Friday, October 8, 2010

Musical Musing

If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music. ~Gustav Mahler

Ah Mahler, he of the 90 minute symphonies, you certainly had a lot to say.

Herr Mahler’s bon mot really got me thinking about writing, and whether the opposite of his statement is true. Okay, not the opposite, say, the oblique - whether the oblique of his statement is true. Let me ‘splain.

I’ve worked in theater; I’ve studied film; I watch a lot of narrative TV. All of these mediums utilize music to enhance the other aspects of their scenes: the visual, the emotional, the passing of time, the suspense.

When a song, or a soundtrack, is perfectly melded with a scene in a movie or TV show, it often induces chills. There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf is stuck at the top of Saruman’s tower, and he whispers to a moth and then lets it go. The music starts as soft singing - lovely, ethereal voices in synch with the fluttering of the moth’s wings, and then it morphs into guttural chanting and tense drum rhythms as the moth flies over Saruman’s factory of war.

Directors such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarentino use pop songs to great effect in their films: Think of Nico’s These Days playing as Margot Tenenbaum gets off the bus in The Royal Tenenbaums. Or the gang from Reservoir Dogs walking in slow motion to Little Green Bag. I love these moments in film, because film is about the blending of mediums, and when done well – well, chills.

Books don’t use music, can’t use music, at least not in the sense that the reader can literally hear it. Of course one could argue that books don’t use music in the same way that books don’t use elaborate sets or talented actors. Everything in a book is filtered through the reader’s imagination, and music is no different than any other element: sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences.

Then why is it so difficult to convey?

Well, conventionally anyway, the music that appears in a book is going to be organic to the scene, and not permeating the action from the heavens, as happens in TV or film.

I say conventionally, because I can think of a couple of exceptions, and I’m sure there are more: Chynna Clugston, in her comic Blue Monday, does a fun thing, where at the beginning of a new chapter or scene, she tells us the name of a song that is meant to be playing in the background while the scene is taking place. The reader, if they wanted to, could actually listen to the soundtrack as they read.

Our very own Jon Hansen, in his terrific zombie novel, Gunslingers of the Apocalypse, does something much less literal, which is to put a quote from a song at the beginning of each section of his book. Not an uncommon practice, and a good one: it puts the reader in mind of a song with a particular tone (in Gunslinger’s case, hard rock or heavy metal) before they start reading. This works very well – if they know the song.

Which brings me back to the difficulty of conveying music in a book. There’s a lot of jazz music in my novel, Ursula Evermore. Since the book takes place in 1928 (well, most of it – it’s a time travel story after all), all of the music is from that year or earlier, and unless you’re a big early jazz fan, you most likely won’t know the songs that are mentioned. Huge obstacle. If I were to insert the Rolling Stone’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want, or Bing Crosby’s White Christmas into my story (although both would be anachronistic), most people would be able to hear the music in their heads, no problem. But, instead I have Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues playing a major role in a romantic scene, and how many of you can hum that?

Ultimately, I’m left describing it the way I’m left describing anything else in a book – from scratch. I describe Louis’s voice and the tone of his trumpet, two aural pleasures with which most people are familiar. I describe the tempo, the build of the song, the surprisingly soft way in which it ends. But mostly, I describe how the music makes my main character feel, and how it alters the mood of the people in the room, alters the emotional landscape of the scene.

At least I hope that’s what I achieve.

And now, for you trivia buffs out there… a quiz on music in TV and film.

Somewhat Difficult Music Quiz - Click Here!


Jon said...

Great blog.

The music thing is always a tough one to get across, but I think you've done a pretty good job it. That being, it's more about the tone and mood of it than the sounds or actual music, it's about the emotion the music evokes and you do that well I think, coming from a person less familiar with Louis than you.

Also, Point of Fact: Gunslingers of the Apocalypse is set to Johnny Cash, not heavy metal...

Qlaudie said...

Ooops! Sorry, sir. Sorry. See? The problem inherent in not knowing the song! Although I must be thinking of the sequel... or maybe Mark's book. Who uses Aerosmith?

Jon said...

True. In the sequel I use AC/DC. And Mark uses Nazareth in Blackheart.

Mark Teats said...

Q~ Great post!
Yeah, heavy metal for me in parts of BLACKHEART. I've taken some of the many music quotes I had in my book away due to being told by more than one author (and one agent) that direct song quotes (not in the text of the book) might complicate getting published, (especially when you have 20 of them). Not sure if it's true but don't want to make things harder than I need to when my book is finally ready.

In my new book I'm working on I've already put in some Roy Orbison which I think suits the mood for the book's opening scene.

Tarantino- I can't ever hear "Stuck in the Middle with you" and not think of the cuttin' off an ear scene.

Surprised by Witches said...

I read a vampire series that was a lot of fun (the Morganville vampires, if you must know), and at the end of each book she provides a playlist as well. I've been tempted to try it out.

I definitely have a soundtrack in my head as I write and sometimes allow it to make it into my story. I had a character star in Thoroughly Modern Millie just because a song from the show resonated so well with the story I was telling about my character, who was an actress . . . I like how that one turned out.

It can be problematic to include a soundtrack but I like the idea of letting my readers in what I was listening to as I thought of the story. Music, as Mahler points out, can say volumes in a short space of time.

And, I really want to read all of your books . . . Gunslingers of the Apocalypse sounds like a fun read.

Shawn Enderlin said...

Vampires and music do go together! I read this great book: Wicked Game by Jeri Smith Ready. it's about these vampires who run a music station. It's a good read. :-)

I think maybe the best example - at least that I'm aware of - of putting music into a book would be High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. The book is way better than the movie.

That all is a little off topic from your post, however. fortunately, I don't have to worry about trying to describe music like you do, Claudia. Although, I suppose I could do one of those corny, Tolkienesque sit around the campfire and sing a sad tune things. :-)

about unicorns.

Jon said...

...who fart rainbows.