Posts Tagged Chopin

The Undercover Soundtrack – Rebecca Mascull

for logo‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’

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 Edinburgh Festival Award nominee Rebecca Mascull @RebeccaMascull

Soundtrack by Chopin, the Raconteurs, Mychael Danna

I’ve always had a soundtrack in my writing life. I’m a classically trained pianist and often think in notation, often find my fingers running up and down the table in old scales and moments from piano pieces, often find I’ve had Chopin running through my head all afternoon. It’s just the way my brain works. Having said that, the funny thing is, I cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I just can’t do it. I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a musician, that listening to music becomes an active rather than a passive pastime, and mascull006means that if trying to actively engaged in something creative, like writing a first draft, my brain can’t split itself in two and live the music and create the prose at the same time. I often think of music as architecture – the notation itself looking like rows of bricks on the page building into a structure in a particular style – classical, romantic, or whatever. And writing is like that too – the words the bricks, the sentences and paragraphs the walls building up into the mansion or the castle – the novel.

So, I don’t listen to music while I’m working. But curiously enough each of my two published novels has had a particular piece of music that has influenced them, become a catalyst for them and become a kind of ‘undercover soundtrack’ for each, as your series so cleverly names it.

Firstly, The Visitors, my debut novel. The song I will always associate with this book is Old Enough by the Raconteurs, the version featuring Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe.

The novel is about a deaf-blind girl living in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm in Kent, who is released from the prison of having no form of communication by meeting a hop-picker who teaches her the manual alphabet. So, I hear you cry, what on earth could this song possibly have to do with this novel??

Well, before I started the first draft, while it was still just an idea percolating in my head, I thought I might set this novel in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I thought the teacher who opens up the world to my deaf-blind girl might be an English woman come over to America. There was going to be a romance for the girl. Then I heard the song Old Enough, or more precisely, I saw it. My partner showed it to me on TV and I was transfixed. I loved the video set in the studio, with all these great musicians just strumming around then coming together to create this great song. I had also just started to learn the violin around that time, so loved watching the fiddle player do his stuff too. And there was something about the lyrics, this idea of a young woman thinking she’s old enough to do things, and this older, wiser voice slowing her down. It even says that she never speaks, which of course was so apt for my deaf-blind girl who is mute.

But the real hook for me and why it spoke to me about this book was that the song encapsulated for me the central romance of the book, between my deaf-blind heroine and her teacher’s brother. Without giving too much away, that song I imagined playing in my head during every scene they had together, and of course, I discovered, he too played the violin and taught her about sound by holding the instrument and feelings its vibrations.

Later I had a change of heart. I felt that the war must come later, as I wanted the teacher’s brother to go to war and so we were back to England, late Victorian/early Edwardian and the Boer War. We were in Kent now, but the song stayed with me.

In my second novel, a similar thing happened i.e. a soundtrack came to me that ostensibly had nothing to do with the setting or time of the novel. Song of the Sea Maid begins in 1730s London, and then travels to Portugal and Menorca in the 1750s. I bought a CD of C18th Portuguese ballads, which was lovely, and listened to a few Portuguese fado songs, but found out they were developed a bit too late for my setting. Around that time, I saw Life of Pi at the cinema. Wow. What an experience. Such a stunning film. Yet what stayed with me as much as the gorgeous visuals was the lush and beautiful music. I ordered the CD and listened to it in the car with my (at the time) seven-year-old daughter Poppy. Though I knew she was too young to watch the film (she’d find it too sad), she loved the music (by Mychael Danna) and so did I. I became quite obsessed with this particular track, Skinny Vegetarian Boy.

SongOfTheSea_HB_finalhiresThe story of Pi of course is dominated by the sea. At the cinema, the ocean fills the screen for much of the action and being in the dark surrounded by water as far as the eye could see filled my mind whenever I thought of Pi. The story of Sea Maid takes my heroine across the ocean with a certain young argumentative and reactionary sea captain to deal with. She studies islands and develops theories about ocean-going ancient cultures. The sea filled this story too. And every time I sat down to write, whenever I was with her paddling in the Mediterranean or gazing across the Atlantic at distant storms, I had the Life of Pi running through my head, and always first, that one track, its soaring Indian flute completely out of place for my eighteenth-century heroine yet somehow it went deeper than that and expressed something out of range, just beyond your reach.

It’s that atmosphere I need when I’m writing, trying to express the inexpressible. And that’s why Walter Pater said: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It’s that abstract beauty I’m trying to reach. I’m doing my best in my own small way. And music helps me get there.

Rebecca Mascull is the author of two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton. Her first, The Visitors, was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award. Song of the Sea Maid is her latest release. Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Find her on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter @RebeccaMascull.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Garry Craig Powell

for logo‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’

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 award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell

Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles

Garry may 2012 014 (2)Under the glitter

Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)

As for the music:

…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’

Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.

A novel in stories

Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.

A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:

Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’

Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.

Pretentious, overblown

Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.

Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:

Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’

Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.

Chopin and chopsticks

In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:

How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’

The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?

StoningtheDevil400Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:

Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’

I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.

Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Anjali Mitter Duva

for logo‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’

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 historical novelist Anjali Mitter Duva @AnjaliMDuva

Soundtrack by George Ruckert, L Subramaniam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Chopin

Music is at the heart of Faint Promise of Rain. The setting for the story — 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India — had already been laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the sky is devastatingly blue. The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a classical storytelling art from North India.

AMDKoboShot2 by Michael BenabibI’d decided to try out kathak, and stepped timidly into the dance center where a class happened to be offered just down the street from my home. As I climbed the three stories of steps to the kathak studio, the sound of ankle bells grew louder. Then I discerned the slap, stomp and drumming of dozens of feet, and the glorious sound of voices singing in unison. In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal), the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. In addition, dancers memorise their compositions and recite them in a series of mesmerising syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes.

As I delved deeper into the dance, I learned of its early history, first among wandering minstrels bringing the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from village to village, then as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples by devadasis, girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity and served it through dance, while also serving wealthy patrons as sexual companions. Soon, it all began to coalesce into a story—the setting, the history, the dance itself.

Music and rhythm in writing

From the moment I started writing the book, I was aware of the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story. When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance, I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was writing in a cafe, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand.

Music to transport me

I wrote the book in New England. There are some hot days, and many cold ones. Bundled up in a wool sweater as a Nor’easter rages outside, dumping two feet of snow and closing schools, it’s hard to imagine being in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. So I often turned to music to pull me back to the right place. One of my favorites for this is L Subramaniam playing his violin, especially in Raga Kalyani. The strains of the Indian violin are haunting, rich and emotionally charged. They always give me goosebumps, and conjure up images of India right away. L. Subramaniam is from South India, and plays in a Carnatic style that is not the one found in Rajasthan, but his music is all I need to feel back in India. I get memories of playing among the rocks on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai with my friends while the sun set smoggily and the air filled with the smoky smell of kerosene fires. I see myself standing wrapped in a shawl on the ramparts of the fort in Jaisalmer, looking out over the grey-blue desert as the sun rises and colors it with warmth. I think of sitting on an elephant, plodding through foliage dripping with the night’s condensation, listening for tigers at the break of day.

FPR_cover_finalMusic to elicit moods

Once in an India frame of mind, I have some favorites that I put on while writing to elicit a certain mood, or to help with inhabiting a character’s mind. For scenes depicting dancers and musicians, I love the creative and melodious music of George Ruckert, sarod player/composer and longtime disciple of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a true maestro. George Ruckert is the husband of my dance teacher, a professor, a mentor and a friend. His dedication to his art is inspiring, and so is having his music playing as I write. (He is also on the book trailer.) For energetic scenes, I enjoy the dynamic, celebratory qawwali (Sufi devotional) singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s hard to feel down when he sings. And for getting into the writing mood on a rainy day, I diverge to Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes. The simple beauty of the piano playing, stripped of any distractions, is meditative, and reminds me of the necessity of getting to the essence of the story and the characters.

The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain is the first. Find Anjali on her website, Facebook, and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva

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The Undercover Soundtrack – GG Vandagriff

‘Vastly yearning, longing for resolution’

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’s post is by award-winning novelist and incorrigible genre hopper @GGVandagriff GG Vandagriff

Soundtrack by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Dvorak

Right next to my love of writing is my love of music. In fact, as I look at my novels, I find that music is inescapably woven through them. I take my literary cues from the music I listen to.

Another life

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major was the inspiration behind my women’s fiction: Pieces of Paris. My heroine, Annalisse, is stuck in the Missouri Ozarks with her quixotic husband who thinks he has found the Garden of Eden. However, she grew up on a farm and knows that a farm is just a farm. She is overcome by PTSD and finds herself immersed in flashbacks of another life her husband knows nothing about.

Before that life ended tragically (thus causing her to bury the memories deeply), she was a concert pianist (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Chopin’s etudes figure here). More importantly, she was passionately in love with a brilliant violinist consumed by the Tchaikovsky.

In creating that character, I also became consumed – both with him and with that amazingly complex composition. I played it as I wrote, and Jules became one of my most memorable characters. The concerto is vastly yearning, longing for resolution. Jules’s character development traced the concerto’s. In the same way, as I wrote this book during my 25-year apprenticeship, I was yearning for the completion that only writing could give me. I was stretching, as the violinist stretches in this composition. It was plainly the soundtrack for my literary life.

In my most recent book, The Only Way to Paradise, a tale of four women who find hope and healing in Italy, two of my ‘crazy ladies’ are violinists. Arthritis has stricken Georgia, ending her career as a violin sensation. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was her signature piece, and she played it ‘like silk’. As I wrote of Georgia and her memories, I played the concerto as my soundtrack. When she thinks she wants to end her life, she hears through her window in Florence, the sound of the Dvorak violin concerto played by an anonymous virtuoso. The Slavic melody of the music echoes her mood, but saves her life. The violinist turns out to be one of her companions, whom she undertakes to mentor.

Not a note

It is one of life’s great ironies that I understand music, but cannot play a note, nor even read it! However, I cannot live without it. Now, as I write a frothy romance, I am listening to a lot of Bach and Puccini Arias. Except for the duel scene—that is accompanied by Shostakovich’s uber-dramatic Fifth Symphony!

GG Vandagriff is the author of 12 books and an inveterate genre hopper. She has a series of five mysteries, two suspense novels, one award-winning historical epic, two novels of women’s fiction, and two non-fiction. She is also a journalist, writing for an on-line magazine and Deseret News. Educated at Stanford, she studied music at Stanford-in-Austria. Her latest book is another genre hop into romance, The Duke’s Undoing. Find her on Twitter, her website and her blog.

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