Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Music to Work to

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Music to Work to

I enjoy having a soundtrack while I write, music stimulates me when I lose concentration, but it can’t be anything with lyrics. Songs are too distracting. I think there’s a part of my mind that innately recognizes that words are being uttered and wants to try to make sense of them. As if I was being spoken to, I need to process the communication and think of a response so as to not be rude. So when I write the music I listen to tends to be on the instrumental and ambient side: background music I don’t have to fully commit to, that I can easily stop paying attention to but then settle right back in with when the writing pauses. In no way is this statement against the quality of this music. Like abstract art or eating a really big sandwich, there’s no right or wrong way to go about consuming sounds like this while working. Start wherever you feel comfortable and stop when you’ve had enough. Here’s some albums I would regularly put on while writing my book, Our Inland Sea.

Tim Hecker – Virgins
Virgins sounds like a symphony falling apart. Pianos, harmoniums and something that sounds like an orchestra’s string section layer on top of abrupt, sporadic percussion. Hecker’s music always seems like it’s commenting on itself, presenting the listener with a firm idea, then picking at the foundation until it falls apart before putting back together in a new way. On first listen, the album demands to be heard in its entirety to be fully understood. But the more one hears it, the more familiar it becomes, the more one is able to tune in and out while still appreciating the over all atmosphere. This is the music you would expect to hear while ascending to the afterlife: serious and celestial.

Mychael Danna and Tim Clement – Summerland
True story: I found this in a cardboard box full of new age cassettes on King Street a few years ago. Recorded on Toronto Island in 1984, the liner notes sate, “Musical soundscapes, portraying the repose of a timeless summer, preformed on synthesizers, guitar and appalacian (sic) harp, including sounds of surf, herring gulls, songbirds, and cathedral bells.” As cheesy as that mouthful is, this is a very beautiful album by two talented composers in their early twenties made as a score for summer on the Island. Lush tones take their time building to warm crescendos that are in no rush go anywhere afterwards. It also has a nostalgic quality that reminds me of the music of Canadian public broadcasting in my youth. Mychael Danna would go on to win an Academy Award for his soundtrack for Life of Pi.

The Caretaker - Patience (After Sebald)
My love for the music of James Leyland Kirby began with An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, an album created entirely from sample of old jazz 78rpm recordings. His Caretaker pseudonym and haunted ballroom sound was partially inspired by The Shining, but Patience—originally commissioned as a soundtrack for a documentary about W.S. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn—has a more solemn feel to it. Constructed out of Franz Schubert’s 1827 song cycle, Winterreise, and sourced from worn down vinyl records, Kirby loops moments while enhancing the pops and hisses of the deteriorated discs until they become percussive, adding reverberation to underscore the chamber-like quality of the original music. It’s as if he’s reedited Winterreise, stripping it down to his favorite moments.

Michael Snow – 2 Radio Solos
Recorded “at night in a remote North Canadian cabin lit by a kerosene lamp,” artist Michael Snow “plays” a short wave radio in this long sound piece from 1980. Part field recording, part solo-noise-improvisation, Snow picks up radio stations from all over the world, spending a few moments with different languages and styles of music before exploring static and frequency while sliding between band widths. As the radio’s batteries slowly die, the pitch and speed fall until the sound fades away entirely. One minute French pop music is playing, the next white noise is weaving around a Chinese news broadcast. I like to think of this kind music as “non-committal compositions.” The meandering nature is made for doing other things while listening, like house cleaning, cooking or writing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

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Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page