Sunday, May 7, 2017

What do writers listen to when they write?

What do writers listen to when they write? In these media-saturated days that doesn't seem like such a far-fetched question for an interview any longer, but it remains unasked most of the time. Even more rare is the chance for an author to write about the music that inspired an idea or enhanced the form of a story.

Perhaps it seems more appropriate to ask a writer simply if he turns the music off or on when he sits down to write. To many, music is only a distraction. But it turns out that many contemporary authors find music forms a soundtrack to their writing. And for some authors, music can help find a way into a story.

The Largehearted boy site has a regular feature, Book Notes, which asks writers to comment on music they listened to while they worked on their books. Thaisa Frank writes about her first novel Heidegger's Glasses, a story of World War II, that the music of Beethoven was her first choice while conceiving the story. But there were other inspirations as well: California rain on skylights, and an iPod shuffle that included Cat Power, Bob Marley, and The Cranberries.

Frank decided early in framing her characters that the camp Commandant would be listening to Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral." But she changed her mind: "after listening to the Pastoral, I decided the dissonance was heavy-handed and remembered Mozart's Piano Concerto in C, which my boyfriend gave me in college. It joined my iPod shuffle. The Commandant played it, too."
...Since I studied piano perhaps it's not surprising that I chose the Concerto or made the one of the characters a pianist, although at the time I didn't give it much thought. Nor did I give it much thought at first when she played Scarlatti sonatas. Then I listened to Scarlatti and remembered how much I loved playing his sonatas and the sense of a clean, well-ordered world. I found as many Scarlatti piano sonatas as I could and they also joined the iPod shuffle.
At some point -- perhaps toward the middle of the novel -- I began to watch documentaries about WWII, documentaries in which Germany's national anthem at the time was played again and again. I heard this anthem in a curious way -- distancing myself, trying not to hear it. Perhaps I listened the way people who were threatened by, or unsympathetic to the Nazi Party listened.
In one documentary, however, I found a song that became emblematic -- a song I then listened to again and again. This was from Lotte Leyna's German recording of The Three Penny Opera. It is called "Solomon" in English, "Saloman" in German. I first heard it on a documentary about Leni Riefenstahl. While Riefenstahl insisted that she didn't know about the concentration camps it was played over and over, like a dirge. The song sounded less ironic in German than it does in English. It sounded mournful. The rhythm is insistent and relentless. It washes over Riefenstahl's denials like waves.

Thaisa Frank
I also listened to Cat Power, blues piano by Jimmy Yancey, and The Cranberries. Each piece of music felt close to the novel or the act of writing it. The Cranberries and Cat Power are close to the feelings of love and betrayal that persisted in Germany during WWII. And Jimmy Yancey's piano seemed closest to the way I seemed to disappear when the writing went well. His blues are deceptively simple--as though the piano is a guitar and he is picking out tunes. I always see him at an old upright late at night in a smoky Chicago bar. There's a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he's playing as if no one is listening. ...

The music of the blues and the reality of German concentration camps in World War II make an unlikely pairing, but that was Frank's way of "disappearing" into the story and letting the story tell itself. Most writers, if pressed, would have a difficult time explaining where their inspiration comes from. It seems that an author's music playlist is one small facet that can make the mystery of creativity a little clearer, even as the connection between source and inspiration remains as inexplicable as ever.

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