The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by literary novelist Corwin Ericson
It’s cold and I realize once again my ancient refrigerator is noisier than a truck. The fire in my wood stove has dwindled to embers; I recall it had been tocking and sizzling like a banshee. The well pump comes on too often; I should fix that. I don’t think my laptop has a fan, but something’s whirring inside. I have a headache; it amplifies my tinnitus. My leg is asleep. My nose is drippy.
That’s what my successful day of writing sounds like. It’s easy to ignore the household sounds – I have plenty of practice, but the music I chose was supposed to complement the writing, or at least keep me company as I worked, yet it has been forgotten. These are the jewel cases: the Dracula soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by Kronos Quartet. Low Symphony, the Bowie album as composed by Glass. Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. Divination’s Dead Slow, composed by Bill Laswell.
Crescendo and reconsider
I remember hearing the first part of Dracula. I like how it matches my own compositional pace–moves forward, forward, reaches a small crescendo, reconsiders, starts over with some variations, and moves forward again. But I don’t recall even hearing the clacking of my CD changer announcing the next disc.
All of these recordings were chosen to induce me to stay in my chair and write. And to be ignored. I don’t want to listen to insipid music, but having ignored the music means I have been concentrating well, maybe even writing productively. Now I’ve fed the stove and I’m standing over it feeling sore and peevish. It’s too smokey. This is ‘la petite mort’ of the workday of writing. I am full of regret and lassitude. I have wasted my day, my life. Later after I warm up, I’ll try it all over again, but fail, since I have to seduce myself into concentration, and I’m not going to fall for that trick again. I want a cigarette, a drink, a nap, and then someone to bring me supper.
Estonindian black metal dub
Now I’m inventing a genre of music, something for Waldena, a whale hunter from Estonindia, to blast from her boat, the “Hammer Maiden”:
This was Estonindian black metal dub. Music for wounded bears as they shrugged off tranquilizer darts. A genre so conclusively suicide-inducing, blue-ribbon Congressional panels were afraid to listen to it. If Francis Scott Key had been a ninth-century raider whose head was still throbbing and clanging from an ax-blow to the helmet, standing with one hand braced on the dragon prow of his longship watching his enemies’ tarred warships burn in an uncanny blue bituminous haze, while unseen galley slaves chanting the stroke rumbled the ship from below, he may have closed his eyes, thought of Ragnarok, and composed an anthem like this.
To write this, I am listening to the Danish band Apocalyptica’s Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, Amon Amarth’s With Oden on Our Side, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Mieskuoro Huutajat – that’s the Finnish Screaming Men choir. Putting these together does not equal Estonindian black metal dub, but it gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales. I stand in my living room imagining I’m on the prow of a Viking ship that has a motor with enough horsepower to launch it into orbit.
This time I’m feeling larkier. Music from the Penguin Cafe by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a good choice. I am trying to write about yoiking. I had been trying to listen to someone yoik about a bear in the Arctic night via my dial-up modem. This is impossible, and over the half-hour I gave to this fruitless experiment, I heard what sounded like someone dying very slowly of the hiccups. Even when I finally hear yoiking properly, it still resists description. It’s an improvisational, non-musical vocalization that has no beginning or end. It is, perhaps, cousins with yodeling and throat singing. My cat used to find all of these forms very stimulating when I attempted them. He would join in, claw me, and then flee outside. I yoik and write best when I am alone. Thank you, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, for putting my caterwauling in perspective. The absurd ongoingness of novel-writing seems amusing this dark evening.
Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell. He lives in western Massachusetts and works as a writer, editor, and professor.