Friday, February 17, 2012

Music to Write By

Music, the creation of such, is one particular art form of which I have always been in complete and utter awe. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am going, there is always music inside my head, above the little voices. Just kidding! No little voices…not usually, anyway.

I often wonder if other artists write or work to music, or perhaps more specifically, what music they do work to. I suspect that this has been the case since humans started creating art. It’s not impossible that the doe-skin clad person in a cave in southern France was humming or whistling some sort of rhythm as he or she applied paint or pigment to the walls to illustrate a recent hunt or a depiction of a group of animals that held some importance or mystery for their people.

In ancient Greece, perhaps Praxiteles himself enjoyed having a young girl or boy serenade him on the aulos or cythera at a particular stage in the process of artistic creation.

When writing, I usually have some music playing, something specifically chosen to help reinforce the mood that I am prone to in a particular scene. Movie soundtracks are a particular favourite background for me but I never use music that fits exactly with what I am writing. For instance, I am currently working on a large novel of Alexander the Great but, I would never listen to the soundtrack from that particular movie for fear that the images of the film would influence my own writing. I love the Vangelis soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s creation, but my work must be my own. Likewise I won’t read a book on a subject or person about which or whom I am writing a novel at the same time. Finish the novel, then read the other person’s book. Same with the music or watching the movie.

Music doesn’t always have to be full-blown either. Sometimes, it can be a slight intonation that gives a sense of something more, perhaps an unearthly presence represented by a deep reverberation or a single vibrating string. Music by Lisa Gerrard and Dead Can Dance is good for that sort of thing. Other times, I like listening to 'traditional' music from somewhere like Egypt or Morocco. For Children of Apollo, this helped with market scenes in the cities of Roman North Africa.

I suspect too that for many artists, silence is sometimes the best thing. For myself, I need silence when writing dialogue, at least most of the time. I need to hear the characters’ voices (yes, those are the little voices I referred to in the beginning). White noise helps too. How many writers hunker down in a coffee shop for hours on end to write, sometimes with headphones on but often without. When in England, I wrote large parts of Children of Apollo at the Costa coffee shop in Cribbs Causeway mall, outside of Bristol. At the time, the general hubbub of all those people helped me to focus on the pages I was writing and nothing else, kind of like walking through a very crowded marketplace focused solely on the task of finding and purchasing one particular item.

A lot of us may not realize that we are actually listening to or more importantly being influenced by music as we go about our day. Next time, try to note every time you find yourself humming a tune, tapping your finger or playing that mental track to help get you through a task or the day as a whole. Whether it is Gladiator or Green Day, I’ll bet the music is there. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Young George Lucas on set
I make no secret about the fact that I am loyal Star Wars fan. I’ve grown up with George Lucas’ films and the characters were as real to me when I was a kid as anything else. There is no shortage of folks who feel the same way I do, whose childhood experiences of play are often attached to some Star Wars character or scene. I never had the full costume and never went about in my later years saying “May the Force be with you.”

However, I always had, and still do have, an acute appreciation of the world which George Lucas created and the story he was telling. Aside from Howard the Duck, I have enjoyed pretty much everything Lucas has done as a storyteller. From the first image of an Imperial Star destroyer coming in at the top of the screen, guns blazing to the latest instalment of Indiana Jones, I have always derived enjoyment from the work of this independent artist from Marin County.

“What’s that?” you say. “George Lucas is an independent artist?” The answer is, “Yes, he is.” A very hard working, true to his craft and vision, independent artist.

Red Tails poster
A few days ago, I read a six page article about George Lucas in the New York Times ( ). It was good but also bitter sweet. In the article, Mr. Lucas says that he is going to retire, after his latest film trilogy, Red Tails, is finished. How could someone so gifted, so completely successful, decide to pack up shop? Part of the answer seems to be the fact that over the years, the very people who touted Mr. Lucas as a visionary, a champion of independent film making and creator of the greatest movie saga of all time, have turned against him. Since the release of Episode I, The Phantom Menace, he has had no end of bad press and accusatory comments from people who were formerly his ‘friends’, his fans. Why is that?

Mr. Lucas had a creative vision, his own vision. In the beginning the studios laughed at him, wouldn’t take a chance on him. So, with his own money, means and drive, he did it himself and has created a company that is always at the cutting edge, that has pushed technology to its boundaries and beyond. Despite this and the creation of what are, in my opinion, three brilliant prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy, many once-upon-a-time fans have turned their backs on Mr. Lucas and the universe they had so loved. The bloggers and others were ruthless, still are. All because they didn’t like what he did with his own vision! It seems unfair.

But Mr. Lucas is an artist and if anyone can hold their head up, he can. He has stuck to his blasters and done things his way without being dictated to by the studios or his fans. Who can truly say that they love EVERY single aspect of an artists work? Not many. But that doesn’t mean that you turn completely on the artist, does it? Art is about individual expression be it an isolated moment, or an overarching vision. A lot of people didn’t like Jar Jar Binks, but really, was he any different from the Ewoks? Nobody complained about them. Jar Jar was the children’s character in Episode I, and there have always been children’s characters in Lucas’s work.

Various Star Wars
Lucas’ style has also been criticized for being too simplistic or heavy on the naiveté. Why is that a bad thing? More people can relate to it, adults and children alike. It is something that appeals to us on an inner level too, just like the mythology he created. Star Wars is a good lesson in history, a story that takes place ‘A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away.’ The setting might have been foreign but the mythological archtypes, the rise of an evil empire, as well as the series of events etc. are very familiar. We are all a sort of Luke Skywalker at some point, naively setting out from home into the unknown, we all face aspects of good and evil, things that frighten us but which we have to face up to.

Original Indiana Jones
George Lucas is a champion of storytelling but also a champion of history. His work is laced with wonderful historical anecdotes and parallels. Indiana Jones was one of the reasons I got into history and archaeology myself. Young Indiana Jones, the television series, introduced a new generation of youth to historical personages that are often overlooked in history books or classes. And Mr. Lucas’ latest project, Red Tails, looks at the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, black soldiers who fought for their country in WWII. He has been slammed by the studios for this new project because all the main characters are black. In this day and age, that attitude seems extremely short-sighted. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a wonderful, inspiring tale that should be related to folks. First rule is to remember and understand history so that we don’t repeat it. First rule of art, in my opinion, is to inspire. These are two things that George Lucas does extremely well and kudos to him for maintaining his vision, his ideals, his naiveté, in the face of such rampant, hurtful criticism.

For all us independent artists out there, writers, painters, musicians etc. etc., George Lucas provides a bright example of success in the face of adversity, and loyalty to oneself, one’s artistic vision. I don’t think artists should be dictated to by huge companies who only see dollar signs and market studies. No one is saying it is easy or profitable, but perhaps a better strategy is to maintain a healthy level of naiveté and childlike enthusiasm. No one was ever the happier for losing both of those completely, were they?