Long-time readers know I love having music while I write. Sometimes it’s just background noise, but often it’s a specific set of songs, and in the case of whole books (like my story collection or two of my novel projects), it’s full-blown soundtracks, with each song selected and organized to reflect what’s going on in a particular part of the book. That was certainly the case with last year’s NaNoWriMo.
This year is a bit tricky, though. I still like having something to listen to while writing, but because I’m writing about a wrecked, apocalyptic planet with very little (or perhaps no) functioning electricity and most of humanity focused on just making through the day, I feel like it would be cheating to have music in my head while I’m writing, because the people in this novel don’t have music to listen to. They’ll have songs running through their heads, of course, and in long periods of silence I often find myself playing whole albums in my head — the sound is shockingly vivid, and I sometimes forget I’m not actually listening to the music — but since they can’t actually put on a cd or hit the playlist on their mp3 player, I don’t want to, either.
Besides, I use music mostly to set mood, and the mood I want to set while working on this book is isolation, contemplation, devastating silence . . . . Not to bum everyone out, but seriously, that’s the world these people live in. So that’s the background noise I want.
Because some of that noise is very internal and emotional, the eerie white noise of our brains listening to themselves, I decided to look into so-called “noise music.” There’s plenty of it out there, and most of it is ridiculous, but I knew if I asked the right people, I could find the kind of head-fuzz I was looking for. I turned to my music guru Ryan Werner, who in turn looked to some music-minded friends of his, and eventually Ryan turned me onto a group called Eleh, whom I’ve started listening to:
It’s not natural noise, of course, but it’s the sort of thing I imagine going on inside people’s brains in an apocalyptic environment. If we hear music in our heads in the long absence of music, it makes sense to me that we’ll also hear machinery in our heads after the long silence of the technological world. It’s the pervasive background noise we never knew was in there, and when it stops, I think, we’ll start manufacturing it in our heads.
So I’m listening to some of this while I write.
But there’s more going on in this world than just our brainwaves. The planet is broken, whole continents ablaze or underwater — or both. Meteor impacts have triggered earthquakes so massive they’ve triggered other earthquakes, a chain reaction that has awakened long-dormant volcanoes, which have set forests ablaze and choked the skies all over the world. It’s ugly out there. So for all this silence in a post-industrial world, there’s still plenty of noise to deal with.
So I went looking for eerie sounds, things allegedly of nature but utterly alien, inexplicable. Things like this:
And it’s not just sounds of nature in nature that I’m interested in. I want sounds of nature invading our interior spaces, the weird quiet of abandoned buildings or wind racing through empty hallways:
And what about the human beings living in this world? What about the voices of people trying to escape the devastation?
But the more I think about all this, the more I listen to these haunting, morbid sounds, the more I start to think I’m wrong about the music. For some people, it’ll take some time to adjust, to get used to the idea that we can’t just pop in our headphones and blast our Robbie and the Robots or our Legal Fingers, or brood over our Burials, or relax to the jazzy intellectualism of Chica y los Gatos, or bounce around to the silly punk fun of Dum Dum and the Smarties. (There you go, friends of mine: a few shout-outs to some bands I know.) Because all this music we love to listen to? Somebody made that, usually on instruments, sometimes on instruments that don’t require electricity. In fact, most of us have made music of our own at one point or another, whether it was lame attempts at strumming a buddy’s guitar or your sad conviction that you rocked the bongos or that shoebox-and-rubberband guitar you made as a kid. Even the pot lids you banged like cymbals in your mother’s kitchen when you were a toddler. (And yes, gang, I’m guilty of that entire list. Even the bongos.) We all make music. We’ve been doing it for millennia. We might have been making music before we even made language.
And we will make music again, even in the middle of the apocalypse, using whatever we can get our hands on.
So I’ve added some music to my YouTube playlist after all: