Posts Tagged David Bowie
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
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.
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?
Alia 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.
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 former actor and theatre director Paul Adkin @AdkinPaul
Soundtrack by Paco de Luia, Oasis, Mike Flowers Pops, Miles Davis, Schubert, JS Bach, Natalie Imbruglia, David Bowie, Stockhausen, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, Brahms, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead
When Sirens Call is replete with musical references, but the real musicality of the novel is in the writing itself. Through my work in theatre, as a writer and director, I very quickly saw the relationship between theatricality and music. In the composition of the novel When Sirens Call, I wanted to create a juxtaposition between its two protagonists and music helped me find it. In musical terms, the plot was a seductive struggle between the classical and the contemporary. Between the traditional and the actual.
Protagonist A is Belinda Babchek. A young Australian traveller, in Madrid, on her way to Greece. It’s summer. To locate the mood of the foreigner in Spain I listened to a lot of flamenco (Paco de Luia Entre Dos Aguas). I live in Madrid and frequent the flamenco bars, but I wasn’t listening to it to imbue Belinda with it. Quite the contrary. Flamenco is an alien concept to the young Australian. She is displaced and floundering before the backdrop of the Spanish guitar. Flamenco isn’t a music that one can lie back and relax with. It’s stirring and passionate, but also a disturbing symphony.
And this is Belinda’s mood in Madrid. She is walking a knife-edge between her own pop-culture of the here-and-now and a yearning for something deeper. Even though she has no idea what that deeper thing could be.
In Madrid she befriends Charo, who is more sensual than Belinda and full of jazz as well as flamenco. Charo has an American boyfriend, Troy. He is completely superficial. When drawing him I thought of Oasis’s Wonderwall, but in the cheesier, Americanised Mike Flowers Pops version.
Through Charo and her American lover I wanted to create a crossing. A little bridge inspired by Miles Davis, bleating his deeply sad Solea . Even at the beginning, the final tragedy can be sensed. Belinda, like the Solea is intense and suffering.
Protagonist B is Robert Aimard. A middle-aged British writer and hotel owner on a small Greek Island. As an antithesis to Belinda he is a classical man. A lover of Schubert and Bach. He reads Schopenhauer and like Belinda he has his demons. He is separate from a wife and daughter he still loves. Nevertheless, he is comfortable in his island exile. At home in the timelessness of it. The Greek music that flows around him is traditional, a sad drinking song , the perfect theme for his own melancholy.
The melancholy is what will eventually unite Belinda and Robert, and to bring them together I had to build another bridge over that which naturally separates them. A music connection. Although at the first glimpse, their tastes are completely different. Belinda’s own pop is Australian and 90s. She is Torn by Natalie Imbruglia and disturbed by her Australian boy friend’s Bowie. Is she running into life on her world trip or away from it?
Between Madrid and Greece she goes to Cologne in Germany. Suddenly the double mask of contemporary Europe confronts her. A mask of pop and a mask of heritage manifesting itself in the monstrous music of Stockhausen. Is this heaven or hell? In Germany she is reminded of her own musical training. Her piano classes. This was the vital detail I needed to construct that musical bridge between her and Robert Aimard. So, I made a classical bridge via the Schumanns. They had their own bridges: Schubert inspires Schumann who inspires Clara Wieck who inspires Johann Brahms. Art rolls into and through itself and the music flows and gushes through the entire process. There are other connections as well: Schumann was a manic-depressive and Belinda is a manic-depressive. She fears death by water like Schumann, like Shelley. A strong romantic theme now grows in this undercover sound track. Meanwhile Robert Aimard’s bridge to the romantic and unto Belinda is in his passion for Leonard Cohen.
All of this sounds so sad and it is, but the landscape is the Aegean. It sparkles full of life and love, and a profound simplicity. The backdrop is the life of the Greek taverna and the spectacle of the traditional Greek wedding. For the most part When Sirens Call is set on this Greek Island and its spirit is the bouzouki , grilled octopus and a glass of ouzo with ice.
Music as sublime tragedy
It is essentially a Greek book and it does end in its own Greek tragedy. For the final scene I turned to Radiohead for inspiration and their Pyramid Song. The piece is bleak but also ethereal and sublimely poetic. Both lyrics and music were perfect to set the mood for my own finish. When Sirens Call is that song.
Paul David Adkin was born in England and grew up in Melbourne where he obtained a degree in literature and drama from Rusden. Since then he has worked in the theatre, directing and writing plays. Paul moved to Madrid where he has formed three theatre companies. He his wife holiday in the Greek Islands. His short story Kalimera won the Eyelands competition in 2012 and was translated into Greek. He has three novels published: Purgatory (2012), Art Wars (2014) and now When Sirens Call. His website is here. Find him on Facebook and on Twitter as @SirensCallNovel @AdkinPaul
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow
Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar
I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.
I first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.
The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.
In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.
David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.
During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.
My guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 literary novelist Corwin Ericson
It’s cold and I realize once again my ancient refrigerator is noisier than a truck. The fire in my wood stove has dwindled to embers; I recall it had been tocking and sizzling like a banshee. The well pump comes on too often; I should fix that. I don’t think my laptop has a fan, but something’s whirring inside. I have a headache; it amplifies my tinnitus. My leg is asleep. My nose is drippy.
That’s what my successful day of writing sounds like. It’s easy to ignore the household sounds – I have plenty of practice, but the music I chose was supposed to complement the writing, or at least keep me company as I worked, yet it has been forgotten. These are the jewel cases: the Dracula soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by Kronos Quartet. Low Symphony, the Bowie album as composed by Glass. Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. Divination’s Dead Slow, composed by Bill Laswell.
Crescendo and reconsider
I remember hearing the first part of Dracula. I like how it matches my own compositional pace–moves forward, forward, reaches a small crescendo, reconsiders, starts over with some variations, and moves forward again. But I don’t recall even hearing the clacking of my CD changer announcing the next disc.
All of these recordings were chosen to induce me to stay in my chair and write. And to be ignored. I don’t want to listen to insipid music, but having ignored the music means I have been concentrating well, maybe even writing productively. Now I’ve fed the stove and I’m standing over it feeling sore and peevish. It’s too smokey. This is ‘la petite mort’ of the workday of writing. I am full of regret and lassitude. I have wasted my day, my life. Later after I warm up, I’ll try it all over again, but fail, since I have to seduce myself into concentration, and I’m not going to fall for that trick again. I want a cigarette, a drink, a nap, and then someone to bring me supper.
Estonindian black metal dub
Now I’m inventing a genre of music, something for Waldena, a whale hunter from Estonindia, to blast from her boat, the “Hammer Maiden”:
This was Estonindian black metal dub. Music for wounded bears as they shrugged off tranquilizer darts. A genre so conclusively suicide-inducing, blue-ribbon Congressional panels were afraid to listen to it. If Francis Scott Key had been a ninth-century raider whose head was still throbbing and clanging from an ax-blow to the helmet, standing with one hand braced on the dragon prow of his longship watching his enemies’ tarred warships burn in an uncanny blue bituminous haze, while unseen galley slaves chanting the stroke rumbled the ship from below, he may have closed his eyes, thought of Ragnarok, and composed an anthem like this.
To write this, I am listening to the Danish band Apocalyptica’s Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, Amon Amarth’s With Oden on Our Side, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Mieskuoro Huutajat – that’s the Finnish Screaming Men choir. Putting these together does not equal Estonindian black metal dub, but it gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales. I stand in my living room imagining I’m on the prow of a Viking ship that has a motor with enough horsepower to launch it into orbit.
This time I’m feeling larkier. Music from the Penguin Cafe by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a good choice. I am trying to write about yoiking. I had been trying to listen to someone yoik about a bear in the Arctic night via my dial-up modem. This is impossible, and over the half-hour I gave to this fruitless experiment, I heard what sounded like someone dying very slowly of the hiccups. Even when I finally hear yoiking properly, it still resists description. It’s an improvisational, non-musical vocalization that has no beginning or end. It is, perhaps, cousins with yodeling and throat singing. My cat used to find all of these forms very stimulating when I attempted them. He would join in, claw me, and then flee outside. I yoik and write best when I am alone. Thank you, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, for putting my caterwauling in perspective. The absurd ongoingness of novel-writing seems amusing this dark evening.
Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell. He lives in western Massachusetts and works as a writer, editor, and professor.