A month ago the author Mat Johnson (Pym, Drop, Incognegro) went crowdsourcing on his Facebook page for new music to write to. He’d been listening and writing to Endtroducing by DJ Shadow for years and he’d exhausted the thing.
It got me to thinking about what makes good writing music. I have five suggestions. I have arranged them according to when in the writing process I think they’re most helpful.
Glenn Gould – Bach: The English Suites & Bach:The French Suites
Glenn Gould was a Canadian pianist who gave up live performances. He felt that with the advances in recording fidelity, he could produce perfect recordings of the great piano works. So he built himself a studio in his house and beat his head against the masters, trying to get them down perfectly.
He’s a romantic figure and I romanticized him further. But when I am stuck in my tiny office, tapping and tapping away at the keyboard, listening to Gould felt like I had a companion in the lonely work of making art: “the sitting down and staying there, dammit” which is ninety percent of writing.
Bach’s single instrument works (my favorites being his English and French Suites) are also perfect for writing because no one else is as skilled as he is at musical patterning. I have to believe that part of my limbic system absorbs a portion this pattern-making ability. And in first drafts, I need all the help I can in starting to get a sense of the repetitions of a piece.
I love this video because it shows how obsessive he was and also how much of his thoughts on music making translate into the practice of writing.
This album is all pulsing swells and crests and releases and floating and then swelling again to start it all over. It’s the kind of album that makes me wish I still did psychedelics.
These are songs that seem to be crafted to chart alongside Freytag’s Pyramid. Each song is a subliminal lesson in narrative development. Sometimes, the songcraft is a little too self-conscious, but when the swell and crest happens again I tend to forget my criticisms and get lost in it. But when shaping a piece this album is perfect to listen to. It provides sonic cues to proper composition.
The songs all make me feel like I’m alone on a boat in the middle of an unfamiliar sea, I’ve already run out of food so I’ve gone ahead and eaten the maps and charts. I also ate the rudder. The waves and weather are going to take me where I need to go. It’s out of my hands.
Bee Thousand doesn’t so much feel as a collection of songs, but a succession of twenty doorways through which you peer into rooms of perfect sound. The songs don’t begin and end so much as these doors open and close. The songs are alternate sonic dimensions unto themselves and subsequently are always going on, growing and radiating outward even when you’re not listening to them.
The band was formed in Ohio, a state I spent my childhood in, so maybe there’s some geographical DNA hardwired into me, but the songs smell of creosote oozing out of railroad ties during summer days and produce the same creepoid conflations of emotion in me that used to only happen watching ants crawl around on the cramped fists of about to bloom begonias. Then squirting lighter fluid on the flowers and lighting a match.
This is revision music. You’ve already lost yourself creating the text and now you’re poking at its weak spots. If you’re using music to push yourself past your everyday reactions to things, this album is some kind of Lemarchand’s box to deeper weirder universes of possibilities.
Of course, when writing cover letters or CV’s, the only thing to ever listen to is Eric B. & Rakim. Rakim is the greatest rapper ever. I know this because he tells me so in every song. When ever I have that twinge of discomfort about writing about myself sans deprecation, I listen to Rakim, who in the amazing song “Follow the Leader,” tells you that you can leave the planet and travel through space at the speed of light for about a week, fly through our galaxy and the next one and the next one after that, and if you turn around at this point, the largest star you would see in the wake of your universal journey, would be Rakim, himself.
Self-consciousness and insecurity burn away under Eric B. & Rakim’s music like a vampire at an equatorial high noon.
(Image, “6/365,” by Steffy. Creative Commons-licensed content.)
David S. MacLean is a graduate of The University of Houston (PhD), New Mexico State University (MFA), and Warren Wilson College (BA). He was named the Best Emerging Non-Fiction Writer by the PEN/American Society in 2011. He is a co-founder of the Poison Pen Reading Series in Houston, TX. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their pets.His memoir The Answer to the Riddle is Me will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2013.