This week's Music For Writers is courtesy of Tim Major, an author of some of my favourite stories of the last few years (I first read his work when I reviewed his debut novella Carus & Mitch). And - hurrah! - it looks like he has a great taste in music too, based on his selections below.
Take it away, Tim:
I always listen to music when I’m working and when I’m writing. Nowadays I work from home as a freelance editor; without a commute, the time I spend at my desk is my main opportunity to listen to music. Incidentally, when I was younger I daydreamed about a jukebox that would allow you to play any song from any point in history, and today Spotify comes close to fulfilling that dream. I listen to around 300 new albums each year and replay many of those, and old favourites, a great deal more.
The music I choose when I’m writing needs to function as a background – dreaminess is a must. This also means the only music with lyrics I can write to are those that are so familiar that they don’t intrude, or performed by singers I can’t understand – either because of a quirk of delivery, audio effects, or because they’re singing in another language. Finland’s Fonal Records is a great source of ethereal albums, my favourite being Lau Nau’s HEM. Någonstans, which Last.fm tells me is the album I’ve listened to most in the last five years, which I’ll confess comes as something of a surprise until I start playing the album again: it taps into something in my brain. Immediately, I feel serene. Other vocal artists that fit the bill include Grouper, Julia Holter and Thom Yorke (at least, his first solo album, The Eraser). This year’s debut album from Holy Motors, Slow Sundown, contains a raft of songs that would have all fit as Roadhouse end-credits songs for Twin Peaks: The Return and which settle at the back of the brain rather than prodding at the front. But for my first selection I’m going to go with Hope Sandoval and Kurt Vile’s ‘Let Me Get There’ from Until the Hunter: ever since her time fronting Mazzy Star, I’ve found Hope Sandoval’s voice to be a shortcut to bliss.
I’m not afraid of dullness or repetition, as everyone I know socially will attest. Take one of my favourite films, Stalker – I’ve watched it half a dozen times and I swear I’ve fallen asleep every time. (See also, to lesser degree, Pickpocket, In the Mood for Love, Les Vampires.) The first recording of modern minimalist music I heard was Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a performance staggering in its precision and hypnotic power. (Possibly, the roots of repetitive were sown early for me: when I was a baby, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was the only album that would soothe me to sleep.) Albums in the same vein that put me in the zone for writing include Donato Dozzy’s Plays Bee Mask, Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Grafts, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s A Fragile Geography, Mind Over Mirrors’ The Voice Rolling, Folke Rabe’s What?? and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Tapes. But I’m going to pick a track from one of Alex Zhang Hungtai / Dirty Beaches’ ‘minor’ works, the soundtrack to Water Park (I haven’t seen the film – see note below). I couldn’t begin to estimate how many of my stories have been written to this music.
There are two artists that deserve their own category in a list of my listening tastes. Jim O’Rourke is one of the most prolific experimental musicians imaginable, having worked with Wilco, Sonic Youth, Joanna Newsom, as well as making up half of my favourite post-rock band, Gastr Del Sol, and also finding time to create a handful of sublime pop albums for Drag City. His experimental work with Fennesz (It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry) and Fire! (Unreleased?) are some of the albums I often return to while writing. Oren Ambarchi has had a similar stellar, and similarly collaborative, career, and his solo albums make me cross-eyed with contentment. Selecting an Oren Ambarchi album means immediately shutting out the world and retreating to a comfortable, secluded place which I imagine to be rather like Roald Dahl’s writing hut. I’m picking ‘Remedios the Beauty’ from my favourite of Ambarchi’s albums, Grapes from the Estate. It’s 15 minutes long, but usually after the first couple of minutes I can barely hear it, like the hubbub of a café, except it’s a café filled with customers that hum happily instead of chatting.
I love jazz, but I listen to it only rarely as a background to writing – usually when I want a hit of adrenaline, and often at the editing stage when my motivation may be flagging. Charles Mingus’ Ah Um hits the spot, as does Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music and Sun Ra’s Sleeping Beauty. The one I’ve been returning to most recently while editing my most recent novel is Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, so that’s my next pick.
Sometimes intensity is what’s required as a background. I rarely write action scenes – possibly a failing of mine – and so when I do, I really need to gear up. Splazsh by Actress works fantastically well, as does the space-techno STRGTHS by SHXCXCHCXSH. For now, I’ll pick an incredible, disorienting live recording from Throbbing Gristle and Factory Floor supergroup, Carter Tutti Void, included on Transverse.
I know that soundtrack albums are often popular with writers, but I find that anything that specifically recalls a film I like is problematic – I wouldn’t want to unconsciously adopt things half-remembered from a favourite film. Soundtracks that are more tonal than melodic work fine: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score to Annihilation being a case in point, or the contextless drones of Dean Hurley’s soundscapes for Twin Peaks: The Return, released as Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△. This will sound obtuse, but I like listening to scores of films I haven’t seen. I’m planning a novel right now, and the laborious process of creating a synopsis has been soundtracked by Ennio Morricone’s score to Senza Sapere Niente Di Lei, a film about which I know literally nothing. It’s my bonus pick.