Posts Tagged music for writers
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.
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 cellist and poet Christine Tsen
Soundtrack by Josh Groban, Evanescence, Ennio Morricone, Brahms, Vivaldi, Chopin, Joshua Bell, Snatam Kaur
I’m a feeler. While many people tend to live and run their lives through facts and figures, I am guided by my feelings. I intuit my way through rather than intellectualise. Today’s close of the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Not a clue. Boring. How I felt after my performance this afternoon? Happy, relieved, tired, looking forward to a lovely walk. The same goes for my art. I am a performing cellist and poet. Playing the cello and writing poetry are two spiritual activities in their own right, and yet they merge as music inspires poetry through words, cadence and feeling. And I am not afraid of experimenting and falling on my face.
Glissando is one of the poems in my book Cellography. It refers to the fall from trying to attain some disgusting perfection of one’s life, entrapments, and surroundings. It refers to complete humiliation and humility. A period of pruning back and eating it. I believe I was listening to Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up during this period of writing and howling. And O how I howled. During this time of admitting the truth and being indelicately thrust into an orbit of change, both of my dear parents died. I couldn’t have gone much lower. But there’s always some sort of renewal, growth. There’s the getting back up again.
Just around the corner.
Glissando rising up
Symphonymphony is about becoming utterly one with the music, and opening to the depths of something profoundly mystical. It’s the same whether I play in a symphonic or chamber music setting. Music turns me on. Poetry turns me on. Art, what have you turns me on. There is such freedom and life force behind it all.
Along with feeling, faith and spirituality inspire my poetry and music. I am not a musical snob. If it makes me feel something and has heart, I’m in. When I wrote Playing Love, I was listening to Playing Love, the Ennio Morricone tune. And I wrote the poem with the intrinsic declaration that art is in fact an offering of the heart, whether chalk on a sidewalk or a musician playing in a garden. I was inspired to write Playing Love after hearing about the experiment with solo violinist Joshua Bell when he posed as a street musician and passers-by continued on past him with nary a glance. A free concert by the virtuoso who would be charging over $200 per seat later that day (yes, it was sold out).
In the quiet periods of contemplation when I’m not writing poetry, I listen to Vivaldi and Bach, any and all Bach. YouTube Vivaldi. All of it. It lifts and clears out unnecessary residue. They are like a spritzing drink that cleanses the palate between two courses and a meal.
And after a Grand Pause, a dearth of poetic productivity, life handed me another rollercoaster. Truths shifted, internal realities trumped external formalities, and I stumbled and bumped through a Gothic-laced night of the soul. Let’s just say I have encountered my share of narcissists, their games and manipulations. And out of this ride, a veritable feast of creativity came gushing forth. Evanescence accompanied me through creating Renaissance Waltz, Harmony, Sodden Kisses, Depression, and September. She walked me through the dark humor, the cloudy sad weather. But through this in a place of pain, I experienced catharsis. I lifted this Goth from my teenage daughter and there is no finer stuff, however passé.
I’ve been mentioning the music I listened to and yet I should also include the music I was playing. For example, there is Chopin’s Polonaise Brilliante. I found this piece in an attic and fell in love with it. So did my dog, or at least he humored me by joining in. I recorded it on my album From the Land of Song and wrote the poem Divo at the same time. A lovely pup-and-cello duet that also made its way into Bark Magazine, a periodical on all things canine.
Sometimes ideas, images, feelings come to me and yet I find myself struggling to express them. Then after a while, all of a sudden, the words come forth. Quickly, furiously, unfettered. And after the typing I look up to see them arranging themselves into a poem. Ambition: Untamed is one of them. And my accompaniment? A soft cacophony of birds, the padded paw-steps of my dog, and Snatam Kaur’s album Grace, so soft that I don’t even notice. Beautiful.
The message always means more to me than the words in poetry. I don’t so much want to make people ponder. I want them to feel, as I do, and from different perspectives. Compassion. Empathy. Passion. Humour. Joy. Sorrow. These emotions make me feel alive and uniquely human. So often we try to soften them with distractions. Is it that we’re afraid if we start we won’t be able to stop? It’s all too risky? Well let it be, I say. There is a natural motion to the ways of love and joy, sorrow and pain, as well as the fervent still points such as Beethoven’s space between the notes. If nothing were ever moving us, where would the meaning be?
Christine Tsen is a cellist and chamber musician performing throughout New England. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music (BM) and the New England Conservatory of Music (MM). A lyrical musician and poet, she believes in grace and the power of a smile. Her CDs, From the Land of Song and Cello Ornithology are available at CD Baby or by request. Her poetry collection, Cellography, is published by Vine Leaves Press. Her poetic journey began in her toddlership but was encouraged by her inspiring and kind brother, Jeff Thomas. Her website is here.
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 Clare Flynn @ClareFly
Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys, Pussycat Dolls
When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.
When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.
Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.
The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”
I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.
Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.
Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.
When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.
Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:
Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”
Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.
I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.
I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.
I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”
And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.
The passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.
Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”
The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.
Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.
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 Huffington Post blogger and satirical thriller author Naomi Elana Zener @satiricalmama
Soundtrack by Vivaldi, Rolling Stones, Eagles, Chumbawumba, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Bob Marley, Starship, Rick Astley, Grieg, Sarah Bareilles
Her career is circling the drain. Her almost marital apartment is empty. The fiancé is Decamped Dude, off on a lovers’ jaunt with his best man. And, Joely is alone tracking the remnants of her life as though the shark from Jaws is following her every move ready to engulf what’s left of her in one fell swoop.
Music is to my writing as oxygen is to my breathing. One cannot exist without the other. Certainly, there are moments of silence, but generally when I write anything, including Deathbed Dimes, often the staccato sounds emanating from the dancing keyboard punctuates Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing on a loop, as I build the world and characters with whom I live inside my head until they find their way onto the page.
Having grown up in a classical music and opera loving household, and being a lawyer by day, writing with the melodic sounds of the piano, violin, wind and other string instruments wafting through the air was symbiotic to my process of creating the law firm world — quite a WASPy one in fact—in which Joely toiled day and night during her grueling 80-hour work weeks. It was when her world fell apart cataclysmically that the soundtrack of her life and mine changed. Gone were the soothing tones.
Joely is a character trying to find a way to happiness, which for her is defined by career success, a romantic marriage, and wonderful friendships. Having been jilted at the altar, looked over for partnership at her law firm, and displaced geographically from her two best friends, Ethan Berg and Coco Hirohito — her surrogate family to replace the one she knows she has to return to in Los Angeles—who are both on the West Coast, Joely is staring eye-to-eye with the nadir of her life. To accompany her downward emotional spiral, my writing was dispatched to the tune of You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones) and carried through on the wings of thematically similar music, most notably The Eagles’ Hotel California. When I write, I tend to listen to certain songs on repeat. I’m an extremely focused person—the antithesis of having ADD—such that when I’m concentrating on or writing something, my laser-like tunnel vision works best listening to the music that evokes the creative spirit from within.
To return my heroine to that from whence she came: Beverly Hills, to live with her Oscar-winning aging screen siren mother, Sylvia, and her D-list philandering director father, Armand, I had to fill my head with fight music. To don her war paint and gear up for battle—more like war since her parents’ selfish desires for their daughter have little to do with what Joely wants for herself—I listened to a cacophony of sounds, including the theme song from Rocky Balboa, Chumbawamba’s I Get Knocked Down (Tubthumping), AC/DC’s Back in Black, and Guns N Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle. Down, but not out, Joely was able to hop drunkedly on her return flight to Los Angeles for the fight of her life.
Joely’s reunion with her respective chosen and birth families, her return to the practice of law on her own terms, and her quest for personal fulfillment was written to a musical mish mash. The emotional roller coaster ride of having her heart pulled in three directions—the fiancé who left her, the married mentor, and her best friend for whose love she’s willfully blind—was written to a myriad of tonalities, ranging from Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us, and to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up — yes, I’m a child of the 80s—but to name a few. The legal warpath was written to the echoed sounds of the battle songs I listened to in order to prepare Joely for her return to Los Angeles. Brief moments of serenity were hallmarked by my return to listening to classical music, with Edvard Grieg’s Morning marking a quintessential awakening for Joely.
In the end, the moment in which Joely and I jointly discovered that we would find a way for her to ‘have it all’—career, love, marriage, success—the song playing on the radio by happenstance was Sarah Bareilles’s Love Song. Both mine and Joely’s heads were proverbially ‘under water’ prior to that moment — I was unsure whether it would be realistic for a woman to have it all, as I was struggling with a similar shared female experience in my own life. When Bareilles’ song blared through my radio, and eventually through that of Joely’s car stereo as she drove along the PCH highway in Los Angeles, it underscored the revelatory moment for when I realised how Joely’s story would end. Or, rather begin again.
Naomi Elana Zener is the author of both Deathbed Dimes and satire fiction, which is posted on her blog Satirical Mama. Her vociferous blogging has been read and appreciated by industry bigwigs such as Giller Prize winner Dr Vincent Lam and New York Times best-selling author and journalist Paula Froelich. Naomi blogs for Huffington Post and her articles have been published by Kveller, Absrd Comedy, and Erica Ehm’s Yummy Mummy Club. She’s currently working on her sophomore novel. You can connect with her on her website or on Twitter @satiricalmama.