Posts Tagged Boer War

The Undercover Soundtrack – Rebecca Mascull

for logo‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’

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 guest is Edinburgh Festival Award nominee Rebecca Mascull @RebeccaMascull

Soundtrack by Chopin, the Raconteurs, Mychael Danna

I’ve always had a soundtrack in my writing life. I’m a classically trained pianist and often think in notation, often find my fingers running up and down the table in old scales and moments from piano pieces, often find I’ve had Chopin running through my head all afternoon. It’s just the way my brain works. Having said that, the funny thing is, I cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I just can’t do it. I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a musician, that listening to music becomes an active rather than a passive pastime, and mascull006means that if trying to actively engaged in something creative, like writing a first draft, my brain can’t split itself in two and live the music and create the prose at the same time. I often think of music as architecture – the notation itself looking like rows of bricks on the page building into a structure in a particular style – classical, romantic, or whatever. And writing is like that too – the words the bricks, the sentences and paragraphs the walls building up into the mansion or the castle – the novel.

So, I don’t listen to music while I’m working. But curiously enough each of my two published novels has had a particular piece of music that has influenced them, become a catalyst for them and become a kind of ‘undercover soundtrack’ for each, as your series so cleverly names it.

Firstly, The Visitors, my debut novel. The song I will always associate with this book is Old Enough by the Raconteurs, the version featuring Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe.

The novel is about a deaf-blind girl living in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm in Kent, who is released from the prison of having no form of communication by meeting a hop-picker who teaches her the manual alphabet. So, I hear you cry, what on earth could this song possibly have to do with this novel??

Well, before I started the first draft, while it was still just an idea percolating in my head, I thought I might set this novel in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I thought the teacher who opens up the world to my deaf-blind girl might be an English woman come over to America. There was going to be a romance for the girl. Then I heard the song Old Enough, or more precisely, I saw it. My partner showed it to me on TV and I was transfixed. I loved the video set in the studio, with all these great musicians just strumming around then coming together to create this great song. I had also just started to learn the violin around that time, so loved watching the fiddle player do his stuff too. And there was something about the lyrics, this idea of a young woman thinking she’s old enough to do things, and this older, wiser voice slowing her down. It even says that she never speaks, which of course was so apt for my deaf-blind girl who is mute.

But the real hook for me and why it spoke to me about this book was that the song encapsulated for me the central romance of the book, between my deaf-blind heroine and her teacher’s brother. Without giving too much away, that song I imagined playing in my head during every scene they had together, and of course, I discovered, he too played the violin and taught her about sound by holding the instrument and feelings its vibrations.

Later I had a change of heart. I felt that the war must come later, as I wanted the teacher’s brother to go to war and so we were back to England, late Victorian/early Edwardian and the Boer War. We were in Kent now, but the song stayed with me.

In my second novel, a similar thing happened i.e. a soundtrack came to me that ostensibly had nothing to do with the setting or time of the novel. Song of the Sea Maid begins in 1730s London, and then travels to Portugal and Menorca in the 1750s. I bought a CD of C18th Portuguese ballads, which was lovely, and listened to a few Portuguese fado songs, but found out they were developed a bit too late for my setting. Around that time, I saw Life of Pi at the cinema. Wow. What an experience. Such a stunning film. Yet what stayed with me as much as the gorgeous visuals was the lush and beautiful music. I ordered the CD and listened to it in the car with my (at the time) seven-year-old daughter Poppy. Though I knew she was too young to watch the film (she’d find it too sad), she loved the music (by Mychael Danna) and so did I. I became quite obsessed with this particular track, Skinny Vegetarian Boy.

SongOfTheSea_HB_finalhiresThe story of Pi of course is dominated by the sea. At the cinema, the ocean fills the screen for much of the action and being in the dark surrounded by water as far as the eye could see filled my mind whenever I thought of Pi. The story of Sea Maid takes my heroine across the ocean with a certain young argumentative and reactionary sea captain to deal with. She studies islands and develops theories about ocean-going ancient cultures. The sea filled this story too. And every time I sat down to write, whenever I was with her paddling in the Mediterranean or gazing across the Atlantic at distant storms, I had the Life of Pi running through my head, and always first, that one track, its soaring Indian flute completely out of place for my eighteenth-century heroine yet somehow it went deeper than that and expressed something out of range, just beyond your reach.

It’s that atmosphere I need when I’m writing, trying to express the inexpressible. And that’s why Walter Pater said: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It’s that abstract beauty I’m trying to reach. I’m doing my best in my own small way. And music helps me get there.

Rebecca Mascull is the author of two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton. Her first, The Visitors, was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award. Song of the Sea Maid is her latest release. Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Find her on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter @RebeccaMascull.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Philippa Rees

for logo‘The impossible bridge between words and music’

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 novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees

Soundtrack by Don McLean, BeethovenJuliet Hughes-Rees

Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!

To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.

A poetic novella

_MG_4621cropped and reducedI now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)

I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.

Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.

I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.

Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…

An odyssey

The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.

updated amazon front cover ( resized thumbnail) 17.5 (1)My equivalent  liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’  and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.

The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to  come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.

Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.

GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.

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