Sound, imagery inextricably linked

I listen to music cinematically. I think about music and how it would make me feel when it’s put to an image, a moving image, and I love it — Walton Goggins

In the last three or four weeks, I’ve been obsessed with a musical mash-up between Blondie (Heart of Glass) and Philip Glass (Violin Concerto: II) which was created by Daft Beatles a few years ago. Titled Heart of Glass (Crabtree remix), I never knew this was a mash-up I needed in my life and on my writing playlist.

The first time I heard the song was on the July 11 broadcast of CBC’s q with guest host Ali Hassan. Hassan was interviewing Michael Perlmutter, the music supervisor for the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They were discussing the rise of the music supervisor and how the Emmys finally created a category for outstanding music supervision.

Side note: Perlmutter didn’t make the cut for that category. Bummer.

Second side note: the job of music supervisor or music editor for a film or TV series fascinates me to no end. Soundscapes are just as important as the visuals and when you have a perfect marriage between the two, it is absolutely unforgettable.

The TV series Person of Interest was the first show I became aware of the music they used in their episodes. They used music by artists such as Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, The Kills and Philip Glass for two or three key scenes in every episode during the five seasons that they ran. It was smart use of sound and visuals to manipulate the viewer into feeling a certain way about a situation or one of the characters. Although the show probably paid a pretty sum to use the music of these artists, the real star, musically-speaking, was music composer Ramin Djawadi who created the score for the series. This is where I discovered his music and have remained an ardent fan of his work. The leitmotifs he created for the series were sublime. Mind you, his work for Game of Thrones is nothing to sneeze at either. Light of the Seven will always be one of my favourite works from Djawadi.

Watching this series made me think about the marriage between sound and imagery. It also made me want to talk to the show’s music supervisor, Djawadi and the show’s producers about their views on music and its role in visual storytelling. I just wanted to pick their brains. It would have been an eye-opening experience.

Anyway, back to Perlmutter and his CBC q interview. Assuming I heard the man correctly, the show submitted its third episode for Emmy consideration which featured the Daft Beatles mash-up. Then they played the song without naming it. Well, I nearly fell over when I heard the piece. I love Blondie. I love Debbie Harry. And I have an ever-growing appreciation for Philip Glass. Holy crap. Who knew these two artists could be mashed up like that and sound so sublime. I didn’t. And had I been PVRing The Handmaid’s Tale I would have discovered this little bit of aural heaven a lot sooner.

Of course, it’s a piece of music that fits perfectly with my current writing playlist. The piece is visually and emotionally evocative. It inspires my characters. It sets the right tone for them in some of the scenes I plan to write. It sets the wheels in motion.

My playlist is forever evolving and being fine-tuned as I work on the second novel. What the playlist looked like at the beginning of the writing process will look almost completely different by the time the first draft of the book is finished. What will remain are the core pieces that represent the characters and their relationships to each other.

Music and the writing process are inextricably linked.

I’m not sure when I started listening to music cinematically. I probably started when I was a teenager. Bits and pieces of images that would pop into my head because the music I was listening to at the time demanded it. I’ve always believed in the power of combining music and imagery, be it still or moving. But not everything I hear is cinematic. The pieces of music my brain registers as cinematic share some sort of intangible quality. I know what some of the commonalities are but it doesn’t completely explain the reason they affect me the way they do.

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in over-analyzing it. I go by gut instinct when it comes to music.

And now, I’m off to obsess over music and story.

Acoustically inclined

If you can’t play it on an acoustic guitar or a grand piano, then it’s not a song
— Christopher Cross

Last week, I downloaded and listened to the Headstones’ latest album, One in the Chamber Music, a collection of their greatest hits including three new songs, all arranged acoustically.

I love listening to acoustic versions of original songs. In my humble opinion, listening to a singer or band perform an acoustic version of their songs is the only way to hear how good the singer is and how good the band’s musicianship is. The Headstones showcases that on their newest album in spades.

I feel I should also mention British alternative rock band, Placebo. While I admit to not be up on their discography, there are two songs that still get consistent play on my iPod. The first one is Meds. If you have ever heard the original, it’s quick-paced and a little frenetic. Contrast that with their acoustic version (which they recorded exclusively for iTunes), and wow. The electric guitars are replaced by a piano, add the drums (I think they only used those two instruments. I couldn’t tell if there was any acoustic bass used) and it’s nothing but bliss for me.

If you haven’t figured out by now that I’ll listen to anything where a piano is involved, you do now. I’m also partial to the sounds of the cello and violin blending in with the piano and/or electronic instruments. Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds is (to put it mildly) very good at blending electronica with strings and piano. A great example of that marriage of sound is the work he created for the British TV series, Broadchurch. Ambient, ethereal and accesses the emotions without you realizing what’s happening to you until it’s too late.

I also love listening to cover versions of original songs, provided they don’t imitate the original.

For example, I love Kate Bush’s Running Up that Hill . But I was completely blown away by Placebo’s version of it. Their version is the other song that has taken up residence on the iPod. To my ears, the original carries a steady rhythm reminiscent of a cantering horse and a sense of rushed urgency. In Placebo’s version, they slowed down the tempo just enough that the familiar notes and melody emoted a kind of sadness, a beautiful barrenness, and a sense of being overwhelmed. It doesn’t hurt that the quality of lead singer Brian Molko’s voice easily takes the song to a different depth.

A good or great cover version should add another level of meaning or complexity to the original song. A different perspective, a fresh interpretation.

Johnny Cash did that with his interpretation of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. And what a beautiful interpretation it is. To be honest, any song Cash covered, sounded like it was meant for him to sing. He had that ability to ‘own’ a song. To make it his own, to make any version that came before sound almost inconsequential. Although I have a hard time believing it’s possible to make Leonard Cohen or Nine Inch Nails ‘inconsequential.’

I tend to accidentally find great covers. If I purposefully look for them, I wouldn’t find anything worth adding to my music collection. Best for me to be surprised. A recent surprise was Jetta’s cover of I’d Love to Change the World. I discovered it watching Person of Interest. God, I love that show.

Anyway, the original was written and performed by Ten Years After back in 1971. Jetta’s interpretation of that song is fabulous. All kinds of moody and a sense of foreboding. So vastly different from the original. Initially, I couldn’t remember ever hearing the original, so with the power of the internet, I found it. Of course, when I listened to it, I remembered hearing it as a young girl. Never fails.

It never gets tired: You listen to the original and realize you heard it before but never knew who was the band or singer performing that song. Yep, a lot of trips down memory lane.

Am I going down memory lane when I listen to the acoustic or cover versions of an original song? Yes and no. I am reminded of the past but I am peeling away at the present to see if I can get a glimpse of the future.