Make Mine Music

The Arts

I always write with music playing. I find that soundtracks can provide the perfect atmosphere in which to write. But where do you start? 

Soundtrack music is created to enhance the emotion of visuals, so it makes an ideal accompaniment. I went through a phase of writing to Michael Nyman scores, particularly the Handel-like ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Drowning by Numbers’, based on Mozart phrases, plus a limited edition album of his called ‘Sublime’. His score for ‘Prospero’s Books’ also conjures images. Minimalists Wim Mertens and Max Richter heavily feature on my writing playlists. Phillip Glass is too intrusive to write to.

Hans Zimmer’s scores from ‘Inception’ to the new ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’ are energising, and Zimmer’s live concert scores feature remixes of his film soundtracks. You can find them complete on YouTube. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for ‘Gormenghast’ works as a concert piece on its own.

Composers have written pieces for the Bryant & May novels, and several of them have proven inspirational for further stories; a case of creative reverse-engineering.

Terrific Spanish composers include Federico Jusid (try his deliciously sinister scores for ‘La Cara Oculta’ and ‘Isabel’), Joan Valent’s score for ‘Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi’, Roque Banos’s moving piano for ‘The 13 Rosas’ and the Hitchcockian soundtrack for ‘La Comunidad’. Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Herrmann is also a favourite when writing tense scenes.

French and Spanish soundtracks also provide great mood music for sad or melancholic scene-setting, especially the scores for ‘Loreak’, ‘Dans La Maison’, ‘Au Revoir Là-haut’ and the beautiful hymns and adagios in ‘Joyeux Noel’. Game soundtracks can be lavish affairs, with the sinister jazz-inflected ‘LA Noir’, the lighter-hearted ‘Monument Valley’ and the extraordinary ‘Cuphead’ big band sound of the roaring 20s (above). There’s a French-language album of Disney songs that turns them into Montmartre cabaret.

Composers now have a tendency to ‘thicken’ sound with overlaid instrumentation and effects. Listen to John Barry’s original masters for ‘Goldfinger’ and you’ll be shocked at how simple his arrangements are. It sounds as if you’re in a smoky room with a small jazz band. I once sat in with the orchestra while one of the later Bond films was being scored, and the sound was overwhelmingly huge.

The longest piece of music I have ever ‘heard’ is ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter, a piece designed to be slept through. The concert halls it plays have beds, and it has a slowly mutating chord change that’s very soothing. Thomas Bergersen’s long pieces like ‘Sun’ and ‘Illusions’ and the lengthy soundtracks for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films by Howard Shore are good for writing grand action. An easy solution is to pick the work of one soundtrack composer and leave it on Apple Music so that you clearly hear the development of the music.

20 comments on “Make Mine Music”

  1. Adam says:

    Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune is magnificent (as is the film), and is an integral part of the whole experience. Dune really is a film to watch on the big screen with big rumbling speakers. Zimmer’s early work includes working with Trevor Horn in the Buggles (Video Killed the Radio Star) and the theme tune to Going for Gold; now that’s a varied back catalogue.

  2. Helen+Martin says:

    I’m beginning to think I may be able to convince the husband to see Dune. He has loved it since it first came out but was unimpressed with the version he saw on tv. This may be a different experience. Note: heard a radio interview this morning about the Islamic elements in the original story so the linguistic types as well as the science-fiction fans may be drawn to it – to say nothing of the ecological types who know Herbert did this while researching Oregon’s attempts to stop the dune encroachment on its beaches.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Ah, soundtracks. A favourite. And one of the too many things I collect, with one prized item being the first original score – Max Steiner’s music for ‘King Kong’ (1933). ‘Music to write by’ is a tough one for this mere mortal and, I suspect, many others. Some low volume ‘ambient music’ perhaps, but certainly instrumental only for someone as easily distracted as I am. I can take cold comfort in knowing that neuroscience supports my (and others’) difficulty in ‘sensory multitasking’ — with our brains shifting rapidly between listening and thinking/creating — and not doing either very well. Apparently writing while listening creates stress. Our brains release the stress hormone cortisol because they try to focus on all of the stimuli coming in. My hat (headset ?) is off to those who regularly can scribble and listen at the same time.

    One soundtrack I can absolutely not listen to while doing something else,is the wondrous John Barry’s ineffably haunting theme and score for ‘Somewhere in Time.’ Here it is from YouTube. If you like what you hear, by all means download it in a lossless format or get the CD to fully appreciate it.

    A few other favourites (out of so many) include: Martial Solal‘s ‘Breathless;’ Ennio Morricone‘s ‘Cinema Paradiso;’
    Philippe Rombi‘s ‘Un Home et Son Chien;’ Mikhail Ziv‘s ‘Ballad of a Soldier,’ Michel Legrand’s ‘ Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.’ and David Raksin’s ‘The Bad and the Beautiful.’

  4. Roger Allen says:

    I can’t hear music properly any more, so the only time I encounter it is in films:
    If you want really long pieces of music, Admin (apart from Mahler – every symphony should be subtitled “the interminable”, a friend said, and the great thing about going deaf is not hearing Gus) the one to go for is John Cage’s composition for organ ORGAN2/ASLSP – As SLow aS Possible. A performance began in Halberstadt in 2001 and – all going well – will end in 2640. According to Wikipedia, the next note comes on February 5th next year.
    The suspense is killing me.
    Mind you, I don’t think I’d be overenthusiastic about a book written to it.

  5. Jan says:

    I know your choice of music and movies dates you but doesn’t stop me from naming my favourite movie score which featured in the 1980s version of “The Mutiny on the Bounty” film with Captain Bligh being Anthony Hopkins. I always liked the film itself although I don’t reckon Mel Gibson ‘s performance measured that well against that of Hopkins. (Gibson came over as having a big teenaged sulk more than owt else)

    I really do like the score though – Vangelis wasn’t it I think? I KNOW I’m a right low brow but I thought it was gr8 sort of hypnotic, suited to reflecting the long sea voyage and the South Sea islands themselves. Sort of wonderful.

    I really think the whole story of “Bounty” is fascinating in all its aspects Christian being essentially much posher and better connected than the lower middle class Bligh. So he qualified for better word of mouth.

    Bligh’s amazing sea voyage when Christian gave him the relevant ship’s charts one of the most amazing sea voyages ever made. Bligh’s later disastrous posting as a governor – in Australia if I remember correctly. Bligh came to grief there as well……he never knew when a blind eye needed turning did he? Still I am coming adrift here my favourite movie music Vangelis “Mutiny on the Bounty”

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Talk about star-crossed films. The ’84 ‘Bounty’ was perhaps the most historically accurate of five mutiny sagas, but no less fraught than the 1962 disaster with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. Suffice it to say it took six years before it made it to the screen with enough behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery and other goings-on to have made a bad soap opera all by itself. There is no question that the cast led by Anthony Hopkins as a more sympathetic (?) ‘Bligh’ and Mel Gibson as ‘Fletcher Christian’ (and including Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson) elevated what would have otherwise been merely a decent effort.

    My favourite however, is still the 1935 version with the inimitable Charles Laughton as ‘Bligh,’ Clark Gable as ‘Christian’ and outstanding production values for its time. Interestingly, the Vangelis (who won an Oscar for his ‘Chariots of Fire’ score ) ‘Bounty’ soundtrack was never officially released. A two CD ‘unofficial’ version was released in 1995 and will now set you back a pretty penny.

  7. Roger says:

    “Gibson came over as having a big teenaged sulk more than owt else”

    That’s what Christian’s motives were, though. That and snobbery
    To be fair to Bligh in Australia, he was taking on a combination of the mafia and black market racketeers.

  8. Wayne+Mook says:

    Oddly enough Vangelis has been appearing on adverts in the guise of the Greek Prog rock band Aphrodite’s Child tune The Four Horsemen along with lead singer Demis Roussos and the 2 others. (I know they were a 3 piece before 666.)

    I saw the new Bond, I enjoyed it. It is as expected, ties up some loose ends but has so many plot holes I fear this is where all the universe’s dark matter is hidden. It looks wonderful and goes for emotion but eschews logic, but most bond films do. As for older actors I thought Fiennes was looking a little portly which shows how thin the cast is. I did listen to the music over the end titles, they did All the Time in the World and then at the very end they played a minute or two of the original Bond, still sounds excellent on the cinema surround sound. It was nice to be in the cinema again after lockdown.

    As to the film soundtracks, I love the old Hammer, I remember Nyman mentioning Purcell when talking about The Draughtman’s Contract, which again I do like. The sweeping sound from Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia always takes me some where warm, a film I’d love to see on the big screen, but Jaws can still make worry about going swimming. I have heard Goblin’s Suspira played loud in a cinema, wonderful and it meant people were unable to speak during the showing.

    Being from a noisy family I can write with whatever is on in the background, and it will fade from my conscious mind.


  9. Helen+Martin says:

    I saw Lawrence when it first came out – mind blowing! Whenever I hear any of that soundtrack I’m taken right back to those glowing sands and Vangelis is the pounding feet along the beach, of course. I’ve seen Lawrence on the tv screen and more than half the power disappears from the film. Even the music seems weak.

  10. chazza says:

    Love film music but those I would pick out would be the 3 CD Vangelis “Blade Runner” (the additional unused 2 cds are astonishing), Jacqes Loussier’s them from “The Mercenaries” and John Barry’s (Blessed be his Name!) soundtrack from “Body Heat” (I always sweat when I hear it – the apogee of Noir).
    Also the score from “Les Yeux sans Visage whose jolliness does not prepare you for the sadness and horror of its visuals…

  11. chazza says:

    “Jacques Loussier’s theme…” of course…

  12. Joan says:

    I agree with Helen, Lawrence is best not watched on TV. Those camel bells were so magical! I remember the Maurice Jarre score for Dr Zhivago, Lara’s Theme was so romantic, you just have to close yours eyes to feel the snowflakes on your cheek. It’s probably better not to revisit some of these films, though the Great Escape stands up well I think, and we all remember the music.

  13. Rich says:

    Soundtracks I enjoy listening to include

    Dressed To Kill by Pino Donaggio

    Blade Runner by Vangelis

    Twin Peaks soundtracks by Angelo Badalamenti

    Nosferatu soundtrack by James Bernard

    Dis by Johann Johannsson.

  14. Jan says:

    Stu yes I must say I rate the Charles Laughton film. It would have been so easy for Laughton’s performance to “descend into panto” but instead it almost makes you really pity Bligh it’s very clever.
    BTW i f you ever get chance read the biographies of Laughton and his Missus Elsa Lancester. (Lanchester? ) In fact Elsa’s might be an autobiography her early life is proper interesting. Astonishing in a way. Obviously a marriage in a non conventional sense but their story as a couple is fascinating.

    I can never get past the Marlon Brando gargling with marbles in his gob accent to take the sixties film seriously at all. There’s loads of up + coming stars in the Mel Gibson film Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill) puts in a good turn as the older sailor trying to head off off the mutiny his “Theres no sense in this lads” is a great speech.

    I saw some quite well known star on the telly recently( it might have been Martin Clunes ) bemoaning that he could not get hold of an equity card in time and missed out on his trip to the South Seas! I bet they had a right good time making that film. I bet none of them really cared it wasn’t that popular with the critics + that they were happy enough with their good suntans for life, loadsa drinking and the Pacific islands.

    Had forgotten all about Vangelis and Blade Runner. That was a good score.

    Roger I Dunno that you can put Christian’s behaviour down entirely to his hormones. Bligh was pretty keen on having a whip round for the boys ( maybe not that much more keen on discipline than a lot of other seafaring R.N captains of the era ) but both men were flawed characters. And they were a bad mix – a clash of personalities, of management styles (!) and class played its part. Bligh the captain not being of a higher class than the junior officer. It’s a great story. With tragic consequences which played out into the 20C.

    Bligh’s achievement his seasmanship in the navigation of the small boat is practically unparalleled. Astonishing.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Fortunately what saved Bligh and his 18 companions in a 23-foot open boat was his superb navigational (if not managerial) skills. He was not permitted to take any charts. That he navigated with only a sextant and dead reckoning (and a modicum of luck) and made it to Timor, a distance of three thousand six hundred and eighteen nautical miles in 41 days after being set adrift was indeed extraordinary. Probably the only comparable feat in British naval history was Shackleton’s rescue voyage.

  16. Jan says:

    I thought Christian let him have the relevant charts Stu!

    Wow that’s even more impressive.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan The experts say he used his memory of some sketchy charts, probably from his time with Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific and did have two navigation books, but the mutineers kept all of the detailed charts on board the Bounty. It is clear that Christian never expected Bligh and crew to survive, let alone report the mutiny.

  18. Jan says:

    Stu do you happen to know if there were there (m)any reported issues with Bligh PRIOR to the “Bounty”?

    As my interest considerably predates internet searches I looked up stuff -only in local library books – to try and trace if anyone had any doubts or concerns about his leadership abilities but have never really found anything. The Navy either did a bit of a job with
    squaring up the paperwork or it was a toxic mix of personalities on the ship. The big naval concern seeming to be looking out for the breadfruit – the cash crop/ projected food for slaves.

    The other officers must have played a big part in the mutiny. In the 1984 film the devious baddy role is down to Day Lewis but it must have been so much bigger than that. It makes no sense to put it down to 1 sneaky character. We’re never gonna know I realise that but it’s good stuff.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Again, according to the experts, by the then standards, Bligh was well above average as a ship’s captain and in fact, apart from a volatile temper and abusive language actually was far more concerned about the welfare of his crew then was common. The rate at which crew members were flogged was said to be far less than other ships. He was considered a superb seaman and navigator. But had a strong sense of inferiority because of his humble background which caused him to magnify and react to anything he imagined was a slight or lack of respect. His ships fought well and often better than their sisters and he was complimented by Nelson. So not exactly the ogre of popular history.

  20. Jan says:

    Cheers Stu thanks for this. Again it makes you wonder if without Christian’s elevated social standing the Mutiny would ever have come to any sort of widespread public attention.

    A few years ago a bloke came to give a talk @ Bridport about recreating part of Blighs tremendous sea voyage after the mutiny and this guy was a descendant of Bligh’s …..or descendant of Blighs brother maybe. This was his opinion basically. That without the campaign by Fletcher Christian’s well connected and important family No one would really have known or cared much about the events on the Bounty. .

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