The Undercover Soundtrack – Guy Mankowski

The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is returning for a second spin – Guy Mankowski @GMankow

Soundtrack by Aleka’s Attic, Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, Hole, Bratmobile, PJ Harvey, Placebo, Manic Street Preachers, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, Pulp, Alice Deejay, Whigfield, Greenday, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Llama Farmers

The band that best sums up the mood of my fifth novel, Dead Rock Stars, is the late actor River Phoenix’s band, Aleka’s Attic (here’s their song Where I’d Gone). So much so that I named a character in tribute to him.

My novel is set over the course of a wild summer in which a teenage boy (Jeff) comes to terms with the mysterious death of his older sister, Emma, who was a rising star on the 90s Camden music scene. As his summer unspools and becomes wilder and wilder and he learns about first love it is his sister’s diary that guides him through his coming-of-age experiences. I think River Phoenix’s band perfectly captures the mood of the novel, with the warmth and experimentalism of 90s music in which earnest social messages were often filtered through well-meaning- and often very abstract – lyrics.

As well as River Phoenix, an artist who looms pretty large over the novel is Kurt Cobain. One of Emma’s pivotal pieces of advice to Jeff is to never trust people who don’t like Nirvana. When Emma meets the brooding, already-famous musician Adam it is in performing About A Girl to him that she asserts herself as a musician.

As a former singer and guitarist in various shortlived bands, I first learnt to play guitar using this song. The novel is a great deal about young, frustrated artists trying to find a way to express their voice and impress themselves upon the world and it reminded me of when, like Emma, I learnt to play Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York. It was a great album in terms of emotional range and you could really express yourself through playing those tracks but it also had that punk sensibility to it – it isn’t technically complex.

The novel is deeply steeped in the 90s, not purely for nostalgic reasons (though I recently found myself watching many Winona Ryder films and missing slightly simpler times). But more because it was an era in which there was a naïve sense of hopefulness. One thing that fascinates me about the 90s is all the rich music scenes that popped up, when in the UK music weeklies had a monopoly on who was deemed cool and successful. Emma is hugely influenced by the Kinderwhore scene, associated with acts like Babes in Toyland (here’s Bruise Violet), where ruined prom queens, tiaras and leopard print were all used in a twisted appropriation of the feminine and the innocent. It would be remiss of me not to mention the influence of Hole. Their song Doll Parts has lyrics that perfectly capture Emma’s tiredness about having to compete with men for attention.

The back cover of Hole’s Celebrity Skin has artwork of Ophelia drowning, which is a theme on the cover of my novel too, seeing that Emma was obsessed with Ophelia and tragic figures like Frances Farmer.

The Riot grrrl movement, in which the female body was used to display confrontational messages and the physicality of music prioritised, is also a big influence on Emma . (Here’s Bratmobile Cool Schmool.)

But her biggest influence in the novel is probably PJ Harvey, an artist living and creating on their own terms whilst possessing that alluring mix of force and glamour (PJ Harvey 50 Ft. Queenie).

I do miss being in era in which there was that sense of possibility and when an artist performing a song was an event, almost a window into their mysterious life. I remember when Placebo first performed Pure Morning on Top Of The Pops (watching that every Friday was an almost religious ritual for me). It was for me a lot like seeing David Bowie perform Starman was for the previous generation.

The characters in the novel hark back to a time when hearing a song for the first time, or seeing a glimpse of one of their videos on The Word or MTV was a pivotal moment.

Music – in the form of cassettes made for those you were intimate with, or CDs and inlay cards – was a lot more physical then. The gorgeous Smashing Pumpkins artwork is a good example (Daphne Descends).

Pre internet artists found it harder to get their voice out. I remember needing such a physical act of will to find a way to record your songs. I wanted to capture that sense of strain. That push to have your voice heard is, I think, essential to finding out who you are, as an artist.

Over the course of the summer portrayed in the novel, there are certain tracks that to me capture that era. The sheer optimism of Oasis’s Some Might Say captures the naivety and hope of that era, where every Friday after school I would tune in to TFI Friday, and be introduced to at least three new bands. On the Isle of Wight, where I lived, shows like that were a lifeline. Ocean Colour Scene’s theme tune (The Riverboat Song) would, to me, always signal the start of the weekend. I remember that just seeing a poster for a band would be like witnessing a portal to a whole new way of life. Pulp’s now famous poster for their album Different Class felt like a kind of a battle cry for all the outsiders (here’s Mishapes).

The novel also includes teenage discos, in which people have their first kisses. The courage required to ask someone to dance is the closest English equivalent to the prom. For me Alice Deejay’s Better off Alone or Whigfield’s Saturday Night best recall those times.

It’s also a novel set on the Isle of Wight during the summer, a time in which I recall a lot of parties and barbecues on beaches, where someone would eventually pull out a guitar and play either Greenday’s Good Riddance or Red Hot Chili Peppers Scar Tissue.

The latter is a song which captures for me the delicacy of your first hangover, perhaps as you wake up on the beach. This is a novel, for all its heartbreak, about summers and late night parties spent by the sea with music. And to capture that sense of teenage rebellion I’ll finish with The Llama Farmers and Get The Keys And Go.

And I look back to a lost era and ask- how did we get here, from the relative innocence of back then?

Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was the singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. Dead Rockstars is his fifth novel and is published by Darkstroke on 14th September 2020, but can be pre-ordered from here now. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.

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Music, summer, 1990s Camden – Guy Mankowski

Guy Mankowski’s new novel Dead Rock Stars has been brewing a long time. He draws on his experiences growing up in the 1990s, teaching himself to play Nirvana songs on the guitar. (It worked. He went on to play in several bands, including Alba Nova.) Guy says the 1990s was a time when musicians seemed mysterious, and seeing a band poster was like a glimpse of another world. From those feelings and recollections he has created a punky period piece, centred around a teenage boy navigating love and life, helped by the diaries of his dead sister. It’s a coming of age story with first hangovers, first dances, first loves, a sense of hope and optimism. And also, the struggle to find your voice and get it heard. Drop by on Wednesday for his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Gwendolyn Womack

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 returning for a third spin – Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack

Soundtrack by Doug Appling, A Chorus of Storytellers, Sean Digo, Mozart, traditional Korean music, traditional aboriginal music, James Hood

Thank you Roz for having me back to the Undercover Soundtrack. I’m thrilled to delve in and discuss the music behind my new novel The Time Collector. The story is a romantic thriller about two psychometrists. Psychometrists are people who can touch objects and see the past embedded within them. The pair become caught up in trying to solve the mystery of out-of-place artifacts (“ooparts”) that challenge the timeline of recorded history. Within the narrative, the story travels back in time periodically through the objects, and the answer to the ooparts’ riddle lies hidden within the fantastical world of crop circles, ancient crystals, and sacred geometry. The book has many aspects, so the music I listened to while writing was highly varied too.

The main character of the book, Roan West, is a master psychometrist who has been peering into the past since he was a boy. He wears gloves to control what he touches and the imprints he reads. The only time he takes his gloves off for long periods of time is when he mountain climbs. He is an avid boulderer, someone who climbs without gear or ropes, and bouldering has become his outlet where he can recharge. When I went on YouTube to research videos of climbers I found the climbers’ playlists to be so kinetic and full of energy. I ended up getting several albums and looping specific songs. They became Roan’s songs in my mind. The music I looped the most for Roan was from the album Emancipator by Doug Appling. I particularly loved the tracks Rattlesnakes, Nevergreen, and First Snow.

The other psychometrist and main character in the story, Melicent Tilpin, is just starting out on her journey to becoming a psychometrist. For Melicent, I ended up looping A Chorus of Storytellers’s Within Dreams and Perro for many of her scenes. There is something elusively wistful about both pieces that struck a chord when I was trying to write her.

There is one song in general that I listened to the most throughout writing the book. I first heard it on the internet as background music to a short video piece that Futurism.com was circulating and I loved it so much I researched what it was and how to get it. It’s a short piece of instrumental music called Stream by Sean Digo and I was able to download on Audiojungle. I looped it for countless hours (hundreds) and even now when I listen to it the song brings back so many memories of the writing.

Parts of The Time Collector journey back in time through memories stored within objects. There were pieces of music that helped me write those historical passages. For example, within an antique music box lies the memory of 1700s Vienna and musical prodigy Regina Strinasacchi, who performed with Mozart. There’s a wonderful bit of backstory about the sonata Mozart composed for her and I wrote their chapter playing the sonata.

For another object’s memory—hidden within the key to the astronomical clock tower in Prague in the 1400s—I listened to medieval music on YouTube. And another memory is imbedded within an exquisite Korean fan of a young girl’s life during the Korean War. The girl’s mother was a musician and I found traditional Korean music to help spark my imagination. The full playlist is on my website, but this one performer is how I imagined the mother to look in concert.

An important flashback of the story takes place in Australia and I found some fantastic Aboriginal Didgeridoo music and another piece titled the Spirit of Uluru. I hunted all afternoon sampling music to find what I was looking for.

Sometimes though, you don’t have to go hunting for music, the music finds you. That happened to me while I was watching the movie Sing with my son of all places. One of the songs is a remake of Golden Slumbers/ Carry that Weight. The lyrics struck me and felt connected to Roan’s journey at the end. Roan is carrying the weight of the world’s memories inside of him and trying to get home. I ended up listening to the song many times for inspiration to write his journey. The spark of inspiration happened quite on accident while watching a Sunday family movie.

The two final pieces of music I want to mention is by one of my favorite artists James Hood. His previous album, Pure Ceremony, was pivotal when I wrote The Fortune Teller and it was incredible timing that his next album, Mesmerica, came out right as I was getting started on The Time Collector. The entire album is gorgeous! I ended up looping the songs Tapestry and Mesmerica the most, particularly while writing the end chapters. Last December I had the chance to meet James when I went to see his concert for Mesmerica. The show is an amazing 360-degree immersive art and music show that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside a kaleidoscope. I highly recommend going. Visit his website to see if he’ll be coming to your city.

To sample all the music that helped to inspire The Time Collector, the playlist is on my website. And if you’d like to read my past posts on Undercover Soundtrack, here are my discussions for The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter. One of the most enriching aspects of writing is to find the perfect music to go on the journey. I have infinite gratitude for all these artists who inspired me along the way. Thank you for listening!

Gwendolyn Womack is the USA Today bestselling author of The Fortune Teller and the award-winning reincarnation thriller, The Memory Painter. Her latest novel, The Time Collector, is out this month with PicadorUSA. Gwendolyn lives in Los Angeles with her family, collects kaleidoscopes, and paints as a hobby. Visit her online at gwendolynwomack.com or connect with her on social media at Twitter @Gwen_Womack , Facebook  and Instagram

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‘Something elusively wistful’ – Gwendolyn Womack

If you’ve followed this series for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Drop by on Wednesday for her latest Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – SD Mayes

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 SD Mayes @authormayes

Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt

Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter.  Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.

We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.

Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.

Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.

One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead.  But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.

Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’

In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.

Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.

Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.

Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.

‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…

The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?

Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.

Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.

Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.

It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.

SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.

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‘Rubble-strewn streets and lost souls’ – SD Mayes

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you’ll meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Dwight Okita

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 Dwight Okita @DwightOkita

Soundtrack by Kate Bush, World Order, U2

On January 11, 2018 I will have my book launch party at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, reading excerpts of The Hope Store accompanied by ambient music. The music will be an overt soundtrack, not the undercover soundtrack I am about to describe.

The duet in my mind

This speculative novel has always been structurally a kind of duet:  the chapters of the book alternate between the voices of pessimist Jada who is a customer and optimist Luke who is one of the store’s creators. At times those voices harmonise, are dissonant, or simply collide. How do two characters with different worldviews see the same event, the same story? Are some realities more real than others? And most importantly: what is hope and how do we make more of it?  The Hope Store tells the fable of the first store in the world to sell hope over the counter, the creators of this procedure that opens new paths in our brains, and the individual lives that are changed as a result. As often happens, complications ensue.

Jada Upshaw’s character is broken and hope-starved. The music of Kate Bush helped to conjure Jada for me.  Bush’s music is dark, witch-like, desperate.  In her classic song, Running Up That Hill, we first hear a siren’s call, then propulsive percussion, finally a lyric fragment.  The lyric alludes to some deal she is in the process of making and it feels ominous. Coincidentally Jada comes to the store with a deal in mind, an ulterior motive which we will discover later. Her first words on the page are:

My name is Jada Upshaw. I started out as a girl without dreams and grew up to be a woman without a future. Mind you, it’s not a story I’m especially proud to tell, but if I’m at a party and someone asks me what my story is…

Luke Nagano’s character has a chequered past but he has reinvented himself, partly through hard work and partly through undergoing a ‘hope installation’.  For me, Luke began to manifest on the page with the music of U2’s anthem With or Without You.  Bono’s voice and words embody an unshakeable confidence. There is a steady beat, the whine of steel guitars. The music projects a feeling of determination equal to Luke’s commitment to bringing a new kind of healing into the world. His first words, however, start tentatively:

My name is Luke Nagano. I arrived on this planet as a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it. It took me years to learn how to throw my voice out into the world and wait for it to come boomeranging back to me.’

The revolution will be televised

I always pictured that the climax of this book would take place at a townhall meeting hosted by CNN. And that is exactly what I wrote.  Toward the end of the novel, it is almost Christmas, almost the new year. The auditorium swirls with opinions articulated by The Enhanced Hopers who bow down at the altar of science — and opinions of The Natural Hopers who believe one should only have the hope you were born with. This latter group hates science and secretly fears it. During this long night, the arguments range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The audience is filled with skeptics, believers, and everything in between. The whole world is watching.

The song that ignited this scene as I was developing it was a Japanese pop tune called World Order by World Order. The words were gibberish to me as they are in Japanese but the passion of the singer coupled with the danceability of the tracks made this scene percolate. As if it was now time for a dance-off between opposing views.  And so there is a choir of angry voices echoing through the auditorium, the Japanese pop tune only adding to the chaos. World Order, indeed. (By the way, the music video is quite entertaining as all the band members are choreographed to perfection. The leader of World Order, Genki Sudo, was formerly an MMA fighter who turned his focus to music and dance videos after an injury.)

Hope is the belief that the thing you most want – you can have

Where did this book come from? At some level, this book is a metaphor for my own healing. In years past I’ve battled generalised anxiety disorder which is characterised by relentless dread, debilitating social phobia which at times kept me home-bound, and a relentless moodswing that lasted over two years. In many ways I am both Luke and Jada, the healer and the person who needs to be healed. The shelves of my own unique hope store have been lined with an array of modalities including Buddhist chanting, therapeutic cuddling, and pharmacology. If Nichiren Buddhism has taught me nothing else, it’s that each person at some point must confront their own fundamental darkness — and conquer it, or at least tame it. Failing that, the person is doomed to a life of incessant suffering. To me, every story is about that:  A hero coming face to face with that terrifying darkness — whether it resides within him or lurks somewhere outside himself.

When my book launch party finally occurs, I will not read to music that causes a story to happen, but to music that immerses the audience in the experience of the story. Think of children around a campfire late at night, how the flames add light, heat and even danger. Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I loved writing it.  Namaste.  The hope in me honours the hope in you.

Dwight Okita lives in Chicago where he designs websites and works for a nonprofit.  His first novel, The Prospect of My Arrival, was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Tia Chucha Press published his poetry book Crossing with the Light.  He is working on a new novel called Every Time We Say Goodbye which is about love, reincarnation and gun control. The Hope Store is available now. Find him at his website and tweet him at @DwightOkita

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‘What is hope and how do we make more of it?’ – Dwight Okita

It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Marcia Butler

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 classical oboist turned memoirist Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler

Soundtrack by Mendelssohn, Wagner, Elliott Carter, Keith Jarrett

I have always approached listening to music as an activity with dedicated purpose. When I YouTube the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, recorded in 1949 by the great Russian violinist David Oistrahk, I sit quietly. I listen intently. Whereas many use listening to music as an aural inspiration to enrich a meaningful calling such as writing, I can only view music as a powerful life force which has had profound implications for me. Because music was, for over 25 years, my profession. My memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, tells of my experiences as a professional oboist in New York City during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, in which I attempt to unpack what it takes to be a hardworking classical musician. Juxtaposed to this, my personal narrative as a damaged young woman sings in opposition, accompanied by all the dangerous life choices I made. Ultimately, discovering and then performing music actually saved my life.

I was eager to write about events that elicited exceptional results, both professional and personal, both beautiful and awful. What does being on stage at Carnegie Hall really feel like; what must a musician endure to maintain excellence; what happens when things go very wrong in a concert; and what transpires when music takes over and musicians surrender to the sway of something more powerful than themselves? But also, how might writing about the music I love tell my readers something important about me in a way that further illuminates the personal narrative of my life. All this.

When something is a forever thing, such as music, it is natural to want to be enveloped by these wonderfully organized sounds and use music as a companion to almost any activity. When writing my book, my challenge was not to decide which music might inspire me and then coax out my best work. Rather, my task was to mentally catalogue all the music I’d ever played; all the musicians with whom I’d performed; all the teachers who taught me everything and very little; all the conductors I’d dismissed because they knew nothing, or revered because they understood absolutely everything; all the concerts that changed my life, or humbled me and brought me to my knees. I had to think deeply to remember, and also dredge up what I longed to forget.

Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner will always represent a song of prescience and possibility. Performing this music in a church in New York City literally gave me the courage to wrench myself from a violent husband. This profound composition, written for the birth of Wagner’s son, touched within me a place of naïve clarity. During the concert, I became aware that my current life would need to change. This notion – an urgent imperative, actually – washed over me while I was playing the oboe. Somehow, I was able to glean the realization only through music.

When one cannot do something, there is always the option to give up if results are not reached in a reasonable time frame. But for a musician, nothing creates more urgency to succeed than a concert engagement. When I was invited to perform the Oboe Concerto by American Composer Elliott Carter, I took this difficult music into my hands, practised it, lived it, hated it, and cried a lot. All because I couldn’t play the thing. Not even close. Panic quickly set in because I was certain I’d finally be identified as the fraud any artist deeply believes themselves to be. Trying to play Carter’s music is how I became bedfellows with pure, endless failure. I’d turn over during fitful sleep and kiss this devil on the lips. Finally, after many months the music showed me the way. I ultimately mastered it and thereby found my love for it. More importantly, I learned to not allow any difficulty to dictate my future. That music lesson was a life changer.

Rock-star jazz musicians are not always odd, or unapproachable, or just too big for their britches. Sometimes they are just the nicest people on the planet. And sometimes they hire a random oboist (you) to premiere and record their oboe concerto, solely on the basis of hearing a tape of your playing. That piece is played often on classical radio stations for years and years to come. And sometimes that is a boost you badly need, because many times you are facing the next impossible piece of music. And it makes you very humble and grateful because you’ve learned that music is the great equalizer among musicians. There is no low or high; no strata of fame. No. When musicians collaborate, music is simply the smartest thing in the room. And yes, thank you, Keith Jarrett.

Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves. It is always a willing and available companion. Because when music resonates, those sounds remain in the universe forever. Sound never fully dissipates. We know this because scientists are now listening to noise that originated over a million years ago. No other art form – not visual, not drama, not dance, not even writing – can claim this distinction of eternity. Simply put, there is not a person on Earth who hasn’t connected deeply, in some way and at some time, with music. It is an aural glue to feelings, memories and hope.

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for 25 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in LitHub, PANK, Psychology Today Magazine, Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here and you can tweet her as @MarciaAButler

 

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‘Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves’ – Marcia Butler

My guest this week has written a memoir of life as an international concert oboist, juxtaposed with a parallel narrative of a precarious and troubled personal life. I first came across her on The Literary Hub, where she wrote about how she left the very worst experience of all out of that book. It was so haunting that I contacted her and asked if there was any way she could write a piece for this series. She has, and the result is a trip through music that has helped her remember, or dredge up the times she preferred to forget, and moments when music helped her make life choices because of the clarity and discipline of playing. Stop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Marcia Butler.

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