Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Music Hath

Rachel Portman
Robin's post about silence inspiring her has inspired me. Some writers work in quiet. I need music--not like it, need it: not only to write, but to cook, to pay the bills, to fold the laundry. Before beginning any task done alone, the first thing I do is turn on some appropriate music.

A shuffled playlist of jazz, classic rock, and opera, salted with Jerry Lee Lewis and Bonnie Rait will do for ordinary work, but for fiction writing the music has to be just right.

Glenn Gould
My standard fare is film scores, especially the brilliant Ennio Morricone's music for "Cinema Paradiso" and "The Mission" and Rachel Portman's witty setting of "Chocolat." I also like anything Glenn Gould, because genius fingers on his keyboard help keep hesitant fingers moving on mine.

But specific music that goes with the story must also be liberally mixed in. For City of Silver, I listened about a thousand times to a CD called "Nueva España" by The Boston Camerata, music of 16th and 17th century South America, like my 1650 story — sacred and profane.

My second in the South American series takes place in Paraguay in 1868. That called for mixing in lots of Spanish guitars: Tor, Aguado, and Torrega played by Andrés Segovia and Norbert Kraft. And Holst's "Mars," since the background of the story is a brutal war.

Ennio Morricone
Movie scores bring in dramatic moments, not always melodious, sometimes even grating. At Bouchercon in Indianapolis two years back I did the new author speed event with Allan Ansorge as my partner. When we met up again at Malice Domestic last year, we chatted with some other writers about writer's block. Allan said he had no difficulties. All he had to do was put on the music from “Cinema Paradiso” and he was off and running. What a coincidence that we relied on the same tunes. But he said he cut out the music for the movie’s fire scene, because it grated on him. I understood his point, but I actually go to that track on purpose and to other dark and dissonant pieces when working on threatening or scary scenes. Drafting or editing a chase scene calls for galloping music. It doesn't have to be the Overture to William Tell, it could be Verdi or Berlioz, but it has to move.

When I sit down to work each day, I choose the music for the moment. Once I’m into the work, it doesn't much matter if later the music veers off from the mood, but if distraction intrudes or the mind wanders, going back to the first song of the day gets things back on track.

The next book will take place in Buenos Aires. So—TANGO! I already owned a couple of CD's called The Tango Project, but this job also needed Carlos Gardel, the greatest of all tango singers. To go with the books and articles covering the period of the story, I went to the iTunes Store and downloaded his forty greatest hits. Now, whether at home and listening on the computer or in the library and using an iPod, all I have to do is get out my note books and research materials, click on Gardel's "La Cancion de Buenos Aires," and I am there.

What about you? Silence? Music? What charges your battery? What focuses your energy on your work?

--Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Ah, Gardel!
    Lovely to listen too, Annamaria.
    Thank you very much for that.
    Hey, ya know what Carmen Miranda and Carlos Gardel had in common?
    This: neither one was born in the country with which they're normally associated.
    No one doubts that Carmen was born in Portugal.
    But Gardel's birthplace continues to be a mystery.
    He always said it was Uruguay.
    But there is a handwritten will that states it was France.
    And, when he died, (a plane crash in Medellin, Colombia) he'd become such a giant in the music world that his dead body went on tour.
    New York, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, the corpse visited all of those places before being laid to rest in Buenos Aires.
    Now, that was a star!

  2. Leighton, I knew about the mystery of Gardel's birthplace but had no idea the charismatic Carmen Miranda was born in Portugal. It is such a shame that people in the States now remember her only for singing about bananas. What a story about Gardel's corpse! But I understand why he was so loved. Even given the rudimentary recording technology by today's standards, in those old recordings one still hears the deep humanity in his voice.

    Thanks for adding such fascinating details to my post. AA