Music and literature go hand in hand. They can become perfect partners, one elevating the other to new and evocative heights. Films and TV shows have soundtracks, even some books do, all to heighten the emotional response to scenes and events taking place. Whilst in a novel the words should be enough to evoke a strong reaction, putting those on paper can sometimes be easier said than done without a trigger.
In the summer of 2015 I read It for the first time, during the slow season at work. At the same time I was enraptured by the album Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon by Murder By Death. Whilst I would never have imagined that the themes or styles of the book and the album would have gelled, the most wonderful collaboration happened between the two, and I discovered more from both, including subtle themes in the music – for example, the poignancy of Ghost Fields and its content about returning home to find the hometown having changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Being a composer of film soundtracks as well as a novelist, I often soundtracks to my books as I write, a creative process that has been endlessly valuable. It nearly always helps me to overcome walls, and has even sent the story in entirely new and beneficial directions.
But none of us have time to score our own works as well as write them, even if we are musicians.
So what then?
Well, there’s an infinite array of music available at our fingertips now, and with services like Spotify we can create and edit our own soundtrack playlists anywhere at any time. Joy! What a wonderful world.
But listening to music whilst writing can be a curse, as we’ve all discovered. A lot of music is distracting, even if it’s evocative in the right way, and it can steer us off course in the blink of an eye. I spent many months (probably years) listening to my favourite bands when I first started writing, getting pumped up and in the zone, only to discover myself air drumming and making copious amounts of coffee rather than sitting down and focusing on what was happening on the page.
Luckily for me I have a broad musical taste, and did then. Anything emotionally poignant will attract me, especially if it has a brooding, mysterious quality. I quickly discovered what I was writing best to.
Below are my top five albums for background listening whilst writing that I would recommend to anybody.
- ‘Twentythree’ by Carbon Based Lifeforms
The psybient/downtempo Carbon Based Lifeforms create some of my favourite soundscapes, and every one of their albums holds a special tone that draws up something raw from my soul. Twentythree is their most ambient release, a swirling journey of environments and cultures that never gets tiring, and never distracts.
Choice track: Terpene
2. ‘In The Footsteps of Padmasambhava’ by David Parsons
The title should give a hint of the concept. ITFoP is a glorious album rich in traditional instruments as well as soul-rending synthesisers. David Parsons has an ability to create music that both relaxes my monkey mind and stimulates my creative mind, underpinning daily life with a flowing, otherworldly mood.
Choice track: Approaching the Holy Mountain
3. ‘Apollo’ by Brian Eno
Ambient master Brian Eno has created some of the most iconic pieces of music in recently history (including the Windows 95 start-up theme!) and Apollo has always been my go-to for writing fodder. Not only is the eternally evocative Ascent (An Ending) featured, but the timeless 1983 album weaves through various themes to knit together a touching and often though-provoking tapestry of darkness, light, mystery and fearlessness.
Choice track: Under Stars II
4. ‘Sunset Mission’ by Bohren und Der Club of Gore
“Neo-Noir Doom Jazz” is the best description I’ve heard Bohren described as. Black Earth is a tie with Sunset Mission for my favourite Bohren album, but the rich, sinister vibe of Sunset Mission gives it an edge when it comes to writing in general. Some find the German trio depressing, but I find them infinitely influential when writing on the darker side of things. The coarse production simply aids in creating a world where sunset rules the city, dive bars are populated with the dregs of society, and shadows move of their own free will.
Choice track: Painless Steel
5. Lyckantropen Themes by Ulver
The inimitable Ulver have continuously transformed themselves during their long and experimental career, much as the alluded-to werewolf. This soundtrack to a short film is a dark ambient masterpiece in its own right. It creates its own world that’s impossible to escape. The sounds and loops used offer something that hovers quivering between horrific, heart-breaking and elating, dragging the listener in without them even being aware of it. The repetitive, hypnotic elements only help to create a workspace where a blank canvas is laid out and ideas manifest themselves in a paint which seems to control itself.
Choice track: Theme 5