Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Music For Writers #5: Tim Major

This week's Music For Writers is courtesy of Tim Major, an author of some of my favourite stories of the last few years (I first read his work when I reviewed his debut novella Carus & Mitch). And - hurrah! - it looks like he has a great taste in music too, based on his selections below.

Take it away, Tim:

I always listen to music when I’m working and when I’m writing. Nowadays I work from home as a freelance editor; without a commute, the time I spend at my desk is my main opportunity to listen to music. Incidentally, when I was younger I daydreamed about a jukebox that would allow you to play any song from any point in history, and today Spotify comes close to fulfilling that dream. I listen to around 300 new albums each year and replay many of those, and old favourites, a great deal more.

The music I choose when I’m writing needs to function as a background – dreaminess is a must. This also means the only music with lyrics I can write to are those that are so familiar that they don’t intrude, or performed by singers I can’t understand – either because of a quirk of delivery, audio effects, or because they’re singing in another language. Finland’s Fonal Records is a great source of ethereal albums, my favourite being Lau Nau’s HEM. Någonstans, which Last.fm tells me is the album I’ve listened to most in the last five years, which I’ll confess comes as something of a surprise until I start playing the album again: it taps into something in my brain. Immediately, I feel serene. Other vocal artists that fit the bill include Grouper, Julia Holter and Thom Yorke (at least, his first solo album, The Eraser). This year’s debut album from Holy Motors, Slow Sundown, contains a raft of songs that would have all fit as Roadhouse end-credits songs for Twin Peaks: The Return and which settle at the back of the brain rather than prodding at the front. But for my first selection I’m going to go with Hope Sandoval and Kurt Vile’s ‘Let Me Get There’ from Until the Hunter: ever since her time fronting Mazzy Star, I’ve found Hope Sandoval’s voice to be a shortcut to bliss.

I’m not afraid of dullness or repetition, as everyone I know socially will attest. Take one of my favourite films, Stalker – I’ve watched it half a dozen times and I swear I’ve fallen asleep every time. (See also, to lesser degree, Pickpocket, In the Mood for Love, Les Vampires.) The first recording of modern minimalist music I heard was Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a performance staggering in its precision and hypnotic power. (Possibly, the roots of repetitive were sown early for me: when I was a baby, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was the only album that would soothe me to sleep.) Albums in the same vein that put me in the zone for writing include Donato Dozzy’s Plays Bee Mask, Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Grafts, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s A Fragile Geography, Mind Over Mirrors’ The Voice Rolling, Folke Rabe’s What?? and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Tapes. But I’m going to pick a track from one of Alex Zhang Hungtai / Dirty Beaches’ ‘minor’ works, the soundtrack to Water Park (I haven’t seen the film – see note below). I couldn’t begin to estimate how many of my stories have been written to this music.

There are two artists that deserve their own category in a list of my listening tastes. Jim O’Rourke is one of the most prolific experimental musicians imaginable, having worked with Wilco, Sonic Youth, Joanna Newsom, as well as making up half of my favourite post-rock band, Gastr Del Sol, and also finding time to create a handful of sublime pop albums for Drag City. His experimental work with Fennesz (It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry) and Fire! (Unreleased?) are some of the albums I often return to while writing. Oren Ambarchi has had a similar stellar, and similarly collaborative, career, and his solo albums make me cross-eyed with contentment. Selecting an Oren Ambarchi album means immediately shutting out the world and retreating to a comfortable, secluded place which I imagine to be rather like Roald Dahl’s writing hut. I’m picking ‘Remedios the Beauty’ from my favourite of Ambarchi’s albums, Grapes from the Estate. It’s 15 minutes long, but usually after the first couple of minutes I can barely hear it, like the hubbub of a café, except it’s a café filled with customers that hum happily instead of chatting.

I love jazz, but I listen to it only rarely as a background to writing – usually when I want a hit of adrenaline, and often at the editing stage when my motivation may be flagging. Charles Mingus’ Ah Um hits the spot, as does Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music and Sun Ra’s Sleeping Beauty. The one I’ve been returning to most recently while editing my most recent novel is Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, so that’s my next pick.

Sometimes intensity is what’s required as a background. I rarely write action scenes – possibly a failing of mine – and so when I do, I really need to gear up. Splazsh by Actress works fantastically well, as does the space-techno STRGTHS by SHXCXCHCXSH. For now, I’ll pick an incredible, disorienting live recording from Throbbing Gristle and Factory Floor supergroup, Carter Tutti Void, included on Transverse

I know that soundtrack albums are often popular with writers, but I find that anything that specifically recalls a film I like is problematic – I wouldn’t want to unconsciously adopt things half-remembered from a favourite film. Soundtracks that are more tonal than melodic work fine: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score to Annihilation being a case in point, or the contextless drones of Dean Hurley’s soundscapes for Twin Peaks: The Return, released as Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△. This will sound obtuse, but I like listening to scores of films I haven’t seen. I’m planning a novel right now, and the laborious process of creating a synopsis has been soundtracked by Ennio Morricone’s score to Senza Sapere Niente Di Lei, a film about which I know literally nothing. It’s my bonus pick.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Out & About

Quick post on a couple of events I'm doing.

First off, on 8th June at Oxford Waterstones I'll be attending the Grimbold Books/Kristell Ink launch for three fine looking anthologies, including Holding On By Our Fingertips, which features my story 'Heatstroke Harry'. Edited by Amanda Rutter & Kate Coe, this is an anthology of stories about the end of civilisation, so why not come along and have a glass of wine before the world goes bang? It also contains stories from Phil Sloman, Charlotte Bond, Terry Grimwood and Ren Warom, among others.

Secondly, assuming the world hasn't actually ended by then, I'll be one of the guests at this year's Edge-Lit convention in Derby on the 14th July. I'll be on two panels and running a workshop, all on spooky ghostly weird things. Other than that, I'll hanging around and chatting and drinking and having a good time. Edge-lit is always a brilliant day and I'm already immensely looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Music For Writers #4: Paul M. Feeney

Music For Writers week 4 - a bit late coming out onto the stage, but like all great bands worth waiting for. This week is the turn of Paul Feeney with some fine choices, so let's get this party started shall we? 1-2-3-4...

Take it away, Paul:

Like many writers, I have a deep, abiding fondness for music, both when reading and when writing (and just in general). I won’t say I can’t do either without a soundtrack, but I will say it often helps. In fact, so close is this relationship, I have, over the years, inextricably linked some pieces of music with various books and stories (so much so, anytime I hear the strains of Danny Elfman’s Batman score, I immediately think of The Hobbit and not Tim Burton’s film because I always had that album on when reading the book, and I read it a lot; it was a rather odd experience eventually watching The Hobbit trilogy with the Howard Shore music, I can tell you). However, this is a post about writing to music, and James Everington has very kindly asked a bunch of us to talk about five instances where music is tied to our work.

[I know the Batman music isn't strictly speaking one of Paul's main choices but I've included the video here because I love it. JE]

And so to it:

1 – Much of my writing tends towards a kind of pulpy, Twilight Zone aesthetic, very much influenced by the books I read and films and TV shows I watched in the 80s and early 90s. As such, I find I often put on a constant stream of thumping synth music as a background for writing most of these stories. And one of the best – to my mind – of this style is the film-maker, John Carpenter. Carpenter has long created scores for his own films, and chief among my favourites is that of Christine. To me, it perfectly encapsulates his sound, is the optimum distillation of the tone he aims for. And I had it on heavy rotation when I was writing my first novella, The Last Bus (Crowded Quarantine Publications, 2015), an urban alien invasion story that harked back to those 80s monster flicks and books. Marvellous stuff.

2 – Sometimes, you’ve gotta go bleak, and again I reach for Carpenter. This time, he’s not the composer, only the director (though by all accounts he had a fair amount of input in the score). It is, of course, The Thing, one of the most nihilistic, claustrophobic, downbeat films ever made (as much due to the music as anything else), yet still with its fun set-pieces. And the composer is the legend that is Ennio Morricone. With this one, I was playing it constantly while writing my own story of wintery terror, a short called The Light that Bleeds from the World, for a forthcoming charity anthology (sometime in 2018, I believe). Morricone’s – and Carpenter’s – synth and string tracks were the perfect accompaniment to my attempt to capture that sense of bleakness and desolation. Hopefully, some tiny part of their genius made it into my wee tale.

3 – I appreciate the above are both full albums, so perhaps now it’s time to focus on a specific track, and something a little different. My very first ever published story is a Kindle-only novelette called The Weight of the Ocean (Phrenic Press, 2014). It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve written, being that it is, essentially, a love story, although one with more than a hint of melancholy to it (and a touch of ambiguous supernatural elements). Partly based on real events (though still filtered through my writer’s imagination), it’s about a guy who falls – and falls hard, oh so very hard – for someone he sees as his soul mate, the love of his life, but slowly has his heart crushed as it all falls apart. One song which played throughout the writing of it (and it took a while to finish; almost half a year, if I recall correctly) was Pearl Jam’s ‘Release’, from their Ten album; mainly this was because the song meant a lot to the real-life girl who was the basis for the story’s love interest and it sort of seeped into my head, too. I find it has such a quiet sadness to it, but also a kind of resignation, an acceptance (and when I hear it, I always think of her and that time). It’s a very powerful piece and, I think, compliments my story perfectly, despite the short’s flaws and rough edges. And shit; that’s put me on a little downer, now...


4 – Another single-track entry, and this one connects to an unpublished story I won’t describe in too much detail (because it’s a little bit bonkers). Suffice to say, it’s a post-apocalyptic tale with the most unusual reason for humanity’s near-total demise. And that’s as much as I’m willing to impart, I think. But the piece of music I listened to while writing is one of my favourites. It’s called ‘At the Heart of it All’ by Aphex Twin, though the track actually appears on the NiN remix album, Further Down the Spiral. Legend has it Trent Reznor asked Richard D. James for a remix and instead, for whatever reasons (most likely James’ rather unconventional and unpredictable personality) gave an original recording he had “lying” about. Whatever its provenance, it’s a beautiful track which mixes lush keyboards with harsh, scratchy beats. The perfect soundtrack to the fall of the world, and for my story of walking, rampaging...well, that’s enough of that. Ahem. Incidentally, I consider James and Reznor to be genuine musical geniuses, along with Tori Amos, Steven Wilson, and David Bowie, and a few others.

5 – For my fifth and final entry I’m going to cheat a little and include an entire genre (though I will pick out one piece to represent). One of my favourite styles of music is one I’ve only recently started to delve into in a big way, though I think I’ve always heard and liked snippets of it. It’s post-rock (and I include metal and ambient variations under that umbrella as well), and there are thousands and thousands of bands and artists creating stunning work, from the rather well-known – Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – to the less famous – Ohgod, If These Trees Could Talk, and This Patch of Sky (this last very newly discovered but already a firm favourite). Every conceivable emotion is expressed by these bands, though there is an overarching sense of the epic, a stately, crushing grace even in the heavier moments. And I love it. I love listening to it while reading, while driving, while just sitting in the house. It’s one of those styles of music I can put on at any time, in any situation and it just...takes me away, fires my imagination. So it’s no surprise to find I often have it on when writing. And one track in particular personifies, to me, the power of post-rock. It is ‘The Mighty Rio Grande’ by This Will Destroy You. This piece is epic, crushing, moving, and has been used in at least two films to great effect – Room, and Earth to Echo. It never fails to move me to tears and was one of the first pieces that really turned me on to this kind of thing. I would have written any number of stories with it on, especially where I wanted a more emotional, melancholic mood; most recently perhaps, while writing my Christmas short ‘Call of the Piper’, which appeared in the seasonal anthology 12 Dark Days.

So there you have it. Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts – and believe me, I could go on a lot more, but I think this is more than enough – and maybe it’ll inspire you to seek out some of the music mentioned, and even the stories to read along to and see if the tunes match up. Thanks to James for coming up with the idea for these blog posts and inviting me, and I hope there’s at least some interest in this one. Happy listening (and reading).

Peace out,

Paul M. Feeney.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Music For Writers #3: Mary J. Nichols

So, this is going well.

The two Music For Writers guest-pieces so far have been some of the most popular things of things I've posted on this blog. And this week is another great selection of tunes from writer Mary J. Nichols. The previous two entries from Andrew Hook and Iain Rowan (here & here) featured lots of music I knew; this is the first one where it's all new to me. So I'm looking forward to diving in; I'm listen to each piece of music I post as part of this series, in the hope of discovering good stuff.

Take it away Mary:

Thank you for this opportunity to share a hint of the playlist I listen to while working on my novels. Over the past few years, I have been immersed in a fantasy/medieval world, so classical music has been the soundtrack for my setting. I will warn you that I am a movie soundtrack lover, so most of what I have on my playlist are scores from several movies, but also video games. My list is normally shuffled, yet when I am heading into a particular scene, and I wish for a piece fitting for the energy of the settings, characters, and actions, I will seek out certain tracks. My emotions are easily drawn into the direction the symphony lures them, so for these three examples, I have selected my favorite tunes.

I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmer, so for battle scenes, I love to include two pieces from the Gladiator soundtrack: 'The Battle' and 'Barbarian Horde'. Fight scenes should be epic, and these two pieces are certainly that. They are long, aggressive, and encourage a battle to the death feel. 

For a dark scene, still pulling from the Gladiator soundtrack, is 'Am I Not Merciful?' It begins with a powerfully heavy feeling that weighs upon my shoulders, yet it is elegant. It gives me a sense of impending doom. Even the chorus gives me chills. 

Another dark piece I enjoy is 'Bloodborn' by Ryan Amon, from the video game, Bloodborne. I find the music powerful and the woman’s voice almost haunting. I envision this music perfect in several dark settings, whether on sea, land, or air – from the approach of a large beast, a possessed armada, a demoness, or Death. I love the way I am eased into and out of this track. 

To select an emotional score is difficult because I have so many from which to choose. I settled on 'The Key to Lallybroch' by Bear McCreary from The Outlander soundtrack (Season One, Volume 2). It is a beautiful piece of music I tend to include in my list while writing romantic scenes and those that are meant to coax emotional reaction. The strings are simply beautiful and tug on me, even in the midst of writing. 

Like a tune can pull on the emotions during scenes in a movie, it can do the same while reading or writing. I was sixteen when I first experienced such an event while reading a nightmare scene as a dark symphony played on the radio. It was amazing. Since then, music has been a part of my reading, and became part of my writing routine in later years.

More Music For Writers next week...

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Music For Writers #2: Iain Rowan

This week's Music For Writers should be good, because selecting the tunes is Iain Rowan, a man who I already know has fine taste in music. Below he talks about some of his favourite music to write to, and his choices certainly work for him, because his work includes such gems as the brilliant collection of literary horror Ice Age, the also-brilliant crime novel One Of Us, and many other also-also-brilliant things.

Take it away, Iain:

I tend to avoid listening to music with vocals when I’m writing, in case the rhythms and images of the vocals creep in and colour what I’m doing. I also tend to listen to playlists rather than individual artists, so some of these choices have been picked as representative, rather than the one true song, and that makes it harder to tie a piece to a particular story. There’s a fair amount on here which gets played much more when writing than any other time, and a lot of what I listen to most day to day doesn’t feature here at all.

Patashnik - Biosphere
This gets listened to as an album, but this particular track most of all. Also here as a representative of a big electronica playlist called Headspace that my wife put together -  lots of things like this, Four Tet, Boards of Canada, Amon Tobin etc. 

Mariette - Mark Kozelek and Desertshore
An exception to my no vocals thing - and it’s ironic because he has such a distinctive vocal style you’d think it would be the worst thing - is most of Mark Kozelek’s output, because the reflective world-weary tone seems to unlock something in my head. For some reason though, this is very much short story soundtrack, not novel writing.

Avril 14th - Apex Twin
I do remember once putting this on repeat and just writing, writing, writing while it played over and over.  This one I can tie to a particular piece too - this was when I was writing ‘Waiting for Mr Opera’ which is a 45 min radio drama that’s doubtless just about to be rejected from the BBC’s Writers’ Room drama call. And funnily enough - I’m writing this on 14th April…

Ashes In The Snow - Mono
My post-rock playlist gets used a lot when I’m writing: big emotional, atmospheric music but rarely a lyric to be heard. Listening to this a lot while working on novel revisions at the mo.

Blue Ship - Justin Sullivan
Another exception to the no vocals thing - the album this is from gets listened to as an album. It has a really consistent feel to it, all the way through. This is currently soundtracking an effort to turn a short stage play called Reading The Stones into a full length thing.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Music For Writers #1: Andrew Hook

Some writers need silence to work, but I've always written to music. Indeed as far as I can remember I started writing about the same time I started taking a serious interest in music: taping indie tracks from The Evening Session (with Jo Wiley & Steve Lamacq) onto a C90 and listening to them over and over, trying to find artists and styles that I liked.

But enough about me; this is the first in a series of guest-posts from other writers who listen to music when they write. I've asked each to pick a few selections and explain why they like it, but more importantly how it affected their writers, what stories they remember writing to it etc. Brian Eno hasn't got round to recording Music For Writers yet, but there's no need for him to bother now.

First up is Andrew Hook, a fantastic writer (check out his novella The Greens as a taster) who despite me being an utter music snob has managed to pick five tracks I really like.

Take it away, Andrew:

I mostly listen to music when writing shorter works, and as I tend to write short stories in one sitting I find music maintains the headspace conducive to creation. It creates a bubble within which I am contained as a writer, and negates outside distractions. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this can work against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over.

Occasionally, the music will bleed into the story. I’m fascinated as to how ideas can shift and shape purely from coincidence. Sometimes lyrics – misquoted or actual – can make their way into the piece, but this usually happens during a brief pause in the writing where the singer suddenly fills the gap. On those occasions, it almost feels like the song was specifically written for me to incorporate that fragment at that exact moment. Of course, this is true with other influences – snow falling, a dog barking – but I find there’s a certain serendipity with music which excites me.

Here are the five artists always on my writer’s playlist:

I’ve written more stories whilst listening to Bjork than any other artist, usually the albums Vespertine, Vulnicura, and Music From Drawing Restraint 9. I find her music creates a mood perfect for writing, an all-encompassing sound which is more emotion than song, coupled with a literary sensibility which immediately allows me to settle in to writing without distractions. Stories written whilst listening to Bjork include 'Blood For Your Mother' (published in Black Static) and 'The Nomenclature of Fear' (a chapbook from – the unfortunately now defunct – In Short Publishing). When listening to albums on repeat, no individual songs stand out, so as with all these selections I’m going for a random track and in this case it makes sense to start at the beginning: 'Hidden Place'.

Blonde Redhead
This New York trio comprised of Italian and Japanese members first came to my attention through their Misery Is A Butterfly album in 2004. From more raucous beginnings their music has trod an increasingly ethereal path, and I’d recommend the above album plus 23, Penny Sparkle and Barragán as background music. Stories written to their music include 'Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City' soon to appear in the anthology, Night Light (Midnight Street Press), which has a nightmarish, perhaps Lynchian quality, which I feel was assisted by listening to the Barragán album. For this selection, however, I’m going for the lighter song, '23'.

When listening to music I’ve found it important for any lyrics to be pushed into the background, to be almost subliminal when listening, otherwise I am much more likely to concentrate on the music rather than the writing which defeats the purpose. Echobelly have been a favourite for some time, but I couldn’t write listening to their first two albums because their power-pop jaggedness would intrude. Out of their later material, however, Gravity Pulls is a record I return to time and time again. There’s a soothing, tranquil quality which I find particularly effective. Stories written listening to this album include 'Memories Of Olive' published in Ambit magazine earlier their year, and 'The Easy Flirtations'. Both these stories form part of my ‘Hollywood celebrity death’ collection which is currently seeking a publisher. Here’s the title track.

The Flaming Lips
This band – with their psychedelic SF imagery and sometimes sweeping orchestral-like arrangements are perfect for certain types of stories, particularly their albums Embryonic and Oczy Mlody. I find them epic in the best sense of the word, evoking wonderment and positivity even when the subject matter is poignantly morose. I wrote my Bradbury-esque short story, 'The Day My Heart Stood Still' (published in a PostScripts anthology), listening to Embryonic, and a recent, Kafka-esque story, 'My Tormentors', listening to Oczy Mlody. It what whilst writing about a castle in the latter story that I realised through pure coincidence there was a track called 'The Castle' on the album. I love these weird connections which – even if there is no direct influence – tether one work to another. I’m choosing 'Evil' from Embryonic as an introduction.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I’ve dipped into Nick Cave over the years, but whilst I’ve usually enjoyed what I’ve heard I never wrote to his music until Push The Sky Away. Being an obvious storyteller, I think some of Cave’s work would be very difficult to have as background music, his lyrics dominant and intrusive, sometimes barked rather than sung, but Push The Sky Away hits the right chords for me to write (I should rework that sentence!), and there’s a definite bleed from the music into the fiction, an ambience of intent. Stories written include 'The Call Of The Void' published in Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism, and 'The Ice-Cream Blonde', another of my celebrity death stories which I consider to be one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. This is how the album begins:

I should also mention in passing the following artists I regularly write to: Coeur de Pirate, Anita Lane, Mercury Rev, Radiohead and Portishead.
Finally, whilst I usually listen to an entire album on repeat when writing a short story, sometimes it’s a single song. The record for this is 'The City Never Sleeps At Night' by Nancy Sinatra, which I listened to seventy times whilst writing 'Blanche' (published in the “Something Remains” anthology from Alchemy Press). If I’m allowed an extra track then it’ll appear below:

Course you're allowed an extra, Andrew!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Five Things #9

You know the score by now.

1. The Significance Of Plot Without Conflict
An introduction to 'plots without conflict', an idea anathema to a thousand by-the-numbers how-to writing guides. The articles explains why conflict =/= plot via the Chinese/Japanese plot structure of kishōtenketsu. It's an idea that resonates with some of my own feelings about short stories with structures based around building towards a revelation.

2. It's Great, Just Don't Ask Me What It Means
Philosopher Julian Baginni talks on his site about The Birthday Party by Pinter, and how our enjoyment and appreciation for art doesn't need to be hampered by our failing to understand what it 'means'... and that that might not even be a relevant question.

3. The Future Is Happening Right Now
An interview with the brilliant author Jeff VanderMeer in Pacific Standard, in which he talks about his Southern Reach trilogy, and the themes of environmentalism and environmental destruction within that work.

4. 'In The Belly Of The Beast' by Gwendolyn Kiste
Kaleidotrope magazine deliver the goods with this story by Gwendolyn Kiste, a taut and hungry piece of flash-fiction with a nasty bite. Enjoy.

5. We Are All In Omelas by Lynda E. Rucker
And finally, Lynda E. Rucker with a piece that really affected me, and that I've been thinking about on and off since reading it a few months back. Like most, I was horrified and shocked by the Parkland school shooting, but not surprised. What did surprise me was the courage and dignity and eloquence shown by the teenager survivors, even as the worst elements of America's right-wing turned upon them with typical vileness. Here's hoping they manage to affect change to the USA's mind-boggingly harmful gun laws (or lack of). In the meantime, here's Rucker's wonderful, powerful angry piece about their fight, and about the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin and her story 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'.