- Jeffrey Thomas
It’s our pop culture, our technological environment. We’re living in a movie, and our lives need a soundtrack.
When not talking on our cell phones, we walk down the street with music pumped into our ears, so that our every step has a rhythm, ala John Travolta in the opening of ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ The first thing we do when we get home from work is turn on the TV, or the radio, or put a CD on. We play soothing soundscapes of trickling brooks, falling rain, pounding surfs to fall blissfully asleep to. When working in the office, we listen to the Muzak. When working at factory machines, we run our favorite songs through our heads. And the imp of the perverse can even play a song we absolutely despise over and over in our heads, for a day or longer.
How did our ancestors get through their lives before the advent of this technology, that can record the sounds we make – captured in a moment in time – and play them back to us? Well, I’m sure they thumped the side of a fallen tree like bongos, hummed to themselves while they flayed their mammoths. We have to announce ourselves to the universe. We have to hear ourselves constantly. It’s just part of being the creative, narcissistic, noisy entities that we are.
So it’s only natural that if we’re writers, we want to write to a soundtrack. As I say, it’s all about being a generation nursed at the twin nipples of movies and TV. I’m sure there are those writers who best summon the muse in silence, just as there is the occasional movie that dares go without a musical soundtrack. But I suspect most writers are like me, and prefer working with some music in the background. What that music is, though…well, the possibilities are wide open. It all depends on various factors. Your individual taste in music, naturally. (And that in itself depends on your age, your region to some extent, your personality, your upbringing, and so on.) Then there is the kind of story you’re writing. Sure, a movie soundtrack can make some unexpected choices. You can hear ‘Singing in the Rain’ while Alex and his droogs wreak havoc in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ or watch Mr. White sever an ear to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ in ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ but I suspect that when perusing his/her CD collection, a writer is going to select music that complements the work at hand most appropriately.
Let’s talk about me. Just for an example. Just for shits and giggles. Just because this is my day to blog and just because I like talking about me. Anyway, what do I listen to when employing my craft? What gets me in the mood, when I’m ready to get down to it? Well, my love life is none of your business – let’s stick to the topic of writing here, if you please. But yes, yes, we like to accompany THAT to music, too. (And I bet you listen to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries,’ you sick freak.)
Where was I before you so rudely interrupted me? Oh yes, what do I listen to when writing. Well, it doesn’t HAVE to match up precisely – in tone and mood, in ambience and atmosphere, in texture and flavor – with what’s on my computer screen. For instance, as I write this essay I’m listening to Fiona Apple’s brilliant new CD, ‘Extraordinary Machine,’ and that’s simply because I bought it yesterday and because it’s extraordinary. But often I do choose a certain CD because I want the art of that performer to urge my own art to greater heights. I guess it’s almost a collaboration of sorts.
I don’t write kickass Bubba vs. the Undead kind of stories, so I don’t listen to kickass raucous music like AC/DC while I write. Or ever. Not that I don’t like loud, fast, energetic. Heavy metal’s just not my cup of Budweiser, dude. Pass me the Absinthe. Not being a snob; hey, there’s a book and a radio station for everybody here. Like I say, I do love charged music, but a lot of times I listen to that sort of thing outside of my writing. (My favorite performer, and no one else comes close for me, is Elvis Costello, and I never listen to him while I’m writing because I don’t want to do anything else but savor every moment of his stuff while I listen to it. I’d be too intimidated by his writing to do any writing of my own!) I work best with something a little less obtrusive. It can have vocals. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ melancholy and lovely ‘The Boatman’s Call’ works nicely for a wide range of writing experiences, for me. Poe’s ‘Haunted’ complements her brother Mark Danielewski’s amazing novel ‘House of Leaves,’ but it works just fine for me, too.
But also, I very much like writing to music without vocals. It’s more like I’m writing the words to the song, then. It’s more like a real movie soundtrack to the action unfolding on the silver screen of my monitor. And I often listen to actual movie soundtracks while I’m writing. (Though some of these, like the ones for ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Lost in Translation,’ ‘Kill Bill,’ etc. largely consist of vocals.) If I want wild and crazy, I’ll listen to the Dust Brothers’ ‘Fight Club’ score. When writing a recent novel of mine involving samurai-like demons and a tragic love story, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ worked wonders (and that soundtrack has moved me to tears). When I wanted to get REALLY sad, I listen to one of the saddest-sounding scores I’ve encountered, the one for ‘The Wings of the Dove.’ Not lately, but in the past I wrote to ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘The Godfather.’ (Must have been my DeNiro phase.) Bernard Herrmann’s supremely lush score for Brian De Palma’s ‘Obsession.’ Philippe Sarde’s gorgeous score for Polanski’s ‘Tess.’ But these days I especially like writing to the clanging and clanking industrial weirdness, faraway organ music, whining mutant baby, and song of the radiator woman on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead.’ Hell, it even has an extended dance track!
Then, there are the CDs that aren’t movie soundtracks but which have that kind of vibe, and create the perfect aural environment for all kinds of my work. My favorite of these was recommended to me by Michael Cisco (and if it helped him concoct his brilliant novels ‘The Divinity Student’ and ‘The Tyrant’, then it HAS to be good). This is ‘Metavoid’ by Lustmord. It is like sound recorded in another, dark and creepy dimension. It may be hard for you to find it. Good. I don’t want you to dip into my bag of magic! It’s mine, I tells ya! Another top favorite of this type is still a soundtrack, but for a video game rather than a movie. It’s the music for the eerie game ‘Silent Hill 3,’ and the CD came with the game as a bonus disk. The composer is Akira Yamaoka. There are some vocals here, the male singer doing a major Bowie imitation, but it’s all quite awesome. I loved it so much that I had another writer burn me a copy of the soundtrack for the next game in the series, ‘Silent Hill 4 – the Room,’ and it’s nearly as good.
I’m sure a lot of writers listen to classical, or jazz. (I’ll sometimes put on radio stations playing those, myself.) Rap. Country (gasp). Like I said, it’s all good – if not for me, then for you. Whatever matches your movie. Whatever makes your muse nod its head…play bongos on its thighs…and tap its feet. Whatever tune best inspires your fingers in their dance across those keys.