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The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is short story writer, poet and novelist Adam Byatt @RevHappiness
Soundtrack by Solkyri
My collection of 10 short stories, Mount Pleasant, is based on the fourth album of Solkyri, from Sydney, Australia.
Solkyri is a four-piece post-rock band from Sydney, Australia, and the album, Mount Pleasant, was released in February 2020. The title comes from the name of the suburb where three of the band members grew up. As a name it no longer exists. The local council wiped its name to clear itself of the violence and dangerous youths inhabiting the space.
Nothing changed except the name.
What is post-rock?
Post-rock is a form of experimental rock music characterised by an exploration of textures and timbres, structures and forms, soundscapes and riffs, rather than a verse/chorus, verse/chorus structure typically found in rock songs. As a genre, post-rock has its own musical language, characterised by each band’s take on orchestration and instrumentation, sounds and timbres, textures and tempos, crescendos and decrescendos, aural assaults and contemplative space. The sonic textures of this album blend an unyielding energy and tender moments of intimacy. A prominent radio station in Sydney, Triple J, described it as “Beautiful yet precisely chaotic post-rock.”
So what does this mean for a writer?
As a music fan (I have followed Solkyri for years in Sydney) and writer I had wanted to write a series of narratives based on an instrumental album. The post-rock genre lends itself to a narrative connection because of its instrumental focus and wide-ranging scope of song structure. What sparked my interest in Solkyri’s album was the songs were inspired by the themes of deception, deceit and false facades. These themes were the foundation of how I interpreted the music and developed the core narrative focus of the chapbook.
When the band released the first track, Holding Pattern, in December 2019, I was hooked into the song’s angular and almost aggressive tone in the opening before it decrescendos into a simmering silence, like a held breath, then leads into a crushing crescendo. I wanted a narrative to have that same sense of movement. Based on the album’s cover art, an apartment building, I envisioned a young girl running laps as a metaphor for the cycles of poverty encountered in this suburb, examining the false façade of suburban life. I wanted the reader to imagine what it means to run, to be held within social strictures, and to be left behind.
The second track released was Pendock and Progress – one of my favourite tracks – named after two streets where the band grew up. It is a song propelled by the sense of a circular pattern created through the riffs that open and close the song to create a cycle. This sense of movement in the song lead to the image of a young boy riding his second-hand bike in the cul-de-sac (a dead-end street) where he lives, faced with a cycle of emotional poverty and physical aggression. The music is quite forceful and in-your-face so the content of the story has that same aggression, melded with reflective moments for the character to serve as a contrast.
The setting of the tracks became an important factor in developing a unified narrative built on the album’s themes of deception, deceit and false facades. The band originally come from Western Sydney characterised as a working-class area and an impoverished part of the city. As the first two stories written were set in 1990’s/early 2000’s suburbia, I interpreted the remaining songs to fit with the same context. They are an exploration of the facades, deception, and deceit within a broken suburban landscape, and of the individual as representative of a broader truth: we consciously and unconsciously live falsified versions of ourselves based on where we grew up, what we aspired to be, or move beyond, or embrace or reject, and deceive ourselves in the process.
Therefore I used the music of each track, and the band’s commentary, to suggest a narrative idea. For example, in Time Away, the band describe the song as an attempt of taking “time away” from all of the pitfalls of life but the escape is never found. The opening of this song has the drum track muted, all the top end rolled off so there is no sibilance in the hi hats, and it feels like a heartbeat. My vision for this story was the father of a family who get to go on a holiday to the Gold Coast only to come home and find out he has been retrenched. It’s his heartbeat I follow in the story and the impact of the deceitfulness of masculinity.
The album’s thematic focus is reflected in the intensity and aggression of the music, yet a contained anger at times, and the stories I wrote reflect that perspective as seen in Holding Pattern and Pendock & Progress. However, the album has shades of light and dark in the sonic textures and timbres. For example, Meet Me In the Meadow is a line from a Wes Anderson film according to the band. The film has a strong romantic undertone which is also felt in the music, particularly in the soft keyboard introduction that establishes the melody. It is almost whimsical and the narrative reflects that lighter tone. It is about a relationship between a girl and a boy, exploring the dynamics of adolescent sexuality but in contrast to the music’s lightness, it hints at the darker deceits and facades young people have to face.
Two tracks, Potemkin and Gueules Cassees, are inspired by historical events. Potemkin refers to the Potemkin village when Catherine the Great was visiting a village and a façade was erected to camouflage the poverty behind the newly painted scenes. Gueules Cassees is a French term meaning ‘broken faces’, given to ex-servicemen of World War 1 who returned home with disfigured faces due to bullet wounds and shrapnel.
It was a challenge to find a new suburban context in line with the historical references. Both songs are darker and more menacing in their timbres, and are the heaviest sounding songs on the album, so I used that energy to create narratives to explore a sense of anger and brutality that affronts each antagonist in their own way. Therefore, Potemkin is about a high school student who has to face the reality of where she lives, defined by the uniform she wears.
The music allowed me to explore a specific set of thematic concerns in my writing and to go deeper into the mindset of suburbia and how it shapes us, for better or for worse, our vulnerabilities and privileges, how we are shaped, and who shapes us. To this end, these stories are the lives of nameless individuals; they remain anonymous to create overlapping aspects of shared identity. They are everyone and no one, rather than a defined cast of characters in a non-linear arrangement. Mount Pleasant is inhabited by individuals who experience joy and laughter, doubt and confusion, fear and uncertainty, revelation and resurrection. These stories invite us, through the music and the narrative, to reflect on who we are now and ask us to investigate ourselves in relation to the pasts that may or may not have shaped us and the futures we wish to shape for ourselves.
Adam Byatt is a high school English teacher and wannabe drumming rock star, sifting through the ennui, minutiae and detritus of life and cataloguing them as potential story ideas. He describes his writing as ‘suburban realism’. He has had short stories and poems published in a variety of journals and anthologies. Adam is a founding member of The JAR Writers Collective with Jodi Cleghorn and Rus VanWestervelt. His debut novel, written with Jodi Cleghorn, is Post Marked Pipers Reach (2019) published by Vine Leaves Press. Find him on Facebook, his blog, Instagram and tweet him as @RevHappiness
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My guest this week was inspired by just one musical work – Mount Pleasant, an album that commemorates a vanished suburb of Sydney, Australia. However, the suburb didn’t vanish; the name was changed by the council in an attempt to erase its reputation for violence. But the people remained, and the environment with all its troubles. The members of Solkyri, a band who grew up there, set to capture Mount Pleasant old and new, and writer Adam Byatt found himself so moved by the tracks that he also created Mount Pleasant, in a set of 10 short stories. Music and stories, preserving a vanished place that never really vanished. He’ll be here later in the week to talk about it all.
If you’ve followed this series for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Drop by on Wednesday for her latest Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 Australian environmental fiction author Jennifer Scoullar @pilyara
I love an eclectic range of music – rock to folk to soul. But with my new novel Brumby’s Run, I was drawn to the music of the Australian outback. The novel is set amongst the hauntingly beautiful ghost gums and wild horses of the high country, and I wanted music that would bring me close to my setting.
Songs from the land
To begin with, I immersed myself in the music of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. This unique Aboriginal man sings songs about identity, spirit and connection with the land. Born blind, Gurrumul grew up as a member of the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, off the coast of tropical Arnhem Land. He speaks little English. His sound is an enigmatic contradiction, fragile but powerfully emotive and it affects me in a way no other artist does. The transcendental beauty of his voice was a perfect inspiration for writing about the wild Australian alps.
Music helped with characterisation too. One of my characters is an indigenous man named Bushy. Several songs allowed me to flesh him out – helped me picture him in my head. The first is Diamentina Drover. This song was written by Hugh McDonald of the band Redgum, and is a bush classic. While on a train ride up to Brisbane in Queensland, Hugh met an 80-year -ld man who explained how he had worked for 50 years as a drover on the Diamentina River, and he wrote this song about him. The second is Buffalo Bill by Sara Storer. Storer is a storyteller par excellence. Her songs paint a vivid and realistic portrait of life in the bush – a sweet country sound with a subtle steel in the lyrics. The simple but poignant words and melody of these two songs were perfect catalysts for my imagination.
Another character, a feisty young woman named Charlie, was partly inspired by KT Tunstall, in particular her song, Black Horse and a Cherry Tree. (Okay, I know … she’s Scottish) Tunstall says the song is about having to dig incredibly deep to find out who you really want to be – perfect for Charlie. I also love the acoustics and her super-gutsy performances.
Paul Kelly, Australia’s master singer-songwriter, was a constant soundtrack in the latter stages of the manuscript. Many wonderful Brumby welfare organisations are drawing attention to the plight of Australia’s wild horses. I’ve dedicated my book to them. Songs like Kelly’s From Little Things (Big Things Grow), capture the sense of this swelling grass roots movement. I’ve included a link to Archie Roach and Sara Storer doing a wonderful cover of this ballad. In addition I listened to a lot of songs about horses. To finish I’ve included a link to Natasha Bedingfield’s Wild Horses.
Jennifer Scoullar has always harboured a deep appreciation and respect for the natural world. She lives with her family on a property in the southern Victorian ranges. Her house is on a hill-top, overlooking valleys of messmate and mountain ash. Horses have always been her passion. She grew up on the books of Elyne Mitchell, and all her life she’s ridden and bred horses, in particular Australian Stock Horses. Her first published novel Wasp Season, is an environmental thriller. Her second published novel Brumby’s Run was released by Penguin Australia on July 2 2012. Jennifer is on Twitter as @pilyara
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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'