The Undercover Soundtrack – Melissa McPhail

for logo‘The driving energy of violent battle scenes and tragic misadventures’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week my guest is award-winning fantasy author (and classically trained pianist) Melissa McPhail@MelissaGMcPhail

Soundtrack by Riverdance

Music and writing have ever been mated in my soul. As a child, I began writing fiction in the same year I took my first piano lesson, and as an adolescent, I reached to express the inexpressible with my first musical composition only weeks before the computer started calling my name at odd hours of the night. One creative effort cannot be wakened without drawing upon the other. They are soulmates, and I am mated to them equally.

Melissa-profile1Music as muse

In me, they support each other as soulmates should. When the creative juices of one endeavor begin to run dry, turning to the other will rejuvenate that lacklustre flesh. Oddly enough, time spent trilling fingers across a keyboard that produces music is not so different from the cathartic rhythms of one that forms letters on a screen. They both seem to reach into the same place in my soul and draw forth that spark of inspiration that results in bountiful self-expression.

Frank Zappa said: ‘Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance is sculpted into something.’ I believe this is true not merely of performance but of music overall — when music plays, something is created. We cannot see it in the air, yet music forms images in our minds, emotions in our hearts. It invokes memories and stirs the creative spirit into action. That sculpture is pushed forth, formless until it is collected by the imagination of the listener and channeled into something new.

Because I spent an eternity writing my epic fantasy, Cephrael’s Hand (in my mind, over a million words spent in pursuit of a single novel qualifies as an eternity), a number of songs have sculpted the series, but one album did more to fuel this effort than any other – Bill Whelan’s Riverdance.

Battles, mystery, enchantment

This album seemed to contain all of the driving, pulsing energy of violent battle scenes and tragic misadventures mixed among the mystery of enchanted forests and the thrumming chill of icy, windswept passes. It speaks a story of uncertain heroes, of unrequited love, of tears shed for ages lost and of the wistful echo of loved ones vanished or vanquished. Cephrael’s Hand travels to all of these lands and spaces of the heart. It’s a tale of two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of a great battle, neither knowing the other is alive. It’s the story of a traitor who works in exile to save the race he’s sworn to protect, and of a blessed race facing extinction – along with the realm itself. It’s the story of nations battling for the ideals they believe in, and of individuals striving to find an ideal to shape themselves around.

From song to scene

More than once, a particular song inspired a scene. Marta’s Dance/The Russian Dervish played heavily into the twisting, spinning fighting style of my Whisper Lords, with their daggered gloves and slashed cloaks, and Cloudsong/Riverdance, especially the instrumental section with its melody both wistful and joyous, somehow encapsulates the feeling of the relationship between the Healer Alyneri and her childhood love, Prince Ean.

bk1KindlecoverThe Countess Cathleen still brings to mind a particular dance I envisioned between two characters. Sadly, their paths never crossed in the final version of the story, but the lovely motions they made still dazzle in the realm of my imagination any time I hear the song. Who knows? Someday, in some future book, they may actually join in this dance together.

That is the beauty of music. Its ephemeral sculptures make an indelible imprint on our consciousness. Even if this imprint is never fashioned into something corporeal, still, it remains in the vast repository of inspiration, just waiting for its time to shine.

Melissa McPhail is the author of the award-winning epic fantasy Cephrael’s Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth , the newly released second book in her series published by Outskirts Press, A Pattern of Shadow and Light. In addition to her writing, Melissa is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations, and she seeks with her novels to explore the facets of good and evil, nobility, honor, courage and self-sacrifice in all their many shades. Find her on her website and on Twitter as @melissagmcphail

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  1. #1 by Melissa McPhail (@melissagmcphail) on January 23, 2013 - 1:18 pm

    Roz, thank you for inviting me. I enjoyed this look at music and inspiration and how the two have paired in my writing. I appreciate the opportunity to share.

  2. #3 by DRMarvello on January 23, 2013 - 5:19 pm

    Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing it. Now I’m inspired…to go read Cephrael’s Hand!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 23, 2013 - 6:36 pm

      That’s the idea, hooded man. Careful on your horse, now

    • #5 by melissamcphail on January 24, 2013 - 2:20 am

      Thank you so much! I’m thrilled that I’ve inspired you in any capacity. That’s really the best we can hope for as writers, isn’t it? To pass along a little inspiration of some kind to another. Thank you for reading.

  3. #6 by annerallen on January 23, 2013 - 6:17 pm

    I love the idea of music being a kind of sculpture. Melissa gives a great look at the creative process.. And what a great cover!

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 23, 2013 - 6:37 pm

      Nice to see you here, Anne! Yes, I loved that quote. It’s so hard to grasp what music is and does. It’s both real and ephemeral at the same time

    • #8 by melissamcphail on January 24, 2013 - 2:21 am

      Thank you so much, Anne. I really appreciate your feedback. My cover artist is Kentaro Kanamoto, who as you noted, is quite talented. Thank you for reading!

  4. #9 by Tim on January 25, 2013 - 7:44 am

    Someone once jokingly asked me how to describe a color to a blind person, Melissa it sounds like you have discovered how to describe music to a deaf person?

    If music’s symbolic language attributes are ignored, then we are left with a very impoverished view of music. — Edward Gold

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 25, 2013 - 8:33 am

      Hi Tim! Great way to put it. Yes, Melissa did a lovely job there.

    • #11 by melissamcphail on January 25, 2013 - 5:00 pm

      Thank you, Tim. I suppose we might describe music as hearing in color. I hadn’t imagined it that way before, but it seems right somehow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. #12 by Alex Jessup on January 25, 2013 - 7:45 am

    Awesome! While painting, I use music as both a source of inspiration and energy. I love the balance of creating music and writing though, I’m sure I’d benefit from playing music more often as well.

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 25, 2013 - 8:40 am

      ‘Energy…’ that’s an important ingredient no one’s spelled out as such. I swear there’s something biochemical that goes on when music hits a creative brain. Like passing under a magnet, everything realigns and makes more sense. Thanks, Alex!

      • #14 by melissamcphail on January 25, 2013 - 4:57 pm

        You’re so right, Roz. The concept of realignment beneath music’s magnetic charge makes a lot of sense to me. I’m sure I’ve experienced that as well. Great point, Alex!

  6. #15 by Grace Robinson (@StorytellerGRL) on January 25, 2013 - 4:55 pm

    I love Riverdance! Now I’ll have to go investigate this book that was inspired by the music. :-)

    • #16 by melissamcphail on January 25, 2013 - 5:01 pm

      Thank you so much, Grace.

  7. #17 by Shon Holyfield on January 25, 2013 - 10:39 pm

    Thank you. As an artist it is easy to appreciate art – especially great music. However, it is rare that I’ve taken a moment to look at the impact inspirational music has on my life, art and creativity. Music fuels me for hours as I create! This article has renewed my appreciation for that which has become routine – listening to music while creating. Thank you Melissa!

    I’m partial to military movie themes – The Rock, Crimson Tide, Battleship, The Pacific Series… They keep me going for hours!

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 26, 2013 - 7:46 am

      I know what you mean, Shon. And the pieces each week open my eyes to new imaginative possibilities in music I’m already familiar with too – reinventing it with an author’s particular, special vision. Thanks for commenting!

    • #19 by melissamcphail on January 26, 2013 - 4:15 pm

      Thank you, Shon. I’m honored that my article may have inspired you anew.

  8. #20 by Rachel Karl on January 26, 2013 - 2:39 am

    Reading this after already having completed both your books, it inspires me to someday go back through and read those scenes you mentioned above whilst listening to the music that inspired them! It’s always great to hear what music inspired certain scenes. Gives it new depths for me.

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 26, 2013 - 7:47 am

      I bet it does, Rachel! Thanks for stopping by.

    • #22 by melissamcphail on January 26, 2013 - 4:18 pm

      I so agree, Rachel. But if you’re listening to music as you read, I imagine you’re creating your own soundtrack. That would be so interesting to enjoy as well!

      • #23 by Rachel Karl on January 26, 2013 - 5:01 pm

        True Melissa! I have my own soundtrack for writing my novels too – but because it’s such a solitary affair I never took much time to consider how it affects the creative process of others. It’s great to find a blog that focuses on that topic because I feel music is part and parcel to my entire creative process!

  1. ‘The mystery of enchanted forests and the thrumming chill of icy passes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Melissa McPhail « Nail Your Novel

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