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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 my guest is UCLA tutor, Harold Ribelow Award nominee and professional psychic Rochelle Jewel Shapiro @RJShapiro
Soundtrack by Karen Siegel
What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. An exciting new publishing company, (Shebooks) gave me the opportunity to publish an ebook of three short works of my choice. I already had two stories that I was delighted with, but there was one in me that my bones, my guts, had needed to write for so long, and each time I started out, the ‘how’ of writing the story — its basic narrative, where to start, the climax, denouement—was like a balloon bobbing overhead with the string always out of reach, no matter how high I jumped.
I went to music as I often do for inspiration, direction. Writing lines of prose on a page or notes on a staff are hugely different, but have parallels—they begin, have a middle, and an end. There’s mood, pacing, breath stops. I played Chopin, Sousa, Wagner, nothing clicked. And then, in one of my procrastination bouts, I looked up a video of my daughter-in-law, Karen Siegel and her acapella composition Confessions from the Blogosphere, and had the eureka moment I had been hoping for.
Karen (the woman with the blue top in the video) holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MM (masters of music) in musical composition from NYU’s Steinhardt School where she studied with Marc Antonio Consoli, and a PhD in music composition from CUNY Graduate Center where she studied with Tania León. In this piece, she alternated and layered humorous excerpts from random blogs. Sometimes the text was set intact and homophonic—with the whole choir singing the same text at the same time, in a single rhythm — as in the opening statement, ‘I like Paris Hilton for real. Should I be ashamed?’ More often, a fragment of text was repeated in one or two voice parts at a time, offset against the same text in another voice part or voice parts, to create a rhythmic texture. This texture was frequently a backdrop for a melody in a single voice part. At other times, the rhythmic texture itself was the focal point. Altogether, it was like a cento, a poem made up of quotes, lines, phrases from others.
It occurred to me that neither Karen nor I had to have the total vision of what our creations were going to be. She used lines of dialogue gathered by different people. Bingo, I could write lines of dialogue from each of the characters I wanted in Secrets (the first and newest short story in What I Wish You’d Told Me, and see how it came together later, rather than trying to create order right away.
It made sense to me, even physically. I have a spot in my right eye that I need to see around. Sometimes it blots out the full picture of what I need to see, but somehow, my mind creates the whole of it. A study from John Hopkins University shows that when a person looks at a figure, a number, or letter, or any shape, neurons in other areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different parts of that shape, almost instantaneously interlocking them like a puzzle to create an image that sees and understands. I’m sure this is true for all of our senses.
In Secrets, a story set in the 60s about a teenage girl, Leah, whose illusions about her best friend, Arianna’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot, I began with a piece of dialogue from Arianna’s mother. ‘You ran him over!’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a dog. It was an old man.’ Arianna’s father counters with, ‘I wouldn’t have hit anything if you weren’t so drunk that I had to be the one to drive after I had a few.’
After pages of dialogue, some of which I got rid of in the end —’Kill your darlings,’ as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in his lectures On the Art of Writing — I was able to fill in the rest, and that was the secret of my writing Secrets.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in the Coe Review, Compass Rose, the Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, the Iowa Review, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Read more about her at her website. Find her on Twitter @RJShapiro
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My guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 my guest is a capella singer and debut author Paul Connolly @ACappellaPaul
Soundtrack by The Beatles, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys, Thomas Tallis, John Barry
The Fifth Voice is about the power of music and friendship, and the incredible influence both can have on our lives. The four main characters are struggling in various ways with what life has thrown at them (an illness, a betrayal, a bereavement, a mid-life crisis), but when they sing together none of that matters. Together they embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-healing, as they go in search of the mysterious and elusive Fifth Voice.
My very first memory is hearing Help! by The Beatles playing in an amusement arcade when I was just five. Listening to the song as an adult, I remember what it was like to feel happy and carefree as a child on holiday, being transported by music for the very first time. Coincidentally, John Lennon said he wrote the song at a time when he’d completely lost himself and was harking back to when he was much younger and everything in life was much simpler.
Aside from the obvious connection (four singers), The Beatles inspired The Fifth Voice by providing two of the protagonists, Vince and Danny, with the material for their opening dialogue, arguing about their favourite albums around a pub table. They don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to The Beatles, Vince referring to the Sergeant Pepper album as ‘a pile of over-contrived, trippy nonsense’. Danny hits back by informing his friend that ‘when Sergeant Pepper was released, Kenneth Tynan in The Times said it was a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization’. And so the tone is set for the emerging friendship between the two.
Oh, and there’s dance too
One of my own favourite albums is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, which features the song Ballerina. It’s a haunting evocation of a love unrequited, or perhaps broken in some way. Listening to it, I get a sense of fragility, of a man who is yearning for this perfect vision of a woman to be his. The fact that I was once married to a ballet dancer means that those feelings have the ring of truth, and both the song and my personal experience compelled me to include a character in the book who was once a ballet dancer.
Margaret, the mother of Neil (another of the quartet) is a smart, sensitive, worldly and compassionate lady of a certain age. She has suffered the loss of her eldest son, which both she and Neil are struggling to come to terms with. She has every right to be bitter, but instead she throws all her energies into looking after her husband and remaining son, helping local charities, and running a ballet class for the senior citizens of her village. In her early years she lived a rarefied and exotic life as a dancer in Paris and was, without doubt, held in as much esteem as the ballerina in Van Morrison’s achingly beautiful song.
Finding their voices
One of the first songs I learned to sing in four-part harmony was a Beach Boys medley featuring the ballad In My Room. It made a big impression on me, as the harmonies are delicate and easy, and yet powerfully moving. I had to make it the first song the quartet in The Fifth Voice sing together, the one that makes them and their assembled company realise that their voices blend beautifully and that they could have a future as a quartet.
The song doesn’t always serve them well, however. When Ken, their eccentric vocal coach and mentor, invites them to explain what the song is about, Vince suggests ‘a bloke in a room’. Frustrated by his lack of imagination, Ken replies
Well, that certainly explains things. From the way you sang just now, I’d guess that the room is painted entirely white. Featureless. And I’d say that the bloke in question is probably wearing a straitjacket, that the walls are padded, and that the door is heavily bolted from the outside.
The book is about the search for harmony, not just in the musical sense. Ken inspires the quartet to discover a curious vocal technique called The Fifth Voice, which has the promise to deliver a prize much greater than anything they can imagine.
This idea was inspired in part by listening to harmonies on a grand scale, in the form of Spem In Alium, a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis. Composed in the 16th century for eight choirs of five voices each, this majestic piece is mind-blowing in its complexity and beauty, and no wonder it is widely considered to be the greatest piece of English early music.
A piece of orchestral music I return to often is The Beyondness of Things by John Barry. Barry’s late signature sound of richly textured strings and reflective, romantic melodies has a wooing effect, and I find myself drifting away whenever I listen to this piece. But it also delivers a genuine sense of beyondness, of there being more to life than the here and now. And that’s the essence of what The Fifth Voice is about. Listening to Barry helped set the tone for the metaphysical aspects of the story, as when Ken first tells the quartet about The Fifth Voice:
Listen to a top quartet ringing chords, and the room will fill with harmonic overtones. And at a purely physical level, you could say that those harmonic overtones are themselves an independent voice. A fifth voice, so to speak. But that’s only part of the story. Any competent quartet can create a fifth voice, but very few find The Fifth Voice. That’s something that goes beyond the physical. Something that comes from inside each of you. Something you have to search for.
Paul Connolly was born and brought up in Liverpool. After studying biology at Manchester University he worked for many years as a technical author in the computer industry, the foundation of his writing career. Paul sings bass with award-winning a cappella group The Royal Harmonics, which provided the inspiration for his debut novel, The Fifth Voice. He lives in Berkshire, visits Lundy Island as often as possible, supports Everton FC, and has a grown-up daughter. He is currently working on the sequel to The Fifth Voice, and you can connect with him at www.paulconnollyauthor.com and on Twitter @ACappellaPaul. The Fifth Voice is available as a paperback and ebook.
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My guest this week is another writer with music in his very bones. His novel features four friends who keep their troubled lives on an even keel by singing in a quartet, and is inspired by his own experiences singing bass with an an award-winning capella group. In the novel, his characters are in search of a state of harmony called The Fifth Voice, where all the hearts and minds are playing as one entity. He is Paul Connolly and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
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Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
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Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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