Scoring the novel as it unfolds – the undercover soundtrack

If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.

In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.

Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.

I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.

Q2 Music streamed a live performance from the Guggenheim in April of the Wordless Music Orchestra performing UK composer Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic." Photo: Q2 Music

He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.

Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.

The unexpected

In the Guggenheim "Titanic" performance, musicians were positioned at remote points along the Guggenheim's famous spiraling ramp. Photo: Q2 Music

‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses  in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his  swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.

Sweet enjoyment in the abyss

By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.

‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’

Music is a debate

Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’

All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.

The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics –  is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.

A magnifying glass for the truth

For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.

As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’

Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle and in print

Update: the lady herself is reading this blog… 

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  1. The undercover soundtrack for your novel – at the red blog « Nail Your Novel
  2. Porter Anderson’s Challenge Grant for Q2 « MusicSprings
  3. Imagine Desert Island Discs for novels – welcome to The Undercover Soundtrack… « My Memories of a Future Life
  4. Imagine Desert Island Discs for novels – welcome to The Undercover Soundtrack… on the red blog « Nail Your Novel
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  6. My Memories of a Future Life | Home
  7. From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford « Nail Your Novel
  8. The Undercover Soundtrack – Josh Malerman | My Memories of a Future Life

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