Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

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Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna V

The Good Dinosaur Soundtrack Cover.jpgI never thought I would include a Disney score, especially when they have such a choke hold on their music files (shakes fist at The Nearly Omniscient Mouse). This is why you don’t see a complete song at the bottom of this post. (Update: Special thanks to fellow writer Michael Dellert for helping me find a YouTube video of the music!) But how can I not write about Mychael Danna, especially when he outdoes himself yet again?

Having lived my life in the woods and farmlands of the Midwest, I couldn’t help but adore Danna’s The Good Dinosaur. The story itself is an old one: think of a family out west working the homestead. The boy is thrust from his home by the elements, and must now cross the wilderness to return home. Now substitute the boy for a dinosaur. Ta da–movie!

Opinions on the film run a pretty wide gamut, so I’m just going to leave them be. What I love is the western flavor Danna uses in this score. It’s sweet, almost bittersweet, in the strings. The occasional fiddle tune comes along, some banjo, some woodwinds and piano. The brass swells, lone and strong. His mix of percussion at tense moments reminds us a child is the hero, that he must be so despite the terrors of the sky.

Yet of all the orchestral elements, I still find the strings to be the true stars in this score. Violins are such a unique instrument in their ability to relate whimsy or sorrow at the turn of an eight note, which I think is one of the reasons Danna uses them so much here. They bring a reader to tears when the protagonist mourns his father, to laughs when he’s running away from dino-chickens. There’s a majesty to the strings I have not heard in a long time: a melody so simple, yet elegant, like leaves rustling in the sunshine.

Poetry without words.

Click here for more on THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

(Fortunately, the Amazon page for the score has sample tracks, so you can listen to the work.)

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna IV

91ilvkdjfkl-_sl1500_One of the many reasons I write with music in the background is to help me feel outside of myself. To clarify: if there’s a feeling I’m going for in a scene, it helps to sense that feeling elsewhere than in my brain. If I hear music that reflects the feeling, I am better able to relate the feeling with language. This goes for music that lifts up as well as music that drags down.

Today, I want to focus on the “lift up” part. Mychael Danna, the unshakeable rock of my movie score library, both drags and lifts with Little Miss Sunshine. The story itself—a dysfunctional family coming together to help the young girl reach a beauty pageant—calls for such pendulum swings in mood. The genius here is that the music seems to symbolize the dysfunction: one hears some strings, but not many, drums, a squeezebox, a tuba and trumpet. Some other little percussion odds and ends, like a xylophone. These are not the instruments one hears together often, save for, hmm, a polka party? But then strings are not usually involved… ANYWAY. You have an eclectic batch of instruments with their own very unique sounds, but together, they not only create harmony, but a genuine song.

And what a song. “We’re Gonna Make It” builds as more instruments join, and while the sounds are so very different, the melodies played by each instrument are very much the same. Add to this the percussion, which builds up the rhythms with a little help from the tuba, and you’ve got a song that runs through the dirt, leaps into the air, and soars.

Help your characters see that, though odd ducks they may be, they are better as a unit than apart. Give them the hope and determination they need to rise over the conflict. Danna’s got just the wings for the flight.

Click here for more on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.