I have always written to music.
It started when I was eleven or twelve. I’d curl up on the old brown couch with a spiral notebook across my knees, put on the huge, archaic headphones, and shut out the world. I sometimes suspect the “writing*” was just an excuse to wrap myself in music and ignore everything else.
* Not that I wasn’t writing. My fantasy and SF novels comprised many spiral notebooks of vibrantly dreadful prose. Let it never be said I didn’t produce.
I listened to records in those days. My parents had an idiosyncratic collection — lots of classical mixed in with a few strange relics from the sixties (Smothers Brothers, Tijuana Brass), some kids’ stuff (Muppet Show Album, disco Star Wars), and a shocking amount of Barry Manilow. In a fit of uncharacteristic good taste, I went for the classical.
Romantic symphonies fit my needs best. They were bursting with drama and passion, alternately epic and intimate in scope, just like I hoped my writing might be. My favourites were Brahms’s 4th and Shostakovitch’s 5th, which was written in a later era but has a very Romantic feel to it, so I think it counts. Certainly my twelve-year-old self found a lot of commonality between the two works.
The first movement of the Brahms was unquestionably the ocean, restless and mighty; the beginning of the Shostakovitch was a storm gathering above waves of nodding prairie grasses. My head was already full of wilderness; I’d spent my childhood vacations staring out the car window at the moving landscapes. Those were the scenes these symphonies conjured up for me: red canyons, impenetrable forests, sand hills, clouds making high drama out of of sunlight. And always moving, traveling, questing. I had just read Tolkien at that age, and I think that got mashed together with the music also.
I still love that Brahms. In high school, our youth symphony performed it and I got to experience it from the cello section. Performing a piece almost always solidifies it in my esteem. The Shostakovitch I haven’t listened to in years, but writing this is making me nostalgic for it. In the first movement, if I recall, there was a call-and-response between solo flute and French horn, which struck me (at twelve) as the single most beautiful moment in all of music ever. I wonder how it would sound to me now.
One reason I wonder is that I was reading up on Shostakovitch’s 5th in preparation for writing this (because that’s how I roll, baby: nerdy), and it turns out the piece has an interesting and complicated history. In 1936, Shostakovitch was in hot water with Soviet leadership because his music didn’t conform to ideals of “socialist realism”. He came back with the 5th symphony, to great acclaim from the Party and the people. But one can’t escape the impression that parts of the piece are slyly subversive, that he’s thumbing his nose even as he appears to be capitulating. The extent of this slyness is still a matter for debate.
I’ve moved away from symphonic music over the years. One reason is that my tastes have broadened a lot; it turns out there’s a lot more music in the world than classical and disco Star Wars. Who knew? Another is that symphonies are complex and deep enough that they require a lot of attention. I’m not good at simply letting a symphony be background noise; I want to stop what I’m doing and let myself be carried off into the ever-shifting landscape of my mind.
You’d think that would still be useful for writing, but it’s not. My writing needs have evolved over time; it’s not just an elaborate escape into daydream anymore. It’s work.