This is a Writers’ Other Jobs post by Craig Schuftan.
Hello, my name’s Craig, I’m a non-fiction author who writes about music, cultural history, poetry and philosophy. Because I write books and have not yet died of starvation, some people assume that I’m making a living by writing books. Sadly, it’s not true. I have another job, and the other job pays the bills. I make themes, stings and background drones, announcements and interruptions, mostly for the Australian national youth broadcaster, triple j. I made the theme from ‘Hack’ with the marimbas and the noise that sounds like your speakers aren’t plugged in properly, the station IDs with the wind-up-penguin sound effects and the sample of the old guy saying ‘beat bang beat beat bang’, the theme music and fanfares for the hottest 100 since 2007, and a whole lot of other things that have long since dropped off the radio, but that you would have heard six times a day for up to a year if you were listening to triple j any time in the past decade. Most of my music is made from samples, though I have been known to play an instrument or hit a radiator with a wooden spoon or hum or sing from time to time. My studio is… well, let’s not get carried away. ‘Studio’ is a very generous name for what is essentially a laptop plugged into a Telefunken boom-box cassette player, on a kitchen table in an apartment in Berlin. There’s a hard-drive full of 70s and 80s library music, obscure soul songs, BBC sound effects and spoken word records, a microphone on a stand, and a yoga blanket for soundproofing. That’s where you’ll find me, as the year draws to a close, trying to evoke the sound of summer in Australia, the hottest 100 and its attendant hot weather by making mutant plastic surf disco music from under a blanket as Berlin busily buries itself under its own soundproof covering of pure white snow.
So far, I’ve found that writing music is quite a nice complement to music writing. It’s not that the skills are transferable, exactly, but there are plenty of things I’ve learned while writing about music that have helped me write better music. Knowing that funk rhythms have their origin in second-line marching bands, for example, tells me it might not be a totally ridiculous idea to sample that high-school band LP recording on this hip hop-inspired show theme. Some time spent researching the early history of electronic music and the theories of John Cage has taught me that little sounds can be big sounds, which is why I spent all that time last Tuesday recording the sound of the bathroom fan, and my iphone is looking a little the worse for wear after the happy afternoon I spent ripping gaffer tape off it. Also, writing provides me with a lot of material for composing – my radio productions are often built from the leftovers of my research. While I’m digging through radio archives and old Youtube clips, I’m keeping one ear out for sense – the story I want to tell – and another for nonsense; weird turns of phrase, rhythmic speech, off-mic ambience, crashes, feedback, tape distortion, static, earth hum, accidental rhythms, and any other random sounds that will make people think the radio is broken. And when I have an authenticity crisis and begin to worry that taking all this stuff and moving all the parts around until it sounds awesome is Not Real Music, I think of the passage I quoted in my first book, an argument between Hip Hop producer Mr Supreme and his mother, a painter. When she told him he wasn’t a real musician because he wasn’t hitting the drums or strumming the guitars, he told her she probably wasn’t a painter because she didn’t make the paint.
So writing about music helps me write music. But it works the other way too: being a writer of music makes me be a better music writer. Moving bits of sound around, cutting them up into tiny fragments of instrumental noise and listening to these on repeat is a great way of getting under the hood of pop, down into the machinery of musical style. If I try to mix one song with another, the relationship between the two usually becomes clearer, some of the back-story of pop music reveals itself in the moment when I realise latin percussion and German oom-pah tubas both work equally well over euro-disco, or that Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ is a close cousin, rhythmically speaking, to Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’. And dealing with sound as material is a handy corrective for the music scribe’s tendency to write about music as though it were poetry or autobiography. It’s also a useful reminder of why people do the thing I spend all day writing about – because there’s not many feelings that can compare with the feeling of having smashed a few instruments together and come up with a noise that you believe, in that moment, could alter the destiny of the human race.
Of course nobody’s paying me to alter the destiny of the human race. Or are they? We all know that there exists, always, a significant gap between what we think we’re doing at work and what the people who are paying us think we’re doing, and that in this gap, many unexpected and fortuitous things can occur. I’m sure the woman who employed me to work at her video store in 1998 didn’t think she was paying me to watch 70s disaster movies and make experimental multimedia art with her fax machine, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Likewise, triple j’s program director, the excellent Mr Chris Scaddan, hires me to make his radio station sound awesome with kick-ass music and sound effects, not to speed the mental revolution of the middle-classes by rescuing fragments of pop-cultural history from oblivion and bringing them into new relationships with other similarly recontextualised crap from the 90s. Nevertheless, for better or worse, that’s what I think I’m doing. In this sense, my job and my other job are very similar, attempts to achieve the same end by different means. I spend all morning trying to recreate the experience of hearing Green Day’s ‘Basket Case‘ on the radio for the first time in 500 words or less, and go to work in the afternoon on a weird pop-art audio hybrid of Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll Part 2’, the theme from the 1981 Wolfgang Peterson thriller ‘Das Boot’ and a half-remembered piece of music from a Hanna Barbara cartoon I watched as a kid that same year. The goal is to rescue some small event, image or sound from the bogus procession of history, the method is a pincer movement. I march on the object from the east and threaten it with a sharpened HB pencil. Then, when it starts to run in the other direction, I throw a yoga blanket over it and hit ‘record’.
Craig Schuftan is an author and broadcaster from Sydney, Australia, currently living in Berlin. He is the author of three books on music and popular culture. Schuftan has written extensively on the romantic movement and its enduring influence on popular culture, and presented talks, lectures and workshops on this subject in Australia, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK. He is currently producing a six-part radio documentary on the history of Alternative Rock in the 1990s, and presenting ‘Der Kultur Club’ a series of multimedia presentations on modernism and music, in Berlin.