Posts Tagged music for writers
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is novelist and former music journalist Dan Gennoe @dangennoe
Soundtrack by Miles Davis, Tindersticks, Bernard Herrmann, Abel Korzeniowski, Shigeru Umebayashi, Goldfrapp, Erik Satie, Clint Mansell, ISAN, Fila Brazillia, Cliff Martinez
I spent 16 years as a music journalist interviewing pop stars and writing about music for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Q and The Mail on Sunday. I had to describe the sounds and pick apart the meaning. It was my job to get inside the artist’s head and try to understand what they were trying to say and what led them to try to say it. Music was the outcome and I had to find the root cause.
Now it’s the other way around. Music is the beginning, the starting point for everything I’m trying to say. It’s a way to immerse myself in the feelings and emotions and people and places I want to write about.
All Neon Like Love is a book about loneliness and isolation, love and obsession, grief and the need to connect with people and the world around us. It’s a book about the need for intimacy, that’s equal parts romance and melancholy.
Grey present, warm past
Set in London and Paris it follows a nameless man searching for an ex, a woman so perfect in his memory that she starts to disappear into fantasy. His need to recapture what he thinks they had together leads him to obsessive, at points disturbing, behaviour. I wanted his present day world to be grey and intense and his remembered past with her to be warm and indulgent – so the reader would understand what it was he thought he was missing and would understand, if not approve of, the lengths he went to to recapture it. I wanted the words to be hypnotic and beautiful, for the reader to be seduced by them and then too mesmerised to look away when it was all getting too much.
To find all of that I put together a playlist of 148 tracks, ranging from lilting classical piano and lyrical jazz, to dark electronica and industrial beats. Miles Davis, Tindersticks and Bernard Herrmann wouldn’t normally be found on the same playlist, but they all had a profound effect on shaping the mood and rhythm and in maintaining the tone of All Neon.
Romance and longing
I love film soundtracks and scores, and most of the music that I listen to when I write is either composed for, or I have discovered via, a film – which I guess makes sense given that scores are made to stir emotions and enhance moods.
The soundtrack for Tom Ford’s beautifully shot film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man got particularly heavy use during the writing of All Neon Like Love, not least for the beautifully sad romance of Abel Korzeniowski’s strings. Stillness of the Mind in particular is filled with so much longing, and so much sadness, that it would instantly make me feel all the emptiness that filled the central character’s days as he tried and failed to move on from Sophie, the object of his affection/obsession. And on the rare occasions when Stillness of the Mind didn’t do it, the lightness and longing of Mescaline’s piano, with its tragically hopeful melody, definitely would.
Similarly hopeless in its romance, Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme from Chinese film, In The Mood For Love, inspired much of the more lyrical passages in the book where the central character is fondly remembering, or perhaps reinventing, days he and Sophie spent together. I wanted the rhythm and flow of the words to lull the reader and allow them to feel the effect of the memories he was reliving, but for there to be a disquieting undercurrent to these sections, to make the reader feel ill at ease with how in love he and Sophie are in his version of things. If it works, it’s largely down to repeat listening of the flawed romance of the violin melody of Yumeji’s Theme.
As well as the hypnotic quality, I wanted a dream-like feel to parts of the book, where he gets lost in the perfectness of the remembered affair. Few people do dreamlike romance as well as Goldfrapp, and few Goldfrapp tracks are as perfectly romantic and dreamlike as Let It Take You from their Supernature album. If ever I wanted to know what love felt like in the head of my protagonist, a verse and chorus of that made me know everything.
But ultimately, the romance and longing the main character feels are less love and more about his fragile mental state, which is probably why I kept being drawn to Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the track Variation on Scotty Trails Madeline – which in the film soundtracks James Stewart’s Scotty following Madeline, the object of his obsession. It’s a beautifully melancholic love theme with a sense of distance and separation to its restrained strings.
Serenity and darker
There were two piano pieces by composer Erik Satie that I kept returning to when I was writing the passages of the book where the obsession of the central character is starting to fester and grow. Gnossienne No.1 and Gnossienne No.4 both have a desolate calm about them which is exactly how I wanted the character to be at this point. He’s very isolated and distant, with a sort of serenity to him, which like the quiet piano refrains of both tracks, feels like it could take a darker turn at any moment.
Soundtracks are a great source for dark moods. Put Your Love In Me from the Tindersticks soundtrack for French revenge thriller Les Salauds, and Clint Mansell’s Welcome To Lunar Industries from sci-fi suspense movie Moon, are eerie and disturbing and claustrophobic and hypnotic and bitter and are about as dark and fixated as anything can be, yet they have a seductive quality that made them easy to get lost in. I would have them on loop for hours at a time when I wanted to darken the tone of the writing and add a discomfort to his thoughts and actions. I wanted the reader to be lulled by the rhythm of the writing yet for there to be a tension and disquiet to it which I hoped would seep into it from these two tracks.
Just as important, though, was the sense that obsession was something he welcomed, that it was something he was happy to occupy himself with, that it was something he immersed himself in. So to the mix of dark obsession tracks I added a lighter, more peaceful but no less oppressive track, Scoop Remix by electronic duo ISAN. It’s a strangely clinical yet warm instrumental, with machine noises and lethargic guitars and a beat that seems to grow and envelope. Listening to it I could imagine him slowly giving himself up to his unhealthy obsession and for it being the one thing that he had that he felt totally comfortable with.
More than just the backdrop to the story, London and Paris are two of the most influential characters in the book, shaping events and how he views and remembers them. London is a grey, flat, empty place for him, it’s the reality that he doesn’t want to face. It’s endless hours of his own company in an empty Barbican flat. I wanted his London to be shapeless but claustrophobic. I didn’t want it to be grim, I wanted it to be beautiful but endless. Listening to Fila Brazillia’s Subtle Body, with its slowly repeating synth chords, weightless electronic swells and wintery bell chimes gave me his view across a damp and endless London skyline. The otherworldly steel drum loops of First Sleep from Cliff Martinez’s score for Stephen Soderberg’s remake of Solaris, were the source of much of the isolation and loneliness the character feels in the flat. If Subtle Body was him looking out, First Sleep was him bouncing off the walls. That was London in the present. In the past both London and the flat were warmer, happier places – one scene features a drunken seduction as Miles Davis’s So What wafts from the stereo and out into the summer night.
Miles Davis also features in Paris, or at least inspired the mood of its rainy late night streets with the track, Générique which he recorded for the soundtrack to French new wave film Lift to the Scaffold. Like everything on that soundtrack it’s got a mournful, listless feel to the languid trumpet line and aimless bass which helped me find the rhythm for central character’s lost nights wandering the city in search of Sophie. And then for when he finds her, I needed a song full of allure and alienation, a Parisian soundtrack for an outsider left lurking in doorways rather than enjoying the candlelit romance. Nothing is more Parisian, alienated or made for lurking than Grace Jones’s I’ve Seen That Face Before. The sinister reggae lilt, the lonely accordions and Grace singing of shadowy figures and dancing in bars and restaurants, conjure the emptiness of being on the outside of the perfect romantic scene, which in essence is what the whole of All Neon Like Love is about.
Dan Gennoe is a London based writer and novelist. A former music journalist, he’s written cover features, interviews and reviews for Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail on Sunday. He’s mixed with rappers and rockstars, ghosted celebrity memoirs and worked as a music editor for Google. All Neon Like Love is his first novel. Find him on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter as @dangennoe
My guest this week spent 16 years as a rock journalist, interviewing stars and trying to understand what their music was trying to say. When he started to write his first novel, music took on a fresh role – no longer the endpoint, it was now the beginning. The book is the story of a man looking back on an intense love affair, and the music is an aural journey of the character’s obsession, his unstable serenity that could turn dark, his complex sense of comfort in the prison of his memories. Dan Gennoe will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
I’d like to bet that many readers of this blog went through a teenage phase where they wrote lyrics. Or is it just me? Well, it’s also my guest this week. He says the lyrics phase was superseded when the urge to create narrative took over, but music remains central to his creative life. It has formed many underlays for his novels, including the shorthand between friends, the backdrop to life events, the tunnel to the past. One major character came alive when he realised that music wasn’t a big deal for her. Funnily enough, a significant musical touchstone is Mogwai, who was cited just a few weeks ago by Philip Miller, one of his stablemates at the imprint Freight Books. There must be something in the water. Anyway, his name is Iain Maloney, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is novelist and screenwriter Michael Golding
Soundtrack by Bach, Sufi Music of the Dervishes, Joni Mitchell, Henryk Gorecki, Laura Nyro, Billy Child
I’ve always been a writer who needs silence to write. Even when I’m at home, alone, I close the door to my study and slip on my trusty Bose sound-cancelling headphones. The gentle whoosh provides a background against which the sounds of the world of my novel can come alive. In the case of my most recent work, A Poet of the Invisible World, those sounds were the sounds of 13th century Persia, Spain, and North Africa — all the more reason for me to block out all signs of the 21st century.
But I can also bring quiet to my mind by listening to music. And nothing works better than the brilliant, textured sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I hear The Goldberg Variations or The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, the chaos in my head begins to recede. When I listen to The Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for Violin — my recording of choice is Henryk Szeryng’s 1954 version—the fury in my heart takes on new meaning. Bach brings order. Clarity. Calm. A few pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier and I’m ready to plunge into my fictional world.
I often listen to music while I commute from my home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to the college where I teach, about an hour’s drive each way. And in order to will myself into the world of the Nouri—the four-eared protagonist of A Poet of the Invisible World, who at an early age is orphaned and taken into a Sufi order—I would listen to an album called Sufi: The Music of the Dervishes. Its undulating ney evoked the mystery of another time and place. Its sinuous rhythms allowed a host of exotic images to rise up.
Anthem for a wandering spirit
One of the main sources of inspiration for my novel was more contemporary. For while the spiritual path doesn’t require the traveler to actually leave home — think of Emily Dickinson, who covered vast inner distances without leaving her family home in Amherst — Nouri’s path takes him on a long, arduous journey, and no one writes better about the road than Joni Mitchell. All I Want, from her album Blue, is the anthem of the wandering spirit. And Hejira, one of my favorite albums, is filled with deep observations about what it means to head off in search of the truth. Both of these albums are part of the soundtrack of my life. And they both helped Nouri along his way.
There are moments in the novel when Nouri experiences great suffering. In the third section of the book, after a particularly harrowing experience, his heart has sealed tight. He feels raw. He feels numb. While writing this section, there were times when I could barely lift my pen to face Nouri’s pain. A pathway in was Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Like most people, I love the 1991 recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring the rich, plaintive singing of Dawn Upshaw. The deep, mournful urgency of Gorecki’s music evoked the state of sorrow I imagined Nouri to be in.
Immediacy and passion
Another inspiration was the music of Laura Nyro. A constant companion throughout my life, her work has an immediacy and passion I find thrilling. Songs like Timer and Gibsom Street and Sweet Lovin’ Baby always take me to a particular place inside myself, where feelings are naked and words have the power to surprise. In addition to Nyro’s trio of iconic albums — Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat—I also listened to Billy Childs’ recent tribute album called Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Jazz-tinged and eclectic, it showcases artists like Renee Fleming, Yo Yo Ma, and Ricki Lee Jones offering their takes on Nyro’s haunting songs. Childs feels like a kindred spirit when his piano urges its way into her riffs and sudden time-signature changes. When I want to tear open the doors of my heart — and Nouri’s journey required me to do that many times — Laura Nyro is always there to lend a hand.
Michael Golding’s first novel, Simple Prayers, was published in 1994 and has been translated into nine foreign languages. Benjamin’s Gift, his second novel, was published in 1999. He is also a screenwriter, whose works include the adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s Silk. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California. A Poet of the Invisible World is his latest novel, published by Picador, and you can contact him at his website.
My guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has written a novel with a dual timeline and an intriguing title that has more than a hint of fairytale – The Boy Who Drew The Future. She flitted past me on Twitter one day with her intriguing title and I set off in pursuit, waving an example of The Undercover Soundtrack and hoping she’d find it appealing. Thankfully she did, and her piece describes the music that drew her into the hearts of her characters. One particularly memorable line is the phrase she used to describe Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a private and fragile piece, a place for learning secrets. The Boy Who Drew The Future is her fifth novel and she’s held a string of distinguished writing posts including a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and National Trust Writer In Residence. She is Rhian Ivory and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.