I’ve always associated music with stories. I was trained as a musician from when I was a kid until my late teens, and my favorite thing to do with any piece I was practicing was pair it with a book or story I was reading: I’d try and synthesize the piece into a soundtrack for the movie of the story, figuring out which beats in the song matched the action of the story, and this made the eventual performance of the piece a lot more engaging for me – it was like I was contributing to the story itself.
As such, it’s probably no surprise that I eventually ditched music and chose to mainline my drug of choice.
However, music is still a huge part of my inspiration and writing process. I’ve never managed to be a person who can listen to music casually – I tend to focus on a handful of pieces and listen to them over and over again, taking them apart in my head and trying to figure out their atmosphere, their pace, their structure. I don’t acquire “wallpaper music” for myself, and I actually don’t enjoy live shows unless I’m familiar with the music, or if it’s a particularly heightened experience (I tend to prefer theater arrangements than clubs and bars, probably because it’s just how I was brought up). So this is a help to my writing as much as it is a hindrance to my tastes.
Anyways, probably as a part of all this, my musical tastes are pretty bizarre. Recently I’ve been rocking out to:
1. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
I have an appreciation of Nick Cave himself, but it’s his work with Warren Ellis that really gets my attention. Their music, which is chiefly produced for movies, is so unorthodox, spare, and atmospheric that they immediately summon up incredible imagery for me. At the same time, their pieces are layered with such emotional vulnerability that, even though the music itself might not be dramatic or bombastic, there are tidal waves of feelings churning underneath it. Cave and Ellis capture what I think of as real, everyday emotional breakthroughs, little moments of the sublime or crushing despair paved over with soft, cyclical melodies. I’d recommend White Lunar to anyone looking for a taste of something weird, eclectic, and oddly moving – “Cheata” is a great “Will I like this?” track. (And CHECK OUT that facial hair!)
2. Townes Van Zandt
I’ll go ahead and follow them up with Townes Van Zandt. The two types of music are quite connected: Van Zandt also specializes in stripped-down melancholy and songs of barren country. Despite the cowboy hat and boots and the subject matter of his songs, he’s a far cry from what you think of as Country: Van Zandt embodies the bluesy, fatalistic singer-songwriter, singing about death and love, quiet hopes and quiet despair. He lived that life a little too well, too: a manic-depressive who’d had all his childhood memories erased by electroshock therapy, Van Zandt started out a bright young man with the world at his fingertips and quickly set about burning himself up, turning to heroin, alcohol, and dabbling in more-than-halfhearted suicide attempts. (He once fell off a balcony just to see what it’d be like, and, during a chat with Steve Earle, he once casually put a round in a revolver, spun the cylinder, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger a few times.) Van Zandt said early on he wouldn’t live to see 50, but he proved himself wrong, barely, dying at 52. He conceptualized the role of an artist as someone who had to get too close to the fire to be able to take it back to everyone else, and you can hear it in his music – I’d suggest “Rake” for anyone who wants a taste. (And check out this video where his music brings a weather-beaten blacksmith to tears.) Another mythical song writer I love is...
3. Tom Waits
Of course. Anyone who knows me knows that. Tom Waits was the first non-classical music I ever really got into. I like Tom Waits a little too much, actually, and am conscious that I need to expand my listening habits beyond him – but, really, he’s so prolific, so innovative, and so unlike anything else out there (even after forty years) that there’s plenty of water in that well. Tom himself doesn’t care much for his pre-1980 music, where he tried to embody the down-on-his-luck 50’s beatnik, but I think there’s as much value in that era of his as the cabaret-singing, mythic, primeval blues-ghoul he became afterwards (even if there’s not as much innovation in his earlier stuff). Some people find his voice a stumbling block, but I never have – I like knowing my artists have lived a little, which is what his voice so effectively conveys. I’d suggest “Time” for anyone who’s unsure.
4. Dmitri Shostakovich
Shostakovich was my Morrissey during my high school years: when I got home from school, mooning over some crush or the cruelty of the world, I’d lie down on my bed, crank up Symphony No. 10, and stare at the ceiling and brood. Yeah, I was that kind of kid. But though Shostakovich is considered a master of the symphony, heir to Mahler, blah, blah, blah, what I really love him for is his quartets, which are intimate, crystalline little pieces of musical origami, blends of fear and neuroses and destructive hope spun in glass and silver. Shostakovich lived in fear under the Soviet rule – he was too Western, too willing to express his individual rules – so he got very used to speaking about big fears in quiet, complicated ways. Check out the Lento movement of his 7th Quartet, which was written for his late wife. It’s written in Phrygian mode, something most modern music is completely unfamiliar with, a music mode predominantly used by the ancient Greeks in mourning (or so I was told in school). I used to say that Shostakovich was my favorite composer, but then I started getting into...
5. Maurice Ravel
Ravel is tough to nail down for me. His music is hyper, hyper-complicated, featuring ridiculously labyrinthine, shimmering melodies that swoop and swirl constantly. It’s flighty, fanciful, moody stuff, frequently romantic but sometimes stark and dour. Basically, I like Ravel because there’s no wrong time for Ravel. If I’m driving into work, cleaning the house, writing, reading, or just sitting and listening to music, Ravel adds a level of mystery and magic to nearly any aspect of everyday life, like it’s music floating through some window hanging in the air outside of which is a completely different world. I wish I could write books to match Ravel’s music – I flat out stuck “Le Gibet” from “Gaspard de la Nuit” in The Troupe – but his music doesn’t work like stories, or most music. It’s not structured like a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s haunting, elusive, and atmospheric. That’s part of why it’s so unique, I think. It’s a mystery, just like the man who wrote it, whom I, along with many historians, have never really been able to figure out.