I used to like filling the room with music as I worked. It was company and a way to measure time. But now, today, I need music if what I do is going to be worth reading.
When I started writing I was a secondary school teacher. By the time I was writing my fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, I was also a father. I often wrote about music but I never listened to it as I worked. I didn’t have the time. I grabbed half an hour to write early in the morning before going to work, or twenty minutes late at night, while the baby slept. Actually, even without the baby, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to play music while I wrote.
My first novel is called The Commitments. It’s about a group of young men and women who form a band. The novel is short and full of music; take out the lyrics and it’s much, much shorter. It’s often assumed that I listened incessantly to black American music while I wrote The Commitments. I didn’t. When I played music it was to choose a new song for my fictional band. I’d select the song and play it again and again while I transcribed the lyrics. I peeled the lyrics away from the song, and stopped listening. I didn’t want to listen while I worked. I had to concentrate; I was writing.
Five years later and three more novels, I was doing the same thing. The book I was writing, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, had its soundtrack, the songs of American country singer, Hank Williams. His words are in the book but I wasn’t listening to his songs as I worked.
I was afraid to listen to music. I was afraid that I wouldn’t concentrate, that I’d drift with the music. (It took me years to understand that drifting—day-dreaming, wasting time—is a big part of the writer’s working day.) When I listened to music I sat in front of the stereo, staring at it. Listening to music was like washing the dishes; it was something you did. I couldn’t write and wash the dishes at the same time. I couldn’t write and watch television at the same time. How could I write and listen to music?
Then I gave up teaching. On the first Friday of June, 1993, I walked out of the school for the last time. The following Monday I sat down to write—all day. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha had just been published. I was about to start the story that would become The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The computer screen in front of me was blank and the day seemed, suddenly, very long. I wrote ‘Chapter One’. I changed it to ‘Chapter 1’, then ‘Ch.1’, then decided on ‘One’. I looked at ‘One’. I liked it. I made it bold. One. I was very happy with that. I looked at my watch. It was 9.15.
I was actually delighted to have all this time to work. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is narrated by a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence for two decades. It wasn’t something I could have written in spurts, an hour here, half an hour there. It took me a long time—a year—to find the voice of the narrator, Paula Spencer. I needed the full working day. I had no colleages now to meet at lunch and coffee breaks. I was self-employed, alone; the day was very long. I can’t remember when I decided that music in the room might help. It just seemed like a good idea. Both the room and the day would feel less empty.
But it didn’t work. I couldn’t work and listen. I kept swerving away from the words on the screen and listening to the music instead. Not literally. I’d keep my eyes on the screen—that bit was easy—but my head would be miles away. In the battle between creating big art—a three-hundred-page novel—and listening to little art—the three-minute song—little art was winning. I had to ban the three-minute song from my office.
I knew nothing about classical music; my ignorance was almost absolute. I could listen to classical music while I wrote, I decided. There would be no lyrics to nudge me away from my work. There’d be no drum-kits or electric guitars. So, I bought some classical music CDs and I started my education.
It worked for a while, but not for long. This music seemed too familiar. I’d heard it before in supermarkets, in restaurants, in television commercials. Dvorak’s New World Symphony had sold Hovis bread when I was a teenager. Another piece—I can’t remember the name but I can hum it—had been used in a commercial for wool. I grew bored very quickly. Luckily, neither Mozart’s Requiem nor Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had been used to sell cars or ice-cream. So they both seemed fresh and wonderful. But back then, when I was 35, classical music just wasn’t good enough. I preferred the silence.
Arvo Pärt rescued me. The biographical note on one of his CD covers included his date of birth, 1935. But there was no year given for his death. And it hit me: Arvo Pärt was still alive. That discovery led me to the ‘Contemporary’ section of the record shop Classical Departments. And I found Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the other minimalists; and Michael Nyman, and Henryk Gorecki, and Gavin Bryars, and John Tavener and Frederic Rzewski and John Adams and the other living composers. It wasn’t the fact that they still inhaled and exhaled; it was the unpredictability of their work. I’d never step into a lift and hear Bryars’ Farewell to Philosophy as the doors slide shut behind me. And it was the rhythm. It took me three years to write my novel, A Star Called Henry. If I hadn’t started playing Philip Glass’s Music With Changing Parts early in the third year, it would have taken much longer. I played that strange piece of music every afternoon for months. Its mad, insistent rhythm became, for me, the rhythm of that book’s last pages.
My novel, Oh Play That Thing, is full of the music of Louis Armstrong. I did listen to Armstrong as I worked, and to Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway—all those three-minute songs. I tried to make sure that, somehow, the rhythm of the book was the rhythm of 1920s jazz. But, actually, I didn’t often listen to jazz as I wrote. Steve Reich’s Different Trains is the piece of music I will always associate with the writing of that novel. Its driving rhythm, the constant movement, the looped, broken voices, they were all there as I wrote. It went beyond listening. In fact, I wasn’t really listening at all. The music got into me. It infected me and put me on edge.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve become actively aware that I need music to work. I need a new piece, or form, or composer, if I’m going to do more than simply fill pages. I’ve written eleven novels and it doesn’t get easier. It’s not the story; it’s how to tell the story. It’s about trying to achieve the feeling—and I think it is a feeling—that I’m not doing something I’ve done before, but that I’m attempting something new. Experience can be reassuring. I have my routine and my rules and they’ve kept me going for more than thirty years. I could say I know my limits. But I don’t—and I don’t want to. And that’s where music comes in.
In the second chapter of his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan describes his arrival in New York. He’s a very young man, known to no one. He’s ambitious; he has a body of songs he wants to play. But he visits the Greenwich Village folk music clubs and hears music he hasn’t heard before and, immediately, he decides that what he has isn’t enough. ‘[T]hings had become too familiar,’ he writes, ‘and I might have to disorientate myself.’
That’s what I’m trying to do when I start a new novel. I’m trying to rattle myself, or to knock myself off my own map. Music used to lend me its rhythm and energy; it was vital in the last hours of the working day. It still does that: the music I play in the late afternoon is vital. But now I ask more of it.
My last novel, Smile, was written with the help of an Australian ensemble called The Necks. I don’t know how to classfiy their music—jazz, rock, post-rock?—and that’s one of the reasons why I listen to them and why I played them loud as I wrote Smile. There’s an unsettling quality to their sound, a predictabilty that isn’t actually there, a rhythm that’s misleading. There’s something new every time I listen, a beat or a note, or the absense of a beat or a note, that jolts me. They are doing what I was hoping to do as I wrote.
The right music seems to put me into a place where I can’t relax, where I won’t take too much for granted as I sit and type. For Smile, it was The Necks—especially their pieces, Drive By and Townsville. For the novel I’m working on now, it’s jazz. It’s the wild, exhilarating music of Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Horace Silver.
But I don’t want to lose the run of myself. I don’t want to overstate the music’s importance. It’s only music. I’m not being possessed by Charles Mingus or Charlie Parker. I’m the writer. I’m in control. I’m choosing the words, rejecting the words, composing the sentences. On the good days the music stops and I don’t notice.
But I still need to get up the stairs every morning and music, the prospect of music, makes that task much easier.
© Roddy Doyle 2018.