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All writers I know—and all artists, I presume—have their to-go inspirational writing music. I have countless playlists in iTunes for the various moods I need to inhabit in order to produce the kind of piece I’m working on. Emotional personal essays warrant the “sad writing mix,” while most GFR posts get the “Mars mix” (IDM, mostly) or a dose of the “happyfuntime mix.” Most of my good writing music doesn’t have lyrics, as they tend to distract me from coming up with my own words, and few mixes have the kind of driving bass I’d want on the dance floor. Regardless, the relationship between music and art production is fascinating, which makes me particularly excited to get an earful of what legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick listened to when he wrote.
Widely loved inside sci-fi circles and out, the Hugo Award winning Dick’s influence has reached people who probably aren’t even aware of it. Many of his 44 books have been made into popular movies. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became Blade Runner and PKD also wrote A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, Next, Paycheck, and Screamers.
Given the dark, prophetic work he produced, one might have a few guesses about the music Dick listened to when he wrote. Was he a fan of goth (and I’m talking real goth, not Marilyn Manson)? Maybe heavy metal? Like me, did he listen to electronic music of the IDM or ambient sort?
None of the above. Dick was, in fact, a lover of classical music. He worked as a DJ for a classical music radio station and his first job was in a music store. An article by Andrew May describes the author’s musical tastes in detail, with Beethoven and Wagner topping his list. Dick wove his love for classical music into a number of his works, including VALIS (which inspired an electronic opera ), A Maze of Death, Ubik, and the Game Players of Titan.
Jason Boog, editor of Galleycat, turned the songs mentioned in May’s article into a Spotify playlist, which I’ve been listening to as I work on this post. I have to say, while the music is in itself amazing, there’s something particularly inspiring about listening to it knowing how much it inspired one of my favorite authors. The list contains Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and others specifically mentioned in the article.
Philip K. Dick was far from the average sci-fi writer, and not just because of his love for classical music. While studying philosophy at the University of California, Berkley, he came to believe in a divine presence in all things, as well as God’s role as the force of the universe. In other words, he didn’t share Carl Sagan’s view of the cosmos, but rather attributed the cosmos and everything in it to God, which is a pretty unusual stance for a science fiction writer. Dick’s taste in music seems to bridge the gap between his religious and philosophical beliefs and his writing. Classical music, perhaps because of the venue in which it’s often performed, has always felt divine, and sometimes miraculous. While an art form inspired by God, nature, or other forces, music—and the process by which we compose, listen and respond to it—is also a science.
One image that springs immediately to mind is that of Beethoven, who lost his hearing when he was about 30 years old, feeling the vibrations of his piano. While he stopped performing in public, he never stopped composing. He had the legs removed from his piano and sat on the floor, sometimes naked, in order to better feel the physical impact of his music. Something in this image combines art, science, and religion.
A few months before his death, Beethoven wrote, “When I consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I and what is He – whom we call the greatest – and yet – herein lies the divine in man,” a sentiment that closely mirrors Dick’s beliefs. And while I may not share the religious views of either man, I’ll add Beethoven and some other classical music to my own writing playlist. In addition to cranking out the words, I think I’ll spend some time simply sitting and feeling the vibrations.