Nov 15, 2011

Music to my ears (part one)

Taking a short break from NaNoWriMo and I'm sitting here listening to some music, trying to find some stuff to bombard my mindgrapes with (thanks 30 Rock) while I'm writing. I'm not one of those writers who like solitude or dead quiet to write by. I can but I prefer to shut out the world with a pair headphones and cycle through some of the movie soundtrack stuff I've got assembled on iTunes.

It's important to get the right mix of stuff on your playlist, it's no use having John Williams' Indy theme trying to rouse you into action while you're writing a quiet passage. Same goes for the slow melodious piano tunes when you're trying to have your hero beat down the bad guys.

Sometimes, I find tracks only after listening to the whole soundtrack in isolation but generally I seek out pieces that resonated with me during the movie. Occasionally, a song will catch my attention and I'll also throw that into the mix, just to change it up a little. This has been my method of madness for years now and seems to work for me.

I've listened to a lot of music soundtracks over the years, and owned many of them. My friends and I used them constantly as a backdrop to our roleplaying games so stuff like Danny Elfman's "Batman", Alan Silvestri's "Shattered", Lennie Niehaus' "Unforgiven" and Ennio Morricone's "The Thing" became staples.

I've found myself putting some tracks on repeat just to get the right feeling for a scene that I'm writing, borrowing a little of the energy perhaps from how it made me feel when I heard it in the context of the movie. It's sometimes surprising how powerful music can be when used effectively in a movie and there are many examples of where a movie scene has been heightened by the use of music. There are probably as many times where terrible music cues have ruined a scene.

I hate when music is used to "tell" me how to feel in a given scene. Used properly, music just enhances the emotion of the scene but doesn't dictate to you how you should feel. If the scene is moving to you then the music should move you further, but if the scene does not move you, then the music should not try to bully you to feel it. The differences are sometimes tiny but it's amazing how many times a little clumsiness with the soundtrack makes a scene fall flat.

From time to time, when I'm writing, a piece of music will suggest a scene to me by itself. Years ago, I got an idea for a roleplay and a story based on a piece of music from the electronic band Tangerine Dream. I bought a cheap tape of their greatest hits and one of the tracks, which ran about ten minutes I believe, started off as fairly unremarkable but built its way into something more and triggered a whole concept in my head. Another time, I was watching the television and a piece of music played gave me a vivid picture in my head of an entire scene that eventually turned into the last part of a seven part story I wrote.

The first time this creativity reared its head was while listening to Gustav Holst's "The Planets" suite. A great music teacher I had at school played "Mars" to us little brats and it always stuck with me. When I was older and finally saved enough money it was the first album I bought with my own money. Each part of the Planets suite is a dazzling musical interpretation of one of the Planets in the solar system and for me Mars is the most powerful; Mars, Bringer of War. It easily summons images of war and battle and is such a powerful piece of music that parts of it have been "borrowed" or copied by modern music composers. The rhythms and motifs of the piece show up everywhere. In fact, I believe some composers have gotten themselves in trouble for "being influenced" too heavily by it. Hans Zimmer and James Horner being two examples of composers who've borrowed the piece heavily. In fact, here's a cool little clip over at YouTube that shows the comparisons pretty well and also shows other stuff that's "influenced" modern soundtracks (if you're into that kind of thing, which I am):

So, what have I got cued up to listen to for my current story? Well, some Thomas Newman for sure. One of the famous Newman family of musicians and composers (Randy Newman is his uncle), he's written the soundtracks for The Shawshank Redemption, Scent of a Woman, American Beauty, Finding Nemo and Cinderella Man. I'm a particular fan of the main theme from Scent of a Woman and the Stoic theme from Shawshank. The Scent of a Woman theme starts of like some kind of pastoral rumination, an oboe plays a gentle tune as lush strings build giving the impression of a late summer evening or even an early Fall. Then at the one minute mark, the theme changes into a more rhythmical piece, more carefree, youthful and joyous, this time evoking Spring.

Scent of a Woman - Main Theme

With the Stoic theme we've got a powerful Cello piece that, from the moment I heard it in the theater, planted me in my seat. I walked in late to see The Shawshank Redemption (not like me at all) and as the camera zooms over Shawshank Prison, this is the piece that plays and it just blew me away. To this day it's still one of my favorite themes.

The Shawshank Redemption - Stoic Theme

For some of the more gentle moments its nice to throw in some Ryuichi Sakamoto. His music for Ralph Fiennes' version of Wuthering Heights David Bowie's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence are simply fantastic. Hans Zimmer has also written some wonderful pieces. Inception is my new favorite of his. It's great from beginning to end but "Time" stands out...(does the spinning top fall over at the end???...). Others cued up this go around are Dickon Hinchliffe (Last Chance Harvey), Cliff Martinez (Solaris), Dario Marinelli (V for Vendetta) and Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica), and some Mark Isham (In the Valley of Elah).

Anyway, I've stalled enough. Time to get back to NaNoWriting...

...are there any particular pieces of music you like to listen to? Any pieces I should add to my collection?

Let me know what you like to listen to.