01 May 2014

Chimes at Midnight, Nothing...


by Brian Thornton


...imagine hearing them every waking moment!
Me, writing. (Well, okay, me, *signing*…)


As some of you know, I suffer from tinnitus in my left ear–the result of a run-in with German measles when I was four. Most of the time I can tune it out, but not when I'm writing.

(For those of you who have never experienced tinnitus, count yourselves lucky. For the subset of you eaten alive by curiosity as to what tinnitus actually sounds like to those who suffer from it, the variety that plagues me most resembles the noise you can find here.)

This is in large part because I'm one of those guys who writes without music playing in the background. I used to be a "put in the playlist and let'er rip" kind of writer, but I eventually realized that when writing I pretty much shut out extraneous sound anyhow, so I don't usually bother with music, unless it's ambient stuff (which is, literally, in the words of Brian Eno, who founded the subgenre, and coined the phrase, "ambient music", intended to be "like the furniture in your living room. It's there, but do you really pay any attention to it?"), and that less and less these days.

All this said, there are occasions when I still ramp up the music while writing. More on that below.

It's just that most of the time silence really works best for me.

But then oh, yeah, that's right...

Hell-LOOOOO tinnitus!


So what's a savvy veteran writer to do when that damned ringinginginginging keeps him from forming so much as single coherent sentence?

That's easy. Music isn't the only type of sound considered "ambient." In fact I've found the most interesting ambient noise-employing tool to combat the distraction which is my chronic ringing left ear:

Star Trek on Youtube!

I can hear you now, scoffing.

Well, go click the link here and give this a listen, because it actually masks 90% of the ringing I hear in an otherwise silent room.


And God bless the fellow Trekkie who decided to loop the sound of the starship Enterprise's "warp engines" for a 24-hour continuous thread. It's been a genuine boon to my writing production!

The single exception to my no music while writing rule is when I'm writing action scenes. Whether they involve a chase, a fight, murder or mayhem, if the reader's pulse is intended to ramp up a notch, I find it helpful to turn to the masters for help.

Guys like Alfred Newman.

Noooo not THIS guy!
The Alfred Newman I'm referring to is the composer who wrote (among many other pieces of timeless music, the film score for the ultimate 1960s Western, How the West Was Won.

THIS guy!





And not just him, but other giants in the field: especially Howard Shore (famous for scoring The Lord of the Rings), the brilliant Michael Giacchino (too many to list, but definitely including John Carter, The Incredibles, Star Trek (the newest incarnation), and of course other auteurs who scored 60s westerns (call it a quirk of mine, that music gets me to thinking about things and people moving, and the next thing you know, that fight scene's written!), not least of them the immortal Elmer Bernstein, whose film work on the score for The Magnificent Seven alone can always get my creative juices going.

I defy you to listen to this score and NOT have your imagination run wild (you can test my theory by clicking here – in fact the guy conducting this orchestra is none other than Good Ol' Elmer himself!).

So there you have it: my recipe for success–and it is definitely
The Immortal Elmer With The Immortal Oscar!
mine and mine alone. It works for me. Feel free to weigh in: when it comes to writing soundtracks, what works best for you? Silence? Ambient noise? Bruce Springsteen? Judy Garland?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian

12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Interesting to me because I have some of the same predilections.

My superpower was super-sharp hearing, the stuff of TV canine heroes. I could hear in-store ‘silent alarms’, which weren’t silent at all but emitted a piercing (to me) supersonic (ha!) tone. I could hear the message on the answering machine six rooms away when my girlfriend couldn’t hear the phone ringing. I could hear fetal heartbeats.

Ten years ago after hurricanes struck, my hearing was never the same. Not only was my super-hearing gone, but I experience a tiny touch of tinnitus, which I thought was the end of the world. My hearing doctor, unsympathetic bastard, snorted and said I now knew what the rest of the world was like.

My musical drug of choice is eclectic, although I usually write in silence. See, in my former life, I wrote intricate systems software, which requires intense concentration. Computer rooms… the quiet Star Trek hum of thinking circuits, the comforting hum of discs powering up…

Back in my office, to mute conversations outside my door, I turned on the music. I like a broad range from progressive rock to classical. One of our Criminal Brief colleagues (an opera buff) disdained my plebeian enjoyment of chamber music, but baroque is close to ambient in a way– seductive, mathematically precise, and shuts out the noise of the world. And so I also bury myself in some ambient, but more generally, the broader umbrella of the fusion genre– Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield (talk about a guy who made a career out of one piece of music), Paul Schwartz, Rob Dougan (weird, I know), some Philip Glass, and of course, Jon Vangelis, It’s telling all of these write for film as well. In fact Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas had become my latest shut-out-the-world music. A friend similarly listens to chakra music which has similar properties.

When I consulted for Walt Disney World, I occasionally found myself in Epcot where computer artists toiled in their darkened ‘bat cave’ above Italy. I moseyed over to GE Horizons (now demised) to workrooms beneath the attraction. This section reverberated with the looped music of one of the iMax scenes experienced by tourists suspended in ride cars wending their way through the attraction. The sound was so powerful, I couldn’t tell if the music was within me or if I was within the music. As a side note, it was fun to quietly enter the chamber beneath the ride. The ‘screen’ inside was constructed of curved perforated steel. Why the perforations, I don’t know, but the projected light shone so intensely through the myriad holes, that if you held your arm, indeed any object in the path of the light, it looked like it was covered in bright glowing beads, not like a beaded purse. Very space-shippy.

Dale Andrews said...

Speaking of Elmer Bernstein -- he wrote the theme for the NBC Ellery Queen series, which (to my mind) is one of the finest detective themes ever written.

Relive it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gYdNmT-WxU

janice law said...

Silence is golden for writing, but oddly enough, I like to paint to music.
Anything for violin, Handel operas, Leonard Cohen, the Talking Heads.
Fortunately my tinnitus is mild enough so that I can mostly ignore it

Tom Hopp said...

Here's a snippet from the Acknowledgments page of my Dinosaur Wars: Counterattack-- "Thanks also go to the Eagles for music to which this tale was written, and again to Dan Gibson for his 'Solitudes'.” Brian, you might benefit from Gibson's several ocean recordings, with or without synthesizer accompaniment. I like the non-accompanied versions, which each run about 20 minutes, keying on the sounds of surf rolling in. At a suitably high volume, they blot out the world.

David Dean said...

I've never truly understood what tinnitus was like, but you've done a great job explaining it, Brian.

I almost never listen to music, as it gets stuck in my head and I can't get rid of it. It didn't used to be that way, but apparently I've become addled, or something.

Great piece!

Anonymous said...

In a former life, my ex and I had a roommate we should have kicked out much sooner than we did. The roommate was one of those who wanted to rule the roost. My way of getting anything done was to put on the headphones and crank up Metallica, Alice in Chains, and Led Zeppelin as loud as my eardrums could stand it. Got a lot done back then, too.

Now, I have to be careful what I choose. The wrong music these days can actually be a distraction as my concentration, rather than my hearing, has declined in recent years.

Dixon Hill said...

Brian, I too write action scenes to music. In fact, like you, I’ve written them to the theme of The Magnificent Seven and The Incredibles.

Instead of working in silence, however, I prefer writing most work to music. The sound track to Lady in the Water has proven as beneficial as that of The Incredibles, as well as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Suzanne Vega's "Left of center" & her a cappella version of "Tom's Diner".

Eve Fisher said...

I work mostly in silence, but when I do listen to music, it's European Medieval or Baroque. Sometimes a little ambient music. But when I'm driving, Irish instrumental or Led Zeppelin!

Leigh Lundin said...

Tom, I have to look up Dan Gibson. I do like the surf. I have a track that as the wind shifts, you can faintly hear a steel drum in the distance… just about the right amount of steel drum for me.

Eve, I like good driving music, too, something that captures the rhythm of the road, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley…

Jim, that's one creepy cover on your book!

Robert Lopresti said...

Boy, I knew exactly how that Next Generation link was going to sound before it cranked up. Amazing sound, wasn't it?

When I was in grad school I used to study while listening to an album by Paul Smith called Mysterious Barricades. It was classical music played on the long-neck banjo. Absolutely gorgeous. (Don't laugh. A hundred years ago there were banjo orchestras.) Doesn't seem to have made the jump to CD.

DoolinDalton said...

Leigh: my wife has exactly that type of what we call (in deference to "The Big Bang Theory") "Vulcan hearing." Between the two of us we have one normal ear. My right one. For what it's worth, I, too love Baroque music. Especially from J.S. Bach.

Dale: Elmer is the MAN! He wrote so many great things! Worked nearly up until his death.

Janice: I envy you the ability to ignore that tinnitus. Dare to dream that some day....

Tom: I have some wave stuff that I like very much. No artist names on it, though, and it's got "with music" and "without music." I have a ton of ambient stuff that replicates the feel of the wave music though. I'm thinking particularly of artists such as Rudy Arian (especially "Moonwater") and Patrick O'Hearn (especially "Slow Time," and "So Flows the Current"). Maybe for my next post, I'll put some links to samples up...)

David: I think we all find it harder to stay in our own heads and bear down and focus, as we age. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it....

Jim: thanks for reminding me why I eschewed roommates for the decade before I met my wife (and that's a different deal altogether- she's the best thing that's ever happened to me!).

Dix: I will have to check out "Lady in the Water." Have you ever given Dvorak's 9th ("New World") Symphony a try? Epic is the only word that comes to mind.

Eve: YES to Zeppelin! Have you heard the live concert they did at the O2 Arena in 2007, the one they put out as a DVD/Blue Ray/CD last year? Man, those guys can STILL bring it. What a bummer that Plant won't tour with the reunited band any more. Says it's hell on his voice...

Rob: When it comes to banjo I admit to being captivated by Bela Fleck, who seems to get stuff out of that instrument I hadn't thought possible.

Thanks everyone for weighing in!

Brian

DoolinDalton said...

Leigh: my wife has exactly that type of what we call (in deference to "The Big Bang Theory") "Vulcan hearing." Between the two of us we have one normal ear. My right one. For what it's worth, I, too love Baroque music. Especially from J.S. Bach.

Dale: Elmer is the MAN! He wrote so many great things! Worked nearly up until his death.

Janice: I envy you the ability to ignore that tinnitus. Dare to dream that some day....

Tom: I have some wave stuff that I like very much. No artist names on it, though, and it's got "with music" and "without music." I have a ton of ambient stuff that replicates the feel of the wave music though. I'm thinking particularly of artists such as Rudy Arian (especially "Moonwater") and Patrick O'Hearn (especially "Slow Time," and "So Flows the Current"). Maybe for my next post, I'll put some links to samples up...)

David: I think we all find it harder to stay in our own heads and bear down and focus, as we age. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it....

Jim: thanks for reminding me why I eschewed roommates for the decade before I met my wife (and that's a different deal altogether- she's the best thing that's ever happened to me!).

Dix: I will have to check out "Lady in the Water." Have you ever given Dvorak's 9th ("New World") Symphony a try? Epic is the only word that comes to mind.

Eve: YES to Zeppelin! Have you heard the live concert they did at the O2 Arena in 2007, the one they put out as a DVD/Blue Ray/CD last year? Man, those guys can STILL bring it. What a bummer that Plant won't tour with the reunited band any more. Says it's hell on his voice...

Rob: When it comes to banjo I admit to being captivated by Bela Fleck, who seems to get stuff out of that instrument I hadn't thought possible.

Thanks everyone for weighing in!

Brian