Today on Crimepieces I have Christopher Fowler. Chris is the multi award-winning author of many novels and short story collections, and the author of the Bryant & May mysteries which I love. The latest book in the series, London’s Glory, is a collection of short stories that I can’t wait to read. His first bestseller was Roofworld and subsequent novels include Spanky, Disturbia, Psychoville and Calabash.
Hi Chris. Thanks for taking part in this series. Do you have particular pieces of music you write to?
I always write with music playing, so long as there are no vocals. My experience is the reverse of most writers; when I was a teenager I loved classical music, but later I came to love EDM and modern pieces. However, I’ve always found that soundtracks can provide the perfect atmosphere in which to create. For many years I worked in the film industry and was often given soundtrack recordings by directors, many of which didn’t make the final cut. Soundtrack music is created to enhance the emotion of visuals and is an ideal accompaniment to writing. I have no taste boundaries, and will happily play demanding minimalist pieces next to cheesy sixties scores; music is unapologetically personal, and no-one should have control over your tastes!
I went through a phase of writing to Michael Nyman scores, particularly the Handel-like ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Drowning by Numbers’ (based on Mozart phrases), plus a limited edition album of his called ‘Sublime’. His score for ‘Prospero’s Books’, Greenaway’s version of ‘The Tempest’, also conjures images.
Minimalists Wim Mertens and Max Richter heavily feature on my writing playlists. Phillip Glass is a little too intrusive to write to.
Has a particular piece of music ever inspired you to write something?
Mark Isham’s score for ‘Crash’ inspired a number of my short stories. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for ‘Gormenghast’ definitely had an effect on a new novel that’ll be out next year called ‘The Foot on the Crown’. Composers contacted me directly and asked to write pieces for the Bryant & May mystery novels, and several of them have proven inspirational for further stories; a case of creative reverse-engineering!
Could you recommend any particular pieces of music for a specific mood?
I have the obsessive gene, and once I fall in love with a composer, I set out to hear everything they’re written. I’ve been like this with Spanish soundtrack composers, particularly Federico Jusid’s deliciously sinister soundtracks for ‘La Cara Oculta’ and ‘Isabel’, Joan Valent’s score for ‘Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi’ and Roque Banos’s moving score for ‘The 13 Rosas’. I’ve also written specifically to his wonderfully Hitchcockian soundtrack for ‘La Comunidad’. Speaking of Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann is also a favourite when writing tense scenes.
French and Spanish soundtracks also provide great mood music for sad or melancholic scene-setting, especially the scores for ‘Loreak’, ‘Dans La Maison’, and the beautiful hymns and adagios in ‘Joyeux Noel’. If you want to write something joyful you can do no better than play Camille Bazbaz’s score for ‘Hors de Prix’ (‘Priceless’). The last soundtrack score I heard that I fell in love with was the jazzy, big-band ‘La La Land’.
Thomas Newman’s minor key scores for ‘Angels In America’ and ‘American Beauty’ sound European and are so distinctive that I can pick out his music in three or four bars. Likewise, the late great John Barry used such recognisable key changes that I will pinpoint anything he wrote across a crowded room. Older soundtracks can be more intrusive on the ear because their orchestrations are cleaner and more streamlined, with smaller orchestras.
Composers now have a tendency to ‘thicken’ sound with overlaid instrumentation and effects. Listen to Barry’s original masters for ‘Goldfinger’ and you’ll be shocked at how simple his arrangements are. It sounds as if you’re in a smoky room with a small jazz band. I once sat in with the orchestra while one of the later Bond films was being scored, and the sound was overwhelmingly huge.
Are there any longer works you can recommend. If you need to write for an hour, for example, is there a particular composer/artist you’d chose?
The longest piece of music I have ever written to lasts for 24 hours! ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter is a piece designed to be slept through, and has a slowly mutating chord change that’s very relaxing. Thomas Bergersen’s long pieces like ‘Sun’ and ‘Illusions’ and the lengthy soundtracks for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films by Howard Shore are good for writing grand action. An easy solution is to pick the work of one soundtrack composer and leave it on play, as a style will emerge across several soundtracks. You can very clearly hear the development in the works of both Michel Legrand and Ennio Morricone.
What are you working on at the moment?