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Once a week 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-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick
Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe, Gustav Mahler
I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.
I mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.
Births and inspirations
I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.
This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:
The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.
That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.
Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.
There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps. Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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Once a week 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 debut science fiction novelist Nick Cook @CloudRiders
Soundtrack by Awolnation
Music has woven a fine thread throughout my writing career. Whenever I need to screen out distractions, particularly as I have a love of working in great coffee shops, the earbuds come out and iTunes gets powered up. As the music begins to cast its magical spell, the world around me is reduced to a small perfect bubble containing me, the music and my words. Nothing else exists.
These are the special songs, the ones that for whatever reason touch us so deeply and are somehow so much more than the sum of their notes and lyrics. These are the songs burrow a special place in our hearts. We recognise these songs because we can be minding our own business when it comes on the radio and strikes us with memory lightning. At once we are transported back to a time, place, moment, so vividly painted in our minds that we are actually there again.
That’s the power of music we have all experienced at some point in our lives.
For my day-to-day writing process I learned long ago that music without lyrics is key for me to able to write along to. Why? Otherwise the siren-like call of the lyrics soon overwhelm my own words and I become mesmerised by the songwriter’s thoughts. Not helpful if I’m trying to nail a tricky dialogue sequence.
However, there was one notable exception to my rule when I wrote Cloud Riders. And we’re not just talking about a song here. My attention was first drawn by one of my friends, who contacted me and told me I had to watch a YouTube video he’d discovered because it had Cloud Riders written all over it.
Intrigued, I watched it once, twice…then again and again. Why? Because that song somehow transported me to the world of my own story. It was slightly unnerving at first – it was almost like someone had peered into my mind and created a soundtrack based on what they’d seen. But it wasn’t long before that song quickly became my go-to start to my writing day. When I needed inspiration, I watched it. When I hit a creative slump, I watched it. When I just needed to be transported into my story’s universe, I watched it. You see that song quickly became my creative equivalent to drinking an energy drink for my writing.
A soundtrack to Cloud Riders
Cloud is a fantastical tale, but at it’s heart is a story about the teenager coming to terms with his grief of his dad’s death, discovering who he really is and what matters to him in his life. In other words it’s the universal story about our individual search for the meaning of our lives. Maybe that’s why Cloud Riders has resonated with so many people.
And that’s what I really love about my Undercover Soundtrack and why it has resonated so strongly for me. When I watch the video I sense deep sadness in the protagonist portrayed – that he has given up, literally throwing himself into the eye of a storm – and this is a perfect metaphor for my lead character, Dom, and the journey he’s drawn into in Cloud Riders.
Every time I listen to this song I can feel Dom in those words, responding to their cry to be set loose, trying to make sense of his own life, against a backdrop of an incredible adventure. And for me that’s a magical experience.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I’m a great one for quotes and here’s one that for me summarises both what this song and Cloud Riders is fundamentally about:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
– Mark Twain
And here it is, Awolnation’s song – Sail. Watch, listen and be transported to the Cloud Riders universe.
Nick has a passion for science and astronomy, often blogging about the latest mind-blowing discoveries made in quantum physics. He once even soloed a light aircraft, an experience he tapped into for Cloud Riders. Not needing any excuse to travel, he recently completed a writing research trip to the volcanic landscape of Iceland for the second book in the Cloud Riders’ trilogy, Breaking Storm. His website is here, and you can contact him on Facebook or Twitter @CloudRiders
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My guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Publishing. Hosting him here feels like the end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week 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 medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.
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I find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles. My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Once a week 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 Steven A McKay @SA_McKay
Music has been a big part of my life ever since I was a teenager and I discovered hard rock and heavy metal. Now, more than 20 years later I still have music playing constantly, from the moment I get into the car for work in the morning to when I go to bed at night with my earphones in and Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play turned up loud.
Obviously then, music would be heavily involved in the creation of my two novels, Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven which are my take on the Robin Hood legend. All the familiar characters are there: Little John, Will Scarlet, Sir Richard-at-Lee etc but, in setting the books in early 14th century Yorkshire rather than 12th century Nottingham and telling it using a modern, adult style, I’d like to think I’ve taken a fresh new approach to what is a well-known legend. Music has played a massive part in that process.
For me, it’s not as simple as sticking on an Iron Maiden CD and sitting down to fire off a couple of thousand words. Sure, Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Def Leppard etc are all bands I love but the problem is I’m also a lead guitarist with a rudimentary skill in drumming and bass playing and for a while I was also singing when my band-mate and I got together with acoustic guitars to jam Led Zeppelin and the like. So, if I sit down to write with a hard rock or traditional metal song on, the writing goes out the window because I end up tapping my feet, singing along in my head and, eventually, I’ll just get up and plug in one of my guitars to pretend I’m Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Yes, in front of the mirror!
Waterfalls and white noise
Many people like to meditate to the sounds of waterfalls or waves or soft rain – white noise basically. It allows the mind to focus and blocks out any distractions from the outside world. When I write my books I like to try and capture a similar, almost ritualistic state of mind, where I can lose myself completely in the scenes I’m creating. A song like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me or Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills, as much as I like them, have such strong melodies, big choruses and are just so damn catchy that they’re completely useless for this purpose.
That’s where something a little more extreme comes in. Black metal. My novels are both set in the early 14th century, and a lot of black metal bands come from Scandinavia, where they try to recapture the essence of those Dark Medieval Times (a Satyricon album title). The music, to most listeners, is just noise. There’s little, if any melody, the drumming is often ludicrously fast and the vocals are akin to tortured screams. Lovely! That’s just what I need – you’re not likely to find yourself tapping your feet or trying to sing along to something like Havenless by Enslaved. But when you’re writing a scene about outlaws in the forests of Yorkshire sitting around a camp-fire at night, drinking ale and telling tales there’s nothing better than this song to help you invoke just the right atmosphere.
Similarly, my novels have a lot of (hopefully not gratuitous) violence in them, from one-on-one duels to the death to full-scale battles. Playing something like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name just isn’t going to do it, right? But Slaying the Prophets ov Isa (closer to death metal than black metal) by Behemoth will:
Crafting a novel isn’t all about the writing though. Certain songs, and the artist’s live performance of them, often strike a chord within us that eventually comes out in a scene. In Wolf’s Head a couple of my characters performed while pretending to be strolling minstrels. Anyone that knows me will understand exactly where that idea came from: Jethro Tull and, in particular the song Minstrel In The Gallery. Something about Tull’s music just reeks of “merry olde England” (despite the fact Ian Anderson is, like me, a Scotsman) and, while I can’t write while listening to them for the reasons described above, I DO get many of my best ideas for plot-lines while listening to them, since I have them playing in the background for most of my days.
While I’m on the subject of Tull I should mention another great folk-rock band with a flair for music inspired by the middle-ages: Fairport Convention. On their 1969 album Liege and Lief they recorded a version of the traditional song Matty Groves. I lifted the name and used it for one of the characters in my books. A reader asked if it was the same person. Maybe it is…
That’s the creating and actual writing out of the way then – what about editing and, indeed, this piece you’re reading now? Well, editing and blog writing requires much less of a shift in consciousness: there’s no need to completely lose yourself within what you’re doing. No need to allow your muse to wholly consume you. For that reason, I can listen to things with a little more groove, a little more melody and maybe even a few hooks. Like Death’s Pull the Plug, which is what I’m listening to right now (probably best not to sing along though).
Being a musician myself has come in handy when creating video trailers for my books. For Wolf’s Head I used a piece I wrote on the mandolin while The Wolf and the Raven features an Iron Maiden knock-off I wrote in my head pounding the streets of Glasgow as a meter reader. Thank you for reading (and listening)!
Steven A McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree he decided to follow a lifelong ambition and write a novel. He plays lead/acoustic guitars (and occasional bass/vocals) in a heavy metal band. He is the author of Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, which reached number 1 in Amazon’s War category. Find him on Twitter as @SA_McKay and connect with him on Facebook and his website.
GIVEAWAY Steven is offering a signed copy of Wolf’s Head to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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My guest this week writes reimaginings of the Robin Hood legends. He uses music to conjure the atmosphere but says he has to avoid anything that’s too tuneful or he’ll pick up his guitar instead. He admits his choice of Scandinavian black metal is a challenging listen – but finds the fast drumming, screaming vocals and glowering noise is exactly right to shift him away from the 21st century and into a time of outlaws, campfires and battles. He is Steven A McKay and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
14th century, authors, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, fantasy, guitar, heavy metal, heavy metal guitar, male writers, merry men, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Robin Hood, Roz Morris, Scandinavian black metal, Sheriff of Nottingham, Steven A McKay, the Robin Hood legends, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Wolf and the Raven, undercover soundtrack, Wolf's Head, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week 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 award-winning percussionist Pete Lockett @petelockett
Soundtrack by Pete Lockett with Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong, Nicko McBrain, Iron Maiden, U Shrinivas, Ronan Keating, Vanessa-Mae, Errol Brown, Rory Gallagher, Pet Shop Boys, Hari Haran, Kodo, Amy Winehouse, Mel C, A R Rahman, Sinead O’Connor
This music is just incredible; I’ve never heard anything like it before.”
I doubt if anyone outside of this community ever has. This is what you get when Brahms and Bach have been living next door to one another for hundreds of years.They don’t even use notation any more.They’ve just devised a way to conduct the whole group with nods, looks and head shakes.Look, can you see them there at either side? Bach is doing all the spiky staccato stuff and Brahms is doing the smooth legato.It’s all totally improvised and will never happen again. Every rendition is completely different.They both claim that it is the highest level of composition one can reach.Instantaneous composition, conducting and performance.”
When Ed Trew wakes up with a killer hangover, little does he realise that it is the beginning of a mind-boggling journey of revelations and surprises that completely reshapes his view of the world. In the midst of chaos and confusion he becomes completely seduced by music.
It’s no surprise that music and the arts so often act as a liberating influence, giving some lucky individuals the chance a world of creativity and hope. I am grateful to fate to have been propelled out of an ordinary, functional and less than satisfying existence. Music came and lifted me away and showed me a path towards self fulfilment where my mind could become a canvas for fresh ideas. Everything about music fascinated me and as I grew, I slowly started absorbing influences from every corner of the globe, from India to Africa and Nepal to New York – the systems and techniques, sounds, colours and moods. It also led me to a much deeper understanding of people, their motivations, formalities and habits. The way people make music reveals a lot about the culture from which they have flourished.
This ‘open plan’ consumption and integration of varied influences naturally became a cornerstone of my writing when I finally got around to penning a novel. Having had a great degree of freedom in my interpretation and mixing of musical styles, it was natural that this approach got carried over into ideas and stories.
When I sit down and compose music, I start with nothing. That moment of making the first sound or writing the first note is always special, all the more so because I have no idea where it is going to lead. This influenced me directly to try the same thing with words, to take a simple starting point and embark on a journey, not knowing where or how I would get between the various points along the way.
I knew I wanted to have the same freedom that I find in music, able to bring together seemingly disparate concepts and make a new sense out of it all. To be unbound by all that is ‘normal’ but convincing enough to create a dialogue that stands up under scrutiny. As I wrote more and more, I was amazed about how similar the creative buzz was between both of them. I never thought I would find anything that gave me the spiritual lift that music making did but was convinced otherwise during the writing of A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity.
Just as I would embark on so many journeys with my work as a musician, so the character in my book is thrown headlong into an incredible journey, except his is through life, death, reincarnation and the afterlife. Little does he realise that it’s the beginning of a mind-boggling journey of revelations and surprises that completely reshapes his view of the world.
Structure and suspense
Once I really started to get into it, the writing and music began to feed one another even more in quite an inspiring way. A good gig would send me straight back to the hotel with my laptop to get writing and vice versa. I began to think through certain pieces of music and see how the suspense built up over a set time frame, keeping the listener engaged and waiting for the next development. Indian classical music is perfect for that, especially over long periods of time. I began to experiment to see how I could mirror that in my storytelling, sowing seeds and planting suggestions, but all the while keeping the reader impatient for the detail of the next development. As I thought about it, more and more parallels became apparent between literature and music.
Before I knew it I was unconsciously taking on board the broad shapes of pieces of music, flowing like a river around bends and over rocks, sometimes calm and sometimes ferocious. It gave me a great insight into how to approach the timeline within the novel, sometimes going slowly and patiently before propelling it through rapids and over rocks down towards a calming resolution.
There’s so much in common between the two disciplines. One tells a story with words and the other with sound. We need to keep the listener/reader interested with suggestions but not in a way that paints an obvious picture. We need to create suspense, excitement, anticipation and resolution. I never thought they would be quite so interlinked.
Pete Lockett has recorded and/or performed with Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong, Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden), U Shrinivas, Ronan Keating, Vanessa-Mae, Errol Brown, Rory Gallagher, Pet Shop Boys, Hari Haran, Kodo, Amy Winehouse, Mel C, A R Rahman, Sinead O’Connor and many more. He arranged and recorded ethnic percussion for five Bond films and other Hollywood blockbusters and has taught and lectured worldwide, including The Royal College, Berklee School of Music Boston, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. He is the author of Indian Rhythms for the Drum Set (Hudson). A Survivor’s Guide To Eternity is his first novel. Here he is on a mountain with percussionist Benny Greb. Find him on Twitter @PeteLockett
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Once a week 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 editor and author Aaron Sikes @SikesAaron
I go for instrumental over vocal music when I write. Spoken or sung lyrics are a distraction. My mind wants to catch the words and hold them long enough to get immersed in the experience of the song. But with orchestral or ambient electronic music, my imagination is free to roam through my story worlds.
My serialized novel, Gods of Chicago, was drafted to the title track of Joe Satriani’s Time Machine. Satch paints pictures with melody, and every one of his songs can bring an image to mind. Listening to Time Machine as I wrote brought to mind scenes of dirigibles soaring overhead while automatons march on the streets below. Radio signals beep and crackle through the air from spires and beacons. Bootleggers’ sedans rumble down back alleys, and my protagonist, a hard-boiled newshawk named Mitchell Brand, races around the city to find the answers nobody else seems to care about. Following on the tail of Time Machine, I happened upon a mind-blowing noir soundtrack by Josh Pfieffer of Vernian Process (DJ Fact.50). The Mixcloud of his DJ set, Noir Jazz and Swing, saw me through first round revisions.
As I moved into deeper revisions, I got turned onto three soundtracks. I started with Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight. The moody atmospheric quality of the music was a perfect fit for the noir landscape of my story, and the score really helped me get under Brand’s skin a lot better.
In early drafts of the character, I had him as a mashup of Edward R Murrow and Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. This gave Brand a rough exterior and a hard nose for news, but he lacked depth of feeling, and I couldn’t get into his motivation well enough to fix that problem. Once I had The Dark Knight soundtrack playing in the background, I quickly found Brand’s core as a WWI veteran, and much more than the ronin I’d originally thought him to be. He’s still a man obsessed with truth, but he’s also a would-be father to the three newsboys who answer to him. That puts a softer edge to the character, making him feel more like a real person.
I’ve also written to Zimmer’s score for Inception and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron Legacy, which have been incredible for helping me visualize major action scenes, flight and escape scenes, and moments of peril faced by all the major characters in the story. The ambient symphonic quality of both soundtracks is also responsible for me discovering how much more my supporting cast has to say. Previous drafts were Brand-centric, but now I have two major POV characters in addition to Brand, and each supporting cast member gets a little air time of their own.
Last but not least, when it comes to editing, I change gears and go with Adrian Legg – Guitars and Other Cathedrals. The exacting and fluid brilliance of Legg’s fingerstyle playing calms down all thoughts of action and suspense and puts me right into editor mode, smoothing out clunky prose, fixing typos, and ensuring clarity.
Aaron Sikes has been writing and editing full-time since late 2011. Gods of Chicago is his first full-length novel and he has previously had three stories published in anthologies by independent presses. Find him on Twitter @SikesAaron or visit his website http://www.ajsikes.com. He is also one half of the editing/formatting duo, The Wordwrights, with fellow author Colin F Barnes.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'