Sunday 20 January 2013

'Writing to Music' by A L Berridge

There are really only two types of writers: those who need music when they write, and those who don’t. I’m the wishy-washy type who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t, but if I don’t find the right kind of music somewhere in the process then the novel I’m writing is just never going to fly.

That’s a personal choice, of course, but I’m inflicting it on you today because I’d like to try and understand it better. I’m hoping if I come clean about my own weakness, then other writers might come forward and say why it’s helpful to them too.

Dot and Jim in 'EastEnders'
There’s one obvious reason why writers of historical fiction use music, and that’s as a way of ‘getting inside’ their period. The first time I heard of this was when EastEnders writer Tony Jordan was tackling a set of episodes about the marriage of the two oldest characters, Dot and Jim Branning, and told me he played a constant loop of 1940’s music all the time he was writing. This would have been the music of his characters’ youth, it defined their hopes and dreams, and while he was in their world it needed to define him too.

As a Seventies teen who’d rather not be defined by Little Jimmy Osmond singing ‘I’ll Be Your Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’, I found this idea at first repugnant. Yet while no-one likes every piece of music from their era, it’s true that their worldview is still shaped by the canon – just as the music itself sprung from something in the zeitgeist that made it popular. 

As writers I think we’d be daft not to use that. If we’re writing about the Sixties, what better way of soaking up the period than listening to its music? Some of our characters may favour the Stones over the Beatles, others (like me) become unaccountably soppy at ‘Waterloo Sunset’ or uplifted by ‘Downtown’, but somewhere in there are ‘their’ songs, and if we listen long enough we’ll find them. 

Which is all well and good if we’re writing about a period after the invention of the gramophone record, but what about those of us working in earlier centuries? It’s true there are wax cylinder recordings, but the crackle and bumping make it no more than a ghost of the music our characters would have made or heard themselves.

1860's organ grinder
If we want to get closer than that, the only solution is to recreate it. My current novel is set in 1855, and I use recordings of Victorian barrel organs to get the feel of the London my characters would have known. Some of the earliest organs still survive (you can see one from 1830 being played here), but even modern ones still give the unmistakeable sound of a world long gone by. So do songs of the Victorian Music Hall, even if the recordings are modern, and for the character of Woodall in ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I spent a good many hours listening to music that sounded like this. I sometimes think my long-suffering husband would have preferred ‘I’ll Be Your Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool’

But London isn’t the Crimea, and for the music my characters would have heard around them every day I’ve played endless hours of military bands. Every regiment had one, they played on the march and in the camps, and if I sometimes found the music infuriatingly jolly when trying to write the tragedy of war – then I think some of my characters felt the same. The Russian music was interestingly different, depending far more on marching songs than instrumentals, and there’s something in the grim heroism of those determined bass voices that really gave me a sense of both the clashing cultures and the reality of what my own characters were up against. The 20th century ‘Legendary Sevastopol’ sounds very similar in style if you want to get the general idea.

Russian military band on Sevastopol Day 2011
But the further we go back in time, the less useful contemporary music becomes. Classical 17th century French music wouldn’t have helped me write ‘Honour and the Sword’ – which is perhaps just as well, since it’s mostly ghastly. Formal court music meant nothing to people who couldn’t afford concerts, and while music specialists may define a period by Haydn or Vivaldi, most ordinary people would disagree. Folk songs, military marches, sometimes church music, these and the sound of bells are about all we can be sure most of our characters knew. 

It’s still a start. The pieces I used most in ‘Honour and the Sword’ were all from the previous century – a folk song (‘La Pernette’), a military song, (‘En Passant par la Lorraine’), and a popular polka which lent itself to Pierre Gilbert’s whistling (‘Bransle des Chevaux’). You can listen to them from the links here, and they’re all good pieces – but I have to be honest and say I never put them on a loop and listened to them as a pleasant background to my writing. Well – would you?

To be honest, I’d struggle with a lot of it. The reason different periods have different music is because tastes change, and if the price of writing a novel in Tudor times is an endless loop of bloody ‘Greensleeves’ then I’d almost be tempted to reach for Little Jimmy Osmond instead. But that, of course, is where my thesis breaks down with a horrible clunk. If I’m not using music as a research tool, then why do I need it at all? Why don’t I just work (as many better writers do) in sober, academic silence?

Well, why should I? Historical novelists aren’t the only writers who use music, and there are lots of ways in which it helps us tap into less familiar aspects of our work. ‘Place’ is one of them, and when I wrote about France in the Chevalier novels it was music that helped most. I didn’t do it consciously, but when I look back at the music I played when writing ‘Honour and the Sword’, it's every bit of it French. Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Massenet – and when I started ‘In the Name of the King’ I became hooked on French Café music as well. There’s nothing 17th century about Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trénet, Jean Sablon, or Fernandel, but when I wrote to them I was surrounded by French voices, French words, French syntax, French attitudes and French style. 

Those things matter, and I was constantly afraid of imbuing my French characters with inappropriate Englishness. Obviously there’s no such thing as a typical ‘Frenchwoman’ any more than there’s a typical 'Englishwoman', but there are still little differences that mean a lot. For me, the hardest to capture was that almost uniquely French quality of being comfortable not only in one’s own skin but also with one’s own sexuality. That’s important in a time when a poor woman’s body might be the only currency she had, and my English prudishness really struggled to master the correctly pragmatic shrug that would have been my character’s reaction to her situation. The music did it for me. Somewhere between Mistinguett’s cynical ‘Je cherche un millionaire’ and her heartbreaking ‘Mon Homme’ I found the character of 'Bernadette' and knew I was home.

And that’s another use for music – as a shorthand to take us inside a particular character. Opera and musical composers have always used the technique of giving characters their own ‘theme’, and so do those who write scores for the cinema. It sounds ridiculous to need one for one’s own created characters, but I write multiple point-of-view, and after a long section in the voice of one character I find it really helps to have a quick way back ‘in’ to the voice of another.
They can change too. In ‘Honour and the Sword’ Anne begins as a pre-pubescent girl, but as I progressed to ‘In the Name of the King’ her theme tune began to shift from Massenet’s ‘Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge’ to rampant Edith Piaf. Even now if I listen to the haunting start of ‘Mon Légionnaire’, I find myself at once inside Anne’s head and thinking with her voice.

If we can ignore the borderline lunacy of this, then it’s a genuinely practical tool. Whether it’s period, place, or character, I use music to ‘get me in the mood’, and that’s incredibly useful when you write to deadline. I can’t afford to sit around wistfully waiting for the Muse to show up; I need a genie’s lamp to make him appear to order. Every novel I’ve written has gradually found its own ‘signature tune’, and a quick blast of it is often all I need to rush to the computer to write. I still have to be disciplined and never allow myself to play it at any other time: that music has to be the bell to my Pavlov’s dogs, and I daren’t risk diluting its potency.

The odd thing is that it doesn’t even have to be obviously relevant. ‘Honour and the Sword’ worked legitimately to the first part of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony Number 3 (the Organ), but ‘Into the Valley of Death’ worked with astonishing improbability to ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That’s a ballad to peace, for heaven’s sake, but I used it constantly when I was writing the Battle of the Alma. I can justify it now by saying both are about the tragedy of war; that the steady build echoes the inexorable and heroic advance of the British troops in the full face of the Russian cannon; and that the synthesiser even echoes the sound of the Highlander’s pipes as they marched across the Heights to victory, but I’m not sure if that’s really why I chose it. It was just the piece I happened to be listening to when I first began to ‘get’ the Alma, and the pictures began to form in my head. Maybe the music inspired the words, or maybe the words coloured the music, but after that it’s only a matter of association.

Battle of the Alma: 'Forward, 42nd!' by Robert Gibb

That’s a depressing thought, really, and a salutary warning to avoid really naff music. What if my next good idea happens when someone’s playing ‘The Birdie Song’? Or Little Jimmy Osmond, come to that? Maybe this whole ‘music and words thing’ is a thoroughly bad idea.

But maybe it isn’t. I’ve written this whole turgid post as an excuse to ask other writers if they use it, how they do it, and if it works. I’ve especially wondered about those who write Ancient History, and how they manage in an absence of ‘Rome’s All-Time Greatest Hits’. Do they try militaristic songs from Napoleon’s France or Hitler’s Germany? Do they use anything? Does anyone?

Please. Just tell me it’s not just me.

A L Berridge's website


Sue Bursztynski said...

I use music, but to get me in the mood rather than to feel the era accurately. My 1960s short fiction was mostly written to the Beatles, especially the last one, which was about the Beatles visit to Melbourne. And going on YouTube I actually found some snippets from their Melbourne concert, which I found very helpful. My mediaeval fantasy is mainly written to early music, but I have also written while playing and glancing over at a DVD of Ladyhawke and The Knight's Tale, both of which had modern music! And it works for me. I also keep the religious early music on hand, such as Hildegard of Bingen and the English chants. Whatever works for you - why not?

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS Don't know about Ancient Rome , but I have a CD of music from Ancient Greece! :-)

alberridge said...

Hurray! Thanks so much, Sue - now I know I'm in good company. As you say - it's a matter of 'whatever works'.

But a CD of music from Ancient Greece! Who knew? I'm seriously impressed, and would love to know the kind of thing that's on it.

JO said...

I'm working on a novel about a women who was born in Ireland and died in New Zealand in the 1880s. I do, occasionally, play a jig or ballad, hum a diddly-di-do, to remind me of the core of her while she's off in distant places.

JO said...
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Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Louise, it's a Harmonia Mundi album, "Musique De La Grece Antique" by Atrium Musicae De Madrid. They're fragments, including the only one left from Imperial Rome. The artists have recreated some ancient Greek instruments, lyres, aulos, cytharas and a hydraulic organ. You can still buy it on line, and not expensive either, so check it out - I got it at an exhibition. I recall they used one of the tunes in the radio play of The King Must Die.

Lydia Syson said...

I loved this post. Music was incredibly important to me while I was writing 'A World Between Us', but partly because it was so important to the International Brigaders - it was a way of uniting people from all nations and backgrounds in shared harmony. So many of the accounts I heard and read from volunteers who took part in the Spanish Civil War referred to the emotional impact of hearing 'The Internationale' sung in lots of different languages at once.

alberridge said...

Jo - what a lovely phrase, 'the core of her'. That's it exactly. One of my own characters is a Highlander, and I played a lot of Scottish ballads to keep my sense of his home and roots, but 'core' is the perfect way to express it.

Sue - I'm gobsmacked. My knowledge of Ancient Greece is woeful, but something like this could really bring it to life. I think I'm going to have to buy it now...

Lydia - Yes, absolutely. When music is so crucial to the characters I think it has to be to us too. How could we write about the French revolution without listening to the Ca Ira and the Carmagnole? You're right, and the 'emotional impact' is all.

And huge congratulations on 'A World Between Us', by the way. I've seen fantastic reviews.

adele said...

Love this post! Just reading the words "En passant par la Lorraine' has given me an earworm. That's a very catchy tune, right? And yes, I've done that often. Most memorable time was constand Radio One on while writing my two Redgate Academy books, (long out of print.) The Academy was for Performing Arts so I wanted to know what all the kids were listening quite addictive but I have left it far behind now.

Theresa Breslin said...

Great post. I can't listen while I'm doing the actual creative writing bit but when researching, yes, it's sounds as well as the sights isn't it? I agree it can be addictive

Ann Turnbull said...

While writing Mary Ann and Miss Mozart I played Handel's opera Acis and Galatea - and especially one aria that Mary Ann learns to sing - over and over - and practised singing it myself too (got so immersed in the music that it felt odd when the book came out without a CD attached!) And when I was writing the 17thC love story in No Shame, No Fear I used Joan Baez's early folk song LPs as inspiration. But I'd only listen to music during breaks from writing. I never have any music playing while I write. I need silence - or sound I can ignore, like traffic.

Katherine Langrish said...

I listened to troubadour songs while writing 'Dark Angels' and wrote a post about it for Roz Morris at The Undercover Soundtrack, where there are more author/music confessions to be found!

I can't actually write and listen at the same time, though. One and then the other!

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Adele. You're right about 'En Passant de la Lorraine' - 'earworm' is the word. I went round for weeks singing the thing, and a very horrid noise it was too.

And thanks, Theresa, Ann, and Kath! It looks as if we pretty well all use music for research, but I may be the only sad person who uses it when actually writing. I wouldn't say I 'listen' - it's more of a background atmospheric mush I use to keep myself in the right world - but I can understand how it would drive some people mad.

Susan Price said...

I often listen to music while writing and here's my theory - for what's it worth - on why it's useful. There is always part of your brain - the chattering monkey or fidgetting toddler part - which wants to mess around and chase irrelevant things, and will distract you.
If you play music, then it has something to occupy it! - while the rest of your brain carries on writing.
I think this is also why I find working in pubs and cafes, when away from home, far easier than in the dull, dead silence of libraries. In the pub the chattering, fidgetty part of my brain is quite happy watching the comings and goings, and listening to what's going on - while the rest of me gets on with work!

Katherine Roberts said...

Lovely post! Like Kath, I too did an Undercover Soundtrack for Roz Morris' blog. I often listen to old ballads and folk songs to get me in the mood, and Clannad is perfect for historical fantasy set in our misty isle...

Jessica Brockmole said...

I'm coming to this a bit late, but I loved this! Music is integral to the creative process for me, whether it's very much in the background (keeping me in rhythm) or chosen specifically. I do sometimes choose my music for era or for place. You said it so well, that we can use that music "as a shorthand to take us inside a particular character." At times I played Scottish music while writing Letters from Skye, just to have the Gaelic in my ears.

But I think most often I use music to put myself in the right emotional state. I had a hesitant love scene to write between two very young characters, nervously exploring. Regardless of when or where it was set, I knew it was something that transcended both. So I pulled out songs I remembered listening to in the car in high school, songs I remembered from school dances. I wanted to recapture those awkward, blushing, fumbling moments. So most often I use music to tease to the surface ways that I've felt at different times in my life and to pass those on to the characters.