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.
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.