The Words on the Page and the Noise in my Head

Or, What writers listen to when they write



Part One


Making coffee and smoking are good ways to waste time. Reconfiguring the computer, sharpening pencils and answering emails are better. Phone calls to one’s agent rate high but best of all is deciding what to put on the stereo….

One can write to certain kinds of music; others not. But which? And why? These are troublesome questions for writers. Noisy rock music and avant-garde contemporary classical music seem to share the necessary quality, which is a certain structurelessness: a ‘looseness’ which lets the listening writer drift in and out of full attention, or to snap in and out of it as the slower internal mental dialogue that produces words comes up with something worth recording, or abandons that process and relapses into some less conscious mode of production. You tune in and out, not listening and then listening again, or seeming to (seeming to yourself, that is). Music is the thing that allows you to fool yourself that you are not working, that you are not ‘failing to come up with something’. Something has to fill those dustbowl moments (and minutes, and hours). Against the sterility of over-focussed concentration music maintains a certain level of attention, functioning as a sump into which unproductive brain-power can be drained off. You switch on, and you switch off, and you find similarly stable states at all points between these two. You’re fooling yourself, but happily. Music pulls you out of your own dead-ends.

There are kinds of music which are good for this and there are kinds of music which are no good. Beethoven is no good. The Hammerklavier Sonata will not take you anywhere other than where it itself wants to go. You can take it or you can leave it, but nothing in between. Its claims on your attention are absolute and to wig out during, say, the theme’s first stretto in the largo means that by the time you are ready to rejoin the music, a dozen or so fugues later, it has inexplicably turned into an unlistenable noise. (Nietzsche is unhelpful but succinct: “Beethoven’s music is about music”.)

This claim on your attention can take other forms. Melodiousness can be quite as coercive. Lennon and McCartney were the masters of making quite long melodic lines sound very simple, which trick is at the heart of ‘catchiness’. I don’t think anyone has ever constructed a good sentence while listening to “Norwegian Wood” because while there may be little to think about in “Norwegian Wood”, you do have to listen to it. A song you can’t get out of your head is a liability and an impediment, if you write books. Of course, if you write songs, it’s a big house in Surrey.

This is not an an argument for bad music being the midwife of good novels. Music which offers a flexible claim on one’s attention is not weak; on the contrary it’s all the more resilient for still functioning as music whether you’ve clamped a pair of speakers to your head or are half-listening from the kitchen where you are primarily engaged in making coffee. Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ is not the model I have in mind.

The trouble with this operation is its location: the inside of one’s head. That implies that you can confer this resilient quality on any piece of music, that there’s a dial you can twist. That’s not true. Some kinds of music can do this and others cannot. This quality – or its lack – is intrinsic to the music.


Part Two


Timbre is why a middle C blown on a trumpet is not the same as a middle C struck on a piano. It’s why instruments sound different. If you express a note as a wave, its length determines pitch, its height determines volume, and its shape determines timbre. A perfect sine wave will be heard as a pure note, a pure sound. An electronic oscillator can produce that timbre, but all other instruments produce mixed sounds, made up of the note plus its overtones.

As an example, middle C, or any other note, will produce the same note one octave higher, then the fifth, then the same note again but two octaves higher, then the third, the next octave, and then the minor seventh. The minor seventh is actually flattened very slightly (by a sixth of a note) for reasons which are not well understood. And the series continues, sub-dividing the preceding note’s frequency by one half, into those frequencies which only dogs can hear. So middle C actually produces a higher C, the G of that octave, a higher C again, the E of that octave, a higher C again, the B flat of that octave (slightly flattened), and so on. If you strike a bell you can hear some of these overtones quite clearly, but most are almost inaudible, and those which can be heard usually (but not always) become quieter as the progression moves higher in pitch. Several notes played in the lower register of the flute cannot be distinguished from the same notes played on a violin because the harmonics produced by both coincide almost exactly but this is rare. Instruments sound different because they produce their harmonics at relatively different volumes. Their sound profiles are different. The colloquial term for this is ‘colour’.

In addition, every instrument also has its peculiar attack transients (the kind of sound made by the particular way in which the note and its harmonics are generated: a string being bowed, a trumpet tongued, a piano-string struck) and decay transients (the sounds made as the note and its harmonics die away). Lastly, there are ‘edge tones’, which are the sounds produced by the initial stream of air striking a sharp edge, such as the reed, which then go on to propagate a steady-state oscillation in the air column (of an oboe, for example). The time it takes for this steady-state oscillation to establish itself and thus for a ‘true’ note to be played is called the ‘transient time’. Each instrument has a different time and human listeners are very sensitive to their relative speeds. There are also important inharmonicities (produced for example by the bass strings of a piano) and some rather raucous dissonances are produced by that part of the bell of a trumpet, tuba, or horn of any kind whose ‘flare’ exceeds in angle a regular cone (the applied physics of this are quite complicated). Open tubes, or air columns, will produce all the harmonics (ie nearly all wind instruments) whereas effectively closed ones (the clarinet) will only produce the odd-numbered harmonics. The same dynamic means that, looked at a certain way, a clarinet actually plays its clarinetist rather than the other way around.

The point of all this is that acoustic instruments do not just sound different. They sound very different, and the wide variations between their different timbres means that the sound (not necessarily the music) is complex. This complex sound is constantly surprising and disruptive of itself. It does not admit of an easy mode of listening and so, for the purposes of novel-writing, orchestral music is out. Whenever Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is happening, it is the only thing happening

There are composers, of course, who organise their work so intricately (Ligeti) or so loosely (Takemitsu) that the uneducated ear (mine eg.) hears it only as a particular kind of noise. One can work to this. This mis-listening is productive but hard to apply to rock music. Each rock band has a ‘sound’, a set of tropes which function rather like the distinguishing harmonics among the orchestral instruments, and, in each case, it is by and large always the same sound.

The instruments in a guitar band have very similar timbres. There is a marked difference between the sound of a Fender guitar and a Gibson guitar, but it’s nothing to the difference between a trombone and and a triangle. This makes it quite hard to produce a sound which is obviously ‘wrong’ (the most original-sounding bands are those which approach ‘wrongness’ the closest, but without reaching it). Most other instruments used by rock bands, or R ‘n’ B bands, are reduced to the role of percussion (the brass in James Brown’s arrangements) or emphasising the melody. They have no independent voice: the vocals supply that. It could be argued that the instruments in a rock band exist as a life-support machine for the singer.

It could also be argued, with reference to historical examples (Clapton, Hendrix) that the lead guitar can take the singer’s role. But, finally, most electric guitars sound quite similar, there is a definite limit to the number of twenty minute solos you can listen to, and it takes a very high level of technique to play the electric guitar well enough to rival the human voice. Very few rock musicians come anywhere near the technical standard of a classical musician. Also, Hendrix and Clapton didn’t just play. They sang as well. Eddie Van Halen was probably the last musician to attempt guitar-heroism seriously.

So we’re back with the voice, or with different voices, and so with different kinds of singers: shouters, droners, screamers, talkers, growlers, mumblers, and Bjørk. Bjørk is classically trained, like Nina Simone, but most rock singers are not trained and have quite a limited range of pitch. Robert Plant can sing a few octaves but Bob Dylan has been losing a note a year since the mid-sixties and Lou Reed has only ever had two. The narrow range of the singer’s voice corresponds to the narrow timbre of the instruments and once put together these two make the kind of sound that one can work to. The fact that nearly all rock music is both rhythmic and repetitive makes it easier still, but I think the characteristic sound of certain kinds of rock music is the crucial factor. All the action happens in a narrow band of sound. That is a provisional answer to the question ‘What?’


Part Three


The question ‘Why?’ takes one into less comfortable territory. Why listen to anything when you’re writing?

I outlined an image of the writer as see-sawing between the text in front of him – the text he is supposed to be writing – and the music around him, which absorbs any attention not focussed on the writing. One oscillates between these two, but one’s total absorbtion, be it in the music or the text, or any one of their admixtures, remains constant.

The question ‘Why music?’ remains. Why not have the TV on? Or the radio?

The answer depends, I believe, on the fact that writers have a peculiarly vexed relationship with music in general, and with rock music in particular. The person who happens to be a writer probably likes, or loves, rock music, but the part of that person which does the writing hears rock music as a kind of taunt, because rock music is everything that writing is not. Rock music is ecstatic and spontaneous in style, self-generative in elaboration, and communal in performance. Writing is laboured and cramped, eked out word by word, and consumed in private. Rock musicians play their keyboards: writers type on theirs’. Rock musicians – some of them – move, which makes it harder to play the instruments but easier to make music because rock music is made with the whole body. There have been surprisingly long periods in the history of rock music when it was possible to refer (unironically) to an electric guitar as an ‘axe’.

I don’t think writers envy rock musicians their face-to-face engagement with the audience, nor even the series of mutual confirmations which pass from stage to arena and back again (‘Hello Boston!’ Boston cheers, etc), the anticipatory applause (always louder at the beginning of a well-known track than at the end), nor the fake ritual of the encore.

What writers envy is the facility of rock musicians, how they seem to simply become the music that they play and how their excitements and excesses seem to enrich their music in an unproblematic way. If you can just become the right person and reach a high enough pitch of energy, so it seems, then the music will follow. Hendrix was a musician not only to his fingertips but even his teeth.

It’s an illusion, of course. Part of the act. The songs have been composed, the performance rehearsed. But writers cannot even manage a semblance of such artistic nonchalance. You’re always the wrong person and in the wrong frame of mind. Writing is always difficult. Jack Kerouac fed a roll of wallpaper into his typewriter, hammered keys for forty-eight hours, and the result (iconically enough) was ‘On the Road’. No-one mentions the two year-long writer’s block which preceded that outpouring. Writing is not physical, hence the macho over-compensations of Hemingway and Mailer, of Saint-Exupery and Hugo.

But sometimes – very rarely – the writing goes right. It flows. It stops and starts, but those halts and resumptions have a rhythm which accords with the sentences unfolding on the page in front of you. It comes out right first time and one’s fingers have trouble getting the words down fast enough. For a few brief beats, you the writer can believe in ‘You the Writer Reimagined as Rock Musician’. Sometimes life is easy. But very rarely.

Nearly always, good writing is the product of self-restraint, narrow concentration, and obsessiveness. The act of composition is delicate; it cannot survive in the environment in which rock music is made. A writer letting it all hang out is, usually, unreadable. A reader (or more often a critic) sensing ‘joy’ in a piece of prose is reading his own emotions, not those of the writer. The production of good writing is never a good experience, never ‘fun’.

But rock music looks like ‘fun’. The full identification between the music, its performance, and its reception – the thing that happens between rock musicians and their audience. That’s in stark contrast to the ceaseless and neurotic monitoring of the writer’s distance from his characters and story, the writer’s pernicketiness and basic dissatisfaction. I’m not arguing that writers want to have fun. If they did, then they would not have chosen to become writers. But they – we – sense something lacking.


Trace rock music back to its roots, through white American rock and roll and black American blues, from Chicago to the spirituals of the Mississippi Delta, back through the songs carried over on the slave-ships from the West African coast, and what one finds is gangs of people gathered together for the purpose of making an enjoyable rhythmic noise.

Now trace literature back, through the novel and the romance, through the epic and dramatic traditions to fifth century Athens and earlier when the chorus was led by a man with a stick which he would thump on the ground to keep time for those chanting the lines of the comedy or the tragedy, and what one finds is… gangs of people gathered together for the purpose of making an enjoyable rhythmic noise.

The first ever stadium gig took place in Greece more than two and a half millennia ago. In our own century the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the children’s author JK Rowling have pulled crowds of 20,000 or more…. But no-one else has. The performance of literature, which is to say the continuance of its ancient link to the practise of song, is all but dead. How many now would rather go to a Günther Grass reading than a U2 concert?

The preference marks a split. Rock music still stirs the same emotions that Aristotle wrote about when analysing the feelings stirred by Greek tragedy. People still gather for the purpose of making an enjoyable rhythmic noise. Instead of a man banging the ground with a stick there is a man banging a very expensive drumkit with two sticks. Instead of Yoruba cult masks and Athenian dramatic masks, one has Bob Dylan circa1968 in white facepaint, or John Cale in an ice-hockey faceguard, or Gene Simmons. And beyond that is the full panoply of a rock musician’s ‘image’.

On the other side of this split, I think literature is better than rock music. It is more penetrating in its critiques and more fitted for the world in which we find ourselves. There is almost no limit to the kinds of things you can say in a novel. That is not true of a three minute pop song. But literature has lost its music and with it that immediate appeal to the senses which music – all music – retains. Those who practise literature, those who write, feel that loss keenly. Its pathology is convoluted and its symptoms contradictory. I’ve put Jimi Hendrix and David Byrne of the Talking Heads in my novels. Have they ever invited me onstage? I work because I must and I listen to rock music because, well, I like it…. If only it was as simple as that.