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If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.
In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.
Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.
I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.
He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.
Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.
‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.
Sweet enjoyment in the abyss
By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.
‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’
Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’
All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.
The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics – is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.
A magnifying glass for the truth
For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.
As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’
Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com
Update: the lady herself is reading this blog…
‘Beautiful, simple, evocative’
‘Delves into the dangerous powers of mind over matter’
‘Part 2 was even better than part 1’ – Andrew Rollings, Facebook
‘Is it the 12th yet?’ Rebecca Allan, Facebook
‘What do I have to do to get parts 3 and 4 NOW?!’ Matt Kelland, Facebook
Tomorrow. Or just a few ticks after midnight, you can download episode 3, Like Ruby.
Damn you can write well!! Didn’t look up once on my hour-long bus ride home! Amanda Glass-Watson, Facebook
I ended up reading it through in one sitting and found myself wanting immediately to know what happened next upon reaching the end of the episode. Andrew Rollings, Amazon review
Roll on September 5 and Episode #2 Matt Kelland, Amazon review
It’s been a heady week, letting my book fend for itself in the wilds at long last. And not a little nail-biting. I can’t tell you how delighted I am by the postive vibes you’ve been sending me, in comments, tweets, blog mentions, emails and reviews. Thank you.
My idea to release the novel as four episodes attracted the attention of a publisher… because they’d been cooking up the same idea. We had a good laugh about great minds thinking alike and decided to celebrate with a joint post on their blog. My novel also had a spot on Dorothy Dreyer’s blog We Do Write, where she asked about my inspirations, what part of the writing was easiest and what was hardest.
Have fun, and wear your white gloves
Download now – this link will take you to a google Docs page and you can download the MP3. file size is 12MB.
If that file is too big, there’s a more compressed version here, but the sound quality isn’t as good. Try the other one first!
You can also stream it here at Soundcloud:
Special thanks to Barry Brimer at BeOriginal.com for masterful file compression and for bringing the text alive with footsteps, thunderstorms, passing trains and a soupcon of piano. If you need a sound file sweetened (as they call it in the trade), he’s your guy.
Where to buy My Memories of a Future Life