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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Denise Kahn @DKpolyglot
My very first memory of life was the sound of my mother’s glorious voice singing to me, most likely a Brahms lullaby. I’m convinced that is why music always has a delicious way of creeping into my writing, and becomes one of the most important elements. I find that music is almost synonymous with being in a state of trance, and that is how I become when I write. I get very focused, and live the scenes with my characters. As each mise en scène blooms music envelopes my mind with a melisma, or a melody that already exists.
I wrote my book Peace of Music for my son, so that he could have the story of his ancestral family. It became a novel (much more fun that way) as I could take a few liberties, such as the scenes in China’s 13th century Song (what else?) Dynasty. One of the scenes is of a blind potter who is commissioned by Quan Yin, his Goddess, to make a special vase, but he doesn’t know how. Chinese Gugin music was the key to the scene.
…From the back of See-Fu’s house a soft melody rang out. It came from Lotus Blossom’s room. Her long delicate fingers plucked her qin. Her performance was ethereal See-Fu thought, a combination of earth’s gentleness and mysteries of the night. Every once in a while Lotus Blossom accompanied the harmonics with a song, an ancient love poem. See-Fu felt his entire body mellow as his daughter’s voice reminded him of birds, and the melody painted the portrait of nature’s beauty where they had collected his ingredients. He smiled triumphantly and delicately touched the statue of his Goddess. He now knew. He remembered Quan Yin’s guidance: “When the music is played, your heart will be your eyes.”
While about 10 percent is fiction (like China), the rest is fact, and since the characters/family members were opera singers and concert pianists I thought their stories would make a good novel. My tag line is ‘Spreading the Power of Music through Words’, and in this book music proves how it can unite and keep people together and strong, especially in difficult circumstances. Throughout the book, music is the glue that keeps this family saga together. One of my favorite scenes takes place on Christmas Eve during WWI, the true ‘silent night’ of that horrific war. The only sounds were that of soldiers, from both sides, singing Christmas carols together, all started by two brilliant tenors, one German, the other French.
The second book that I published was Split-Second Lifetime. I was visiting some friends in New Mexico. We went to see some Native American dancers and I was mesmerized by their throat singing—a very unique form of song. I did some research, and found that the only other people that sing that way are the indigenous people of Tuva, in eastern Siberia. I also saw this attractive woman, in jeans and jacket, standing very regal. As I watched her she suddenly morphed into an elegant mountain lioness. And then I saw the entire story, frame by frame, as if playing on an old moviola, all of it surrounded by the music in the background. This is what came out of that moment in time:
The main protagonist (Jebby) is an ethnomusicologist, who roams the world recording indigenous music. On a plane to her next destination she meets her seat mate (Dodi), who seems to trigger past life memories from the old American Southwest. As they travel through Uzbekistan, Jebby realizes that in a past lifetime they were man and wife as members of the Hopi tribe. As she encounters some magnificent musicians each one seems to give her a new ‘clue’, or vision, into that past life.
The book is filled with scenes of music and musicians: Nana Mouskouri at the Royal Albert Hall in London; an Uzbek, with a horrible English accent, trying to imitate Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, while traveling in the middle of a desert; traditional and modern Uzbek music; and even elements of Rumi in a Dervish ceremony.
I journey with the protagonists on their voyage, as they discover the beauty of other cultures and their musical traditions. It is food for my passion and my senses, as it travels down to my fingers on the keyboard.
Denise Kahn spent 20 years in Europe because of her father, who was with the US Diplomatic Corps, and her mother who was an opera singer. She worked mainly as a simultaneous interpreter and translator as she is a linguist and speaks several languages, five of which are fluent. Because of her exposure to people of different nations her writing includes many foreign settings and cultures. She is a proud mother of a gallant Marine who served in Iraq, and among the members of her household is Louie the cat, so named because of his clawing love of Louis XV and XVI furniture, and surely thinks he must have been a fearless Marine in one of his former lives. Her books are here, her website is here and you can find her on Twitter as @DKpolyglot
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Polly Courtney @PollyCourtney
It might seem odd that a book called Feral Youth was inspired by classical music. But despite its title, Feral Youth is not just about a disenfranchised young person living on the fringes of society. More, it is about the relationship between that young person – Alesha, 15, alcoholic mother, unknown father – and Miss Merfield: a middle-class piano teacher with an alternative outlook on life and a love of tea and Chopin. It’s about two cultures colliding and the mark that each leaves on the other.
As you might have guessed, my background is more akin to that of Miss Merfield’s than to Alesha’s. I grew up on classical music, playing piano and violin and performing in shows and concerts all through my teenage years. I’m still part of the semi-professional string quartet that plays at venues up and down the UK. But it was my piano lessons in the early years that lodged in my mind and planted the seed for Feral Youth.
Back to that rickety piano stool
Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum was one of the final pieces I learned to play. My piano teacher was an elderly lady, much older than the youthful Miss Merfield but with a strong, forceful manner and a kindly streak. When I hear Debussy, I think of Mrs Luton-Brain (yes, that was her name – ‘Luton where they make the hats, brains for putting under them!’) and I imagine myself back on that old, rickety double stool, filled with a mixture of fear and intrigue as my fingers tripped up and down the keys. Although Alesha’s piano lessons with Miss Merfield were short-lived and took place long before the summer in which Feral Youth is set, they were instrumental in developing the relationship between the characters and I used Debussy to send me back to that place and remind myself of what it felt like, sitting next to Mrs Luton-Brain in that stuffy room.
Key to angst
I also used music to unlock emotions as I wrote. Alesha is an angry character, full of angst at the way she is persecuted by those in power, ignored by those who should care and cheated by those she thought she could trust. I began by listening to grime. Grime is a relatively new genre that grew out of the east London garage/hip-hop scene. Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of it but as I got deeper and deeper into my research, I heard it oozing from car stereos on the estates, rattling youth club windows and whirring from tinny speakers on phones. Imagine a beat that is so low, slow and dirty you can feel your teeth vibrating in your skull. The wax in your ears starts to shift and it almost hurts to listen, but somehow you keep listening because the juddering, creaking beat draws you in. Here’s a DJ Dice sub-low mix that I used to get myself back to where some of the scenes are set.
In the early stages of writing, I was sketching the outline for Feral Youth on a bunch of Post-it notes and something didn’t feel right. There wasn’t enough of a bond between my two main characters. I realised that something had to have happened between Alesha and Miss Merfield in order for them to behave in the way I envisaged during the book. I was listening to the radio one morning when Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries came on. I turned it up loud. This is one piece that’s guaranteed to set off a swirling cocktail of emotions in anyone. I could feel it surging through me, washing away my frustrations and replacing them with something jubilant and powerful. It was this ‘rinsing’ effect that gave me what turned out to be an important insight into the relationship between Alesha and Miss Merfield. There had to have been a shared experience that bonded them… and I’d just worked out what it was.
We stayed on the floor for the rest of that lesson, like a couple of crazies, staring up at the ceiling as the music crashed and blasted around us. I never told Miss Merfield this, but while we was lying there it felt like some of my anger was leaking out. It wasn’t like proper crying. It was just hotness and tears and this weird lightness coming over me – in a good way. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, that’s why it don’t feel right to be thieving off Miss Merfield right now.
I may have committed a literary cardinal sin by making a movie-style trailer for Feral Youth in which I use some of this music – including the Wagner – to try and transport readers to the place I was in when I wrote it. Perhaps that’s an impossible ambition; I suspect that the links between writing, memories and music can never be transplanted from one person to another. All I know is that for me, music was the vehicle that took me back (and forward, and sideways) and that without it, I’m not sure Miss Merfield and Alesha might have ever met.
Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a regular commentator on TV and radio. She made her name with debut novel Golden Handcuffs, a semi-autobiographical account of life in the Square Mile. In late 2011, on the publication of her fifth novel, Courtney walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, frustrated by the ‘chick lit’ titles and covers assigned to her books. She went on to self-publish Feral Youth, which delves into the frustrations that led to the summer riots. Here website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter as @PollyCourtney.
authors, classical music, contemporary fiction, Debussy, Desert Island Discs, DJ Dice, drama, east London, entertainment, Feral Youth, garage, grime, hip-hop, London, London riots, Miss Merfield, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, playlist for writers, Polly Courtney, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wagner, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
- 'A spellbindingly good yarn'
- 'Simple, beautiful - gripping'
- 'So original it's in a class of its own'
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'