On Wednesday evening I was at the penultimate Kate Bush gig. I went without expectations, hoping only to experience whatever it was that Bush, whose songs I used to play obsessively on the piano as a teenager, chose to present to us. To give myself over to the moment.
But, of course, five minutes in, found myself blindly scrawling notes all over the book I happened to have with me.
At times the show was immensely powerful, immensely moving, *punch*-moving. It’s not just that you’re in tears; it’s that the contortions your face conspires to achieve seem to involve new combinations of muscle groups, and leave you grimacing like a gargoyle.
At times it was just bad.
Let me try and explain myself.
(By the way, the novel I’m writing now, to follow up ‘Randall’, which was about contemporary art, is about pop music, and so this idea is very much on my mind: of what expectations an audience might have of a live show, and what duty the artist might feel they have towards those expectations. Was it Bush’s job to give us what we want? Or our job to accept what she creates/offers? Or some compromise between them?)
Bush’s voice, the music, were everything you might have hoped. It’s not that she was in the room; it was being in the room with the music.
(And of course, this is highly personal – and yet also not: if you took a straw poll of what people wanted to hear, you’d get what? One: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (bad luck) and Two: As much of Hounds of Love as possible (lucky you).)
Hearing/seeing/experiencing her sing ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ was like being hit like bullets that had been racing towards you for years, decades. Certain lines jumped down off the stage and rampaged across the heads of the audience: lyrics I’d heard thousands of times, made vivid, made crucial.
“Tell me we both matter, don’t we”
That, in particular, was a dagger blow to the body. What she put into it, added to her intuitive understanding of what the music (her music) was doing behind her, drove the song to new depths – or heights – of expressiveness.
(She sang barefoot. She only played piano for one song, a solo encore. ‘Among Angels’ from Fifty Words for Snow. It was lovely to hear. It’s a terrible song.)
I’m listening to ‘Running Up That Hill’ now, on headphones, as I type, and it’s nothing, nothing like as powerful as it was in that room. It sounds insipid. It may never have the power it had before. It’s a song made to be played live. There it was living, growling, thumping. She whipped it up, whipped it into shape. It took over the room. There was no room for the room in the room. It was all song.
Some people need absolute silence to write to. I don’t. I need music. And not just any music. There are certain albums that I play when I’m writing that seem to smooth the path of words from my head to my fingers. Part of it must be the familiarity, that the sounds occupy a part of my brain, that allows another part of it to free up.
I tend to put them on repeat, too, so that songs come back around. There’s something in this, I think, about rhythm and recurrence in prose fiction, about symbols and themes and motifs that pop up, drop away and pop up again. The steady onward progression of music is, of course, built on the interaction between repetition and development, but putting an album on repeat adds another level to this, allows the music to repeat and develop more fully. #
So what is that I listen to? Well, right now it’s The Creek Drank The Cradle by Iron & Wine, a gentle, benign piece of Americana that has, among its pro-writing credentials, some lovely intricate guitar picking and, crucially, unintrusive vocals. Perhaps this is the most important element in writing music – you can’t be distracted by the lyrics: either the singing has got to be relatively low in the mix, or the words so familiar that you’re not even listening any more.
And that’s another thing about the music I listen to: maybe it’s just ambient noise, stuff that doesn’t intrude. I listen to this Iron & Wine album a lot, but couldn’t sing any of the songs when it’s not actually coming out of my desktop speakers.
So, then, here is my Top Ten writing albums:
- The Creek Drank The Cradle, Iron & Wine (Sub Pop, 2002)
- Beaucoup Fish, Underworld (Junior Boys Own, 1999)
- We Made It For You, The Boats (Moteer, 2005)
- A Sky of Honey, Kate Bush (disc two of Aerial: EMI, 2005)
- Drive By, The Necks (ReR, 2004)
- Just Across The River, James Yorkston (Domino, 2004)
- Is A Woman, Lambchop (City Slang, 2002)
- Sound Of Silver, LCD Soundsystem (DFA, 2007)
- Janacek String Quartets 1&2, The Brodsky Quartet (Decca, 2008)
- Tilt, Scott Walker (Fontana, 1995)
I suppose they divide fairly easily into the gentle, folky stuff, and the electronic stuff, which then subdivides into semi-ambient (The Boats, Susumu Yokota) and the more propulsive (LCD, Underworld), while The Necks and Kate Bush are both non-electronic propulsive.
Of course you can take propulsive too far. I do like Steve Reich, but find it hard to write to him. My wife heard Hanif Kureshi’s Desert Island Discs, and he talked about writing to Reich, can’t remember which piece. I suppose something soft like Music For Mallet Instruments comes out occasionally.
The Kate Bush is brilliant writing music, its expert soft-rock rhythms really get your fingers moving, racing along behind and sometimes in front of your thoughts. Also, it’s a concept album and so has an inherent ‘narrative arc’ way beyond the scope of most albums (though unlike most concept albums it’s concept is played out largely through the music, rather than through the lyrics – no rock opera, this). The Necks, of course, being a single, hour-long piece, is all development.
Which leads to another rule. Songs mustn’t be too short, and mustn’t jump about too much in style and tone and BPM over a record. They’ve got to put you in a zone. So, no three-minute slices of pop perfection. No Beatles, no Beach Boys, no Mowtown. Van Morisson’s Common One album would fit in nicely here, I think.
Anyone else out there write to music?