Posts Tagged undercover soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Katharine Grant

for logoThe 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 Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_

Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 1When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.

Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own

Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …

Physical writing

Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.

For narrative, I go to Chopin’s BalladesBallade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.

So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?

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But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.

The Undercover Soundtrack - Katharine GrantI often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.

The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_


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‘An earworm of the heart’ – Katharine Grant

for logoMy 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Philip Miller

for logoThe 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.

ucov1I 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.

Dark Horse

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.


Cursed places

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.

Blue HorseTranscendence

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

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‘A cracked but steely song of survival and beauty’ – Philip Miller

for logoMy 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Rhian Ivory

for logoThe 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.

ucov rhian1‘Where words fail, music speaks’ ― Hans Christian Andersen

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.

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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.

Boy high resolution picEverything turns to ash

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


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The Undercover Soundtrack – Stephen Weinstock

for logoThe 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 theatre composer and fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock

Soundtrack by Fela Kuti, Beach Boys, Alice Coltrane, Benny Goodman, Brian Eno, the Doors, Jack Bruce, George Harrison, Beethoven, David Lang, Adam Guettel

Having marveled each week at how writers use music to flesh out a character or bring emotional life to their work, I feel like a fraud. These authors put on a particular piece to evoke what they write, but that feels like a magical act of synesthesia to me. So why does this poor fraud need music to write? In 2003, Apple introduced iTunes and the computer playlist, and I began my series, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. For each of its 1001 chapters a character recounts a past life story, creating a karmic puzzle for the ten linked souls, the qaraq. The playlist became a writing tool to give me courage for this daunting task.


For Book One of the series, The Qaraq, I had to hold a lot in my head as I wrote: introducing ten characters in their present lives in suburban New Jersey, and fitting together the first puzzle pieces of their history. That they all lived as different body parts of a single prehistoric dragonfly is proof enough of the Qaraq’s reincarnations, but when reveal this epiphany?

I need concentration to manage this material. To minimize distracting shifts within my eclectic playlists, I often select long cuts, like Fela Kuti’s half-hour jam Look and Laugh.

My favorite listening process is a ‘contest,’ where I intersperse a playlist with ten recent downloads, then narrow them down to a ‘winner.’ A current winner: The Beach Boys’ gorgeous, new That’s Why God Made the Radio.

But assessing winners while writing requires concentration on the music. I realized one function of my listening is procrastination, re-organizing the next half-hour of songs, or mixing in every Andante from Mozart’s first fifteen symphonies. Perhaps I need distraction from the heady multiple structures. On the other hand, often I don’t notice the music and get on a roll. Deeply meditative pieces help this flow, like Alice Coltrane’s incomparable Journey in Satchidananda.


The energy of a composition provides another clue to why I listen while creating 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. Sometimes I need a perky track for stimulation, like One O’Clock Jump from the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert.

By contrast, in the morning on the train, or after work, I need peace, like the gentle repetition of Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports. For my latest book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, I contemplated the effect of Maya, the Hindu concept of worldly illusion. Blocked by the trivial details of everyday life, the Qaraq loses its power of memory, the higher awareness of reincarnation. I did not seek music to evoke a meditative mood, but in developing the theme of how Maya hinders and helps, I heard a lot of ragas and minimalist music. An unconscious influence?


So I examined if music had an unconscious effect on my work. The Qaraq’s past life tales are full of wild imagination and experimental writing styles. My brain conjures up atomic particles having a love spat, an alien performing arts school where dancers train their nerves rather than their muscles, or an Ice Age tribe that copes by re-configuring the calendar to include three seasons, excluding winter.

I hope music triggers my imagination, and I make quirky selections for my playlists: a rarely heard track from a familiar artist, like Indian Summer by The Doors; a song off the beaten path, like Jack Bruce’s He the Richmond, from his masterful Songs for a Tailor; or hard-to-find gems, like George Harrison’s first film soundtrack, Wonderwall, the Indian collaboration he did during The Beatles.

But if an unconscious process, I may never know if music is the spark.

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It pains me to think I cannot access music’s emotional depths to deepen my writing. The writing process is painful enough. When I stare into space wondering how the next word will appear, it’s comforting to have music in my ears, like a virtuosic arpeggio from Glenn Gould’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 making me think, You can do this!

Despite its fanciful whimsy, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor has emotional moments, which were difficult to write. The Egyptian stories start humorously, with a pyramid tomb salesman, but lead to a terrifying vision of immortality, the dread of living endlessly with no relief from conflict. Can I access the pain of this emotion through music? I sobbed inconsolably when I heard David Lang’s ethereal The Little Match Girl Passion last winter, after seeing homeless people freezing on the sidewalks of New York City.
The beauty of it is a balm while writing, but it can’t make me write better.

A final test

For me, music and text exist on separate levels. The final chapter of The Qaraq and the Maya Factor is like a novella, where all the characters’ present-day dénouements thread through an epic past life tale. The first European translator of The Thousand and One Nights faces a moral crisis whether to fabricate tales to complete all 1001 sections of the collection. A mysterious ally lures him to a secluded chateau, full of cats costumed as fairy tale characters, and guides him to an emotional epiphany.

Playing a tune that always give me shivers, like Come to Jesus, by Richard Rodgers’s grandson, Adam Guettel, might inspire the struggle, the mystery, or the passion of this scene. But I only experience the duet on its own terms; it doesn’t bring the words alive. Am I a lost cause?

Looking back on this chapter, I am pleased with it: the way the Qaraq’s issues reflect the tale (complexity); the misty locale of the magical chateau (energy); the translator’s fantastical epic discovering the Nights (imagination). I feel moved by the impassioned encounter between the translator and his ally. Maybe music did have some psychic influence on the writing when all is said and done.

!cid_120C39F1-DFC3-4509-93E7-E64DD875E106Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series and the upcoming ebook giveaway here . Find Stephen on Facebook. 1001 will be an 11-book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Book 2 is here. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.

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‘Concentration, energy, imagination, comfort’ – Stephen Weinstock

for logoMy guest this week is another returner to the series, which is rather appropriate as the concern of his book series is reincarnation. He is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school. Last time he guested here he wrote about the hidden structures that tell stories. This time, nearly a year has passed and he finds himself questioning the role music is now playing in his writing life. So this is a slightly unusual Undercover Soundtrack, one of questions rather than statements. Nevertheless, you can expect some stirring musical choices. He is Stephen Weinstock and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – AJ Waines

for logoThe 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.

AJ Waines 3As 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.

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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.

DARKLargeEBookHope, striving and enlightenment

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.

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‘Even the bed is forgetting you’ – AJ Waines

for logoMy 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Christine Tsen

for logo‘Freedom and life force’

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 on the way down

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.

And soul.

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.

My poem, Songmaker, is about Chopin, Brahms, these glorious men of my dreams. I began listening to their creations in utero, and they’re like food.

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.

Cellography coverSometimes 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.

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