Gimme Johann, Gimme Jimmy: Music to Write By

What do writers listen to while they write? Over at NeuroTribes, where the splendid Steve Silberman has gathered Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse, we learn that Priscilla Gibbs leans to the Dead and Iron and Wine; David Shenk to Philip Glass; Carl Zimmer to Steely,  Joni, and Neil; David Quammen to silence; and Jane Hirschfield to a “John Cage-like sound-space that governs itself” — which is to say, true ambient sound, the real deal. Ed Yong, David Wolman, and August Kleinhahler round out the chorus.

Do go see all these for yourselves; great stuff (and good photos).

My own pickings, for the lazy, are below the fold:

Music to Write By

I listen to music only about a third of the time that I’m actually writing, usually just to get in the right mood — and so I’m not distracted, in that first hour, by the silent sound of me trying to write. So I might listen for 20 to 80 minutes, then quit once I’m enough into the story that the music becomes distraction rather than muse. If I’m really going well, the music dies and I don’t realize it.

What to listen to? Usually it’s from the list below. The choice at the time depends on my mood, how well I’m working, and/or whether I seem to need calming or stimulation.

My playlists:

Bach’s English Suites, the recordings by Wolfsam Rubsam on Naxos. These suites are wonderfully orderly, like all Bach, and driven with an especially clean melodic energy. Just what you need to keep a roll going; not so good if you have to climb a fresh hill. I like listening to them when revising, or when, as Hemingway advises, I have left my writing the day before in a state of clear motion so that it is easy to pick up.

Bach’s Lute Suites, recorded by Sharon Isbin on guitar. Other than a few Neil Young albums, Sticky Fingers, and “Kashmir,” I don’t think I have a recording I’ve listened to more often. It opens with a lovely cascade of notes that can chute you down a wonderful Zenlike channel. I confess that once I’m going, I often turn this off after a half hour or so, when it starts to seem jangly and intrude. That’s a good sign; it means I’ve got enough going on the page that I don’t need more stim.

At that point — or when I need to just color the aural landscape, rather than drive myself through it — I’ll go to some gentler stuff. Most commonly I’ll play one of two iTunes “genius” playlists, 100 songs each, that iTunes’ Genius algorithm pulled together from tunes I named. The first builds from “The Man I Love,” a gorgeous jazz standard, a ballad, recorded in this case by the trumpeter Enrico Rava with drummer Paul Motian and pianist Stefano Bollani. The other playlist is built around a recording of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and, again, drummer Paul Motian, who’s a genius. Motian plays his kit so gently he could put babies to sleep.

I also listen to a lot of slow Charlie Haden, especially his album Heartplay, with the guitarist Antonio Forcione, and Jasmine, with Keith Jarrett.

Another rung down the distraction/stimulation ladder and I’m into background/ambient terrain. Here also I rely on two staples:

First, a shuffled play of Brian Eno’s ambient albums, such as Music for Airports; second, an ingenious iPod app Eno made called Trope. You tap and rub the screen for a moment, fingerpaint-style, to set the texture for a Music for Airports-like ambient soundscape that will play indefinitely. I’ve done some great planning and some of my better writing lately with that going. The one danger is that the fine ambience and healthy relaxed Zenlike state it produces can convince you you’re getting good work done when it turns out … well, you’re not. A couple times I fell asleep.

When that happens, I get up, turn the volume up to 11, and put on some Led Zeppelin: “In The Evening,” for its hunger; “Fool in the Rain,” for the triumph of Jimmy Page’s solo; “The Ocean,” because it’s in 15/16, reminding me of the power of structure; “Kashmir,” for like reasons; or, if I’ve actually done especially good work and feel like the king of the world and figure maybe it’s time to go downstairs and visit my wife, “I’m Gonna Crawl.” Because it works.

via Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse | NeuroTribes.

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