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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’s post is by novelist, screenplay writer and writing teacher Chris Cander @ChrisCander
Soundtrack by Slaid Cleaves, Miles Davis, Alexander Scriabin
Though I’m a writer of prose, it’s music that seems to me the most transcendent art form. Music casts a collective spell that detaches listeners from the tangible world and encourages a sort of free fall of emotional experience that doesn’t require words to be passionately felt. Yet being so moved beyond words can also inspire the use of them. In each of my novels, music informs some key aspect.
I had only just begun work on Whisper Hollow, which is set in a fictional coal mining town in the early 1900s and follows the intertwining lives of three women, when I heard the song Lydia by Karen Posten and covered by Slaid Cleaves. It’s an Appalachian tale of a widowed woman who has lost two of her loved ones to the coal mines of Virginia. It’s so moody and evocative that it influenced the way I imagined my character Alta, who lost her son, husband, and lover in the fatal mine explosion that divides the book into its two parts. I remember listening to it over and over, letting the sadness seep in until I, too, was grief stricken.
Though I’ve incorporated music into all my novels, this was the first time that nearly every line of a song impacted the story in some way. In the song, the eponymous Lydia, full of melancholy, sits down one day in the place where she lives alone, and is carried away by the memories of her first-born and his father. Listening to it, I could see Alta sitting alone in her cabin, numb with a similar loss, exactly one month after the accident. That image became the chapter titled November 7, 1950. It was because of these lyrics that she tried smoking the cigarette that her aunt had given her decades before, that she imagined the weeds growing atop the graves of her loved ones, and that she, like the song’s character, never was the same.
But I couldn’t leave Alta to suffer that kind of ache for the rest of her life—and the rest of the book—without something to mitigate it. And so I created the young woman named Lydia whose life parallels Alta’s in some significant ways and whose friendship enables Alta finally to begin to heal.
Two seconds and two-hundred-and-forty pages
In my novel 11 Stories, the story opens on the protagonist Roscoe Jones standing on the roof edge playing Yesterdays (composed by Jerome Kern in 1933) on his trumpet in the style of Miles Davis. He is serenading the newly released spirit of the woman he loved in secret for 50 years; it will be the final few moments of his life.
I’ve always loved Miles Davis for his music and his peculiar temperament, and this piece — which I hear as elegiac and keening, an ode to both love and solitude — was perfect for Roscoe. Normally I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but as I wrote this opening scene, I looped Yesterdays so that the mood of it might land on the page:
Windows opened beneath him and people looked around for the source. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, mingled as it was with the sounds of street traffic and the machinery of urban dwellings. But because the air was dry, “Yesterdays” cut through it more clearly than it otherwise would have, and by the time Roscoe was descending chromatically through the final melodic phrases – G, F C, D E, and E, E, E – there was an audience of fifty people at least, or a hundred, or maybe more.
He held that last E as long as he could, until his breath was nearly gone, and then his soul slammed back into his old body so hard it seemed to jostle him a little, and he became aware of the sound of clapping and even a few whistles which grew louder but didn’t displace the purity of that last E.”
In the next breath, Roscoe falls off that roof, and for the duration of his two-second and 240-page fall, time slows, and Roscoe’s history unfolds in tune with the energy of that final note.
So that you may hear what it is that I see
In my new book The Weight of a Piano (which my agent will begin shopping this week) music is secondary to the instrument, but there is one piece that plays like a soundtrack to the story and links its two narratives: Alexander Scriabin’s frenetic, colorful Prelude No 14 in E-flat minor. I wanted a piece that might have been a favorite of the Russian concert pianist who first owned the eponymous piano, and was also unusual enough to charge a moment when it is recognized by another character years later.
There was something serendipitous about this piece that I didn’t realize until after I’d chosen it. One of my characters, the son of the original piano owner, is a photographer who describes his purpose in taking pictures as ‘so that you may hear what it is that I see’. I hadn’t known when I gave him this trait of chromaesthesia (a form of synesthesia in which sounds translate as colors) that Scriabin was also a chromaesthete. Discovering that minor coincidence at a time when I was feeling pessimistic about the novel (it happens more often that I care to admit) gave me a dose of optimism that recurred each time I mentioned the Prelude in the story.
I find it interesting how important and prevalent music is in my books, because the only musical talent I have is the ability to appreciate it. In life and in fiction, I try to follow Hafiz’s recommendation: ‘Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive’.
Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, screenplay writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013. Her most recent novel is Whisper Hollow, published by Other Press. Her website is here, tweet her as @ChrisCander, and find her on Facebook.
11 Stories, Alexander Scriabin, bereavement, character, Chris Cander, dying thoughts, grief, Karen Posten, Kirkus, Miles Davis, music for writers, music for writing, Other Press, screenplay writer, Slaid Cleaves, The Undercover Soundtrack, The Weight of a Piano, undercover soundtrack, Whisper Hollow, widowhood
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Tom Bradley
Soundtrack by Alexander Scriabin
My current book (Family Romance) and my next (We’ll See Who Seduces Whom) are ekphrases. Ekphrasis is by definition synaesthetic: two or more art forms, under the aegides of disparate sense organs, mutually interpenetrate. And who is the greatest synaesthete of post-antiquity? Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin.
Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom are explicitly Scriabinesque in their merging of visuals and verbals. In both books I have accepted the challenge posed by stacks of preexisting art. Nick Patterson is my collaborator in the former book, David Aronson in the latter. Their pictures came first, and I made the fiction and poetry, respectively, around them.
My method was derived explicitly from Scriabin’s unfinished monstrosity: the Mysterium. It’s a week-long rite, an apocalyptic liturgy of ‘omni-art’ that absorbs and dissolves the entire sensorium: not just the visual, but auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and even the famous ‘sixth sense’ of the Buddhists, comprising manas and dharma. My particular art form, literary, can be said to engage the sixth sense most directly.
While our books are contained between covers, Scriabin’s Mysterium requires an entire gorge in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s meant to be celebrated in a strangely protean cathedral, built expressly for the occasion. This edifice will writhe and swell like a transcendent amoeba. Scriabin says: ‘…it will not be constructed of one single type of stone, but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium’. The architecture is made malleable with psychoactive aerosols and the rhythmic projection of colors by a tastiera per luce, or ‘keyboard of lights’. (Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 are here.)
Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom are less labor intensive and don’t require such a large budget, but the idea is the same: what corresponds to brick and mortar in a printed work becomes protoplasmic as Scriabin’s venue. The illustrations of Nick Patterson and David Aronson, while divergent in style, share this shape-shifting quality. Though static in the literal sense, the longer these images are stared at, the more motion they communicate. It’s only natural to intermingle them with prose and poetry: those two contrivances that traverse time and space more efficiently, and violate solidity more contemptuously, than any other human inventions.
Part of Debra Di Blasi’s program at her great synaesthetical Jaded Ibis Press is to add a soundtrack to each of the books she publishes. I am recommending she make our track Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, for he just happens, by coincidence, to have written the perfect music to help me encompass my job of explaining how the Pattersonian and Aronsonian bizarreries came to be juxtaposed.
If Scriabin is the inner ear of our books, he comprises the entire central nervous system of the Mysterium. Cast in the role of Celebrant, he is seated at his grand piano in the very apse of the gaseous temple, directing what sounds like an orchestra of thousands. They are playing the strangest, most terrifyingly delirious music. A gigantic brace of mixed antiphonal choirs produce a roar without words, identified spontaneously in my mind with certain moiling mobs who stomp through Nick Patterson’s paintings: grotesqueries with shoulder teeth, problematic crotches, and ostrich legs.
Physiologically peculiar choristers
I came to call these physiologically peculiar choristers, these inarticulate roarers, the Relic Amalekites. You might recall from the first book of Samuel the penalty of genocide having been declared upon their remote ancestors by Jehovah. Their vocalizations are often washed away as by a current of God-cursed blood, so I have placed the Relic Amalekites’ home turf — or, rather, home sand–on the banks of a river. When you listen to the Mysterium, you will understand why this waterway could only be called the Judeuphrates.
But from whose simultaneously super- and subhuman larynx issues the single voice that comes stabbing through the rout of Relic Amalekites? It’s a horrifically sublime soprano soloist, also unendowed with the capability of human speech. I knew, of course, that she could only be the aural counterpart of the naked woman who haunts so many of our books’ illustrations: a terrifying creature writhing and hemorrhaging across the pages.
I made her into the Kali-Avatar, the Tantric Initiatrix: sinister, ravenous, erotic Mom. Nude and protean, Mom often indulges a compulsion to mount other creatures and characters in Family Romance. She feeds her spawn a jejune diet consisting solely of psychoactive mushrooms, in a eucharistic shamanism answering to the entheogenically tinctured mists that cause the walls and niches of the Mysterium cathedral to undulate among the Himalayan foothils like a unicellular protozoon.
Meanwhile, bells the size of yacht hulls, alloyed of platinum and electrum, are hung from cumulonimbic clouds that swell among the oozing cathedral’s corbelled vaults. These clouds are engendered and seeded by entire metric tons of cinnamon and sandalwood, benzoin and mace, storax and galbanum, combusting in boundless bonfires and wafting over the attending multitudes. In their simultaneous week-long orgasm, Scriabin’s spectators and performers gradually become cloudlike themselves, indistinguishable one from another.
At this late point in my writing it became useful to supplement the Mysterium with another orchestral work, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire. Scriabin actually managed to finish this piece before he died, so it was consulted in the concoction of the climaxes and denouements of our Family Romance and We’ll See Who Seduces Whom.
Up until the last chapters everything has been imbued with the famous Mystic Chord: C F# Bb E A D. All has been derived from iterations and inversions of this quartile pitch set, in endless permutations and combinations. Prometheus: The Poem of Fire miraculously, through a heroic act of will and faith on Scriabin’s part, draws the dissonance into a stable minor triad: F-sharp. This sonic normalcy rings out at the final moment, when Scriabin’s commixed congregation and clergy are atomized in the perfumed clouds and drugged mists.
The promethean mystery has popped its climax: nothing less than the annihilation of humanity and the engendering of a more vigorous race of beings from the primordial soup condensed in puddles among the cathedral cobbles. This corresponds perfectly to the moment, on the last page of Family Romance, where just such an extinction and transfiguration takes place within the consciousness of our protagonist. Nick Patterson depicts him as a blindfolded poet with huge hands, sweeping the strangest hieroglyphs upon a scroll that unfurls, roaring like a tidal wave. Scriabin can be sensed in that oglable roar.
Tom Bradley is the author, most recently, of Felicia’s Nose (MadHat Press), A Pleasure Jaunt With One of the Sex Workers Who Don’t Exist in the People’s Republic of China (Neopoiesis Press), Even the Dog Won’t Touch Me (Ahadada Press), Hemorrhaging Slave of an Obese Eunuch (Dog Horn Publishing), My Hands Were Clean (Unlikely Books) and Put It Down in a Book (The Drill Press), which was named 3:AM Magazine‘s Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2009. His next novel, with secret title and hidden nature, illustrated by the alchemical artist David Aronson, is coming next year from the occult publisher Mandrake of Oxford. He’s also a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Further curiosity can be indulged here.
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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.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
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
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. 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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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'