Posts Tagged Bach
My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 novelist and screenwriter Michael Golding
Soundtrack by Bach, Sufi Music of the Dervishes, Joni Mitchell, Henryk Gorecki, Laura Nyro, Billy Child
I’ve always been a writer who needs silence to write. Even when I’m at home, alone, I close the door to my study and slip on my trusty Bose sound-cancelling headphones. The gentle whoosh provides a background against which the sounds of the world of my novel can come alive. In the case of my most recent work, A Poet of the Invisible World, those sounds were the sounds of 13th century Persia, Spain, and North Africa — all the more reason for me to block out all signs of the 21st century.
But I can also bring quiet to my mind by listening to music. And nothing works better than the brilliant, textured sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I hear The Goldberg Variations or The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, the chaos in my head begins to recede. When I listen to The Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for Violin — my recording of choice is Henryk Szeryng’s 1954 version—the fury in my heart takes on new meaning. Bach brings order. Clarity. Calm. A few pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier and I’m ready to plunge into my fictional world.
I often listen to music while I commute from my home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to the college where I teach, about an hour’s drive each way. And in order to will myself into the world of the Nouri—the four-eared protagonist of A Poet of the Invisible World, who at an early age is orphaned and taken into a Sufi order—I would listen to an album called Sufi: The Music of the Dervishes. Its undulating ney evoked the mystery of another time and place. Its sinuous rhythms allowed a host of exotic images to rise up.
Anthem for a wandering spirit
One of the main sources of inspiration for my novel was more contemporary. For while the spiritual path doesn’t require the traveler to actually leave home — think of Emily Dickinson, who covered vast inner distances without leaving her family home in Amherst — Nouri’s path takes him on a long, arduous journey, and no one writes better about the road than Joni Mitchell. All I Want, from her album Blue, is the anthem of the wandering spirit. And Hejira, one of my favorite albums, is filled with deep observations about what it means to head off in search of the truth. Both of these albums are part of the soundtrack of my life. And they both helped Nouri along his way.
There are moments in the novel when Nouri experiences great suffering. In the third section of the book, after a particularly harrowing experience, his heart has sealed tight. He feels raw. He feels numb. While writing this section, there were times when I could barely lift my pen to face Nouri’s pain. A pathway in was Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Like most people, I love the 1991 recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring the rich, plaintive singing of Dawn Upshaw. The deep, mournful urgency of Gorecki’s music evoked the state of sorrow I imagined Nouri to be in.
Immediacy and passion
Another inspiration was the music of Laura Nyro. A constant companion throughout my life, her work has an immediacy and passion I find thrilling. Songs like Timer and Gibsom Street and Sweet Lovin’ Baby always take me to a particular place inside myself, where feelings are naked and words have the power to surprise. In addition to Nyro’s trio of iconic albums — Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat—I also listened to Billy Childs’ recent tribute album called Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Jazz-tinged and eclectic, it showcases artists like Renee Fleming, Yo Yo Ma, and Ricki Lee Jones offering their takes on Nyro’s haunting songs. Childs feels like a kindred spirit when his piano urges its way into her riffs and sudden time-signature changes. When I want to tear open the doors of my heart — and Nouri’s journey required me to do that many times — Laura Nyro is always there to lend a hand.
Michael Golding’s first novel, Simple Prayers, was published in 1994 and has been translated into nine foreign languages. Benjamin’s Gift, his second novel, was published in 1999. He is also a screenwriter, whose works include the adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s Silk. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California. A Poet of the Invisible World is his latest novel, published by Picador, and you can contact him at his website.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 creative writing tutor, Patron of Reading, WoMentoring mentor, National Trust writer in residence and – phew – novelist Rhian Ivory @Rhian_Ivory
Soundtrack by Bach, Bastille, Imagine Dragons, Samuel Barber
The Boy Who Drew The Future is about Noah and Blaze, who live in the same village over 100 years apart. But the two teenage boys are linked by a river and a strange gift: they both compulsively draw images they don’t understand, that later come true. They can draw the future. In the 1860s, Blaze is alone after his mother’s death, dependent on the kindness of the villagers, who all distrust his gift as witchcraft but still want him to predict the future for them. When they don’t like what he draws, life gets very dangerous for him. In the present, Noah comes to the village for a new start. His parents are desperate for him to be ‘normal’ after all the trouble they’ve had in the past. He makes a friend, Beth, but as with Blaze the strangeness of his drawings start to turn people against him and things get very threatening.
I have used music throughout when writing The Boy who Drew the Future but I’ve also gone beyond that and used music as a gateway into my character’s minds and psyches rather than creating a playlist to write to as I’ve done in other novels. I guess you could call it method music writing much like method acting.
Although my character Beth plays the piano she also listens to cello music a lot and her favourite cellist are Yo Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré and Han na Chang. She will start cello lessons once she’s passed her final grade on the piano, this is something she’s put off, she’s nervous about trying to play the cello whereas the piano comes easily to her. The sounds the cello make express her emotions so perfectly and capture the essence of Beth better than any description could. When I wrote any scenes with Beth in I would begin by listening to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 – Prelude as it would lead me into her heart. I could feel the vibrations and that rising end note echoing a sense of hope for me which is intrinsic and essential in her character development. When writing I would picture Beth lying on a rug in her room listening to Bach whilst making notes for school, doing her homework or daydreaming about her own compositions. As Beth is a musician it is easier to imagine I am Beth through the music, it allows me a window into her soul, giving me the ability to visualize, understand and channel her character through the way in which she responds to music.
Private and fragile
I’ve always had such a strong connection with this piece of music and knew that when I pictured Beth upset she would turn to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings arranged for the piano. I have a scene in the book where she is playing this piece of music in tears safe in the knowledge that she is alone in the house and can allow the music to move her without feeling self-conscious or embarrassed. Because of the emotions this piece of music creates I’ve always viewed it as very private and fragile. Strings have the ability to build to such a crescendo pulling the listener deeply into the mood and tone of the piece in a delicate and passionate manner.
The term heartbreaking springs to mind and it is no wonder that this powerful and dramatic piece of music has been used as the soundtrack to many films such as Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Elephant Man and Amelie. It is tender and gentle but all-encompassing which is how Beth feels, emotions that are too big for her to hold inside and feelings that go beyond the scope of her normal life and world. When she meets Noah everything changes for her, she knows that she is about to go on an epic journey with this new person in her life and has to show him the right way forward before things fall apart.
The music builds in a huge arc that climbs until it reaches its peak much like her emotions and then falls off into a quiet sense of knowing making the sound of Beth’s acceptance of her feelings for Noah and the dangerous consequences as a result which she cannot fully comprehend yet. Adagio for Strings underlines this sense of knowing, a fatal sense of knowing that you have to follow this arc, this melody as it climbs ever higher and stronger, no matter where it may lead you.
A damaged soul
Interestingly when I wrote Noah and Blaze’s (Blaze’s chapters are set in 1865) scenes I turned to contemporary music such as Bastille. The track Flaws felt as if it had been written for Noah, the lyrics told his story so beautifully that I would listen to it over and over whilst writing his scenes. I particularly liked the acoustic version because it was stripped back and allowed me to focus intently on the lyrics. The song speaks of a damaged soul, an emptiness that can’t be filled which perfectly captures what it feels like to be alone in the world, or think that you are alone and that you won’t be able to find your way, you won’t be able to get on the right path. Noah is lost, deeply flawed and tries to hide these flaws but fails. The lyrics talk about one person wearing their flaws on their sleeve which is Beth and another person burying their flaws deep beneath the ground which is Noah and Blaze.
When I first heard Radioactive by Imagine Dragons I didn’t necessarily associate it with Noah but the more I delved into his character the more I came to realise that this song is his song. He feels he is radioactive and everything he touches turns to dust, ash and dust. He is a chemical explosion waiting to detonate and destroy everything around him. He is the apocalypse and doesn’t want to let Beth in because he is simply too dangerous to be around. The relentless beat and bass of this song felt like his heartbeat, when I was writing fast paced scenes like the one in the Workhouse I tuned in to the rhythm of this song in particular and the way in which it builds packing a real punch in the dark of the workhouse tunnels. I used The Workhouse at Southwell and Calke Abbey’s tunnels to set this scene, visiting these places so that when I played the music at home they were connected in my memory. The quality of sound in the tunnel made me want to listen to this song acoustically. The clarity of the guitar is sharper and clearer in this version, you can really hear the harmonies of the singers making it feel closer and more intimate. This is exactly how I wanted the characters’ voices to feel in the tunnel as the drama unfolds, up close and personal.
Rhian Ivory was born in Swansea, Wales, and studied English Literature at Aberystwyth. She trained as a drama and English teacher and wrote her first novel during her first few years in teaching. She got her first publishing deal at 26 and went on to write three more novels for Bloomsbury. She took a break to have three children and during this time taught creative writing and also a children’s literature course for the Open University. The Boy who drew the Future is her fifth novel and she’s recently finished writing her sixth. Rhian is a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and a National Trust writer in residence, working most recently with Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire. She lives in Northamptonshire with her family and far too many dogs. Tweet her on @Rhian_Ivory and find her on Facebook.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a regular series where 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 guest is psychological thriller author AJ Waines @AJWaines
Soundtrack by Ane Brun, Angelo Badalamenti, Johan Söderqvist, Bach, Elgar, Pet Shop Boys
Music has always played a key role in my life; I started playing the piano at five (before I could reach the pedals) and the cello at nine. On a professional and recreational basis I’ve played in all of the main London concert halls; for the Queen and also for the Prime Minister at Whitehall. But it’s not just classical; my taste ranges from the early Baroque composer Allegri, through Shostakovich to the Pet Shop Boys.
As it happens, I turned to my music training to help me to learn how to write fiction and set about looking at a psychological thriller like a piece of music. It’s not hard to see instant parallels between music and writing; structure, voice, texture, layering, strands brought to the fore at any one point and strands kept simmering away in the background – they are all essential to both. Now as a writer, I tend to tune into elements such as the flow of phrases and placing of punctuation. Sentences, the building blocks of writing, have their own rhythm – you can have clunky sentences and well-paced ones. The words can suddenly stop. Start again. They can draw attention to themselves, be deliberately clunky and rough around the edges or be smooth and mellifluous. Just like music.
My father died while I was writing my third novel, Dark Place To Hide, and I found myself listening to certain soulful pieces of music that had a direct influence on the core moods in the story. Dark Place to Hide is all about secrets and betrayal entwined around two disappearances in one village. The perfect inspiration behind the first chapters, which focus on loss and confusion, came from an episode of the TV series Wallender, The Opening, by Ane Brun.
This sublime song helped to crystallise sections such as this:
I wake and in those first fuddled moments forget you’re not here. I must have been dreaming about you – a tense, erotic dream. I reach out in bed to the place where your body should be. It’s cold and there is no hollow. Even the bed is forgetting you.
The song is about trying to move forward when you find yourself utterly stuck; exactly the position Harper finds himself in when his wife not only has a miscarriage (after he’s just found out he’s infertile), but then goes missing. The police have no evidence and they can only conclude that she has taken off with her lover. ‘Sometimes it’s just a small step or a short conversation – or sometimes just a single word,’ Brun the composer explains, ‘that can set off the necessary process of change.’ This is particularly resonant for Harper. Having sunk into despair, it takes a missing child from the same village to shake him out of his torpor and spark his unique criminology skills into life.
Another song, Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti (featured in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet) gave me an emotional source for exploring Harper’s relationship with his wife, Diane. David Lynch, the director of the film, apparently asked for a soundtrack that was beautiful and dark ‘and a little bit scary’. Because Diane goes missing right at the start, it means we see their relationship largely through Harper’s eyes in the form of flashbacks and back story. His assumption is that their relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust and deep connection, but he feels betrayed, thrown into disarray and suspicion – the music here, like the film, provoked the bewildered feelings I wanted to convey of love that’s become tainted, unsettled and impure.
Eli’s Theme from the Swedish film Let the Right One In, by Johan Söderqvist, was exactly the right feel for the point in the novel when Clara, the plucky but vulnerable little girl disappears. The grief in the music also reflects Eli’s sense (in the film) of being forever an outsider and while Eli is a little older than Clara, I wanted to convey the same experience of ‘being a bit different’. Hopefully, I’ve portrayed Clara as a quirky little girl, climbing into places she shouldn’t go, because she’s exploring her world without the usual parental boundaries. The music reminds me of Mahler and pulls at the heartstrings, just right for taking me into the emotional world of Clara’s mother, who is dying and unable to search for her daughter, herself.
When the real chase kicks in, Harper tries to work out the meaning behind the fairy-tales into which Clara retreated before she went missing – then discovers there’s a connection between Clara and his wife. Between long stints at the writing desk, I listened to music that stoked up the emotions surrounding hope, striving and enlightenment. I was looking for a relentless tone and came up with Elgar’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537, which combines a driving pulse with melancholy. The fugue explodes with layers and threads that intertwine and overlap with a growing sense of urgency, which I hope is reflected in the book.
I don’t want to give away the ending of the novel, but Footsteps by the Pet Shop Boys hits the spot.
AJ Waines was a psychotherapist for 15 years, during which time she worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, giving her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is now a full-time novelist and has publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House). Both her debut novels, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train have been number one in Murder and Psychological Thrillers in the UK Kindle charts. In 2015, she was ranked in the Top 100 UK authors on Amazon KDP. Her new psychological thriller, Dark Place to Hide, was released in July 2015. Alison lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband. Visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter as @AJWaines and Facebook.