Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Linda Gillard

‘As I listened, I felt Philip Glass had written the novel for me’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is award-winning author Linda Gillard

Soundtrack by Philip Glass

When I ground to a halt writing my fifth novel, Untying the Knot, the second movement of Philip Glass’s first Violin Concerto showed me a way forward. I wanted to tell the story of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ex-soldier, ex-bomb squad, whose career had been ended by an explosion. I wanted to write about his marriage (which had ended in divorce) and about the loyal wife who’d stood by him through many years of active service, then years of rehabilitation and then walked away.


I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. I knew the emotional trajectory of my characters, but I hadn’t a clue how to structure my novel. I’d called it Untying the Knot because it was a love story about a divorced couple, but the title was ironical. Divorced, my characters discover they’re bound together indissolubly, not only by continuing love for each other, but by their traumatic history.

The book was to be about both of them, not just the attention-grabbing hero, Magnus. I wanted to show his wife, Fay, quietly getting on with her life, quietly cracking up while no one noticed. But Magnus had taken over. My work-in-progress was about a hero, his sacrifice and terrible suffering. I couldn’t see how to bring his wife into the foreground and make her story – and her sacrifice – as poignant and moving as his. I was close to abandoning the novel as unbalanced and too complicated to work.

I always use music to support and enrich my writing and I usually have a playlist for each novel. I’d been looking for a piece of music to represent what’s known as ‘the long walk’ – the bomb technician’s lonely approach to an explosive device he’s about to disarm. I remembered the Glass Violin Concerto, with its descending ground bass pattern that repeats for the whole of the second movement. It sounded like someone walking, but it also had an edgy, disturbing quality, created by oscillating broken chords. This wasn’t just a slow walk, this was a walk towards something ominous, even dangerous.

In the music

As I ‘auditioned’ the Glass, it triggered an almost overwhelming cascade of ideas and I suddenly saw – almost completely – how I could structure my novel by emulating the structure of this eight-minute piece of music.

As I listened, I could hear two voices, male and female, engaged in a kind of dialogue. The male voice was the low, see-sawing strings and woodwind that create the walking ground bass. Over the top, I heard a female voice – a solo violin, calm and lyrical at first, a woman pleading with the man to give up his dangerous job, perhaps asking for his help. As the violin solo is repeated again and again against the implacable ground bass, her voice becomes desperate (anguished arpeggiated figures), yet the man never stops walking. It’s as if he can’t hear her and is walking away. Towards the end of the movement, the violin produces high, sustained notes. I found them heart-rending. The woman has finally lost it, given up and gone under.

The music showed me how I could weave my two narrative threads together. The long-suffering wife could move into the spotlight for a while, then retreat while her husband’s horrific back story took over. The couple could keep changing places until, at the dramatic climax of the novel, their two stories would collide and combine, allowing the reader to discover exactly why the marriage had foundered, why the wife had walked away. What had appeared to be his story would be revealed as her story.

As I listened, I felt Glass had written my novel for me, in miniature. I just needed to expand what he’d done, then translate it into a fictional form. There was an added musical bonus. The movement ends abruptly and is quite unresolved. I believe that unsettled feeling gave me the impetus and energy to get on with writing the book. Much as I admired the music that had inspired me, I thought, ‘In Untying The Knot, all this is going to be resolved.’ And it was.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of six novels, including Star Gazing, shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and House of Silence, which became a Kindle bestseller, selected by Amazon as one of their Top 10 ‘Best of 2011’ in the indie author category. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Linda is excited to give away one copy of the ebook to a commenter here – so if you drop by, be sure to say hello!

38 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Linda Gillard

  1. I loved this book, so it’s fascinating to see how music helped the writing process take shape. I’d love to know more about the soundtrack to your other novels, Linda, especially The Glass Guardian.

    I tend to write in silence, but this blog is inspiring me to think about music in a different way, and to look for inspiration in different places when I’m stuck.

    1. I always write in silence, Jo, but I often play music in the psyche-up to writing. It’s my short-cut to the world of the novel. Listening to something on my playlist can transport me there in a matter of seconds. It’s a good alternative to reading back over what you wrote yesterday or sitting brooding about the characters.

      FYI – the GLASS GUARDIAN playlist included Britten’s War Requiem and some Vaughan Williams (who served in France in WWI.)

  2. Fascinating! Music tells stories to me too, though I can’t write with it in the background. I have to have silence. I really enjoyed Untying the Knot – lovely female character I could relate to.

    1. Hi Kathleen! It’s funny that you mentioned the stories in music. Dave (my husband) was telling me last night how he had a novel he’d nearly finished but hadn’t settled on an opening scene. He was stuck for what to do with it, so he put the Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Batman 2 on to think about it. As he listened, the opening scene popped into his head.

  3. What a brilliant exposition of both the dilemma and the resolution. Having now listened to the Glass, the poignancy of the solo violin, left in utter solitude at the end (that solitude develops and the psychological distance between them increases despite a greater harmonic agreement at a deeper level) completely made me ‘see’ the book and the characters. Really inspiring, the connection between the book and the music. I totally understand why it worked.
    I am grateful also for a deeper gift which will now inspire a theme for my blog, for like Linda, I have been searching for a thread that would stitch it together, and listening to Glass for really the first time I realised that his name had always put me off…the power of names is what it will be. So on many levels this was really inspiring. Thank you both

    1. I’m thrilled by your response, Philippa! I’d been put off Glass by some of his piano music which is repetitive to the point of hypnotic, but I really liked the soundtrack of the movie THE HOURS so I decided to keep an open mind.

      I’m very interested to hear that you felt you could “see” my story & characters when you listened to the music. I’ve explored this relationship in another book, STAR GAZING, where the hero (who’s a music buff) interprets bits of the world for the congenitally blind heroine. Her tactile world is limited to the length of her cane, but by suggesting pieces of music to her, he gives her a sense of things she can never feel in their entirety, eg a cathedral (he suggests Poulenc’s Organ Concerto) and the a mountain range on Skye. (He suggests the adagio from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata.)

      This aspect of the book has interested readers and some have asked me if it was difficult coming up with these musical equivalents. Oddly, it wasn’t. I think I hear music in terms of images, sometimes even story, like Roz’s husband. I’ve often wondered if this is somehow related to synaesthesia, a condition where one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, eg “seeing” music in terms of colours.

    2. Philippa, it’s a fantastic synthesis, isn’t it? Looking forward to seeing what it drives you to create on your blog.
      Linda – on the subject of synaesthesia, have you seen Erika Robuck’s Undercover Soundtrack? This paragraph might press your buttons (it certainly pressed mine!): ‘Ernest Hemingway once said that he used words the way that Bach used notes. He said that he studied Cezanne until he could paint a landscape with words the way the artist could with his brush’
      I find I see stories in everything and inspiration for how I can better my craft. Maybe that’s synaesthesia – or maybe my brain never stops!

  4. I loved your post! I listened to instrumental music while writing my memoir, The Invisible Storm, finding that songs with lyrics only distract me, while instrumental music draws me into an isolated space of creativity – the world of my book. While reading your post, I was listening to the Glass Violin piece in the background, and you’re so right! I understand exactly what you were hearing, and how your story could magically unfold. The song really does seem to be telling its own story. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m currently stuck with a new YA novel – actually, having a hard time *starting* it because of two characters. I’m going to follow your lead and turn on the music. Who knows where it may lead? 🙂

    1. Thanks, Juanima. 🙂

      I think the trick with finding musical inspiration is to step outside your comfort zone and your own music collection. I’ve found some gems on those much-derided compilation CDs – things I’d never have listened to by choice. I discovered a movement of Rautavaara’s “Concerto for Birds & Orchestra” (no, really) on a CD called CLASSIC CHILL. It became a lynchpin piece in STAR GAZING.

      A composer I’ve returned to again and again (& who also formed part of the playlist for UNTYING THE KNOT) is Arvo Part. If you don’t know him, try some of his instrumental music. TABULA RASA is a great place to start – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Arvo-Part-Tabula-rasa/dp/B003TT733G/ref=sr_1_13?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1349904065&sr=1-13

      1. Thanks, Roz! And thank you, Linda for the music suggestions! Some interesting titles, haha. I’m definitely going to check out all of them. I need to check out new kinds of music. I’ve discovered many new artists I now love by listening to Pandora! If I create a Philip Glass station, I’ll bet I’ll get some really beautiful mixes. Thanks again! And happy writing! 🙂

        1. Firedancer, you might also like Q2 Music, which streams unusual modern classical composers. It’s great thinking music. Here’s the very first Undercover Soundtrack post by a buddy of mine, Porter Anderson – about how he uses Q2 to surprise his muse as he writes. As you’ll see, I hadn’t yet established the format for the series, but it’s a terrific piece https://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2011/10/17/scoring-the-novel-as-it-unfolds-the-undercover-soundtrack/

      2. Linda, I use those compilation CDs as well. (I’m still a bit too old fashioned to buy downloads; I like my music to exist on something solid.) Non-classical compilation chillout CDs have also given me some amazing writing music – the first two Arabesque albums are full of mysterious beats and snaky melodies.

  5. If ever an author ‘sold’ a book by accident, you have! The synaesthesia idea I am sure lies at the root of it, and why this guest slot is so brilliant in introducing people to music they may never have considered ( like me and Glass). Having had to master the world of classical music through my obsessional violin playing daughter ( through whose innocent and committed belief I regained the entirety of life) my fascination lies in a less happy connection…the potential of music for the greatest of what we are capable, and the truth of its cut-throat, backstabbing, competitive, insecure, underpaid exponents…musicians are sublime on stage, the dressing room a different matter. (Watching a musician destroyed by commitment, excluded for devotion, avoided for too much practice…and nothing else to compel an alternative) Now I would like to write a novel about that! So what music would you suggest that might keep it from descending into seeming bitterness? Only joking, but so few experience the reality and would it be better to leave the world with its illusions? The Amadeus string quartet loathed each other so deeply they really only met on stage and travelled independently…but somehow the music was enough: for decades.

    Yes I see the Poulenc cathedral too. I wonder whether that architectural quality has ever been the basis for a concerted approach to impairment education? I could not think of a better one. This has been a very rich day Thank you http://philipparees.wordpress.com/

    1. Philippa – delighted to see you and Linda getting on so well. I think you might like another of Linda’s novels, which features musicians – I believe it’s called A Lifetime Burning.

      As for the duality of the musical world, I know what you mean. I explored that for my own novel. These people who play as though possessed by angels can be total devils once they’re not channelling music. Insecure, undermining each other, forming passionate partnerships that can dissolve on what seems to be a whim. The harmony is skin deep at most.

      Funny also that you mention Amadeus. I know you mean the string quartet, but the first thing that comes to my mind is Peter Shaffer’s play, from which the film was made. The angelic but crude Mozart versus the bitterly jealous Salieri – a tale of gods and the men who make and destroy them.

    2. Philippa, I think I know what you’re talking about. My very gifted daughter read music at uni. Singing was her specialism and we expected her to go on to music college afterwards. She graduated with a First and, sadly, a determination never to sing in public again. The music dept and her destructive, jealous peers destroyed her confidence and worse, they destroyed her desire to sing & perform. (Fortunately it was only temporary. Some years later she took up singing in amateur musicals for fun, then she set up her own amateur music theatre company.)

      Though I’m not any kind of musician myself, I know about the dark side of classical music. I wrote about it in A LIFETIME BURNING, in which I portrayed a prodigiously gifted classical pianist who was morally reprehensible and led a tortured private life. A variation on “The Devil has all the best tunes” perhaps. 😉

      I hope you do write that novel, though I agree it does sound very challenging. It could make pretty compelling reading though! My suggestion for a composer to offset the bitterness would be Schumann. God knows, that poor man had reasons to be bitter, but I can’t hear it in a note of his music. Unbearable sadness in the Lieder, yes, but bitterness?… I shall listen out for it now.

  6. This post and the comments have done the impossible–rendered me speechless. After listening to the Glass Concerto, it was off to Amazon for the book. The story sounds beautifully complex, and if that piece of music wrote it for you, I’ve got to read it. And listen to more Phillip Glass.

    Like many others who have posted, I write in silence. When I was writing full blast years ago, I’d first play “Eye Of The Tiger” from the movie “Rocky” several times over and dance before settling in (I know, a crazy Yank). What a difference listening to music like this might make. You’ve convinced me to give it a try and hope I can stop listening and get back to work.

    There definitely seems to be some amount of synesthesia with the music and how it’s experienced by each person. I hear sounds as shapes. The sounds of a crowded store feels like sharp edges digging into my body, and the lovely song of birds feels like a sticky candy cane. I’ve read that Nabokov and his mother both saw each letter of the alphabet in rainbows of color. This is the first time I’ve heard of music telling a story the writer needed to hear. Brilliant and mesmerizing.

    I was lucky enough to grow up in the city where Stanton MacDonald-Wright painted our high school theater curtains and a magnificent mural at our library in the Synchronism style he and another painter created. It was an attempt to equate emotional musical qualities with color and is quite beautiful. Now I wonder if sitting with some of his more abstract paintings might tell a story only I, or whoever is viewing it, can hear. You can find samples of his more abstract work at http://www.allposters.com (type in his name) or http://www.artnet.com/artists/stanton-macdonald-wright/. It would be interesting to hear whether or not other can hear the colors.

    Thank you for sharing this experience. It’s beautifully told and flawlessly written. Off to read the book now.

    1. Cyd, I followed the second link and you’re right. There’s an echoing quality about those abstract pieces. The swirls, the shadows and the gauzy parallelograms seem to move. I’m not sure if I ‘hear’ anything in them but there’s a dynamic, floating quality to them – like the shapes seen if you rub your eyes. Music of the optic nerve?
      You know what, they’re a pretty good painting of a xech.

      As for your Eye of the Tiger, I’ve had several writers here talk about music that gives them a pep-talk before they start. My favourite was Catherynne M Valente, and I am eternally grateful to her for introducing me to the whimsy and charm of Symphony of Science. https://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2012/06/12/the-undercover-soundtrack-catherynne-m-valente/

  7. I’m so intrigued by your discovery. Music can take you many places. Here, Phillip Glass’s concerto was like a map, showing you the direction to take. Thank you for sharing. I’m now interested in reading your novel.

  8. I happily leave praises here for both an interesting post and wonderful discussion!

    I loved the reply comment about moving outside your musical comfort zone. It probably explains why I can listen to music while I grade student essays (its familiarity focuses my attention on the students’ work) but not while I write. I think I’ll rummage long neglected CDs for “new” pieces to inspire my creative work.

  9. Linda,
    Your daughter was lucky to be able to resurrect what she loved on her own terms. I always think good amateurs have the best musical world, and you should thank God she never experienced music college! Unfortunately string players need each other, and if you are a perfectionist ( as my daughter is…although I try to persuade her that playing should be enough…she says the massacre of music is not what she has spent thirty years training for!) it is very difficult to accept the mediocre, or less than the possible best. I must certainly tell her of your books for the only other thing she does is read voraciously. It seems you have made the writing of this book superfluous!

    But if I ever do it, your suggestion of Schumann is probably spot on. His piano concerto is like water bubbling over smooth rocks in a spring bright stream…one could not possibly stay bitter listening to that! I truly feel almost a physical pain at the waste of so much training in so many young musicians, so much hope and discipline distorted by jealousy and dog-eat-dog. Somewhere it must lie in the appalling salaries, the limited rehearsal times, the few opportunities for so many aspirants. I suspect Britain is almost the worst place to be a musician, their skill honed to being rapid sight readers, and bravura performers, and looking good is also part of it, to stand out when the spotlight falls. The kudos has to do duty for all the other things that it deserves.

    But it does not alter the power of music, and that is what this conversation celebrates. It has been good to share.

  10. This is such compelling essay, Linda, and what an interesting and insightful discussion~

    Linda, I started listening to the Glass piece half-way through reading your post and your words became more absorbing: not only a confirmation of a successful multi-media experience but I appreciated you allowing the reader to see further into who you are as a creator. This made me trust your writing. The fact that I love Glass also helped. (Happy Birthday PG! More Glass here: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/series/music-constant-change/ ) As Roz mentioned, Q2 Music has an excellent line-up of new music by living composers, including Glass and Arvo Part.

    On synaesthesia: as a visual artist, my creativity has a strong tie to music, and I paint in silence on very rare occasions. Typically music invites me to see and touch that latent internal creative-emotional-tide that is endlessly seeking escape. But it acts more as a key, a comfort, direction or a background familiarity, rather than conjuring specific images; however, it certainly can influence color, shape and rhythms in a piece.

    Roz, thanks for introducing us to such an engaging guest!

    1. Terre – great to see you here. I love the interpretation that Linda has brought to the Glass piece with this post. (And funnily enough on my way home tonight I was listening to Arvo Part.)

      Painting to music… of course! I have an illustrator friend who listens ceaselessly to the radio when he’s working, and I wonder what effect it has on the result? It must do.

    2. Thanks, Terre, for your kind comments. Before I started writing fiction I worked a lot with textiles, making quilts & wallhangings. I used to listen to music while I worked, so I can certainly identify with music influencing “color, shape & rhythms in a piece.”

      I also love what you said about music as “a key, a comfort and a direction”. Yes! When I was planning my 2nd novel, A LIFETIME BURNING, a big saga about 3 generations of a very dysfunctional family, I had this idea that I wanted to write a Greek tragedy, as told by the genteelly satirical Barbara Pym. To stiffen the creative sinews I used to play Gluck’s opera, IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE. My novel needed to be operatic, but not Wagnerian. 😉

      Gluck’s opera served as my key & comfort. Listening to his ill-fated brother & sister tearing their musical hair out, I found the nerve to keep writing.

      1. Linda, thanks for your kind words. What a nice surprise, you are a textile artist! Do you have any images online? And yes, textiles, sculpture, painting, illustration–as Roz mentions–and music, it’s all connected. By the way, I checked out Iphigenie and you nailed it, dulcet tones were not to be found, I could feel your creative sinews stiffening 😉

        Hi Roz, I just bought the Best of Arvo Part–with Spiegel im Spiegel, Tabula Rasa, and more. He was schooled by seraphim, I’m sure of it.

          1. Hi Linda, your quilts are simply lovely! The antique quality of your Nautical quilt is successful; when I squint my eyes, I definitely recognize virus-shapes in your flu quilt 😉 and I am impressed by the tones in your 9/11 wall-hanging. And I have some idea of how much work and patience goes into those beauties from watching my mother, who also stitched a few together over the years.

            And you have some stunning photos of Isle of Skye. I was in Scotland for 5 weeks, about 30 years ago, and never saw the likes of those rocks, but I fell in love with the vibrancy of the green landscapes, the creaminess of their chocolate flakes, the irn-bru jingle, and the roll of the “r” on everyone’s tongue. Thanks for sharing and bringing back some fond memories!

  11. Hi Linda,

    I enjoyed your perceptions of Glass’s violin concerto. As I listened, I also saw the similarities to his slightly more energetic soundtrack for that amazing movie with Edward Norton as “The Illusionist.” Really like the title of your new book, “The Trysting Tree,” and look forward to reading it as well as “Untying the Knot.”

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