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’s post is by Leonora Meriel @leonora_meriel
Soundtrack by JS Bach, Debussy, Sofia Rotaru, Rodnya Ensemble, Ukrainian Folk Choir, Emil Krupnik
The Woman Behind the Waterfall is the story of three generations of women in a Ukrainian village. The mother, Lyuda, cannot escape the belief that she has got everything wrong in her life, and yet her seven-year-old daughter Angela challenges that belief every day. The novel covers choices and mistakes and consequences and childhood, set against the background of a Ukrainian springtime.
The writing of the novel happened in several different ways. Some I wrote as pure emotion. Some came from images I held of the Ukrainian countryside, and I wrote as a painter, working to describe the landscape with all the sensory elements, just as I had experienced it at the time. Other parts I wrote with mental purpose, seeking a way to portray an aspect of Ukrainian life in a scene that carried the story forward.
These internal and external methods of writing demanded their own music, and I developed a set of pieces that would take me to the places where I could create what was demanding to be written.
The piece of music which was listened to the most is the well known and loved Cantata 147 by Bach: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. I am not a musician, and yet this music seems to me utterly perfect. The notes and melody are so contained and precise. They hold their beauty and passion with such poise that for me, it amplifies the love and grief and heartbreak that I hear in them, and that guided me to write the character of Lyuda, who struggles to lift herself out of her sadness for the sake of her daughter, and is constantly drawn back into her guilt and self-blame.
In my second novel, The Unity Game, a speculative sci-fi tale set in Manhattan, a distant planet and the afterlife, I tried to express this idea, when one of the characters finds himself in a garden, shortly after his death:
It was as if he were listening to the most exquisite piece of music which had never been written, but was being played, somehow, because the notes, in their creation, had contained the possibility of that music within them.’
My other classical muse was Debussy. The Ukraine I set out to portray in The Woman Behind the Waterfall was the rich countryside of western Ukraine in the regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Bukovyna and the pre-Carpathians. These areas are breathtakingly beautiful and lush. They are wild and untameable and terrifyingly fertile. They are more green than you could imagine was possible and in spring, everything is growing around you from the famous ‘chorniy zemlya’ – black earth. I found that Debussy’s passionate, wild yet dream-like music reflected these scenes for me. They are sensual and surreal and beautiful, just like the spring countryside, where every sense is filled and filled – intense smells, animal and village sounds all around, colour everywhere, the heat on skin.
For my ‘mental purpose’ writing, I listened to Ukrainian folk music to write about the three generations of women, and about life in the Ukrainian village. The joy and fun of the music and focus on nature reminded me of how Ukrainians love to party – to drink, dance, laugh, sing – and this is significant in my novel as Lyuda, the mother, has trapped herself in a private world of depression away from all this happiness.
The song Chervona Ruta, sung here by Sofia Rotaru, refers to a legend which is featured in The Woman Behind the Waterfall – the night of Ivan Kupala. On this midsummer celebration, unmarried girls go through rituals to predict and attract their future husbands, including leaping over village fires and plaiting their hair in special ways. According to legend, the ‘ruta’ or rue flower, which is usually yellow, turns red for a short time on the night of Ivan Kupala, and any girl who finds the red flower will be happy in her love.
‘Shanson’ music helped me to tap into the male characters in the novel, especially when I had to write about their choices and how they would approach a situation. Shanson can be described as Soviet prison music, and usually involves one or two men growling into a microphone with a guitar, accordion and sometimes drums to accompany them. Every taxi driver in Ukraine listens to Shanson UA and it goes perfectly with driving in a country where life is hard and unpredictable. It is angry and heart-breaking and rough and cruel. Here is an example of a Ukrainian artist Emil Krupnik singing Murka.
Ukraine has an incredibly interesting culture. If any readers have been tempted by this piece, I would urge them to go and visit this wonderful and always surprising country. If time and money are limited, you could read about the western part in The Woman Behind the Waterfall.
Leonora Meriel grew up in London and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh and Queen’s University, Ontario. She worked at the United Nations in New York, and then for a law firm. In 2003 she moved to Kyiv, where she founded Ukraine’s largest internet company. She learned to speak Ukrainian and Russian, witnessed two revolutions and got to know an extraordinary country at a key period of its development. In 2008, she returned to her dream of being a writer, and completed The Woman Behind the Waterfall, set in a village in western Ukraine, published in 2016. Her second book, The Unity Game was released in May 2017. Find her on her website, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter as @leonora_meriel