‘The impossible bridge between words and music’
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 novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees
Soundtrack by Don McLean, Beethoven, Juliet Hughes-Rees
Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!
To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.
A poetic novella
I now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)
I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.
Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.
I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.
Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…
The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.
My equivalent liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’ and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.
The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.
Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.
GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.
27 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Philippa Rees”
I am really so warmed to be invited to this most generously hosted party. Thank you Roz for everything. I would also like to add a print copy of A Shadow in Yucatan to a comment left and links offered.
Most generous, Philippa. And I’ve been looking forward to seeing how you would interpret the Undercover Soundtrack brief. As I expected, you added fresh insight to the way we relate to music.
Philippa, I really enjoyed reading about the way music inspired your writing work and related to what you said about your daughter’s Beethoven practice. My eldest son was practising Dvorak’s Largo in preparation for a piano exam while I was writing my first novel, Sleep Before Evening, and I couldn’t help but bring it directly into the book (along with the rest of what I was listening to – that was also as diverse as your list – ranging from John Lee Hooker to Robbie Robertson, Pink Floyd, and yes, Beethoven). Roz, this is an intruiging blog theme and I’ll be back to read more on this topic!
Thanks, Magdalena! I started the blog because I found my most profound and surprising inspirations were coming from music. Like your experience, they were such eclectic, random pieces, yet they made a coherent whole and became special in what they told me. I get a real creative charge out of hosting these pieces and seeing what other writers have made.
It was wonderful to see how writing and music touch your life. I think no one is immune from the effects of either in some way. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Katie! Music really gets under the skin, doesn’t it? It makes suggestions. It makes me raise my game. I’m sure I’d be a lot less creative without it.
… Only genius hears the future calling … it’s true for music as well as words.
On a lighter note, at times, for days, while writing a scene, I hum a song, totally unconscious, until I ask myself, hey, what’s this tune?
Ashen, that’s interesting. Have you ever left the keyboard and gone to an instrument to explore further? I was house-sitting for a while and the owners had a piano. When I needed to think about what I’d written, I’d lift the piano lid and play. Trouble was, the hours could easily slip by.
My musical history was spoiled by the encounter of a choleric teacher. However, I’ve an Indian reed organ and, at times, practice a few meditative Sufi tunes. Following a mood, I sometimes improvise. The sounds re-arrange the atoms in my body, and yes, it’s easy (and lovely) to forget oneself. What remains is a spaciousness of mind into which fresh thoughts arrive.
Hi Roz: always music in our writing and I use it in every book…but…in my Greek story few people know that music. I mention the instrument and that sets off a few sounds and quote a few words…but the rest goes missing. I like it and feel the tears so maybe that’s good enough.
Always the music comes
Creativity creates creativity, I guess.
I’ve tried to play three instruments–guitar, piano, clarinet–with no success. But have, in writing life, been overtaken by music that seems to infuse every word of my own composition. Writing a novel whose hero was a Latino was made much easier by listening nonstop to Carlos Santana. I don’t understand the link except to say that listening to music seems to unlock the emotional mood and emotional power in the written word.
Kristin, I love this point about the emotional power. I feel that music holds a moment still, long enough that our slow brains can catch up with it and eventually figure out a way to communicate its essence.
I love the idea of Carlos Santana keeping you in character. Did you see the post here last week where Joanne Phillips talked about Morrissey’s influence on her characters and story?
Would it be indecent to mention that recent Russian work on how DNA ‘communicates’ and is altered is through waves close kin or in fact identical to sound. So the Buddhist mantras were based in deep cellular intuition of what course of mirrors above calls ‘rearranging the atoms’. What I find interesting is what seifxt refers to as the Greek ‘tears’ and Kristin Yates needed for her Latino, the national ‘cast’ to music which evokes place, character, history just through the shaping, beat, harmonies that are lodged deep in the cellular memories. Is that why music reaches deeper than words ever can?
Philippa, what you’re saying here reminds me of a programme on Radio 4 a few months ago. I think Robert Winston was exploring biological reasons why music holds such power, analysing it down to fundamentally pleasing harmonies and chords. We often agree on what is an essentially resolved or unresolved sound, what has tension and what has rest.
Truly full of awe. Full of wonder. In my very recent past I have started to tread, consciously, down this path. Philippa, thro her blog and the massive work in Involution – An Odyssey, has illuminated some more of the view from this path for me. Astonishingly exquisite views too. Half remembered almost; that may just be the point!
I’ve recently wondered how Spirit might communicate, thro DNA, planck or string theory (or other!). Philippa crystallises this for me, clears the water so to speak, whilst using such deeply resonant poetry. Truly reconciling Science to God and vice versa. I feel but a full-stop on a lost page in a novella manuscript. So, thank you.
Stuart, thanks for making the voyage from Philippa’s blog. Nice to meet you!
Philippa, you are as searingly honest as ever – and as ever, your honesty brings hope even in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances. Falling asleep now to the Beethoven – my love and thanks to its performer, as well as to you.
Will you and Roz forgive a link to a piece I wrote recently on why music and poetry speak to us in the way it does? If so, http://wp.me/p1u5Oe-hN. As true of ‘Involution’ as it is of anything else I have read.
Ben, nothing to forgive. Thank you for writing in the visitors’ book!
I love that point you make about ambiguity. Children are often fascinated by the sound of words, which seem to contain a meaning that is elemental and nothing to do with the dictionary definition. I always thought ‘November’ was one of these. ‘Hunter’ another. I can’t tell you what I thought they meant, beyond a feeling.
Who knows if all children have this, but I think artists (and here I include poets, writers and musicians) retain this instinct. I’ll often find my brain supplies me with a phrase that comes from the internal, primitive lexicon – what I feel a word should mean, or it will give me a word order that I like but will be nonsense as a sentence or phrase. Then I have to figure out how to translate that so that others can understand it too.
Hilary Mantel said it well in An Experiment In Love. Her schoolgirl narrator would read books whose content she didn’t understand, but which seemed to be ‘crawling with meaning’.
What’s this got to do with ambiguity? Only that words have a sonic power that is independent from their definition. The challenge of the sensitive writer is to align the two.
Thank you Ben for that link to an equally personal experience of Plath, and the simultaneously personal and universal Self. It merely makes me more aware of the danger of forgetting what your quote from Eldredge identifies as the central danger and Hopkins searingly identifies
Myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I truly feel overwhelmed by the comments offered here. Usually the web is not the place to spill the naked Self. The privilege is uncommon, but doubly precious for that,
Philippa, one of the things I value so much about The Undercover Soundtrack is that it releases writers to – as Andy Harrod put it – uncensor. After all, this is what we do when we talk to the page. Thanks for embracing the spirit of the series so completely – both in your post here and in the comments you leave on others.
I will shut up ( unless hugely provoked or inspired) after this. I have always wondered why so called subjective truth is never set against the certainty with which poets and musicians choose a word or a key, or a modulation knowing that its ‘subjectivity’ translates to others who will receive ie ‘get’ it. How does that emotional reaction remain ‘subjective’? Why do musicians recognize a heroic key, or a tragic one unless the shape of a scale translates to the most intimate ‘subjective’ truth, and therefore a deeper truth than any so called ‘objective’ one?
Forgive this intellectual demeaning of the points better made above.
I left a comment and it didn’t work. Trying again …
In the Indian scale every tone has a quality:
SA – dominating, belonging, secure
RE – longing, reaching out
GA – arrival, just
MA – uncertainty with longing
PA – voice response, been there all along, now you hear
DA – another movement, reaching out again
NI – anticipation, anxious, discovering beauty
SA – back again, but actually not, starting over
In my sequel to Course of Mirrors is a scene where a character uses the reed organ to aid the healing of an injured girl. I interpret the experience she has in her dreamlike state through the above qualities.
I’m glad you persevered, Ashen. I’d never seen that before. What an interesting idea.
Another try, through my notification page …
Glad you find the concept interesting.