Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Teresa Frohock

‘Music is a trigger that lets me see a living person in my mind’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by dark fantasy author Teresa Frohock  @TeresaFrohock

Soundtrack by Loreena McKennitt

My first step in writing has always been the compilation of a soundtrack. I look for music that conveys a mood and brings to mind a character’s essence, a trigger if you will, that makes me see a living person in my mind. I’ve loved Loreena McKennitt’s music from the first time I heard All Souls Night from her CD The Visit. Her music was a perfect fit for the ethereal mood I wanted to create for my novel Miserere, and its soundtrack was comprised entirely of her work.

Breaking free

There were three songs in particular that I used for my main characters. Lucian’s song was The Mystic’s Dream. At the beginning of the piece, men’s voices create the atmosphere and bring to mind Eastern Orthodox churches. The chant builds to become more intense as McKennitt’s voice rises to take control of the arrangement. She carries the song away from the men and pushes the notes forward without looking back.

Whenever I played The Mystic’s Dream I could see Lucian, determined to break free of his situation in spite of his fear. The lyrics, “Clutched by the still of the night / And now I feel you move / Every breath is full / So it’s there my homage’s due / Clutched by the still of the night / Even the distance feels so near / All for the love of you,” encapsulate everything about Lucian’s love for Rachael. By the end of the song, I can see Lucian standing on a precipice, looking over the Wasteland, triumphant that he has made a beginning, however slight, to take his fate into his own hands and find his way home.

Sorrow, longing and defiance

For Rachael and Catarina, I used two songs from the Elemental CD. Rachael’s song was Kellswater. The lyrics aren’t as meaningful to me as the way the song is arranged and how the music makes me feel. I’ve always been able to tune out the words and hear McKennitt’s voice as if it is another instrument. Kellswater is a lonely song, full of sorrow and longing for a love that was, and for a love lost. Yet McKennitt sings the song with a quiet determination and a hint of defiance that makes it perfect for Rachael.

Catarina has none of Rachael’s regrets. Catarina’s scenes and a few of Lucian’s were written to Lullaby in which Douglas Campbell recites Blake’s poem Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth. The piece opens with the sound of thunder in the background, then McKennitt’s voice floats in beneath the storm with a haunting lullaby that gains prominence only to recede and give way to Campbell’s throaty recitation of Blake’s poem. I could see Catarina, humming the tune with a voice bright as summer sky, her beauty transfixed before the frightful storm of her madness.

Campbell begins the monologue softly, but his voice gains fury with every word until, like the storm, the violent imagery grows to tumultuous proportions. All the while, McKennitt’s rhythmic lullaby is in the background, distant as a memory, simultaneously soothing and disconnected to the carnage evoked by Blake’s poem.

Contrasts and hopes

As the last syllables fade, there is once more the sound of the storm and McKennitt’s voice rises over the thunder before the music fades. You can’t listen to the piece without feeling Campbell’s voice roll through your bones. With the final note, I knew I had Lucian, Catarina, and Rachael—their contrasts and their hopes all enveloped in one song. I saw Woerld and the battles fought and won and lost in their never-ending war against the Fallen.

Music will distract me when I’m writing, so I create a soundtrack and listen to it as I work out or surf the net for images. The music becomes background noise that somehow frees my imagination and inspires me to creativity. McKennitt’s music was the perfect accompaniment to Miserere and never failed to take me to that perfect Zen state where I could see my characters and hear their stories.

Raised in a small town, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction in her local library. She now lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Miserere: An Autumn Tale is her debut novel. Every now and then, she heads over to Tumblr and sends out Dark Thoughts, links to movies and reviews that catch her eye. You can also follow Teresa on Twitter @TeresaFrohock and join her author page on Facebook.

My Memories of a Future Life · podcast · Q2 Music

Scoring the novel as it unfolds – the undercover soundtrack

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.

Q2 Music streamed a live performance from the Guggenheim in April of the Wordless Music Orchestra performing UK composer Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic." Photo: Q2 Music

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.

The unexpected

In the Guggenheim "Titanic" performance, musicians were positioned at remote points along the Guggenheim's famous spiraling ramp. Photo: Q2 Music

‘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.’

Music is a debate

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

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle and in print

Update: the lady herself is reading this blog… 

Audrey Niffenegger · My Memories of a Future Life · piano · podcast · serialised fiction · The time Traveller' sWife

Like Ruby – Episode 3 nearly here

‘Compelling, well told and hugely entertaining’

‘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.

You can find episode 1 here, episode 2 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here


Audrey Niffenegger · My Memories of a Future Life · piano · podcast · serialised fiction · The time Traveller' sWife

Rachmaninov and Ruin – episode 2 up tomorrow

Written like a poet, with the depth of a well-glazed canvas Terre Britton on Twitter

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.

So Episode 2, Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight tonight. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here

Have fun, and wear your white gloves

My Memories of a Future Life · podcast

Download free audio of the first 4 chapters

You can listen to the first four chapters right now!

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