Posts Tagged Abba

The Undercover Soundtrack – Katharine Grant

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_

Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 1When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.

Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own

Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …

Physical writing

Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.

For narrative, I go to Chopin’s BalladesBallade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.

So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 2


But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.

The Undercover Soundtrack - Katharine GrantI often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.

The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_


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The Undercover Soundtrack – Matthew Dicks

‘I wanted music that a certain breed of men might like but would rarely admit to liking’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary novelist Matthew Dicks

Soundtrack by Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Supertramp, Wham!, Abba, Nena

At the heart of Unexpectedly, Milo is a road trip.  The protagonist, Milo Slade, heads south in search of a woman who may or may not be alive, and since music has always played a large role in every road trip that I have ever taken, I felt like it should play a role in this book as well.

Savants and self-awareness

I wanted the choice of music to say something about Milo as a person, and so I enlisted the help of my wife, who is a near savant when it comes to music, to help me choose the playlist.  Milo first begins by burning a CD with the type of classic road trip music that you might hear in a movie.  He is a movie buff, and in many ways, he views himself as a character within a film, so includes songs like Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run on his playlist.

He doesn’t necessarily like this music, but it is what he thinks he is supposed to play, which is in many ways Milo’s problem.  He has spent his life pretending to be the person he thinks he is supposed to be instead of the oddball that he truly is.

Unlike a film, where a three-minute song can fill an entire road trip montage, Milo is surprised to discover that his carefully constructed playlist runs out before he is even able to leave the state of Connecticut.

Guilty pleasures

Milo then turns to music that he likes but is too embarrassed to play around his soon-to-be ex-wife.  Bands like Supertramp, Wham! and Abba enter the rotation, and it was these choices of bands to which my wife assisted me.  I wanted music that a certain breed of men might like but would rarely admit to liking.  Not the toughest guys in the world, but not exactly wimps either.  Catchy tunes that an average guy like Milo might enjoy.  The guilty pleasures of the everyman.

It was also important that Milo kept his love for this kind of music hidden from his wife.  While Milo’s wife, Christine, is not the nicest of people, Milo is at least partially to blame for the failure of his marriage because of the number of secrets he has kept from his wife.  She knows nothing about his obsessive-compulsive nature, and this has required Milo to construct an elaborate and secretive life from her, undoubtedly causing barriers in their relationship.

In fact, music plays a large role in this secret life as well.  As an obsessive-compulsive, one of Milo’s compulsions is to sing the German karaoke version of the 1980s hit 99 Luftballons by Nena to an audience.  When the demand strikes, Milo’s mind cannot be put at ease until he takes the stage and performs the song.  As he prepares for his road trip south, he makes sure to have a copy of the 99 Luftballons karaoke CD in the event the compulsion strikes.

Karaoke bars tend not to have this song on hand.

The song originally chosen for this compulsion was The Hokey Pokey.  Milo’s compulsions often involve escalation and eventual release, and I liked the way The Hokey Pokey followed this model, adding one body part at a time until the dancer is permitted to truly hokey pokey.  But my agent wisely steered me away from this song, thinking it a little too over-the-top and silly to be realistic.  The more obscure but still well known song like 99 Luftballons worked well, especially when I decided to use the German version of the song, which was actually popular in the United States for quite a while.  It added to Milo’s oddity, and the fact that he was required to sing the German version further emphasized how little control he had over these compulsions.

The song ends up playing a key role at the end of the novel, though that came as a bit of a surprise.  It was one of those writes-itself moments, and I ended up loving the scene.  The novel has been optioned for film, and as the process grinds along slowly but surely, I am hoping that the writers, producers and director decide to keep 99 Luftballons as Milo’s song of choice.  It’s the song that plays in the back of my mind whenever I think about Milo and his story.

Matthew Dicks is not one for long, crafted sentences, preferring the stylings of Vonnegut over those of Saramago. He is an author whose works, to date, include the novels Something Missing, Unexpectedly Milo, and the as yet unpublished Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend; a blog; and a number of Op Ed pieces, all of which, at some level or another, tend to examine the outcomes of the quirky and/or rebellious individual when forced up against staid society; however, to say that he is an author is an understatement, for this husband and father from Newington, CT, who has faced a number of near-death experiences, lived in his car, and been tried for a crime that he did not commit, is also an acclaimed elementary teacher who has received the Teacher of the Year Award, is the co-owner of a DJ business, and still wishes that he could beat some of his friends at golf.

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