Take it away, Rhys:
Background Writing Music - Rhys Hughes
My background writing music is silence usually, but this has only been true in recent years. In fact, if I wanted to be clever, I could say that these days I listen only to John Cage’s composition 4’33’’ played on an endless loop. The truth is that I’ve rarely used classical music, especially modern(ish) classical music, to provide any aural or vibrational context to my writing sessions. A few Satie pieces, yes, maybe a Debussy or two, a dreamy Sorabji (as are they all, though they can be discordant) and perhaps a Reich, Adams or Glass or two. Harold Budd is the only classical composer of note, pun intended, to have regularly fuelled the accretion of my words on page or screen and that occurred rather a long time ago.
When I was younger I was much less fussy about silence and I enjoyed boisterous rhythms pounding away in the corner of the room while I sat and scribbled or typed. I wrote listening to Hawkwind, King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull and other space rockers and prog combos, nearly all of them from the previous decade, as if my ears were still in the 1970s even though the rest of me had crossed into the 1980s. I had a special fondness for Supertramp’s obscure first album, which is looser, more chaotic, organic and beautiful than their later work. Then I discovered fusion jazz and the delights of Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, complex music that manages to groove despite the intricacy of its arrangements, the odd time signatures and constant shifting of themes. But within a few years I began to find drums distracting and bass plucking intrusive. I wanted to focus my attention on music fully or not at all.
Yet I couldn’t conceive of writing without the help of music. It seemed to me that my ears were free during the act of creating a story, so why shouldn’t I employ them? I feared the waste of time and sensation if I wrote in a quiet room. I ought to point out that at this stage I was a terminally unaccepted writer who hadn’t sold a single short story or anything else to any publisher anywhere. I simply didn’t know anything about the market or the process of sending work to publishers. But I had hope, I had a determination that would never fade. I wrote a lot of fiction every day, and because I did this while listening to music, I listened to a lot of music. I also listened to music when I wasn’t writing, of course, so it can truthfully be said that I existed in a web of sound, like a fly trapped by jazz spiders.
Soundscapes are what I searching for, but I didn’t know this at the time. Yes, I had listened to Brian Eno albums and had appreciated the luminous and liminal sonorities of his ambient tracks (as if listening to light rather than sound), and there were gentle and almost vanishingly subtle tone poems aplenty on the albums of some fusion guys, but this still wasn’t exactly right. I didn’t want the music to retreat or dwindle, to be a thing easily forgotten. I wanted it to be there, upfront, obvious, imposed on the room, embedded in its atmosphere, and yet at the same time not prove to be distracting. My search seemed impossible, then one day in 1987 I walked into the flat I occupied with two other students and the most amazing, haunting and ecstatic music was playing on the record player. One of the students, Alan, a very tall man with an enormous stride, had obtained the music in London, but the musicians on it were Scottish, he informed me. I was desperate to know what this was.
It was ‘Throughout the Dark Months of April and May’ on the Victorialand album of the Cocteau Twins. It was as icy as that part of the Antarctica it was presumably named after, yet it shimmered with gorgeous colours, like the aurora australis. It was an iceberg of terror and love that sailed straight into my heart. Eccentrically, it was an LP that played at 45rpm. The voice that rose from it, the whoops and idiorhythmic swoops of Elizabeth Frazer, chilled me to the bone and boned me to the edge of joy and over it, where I fell helpless but happy into timelessness. Because the music did seem to be timeless, unlike other music in which form and content are one and the same. It seemed to exist in a mobile stasis.
Alan had other albums by the Cocteau Twins and I could hardly wait to hear them to learn how they compared. One was The Moon and the Melodies, mainly regarded as unimportant by the music critics of the day, but which is still perhaps my favourite album of the 1980s. It was a collaboration with composer Harold Budd, who played a cool melancholy piano on the sung tracks and provided the glacial sonic evolution of the unsung tracks. Soundscapes, gentle but not ambient. Not even gentle really, when one considers them properly. Spooky and thrilling and deeply odd and nothing at all like music a student was supposed to listen to back then, with comprehensible words, noodling guitars and standard song structures.
I went out and bought one of the albums Alan didn’t have. It was called Treasure and I regarded it as the best record I’d ever heard. Later I found out that the Cocteau Twins didn’t rate it highly, that Robin Guthrie actually referred to it as an “abortion”, and I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. It might have injured the divine integrity of the product like a gigantic dirty thumbprint on an infinite lake of ice. I played the album over and over and over again. I wore it out. Every track was absolutely perfect. As time went on, I began to discern flaws in a few, started to feel irritated by some, I even winced when hearing my least favourites, but that was later, much later. I played the album and decided to write as it was playing.
I got up regularly to flip sides every time it stopped. I was writing, but not a short story this time. No, I decided to attempt the construction of a chess problem. Chess is a game I had been playing for many years, so why not get involved in the art of chess problems? Of course, designing a chess problem is completely unlike playing a game of chess, but I wasn’t aware of how different until I made the attempt. It was difficult. It took an entire weekend, listening constantly to Treasure by the Cocteau Twins, but at the end of that Sunday my problem was ready and it worked. I typed it up, mailed it the next day to The Independent, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Britain, and waited. I was expecting a rejection. But I received my first acceptance. It was a very small beginning to my published career, but it proved to be a turning point in the sense that it gave me vital encouragement.
That was in the summer of 1988. In following years I wrote more chess problems and also mathematical puzzles called ‘Brainteasers’ for The Sunday Times Magazine, some of which were little fantasy stories as well as puzzles, one concerning a gnome and titled ‘Metrognome’, which was a direct steal from the Camel song on the album Rain Dances, proving that I was still listening to prog rock as well as soundscapes. I continued listening this way until an event in the year 1998 changed my musical tastes forever. I was given an album of Cuban music for my birthday. I had owned a ‘world music’ album before, a musical meeting between Cheb Khaled and Safy Boutella, but I had regarded that as a one-off, not as the start of a global journey with no final destination. That particular album had been a false start of sorts, but the Cuban compilation had the effect of making all my previous musical loves seem to be only a part of my past. They were relegated to some other dimension. It was as if they no longer belonged to me but only to the person I no longer was. This included all the albums of the Cocteau Twins. Much of the fusion jazz made a comeback later, as did some of the prog rock, but I have no regrets.
I had finally found the kind of music intended for me all along. That was the big truth that was revealed to me. For a time I wrote listening to Cuban, Brazilian and other Latin American music, then afrobeat, bhangra, soukous (which is my favourite of all now) but gradually I began to feel that a separation was necessary, that writing and music should be separated the same way church and state are, that it is somehow compositionally unhealthy to merge the two experiences in a room at the same time. To replace sound came silence, and silence is exclusively what I listen to now, as much silence as I’m able to secure for myself in a busy and noisy world. Music has become a reward for after the writing and I prefer it this way. But we are what we are when we are, and no approach is objectively right.
And that’s the background to my life of background writing music.