Were I not a musician, I may not have become a writer. And I could not write without music.
Aren’t endless cycles fantastic?
And now, good albums for fantasy – a series of blogs outlining the music I find helps create an appropriate atmosphere for and foster a good mindset for writing fantasy.
This first installment is Canadian artist Loreena McKennit’s ninth album entitled “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” This album, released in 2010, is her most recent, and like her previous albums its style could be described as World and Celtic. However, unlike her previous works (excepting perhaps her first album “Elemental” from 1985) this album is minimalist, featuring simple, beautiful arrangements of predominantly traditional Celtic songs. Tracks include “As I Roved Out” and “The Star of the County Down,” as well as the sole track on the album composed by McKennit herself entitled “The Emigration Tunes.”
I’ve been listening to Loreena McKennit for years now, and her music has always inspired good, solid fantastical thought – if fantastical thought is capable of being solid. Much of her previous work, though most albums include lovely renditions of a traditional song or two, generally comprises songs composed by the artist featuring an array of world instruments that create melodic, splendorous chaos together, spritely adventures with accordion, and much driving, intense percussion – a friend once described this artist as Enya with a backbeat. As well as these wild, wondrous pieces there are also gorgeous, introspective songs that often feature McKennit on harp. I use these songs extensively when writing what is “traditional fantasy” in my mind. Magic, swords, maidens and handsome youths in peril – the works.
However, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” I’ve found to be wonderfully beneficial in writing my current novel (Tom). This story is set in a world and time roughly resembling England (and Scotland, and Wales, and Ireland – that whole general area) in the 1890s. The “magic” is somewhat subtle – no spells or wands or explosions of unearthly fire – and the distant war is fought not with swords, but with rifles and cannons. In Tom’s world, electricity is a recent, exciting development, travel by steam train is a luxurious pastime enjoyed by the rich and important, and forest are being ignorantly ripped down for the sake of human advancement, clearing the way for ever larger cities and ever wider roads. I suppose some might label it steampunk, but I’m not quite sure it qualifies – nobody wears any cogs. None at all.
The traditional tunes shaped by acoustic guitar, violin, cello, harp, mandolin, pipes, and bodhrán (among other instruments), to me, capture the mood of the period and environment I’m trying to create. Tom’s tiny village, the young forest nearby, the dense northern pine forests, the massive, impressive train station in a gritty, factory smoke-choked city. The Countess’s ancient manor house. These settings are beautifully inspired by these songs, as are many of the events – walking the forests in the company of intelligent wild animals, perusing market stalls, attending church, travelling by train with family, and envisioning a bleak future, the loss of all things natural in a country overrun by the plans of ambitious men.
I recommend “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” for any fantasy project that requires a simpler, more realistic touch. Gentle. Innocent. I use a careful selection of McKennit’s earlier songs for this story as well, but I can’t listen to an earlier album all the way through – they’re either too powerful or too ethereal. To use a Tolkien analogy, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is more Hobbiton than Lothlorien. Town parties outside church doors and stories of dragons and moving trees, yes. Mystical Elf Witch Queens, weary questers, and mutated, repulsive enemies on the prowl, not so much.