Finding Your Way to “Other Time”

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As writers of fiction (or as creators in general, regardless of the medium¹) we sometimes invest our hours in maginations and discussions most ephemeral and transient: What are the ideal weights of storm clouds? What becomes of distant cheese? Will this or that amount of caffeine kill me? How might I bind the Pleiades? Etc. etc. etc.

We become at times so lost and disembodied in our work, that time ceases to exist (we enter a state called Other Time²) and we are eventually shocked at resurfacing into Ordinary Time to find that we yet remain embodied beings dwelling in a physical space, wherein practical concerns such as sustenance and visits to the necessary room are indeed more of an obligation than we had accounted for in our other less corporeal forms and modes of being.

That, however, is not what this essay is about. This essay presumes that all readers will agree that such a state as Other Time does exist. And further, that achieving the passage to Other Time is a necessity for writers of fiction. And further still, that at times this state is reached as effortlessly as stepping through a magic mirror but that, at other times (no pun intended), the surface of that same mirror behaves badly, being hard and unyielding and so painfully ordinary that the writer dashes himself repeatedly against it like some territorial songbird doing battle with his own reflection and soon begins to question whether the other world behind the mirror ever existed at all or was only childish illusion.

Writers routinely begin to drink when they have too long been barred from that passage and have begun to despair of the belief that Other Time still exists for them and is reachable by them. But the correlation between these two things—the exile and the drinking—is also not the subject of this essay—[Though if those last lines describe your current state, WRITER TAKE HEART! There are remedies at hand. There are METHODS & MECHANISMS whereby one might prise those locked gates and slip into that other country as if one were a naturalized citizen. And chief among these methods is the knowledgeable application of various musical compositions which work in much the same manner as old school enchantments. And that, finally, IS what this essay is about!]

Music, it will be seen (or rather heard) then, is both a transport, and a key into that other kingdom. Or, to put it more literally, music (the right music, mind you) is a secret tunnel that the guardians at the gates of Other Time are unaware of. The enchantment of music will sometimes allow one to bypass the gates and the guardians altogether, and so, simply to arrive at one’s destination (like an electron jumping orbitals with no detectable movement between one and the other).

Now we shall move beyond the theoretical and to the more practical focus of our discussion: What sorts of songs do, and what sorts of songs do not, serve this end? When writing fiction, one requires music that will easily carry one out of the pressing and the daily. One requires music that is capable of stirring emotions and opening new folds of imagination, but that is consistently able to do so without announcing itself too boldly or clamoring too cleverly for attention.

That is the foremost key. If you look at the music, it immediately stops working and you find yourself pulled back into Ordinary Time. DON’T look at the music. If you find yourself intermittently aware of the songs, in a way that competes with the story for your attention, you have probably chosen music OF THE WRONG SORT. Choose again.

A writer must select music then, that can meld into the backdrop of thought, that can become the air of that other world. The writer is in need of a sort of songs that radio DJs will not play and that college kids on spring break spinning in their convertibles to sunnier climes will not blast as an ode to some impending notion of a secularized carnevale indulgence³. One is not likely, after all, to write a substantive and moral novel while under the repeated influence of Van Halen’s “Panama.” (However, I would enjoy being proven wrong on this count.) Writers, we can agree, are generally in need of a more serious and substantive fare.

In the end what you really need (if we may speak bluntly as friends) are songs that will play you. You are in search of those musics built of movements that will strike softly the various keys of your own emotions and memories and imaginative constructs, so that as those hammers strike the taut strings, their vibrations seek out those things which already vibrate at the same resonant frequency within your own heart and mind and soul and memory and modes of thinking and feeling and reacting and conjecturing and imagining. The melody plays you in this way, and so opens the way into Other Time. The songs you seek will not be the sort of songs that are ends in themselves. They are instead (as we have already established), tunnels and tickets and gateways into Other Time. Therefore we seek the sort of music that is a means, and not an end.

It is a dead certainty that songs with vocals will not do, except in very specific circumstances. At least not unless the words are smooth and flowing and in a foreign language so that they register no literal meaning in your consciousness. If one does not speak a lick of French, one could perhaps “break on through to the other side” with the aid of songs artfully emoted in French. I do not think one could do the same with German.

In general, as a first principle, we must rule out vocals, though I have in the past managed to write productively while listening to Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams LP, and have had some success with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and also with Radiohead’s In Rainbows. At most times and on most days even these singularly evocative mood-weaves register too prominently in my awareness to be of much use though, when I am needing to be in another world and thinking other thoughts. All three of them are albums that are more a whole movement than they are a collection of individual songs, but my batting average with them is spotty at best. I did try Lord Huron again briefly a few weeks ago, but it got me nowhere.

The project I am currently locked in mortal combat with is a beast that has been a year now in the making. It is a science-fiction novel that sprawls expansively in its history and backstory. Early on in the writing process, I set out to identify and choose several soundscapes for my long journey, music that would spur the rapid transition to left brain thinking and usher me into that timeless placeless place where good writing can consistently happen for hours at a stretch, uninterrupted.

Here, presented in the most practical of terms (being a list), and for the benefit of those readers who are also creators, are the transport pieces that I have recently discovered and employed:

Cellos are sublime, their voices so painfully human and also so transcendent of our humanity. Cello tones ache with a beauty that is like the longing and the loss all rolled into one. It was

(1) Zoë Keating: One Cello x 16: Natoma

that carried me through several of the early weeks of writing. A sparse and gorgeous aural landscape that contained everything I needed. I looped it. The entire album. Over and over and over and over, for days on end. Good stuff. Superbly good stuff. Now, towards the end of the writing of the first draft of the novel I have returned to Zoë Keating because I am now crafting the confrontation between my young protagonist and her tormentor, and that extended scene also contains the protagonist’s temptation to surrender to a sort of darkness within herself, and “One Cello x 16: Natoma” is the perfect soundscape to inhabit as I write such a scene.

Early in the writing process as well I discovered Nils Frahm and his piano arrangements with their ambient sounds that feel like memories viewed through a rainy glass. The best of his offerings, for my purposes anyway, is

ERATP033_Nils_Frahm_-_Felt(2) Nils Frahm: Felt (Click here to listen.)

I am weaving multiple story lines together in this novel, story lines that take place at different times in history, and for certain of those storylines, it is Nils Frahm’s Felt that I always return to. It sets the tone for the story of my unsung heroes who have endured long and given everything in the service of a cause that only a handful of people have ever even been aware of. If you need to conjure empty spaces and loss that still aches with the beauty that once was, try listening to Felt as you write.

A few weeks into the writing of the book, I came across a band called Caspian.

(3) Caspian: Hymn for the Greatest Generation, &

(4) Caspian: Waking Season

Their albums fueled several long writing sessions. I deleted a song or two from these album playlists in order to streamline the projects for my purposes, but overall these were good offerings and I find it helpful to have options. If I’m stuck at a certain point in the story, switching soundtracks can have a beneficial creative effect, prompting a new line of thinking.

I moved on from Caspian to multiple instrumental projects by three more bands:

(5) Explosions In The Sky: All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone¹

(6) Explosions In The Sky: Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

(7) Message To Bears: Departures

(8) Message To Bears: Folding Leaves

(9) Message To Bears: Maps

(10) This Will Destroy You: Tunnel Blanket

Each of these had its useful applications and standout moments, depending on the sort of scenes I was attempting to write on a given day. If you are searching out soundtracks to write to, I would say try them, and if they work for you and fit the tone of the content you’re writing, great. If not, move on. Most of these projects (5-10) featured guitars somewhat prominently in their compositions, and for me, the voices of guitars (unless played in an atmospheric and dreamy sort of style) can tend to fight for my immediate attention, threatening to pull me out of the creative space. Still, I did get some good writing mileage out of Explosions In the Sky, Message To Bears, and This Will Destroy You.

But then . . .

Then I hit the motherload of projects. My purest find since Zoë Keating and Nils Frahm.

A band called Eluvium.

It was as if they were creating music specifically with fiction writers in mind.

Eluvium has released several emotive instrumental projects that strike just the right balance between subtle presence and conjured wonder:

(11) Eluvium: Copia

(12) Eluvium: Nightmare Ending

(13) Eluvium: Talk Amongst the Trees

(14) Eluvium: An Accidental Memory In the Case of Death

(15) Eluvium: When I Live By the Garden & the Sea

All of them gorgeous soundscapes that transport the listener effortlessly into Other Time. I usually pick my music for the day, and let the album loop for hours and hours as I write—and I’m writing anywhere from 2,000 to 7,500 words per day. Except on days when I’m stuck. Like I am right now. Not because I can’t access Other Time, but because I’ve run into a story structure problem that must be sorted out before I can write the final four major scenes of the book. I guess that’s why I’m writing this essay now instead, while the oyster part of my brain is hopefully at work in the background, worrying the sand grain of my story issue into something like a pearl. Or at least into a spiffed up sand grain.

So now, at the conclusion of our practical essay, I would kindly beseech all readers who are also writers (or creators of any sort) to elucidate those albums and artists you have personally discovered over the years that have repeatedly exercised the mystical power to punch your ticket to Other Time. What are your magical mirror compositions of choice?

I shall quiet my own voice now, that yours might be heard.


 

¹ Though fiction writers are arguably in a more difficult position vis-á-vis the attempt to create ex nihilo worlds from intangible words than are, say, sculptors who at least have the physical lump of clay in front of them that can be touched and manipulated and which, in and of itself, acts as a kind of gateway to transport the artist into that creative space.

² A state popularly referred to as the Time Vortex—which, as any fiction writer worth his or her salt can tell you, operates according to mysterious quantum principles which have yet to be explained using current models.

³ With the burdens of collegiate scholarship replacing the deprivations of Lent.

 

Profile photo of Doug McKelvey

The remote descendant of Scottish horse-thieving ancestors, Douglas McKelvey has already bested the dubious achievements of his predecessors by authoring five published books, writing and directing a passel of video projects, and penning lyrics for more than 250 songs recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, and Jason Gray. Under the alias “DKM,” McKelvey co-creates the ongoing “Subjects With Objects” collaborative gallery project. He currently serves as president of International Conspiracy & Trade Co. (This is not a joke, but probably should be…), and is hard at work completing the manuscript for a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel and developing with Ruckus Films a feature comedy-drama based on the shenanigans of notorious car thief Rabbit Veach.


17 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @zpeteman

    When I write I tend to look for one or two specific songs that capture the emotional landscape of the story, and then I listen to them over and over and over again during the course of the writing. It’s especially helpful to me when I get lost in the middle of a story to replay those songs and remind myself of the tone I’ve been trying to maintain.

    For the Fin’s Revolution books, the soundtrack was a couple of songs from the soundtrack of The Village:

  2. DougMc

    “Nightsky” by Tracey Chattaway is another excellent soundtrack for fiction writing. I only discovered it a few weeks ago as I was working on a 2nd revision of the book, but I looped it for the last several days of writing.

  3. Nicole McLernon

    YES YES YES!!!! My writing is fueled by music.

    Arvo Part is one of my all-time favorites to write to. Spare and heartbreaking, sparse and majestic.
    Fratres is amazing. https://youtu.be/FkHEjiuYBuM
    Spiegel Im Spiegel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtFPdBUl7XQ
    Summa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzSlmWQuHFw

    Max Richter also has some good stuff. On the Nature of Daylight is incredibly emotional. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVN1B-tUpgs

    Olafur Arnalds’ soundtrack to Broadchurch is also hauntingly good. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2QziepIE5Q

    I also agree with Pete above. James Newton Howard is excellent and his music for The Village grabs hold of the soul and makes it soar.

    This post is definitely one of the top ten I’ve ever read on the Rabbit Room. So so good!!

  4. Margret

    I have an instrumental mix (all the nonvocal music in our library) that I turn on either when I must focus or am courting inspiration. Most often it’s sorted alphabetically by song for variety’s sake, but sometimes by artist/musician depending on need. The genres range from classical (Elgar, Grieg, Grofe, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi), to Appalachian/Celtic, folk (Tony Elman, Phil Lawrence, Leo Kottke), to jazz and new age (Mindi Abair, Claude Bolling, Jean-Luc Ponty, Lee Oskar, Spyro Gyra, Wynton Marsalis, Timothy Drury).

  5. raber jr

    Doug,

    What an excellent article! I love it!!! I’m checking out some of the bands you mentioned but am familiar with most of the projects that you mentioned above.

    HOWEVER…you didn’t mention Hammock? Um…I’ve got good news for you. Really good news. You haven’t found the motherload yet. In fact, if I have an idea of what you define as ‘other time’ and what music takes you there (and I think I do), then once you start listening to Hammock, you might end up in another dimension that you NEVER return from. 😉 Hammock is in my opinion, ‘best of show’ in the post-rock/ambient/soundscape genre. I will recommend ‘oblivion hymns’ as a starter, but I don’t think that is their strongest offering. Based on what you mentioned in your article, I think you will find it rewarding (Cello, anyone?). And, chance has it that they just released a deluxe edition of this CD this week! Oh yeah, make sure you listen to ‘Tres Domine’…it has lyrics, but will likely transport you nonetheless. After Oblivion Hymns? Well, just pick a CD…maybe start with their latest work and go backwards. You can find it all on Spotify. Maybe you are already familiar with Hammock?

    Oh, and while I’m at it,…the following artists and albums are some of my favorite ‘other time’ initiators. I’ll only mention a couple (but please know that there are A LOT more where these came from…so if you seek these out and want more, just contact me)

    A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A Winged Victory For The Sullen: you are ‘transported’ after the first chord, trust me…it will make sense once you listen to it…
    Ludovico Einaudi – In a Time Lapse: this is classical minimalist piano at its best. Listen to ‘discovery at night’ and ‘experience’.
    Troy Donockley – Madness of the Crowds: this is symphonic celtic music. There are some lyrics and voice on his albums. Don’t let the first track on this album scare you away. He is a top notch composer that knows his craft.

    Check these out and let me know what you think. Thanks for the tip on Eluvium. I’ve listened to them before but am giving them another listen. I like it a lot!

  6. DougMc

    Raber Jr, thanks for bringing Hammock into the conversation. They definitely deserve to be listed in such a discussion. I’m a fan of their work and have been for several years. A few weeks ago as I was writing, I did put one of their projects on, but, as beautiful a soundscape as it was, the ethereal female voice that shows up on some of the cuts kept pulling my attention out of the story and back to the music, so I went back to listening to something else. I think I would personally have to create a custom playlist of Hammock songs to use for writing–and that’s probably a really good idea, as they have a pretty large body of work now and hours of songs that would be excellent background for writing if I weeded out the handful that I find distracting.

  7. Chris Yokel

    I too enjoy listening to Explosions in the Sky while writing, particularly The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place. I also enjoyed listening to the Interstellar soundtrack recently.

  8. Carrie Givens

    We were recently having this discussion in Jonathan Rogers’ writing group on FB. Lots of good ideas were shared. I can’t write a battle scene without the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, but most often I’m listening to Joshua Bell’s Kreisler Album as my background. Glad to have some suggestions for new stuff!

  9. raber jr

    Doug,

    glad you already know of Hammock…i suspected you would know of them, given the other artists you mentioned.

    I went back and read your post again…you mentioned writing a sci-fi novel. You might want to check out Thierry David’s ‘interstellar connection’. It definitely has a sci-fi feel…it’s stark, it’s lonely, it will likely ‘get you there’. I don’t think it is as strong musically as some of the other artists you mentioned, but this particular CD might evoke something particular to what you are writing about, maybe.

    Also, have you ever listened to any of the music for the Myst video game series? There is some really cool music for that series…and some of it is really good too. That might be a sentimental pick from me as I’ve played all the games and you know how a video game soundtrack can go deep into the psyche. 

    I still recommend winged victory for the sullen and Ludovico. Those will do it for you, I think. As for Troy Donockley,…if the vocals on hammock killed it for you, then he is not going to work cuz he employs a lot of voice, and spoken word and vocals intermittently. If you could get beyond that, all three of his solo albums are fantastic and very soundscapish. Btw, in case this helps, he has played with a band called Iona (celtic prog rock band) for a large part of his career.

    Thanks for the discussion…I’ll be continuing my Eluvium binge today.

  10. Randi M. Sanders

    Pandora has become my trusty writing companion – I have trained my stations well. It is interesting, however, when the harmony flowing between idea and pen is brusquely interrupted and my train of thought entirely squandered by an unfit song in the rotation.

  11. Jen Rose Yokel

    Yes to Explosions in the Sky!

    Takk by Sigur Ros has been my go to soundtrack in the past, and so has Bon Iver’s self-titled album. Those sounds are otherworldly. I can see how In Rainbows would be a great writing album.

  12. Matthew Benefiel

    How did I miss this article? Oh well. I might be a bit odd here, I understand the distraction with lyrics, and they can distract me at times, but if I go into the Other World deep enough It Don’t Matter to Me (sorry, for some reason this Bread song always pops up in my head). Certainly if I am looking for inspiration I need lyrics, in fact I crave lyrics. The other day I was listening to “The Fire Red Horse” by The Lone Bellows (their best song in my opinion) and the idea of the song being a troubled uncle who is compared to a fire red horse (at least that is what I take from it) just hit me hard, I had to start writing scenes, which is how I start my writings apparently, from a boys perspective of his mysterious uncle who turns into a fiery horse. I’ve written a few scenes from that story so far and that song has to be playing in the background.

    Of course I do get distracted by lyrics at times, the two I tend to resort to in the past: The Gettysburg Soundtrack (I was disappointed to find some synthesized stuff in there with my Superlux headphones – but still really good) and the Piano version of the Final Fantasy X-2. That last one started out as a laugh when I first heard that someone had made a piano version of a video game soundtrack, but it is amazing, best piano music I own. The soundtrack to the video game Shadow’s of the Colossus is also very good, even if a bit disjointed due it not being re-orchestrated for a smooth album flow. I recommend testing some video game music, a lot of effort being put into them these days and they carry a lot of emotion.

    I should explore this more though, sometimes I just put headphones on and no music once I get going.

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