AW May Blog Chain: Music
I’ve signed on to do this month’s blog chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is music – specifically, what does your story/character(s) sound like, although it’s been taken in many different directions by those who’ve come before me in the chain (you can see the full list at the end of this post).
I drop in and out of Absolute Write’s monthly blog chain. I like the chance to read new blogs and the prompts to write, but a lot of the time, the themes don’t really apply to me. They tend, like this one, to be fiction specific, and at the moment my primary WIP is my doctoral thesis. But this one, at least looked like a possibility, because what I normally write about is music. So music to me is not just a way of fleshing out a character or inspiring the story. Music is the character, the story, the whole point of the thing. It struck me when reading this month’s theme that what I do is sort of the opposite of what the question suggests. Rather than using music to flesh out or expand on the story, I try to write the story that the music is telling. Rather than think about what characters sound like, I think about what character the sound has.
What has interested me about the chain thus far is the number of different ways in which music intersects with our work. Some create soundtracks for the work itself – something to inspire them to work. Others create soundtracks for the story, a sort of musical version of the work. Still others identify particular songs with particular characters or events.
I tend to make a clear distinction between the music I work on and the music I work to. The music I work on is usually, although not always, classical, although I also work on film music, assorted world musics, and occasionally jazz or rock. But when I’m working with a particular piece of music, I usually just listen to that piece, or maybe that piece and other pieces that I hear as connected to it in some way. However, a lot of my work is not just writing about one piece, but about some kind of musical historical context. And a lot of those kinds of details are not specifically about sound. Rather it’s all the other stuff you experience when you see experience a piece of music, say at a concert: what was the building where it was played like? Who was in the audience? How was it advertised? How much were the tickets? What was the critical reception? What did the performers wear? etc. Asking these kinds of questions help flesh out the sound itself and give me a sense of how a given piece or performance of a piece reflects the cultural values of its time and place – it creates character and context for sound. You might ask similar kinds of questions when trying to build a scene in a novel.
When I’m asking those kinds of questions, it’s not so imperative that my ears be fixed on a particular piece. So instead of listening to the music I’m working on, I often listen to music that helps me work. I am constantly making new playlists, but I have one that I keep coming back to because it strikes the right balance of energizing, calming and not too distracting. I don’t work well in total silence. I get antsy. I need something to drown out my monkey brain and help me focus on the task at hand. Over time I’ve learned that three particular things make for good working music for me. First, the music needs to be something substantially different from what I’m working on. I’m not looking for inspiration. I’m looking for its opposite. Second, I need minimal or minimized lyrics. If the lyrics are too prominent, they distract me, particularly when I’m working in a coffee shop with headphones on. The direct ear to brain delivery system of headphones make the lyrics harder for me to tune out. Third, and possibly the most important, I need a lot of repetition. A lot of the songs on my favorite lists are based on ostinati – short repeating figures in the background. I think that’s because the repetitiveness creates a sort of neutral background that doesn’t interfere with my thinking.
Here’s my list, which I’ve tagged “Under Ether” after one of the songs on it.
1. Andrew Bird: Plasticities
2. Sloan: the life of a working girl
3. Chris Holmes: rosa (until the sunlight shows)
4. Landon Pigg: Falling In Love At a Coffee Shop
5. The National: Wasp Nest
6. PJ Harvey: When Under Ether
7. Yann Tiersen: La dispute
8. Philip Aaberg: (Diva) Sentimental Walk
9. Yann Tiersen: Avant la chute
10. Iron & Wine: Fever Dream
11. Nickel Creek: Pastures New
12. Nightnoise: Bridges
13. Alex De Grassi: Causeway
14. Leo Kottke: Snorkel
15. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 1. Fast
16. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 2. Slow
17. Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint – 3. Fast
18. Snow Patrol: Shut Your Eyes
19. Andrew Bird: Yawny At the Apocalypse
One thing I haven’t seen yet in this chain is a case where someone’s work is actually based on music. I’m kind of fascinated by other people’s novels about music, although a lot of times they don’t seem to get it quite right. The best piece of fictional writing about music I’ve ever read is Kathryn Davis’ The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. Davis tells the story of a challenging friendship between an elderly Danish composer (female) and a young single mother with a musical past. The descriptions of the composer’s music are so vivid that I feel that I know exactly what they sound like. I have to believe that Davis did too, when she wrote it. I reread this book every now and then to remind myself how effective words about music – even imaginary music – can be.
I will make no attempt at closure here. Perhaps a good ramble is the best you can hope for at the back end of the chain – there are too many thoughts inspired by all who’ve come before me. But I do have one more question in my mind, which is why are we all so compelled to create soundtracks – for our novels, for our lives, for our facebook profiles, for our blog posts? Is it because we were brought up on movies and television? Have we learned to think like that from the media we’re exposed to? Or is there something more to it, something fundamental that needs musical expression?
I’m not sure that’s a question that can be answered, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Now go and read the rest of the chain. Next up is Alpha Echo, but if you want to start at the beginning, here’s the whole chain:
Aheïla (our fearless blog chain leader)
Anarchicq (last one)
Harriet M. Welsch (that’s me)
Alpha Echo (next one)
roh (the end of the line)