The One I Feed

If I’ve learned anything this year it’s the command, perhaps even the primacy, that music holds over my creative life, which is strange(ish) for someone who isn’t a full- or even part-time musician. Let me qualify “someone who isn’t a full- or even part-time musician”: I can play drums decently well, I’m barely adequate on keyboards, and I’m beginning to develop confidence on electric guitar. But there are no stakes for me: I’m not in a band, I’m not hoping to become a recording artist. So, as an established/emerging writer, what’s the deal?

The deal is that music presents as part of a triumvirate of full-blooded influences on me: music, film, and writing. I am incomplete as an artist without one of these. Don’t get me wrong, I love other forms of art — dance, painting, sculpture, etc (to infinity) — it’s just that my DNA is activated by music, film, and writing.

But the predominancy of music in my life sometimes has me worried.

Let’s start with writing. Music twists around my work almost symbiotically. The Society of Experience involves a character whose day job is a music supervisor for film and TV productions, and thus the narrative is punctuated with songs from the very beginning; the main character is sometimes haunted by the sound of a jukebox in the bar beneath his apartment. And yes, of course I created a soundtrack for the book’s launch (which features music mentioned within as well as inspired by the themes and subject matter). My next novel, Radioland, involves a “successful” musician having a nervous breakdown. The novel I’m working on right now, [untitled matt cahill project], involves the power of a DJ on a young boy in the country. If I could afford the rights I would quote song lyrics to introduce book sections.

Even when it comes to film, music has been immensely influential. From the quirky soundtrack of Brazil to the Wagnerian flourishes of Excalibur, I have not only fed deeply on music scores and soundtracks but have followed a countless number of rabbit holes. If it hadn’t been for watching Underground, I wouldn’t have spent a year chasing down recordings of Serbian brass band music. In film school, one of the best things I ever did was a one-take b&w short I shot on a wind-up Bolex that I played back w/ The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Reverence blasting in the background.

I care deeply about music to the extent that, on a social occasion where we were taking turns playing songs on a nearby jukebox based on a chosen theme, I was asked to choose 3 songs I hated. I said I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t because a) it meant sitting through 3 songs I hated, and b) life is too short to listen to songs you don’t like. It made for an awkward moment and I felt somewhat precious, but that’s how it goes when you take a principled stand about most things.

So, my worries, however ephemeral, are whether I’m suffering from a blindspot in how I prioritize music. Is it a blinder? Is my appreciation for it distorting my perspective insofar as my writing (in particular) might suffer? I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of artist friends, and the ones I do have probably wouldn’t deem this to be something worth much concern. That said, sometimes I wonder: am I using one art form to inform and/or expand another, or am I misusing either/both? Should I be concerned when things become sacrosanct? 

These are not really questions that require answers, but as an artist who wishes to be reasonably self-aware, they are good to ask nonetheless.