Writing to Music

I’ve been writing for hours at a time again and it can be difficult, some days, to turn my mind and focus on an imaginary world when there are so many things to keep me in the everyday world.  Having a piece of music playing can help.  By filling up my ears, it over-rides part of my consciousness – the ‘internal editor’ that is constantly correcting and improving before I’ve even drafted.  But getting the right album or long track is tricky.

Good writing music is melodic.  Some classical music does this, but film or game soundtrack is more reliable – the themes that repeat and develop are much easier to grasp.  Soundtracks are also explicitly written to create atmosphere, which is the other big reason for writing to music alongside focus.

When I’m writing cyberpunk – or gastropunk – I rely on Vangelis – either the extended Blade Runner soundtrack or his album The City.  Melody a-plenty, but I don’t get too distracted from what I’m writing because I know the pieces so well.

I’ve been focusing on Steam Highwayman II for the last week and so Blade Runner doesn’t match at all.  Following a few comments by Jonathan Green, who also writes to music, I discovered the soundtrack to Skyrim.  I only know the game through watching a few playthrough videos and (mercifully for my schedule) have never had a computer that could run a large CRPG, but I was really impressed both with the composition by Jeremy Soule and the simple arrangement into a long track by TheSagaris2.  This is perfect writing music – no jarring transitions, plenty of atmosphere, loads of melody, easy to get to know.

The sound might feel pretty open and natural, so it doesn’t fit the world of Steam Highwayman too well, but it certainly suits the writing of it.  I mean to post soon about my search for a ‘Steam Highwayman sound’ and what sort of music sounds steampunk to me.  Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that – or listening to a curated list.

Spartacus Soundtrack

I love film music.  Let’s just get that right: I love big orchestras telling grand stories with memorable, hummable melodies.  Not just ‘mood music’, but story music.

Sometimes a great soundtrack can get me writing when I’m stuck for ideas: it can stir up emotions that find their way into my stories or make me long for a better world.  So, in a complete change to my recent focus on Steam Highwayman, let me tell you about a piece of music I love.

Alex North’s soundtrack to Spartacus is a powerful thing.  It merges one of the most beautiful love-themes with clever orchestration and Roman brutality and imagines a world different to our own.  The love theme has been adapted and even become a part of the jazz repertoire, but it’s in the context of the movie that it means the most.  You first hear it when the bitter gladiator Spartacus sees a beautiful slave-girl, Virinia, and first begins to dream that life could be different to anything he’s ever known.  They enjoy an all-too-brief relationship with a beautiful blossoming of tenderness and freedom before Spartacus is defeated and crucified, along with his rebels.  In the final scene, the love theme struggles to make itself heard again beneath the Roman cymbals and horns, as Virinia introduces her lover to his baby son – who has been born free.

It makes me cry.  This might be just a film from sixty years ago, with dated performances and dated production values, but that melody can’t get old.  It communicates something awful and wonderful – that people have died and are dying to see their children free to live freely.

After all that music, it’s the swell at 2:29 that brings tears to my eyes, just before the Roman theme stomps in.

Real sacrifice like this is both tragic and beautiful: it’s there when an economic migrant makes the journey to Europe in an attempt to provide for his family back in Somalia, or Sudan, or Syria.  It’s there when those with the ability to leave a war-torn city stay for the sake of those who can’t leave.  In the movie, the character of Spartacus dreams longingly of a God for the downtrodden: a ‘God for slaves’, and prays that his son one day will be born free.  By the end of the film, that’s what the music means: that his prayer has not been in vain and that despite his sacrifice, he has not been ignored.

One day I want music like this to accompany my stories.

Age of Access I

We live in the beginning of the post-ownership age. I write ‘we’ because if you are reading this through the medium of the internet, most likely on a smartphone, on a 4G network, then you live in a part of the world that has encountered the Future. The Future, as somebody, maybe William Gibson, once said, is unequally distributed: the Future moves across the world in waves, reaching different communities and nations at different times as different technologies become available to the populace.

Post-ownership – what does that mean? It means that there are cultures in which all material needs of possession have been satisfied: the vast majority of the population (not all, but most) have a roof over their head, clothes on their body, food in their stomach (and their fridge), tools in their closet or cupboard, baking tins in their kitchen cupboard, more clothes in their (walk-in) wardrobe, and the ability to access more of the same at will. They also possess leisure time which they have been trained to spend – at least partly – in seeking and choosing more consumable products.

In fact, this widespread availability of stuff has gone so far as to generate a whole back-lash movement: Marie Kondo’s The Joy of Tidying, youtube videos on doing more with less, like the ones davehakkens produces, the fetishisation of the ‘authentic’ that hipster culture indulges in (at least according to Peter York’s analysis). Businesses like AirB’nB depend upon people’s growing preference for use over ownership.

The irony is that in many other cultures around the world, use and ownership were in a completely different relationship to that accepted as ‘normal’ within Western mainstream culture. Consider the waste and personal isolationism latent within the ownership of ten lawnmowers in a street of ten houses in an English town. On only one of a very few days would more than one of those lawnmowers be used: why are ten ‘necessary’? Because it is socially inappropriate to ask for or to use another person’s possession.

Consider by contrast the very different attitude of the Filipino car: my cousin possesses a car; my cousin is my family member; therefore I have access to a car. This is a “Filipino Syllogism”. My cousin is honour-bound, but also considers it normal, that on those less-than-frequent occasions when I require the use of a car, he should put both his car and his own time at my disposal. Why? Because possession within the Filipino community is not a matter of any single individual person’s ownership, but of the larger family group’s ownership. And so it is in many non-european cultures.

Ironically, the Judeo-Christian ideal of ownership is less influential on Western thought than you might expect: the coveting of your neighbour’s donkey is less of an issue when any particular family’s rights to land and objects are guaranteed by religious law, as in the Levitical pattern, and Jesus Christ’s teaching that should tease the grip of the possessive from their cloak and tunic has never been fully accepted by mainstream Western, English, British or European thinking.

The age of access is an age in which instant, international communication is abrading our current norms of possession, and culture is in the process of undergoing a permanent change. Even if we should experience a Massive Internet Collapse, culture influencers have now had a taste of a post-ownership life and will not let it be forgotten: it comes with the illusion of freedom, typified by wide choice and easy gratification.  I don’t write this bewailing the change, but observing it.  Asimov would do one better: posit a future in which any possession seemed strange and in which a historian, observing our present, would laugh.  Le Guin did one better than that in one of my top-five books, The Dispossessed.

Terrorist Sympathies

I rather doubt he’s had the time to watch Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, but if David Cameron were to find an hour or ten to stream the digital flagship, he would have real cause to eat his words. Rather than simply needing to apologise for a little exaggerated rhetoric, he might find himself with sincere terrorist sympathies.

In fact, I don’t think he’d really need more than three or four hours. That’s how long it took for me to watch the transformation of an apolitical, apathetic pragmatist into a fanatic with an improvised weapon, a plan and the desire to assassinate a head of state. Frank Frink, a man with no previous indication of a violent nature, is working a skilled and secure job. However, abuse at the hands of the occupying forces, interrogations, imprisonment without charge and the murder of his family eat away at his principle of self-preservation until he decides that terror and violence are his only ways to react.

The series is fantastically conceived and executed with the highest production values. Individual actors do incredible work in making us sympathise and understand characters with deep, disgusting contradictions. But this is really one of the piece’s greatest successes – because of its timing. Terrorists aren’t born. They’re made. Or perhaps, they’re ruined from a man or woman who once lived for another reason until that reason was taken away. However despicable someone’s views or actions might be, what right have I to rob them of sympathy?  Feeling for them never has to mean agreeing with what they’ve done – I come up against this daily, constantly.

As a primary school teacher I daily engage in conflict resolution. This is at another level to the High Castle and to Isis – or ‘Daesh’ as the Prime Minister would rather we now refer to them. To change his term at this late stage smacks of cynical marketing. I’m very sure that he’d rather not be associated with a war on a religious group. But back to my playground. When Tom has plainly hit Murad on the face in a jealous fit, he may need to cool down. The school policy may require sanction or punishment. But for Tom to be able to participate back in the class, he needs sympathy. He needs someone to listen to his as well, however childish, inaccurate or self-serving his version of events is, he must be heard.

Perhaps too many of us never learnt this lesson at school. Thankfully we have art and drama and stories to refresh our thinking, challenge us. In the High Castle, Frank Frink does not carry out his plan to murder – although he associates with terrorists and ‘freedom fighters’. It isn’t fear of reprisals that stops him – he is a man who has ‘lost everything’. It’s the look in the face of a child.

The story has been rather actioned-up as it has been adapted from Philip K Dick’s original. Just as the lead actresses’ hairstyles reflect the current re-imagining of forties/fifties glamour with our own time’s sense of taste, so the role of the ‘resistance’, almost absent in the book, has been given a greater role. You can hear the show’s cast and creators talk about their need to sell the story to a modern American public – who might otherwise be rather challenged to watch a story in which they are so thoroughly colonised and controlled. I read that several advertisements have been pulled for their ‘provocative’ Nazi imagery already – although it was actually one of these large re-imaginings of the Statue of Liberty underground on the Victoria line that alerted me to the adaption in the first place.

I like allohistory – counterfactual history. I think that science fiction has a scientific method inside it – the testing of a hypothesis. To say, ‘What if…’ and to follow through is a creative and an enlightening way to write. The ‘What if the Nazis won the war’ hypothesis is so widely explored that it has become a cliche in its own right, as well as the basis for several excellent novels.
But doing this demands the writer create sympathy. Sympathy with terrorists, spies, liars, deceivers and, wait for it, Nazis. Up to and including the big H himself.

The journey of hope and idealism into pragmatism that we follow in the High Castle leaves the audience in truly strange place. By the end of the final episode, we’ve been tricked into following one of the few likeable characters, Wegener, into another assassination attempt. Hitler stands there in front of him, a pistol is in his hand, and if he shoots… If he shoots, he will become responsible for a nuclear war as Hitler is replaced by the warmongering Heydrich. Both Empires dominating the world, the Japanese and the Nazi, are founded on abuses, genocide, slavery and murder. But war between them cannot be the answer. That way, the strange newsreels warn, is devastation.

What of justice, then? The series touches on the holocaust, whispers worse and more recent atrocities – the ‘enslavement of Africa’. Shouldn’t Hitler die for these?

Until something better is on the ground and until someone who will not push the button on Japan, the Fuhrer lives. So justice must be delayed… Or given over to someone more qualified to judge.
Now I realise that the High Castle is a fiction, both as a novel and as a Amazon Prime series. But in it’s half-real setting it engages much more directly with the state of affairs in Syria and in my playground far better than most of the hyperbole around terrorism.

That doesn’t mean I entirely agree with it. I have a personal conviction that there is a better option, that we don’t have to settle for the best of bad leaders. I follow Jesus – and I know how well that resolves personally, although I am ready to say that I don’t yet now how that resolves politically or nationally or internationally. I get called an idealist quite frequently. My schemes only ever work if everyone joins in – the same in the classroom, actually.

But he had terrorist sympathies. He had terrorist friends. And it didn’t make him a terrorist. I wonder how he trod that line – informing on Simon the Zealot? I don’t believe he took the initiative to go to the occupying Romans and offer them the addresses of all the freedom fighters he knew.  But scripture does tell the story of his personal sympathy for everyone he met, occupier, opponent, beggar and lord.  And that was his answer for the politics of the world too – to meet everybody, one by one, and change their minds through sympathy.

Sorry about all the spoilers.