Posts Tagged The 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.
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 award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, twice-nominated Arts Writer of the Year, poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Mogwai, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Boards of Canada, Neurosis, Converge, Laura Veirs, Bat for Lashes, Gallows, Isis, The James Orr Complex
Friend of the Night
When I write I listen to music. Often I spend a while finding the right music to write to. Sometimes if the music is wrong, I can’t write. For some reason, The Beatles, who I adore, are bad writing music, as are Pixies. But Mogwai are a constant: and The Blue Horse would be a very different book without the existence of Friend of the Night (from the Mr Beast album). It was as important to the conception of the book as Neurosis’s I Can See You or indeed the first disturbing day-dream that led to me writing the novel.
I love Mogwai and listen to them a lot, but Friend of the Night is for me their masterpiece. If you have not heard it: it has no lyrics. The deep and resounding melancholy of its melodies, there are at least three and they intertwine gorgeously, are lifted by its main theme, played on piano, which signals a chime of hope and light. When the piano rings by itself, it is singing a cracked but steely song of survival and beauty. The song has forward purpose, it is not depressed. It has succumbed.
This how I wanted the main character of The Blue Horse, George Newhouse to be: damaged and distraught, but deciding to live on, deciding to keep walking forwards, even if he was walking into darkness. The pianos chime amid the splendour of the sulphurous guitars – and from the start of The Blue Horse, Newhouse, widowed and lost, has a flame of hope and life.
Whenever I lost my way writing The Blue Horse, I played Friend of the Night – the story of The Blue Horse is contained for me its 5 minutes, 30 seconds. It is rare when a piece of music seems to, in mere notes, explain and also confirm a feeling, an emotion, a sensibility, in some way, while also transcending and providing illumination. Sometimes I feel I could write a book about this piece of music: in some ways I already have.
Loss and rapture
The Blue Horse circles around loss and memory, around survival amid the darkness of the world. It has a earnest Gnostic undertow (although perhaps no one’s noticed it yet…) and a belief in other worlds at its core. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was played over and over as I wrote. Its main melody is not only incredibly beautiful, it seems to be speaking of something valuable and divine that has been lost. There is a grieving in its notes. When the full theme is played, around two minutes in, I often find it overwhelming. The fingers are lifted from the keyboard. That sense of being overwhelmed by both beauty and grief was a vital one in The Blue Horse. In the chapters where Newhouse remembers his wife – swimming in the Atlantic, driving through rural Ireland – this is playing. When Ruth appears to him amid blood and magic in Venice, this is playing.
The Blue Horse goes to some dark and broken places. I did not write the book from beginning to end – I often wrote at night or in scraps and moments while travelling. I dotted about in the narrative. Playing certain songs would help me leap back into those places.
I knew Newhouse, a curator at a major gallery in Edinburgh who is searching for a lost painting, The Blue Horse, would end up in darkness, in living nightmares, in some unpleasant mental and physical spaces. Converge’s Dark Horse, from their Axe to Fall album, has that sinister equine spirit in its title, of course, and ends with their lead singer shrieking. It is also tremendously powerful, punishing, its opening two-note call always a deranged spur to action. I would put on Dark Horse while I wrote two chapters in particular: when Newhouse, bereft and drunk, sees an apparition in Leith docks. And secondly in a club he is led to by Flintergill, a sinister agent. The club in Edinburgh is full of the powerful and the influential, and involves orgies and dark sex as well as drink and intrigue. The punishing but exhilarating riffage of the second half of this song fuelled the relentless tone of that place and those people.
Memories and remembrance
I saw Laura Veirs live at the ABC in Glasgow around the time of the release of her album The Year of Meteors. One song, Through the Glow, stuck with me. It played a lot while I wrote. The lyrics are elusive as well as detailed. The intangible power of memories and remembrance, of dreams and changeable mental images, is key to the story of The Blue Horse. In its gentler moments, when Newhouse feels a sense of life, when he sees beauty in nature and friendship, when he meets another woman, Tyler, Laura Veirs would often be playing, as would Bat for Lashes’s wonderful Moon and Moon, and a fine, tremulous, beautiful song by The James Orr Complex, Fade Grey to Fade Blue.
Gallows’s Grey Britain is a fine, fine album, one of the best rock albums made by a British band in the last ten years. I played it a lot. The Vulture, a song in two parts, one acoustic and gentle, the other vicious and heavy, a razor-blade across the face, was perfect for writing The Blue Horse: darkness and light. Doom and violence. It fed into, most notably, the chapter Rudi. Rudi, Newhouse’s great friend, tumbles – aided by possibly malign spirits – into the abyss. This song tumbles into an abyss. It is also riveting and bewildering…a bit like that chapter. The Vulture sings of a country that is beset with devils, real and unreal: like Rudi’s life in that pivotal chapter.
Reach for the Dead
The Blue Horse exists in this world, or a mirror image of it: in real Edinburgh, there is no Public Gallery, and in the real world, there was no Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a Dutch painter of the 16th century. I knew the novel would also touch on the occult and the sublime. Boards of Canada’s album Tomorrow’s Harvest came out in 2013, just as I was editing the novel for the first time. Its beauty and bleakness – it appears to ‘about’ the inevitable end of human civilisation (if a wordless album can truly be about anything) – played as I wrote chapters, such as at a drunken party in Edinburgh’s New Town where Newhouse encounters an apparition in the bathroom. BOC’s music is limber and fluid but also unsettling. There are snatched, half hidden voices. Subliminal whispers amid the electronica and analogue arpeggios and crescendos. It is not as it seems. When I listen to BOC I can imagine walking into a mirror, or meeting myself on the street. At some times – late at night, when writing – it seemed to point my writing in new directions. When Newhouse’s mentor, Dr Martinu, is killed by his own doppelganger, it may have been because this haunted, insistent music was playing as I typed. He was originally going to have a heart attack and fall into his own open fire. A weirder fate was given to him by this music.
The final chapters of The Blue Horse are at the Venice Biennale. Newhouse, by this point deranged and befuddled, comes closer to finding The Blue Horse, and it comes closer to finding him. The novel ends in fire and blood, in visions and transcendence. Isis were a tremendous, visionary American guitar band. They released two albums, in particular, Oceanic and Panopticon, which remain among my favourite. I write to them all the time: they are muscular, dynamic, and possessing a kind of super-heavy sense of intense beauty. Like a wall of ice collapsing into a polar sea. The final track of Panopticon is called Grinning Mouths. Like many of their songs, it begins in serrated, fuzzy riffage, thunderous beats and bellowing. Then something remarkable happens – four minutes in, the music takes flight. Something clears. The music is simultaneously super powered and inundated with a new light. It becomes driving and extremely beautiful. Aaron Turner, their lead singer and songwriter, is still bellowing, but tunefully, with soul. The move from ugly to serene, the song’s incredible sense of momentum and flight, powered the final scenes of The Blue Horse in Venice. Whenever I lost what was happening in the city on the water, I played Grinning Mouths again. It solved things for me.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and author of The Blue Horse, which is published by Freight Books. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times in Scotland and The Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in The Herald, Gutter Magazine, The Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. He lives and works in Edinburgh. Tweet him on @PhilipJEMiller
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.
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 creative writing tutor, Patron of Reading, WoMentoring mentor, National Trust writer in residence and – phew – novelist Rhian Ivory @Rhian_Ivory
Soundtrack by Bach, Bastille, Imagine Dragons, Samuel Barber
The Boy Who Drew The Future is about Noah and Blaze, who live in the same village over 100 years apart. But the two teenage boys are linked by a river and a strange gift: they both compulsively draw images they don’t understand, that later come true. They can draw the future. In the 1860s, Blaze is alone after his mother’s death, dependent on the kindness of the villagers, who all distrust his gift as witchcraft but still want him to predict the future for them. When they don’t like what he draws, life gets very dangerous for him. In the present, Noah comes to the village for a new start. His parents are desperate for him to be ‘normal’ after all the trouble they’ve had in the past. He makes a friend, Beth, but as with Blaze the strangeness of his drawings start to turn people against him and things get very threatening.
I have used music throughout when writing The Boy who Drew the Future but I’ve also gone beyond that and used music as a gateway into my character’s minds and psyches rather than creating a playlist to write to as I’ve done in other novels. I guess you could call it method music writing much like method acting.
Although my character Beth plays the piano she also listens to cello music a lot and her favourite cellist are Yo Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré and Han na Chang. She will start cello lessons once she’s passed her final grade on the piano, this is something she’s put off, she’s nervous about trying to play the cello whereas the piano comes easily to her. The sounds the cello make express her emotions so perfectly and capture the essence of Beth better than any description could. When I wrote any scenes with Beth in I would begin by listening to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 – Prelude as it would lead me into her heart. I could feel the vibrations and that rising end note echoing a sense of hope for me which is intrinsic and essential in her character development. When writing I would picture Beth lying on a rug in her room listening to Bach whilst making notes for school, doing her homework or daydreaming about her own compositions. As Beth is a musician it is easier to imagine I am Beth through the music, it allows me a window into her soul, giving me the ability to visualize, understand and channel her character through the way in which she responds to music.
Private and fragile
I’ve always had such a strong connection with this piece of music and knew that when I pictured Beth upset she would turn to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings arranged for the piano. I have a scene in the book where she is playing this piece of music in tears safe in the knowledge that she is alone in the house and can allow the music to move her without feeling self-conscious or embarrassed. Because of the emotions this piece of music creates I’ve always viewed it as very private and fragile. Strings have the ability to build to such a crescendo pulling the listener deeply into the mood and tone of the piece in a delicate and passionate manner.
The term heartbreaking springs to mind and it is no wonder that this powerful and dramatic piece of music has been used as the soundtrack to many films such as Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Elephant Man and Amelie. It is tender and gentle but all-encompassing which is how Beth feels, emotions that are too big for her to hold inside and feelings that go beyond the scope of her normal life and world. When she meets Noah everything changes for her, she knows that she is about to go on an epic journey with this new person in her life and has to show him the right way forward before things fall apart.
The music builds in a huge arc that climbs until it reaches its peak much like her emotions and then falls off into a quiet sense of knowing making the sound of Beth’s acceptance of her feelings for Noah and the dangerous consequences as a result which she cannot fully comprehend yet. Adagio for Strings underlines this sense of knowing, a fatal sense of knowing that you have to follow this arc, this melody as it climbs ever higher and stronger, no matter where it may lead you.
A damaged soul
Interestingly when I wrote Noah and Blaze’s (Blaze’s chapters are set in 1865) scenes I turned to contemporary music such as Bastille. The track Flaws felt as if it had been written for Noah, the lyrics told his story so beautifully that I would listen to it over and over whilst writing his scenes. I particularly liked the acoustic version because it was stripped back and allowed me to focus intently on the lyrics. The song speaks of a damaged soul, an emptiness that can’t be filled which perfectly captures what it feels like to be alone in the world, or think that you are alone and that you won’t be able to find your way, you won’t be able to get on the right path. Noah is lost, deeply flawed and tries to hide these flaws but fails. The lyrics talk about one person wearing their flaws on their sleeve which is Beth and another person burying their flaws deep beneath the ground which is Noah and Blaze.
When I first heard Radioactive by Imagine Dragons I didn’t necessarily associate it with Noah but the more I delved into his character the more I came to realise that this song is his song. He feels he is radioactive and everything he touches turns to dust, ash and dust. He is a chemical explosion waiting to detonate and destroy everything around him. He is the apocalypse and doesn’t want to let Beth in because he is simply too dangerous to be around. The relentless beat and bass of this song felt like his heartbeat, when I was writing fast paced scenes like the one in the Workhouse I tuned in to the rhythm of this song in particular and the way in which it builds packing a real punch in the dark of the workhouse tunnels. I used The Workhouse at Southwell and Calke Abbey’s tunnels to set this scene, visiting these places so that when I played the music at home they were connected in my memory. The quality of sound in the tunnel made me want to listen to this song acoustically. The clarity of the guitar is sharper and clearer in this version, you can really hear the harmonies of the singers making it feel closer and more intimate. This is exactly how I wanted the characters’ voices to feel in the tunnel as the drama unfolds, up close and personal.
Rhian Ivory was born in Swansea, Wales, and studied English Literature at Aberystwyth. She trained as a drama and English teacher and wrote her first novel during her first few years in teaching. She got her first publishing deal at 26 and went on to write three more novels for Bloomsbury. She took a break to have three children and during this time taught creative writing and also a children’s literature course for the Open University. The Boy who drew the Future is her fifth novel and she’s recently finished writing her sixth. Rhian is a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and a National Trust writer in residence, working most recently with Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire. She lives in Northamptonshire with her family and far too many dogs. Tweet her on @Rhian_Ivory and find her on Facebook.
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.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a regular 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’s guest is psychological thriller author AJ Waines @AJWaines
Soundtrack by Ane Brun, Angelo Badalamenti, Johan Söderqvist, Bach, Elgar, Pet Shop Boys
Music has always played a key role in my life; I started playing the piano at five (before I could reach the pedals) and the cello at nine. On a professional and recreational basis I’ve played in all of the main London concert halls; for the Queen and also for the Prime Minister at Whitehall. But it’s not just classical; my taste ranges from the early Baroque composer Allegri, through Shostakovich to the Pet Shop Boys.
As it happens, I turned to my music training to help me to learn how to write fiction and set about looking at a psychological thriller like a piece of music. It’s not hard to see instant parallels between music and writing; structure, voice, texture, layering, strands brought to the fore at any one point and strands kept simmering away in the background – they are all essential to both. Now as a writer, I tend to tune into elements such as the flow of phrases and placing of punctuation. Sentences, the building blocks of writing, have their own rhythm – you can have clunky sentences and well-paced ones. The words can suddenly stop. Start again. They can draw attention to themselves, be deliberately clunky and rough around the edges or be smooth and mellifluous. Just like music.
My father died while I was writing my third novel, Dark Place To Hide, and I found myself listening to certain soulful pieces of music that had a direct influence on the core moods in the story. Dark Place to Hide is all about secrets and betrayal entwined around two disappearances in one village. The perfect inspiration behind the first chapters, which focus on loss and confusion, came from an episode of the TV series Wallender, The Opening, by Ane Brun.
This sublime song helped to crystallise sections such as this:
I wake and in those first fuddled moments forget you’re not here. I must have been dreaming about you – a tense, erotic dream. I reach out in bed to the place where your body should be. It’s cold and there is no hollow. Even the bed is forgetting you.
The song is about trying to move forward when you find yourself utterly stuck; exactly the position Harper finds himself in when his wife not only has a miscarriage (after he’s just found out he’s infertile), but then goes missing. The police have no evidence and they can only conclude that she has taken off with her lover. ‘Sometimes it’s just a small step or a short conversation – or sometimes just a single word,’ Brun the composer explains, ‘that can set off the necessary process of change.’ This is particularly resonant for Harper. Having sunk into despair, it takes a missing child from the same village to shake him out of his torpor and spark his unique criminology skills into life.
Another song, Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti (featured in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet) gave me an emotional source for exploring Harper’s relationship with his wife, Diane. David Lynch, the director of the film, apparently asked for a soundtrack that was beautiful and dark ‘and a little bit scary’. Because Diane goes missing right at the start, it means we see their relationship largely through Harper’s eyes in the form of flashbacks and back story. His assumption is that their relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust and deep connection, but he feels betrayed, thrown into disarray and suspicion – the music here, like the film, provoked the bewildered feelings I wanted to convey of love that’s become tainted, unsettled and impure.
Eli’s Theme from the Swedish film Let the Right One In, by Johan Söderqvist, was exactly the right feel for the point in the novel when Clara, the plucky but vulnerable little girl disappears. The grief in the music also reflects Eli’s sense (in the film) of being forever an outsider and while Eli is a little older than Clara, I wanted to convey the same experience of ‘being a bit different’. Hopefully, I’ve portrayed Clara as a quirky little girl, climbing into places she shouldn’t go, because she’s exploring her world without the usual parental boundaries. The music reminds me of Mahler and pulls at the heartstrings, just right for taking me into the emotional world of Clara’s mother, who is dying and unable to search for her daughter, herself.
When the real chase kicks in, Harper tries to work out the meaning behind the fairy-tales into which Clara retreated before she went missing – then discovers there’s a connection between Clara and his wife. Between long stints at the writing desk, I listened to music that stoked up the emotions surrounding hope, striving and enlightenment. I was looking for a relentless tone and came up with Elgar’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537, which combines a driving pulse with melancholy. The fugue explodes with layers and threads that intertwine and overlap with a growing sense of urgency, which I hope is reflected in the book.
I don’t want to give away the ending of the novel, but Footsteps by the Pet Shop Boys hits the spot.
AJ Waines was a psychotherapist for 15 years, during which time she worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, giving her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is now a full-time novelist and has publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House). Both her debut novels, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train have been number one in Murder and Psychological Thrillers in the UK Kindle charts. In 2015, she was ranked in the Top 100 UK authors on Amazon KDP. Her new psychological thriller, Dark Place to Hide, was released in July 2015. Alison lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband. Visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter as @AJWaines and Facebook.
My guest this week is the author of Girl on a Train. No, another girl, another train. I first came across her work when she wrote very entertainingly about how her psychological thriller had been mistaken by readers for the much-hyped title by Paula Hawkins. And they were happy to have found her, for she gained many new fans. I then discovered she used to be a musician, and has played in all the major London concert halls, so I had to enquire whether music played a role in her writing. It certainly does – she has written a haunting, thoughtful post about the music that helped her layer her work with complexity, loss and betrayal, especially movie soundtracks like Blue Velvet and Let The Right One In. She is AJ Waines and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.