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Posts Tagged ‘music’

leverage the tricks you have

I’ve spent the past several days (and have several more to come) gear-shifting between three radically different writing projects. On the one hand, I’m taking this approach because I know my brain can’t just buckle down and slam all the way through one of them in a concentrated go; eventually it starts emitting steam and high-pitched whistles, and then I have to stop or switch to something else. On the other hand, that means I’m putting a different sort of strain on it, by asking it to get into a totally different mode on very short notice.

Thank god for the tactics I developed years ago.

It started out as a way to get myself into the headspace of a novel on days when I didn’t want to write. Well, no, that’s a lie; it started out as an accident: me being obsessed with a ten-minute trance remix of a particular song and listening to it on loop while I happened to be writing what eventually turned into Lies and Prophecy. But it became that thing I just said, and so I got in the habit of associating particular music with particular books. These days it’s more often whole playlists rather than single songs; the former is slightly less insanity-inducing than the latter, but also (if we’re being honest) a bit less effective.

This helps SO MUCH when I have to do this kind of gear-shifting. Even though two of the projects are new enough and small enough that they don’t actually have associated music, I picked out an album in one case, a genre playlist in the other, and when I’m done with A and it’s time for B, I change the music. And it helps. My brain goes, “Oh, techno? I absolutely cannot think about Previous Project with that going on. What else is on offer?” And then I open up the file for Next Project and we’re off.

I’m not claiming it’s foolproof. Also, not everyone can write to music (it’s worth noting that the vast majority of what I listen to is either instrumental or in languages I don’t speak well enough to be distracted by), so it’s not a tactic that can work for everybody. Possibly you could sub in things other than music, like beverages or sitting in different parts of the house, though I think those would be weaker insofar as they’re less likely to evoke particular genres, settings, and moods. But if you can do this: hoo boy does it help.

When a mommy note and a daddy note love one another very much . . .

Yoon Ha Lee has, after eight years of labor, released “Ninefox March,” a song he composed for his Machineries of Empire series. Which, how cool is that? How many authors do you know who compose orchestral pieces for their novels???

Especially because I do. not. get. how composers do what they do. I asked Yoon once about how composing works, and he started telling me all the things you could do with your melody, to which I said, hang on, you gotta back up: where do melodies come from? When a mommy note and a daddy note love one another very much, what happens?

Any time somebody asks how writers come up with ideas, I remind myself that I have a similar degree of bafflement with regards to composition.

And it isn’t because I’m not musical. I studied piano beginning at about the age of five, not because my parents intended to start me in lessons that early, but because (I’m told; I was too young for me to recall this now) I would sit down at the piano after my older brother was finished and proceed to play what he’d been playing, without the sheet music. Later on I picked up French horn. My mental jukebox always has something playing, sometimes to my extreme annoyance. I also have a very good sense of pitch — and I don’t know if this is how it works for other people with good senses of pitch, but mine is very much based in memory. Even now, nearly twenty years after I played horn regularly, I can hum for you a D on that instrument . . . because that was our opening note in “Mathis der Maler.” I don’t so much know what a D sounds like as know a song that starts with a D.

Which I think winds up interfering with that “coming up with a melody” thing. 99.99% of the time, it turns into — or turns out to already be — something I know, floating up out of the memory banks. I don’t know how to get away from that, how to prod my brain into creating instead of remembering.

It makes me wonder what the musical equivalent of fanfic would be. Not filk, where you’re coming up with new lyrics for an existing song; I’ve done that, but that gets back to words rather than notes. Maybe if my instruction in musical theory hadn’t ended when I was roughly ten, I would have a better sense of how I might take an existing piece of music and transform it (by any means other than simple transposition) to get something new. I think that if I were to try to take a melody and just say, okay, starting from here I’m going to jump to a different note, it would sound wrong. I can’t even transpose well, not as a matter of performance; if you start singing a tune I know in a different key from the one I know it in, I have a hell of a difficult time singing along. Any music I’m familiar with has worn a deep and intractable groove in my brain, and deviating from that groove makes record-scratch noises happen.

Maybe what I need is a paint-by-numbers beat sheet equivalent. Chorales? I’ve heard that composing a chorale is about as mechanistic as you can get.

Or, y’know, I don’t actually have to learn this. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one must be born with ~talent~ to do a thing, but if I’ve gone forty years of my life not manifesting even a baseline inclination toward the generation of melodies, then I’m like those people who go forty years without a story idea. It’s possible they could become writers, but is it worth the uphill slog just to get to the starting line? On the other hand, it’s annoying to have this black box sitting there, its contents impenetrable to me. I’m not much of a visual artist (barring photography, which is a different ballgame), but at least I feel like I kind of understand how an artist might come up with an image. And I think there might be an alternate universe where I became a dance choreographer. Music, though . . . I love it, and I don’t understand where it comes from.

It begins . . .

(Really it should have begun about six months ago, but best intentions, etc. etc.)

The Harvard Band has a long tradition of crusties — former band members — coming back for certain events. Every five years, there is a formal reunion.

Next month is the 100th.

So naturally I’m going. And when I filled out the questionnaire, I checked the boxes that said yes, I intend to march, and yes, I would like to play while I do so . . . in the full awareness that I haven’t played horn since, uh, 2002. Seventeen years is more than enough time to lose one’s embouchure.

Which is why there’s now a small silver mouthpiece sitting on my desk. While I read things online, or otherwise dink around doing things that don’t require me to be typing, I’m tootling away with the mouthpiece, reminding myself of exactly how fast those tiny little muscles in your lips can tire out. The goal is to be able to at least vaguely acquit myself as something resembling a former musician by the time of the reunion in the middle of next month. I’m hoping that remembered skill will mean I do at least slightly better than I did after a month and a half of practice the first time I picked up a French horn. I probably won’t have anything resembling a high range anymore, nor much in the way of breath control, but I’m successfully producing arpeggios in a variety of different keys, so that’s a good sign, right?

This is absurd. And I know it. But I’m doing it anyway.

Soundtracks on Spotify!

Last weekend @hannah_scarbs asked on Twitter whether I had the soundtracks to my novels on Spotify. To which the answer was no — but now it’s yes, because that made me realize that putting them up there is an eminently sensible idea. Of course not everything is available on that service (in particular, all of the Battlestar Galactica scores are absent, and I’ve drawn heavily on those over the years), but the vast majority were there! So if you want to know what my soundtracks sound like, now you can give ’em a listen. And if you want to know what each track maps to, I’ve also linked to that information for each book.

I haven’t done a meme in a while

You can tell a lot about a person from their music. Hit shuffle on your iPod, MP3 Player, etc. and put the first 10 songs! One rule, no skipping!

(I’m leaving out the part where I’m supposed to tag ten more people to do this.)

I guess I’ll go with the playlist I’ve been slowly assembling for Chains and Memory. This isn’t the soundtrack; it’s just the music I’ll be going through when I pick stuff for the soundtrack. As such, it skews toward techno, rock, and more modern-sounding scores (whereas the playlists for the Memoirs, to choose a contrasting example, avoid those exact things).

1. “The Magic Wedding,” Cirque du Soleil, CRISS ANGEL Believe
2. “The X-Jet,” Michael Kamen, X-Men
3. “Mater Gloria,” Lesiem, Mystic Spirit Voices
4. “. . . He’s been arrested for espionage,” Harry Gregson-Williams, Spy Game
5. “Written in the Stars,” Ramin Djawadi, Clash of the Titans
6. “CWN Annwn,” Glenn Danzig, Black Aria
7. “Amnesia,” Dead Can Dance, Anastasis
8. “No More Sorrow,” Linkin Park, Minutes to Midnight
9. “Creeping Death,” Apocalyptica, Plays Metallica by Four Cellos
10. “There’s Only Me (Instrumental)”, Rob Dougan, Furious Angels

Chains and Musicry

Over the weekend, the Chains and Memory Kickstarter reached its first stretch goal. This means that every backer, current or yet to come, will also be receiving the next best thing to me sharing the novel soundtrack itself: a discussion of the “score” I made for Lies and Prophecy, with links to the songs where possible.

I’m looking forward to putting that together. The first song on the list is basically the reason I make novel soundtracks at all: I listened to it a bunch while writing the first draft of the novel, which caused it to become associated with the story in my mind, and then I leveraged that to help me get in the mood for writing, which led to me making playlists for books and so onward to the actual, formal score-type-thing. I love having the story in musical form; it adds another layer to how I perceive the characters and events. And now I can share that with other people!

Now, of course, it’s on to Stretch Goal #2: Short Story. The most likely prospect is that I’ll write about Henry Welton during First Manifestation — the days when half the planet suddenly had psychic powers and no idea how to control them. It’s possible something else will suggest itself while I’m drafting Chains and Memory, though. Speaking of which: I’ve started work on it, and am now a little more than 7K in, counting some material that got written beforehand. That puts me on track to finish it before October 4th, with time off for being in Okinawa and having ankle surgery, with a bit of a cushion to spare. Fingers crossed that things continue to go well.

sound effect

There’s a particular . . . sound effect? I don’t even know if that’s the right word to apply. It’s a quality sometimes heard in the background beat of techno songs. I have a hard time describing it in words (and can’t think of any examples to link to, since I hate the songs that do this and therefore always turn them off) — it’s kind of this muffled effect at the end of the beat that then slides into the sharp beginning of the next one — but the easiest way for me to summarize it is, it makes me feel like I’m being punched in the eardrums. Repeatedly. Ad nauseam.

I don’t suppose anybody a) knows what I’m talking about and b) can tell me whether it has a specific name?

minor to major

Hey, people who know more about music theory than I do:

How does one go about shifting a piece of music from a minor key to a major one? (Assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that I’m just looking to transpose a simple melodic line. No chords or anything to worry about.)

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Storytelling in Treble Clef

I don’t know what it was — my early education in piano; natural sense of pitch; heck, maybe even the ballet training — but something apparently wired my brain to closely associate music with stories. And over the last ten years or so, I’ve taken that tendency and made it foundational to how I work.

I’ve been thinking about this because I finally, after a variety of false starts, have figured out the “sound” for the Dragon Age game [profile] kniedzw and I are running. I realized that Ramin Djawadi’s music for Game of Thrones fit really well, so I went looking for more of his work, and simultaneously started browsing through the scores for other shows in the genre John Perich dubbed Blood, Tits, and Scowling. Trevor Morris’ work on The Tudors and The Borgias falls into precisely the tone I’m looking for. So I’m slowly acquiring music and building out playlists for various moods — creepy scenes, grand scenes, battle scenes, etc. And as I do so, the game coheres in my head.

This is why I was asking for Polynesian music earlier (and by all means, bring on more recommendations!). It isn’t that I can’t write a book without building playlists for it . . . at least, I don’t think so? I used to do it all the time. I’d have one or two “theme songs,” and that was all I needed. But now, figuring out the sound of a story is part of my process. And it isn’t just cat-vacuuming, I promise! In order to pick music, I need to know the feel I’m going for — so picking music helps me decide on a feel. When I make an actual soundtrack, with track titles and everything, I make decisions about what the important parts of the story are, and what their shape is or should be. It’s a musical outline.

Approaching it this way gets me thinking about the story from a new angle, with a different part of my brain. Music can route around all the fiddly little details and get to the heart of it, the mood and response I’m trying to evoke. Sometimes it even creates the story.

So if you’ll pardon me, I need to go check out the soundtrack to Rome.

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brief report from Krakow

1) Learn from my error, chilluns. If you’re going to a foreign country, turn off 2-step verification on your Google accounts for the duration, unless you can actually get text messages on your phone while overseas. Otherwise, if your laptop refuses to talk to the hotel wireless, you’ll have to go to great lengths to get internet access long enough to turn verification off so you can check your Gmail on other computers as needed.

2) Things Krakow does very well: street musicians, fall color, street performers of the non-musical kind, hot chocolate, music not on the streets, sausage (so saith the kniedzw), and RIDICULOUSLY monumental altars/shrines in its churches. Also, veneration of Pope John Paul II (shocker, I know).

3) Things I do not do well: sleep on planes, these days. I don’t know where my ability to do so went, but it is gone.

4) I wish I could have come here two years ago, when I could pretend to the IRS that this was research for A Natural History of Dragons. Thanks to folklore (which I will report on in more detail later), there are dragons ALL OVER the place. Including one whose picture I will try to post later, because he’s awesome.

5) Off to Auschwitz tomorrow. Not exactly happy fun vacation time, but it’s one of those things you kind of have to do.

P.S. My folkloric and musical heart is kind of in love with the Heynał mariacki.