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 an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke
When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.
When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.
All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.
I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.
Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.
But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.
But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.
The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.
But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.
And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.
And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.
I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.
(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).
If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.
I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.
I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.
For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.
In particular, I remember a moment of revelation – a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.
It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.
Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.
The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.
I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.
I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.
Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.
But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.
It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.
The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller