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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27
Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives
Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.
Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.
The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.
I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.
Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.
I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.
Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.
Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.
Find their space
While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’
Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.
I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.
The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:
No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’
She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:
Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’
I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.
I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.
Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.
When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.
It appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.
But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.
Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27