On Songwriting and Sensory Deprivation

Today, I woke up at a highly uncharacteristic 8 am (possibly as a result of excessive caffeine consumption last night; recent experiments show that overcaffeination doesn’t prevent me from sleeping when I’m tired, but kicks my brain into high gear after some six to seven unconscious hours – a useful note for a chronic nightowl). Equally restless and reluctant to stay inside when the outside finally looked like spring, I took a three-mile hike over to the nearest town. Today it was, in fact, a ghost town. Here’s one of the few downsides of not belonging to an organised religion – having no idea that Easter is being celebrated in this part of the world.

So I got some coffee at a gas station, found a sufficiently godless fast food joint with working internet, and decided to write a post about my recent experiment with sensory deprivation. As most things in my life, it started with a song.

In this case, a song I was writing. For those who know me – it was a song about Rain and the Hurricane. For those who don’t – suffice to say, it’s a song about fear. Half of it are the words of the man being haunted; the other half, the one who haunts. And one of the many catches about this particular bogeyman is that he talks to you in your own voice. As described by Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere, “…not the embarrassing echo of his voice he heard on answering machines, on tapes and home videos, that horrid parody of a voice that passed for his: the man spoke with Richard’s true voice, the voice he heard in his head when he spoke, resonant and real.“. Yeah, THAT voice.

In the story that birthed the 20-%-complete five-novel series about the man who occasionally ends up in my songs because he believes that any artistic medium can only benefit from his presence, and who… But I digress. The original version of this bogeyman would get particularly talkative when its host was in enclosed space – ideally, facing a wall. Seeing as I needed the damn thing to talk to me, I thought I’d simulate that experience. Already sitting in a corner I’d cleared out for that purpose, I realised that the bogeyman I was writing about didn’t care about corners and walls. The one time when it managed to sink its teeth particularly deeply into Rain was when the latter was stuck in a locked windowless room with a dying torch. So, forget the wall, I decided, let’s make it dark instead. The mood music of choice was Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare and Disturbed’s Inside the Fire, both songs where the speaker is a haunting presence similar to the one I was trying to produce in my own piece.

For my first attempt, I simply covered my eyes with my hands. But when the first drum beats fell, even that was enough. A full listen of the first song might’ve been the longest six minutes of my life. The darkness was definitely working. To up the ante and free my hands, and in absence of windowless rooms, I resorted to a tight blindfold. Then I sat back down, and listened. Some ten minutes in (time measured by the length of songs), I got the feeling that something was blocking the light – as if someone was standing over me. That wasn’t an automatically frightening idea, because there was another person in the house, and he could’ve come into the room to ask me something (a sign I’d preemptively put on the door said “Creative process afoot. Enter at will. Do not panic”). While keeping both the blindfold and the headphones on, I readied myself for a possible hand on the shoulder. There was, predictably enough, none. I waved my hand in front of my eyes, and there was nothing, no change in the light I thought I’d seen before. I even went as far as to put the lit screen of my phone against the blindfold – and still nothing. So there hadn’t been any change in the light, just the dark swirls that you can get if you put some pressure on your eyeballs – some, but not enough to start seeing colours.

So, mere ten minutes into being in the dark, in a positively safe environment, I was already uncertain of my surroundings. I gave that feeling some time to sink in. Then I reached for the pencil and paper I’d left next to myself, and, still blindfolded, scribbled down the most instinctive output of my brain. At first, it was a string of pleas narrowed down to ‘help me’, ‘save me’ and ‘get me out of here’. Then there were a few lines written without spaces, just a never-ending stream of ‘savemesavemesaveme’. And then, finally, one the scariest thoughts that one can have in a locked dark room, and one that, I found, is so easy to have.

I think there’s someone here with me.

That was when I put down the paper, but not the pencil, and turned to face the wall that my back was previously against. The change from that was more drastic than I’d imagined. Previously, I was protected from three sides (two walls + side of couch) and, even while blind, facing the only direction any danger could ever come from. Now I was facing a dead end, with my back to the unknown darkness. Soon, the wall bore markings similar to my writing in the notebook. This time, there were only one or two pleas – but instead, a much longer repetition of…

I think there’s someone here with me.
There’s someone here with me.
There’s someone here with me.
Someone here with me.

The last ‘me’ ended with a long pencil streak. At first glance – your classic ‘interrupted plea for help’, in the best traditions of horror. However, if whoever was analysing that wall took an extra moment to consider it, they’d notice that the pencil trail was at the end of a complete sentence. So, either the victim was allowed to finish the thought through the courtesy of the unknown assailant, through sheer coincidence, or… Or no one was actually dragged off to their death, but rather, slid down the wall sobbing, after the somanieth repetition of their desperate graffiti.

Then I finally got the blindfold off. The clock said that my entire imprisonment in the dark, graffiti and all, lasted half an hour at most.

A few hours later, I repeated the experiment. Remember when I said that the song had two voices? It was time for me to become the bogeyman.

For this role, the darkness was instrumental again. But this time, it wasn’t oppressive – rather, liberating. Even though I was sitting in the same corner as before, I wasn’t trapped. I didn’t want to hug myself or curl up. I wouldn’t lower my head, but throw it back, looking through the dark and the blindfold, and neither seeing nor needing to see. I’m sure that were anyone to walk in at the time, even if they didn’t freak at the sight of the blindfolded and hooded me, the smile on my face might’ve sent them to the nearest church for some holy water. The same notebook I’d scribbled in before, now had an extra page added to it. No scribbles or pleas this time. All caps.

WHAT ARE YOU SCARED OF?
TELL ME
TELL ME
TELL ME

Some time into this second session, I got to my feet and felt my way to the office chair in the middle of the room. I spun on it for the longest time – at the time, not even sure why, just feeling that was the right thing to do. In hindsight, the vertigo was a perfect contribution, disorienting me enough to complete the disembodied feeling. Still dizzy, I got off the chair, took off the blindfold and got back to the same wall as before, now writing all around the original terrified graffiti. Three stanzas in bold hand, each one starting with an uppercase word – a shouted order to the bogeyman’s victim, the subject of its- his- MY haunting.

Afterwards, it took me some twenty minutes to come to my senses, just like after the first session. This recovery period was entirely involuntary – I felt perfectly fine physically, but both times, the time immediately following the sensory deprivation and the writing seemed to simply disappear.

I have to say that I’d enjoyed that evening of songwriting immensely. The best part of it, I think, was the complete isolation from anything that wasn’t the song. In both of the dark sessions, and the extra hour I spent putting my graffiti to a beat, nothing else existed in the world, not even the artistic anxiety of the Is This Any Good At All variety, my very frequent companion in all things musical. This time, it wasn’t there. I was doing art in a reality-proof cocoon, and it felt amazing. The next day, I started to compose the music, and was fast in the grip of dissatisfaction that could only be appeased by producing the result I liked. But I still remember the bubble of peace and fulfillment that I floated in for the rest of that first evening. I hope that once each musical component of the song clicks in place, I will experience that feeling again. I’m not too picky, though, so if I can’t have the peaceful bubble again, I’ll settle for the squee of achievement with minimal complaints.

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2 Comments

Filed under Blogness, Music

2 responses to “On Songwriting and Sensory Deprivation

  1. Riibu

    Not only does this sound like awesome use of time, I wanna hear that song. Hope the music starts flowing definitely.

    • Hey there! Welcome to the blog! 😀
      And the song’s been cooperating, more or less. I’ve got the skeleton of the melody and the beat. Give it another week or two, and I’ll have a listenable synth demo.

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