Posts Tagged Ólafur Arnalds

The Undercover Soundtrack – Toni Davidson

for logoThe 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.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson1Push 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.

Writer, responder

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.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson2

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.

The Undercover Soundtrack - The Alpine CasanovasAbove 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: And find him on Twitter @silemrenk

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‘The journey is more important than the destination’ – Toni Davidson

for logoMy guest this week describes music as ‘a portable environment’. His work patterns have taken him all over the world and he might find himself writing anywhere from a station waiting room to a hotel lobby or a scorching beach. No matter where he finds himself, the music will put him back where he left off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his novels explore people who are lost, displaced or caught between cultures and he finds their soundtracks in the work of contemporary classical composers (including one of my own favourites, Olafur Arnalds). He is Toni Davidson and he’ll be here on Wednesday.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Dave Newell

for logo‘A song that puts me under a spell I dare not break’

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’s post is by Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell

Soundtrack by Beethoven, Olafur Arnalds, Thayer Sarrano

Can music make a writer a better writer?

daveauthorpiclessI grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.


When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.

Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.

Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension

When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.

Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.

Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.

red-lory-cover-front-ebook-title The lonesome spell

Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.

I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.

Listen for the stories

To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.

Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at and on Twitter at @davenewell.

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‘A song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break’ – Dave Newell

for logoI’m delighted that this week’s guest has included Olafur Arnalds’s album Living Room Songs in his Soundtrack. I discovered it from another guest here, and it got me like a snakecharmer’s pipe. While I’ve been mainlining it to brainstorm The Mountains Novel, my latest guest has been using it to create an environment of conspiracy, calm and sexual tension for his novel Red Lory. He says he puts music on to act as a metronome, guiding his voice while he concentrates on the  sentence formation and world-building. He’s also inspired by the way songwriters pack so much into a tight space, which drives him to make his prose more vibrant and potent. He is literary novelist Dave Newell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Andy Harrod

for logo‘Love is the key to these stories’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is Andy Harrod @decodingstatic

Soundtrack by Ólafur Arnalds, HATR Project, Smoke Fairies, Joy Division, Soap & Skin, Lanterns on the Lake, Eels, Polly Scattergood, The National, Sigur Ros

I constantly surround myself with music and that is where my words come from. Music allows me to connect with and un-censor myself, to release and to be. Which is exactly how Living Room Stories and tearing at thoughts came to be.

AndyHarrodLiving Room Stories was an experiment, to write to music, namely Ólafur Arnalds’s Living Room Songs. I plugged into the sparse piano of Frysta and sketched a moment of waiting. From then on I danced with Ólafur’s music, which I feel is very emotive; there is a beautiful simplicity to it. Love is key to these stories; without love I fear we are nothing. Ólafur’s songs connect to my heart and on this occasion I decided to dive in, listening to each song for a few hours and with this immersion a life in seven moments was formed. One of the reasons I buy music on vinyl is that I see the packaging, the art, as an extension of the music. Living Room Stories is housed in a 7inch record sleeve, each story on its own card with accompanying image, with a transparent print for the cover. It invites the reader to play with these moments, to invent their own story.


I think of tearing at thoughts as an album. Each piece works separately, but together they layer and resonate the unspoken and the lost. This collection leaves me feeling exposed, in part due to how it was written as separate pieces. Each piece came about from entering a space, where I would immerse myself in my thoughts and feelings, whilst accompanied by music. In that space I was still, and the pieces came out uncensored and are a particular truth. Drawing together the pieces are a set of sentences, the first two were inspired by Coda by HATR Project from Heartbeat Against The Reason. A dark and gorgeous instrumental album that draws me into a place that hisses with noise.

That place of noise is lonely, where fear circles and strangles. Living with Ghosts by Smoke Fairies sums up this place (Strangled by Fear, Twilight), the echoing of slide guitar and plucked strings, the rich haunting voices of youth. Then there is the waking at four-fifty in the morning, sweating as the visuals fades, but the images plague. Dreamscapes interspace (I dreamt, Repeat till Fade) and develop through tearing at thoughts and their reconstruction occurs whilst listening to bands such as Joy Division, the hypnotism of 24 hours seals together scattered images and feelings.

There are pieces where I placed the needle on vinyl and kept repeating. Truth was formed by listening to Soap & Skin’s Lovetune for Vacuum over and over, especially Thanatos, a circling in on words to describe what is lost inside. Mist and Trees required less repeating of the music, it was instead the repeating of a lyric from I’ve Been Unkind by Lanterns on the Lake. When this lyric met a scene of trees in mist, the image of a frightened women was conjured.

EPSON scanner ImageEmpty Embrace and Rust I are those moments on an album, where I delve deep through screaming guitars, battered dreams and vibrating piano strings echoing, echoing, echoing, until I’ve spat out my disgust at the betrayals. The words at first muffled, trapped behind layers of educational, political and social shadows, till the chorus scream, and we are left alone in a pub cradling our empty drinks, the last to go home as there is still something to say. Think Eels, Polly Scattergood and The National’s High Violet and my favourite Bloodbuzz Ohio as sound-tracking that scene.

tearing at thoughts is infused with the places we tend not to explore and lingers with sadness, in the hope that by entering we may come to change ways of relating, become more authentic and less fearful; and the ending is one of hope and happiness. Where ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós is the only song that can capture the joy of choices available in a loving relationship, but even there our choices may not be fulfilled and as such the ending is also a call to not forget myself, ourselves in our lives.

Andy Harrod is a writer, not out of a desire to tell stories, but a need to understand, to find meaning and connect with self and life. Outside of writing Andy is a trainee person-centred therapist and runs the streets of Lancaster, one day soon the fells of the Lake District. Living Room Stories was Andy’s first release; handmade and Kindle editions are available. tearing at thoughts, a collection of writing, art and photography, is to be published by 79 rat press as part of its NOTHING TO SAY exhibition, available from June 2013. Andy posts stories, photos, art and thoughts at Decoding Static. Say hello to him on Twitter @DecodingStatic.

GIVEAWAY Andy is giving away 1 handmade copy of Living Room Stories and a print of two from tearing at thoughts. To enter leave a comment or tweet the song that represents love for you. Andy will pick his favourite. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Good luck!

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