The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is multi-translated author Toni Davidson @silemrenk
Soundtrack by Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles, Goldmund, Speedy J
Long before my first book was published I believed that the setting for writing had to be just right, that there should be a room with a view. To be a writer, there needed to be a gnarled, wooden desk strewn with the debris of streams of consciousness – an emptied glass, an ashtray brimming with Gitanes and old editions of Beckett and Huysmans. I believed that environment completely influenced the writing process, that imagination would be nurtured by being surrounded by nice things. This ideal didn’t last. Lack of money, crap housing and the onset of reality eroded romantic ideals. Besides, the external was a vain distraction. I needed, with youthful earnestness, to explore myself and what better companion than music.
Push forward and my first novel Scar Culture – a novel about the uses and abuses of psychotherapy with a dark, satirical heart – was written to what seems now a limited range of bleakness and ambience. I didn’t want words, sung or spoken, to fill or influence creative pauses, so I chose the airy drones of Eno’s Ambient 1 or Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopodie. On repeat, no surprises, just layers of sound and knolls of notes that were not so much background as everywhere in my head.
Music for reading
While I struggled to get the novel published, I messed around with its structure, excerpting one voice then another and made my own music to accompany a reading. It was simple stuff, a soundscape of pads and dripping sounds. Arty no doubt, especially when I sampled sentences from the text into the recording. It was of its time for sure but I enjoyed amplifying my voice so that it had to fight with the music I created. This wasn’t a bad thing. To fight one’s own words as a writer is to be a creative pugilist. It’s no use being in harmony all the time, such melodic reassurance can be counteractive. Sometimes dissonance can expose expectation – a prime example of this is Stravinsky’s first performance of Rite of Spring.
Music became more embedded in my writing process when I moved to Vietnam with my girlfriend. Over the five years I stayed there, I became a different kind of writer and a different responder. I was not making music any more, I was not going out listening to music any more, most music I heard was in my headphones. My Gun Was As Tall As Me, my second novel, is set in a SE Asian country and it is crucial that the atmosphere of the novel is as dense and as humid as much of the sub-tropical environment I lived in. As I was teaching long hours in the daytime, later at night was my time to write and music helped me shift gears, to replace a working environment with a writing one.
One artist dominated the writing of the novel. Max Richter’s Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks became entwined with my writing head. The music was both juxtaposition to my sub-tropical environment with its cold synth washes, the echoing footsteps of European noir and a compliment. Within the music, the soaring then plaintive roller-coastering melody fitted perfectly with the distressing narrative of the novel; hope lifting the spirits and then horror torturing them. The music became a faithful companion as I wrote about the fate of Internally Displaced People in Burma. For sure, the music influenced the writing of the book; it released emotions that helped me get beyond the mechanics of writing and into the soul of the story.
Toying with expectation
By the time I started writing my third novel, The Alpine Casanovas, writing now had its own playlist. Gone were the days when a CD would need to be found just at the wrong moment. I could create a playlist and shuffle around, toying with expectation again. In the time since My Gun Was As Tall As Me, I had deepened my interest in contemporary classical music/electronica – Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules – most of who are on the Erased Tapes label. I have come to rely on the label to produce a body of work that suits my ears and the other label that does that is Type Records. In particular the mix tapes produced by label artists provide a narrative accompaniment giving the listener, as any good DJ does, a sense that the journey is more important than the destination.
And now, as I work on my next novel, Electro Birseck, the play list has expanded. Because of the length of time I take to write my novels, I like to seek new work by artists known to me – their previous work is often too associated with my own previous work. Gotta move on. This novel has music at the heart of its narrative, dance music – from disco to techno – from one generation’s drugged-up hedonism in outlandish costume to an underground music community culture in a location partitioned by ethnic differences. Truly music is now embedded fundamentally in my writing process as the playlist shuffles from the solo piano of Peter Broderick to the sequenced patterns of Rival Consoles; from Goldmund to banging sessions by Speedy J at the Boiler Room.
Above all, music means a portable environment. My original and somewhat pretentious aesthetic desires have evolved to the relative simplicity of headphones and laptop. Because of my work patterns and my relocations, I have learned to write anywhere, from hotel lobby to the beach; from station waiting rooms to a room being battered by wet season storms. Music allows me to be wherever I need to be to write. I press play and I am instantly back where I was when I left off.
Toni Davidson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His novel Scar Culture (Canongate, 1999), has been translated into nine languages. His short story collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, was published in 2008. In 2012 his second novel My Gun Was As Tall As Me, was published by Freight Books. His most recent novel, The Alpine Casanovas, also published by Freight and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015. For more visit his website: tonidavidson.com. And find him on Twitter @silemrenk