Letting The Sound In

Everyone has their idiosyncracies when writing. I’m not too fussy, but I know what I like. I like a room with no windows. I like a split keyboard. I like a big monitor, I like a bulletin board with my index cards up with clear thumbtacks, I like a baseball within arm’s reach (a nice soft training one because I toss it up and down and if it gets away from me, it’s nice to limit the damage).

What I have never liked is listening to music while writing.

I’ve always been a quiet worker. I find music distracting when I work, to the point where I feel frustrated…like a neurological patient who suddenly can’t find words he knows but can’t quite get out.

This isn’t because I hate music. It’s because I love music. I love it so much, it tends to grab my attention completely, and suddenly I’m adrift.

I’ve been playing music pretty much my whole life. My first instrument was the piano, of course, because I grew up in a middle-class Jewish home, and that’s what middle-class Jewish kids played. I wish I could say I enjoyed the piano. I didn’t really. I had some aptitude for it, and I remember doing pretty well at a recital, but I didn’t love it. For me, piano sounded great but felt forced. It never flowed for me.

My next instrument was the clarinet. Why? See Jewish home, middle-class.

I was actually quite good at the clarinet, and as a 10 year-old, I played in the Staten Island Borough-Wide Intermediate orchestra (which drew from the best of the orchestral players in the middle schools on Staten Island). The only problem with the clarinet was that it was a freakin’ clarinet. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being part of an orchestra. I really did. It’s just that…I mean…is it too much to ask for an instrument that doesn’t remind everyone of fellatio?

By the time I entered high school, I had left the piano and woodcock…sorry, clarinet…behind. I started concentrating on my singing, which I enjoyed far more, and which also got me girls. This was a far better pursuit, and I still love to sing.

But singin’ ain’t playing an instrument. You can’t lose yourself while singing, because you’re singing.

And then, one day………I met the drums.

Hallelujah. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my instrument. I had a natural feel and improvisational ability with the drums that I never had with the piano or the penisflute, and I threw myself happily into lessons.

I became obsessed with drums, drum gear, drummers…all of it. I bought myself a sweet kit made by Spaun Drums, a custom maker here in Southern California who does terrific work on par with DW and the other high-end bigshots. I bought Zildjians, Sabians, DW double-brace hardware, Pearl Eliminator double kick pedals, Remo heads for my snares and toms, an Evans EMAD for my kick…

…I could go on for hours about all this. But I won’t.

Because five and half years ago, I had my first child, and the drumming sort of stopped there.

It’s not my kid’s fault. I just have this thing about not drumming and waking up a sleeping baby. And then we had another kid. And the last five years have also been the busiest of my career.

Drumming had to take a back seat. So, what filled the gap?

What else?

Guitar, like the drums, is one of those instruments I just have a feel for, although without the benefit of lessons, I’m just a happy strummer. If you’re going to buy an electric guitar, and you’re going to buy one electric guitar, you’ll be buying the American Fender Stratocaster (Deluxe, if you can), and that’s that.

Unless you buy the Telecaster. That’s acceptable.

Nothing wrong with buying other guitars. Some great ones out there. But you have to have a Strat or a Tele before you go any further. Pair it up with a nice amp (tube amp only, please…we must be civilized, no?), find a fun multieffects pedal, and you can rock the brains out yer skull…and yes, quietly enough that the kids don’t wake up.

Still, electric guitars are for fun. Acoustic guitars are what make me happy. I’m self-taught. I can’t solo really, my technique is probably quite dodgy, and I have an annoying habit of playing without a pick, because I like the feel better than way. Still, I know a goodly sum of chords, and my fingers have gotten pretty strong over the years.

So yesterday, I treated myself to a reeeeeeally nice acoustic guitar. The latest addition to the Mazin instrument family is this bad boy.

It’s a Martin HD-28VE. Just a gorgeous guitar. I played some Taylors and a Takamine and a few other Martins, but this one just sounded so great to me. Such a joy to play.

But this article isn’t just about me and my love of music and my latest gear obsessions.

It’s about a major shift that’s occurred in my writing routine.

For the last few weeks, and for the first time ever in my career, I’m writing to music. I’m working on Superhero!, and even though spoof requires plenty of joke construction, this genre just feels so part-and-parcel with music. I can’t hum many film scores, but I know the score to Superman, I know the score to Burton’s Batman, and I can even hum parts of Spiderman.

So I decided to give it a shot. I downloaded Elfman’s Batman, Zimmer & Howard’s Batman Begins and Elfman’s Spiderman. I found pieces that fit the tone of the scenes I was writing (because in spoof, we never ever ever do “funny” music…I hate “funny” music…the music works as a serious counterpoint to the comedy, perhaps never better than with Elmer Bernstein’s original score for Airplane!), and then I just put them on repeat play.

I loved it.

It’s a pretty big breakthrough for me, because after ten years of a routine, any change seems like a breakthrough. The music doesn’t necessarily make the dialogue sharper or the jokes funnier. What it does is help me shape the feeling and purpose and pace of the scene as I write.

It also motivates me to think about which scenes require music and which don’t. The scenes that seem to work best without score are the snappy patter dialogue scenes, and this is really a “duh” sort of observation, because when it’s time to score our movies, those are the scenes we don’t score.

And yet, when you’re writing everything for the first time, all these cues help.

I don’t know if I’ll think of every movie this way, but something tells me I should. I know enough about my own creative process to know that I know very little about my creative process. Anything that helps me stumble to a scene that feels right is worth using.

Funny…I’ve always visualized the scenes. Saw the costumes, saw the faces, imagined the space, determined the angles, heard the sound effects…

…but never the music. Until now. For a guy who loves music so much, it seems like a strange bias to have had.

I blame the dickhorn!

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