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Once a week 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’s guest is MFA graduate Mark Richard Beaulieu @MarkRBeaulieu
Soundtrack by Chris Isaak, Elmer Bernstein, David Darling, Alan Silvestri, CocoRosie, Hildegard von Bingen, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, Maurice Moncozet, Maurice Jarre, Natacha Atlas, Ibrahim Maalouf, Prokofiev, Steven Price, David Motion, Eric Satie, Gabriel Yared, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult, Trevor Morris, The Ting Tings, Beethoven, Handel
O, let me tell you – writing about the 12th century, you had better be listening to music. And if you are writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one must attend troubadours, trobars as my friends call them. When I understood their music, I arrived at the joy of Eleanor and what she heard.
The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor Code series. In the beginning there is passion. Modern trobar, singer-songwriter Chris Isaak’s Blue Spanish Sky underscores my writing of a 13-year-old girl’s experience of love and sorrow for a father’s sudden death far away. I replayed this theme to write of Eleanor at age 76 lying by his Spanish grave, six novels later. Establishing emotions of a medieval daughter and father who only had each other were reinforced by playing Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird, David Darling’s Children in Cello Blue, and Alan Silvestri’s Contact end credit.
The musical innovation of the 12th century was trobars composing emotions into personal songs. In The Young Life two female trobars sing to Princess Eleanor to comfort her grief after her father’s death. I wrote inspired while listening to the lament of CocoRosie singing Smokey Taboo. In performance they paint their faces in protest not sentiment, a thing that trobars used to do. I wrote this in, as Eleanor both laments the uncertain murder of her father, and protests the occupation of Aquitaine by France. CocoRosie’s haunting singing mixes a girl child’s voice with operatic glissandos like the chants of Hildegard von Bingen. As the story goes, Queen Eleanor meets Hildegard the visionary abbess crossing the Rhein. Hildegard’s soaring forest songs played in the background as I wrote of French and German pilgrim camps.
Songs with words are difficult to write by, even when voiced in another language. Sometimes I search for weeks to find the perfect music to write a section. To write my scenes for medieval children dancing in rain, a rafting solace on the Loire, and Irene’s watercourse way in Byzantium I found the unique ambient composer Laraaji. His Day of Radiance, or Cave in England played on a hand-built Harry Partch-like zither brought me the words of rain falling in color and reflecting water.
In another book of the series, The Journey East, I drafted the scene of Eleanor’s strange abduction while she slept, then rewrote it listening to Jon Hassell’s Clairvoyance. His restrained horn gave me words to describe the prelude to dreams and danger. To really get at the trobar experience a historical novelist must hear them perform on period instruments, with the force of the 12th century tongue – Occitan (OXSE-tah). Just as I imagine Queen Eleanor did. I have listened to dozens of troubadour performances, but contemporary performer Maurice Moncozet performing (translated) Rings coming in fountains, helped me imagine Queen Eleanor and her court on blankets before the song’s original medieval composer Jaufre Rudel the Prince of Blaye. Maurice’s vivid interpretation of the 12th century trobar Peire Vidal inspired writing a deeply emotional performance in the Louvre gardens. Translating and getting to know the strange Occitan singing begat a finer writing of emotion and improved dialogue.
Traveling is exciting in the mideast. Eleanor first seemed to fit with Maurice Jarre’s First Entrance to the Desert in his Lawrence of Arabia score, but ultimately an Arabic-inspired court, feast scenes, and trade in the Antioch bazaar benefited from Natacha Atlas with Shubra. Finally Peter Gabriel’s Passion evokes the rooftops and gardens of the Holy Land. Ibrahim Maalouf with his eastern-western cornet was behind a few out-of-control medieval wedding feasts.
Medieval battle in a Holy War. Please no swelling hero music. Crusaders out of supply and desperate required the sparse crudeness of Prokofiev’s The Battle On The Ice: April 5, 1242, and the entire film score of Alexander Nevsky. Supplying ominous violent scenes in empty winter also fit well with Steven Price’s Gravity.
All phases of love and sex are key. The alluring Eleanor inventing court rituals finds sublime kisses in David Motion’s Orlando film score. The art of fine love-making is evoked by Roland Pöntinen playing Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 3. Lovers shift mood in Gabriel Yared’s sexy Betty Blue. Nino Rota’s 1968 Prologue to Romeo and Juliet keeps me in a frame of mind when I am editing teenage Henri Angevin falling head-over-heels for Eleanor Capet. Their families are at war when they exchange their first spark, just like the famous star-crossed lovers.
Romance is contrasted with two Lolita stories that must go further than Nabakov’s book. Eleanor’s 12-year-old sister’s imbroglio and Henri’s later seduction of a 13-year-old nymphette were set in motion by a sympathetic listening to Ennio Morricone’s Lolita Love Theme. To write of courtesans without a code where sex is all about power relied on My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult’s Dirty Little Secrets. The tense energy of sons rebelling against Henri after his elite guards murder Archbishop Thomas Becket, a reformer of a corrupt church, fit Trevor Morris’s The Borgias score.
Chaos writing. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I actually play music when I am conceiving a character in stress. Shocked by a death and having to take action in a state of confusion, young Eleanor is written against the loud energetic Ting Tings’ Shut Up and Let Me Go.
The innovation of personal love songs intense with human emotion is a key to the 12th century. Only our generation has ever heard the infinite music of the world. A thousand troubadours came into existence, a jumping point into our era filled with the boundless music of our emotions.
Mark Richard Beaulieu grew up in Heidelberg, New York City, Texas and California, receiving an MFA from UC Davis and a BFA from Trinity University in San Antonio. He is an energetic writer, fluent on the 12th century life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a collected painter, photographer, and innovative software technologist. He lives in Escondido with his wife and pets. The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor code series. Mark can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, on his website, and on Twitter @MarkRBeaulieu
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Once a week 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 award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Soundtrack by Beethoven, Dolly Parton
Music is at the heart of my most recent novel – as you might expect from its title The Piano Player’s Son and the image of a piano on the front cover! Music is often a force for unity, as in the songs of the First World War or the Last Night of the Proms, but in The Piano Player’s Son, it soon emerges as also a divisive, destructive force. The piece which gave me inspiration for the complexities of the relationships in the novel is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
I love this piece, especially the first movement, but the more I listened to it while I was writing, the more I was pulled in different emotional directions: romantic and compelling, on the one hand, haunting and dark on the other. The piece seems to have the capacity to inspire thoughts of love and beauty, leading the German critic, Ludwig Rellstab, to identify it with moonlight flickering across Lake Lucerne, hence its popular title. But its eerie, unsettling quality also means it is sometimes chosen as the soundtrack in horror movies. In the film Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven, it is used to powerful but painful effect in relationship to the composer’s deafness. And this emotional dichotomy is exactly what I wanted to capture in the novel.
The book explores family dynamics in the wake of a death. Each of the four grown-up children deals with their father, Henry’s, death in a different way. Isabel and George share their father’s love of music, particularly the piano and appear to have been closest to him. The day after Henry’s death, Isabel listens to George playing the Moonlight Sonata:
It was one of their father’s favourites and the music filled her head. She held a tea cloth to her face, forcing the thick towelling material against her lips. Why couldn’t her fingers tempt such sounds of exquisite melancholy as George’s?
Despite their shared love of the piece, and grief at their father’s death, sibling rivalry underlies Isabel’s response.
The other brother and sister, Rick and Grace, are excluded from this musical bond. Rick blames the emotional distance he’s always felt from his father on his inability to master the piano:
It was ridiculous that he’d spent so much time craving his father’s attention when all it would have taken was a few plinkety plonks on the piano.
After Henry’s death, Rick vows to learn. All his problems will disappear if only ‘he could learn to play the Moonlight fucking Sonata’. The choice of language is deliberate with Rick – even at the moment of vowing to learn, and therefore becoming closer to Henry – denigrating his father’s favourite piece.
The Piano Player’s Son is also about inheritance and I chose Henry’s piano as the focus for the enduring war between Rick and George. Both brothers claim it as theirs, Rick as the eldest son, George as the one who shared his father’s passion for music. I didn’t want the dispute to relate to money, but to be about something of personal and emotional significance – in this case, each brother seems to be claiming their worth in their father’s eyes. I chose a piano because, like books, it is a thing of beauty which furnishes a room, but which also has the power within it to feed the mind and soul.
While he is waiting for his father’s piano to arrive, Rick buys a second-hand one and starts having lessons, but his progress is painfully slow. When he tells his teacher that he wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, she informs him he’s nowhere near ready for that.
Rick thought of his father’s stubby fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have been a piano player,’ he used to say, ‘not with these fingers.’ And yet, here Rick was, a piano player’s son, and he’d never master the instrument.
The piano and the Moonlight sonata encapsulate all that was wrong with his relationship with his father.
References to classical music enhance the novel – Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, Bach, all play a part. But when Rick chooses a piece of music that sums up his relationship with his darling American wife, Deanna, he turns his back on his father’s beloved classical pieces and instead it’s Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream that sums up the closeness and joy of their relationship. I love Dolly Parton – there is something inspirational in her continuing love of singing and her passion for music.
But I have to finish with the key piece for my novel, the Moonlight sonata. Although I’ve concentrated on the first movement, the three movements together convey something of the story structure, building towards the final, furious movement. The Moonlight Sonata helped me explore the emotional complexity of the novel to such an extent that I had to include it at my launch. I managed to persuade my husband to play the first movement, and you could feel the emotion in the room as he played.
If you’d like to listen to another version of the Moonlight sonata, here’s Daniel Barenboim.
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Unravelling, published in 2010, has won three awards, and her second novel The Piano Player’s Son,. Her website is here and you can also connect with her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Lindsay is giving away one paperback copy of The Piano Player’s Son. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!
authors, Beethoven, central character, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Dolly Parton, drama, entertainment, Gary Oldman as Beethoven, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, literary novels, Moonlight, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, relationship, Roz Morris, The Moonlight Sonata, The Piano Player, The Piano Player's Son, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction competition, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Beethoven, central character, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, literary novels, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Piano Player's Son, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
Once a week 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 former rock singer and multi-award-winning author Warren FitzGerald @Warren_FitzG
Music is evil. It’s the Juju man messing with your head. It’s the sound of Bacardi Breezers clinking in the park when your soul is really being blasted by icy winds. And worse, perhaps, a carefully chosen trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things when really the forecast is fine.
So says one of the characters in a novel I’m working on at the moment. I agree with her: her reasons. But the conclusion I draw is different. For me music is not evil, music is awesome, powerful, magical. That’s probably something most of us feel, but perhaps I have studied its effect a little more than some because of my previous incarnation as a singer which included the joy and stress of being in a struggling rock band to the buzz of performing all over the world as a session singer to audiences as big as 20,000 people, and trust me that is awesome, powerful, magical!
The inspiration for my latest novel Tying Down The Sun came from my recent travels through South America. A heady few months in a continent booming with music. Latin Americans love their music and they love it loud. But the greater part of this novel concerns itself with a harrowing kidnapping which takes place within the beautiful jungles of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia. A place, which when I trekked through there a couple of years back, was one of the few parts on the continent so remote I did not hear music. But music has been crucial in helping me recall and verbalizethat landscape and its own intense soundtrack sung only by cicadas and silence.
The work of Argentinean musician Gustavo Santaolalla particularly from the film soundtracks for Babel and The Motorcycle Diaries was the obvious choice for me if I ever needed to recapture the atmosphere of those majestic landscapes and precious ruins I came across as I backpacked around Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. Every haunting track Santaolalla produces echoes with the vastness of the great waterways of South America, of the endless rain forests, the mountain ranges, the windswept deserts and their icy emerald lakes. If I ever for a moment forgot what it felt like to be there I would just play Deportation/Iguazu and I would be transported there once again with my characters, perched on the edge of Ciudad Perdida, the lost city, couched among jungle clad mountains which joyfully weep with silent waterfalls. And if that’s all it takes to get me back to those heart-swelling places then music (like literature) is truly magical.
Looking for freedom
The two protagonists in Tying Down The Sun are both young women looking for freedom. We first meet 14-year-old Luz as she is deciding to break away from her isolated Amazonian village and its customs which she finds barbaric, only to escape to a life as a child soldier in the National Liberation Army (ELN), taking freedom from her hostages yet soon realising she is in fact as disenfranchised as them. And we first meet Sarah as she marvels at the natural wonders and ancient indigenous cultures of South America, as she lets her hair down after finishing her degree in London, before she becomes one of those hostages herself.
Some of Sarah’s five fellow captives begin their carefree tourist trek through the rain forests equipped with I-pods to supply them with entertainment on the long nights under the stars, but as the unplanned days and weeks at gunpoint pass, the batteries die and music becomes a rare commodity. Just before the last I-pod loses power, Sarah and Luz cement their unlikely friendship by appreciating a piece by Beethoven. The same piece doesn’t do much for me, but in order to understand how it might move some of my characters I indulged in a piano recording which affects me enormously. I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi was the piece I used to get myself ‘in the zone’ because the opening few notes alone break my heart every time I hear them. Beautiful because it’s so sad, or sad because it’s so beautiful, this recording makes my heart feel like bursting, I think, because the images it conjures (long lost lovers reunited and caressing each other like blind people feeling their way, crashing waves seen silently through the window of an idyllic cottage, to name a few) are never in reality without their spoiling imperfections.
I played Te Aviso, Te Anuncio and remembered the wonderful ache in my feet as I stomped through cigarette butts and plastic cups. I played Crazy In Love and felt the luxurious sickness in my stomach when I used to twirl until everyone else disappeared.
As the reader and Sarah find out just what horrors Luz has had to endure in her young life already, they surely can’t blame her for her cynicism, but I have hope for Luz because the one word from her indigenous language of Quechua which she clings on to, despite abandoning the rest of her Amazonian roots, is tinkuy. Tinkuy means to dance, but it also means to battle. As Luz’s uncle tells her:
There is no separate word for each. It is just a matter of interpretation, a matter of context. But you have to decide which way you are going to go. Are you going to battle through life or are you going to dance?
I’ll leave the reader to decide if my hope for Luz is justified; to decide whether the novel ends with a battle or a dance.
A graduate of Warwick University and former singer in rock bands, these days Warren FitzGerald often finds himself in remote and ostensibly dangerous corners of the globe. His travel usually involves voluntary work on projects including the building of a health centre in Kibungo, Rwanda (the setting for his first novel, The Go-Away Bird), living on a rubbish dump in Nicaragua (the subject of a documentary film he is currently working on) and trekking through the combat zones and cocaine regions of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia (the setting for his new book Tying Down the Sun).Warren’s first novel, The Go-Away Bird won the Amazon Rising Stars Award 2010, Authors’ Club Best First Book Award (longlisted) 2011 and was Waterstones’ Book of the Month: Oct 2011. He lives in London. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @Warren_FitzG
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Once a week 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’s post is by Southern Gothic literary novelist Dave Newell @davenewell
Can music make a writer a better writer?
I grew up in South Carolina so my literary diet consists of the great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. In addition, local storytellers with little name recognition outside of their own counties introduced me to unique styles. Horrific stories told beautifully are nothing new to me; they’re what I grew up hearing and how I thought storytelling was meant to be.
When I was in elementary school my parents signed me up for ten years of ill-fated piano lessons. Sure, I didn’t miss a lesson, but very little came of those years in terms of musical skill. However, I did learn the importance of the metronome – a steady guide and constant companion that helped me stay as consistent as I was able to. It afforded me the ability to concentrate on other tasks instead of focusing solely on rhythm. I was able to focus on the position of my hands and recall what my teacher had reminded me of. In terms of writing, music is my metronome.
Writers have to perform an incredible amount of mental gymnastics in very tight spaces. Some of the writing comes naturally while much of it is learned and then mastered through practice. For brainstorming I listen to music with lyrics, but when writing I need a guide to pull along my voice, which comes naturally, while I concentrate on practicing what doesn’t – new sentence structures and world-building.
Conspiracy, calm and bitter tension
When writing my book Red Lory I created a small 1950’s town and centered the story on Dr Douglas Howard and the wife of a patient, Mrs King. Her wealthy husband owns a very profitable department store, but his health took a surprising dive, leaving him incapacitated and in a coma-like trance. She appears to be giving up on him in favor of making plans to marry Dr. Howard, who happens to be struggling financially. Many of the scenes take place in the Kings’ library where the doctor and Mrs. King spend hours while her husband fights for his life upstairs in his bedroom.
Theirs is a strange world – a complex environment of conspiracy, calm, and bitter sexual tension. I needed something to keep me in that world, so I went back to the classics. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a song Mrs King plays on the library piano, became invaluable. I also looped Olafur Arnalds’ album Living Room Songs, using it as my metronome to carry my voice while I concentrated on other things.
Since it was published the book has been produced as an audiobook and is being adapted into a movie. Both producers have remarked on how cinematic the story is, and I owe much of that to the music I listened to. A strong soundtrack helps me paint the story with a finer brush and more vibrant colors.
Music isn’t just something I use to allow my voice to carry on and remain consistent; it’s also something I learn from. Songwriters tell stories; they just pack it differently than novelists do. Thayer Sarrano’s Quiet Now Your Bones changed my perception of what’s expected of me as a writer. It’s a lonesome song that puts me under a spell I don’t dare break.
I often associate page-turners with action-packed stories where the turning points are easily identified, and the tension rings the doorbell instead of sneaking up on you. I like to think that I’ve learned how to write tension into a story like she does with her songwriting. By nature of the Southern Gothic genre, readers are expecting strong doses of tension to show up in my stories, and I’m happy to oblige. However, I don’t want my tension to waltz up to the front door and announce itself. I want it – without the reader realizing – to have been sitting beside them the whole time, turning the pages.
Listen for the stories
To me music is something more than background noise. Each, with or without lyrics, is a carefully crafted story. Both Sarrano and Arnalds construct songs with heavy amounts of friction disguised by beautiful melodies. Listen for the stories the artists are trying to tell. Those stories, although kept in the invisible binding of digital formats, are page turners that bring us into their world and teach all along the way.
Dave Newell was born and raised in the Midlands of South Carolina. After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina where he currently lives with his family. Red Lory is his first novel. Find him online at davenewell.net and on Twitter at @davenewell.
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Once a week 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’s post is by novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees
Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!
To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.
A poetic novella
I now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)
I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.
Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.
I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.
Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…
The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.
My equivalent liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’ and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.
The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.
Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.
GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by debut author Barry Walsh @BJWalsh
Soundtrack by Neil Young, Handel, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Marvellettes, Rod Stewart, Adele, Flanagan & Allen, Mozart, JS Bach, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Dexy’s Midnight Runners
The Pimlico Kid is about first-love, which can quarry a hollow in one’s life that is hard to fill. It’s also about kids scrabbling past puberty and slamming into emotional or physical barriers set by adults.
… the most we might have expected to deal with was a first kiss or a dying grandparent, we were undone by love itself, and violence – and that adults betrayed us.
The lyrics of Neil Young’s songs were ever-present in my head while writing the book. For years I had piled up notes from which to make The Pimlico Kid a novel but it was the beautiful reference to childhood friendship and secrets being revealed in Philadelphia that turned intention into action.
The narrator, Billy, unlike some of his friends stands on the solid ground of happy family life. His easy-going father is a hard man and his volatile brother, John, will become one. However, Billy’s father is comfortable revealing his softer side and expresses it in his fine singing. And, when his sons were small, he kidded them he knew Italian and sang his favourite Beniamino Gigli songs, such as Handel’s Ombra mai fu, in beautiful gibberish.
This contrasts with Bob Dylan’s less mellifluous The times they are a changin’ (played loudly enough to shake the house) that defines the rebellious younger brother John, who is yet to discover his softer side:
When he’s asked or told to do something, he has this stiff, chinny look that makes it clear he doesn’t have to comply, but that he will, only on this occasion.
The exhilaration of first attraction is almost always about a face. And it is nailed by the Beatles’s I’ve Just Seen a Face. When Billy falls for Sarah, he worries that his more mature friends will disapprove because she is still flat chested. However, he’s prepared to wait for breasts:
I know that whatever Rooksy says about fabulous flesh, love starts with a face.
A host of songs evoke the summer of 1963 but none more vividly than the Beatles’s She Loves You. Billy and his friends stand transfixed outside a pub from which it is blasting out, again and again. This is the song that vanquishes the old pop music order – along with Brylcreem. When an Elvis song starts up, they leave.
During one of those never-ending summer days of childhood, the loves of four friends – Billy, his best mate, Rooksy, Sarah and Josie collide and magic is conjured up by declarations of love and secrets revealed. The Marvelettes’ When You’re Young and in Love kept popping into my head as I tried to pin down the excitement of new love. The lyrics may be simple but if you are young and in love, they couldn’t be more true.
At a critical moment Billy’s behaves like an idiot in front of Sarah. Burning with shame, he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t affect how she feels for him. This reflects my experience of how often weak and flawed people, usually men, are lucky enough to find someone who loves them anyway. Neil Young ‘gets’ it in Hangin’ on a Limb, in which a man wobbles at the edge of an emotional precipice and a girl teaches him how to dance.
As their relationship grows, the four friends come to learn that love breeds compassion and diminishes judgement of those it’s easy to ridicule, whether it’s because of a birthmark or sexual orientation. In the early sixties there were few openly gay teenagers and a great deal of unthinking homophobia. A decade later, Rod Stewart’s The killing of Georgie helped to change things a little and it came to mind constantly while I struggled to get this issue onto the page.
Adele’s Someone Like You wasn’t a creative influence but, on a more exalted level, it provided creative confirmation of the universal theme that I was trying to make personal. During my fourth re-write, the song was playing every day and everywhere and its reference to glory days of summer goes to the heart of The Pimlico Kid, in which …
love can endure but … promises are hard to keep.
Finally, the streets of London are the main stage for The Pimlico Kid. Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner anchors Billy – and me – to the greatest of cities.
I write to classical music, which provides welcome harmony to counter the dissonance in my head. I start most days with Mozart’s String Quintet No 1 because it lifts my default mood of pessimism about finding the right words. Each day features Bach, lots of Gregorian chant and the liturgical songs of Hildegard von Bingen. I regularly work my way through Beethoven’s quartets but stop when I reach No 15, which triggers Wordsworthian ‘thoughts that lie too deep for tears’.
When the writing has gone really well, I celebrate with the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which isn’t at all ‘solemn’. And, when there’s no one else in the house, I turn to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen and jig around like mad Ben Gunn on the beach.
Barry Walsh grew up in the heart of London during the 60s and thought belatedly that there might be a story in it. The result is The Pimlico Kid, published by Harper, a story of first love. He is now writing his second novel. When not at the keyboard, Barry enjoys cycling (he once rode non-stop to the top of Mont Ventoux), holidays in France, watching Arsenal, listening to Neil Young and gazing at Audrey Hepburn’s face. He is a proud trustee of the world’s oldest youth club – St Andrew’s, Westminster – and believes that London might just be the centre of the universe. He is married with two daughters. Find him on his website and Twitter @bjwalsh
GIVEAWAY Barry is offering a signed print copy of The Pimlico Kid. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew
Ah, the difficult second novel.
I’d written a manuscript of 100,000 words, sent it to my agent, and was feeling good. I met him at a pub in Camden, ordered a pint of Guinness, and sat on a bench outside in the watery spring sunshine, expecting a conversation about how large my advance would be.
Instead, I got something else. Something I wasn’t expecting. I got criticism. The voices didn’t work, he said. I’d told my story as a serial first person narrative, with a different character picking up the tale in each chapter. But they all sounded the same. One was an 80-year-old granddad, another a young woman from California, another a cynical 20-something furniture salesman. But they all sounded the same. They all sounded like me.
When I got home, I did what every writer does after receiving helpful, constructive criticism: I took it as an attack on my ability as a writer, went to bed and turned off the lights and felt like never getting up again. The manuscript I’d been so proud of that morning now seemed to me like worthless junk, a waste of two years of my life. It’s lucky I’d made multiple digital copies, otherwise I’d have burnt the thing.
After indulging in a weeklong orgy of pathetic self-pity, I grew up, accepted that he was right, and went to work.
Changing the voice of all seven different narrators is no simple task. It’s easier to write new scenes or even a new ending. Changing narrative voice means going through every line of the novel and rewriting it. But first it means defining what the different voices are going to be. As I’ve done many times before when in need of inspiration, I turned to music.
I created a different mood for each character, based on my idea of who that person was. The Beethoven and Sibelius I’d listened to while writing my first draft was fine for Granddad, but not for young, idealistic Marie from California. She listened to Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and Birds of Chicago. As for Jon, the furniture salesman, he was an Arctic Monkeys man. I listened, and I tried to hear their voices in my head. I did this for all seven characters. For a month I didn’t write a thing. I just spent time with my characters, listening to the music they liked and trying to hear them speak the sentences I’d written.
Doing this helped me see just how much my agent was right. My 20-something furniture salesman referred to a smelly minicab as being ‘like a full-bodied wine, releasing more varied and subtle aromas with more time and attention’. With classical music playing, that had actually sounded OK. With the Arctic Monkeys blasting out, I realised just how ridiculous it was. I changed it to:
Another click and we were locked in. Hot and clammy suddenly, choking on nicotine and pine … At a red light, the fizz of a can, loud slurping, the metallic stench of Red Bull. Behind it all, a strange, burnt aroma…
I did the same with every character, line by line, word by word. I changed the vocabulary, I changed the cultural references, I changed the rhythm of the sentences. Jon, with his guitar-charged indie rock, spoke in a choppy, broken English, while Marie with her contemporary folk was more florid, elegant and occasionally long-winded.
By the end, I couldn’t tell whether I was choosing music to fit the character, or whether the character was being shaped by the music. And the best part was that it didn’t matter. I was listening and writing in different voices. I ended up with 29 chapters written by seven different characters, and there’s nothing in the chapter title to indicate who the narrator is. The voices are, I hope, so distinctive that you can tell within a few sentences who you’re listening to. It’s only possible because of the time I spent with my characters, listening to their music and letting their voices enter my head.
Andrew Blackman‘s second novel A Virtual Love is in bookshops now. His debut novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).
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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 it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….
Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.
That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.
My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.
A life steeped in music
My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch). But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:
Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.
I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.
Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.
One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has
a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.
The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind. Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.
Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’
What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.
Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.
Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.
Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)
The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)
WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by historical novelist VR Christensen @VRChristensen
As a historical fiction writer, music is very important in my creation process. Music is a part of that necessary atmosphere, so key to any good novel, but particularly in one that asks you to step out of your current reality and to step into that of a past, that which might have existed, if…
I’m a huge fan of the BBC literary adaptations (some might say I’m obsessed with them). That’s the sort of thing, on paper, at least, that I’m trying to create. That there should be a score, a soundtrack, if you will, is only natural. But more than that, it’s often necessary.
Although it’s not usually very difficult for me to step into the past, (I spend so much time there in my head, after all) it isn’t always a piece of cake. Neither is it easy to convey what I see and hear and feel onto paper, making it as vivid for the reader as it is for myself. Music plays an essential role, for instance, in the conveying of character emotions, in outlining conflicts, and, at times, in magnifying them just enough that I can examine them in depth, like a screen shot, a virtual moment in time, allowing me to feel what my characters are feeling, and to spell it out in their own language.
It’s easy enough to tell you what my characters are feeling. That’s not enough. I want you to feel it too. Music helps me to do that.
So what pieces have been most valuable to me in this endeavor? In truth, I have a couple of standbys. These are favourite pieces, that, no matter what I’m stuck on, or what is preoccupying my thoughts, I’m instantly drawn into that place and time where I need to be in my writing, in that imaginary world I’ve created, and which I need to convey as realistically to my readers as it appears to me.
Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Op 84 is the one piece of music that defines Cry of the Peacock (the first book I wrote, the second to be published, in October 2012) Listening to this piece, one can easily imagine a vast country estate in England, a young woman walking across the Hampshire Downs, having just come from visiting the poor labourers. Just over the hill emerges the great estate. And you can feel her envy of it, her admiration of it, and her resentment, too. And then, as the story unfolds, and the music with it, so much is revealed, through the haunting intensity, the sorrow, the anger, the lilting sounds of a happiness…just out of reach. It’s a fantastic piece, and totally takes me to that place I need to be.
Boy and girl
Another piece I like to listen to, particularly during the key ‘boy loses girl’ (or can’t quite get her) sequences of a story, is another Beethoven piece, Moonlight Sonata, Op 27 mvt. 2. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear this, it still gives me the chills, makes me want to weep. The longing portrayed in the hesitating movements of the one hand, and the constant rhythmic undulations of the other… It’s breathtaking.
As much as I would have liked to, copyright issues prevented me from being able to use either song in my book trailers. Fortunately there are some really generous and talented artists out there who both record and compose music that works well. For my debut novel Of Moths and Butterflies I used a piece by a fellow named Aaron Dunn called Sonata no. 1. It had just the right mood, and the tempo of it created an interesting opportunity to present the analogy; an insect collection, which represents a woman trapped in an arranged marriage.
Both original and well known pieces can be found at Kevin Macleod’s website, where I found the piece I used for the trailer for Cry of the Peacock. It’s no Egmont, but it still has that haunting minor key feeling I think evokes the atmosphere of the book.
Music is timeless. Like symbols written on a piece of paper, which, when taken in their entirety create a written story, so is music. I think it’s miraculous, in a way. A bit of necessary luxury.
VR Christensen write neo-Victorian historical fiction. Her debut novel, Of Moths & Butterflies has spent the last six weeks on the bestseller charts in various categories on Amazon.com and is published by Captive Press. Her second novel, Cry of the Peacock, will be released in October of this year. She is also the author of a novella, Blind, another historical piece with a paranormal twist. VR is a member of Historical Fiction Authors Co-operative, Past Times Books, Authors Anon and Literary Underground, all of which aim to ensure that the publishing revolution now upon us produces some of the finest work available to the reading public–and makes it available. She tweets as @VRChristensen
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- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'