Friday, January 7, 2011

Writing to Music

JRL and I are opposites in many, many ways. In practically every way, actually. One big difference is: I have to listen to music when I'm writing. He can't.

The main reason I listen to music is to block out ambient sounds. Like: cars rumbling past and potentially turning into our driveway. Mice in the walls. Other mice being chased by our cat, and in need of rescue. Family members saying interesting things on the phone. The heater turning on and off. Why does it do that? Wind slapping the screen door. Oh, anything.

But the other reason is just because music seems to calm my brain waves. I'm not sure there's anything to that, but you know.

I listen to music that has no words, or if it has words, is so familiar to me that I can ignore them. I like classical music a lot, Debussy, Satie, Mendelssohn, Scriabin, and Phillip Glass. One morning my clock radio alarm went off (on?) and began playing the third movement of Satie's Gnossiennes, and it infiltrated my dreams. That music ended up being the secret inner sound track to my novel. I didn't actually mention Satie in the book -- I really don't like it when writers put their inner soundtracks into their writing. That stuff is too personal.

Another time I was listening to an instrumental group called Tulsa Drone, and that inspired a half a novel. But then the book got too creepy and I abandoned it. I blame the music! (Not really. I still like them.)

Anyway, it seems like the music the writer is listening to while writing ends up in the work in all sorts of ways... but the reader never hears it or sees evidence of it. Which is kind of strange.

I'd love recommendations for good writing music.


Arna Bontemps said...

Anything by Max Richter but especially the "Waltz With Bashir" soundtrack which he did, and the composition he contributed to the "Shutter Island" soundtrack.

Dave Madden said...

I have to make playlists. This ends up being a kind of inaugural procrastination project to each book, but otherwise I can dicker for a whole half hour over what I ought to listen to that day while I write. And I, like you, Rhian, have to listen to music while I write.

So I go through my whole iTunes catalogue and put every song with an animal in the title into a playlist. Or a narrator veers off too much into dull somber territory, so I go through the library and put every goofy & wry song into a playlist, as a countering force.

To me, music during writing is like the air when you swim. You dip into it for a breath as needed and then it's gone as you focus on your path.

Michael Garberich said...

I second Max Richter, and other wordless goodies:

1. Ólafur Arnalds
2. Brian McBride
3. Jonsi and Alex -
4. Goldmund
5. Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel, which is also great for eavesdropping through headphones in public places. Why not just have no music playing? Good question. I suppose this just helps you convince yourself you're not eavesdropping, which in turn makes you an even better eavesdropper.

jrlennon said...

It's true, I can't write with music playing--maybe because I'm a musician, maybe because my head is just wired this way, but when there's music, I think about music, and can't think about the work. There is no "background music" for fact one of my biggest pet peeves is that there are almost no indoor public spaces that lack music. And since I'm picky about the stuff, it is almost never something I like.

Anyway, I like a lot of the music you guys are mentioning, just for not writing. I did get one of my novel titles from a Terry Riley piece, though, that I was obsessed with during the year I wrote the book.

zoe said...

Bon Iver.

gvNL said...

No music while writing for me. I'm surrounded by music - I've studied music professionaly, work at a music institution - but as soon as I hear a note when I'm working I grab my Ohropax.

Just as I can't write with someone talking to me, I can't with music. Mozart, Monk or Nick Drake, it's as if they're sitting next te me, patting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. Strangely enough I find ambient sounds comforting.

If I remember well research has pointed out that the baroque masters have the most postive effect on concentration. You have to love them though. And of course studying is something else than writing...

William Hammond said...

I am often accompanied by Glenn Gould playing Liszt's piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies 5 and 6. It helps choreograph the act of tapping the keys.

Sung said...

Rhian -- check out Seth Kaufman:

I often listen to him while I write. Between him and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, I'm pretty much set for life as far as writing music goes. I also can't listen to music with lyrics, even familiar songs. I even have trouble concentrating with instrumentals I haven't heard before, so I basically listen to the same 50-60 tunes, over and over again...

- Sung

Hope said...

I can't write, or read, with music on at all. In fact, eerily like JRL, I have a hard time with "background" music. I used to find myself distracted to a frazzle by classical music when I worked in a restaurant. Even though I'm not a musician, listening to music hijacks whatever part of my brain would be processing words instead.
Of course, I find working out without music very difficult.