every year, Summer Sounds invites me to reflect on my life and to offer a portion of my soul to the world; somewhere, between Beyoncé, AC/DC, Jimmy Buffett, and TLC, I meet my complicated, playful, untamed, authentic self.

I ended last year’s playlist with a choral anthem (I know, right?!), Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home,” and its closing words point me to the power of music and community that is the heart of all the music I perform, even Summer Sounds:

Rise up, follow me, come away is the call, with love in your heart as the only song. There is no such beauty as where you belong! Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.

📸: Yanko Peyankov

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