Why Writers Should Get Over Pop Music

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Pop music is the worst thing that could happen to your writing. It’s for dates and bad wedding receptions. Turn it off at once.

Pop is designed to structure your ideas. Stereo hearts in the dark with pumped up kicks. And it works far too well for a writer’s good. As Noel Coward told us, it’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.

Contemporary classical music, the genius of today’s living composers, will set you free.

Shake out some of the sand that’s in your hair when you come in off the dunes of life. Mess with your best nitties. Line up your finest gritties. You know what we’re doing, don’t you? Well, of course you do. Get them in the right order and others can read what you were thinking. Even feel what you were feeling. These are words. And this is writing. It’s what we do.

But why not engage an even higher alchemy?

Living composers, gorgeous and serious creatures with racing-quick wits—not old dead white guys in breeches—arrive dusted in the same nuggets of concept and emotion we writers wear. Same world as ours, after all. But they super-heat what sticks to them into a new substance.

High-silica content: composers’ material moves through time. And this is your hours’ glass.

Contemporary classical music wraps your efforts to fuse thought and emotion in a see-through composite. Clear aesthetic possibility. As your words rush through that glassy focused space-space they create with their music, you may or may not share a single concept with your composer. Doesn’t matter. The transparency of her or his medium opens windows in your work, shifting your sands with new breezes of sonic intelligence.

Three samples for writerly tasks

Brainstorming: “TransAmerica” is about rapid mind movement with pushy percussion, full of knockabout switchbacks. Todd Reynolds is one of our most accomplished digital violinists. He tours internationally in performance of his own work and that of composer-colleagues. Here’s more about the guy many of us know on Twitter as “DigiFiddler,” who also founded one of New York’s most acclaimed amped string quartets, Ethel. Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below; go to the 2nd slider on the page. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Crafting: “Oceanic Verses” starts very quietly and searches the horizon, tentative and patient. Composer Paola Prestini is a wonder. The calls of her strings remind me of the great Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou’s lonely siren echoes. And Prestini loves writers: “Literature has played a huge role in my writing and it has always been my first collaborator; I love painting music on literary canvases; ideas on the page invite me to play and to think.” Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Revising: “Everything Is an Onion” is careful, purposeful, measured, dutiful. Yeah, like peeling it. You undo one edit and look what happens to three other phrases in the same chapter, right? Timo Andres works his keyboard, as you do yours, with personable intensity. It’s what caused critic Alex Ross to call “Shy and Mighty,” Andres’ debut recording, “more mighty than shy.” And as your revisions stretch out into something past a natural lifespan (don’t they always?), it’s comforting to know that this piece is from a lengthier work titled “It Takes a Long Time To Be a Good Composer.” Click here to listen if you don’t see the slider below; go to the 2nd slider on the page. (Audio from Q2 Music.)

Stump the Porter

Make a deal with you. Turn off that Beyoncé before your ears glaze over, and tell me in a comment below what sort of scene or situation or mess you’ve written yourself into. I’ll get back to you with a suggestion of a living composer whose work may just help you hear your way around the next corner in your manuscript.

And tell me what you think: is there a time and place for pop in serious writing? What’s your favorite music for various writing tasks? How do you use music in conjunction with your writing? Or do you use it at all? If not, what’s the matter with you?

Porter Anderson—whose Writing on the Ether appears here at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays—has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who donate during the autumn pledge drive through October 26. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the work of this unique NPR affiliate (an online streaming service of WNYC/WQXR in New York), each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org. And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter.

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