The Making of “Heartbreak Symphony”


This project started out as what I thought would be a simple idea. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, a lot of us who were teenagers at the time would try to impress the people we had crushes on by making them mix tapes. For those of you who are too young to know what those are, they’re kind of like playlists that you had to make with cassettes (no I am not going to explain what those are, just Google it), and they had a limited run time.  You had to find just the right blend of songs to express what you wanted to say in the time you had to work with, and there was definitely an art to it.

I got to thinking about that old art form, and about how sometimes you would pick a song because of a certain line or phrase, and how in many ways you were crafting a poem with someone else’s words. That inspired me to do just that – to write a poem completely out of other people’s words, taken completely out of context but arranged in the order that made sense for my needs, to express my feelings. I also wanted to do it in such a way that it would make a good mix tape, because that was an essential element of the original art form as well – it couldn’t just be a random jumble of songs. Well, I suppose it could, but a poem can also just be a random jumble of words. That doesn’t make it good. The artistry is in the flow, putting them in a certain order so that they sound good and take you on an emotional journey. I felt that if I could manage to do both, to create a poem that worked while at the same time creating a mix tape that worked, I would have achieved a multimedia art form unlike anything I had done (or seen) before.

The first step was the same as any mix tape: picking the songs. I went through and gathered up a list of over 60 songs by artists ranging from the Eagles to Limp Bizkit, paying particular attention to songs that had lyrics that grabbed me. They didn’t have to be anything in particular so long as it was something unique. From there I compiled all the lyrics of the songs with only two rules in mind: first, I had to use a given line complete as written in the song, and second I couldn’t use any line that contained the actual title of the song (I felt that would be cheating). At this point I started narrowing down my list fairly quickly, as I found many of the songs on my list either weren’t as compelling as I originally thought, or else they didn’t have lines I could use. I also found the general outline of the poem already beginning to form, which may have been due to the songs I selected. Whether it is due to my own particular taste in music or perhaps just the nature of pop music itself, I found that most of the songs I was finding quality lyrics in tended toward the melancholier end of the spectrum. (Personally, I think it’s more the latter – the first person who can find any poetic value in “Call Me Maybe” wins a gold star.)

Crafting the poem itself was a bit more of a challenge. It was easy to pick out individual lines I found compelling – too easy, in fact. As the goal was to make a mix tape, I couldn’t use any given song and (preferably) any given artist more than once, and I had a time limit as well. I had to consider the run time of each song I used as part of the poem, and although I have always been fond of the 90 minute cassettes, apparently I am also fond of songs with long run times. Sometimes I wish more artists heeded the mocking advice of Billy Joel from “The Entertainer” and “cut it down to 3:05”.  But I digress. As I went through and wrote the poem, I quickly realized I was piling up a large number of songs and likely would run out of time, so I went back and started adding in the length of each track next to its complementary line in the poem. As I did I saw that I would run out of space before the end of the second stanza, so I made the decision to cut that stanza entirely, which to be honest was not particularly strong anyway.

In this way, the constraint of the time limit turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced me to keep the poem tighter than it otherwise would have been and cut weaker material that I might have left in. It also provided me with the artistic guidance to break the poem into two stanzas which equate to the two sides of the cassette. While I believe both the poem and the playlist work very well as a comprehensive whole (and both are meant to be enjoyed that way), there is also a certain completeness to each component part, whether it be the individual stanzas or Side A/Side B of the mix tape.

I hope you enjoy it. Come back tomorrow for a complete playlist so you can enjoy the mix tape for yourself, and feel free to leave any guesses in the comments below.

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