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Words and Music

29th August 2011

I am jealous of musicians. There. I said it.

As a writer you spend hours staring at blank pages, trying to manipulate your unconscious to come up with something startling and insightful which will touch people on a deep level. Then you crank out the first draft against psychological resistance. Then you hate it. Eventually you go back to it and start rewriting and revising. Finally you agonise over the placement of paragraph breaks and commas. Weeks later you take it to a spoken word event and pour it out and if you got everything else just right, a few people are moved by it.

Compare that to musicians. They get together and work out a few chords, get into a groove and people respond intuitively to the music. We are programmed to change mood depending on the music we hear. If you don’t believe me, try watching a scary film without the soundtrack — or notice how often the hard rock riff kicks in as the action hero finally takes his stand.

Don’t get me wrong; I know how hard it is to become a skilled musician. I play more instruments than you might think — and none of them particularly well. I’m just saying, the pluckers and honkers and plonkers have a natural advantage.

One of the approaches to having a good Edinburgh Festival is to explore a theme. My season this year was coloured by two themes: magic and storytelling — of which another time — and music and storytelling. Even the terrific Devil In The Deck, which incorporated card magic into a story of dire predictions and fateful life choices, had a bloke sitting at the back cranking out fat guitar licks.

Two of the Chemical Poets were working the music in underground chambers. Texture presented a farewell to cyberpunk at the Royal Oak (I wrote “Royal Punk” first time, that would be a good bar) reading to his own music. He used a great little pedal to give some characters a Davros/Transformers voice. The Oak is a folky bar; the music and voice-changer were just what the show needed to lift the audience out of there and into the glittering data fields.

Harlequinade is a guy with a unique artistic vision, and I think it’s fair to say he was doing the only Lovecraftian clown/bouffon rap apocalypse show at the Fringe this year. His Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan partner Asthmatic Astronaut supplied a lingering soundtrack. We were sitting in an arched cellar of the Banshee Labyrinth and the atmosphere was at its best when the story, and sound effects, sank beneath the waves on a journey to cosmic oblivion in brine.

Of course the main reason I have been thinking about this stuff was our Writers’ Bloc show at the Book Festival. Named Electric Lit Orchestra, I programmed only stories with a musical accompaniment — two of which were enjoyably dodgy: a one-man band and cross-gender karaoke. We brought in punk guitarists, a saxophonist, a cellist and even a small choir. And I can tell you, no matter how good your story is, people still wake up when the music starts.