I got a message from Marilyn Monroe

I picked up a new follower on one of my social networks the other day. Marilyn Monroe.

Henry David Thoreau...also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Henry David Thoreau…also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Not THE Marilyn Monroe, of course. Any more than I was followed by Henry David Thoreau, who joined the list next day.

They were fans – and, as a writer myself, I’m an enthusiast for anything that spreads the word about great writers like Thoreau. More please!

Still, I think it’s safe to say the real Marilyn Monroe isn’t out there on Twitter.

It’s always puzzled me that some people pretend to be celebrites. None of this is new – social networking merely makes it easier. Is it dragging on the coat-tails of fame? Sharing the emotion and pleasure they feel by consuming the work of the celebrity? Expressing a need to identify with someone other than themselves? Winding others up? Or all of the above?

That’s why we often see “Official” tagged to Twitter accounts of the real celebrities.

It begs questions about online identities. For myself, I use my real name. It’s a common popular name, so I add my initials and a “New Zealand” (‘NZ’) qualifier online. The letter “J” is another popular one to start middle names with, I find, but hey, my middle name’s also mine – and, coincidentally, I discover has been in the family since the early 1800s, at least.

I’m a bit worried another Matthew Wright might do something heinous, like dressing up as an Oompa Loompa in Norwich, for instance, and I’ll get besmirched.

But I wouldn’t use a pseudonym – still less pretend to be anybody famous. Maybe they might pretend to be me…maybe…

I think the phenomenon tells us a good deal about people. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now: breaking through the writing limits with music

It occurred to me the other day that, as writers – many of us plunging into National Novel Writing Month – we can learn a lot from eighties Brit synth-pop – and how that (briefly) re-framed music.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of my Korg MS-10. I still have it.

The genre was a child of the late seventies. Trevor Horn’s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star‘ brought the techniques together. Gary Numan was in at the ground floor with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ (1979). His signature instrument was the Polymoog 203a. I first played one in 1978. It had the Moog ladder filter, but never sounded fat enough to me. Numan evidently didn’t think so either, because he got his sound by pumping the output through a distortion unit. I did the same, a little later, with my Alpha Juno-2, already pretty fat and which could be uber-fattened with a Boss stomp-box. I ended up playing it, minus stomp box, in a garage band. (The guitarist ended up in the UK, writing and producing indie movies, I ended up icing muffins writing history …but that’s another story).

The point being that 1980s tech briefly re-defined music, but looking back it was a fast track to weedliness. Step sequencers and Linn drums built songs with robotised and repetitive patterns – yet we looked on synth-pop as …the future. Drummers like Terry Bozzio and Simon Phillips were out. Electronic drums were in, get with the program.

It didn’t last, of course, any more than digital speedometers and watches. The genre peaked maybe 1985-86. Rick Wakeman lampooned the lot with ‘I’m So Straight I’m A Weirdo’.

The way synth-pop first stood out from seventies sounds – then rose and fell through the 1980s – speaks volumes about the way we react. About how we let our conceptions of what is ‘good’ flow not from pure imagination, but also from  the way imagination is framed by its tools of expression.

What does this mean for writing?

Today, everybody writes stories with computers. There is even software made for novelists. And a lot of writers swear by that.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog.

But I wonder. Is novel-writing software to writing what the 16-note sequencer was to music? I think it is. I think it’s framing everything in particular ways, directing our imaginations down particular lines.  I think we’ll look back on the cultural norms of the 2010s and its tools, and say ‘well, that’s dated’.

Or will we? The onus is on writers to create – and to do so out of their own imaginations, unfettered by the way that the tools limit concepts. And every so often, somebody pops up who defines the next step. As Numan and Horn did in the late 1970s – bringing us Brit synth pop. They did it, at the time, by doing something nobody else had thought of.

That’s why I’m always suggesting things like writing notes with pen and ink. Or creating plots via jigsaws of note-paper. Or going for a ten-minute walk between chapters.

Ideas often come in from left field that way. And none of it is framed by the computer. I’m not dissing computers, of course – I couldn’t write without one, these days, and you couldn’t either. But what I’m suggesting is creating the ideas, the concepts – the framework of what you’re doing – by using something else. Then seeing what happens.

I figure that’s one way to get through 50,000 words of writing in a month. More to the point, it’s a way of creating something different – something that stands out. Something publishable.

What’s more, it seems to me that this kind of approach can help push us clear of the way our writing is inevitably framed by technology – and create something instead that is going to define the next wave?

Maybe. I’d like to think so. What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: National Novel Writing Month prompts, more writing tips, more fun stuff…and more. Watch this space.

Pointing the foam finger at twerking and other dumbness

I had to look up the word ‘twerking’ to understand the storm over Miley Cyrus’ adventures this week.

Like most neologisms it’s mutated; in the 1930s Walter Edmonds used it to mean ‘an insignifcant male’. It was related, in that sense, to ‘twerp’.

monkey_readingToday’s meaning’s been added to the OED. I’m not sure that’s wise; pop-terms tend to be transient and one of the strengths of the OED has been its refusal to bow to pop culture. Until now. They’ve also added selfie, squee and derp, but those might last longer.

To my mind the better definition of ‘twerk’ is ‘baboon mating ritual’ – it’s a specific match, though that said, the body language is shared by a lot of primates, obviously including humans to judge by the storm that followed Cyrus’ performance. Sigh. Another blow to the idea of human exceptionalism.

Nor is Cyrus the first. Frank Zappa wrote songs lampooning the people who made such moves over forty years ago. That, along with other ‘music industry anthropology’, led to him being banned from the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. Zappa sued; the upshot was a case in which, among other things, he had to explain – in an  Old Bailey courtroom – exactly what the phrase ‘provocative squat’ meant. After first explaining to the judge what a ‘phonograph record’ was.

The problem with performances like Cyrus’ – and I include US celebrity ‘clothing malfunctions’ and other adventures, including spouting old Anglo Saxon words, is they’re blatantly unsubtle. Which isn’t smart. Though there is a degree of ‘clever’ in the cynical way these things leverage media prominence from scandal. It worked this time too. Cyrus’ fiancee, reportedly, was ‘mortified’. Her co-singer felt overshadowed. A letter from a mum to her daughter telling her not to follow in Miley’s footsteps went viral. Shock – horror – HEADLINES.

As far as I can tell the technique works better in the US, In Britain or its former Empire it’s still unacceptable but more likely to be met with moronic headlines of ‘fwoaaaar!’ and yobbish media outbursts. Or…nothing. One has merely to check out the way American guests are gobsmacked by content on Graham Norton’s chat show to get a handle on the difference. (‘You can SAY that on TV here?’)

It’s true in New Zealand too. Last week the 20-year old daughter of New Zealand’s Prime Minister published nude selfies as part of her art studies in Paris, tastefully festooned with fast food (OK, that’s an oxymoron in SO many ways). The pictures were splashed across the media and …nobody cared, except Kim Dotcom, who offered to buy prints. Political scandal? No. Media frenzy? No. Shock? No. Kiwis weren’t worried.

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey - everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey – everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

My take? If we step back and look at the societies and cultures – at what is going on in the sense of social anthropology – it’s illuminating. And I think we can take lessons from Polynesia. The Cook Islanders have a dance known as ura. It’s tasteful, clever, subtle and skilled. It is about young men and women having a conversation – people in love and romancing each other.  It is telling a story about much more than blatant acts of physicality. The dance is sensuous but not overt. What counts is the layered message, subtlety, and abstraction.

That, surely, is a far better demonstration of human intellect, creativity and ability than a crude emulation of baboon mating behaviour…isn’t it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tips: music to my writers’ block

We all know, I think, about music and writing – how different music can sets different writing moods.

You’re pretty much guaranteed to write something different while jouncing along to Katy Perry than you would if you hurled Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through your sound system.

It’s a powerful technique and one I figured I could take a step further by using it as a device to un-stick writers’ block. Normally I either write in silence, or classical – no vocals – because words interfere with the ones I am trying to think of.

I got stuck the other day, though. Drastically. Which called for drastic measures. Specifically, a change of music to Nightwish at planet-cracking volume. Then Epica.

It worked. Sudden shift of ambience. Sudden shift of thought. Sudden shift of neighbours. I’d recommend it to any writer who’s stuck. Or has annoying neighbours.

Does changing the writing ambience work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The de-evolution of the drum machine

Alan Myers died today, aged 58. A talented guy and a sad loss to the music business.

It was Myers who was responsible for the robotic drum sounds on all the early Devo albums. That’s right – their classic sound wasn’t done by drum machine. His playing was cleverer than that. Giving the lie to the usual conceit of the day that drummers were a dying breed.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Part of my Micromoog’s main panel. A Moog Model 2080, S/N 2177 – made in Moog’s Williamsville N.Y. factory. Has anybody reading this been to that town?

Got me thinking. On the surface, drum machines looked compelling in the early 1980s. Synth-pop bands sprouted with Ensoniq Mirage samplers, Yamaha DX-7’s , the occasional Roland (Jupiter or Juno), 64-note sequencers and the inevitable Linn Drum Machine. Scritti Politti, Tears for Fears, Kajagoogoo, Thompson Twins – and the rest. Some of their drum machines even had names. Echo, used by Echo and the Bunnymen. Or Doktor Avalanche, which drummed for the Sisters of Mercy.

Luckier bands had access to the Fairlight CMI – a Sydney-built computer-synth that did everything, as long as you liked 8-bit samples. That’s where Frankie Goes to Hollywood got their sound from (if you know their songs, THAT orchestra hit is No. 5, and it’s sampled from Stravinski’s Firebird Suite).

Against this avalanche of eighties ‘high tech’, it seemed real drummers were as obsolete as analog speedometers, clocks and watches. Dinosaurs. Make way for the New Future – digital displays, automatic drummers. It was inevitable. Get with the programme!

Of course, you only had to listen to somebody like Terry Bozzio to realise just how rubbish the notion was. Check out his ‘Hands with a Hammer’, or what he does with Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’. And then there’s Simon Phillips – who can play dissonant rhythms with each hand.

The real problem is that drum machines were framed around the notion that drumming was just a kind of elevated click-track – a punctuation beneath the music. Whereas in reality, drums are a musical instrument of their own, just like any other, and they have to be treated as such. Drum machines couldn’t improvise, they couldn’t humanise – not properly – and they soon faded. Today – have drummers died off, inevitably out-evolved? Not a bit of it. They are as essential as they always were – true musicians who do so much to make modern music what it is.

But then, some of us knew that back in the 1980s. We only had to listen to Myers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Frank Zappa was my “Elvis”. Was he yours?

This December it’ll be 20 years since Frank Zappa died. He was a truly great American composer. You can still get his albums – and a lot of stuff released since from his legendary ‘Vault’.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

Zappa’s stuff is copyrighted (including his moustache silhouette, which is trademarked) so you’ll have to make do with a photo I took of my own synthesiser.

Popularly, Zappa was the potty-mouth wild man of rock whose songs provoked offence – especially ‘Catholic Girls’ and ‘Jewish Princess’. He always considered himself more an anthropologist, exposing the sordid heart of the music business in the sixties and seventies. Much of it was driven by his finely honed sense of the absurd; he was a satirist. He lampooned politicians, groupies, minorities and majorities alike. He ragged the music business and went to war with televangelists. He skewered rock stars, especially Peter Frampton whose subtle ‘I’m in you’ was thoroughly done over by Zappa’s ‘I have been in you’.

He also wrote songs about the importance of eating vegetables (‘Mr Green Genes’), dental hygiene (‘Montana’), B-movies (‘Cheepnis’), life on the road (‘Babette’, ‘Road Ladies’), and the dangers of living with huskies (‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’).

Less well known was the fact that he was also one of the best producers of his day. His repute within the music industry was second to none. His compositions were pure genius, spanning the gamut from musiqe concrete to doowop, big-band jazz to rock, funk to orchestral. He wrote rock operas and musicals. He mixed and matched time signatures in ways that nobody before – or since – has matched. He invented xenochrony – one piece of music juxtaposed against another. He even released an album of synth baroque music, Wendy Carlos style. In Zappa’s case, it was his eighteenth century namesake Francesco Zappa.

By the time of his death he was recognised in Europe as a leading modern orchestral composer.

The musicians Zappa hired were the top of their profession. If you got a job with Zappa, you were guaranteed a job with anyone. Because you were one of the best around.

His secret? I think Zappa was dada-esque; his music flowed from collisions – collisions of rhythm, collisions of tone, and collisions of ideas. He transcended genre and medium to create an emotional experience for listeners. He  showed us a way of approaching things that was not only different, but it provoked – provoked us to think, provoked emotion, provoked a response.

It is these collisions that artists strive for – to give life and meaning to their work, to give their work a dynamic, to lead people into it. Zappa was an absolute master.

That’s something all artists – as in, anybody who works in the arts – can learn from.

Matt Groening once referred to Zappa as his ‘Elvis’. He’s mine too.

Who’s your Elvis?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: Music, art, writing and unleashing the inner geek

As a writer, I have never regretted chugging through the Royal Schools of Music grade system. Music offers skills that feed directly into writing. Learning how to write a tune to words, for instance, rammed home why it’s important, even in prose, to have rhythm.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Pop quiz: can anybody identify it from this clipped close-up?

There’s a more subtle side to it, too. Music is about evoking emotion in the recipient – the satisfaction of listening, hope, despair, anger, laughter. So is writing. That’s one reason why rhythm of words is important. For writers, as for musicians, it helps evoke a response.

I still have a small collection of vintage analog synths. They all work – including my Moog, which was old and battered when I bought it in 1987. The fact that it functions 37 years after it left Moog’s Trumansburg factory is testament to the quality.

It is also an expressive instrument, meant to be played like a violin, not a piano. You can do things with pitch-bender, potentiometers and modulation wheels that give the sound life. If you have never heard a Moog 24dBa high-pass ladder filter being overdriven, you’ve missed something. Here’s someone using the filter as a resonator. Here’s Erik Norlander playing the biggest Modular Moog I’ve ever seen.

The worn out ribbon pitch-controller on my Micromoog. Apparently Bob Moog invented that device for Beach Boys keyboard player Brian Wilson.

One of the doyens of the Moog, way back, was Brit prog-rock icon Rick Wakeman. He defined the ‘rock opera’ via such classics as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), essentially a modern oratorio.

I saw him in concert, here in New Zealand, last year – and @grumpyoldrick didn’t disappoint. He spilled off a flight from the UK and gave a 2 1/2 hour show, using the Wellington City Council’s Steinway Model D, all from memory. He had the audience in stitches – he is a great comedian. Along the way he explained how he had been taught to put feeling into music. You close your eyes and imagine what you want to convey – the feeling of a summer’s day, for instance.

To me, that summed up music as art. Art is about conceptual shapes and patterns that convey feeling and emotion. Notes are flawed tools to express an inexpressible form – idea, which is emotional. The essence of art is conveying that emotion, however imperfectly, by whatever medium, to others. And that is true of writing, too. The medium is words; but the essence is emotion.

Wakeman was taught that about his art from the beginning. Others, including me, had to learn it later. The hard way.

Do you find art in music, in writing? How do you see these things?  is music inspirational for you in these ways? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tips: music for the writing mood

One of the best tools writers have is music, for many reasons. One of them is something to listen to while we write – squashing intrusive background noises. And, more particularly, to put us into the right zone.

That, to me, is one of the strengths of ‘music to write to’. It can help create the right emotional space – perhaps the same emotional space as I’m trying to evoke in readers. For me, it shouldn’t intrude to the point of killing the words and ideas. Usually I’ll pick instrumental music, often chamber music, which is able to set a mood without being too intrusive. That, in fact, is exactly what it was written for (Mozart wrote muzak…get over it…)

There is an exception. If I’m looking to write high fantasy I’ll select Epica or Nightwish (the pre-2005 stuff) at planet-crushing volume (several notches up from “11”).

Do you find music helps you write? Does it set your mood? What music works best for you – and when? And does anything with spoken word kill the words you have in your mind? Do share!

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Worldbuilding: putting a soundtrack to your words

Whenever I think of worldbuilding for writers, I keep coming back to the same thing. Worldbuilding is really about creating stuff that evokes an emotion in the reader.

It becomes literally world-building when we write fantasy – often, I suspect, helped along by doses of some suitable soundtrack. Music usually goes together with writing – either being played while the stuff’s being written, or listened to while the book is being read. It’s a way of enhancing the emotion,  almost impossible to imagine high fantasy without some soundtrack to it. And, of course, there are composers who’ve thoroughly exploited the point.

I’m thinking Richard Wagner – nineteenth century composer who envisaged fantasy worlds of colossal scale – vast worldscapes that he painted with sound, story, visual spectacle and the finances of mad King Ludwig. Musically it was very genre-specific – if he were alive today, he’d be a heavy metaller.

Wagner knew how to put arguments through music. He was a ‘metaller’ not just through his vast soundscapes – the bombast, the soaring vocals, the colossal orchestration, the overblown sets – but conceptually. He wrote high fantasy that spoke to the mythic beliefs of his mid-nineteenth century society. That particular aspect found an unfortunate audience of evil in post-First World War Germany, who managed to twist his ideas to their dark ends. (They did this to everything they touched, of course). There’s a great documentary by Stephen Fry going through those issues.

But setting that aside, high fantasy remains a staple of heavy metal today. and I think the guy who pioneered the idea was Wagner.

Attaching music to the high fantasy we read or write also makes it speak to us today. “Real” music in any fantasy setting would have to be made by instruments of the setting – voices, certainly; and if you read The Lord Of The Rings, you’ll find Tolkien inevitably describing some - including the single uplifted voice above the noise which then became a motif for at least one Led Zeppelin song. But I suspect a lot of readers more usually associate Middle Earth with Howard Shore’s movie soundtrack. Or maybe Bo Hansson’s slightly weird album from 1969. (Hansson’s often credited with inventing prog rock with that release.)

It was that relationship between music and concept, I suspect, that prompted Sophia Coppola to use early 1980s gothic-pop – Siouxie and the Banshees and The Cure mainly – as the soundtrack for Marie Antoinette. In the conceptual sense, she was arguing, French royals and nobility were to 1780s French society what the ‘goths’ were to the 1980s; disconnected, odd, weird. It was a pretty compelling idea, in fact. And what a wonderful way of putting an argument – through music.

What it boils down to is that music can help us get a different angle on the world we’re building; it can colour the way we imagine and see it; and it can colour the reading experience. It becomes an important part of the whole, I suspect. And the ‘ideal’ music for any story will differ from person to person.

Do you listen to music while writing – or associate particular music with particular books or stories?

*** Reminder: if you want to win a copy of Convicts – signed by me – check out this contest. Final week. Runs until 28 July 2012.***

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Musings on the Kiwi music scene

J. Eric Smith, inventor of the concept of ‘blanga’ as a way of describing some Hawkwind tracks, contacted me this week. I’d referenced his idea in a post last Xmas eve. His blog’s a great read (spot the Zappa title references, among others). And he mentioned that Kiwi musicians punch very much above their weight, internationally.

I agree. I’ve been meaning to post on that for a while. Music is an interest of mine – in fact, I spent longer learning music than I did writing or history.To me, music and writing are the same thing – expressions of imagination that evoke emotion.

Nobody’s far from the music scene here. For instance, one of my friends at high school in the late 1970s had a sister who sang in a local band, Raven. Her name was Debbie Harwood, and she went on to a hugely successful career, including When The Cat’s Away, whose songs were iconic in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Friends of mine in Dunedin were around the music there in the early 1980s. This city had its own sound – epitomised by bands like The Chills, Netherworld Dancing Toys, Verlaines and The Clean. Mostly based in George Street. They were universally smart, clever and really innovative. One of the Verlaines, Dr Graeme Downes, heads the music department at Otago University today.

I have to mention The Gordons. Prototypical thrash and well known for being loud – as in, they had more amperage than anybody else. You didn’t have to go to a concert. All you had to do was arrive in some town nearby. Or park a spaceship off an adjacent planet…

There was even a Kiwi synth-pop band, The Body Electric – complete with manually triggered sequencers. Pre-MIDI days, this. Alan Jensen, one of the keyboardists, later produced OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ (1996).

I’d done electronic music and knew how Moog synths worked, but this was something else. A friend of mine who later fronted a music slot on TV under the curious stage name ‘Crispy Fresh’ worked in one of the instrument stores and introduced me to this new world of synths in the mid-1980s. ‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘Polyphonic’, and promptly whapped out the first bars of Bach’s 2-part invention in F-major. ‘Skite,’ said Crispy, who wasn’t formally trained (but he had a better music career than I ever did).

Some of the people from this era are cultural icons today – notably Dave Dobbyn, who has been writing anthems that capture the New Zealand spirit for 30 years. I think the single from his Footrot Flats album, Slice of Heaven, would do as our national anthem. So do a lot of other people.

The venues these bands inhabited were legends. The Gluepot at the top of Auckland’s Ponsonby Hill - now demolished. The Cricketers Arms in Wellington. The Cabana, nestled against the Napier hill. That’s still running – it’s owned by a friend of mine, and he’s getting some top names in there.

And that’s without mentioning the dozens of others since -  like Flight of the Conchords – who have done so, so well. The Kiwi sound today is international, slick and utterly professional. There’s Shihad/Pacifier, who were big-big-big in the States – changed their name to Pacifier, then changed it back. Three weeks ago, they performed 200 metres from my house. Loud. I listened to the concert in my lounge. Heard of Fat Freddy’s Drop? They’re local in my town – but internationally known. You need to listen to their stuff. 

Not forgetting the Wellington InternationalUkelele Orchestra, featuring Brett McKenzie. Here’s a clip from a 2009 concert they did in the Michael Fowler Centre. I was there. It was a wonderful evening.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012