Doors to Distant Worlds

I realised this morning that I’m waaaay overdue a blog that isn’t entirely about promoting my books.
No sooner did I resolve to fix this when, lo and behold, a juicy topic falls into my lap: Marvel have finally admitted they’re rebooting their comics universe later this year. For the uninitiated, this is a big deal. DC comics like to hit the reset button every five years or so – the most recent example being the New 52 range – but Marvel haven’t done this before, not really.
Thing is, I’m not really going to talk about. I was going to, sure, but then I realised that I don’t have anything to say that you won’t find on a hundred other blogs at the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really do well with change, and if I’m presented with it I tend to zero in on all the reasons why it’s bad – just like most of the internet. In an effort to avoid this, I’m going to go with what’s become my standard response when a big company hurls itself into remodelling a beloved IP: Better make it good, because you’ve a hell of a legacy to live up to. If you want some help with that, my rates are reasonable.
Instead, I thought I’d answer a question I get asked from time to time. Specifically: What music do you listen to while you’re writing?
I think most writers do their scribbling with something on in the background, if only to block out background noise. Good music’s a lot like a good book, in that it can open a door to distant world, and spirit you away, and goodness knows that can be useful if next door’s dog’s barking, or something on your desk rattles when you type, and you can’t work out what it is….
I don’t always have music playing. It’s a bit like wearing my glasses. Sometimes it’s needed, Sometimes it’s not. But when it is, I do have a few staple albums I lean on (as compared to leaning on albums of staples, which I don’t advise).
Pirates of Caribbean Dead Man’s Chest/At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)
Klaus Badelt’s Pirates soundtrack was undoubtedly one of the things that made the first film great. Unlike the movies, the music only gets better as the series goes on. I find Hans Zimmer a little strange, because for every great soundtrack he writes (The Rock) there’s a puzzlingly duff one (Man of Steel – although in this case, I think Zimmer’s contract specified payment by the semibreve, which would explain a lot).
His Pirates scores don’t suffer from that, though. They go from pomp to terrifying to comedic in the space of a few bars, and they’re always tunes you find yourself humming along to without realising. What makes these soundtracks really tick for me is that fact that there are identifiable themes for most of the characters – something John Williams did habitually thirty years ago, but most composers seem to avoid now. I’d go as far as to say that the last couple of tracks on World’s End are as good as anything Williams did for Star Wars.
Battlestar Galactica Season Three (Bear McCreary)
I’ve a couple of seasons’ worth of music from Battlestar but this one’s still my favourite. As noted earlier, I’m a sucker for interwoven themes in a soundtrack, and most of the show’s key melodies can be found here. By turns, it’s operatic, haunting, sinister and heart-warming. It’s by far the best orchestral soundtrack I’ve ever heard on a TV show, and I’d recommend it to anyone who fell in love with John Williams’ early film scores.
I’ve listened to this a lot. In fact, I’ve listened to it so much that it feels wrong to play the tracks on shuffle. The order they’re on the CD is the only proper sequence, dammit!
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (John Williams)
It’s the best Indy film, and the best of Williams’ soundtracks. I love it. I love it so much, that I painstakingly went through and re-edited the play order so it followed the film, rather than the slightly-askew order that’s present on the CD set (thanks, Chrono-Score, couldn’t have done it without you) and I even bought a copy of Der Königgrätzer to make the playlist more authentic. Ah, obsessive compulsives, we keep niche business in business. This is John Williams at his most emotive, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Queen II (Queen)
I can’t often listen to actual songs while writing – the words get in the way of the ones I’m trying to assemble in my head – but, for some reason, I don’t have that problem with Queen II. Plenty of Queen’s songs have found their way into the public consciousness, but you’re unlikely to recognise much of this album unless you’ve sought it out.
More than any other album the band recorded, there’s something about Queen II that makes it feel more like a musical, rather than a rock album. Though I can’t find anything to back me up on this, I swear there’s a narrative running through the songs, and part of the joy of listening to it comes from trying to work out what that story actually is (which does, I admit, sometimes get in the way of writing).
Live in Concert in Ireland (78th Fraser Highlanders)
Right, so I struggle to write when there’s a vocalist singing away, but I find it easy when there’s thirty-odd bagpipers and drummers booming out through my headphones? I can’t explain it, sorry. All I know is that this particular CD has been a staple ever since I started writing professionally. Maybe it’s because it’s almost impossible for another sound to penetrate a wall of bagpipers? I don’t know that either. What I do know, is that I love the sound of a good pipe band, and this is definitely a good pipe band.
Legend (Clannad)
It’s not really a secret that Richard Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood series left a mark on my childhood psyche that’s challenged only by the idea of yeti in the London Underground. Shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Clannad’s music from that era is one of my first ports of call when writing. There’s a splendour to it that hasn’t dimmed with the passing years – I still find it a little bit magical, even now.
Orcs Must Die (Chris Rickwood)
Yeah, this is a bit of a goofy one, but I make no apologies. The Orcs Must Die  games are a delight of comic, over the top, nonhuman violence – I recommend it to anyone who needs a little therapeutic sadism after a long day at the office. Turns out that the music’s a perfect accompaniment to writing, as well as maiming.
What’s it like? Well, it’s pretty much what you’d expect if the titular orcs had access to a moderately-sized orchestra, plus harpischord. It’s bombastic, up-tempo stuff that’s a great energy booster when all you want to do is something – anything – other than type another word…
And with that, I think this little list will have to end. I will, however, leave you with a few honourable mentions, in no particular order, that are never far away from the ‘play’ button:
Army of Darkness (Joseph LoDuca/Danny Elfman), The House that Dirt Built (The Heavy), Return of the Jedi (John Williams), Wild Wood (Shira Kammen), Hellboy (Marco Beltrami), Levelling the Land (The Levellers), Toward the Within (Dead Can Dance), Liverpool (Stormalong John) and The Pirates of Penzance (Essgee Productions).
If there’s something you’d like to recommend as good writing music, please drop me a line using the contact page, or pop reply to this blog share on my Facebook page. I’m always looking for more…
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