From Our Staff | November 14, 2008

What do we listen to as we write or do our creative work? When we raised this question here at The Missouri Review, we encountered (not surprisingly) a diversity of opinions on the subject. From one perspective, music is a instrusive and disruptive force, another artistic voice drowning out one’s own. To others, music serves a kind of mildly narcotic purpose — it creates a certain state of mind or emotion that enhances the creative process. And for still others, music is actually a means of attaining detachment and isolation from the disruptive noise of the outside world. Whatever our reasons, here are what some of our staffers listen to.

1. Brittany Barr, Intern

[amazonify]B000FFJ80I[/amazonify]I like to listen to Regina Spektor when I’m writing. Both of her recent albums, Soviet Kitsch and Begin to Hope, showcase her multifaceted style which suits my writing mood well. Her music is chameleon-esque, shifting from poppy to jazzy to alternative from track to track (or sometimes within each track itself). Her lyrics range from the emotionally resonant (“And then you take that love you made and stick it into someone else’s heart, pumping someone else’s blood”) to the completely absurd (“I have dreams of orca whales and owls”) to the coquettish (“Come into my world I’ve got to show, show, show you. Come into my bed, I’ve got to know, know, know you.”) I know a lot of my friends like to put their music on shuffle so that they don’t encounter similar songs or styles as they listen–but with Spektor’s CDs, you don’t have to do that. Listening to one of her CDs is like putting your mind on shuffle–each new sound or style or song lyric contrasts so greatly with the last. So when I’m looking to write about romance, I can turn to “Samson,” an initially bittersweet but ultimately lovely ballad (as the lyrics say, “you are my sweetest downfall. I loved you first.” Or if a character is ecstatic, frantically happy, I put on “Us,” an upbeat, eager song, fraught with frantic piano strains and soaring violins. Angry? “Your Honor.” Lonely? “Summer in the City.” Sick and tired of being sick? “Chemo Limo.” Jaded? “Somedays.” The list of adjectives and corresponding songs could go on and on (although I wouldn’t recommend simplifying Spektor’s songs to that extent–each song is layered.)

Ironically enough, after I started listening to Spektor as I wrote, I looked up her methods for writing her songs. In an interview with MTV she revealed that her process is analogous to the way a creative writer crafts a piece. “I try to write songs the way a short story writer writes stories,” she said. “I always thought, ‘Why can’t I write a song from the point of view of a man or a criminal or an old woman?’ Obviously some of it comes from personal things, but it’s so much more fun when a concept or idea pops into my head and then I pull on it and out comes this thing that I never expected.” So perhaps her story-songs lend themselves to the craft of writing. Her pieces are so emotionally rich, character-driven, diverse, intelligent, and layered—all things that I aspire for my writing to be.

2. Lania Knight, Editorial Assistant

[amazonify]B00000136Z[/amazonify][amazonify]B0000DB51P[/amazonify]I listen to different music depending on the kind of writing I’m doing. If it’s heavy, heady stuff, I have to listen to something wordless. R. Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy is my favorite for this. It’s ethereal and calming, and it lasts about as long as I can sit for a single session of writing.

When I’m writing fiction, I listen to music that my central character would listen to, which in recently has ranged from Jack Johnson and Ben Harper to Rufus Wainwright.

My other favorite writing soundtrack is music with non-English lyrics. Beleza Tropical, an anthology of Brazilian musicians put together by David Byrne, is excellent–a mix of soothing tunes that help me relax into my work along with some upbeat danceable rhythms that get me off the chair when I’ve been in one spot too long.

3. Patrick Lane, Web Editor

[amazonify]B0001GCMF4[/amazonify]For a long time, I regularly used movie soundtracks as mental stimulants for writing, particularly scores by Carter Burwell, whose work tends to be steadier and more mood-oriented rather than romantic or bombastic (as much fondness as I have for John Williams, I couldn’t write to his themes). But I began to grow suspicious about the influence soundtracks (which are, of course, designed to elicit specifically cued emotional responses) on my work; did my prose actually feel eerie or tense, or was that just the aura created by the music associated with it in my mind? Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to early music in place of soundtracks. I find it produces something more like a meditative disposition in me; it focuses my attention without insinuating itself into my work. 

4. Dustin Michael, Grad Advisor

[amazonify]B00082IJ08[/amazonify]British critic Bonamy Dobrée once wrote that my favorite essayist, Max Beerbohm, “seems to bring with him the aroma of an age that is just past.” I believe I bring a similar aroma to any room in which I am writing. In any such room, the air smells like Gorillaz.

It’s hard to say why I’m so taken with writng against a sonic backdrop of British electronica fused with hip-hop from 2005. I wasn’t always this way. Three years ago, when Gorillaz – a cartoon band created by musician Damon Alburn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett – were inescapable, I wanted nothing to do with them, and I needed total silence to write or I’d accidentally start typing out lyrics to songs on the radio or snippets from newscasts on the TV in the other room. Now, though, I don’t know anybody who still listens to Gorillaz, and I keep their Demon Days album set on repeat from the moment I sit down to type.  

Beerbohm himself admits, in his essay titled “Laughter,” that things never held appeal to him while they were popular. Of the great works of his time, he writes that “somehow I never manage to read them until they are just going out of fasion.” Maybe that’s what’s going on here. But maybe there’s something else, too. I know that at some point – probably many points – Alburn and Hewlett had to be like, “Okay, every single part of what we’re trying to do here is asinine. All of it. From the notion that people making music as cartoons is cool to the presumption that anyone would ever want to listen to it, it’s just ridiculous. But whatever. Let’s keep going.” I feel that way every single time I write. Gorillaz reminds me that it’s possible to be successful even if the whole premise of what you’re doing is totally absurd.

The creative process between Gorillaz song and essay seems similar, too, though the models used are different. Gorillaz is a puppet show. I don’t see a big difference between scribbling out a figure to mouth the lyrics to the song and creating a speaker in an essay to mouth the words on the page. Seems like the same idea at work.

Plus that bass is thumpin’, to use a term that, like Beerbohm, his literary preferences, and my taste in music, went out of style a while ago.

5. Evelyn Somers, Associate Editor

I can’t write to sound and never have been able to.  Since my household is very noisy, it’s a problem.  Music is out because the rhythm drowns out the rhythm of whatever I’m writing at the time. Music with lyrics is worse, but any music is a distraction. I’m ashamed to say that when I’m writing, I’m not inspired by music.  It’s cool and hip and artistic and enlightened to write to music, but perhaps I am none of those things. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy music and even take ideas and inspiration from listening to it–especially the lyrics of bad country songs–at other times, but not while I’m writing, please. My husband drums a lot at home, so if I’m writing I have to make him stop. There are no TVs in the vicinity of my computer. My children are not allowed to talk to me. I tell them to pretend they don’t have a mother. Sometimes I give them money, just so they’ll go away. I have thought about wearing earplugs–well, I’ve gone farther; I’ve tried it, but you’d feel extremely stupid plugging your ears to write, wouldn’t you?  I feel like an idiot, and it also clogs me creatively. Very early morning is about the only time I can get silence, for free, and without earplugs or conflict.

6. Kris Somerville, Marketing Director

The Beatles have poetic reach, the Rolling Stones have limitless hedonistic energy, but it’s David Bowie and his stylishness, both musically and visually, that captures my imagination.  Though I don’t listen to music when I write, I do turn to it for inspiration.  Bowie’s musical canon embodies qualities all writers can admire.  First his work is timeless.  He has been around for five decades and is perhaps cooler today than he was in the early 70s.  He is also a skillful storyteller.  Listen to “Space Oddity,” a ballad about Major Tom, an astronaut lost in the cosmos.  Before Prince and Madonna, Bowie was the master of innovation and self-reinvention.  As a singer he uses persona– androgynous alter egos like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.  As a musician he blends and blurs blues, rock and jazz genres. 

Every Christmas, in a bid to get in the holiday mood, I watch a video of David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.”  As they stand beside a baby grand piano–Crosby in his nubby cardigan sweater and Bowie in a slick silky blue blazer–the crooners bridge a great stylistic and generational divide that reminds me of the genius of juxtaposition.  The blend of glam boy and grandpa shouldn’t work, yet it does, beautifully.