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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 my guest is multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick
Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe, Gustav Mahler
I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.
I mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.
Births and inspirations
I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.
This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:
The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.
That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.
Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.
There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.
Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps. Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is multi-award-winning young adult novelist Tabitha Suzuma @tabithasuzuma
Soundtrack by Rachmaninoff, Shin Suzuma, Bomfunk MC, Eminem, Charlotte Church, Lea Salonga, Mozart, Katherine Jenkins, Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Philip Glass, Gabriel Faure, Amy Winehouse, Garbage, Lana Del Rey, Paloma Faith, Marilyn Manson, Gabriel Yared, Christopher Duffley
The music came before the idea, before the very first book, before the whole career. I was working as a school teacher and spending most of my salary on tickets to concerts at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls. My debut novel, A Note of Madness (2006), was born out of my lifelong obsession with music, mainly classical, and in particular Rachmaninov. The novel is about Flynn, a teenage piano prodigy who falls prey to bipolar disorder as he struggles to master the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. So the piece, as well as my own struggles with the illness, inspired the whole book. I have always loved music and used to skip lessons at school to sneak into the music room where I started teaching myself the piano. My brother, concert pianist Shin Suzuma, was born when I was 14 and started picking out tunes on my keyboard before he could even walk. I was determined he should have every opportunity to become the concert pianist that I felt he was destined to be, so began teaching him. Today he is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and embarking on this very career.
The sequel to A Note of Madness came a couple of years later. A Voice in the Distance (2008) was dedicated to my brother, mainly because his music room was above my study, so he provided me with a live soundtrack to my book. He was learning the equally ambitious Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto at the time, a piece which features prominently in the book, and shortly after finishing it, I finally got to see my brother perform the piece with his university orchestra. The two books also feature Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler and Eminem, which I would listen to when writing Flynn’s manic episodes. His girlfriend, Jennah, is a singer and performs Summertime (performed here by Charlotte Church, On My Own (performed by Lea Salonga) , and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum (sung by Katherine Jenkins) – three of my favourite songs that I listened to on repeat.
So music and writing, for me, have always been irrevocably entwined. The first thing I do every night when I sit down to write is sort out my playlist. My last book, Forbidden (2010), is a tragic love story about an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Because of its subject matter, it was a harsh, frightening and lonely book to write. It wasn’t a plot I could discuss with family or friends, I had no idea if it would ever be accepted for publication, I was teaching by day and writing by night, so it was very intense. I was often in tears, and a combination of severe clinical depression, stress, insomnia and sleep deprivation led me to having breakdown soon after finishing it. The music I wrote it to reflects both the tone of the book and my state of mind at the time. Lemon Incest and Charlotte Forever by the late Serge Gainsbourg and his then teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg are both songs about father-daughter incest, and understandably created a great deal of controversy and anger when they were released in the mid-eighties. Philip Glass’s amazing soundtrack to my favourite movie The Hours was also permanently on my playlist, along with Faure’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem, which I listened to throughout writing the extremely painful final chapters of the book.
After Forbidden, I was forced to take a break from writing for health reasons, but have finally finished writing my sixth book, Hurt, out this September. It was an equally tough book to write, dealing with a similarly difficult, controversial and painful subject matter. I wrote it to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, Only Happy When it Rains by Garbage, Born to Die by Lana Del Rey, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Play On by Paloma Faith, and a very haunting cover of The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. These songs helped me get into the detached, heavy-hearted and depressed moods of Mathéo: a talented, privileged teenager who on the surface appears to have it all but deep down, harbours a terrible secret that threatens his life as he knows it, as well as the relationship he has with the only girl he has ever loved. It is one of the harsher, grittier and more difficult books I have written, and the soundtracks to the films Sylvia and Never Let Me Go also helped me reach the levels of distress experienced by Mathéo as he battles with his secret, his past, the consequence of his actions, and ultimately attempts to achieve forgiveness and absolution.
I am about to start writing my book for 2014. I can’t say what it is about yet, but I can say that it will be written to the soundtrack of the heart-wrenching voice of 11-year-old Christopher Duffley, and in particular his rendition of the song Open the Eyes of my Heart which I have already started listening to on repeat.
Tabitha Suzuma is an award-winning author of six books. Her most recent, Hurt, is due to be released in September 2013. Her last book, Forbidden, a controversial and hard-hitting book about sibling incest, was translated into six languages and won the Premio Speciale Cariparma for European Literature Award as well as being nominated for a number of others. She has won the Young Minds Book Award and the Stockport Book Award. Her books have been shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, the Catalyst Book Award, the Stockport Book Award, the Jugendliteraturpreis Book Award and nominated for the Waterstone’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal. For more, visit www.tabithasuzuma.com, add her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/tabitha.suzuma, or find her on Twitter: @TabithaSuzuma
GIVEAWAY: Tabitha has signed print editions on offer for the three most interesting comments. If you enjoy her post, let her know here!
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is multi-award-winning children’s fantasy author Susan Price @priceclan
Soundtrack by Pavel Chesnokov, the Cantus Sacred Music Ensemble, The Orthodox Singers’ Male Choir, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Orlando Gibbons, the King’s Singers, Pierrot Lunaire, Jan Garbarek, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Tim Wong, Benjamin Britten
Music doesn’t help me understand my characters, or set the mood for a particular scene. I don’t need, for instance, martial music to write a martial scene. Instead, for me, the music seems to set the atmosphere, or time-frame, of the whole book. I can’t write a scene set in the past to poppy dance-music, because the music insistently reminds me of my own time and drags me back to it. I find it equally hard to write contemporary scenes while listening to music from the past. If Mozart is playing, my characters shrug off their jeans and trainers and slip into knee-britches and powdered wigs.
My Ghost World sequence (Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) is set in a fantasy Czarist Russia. I wanted these books to be fantastical, frightening and beautiful, with the brilliant jewel colours of Russian folk-art set against intense darkness and cold. While writing them I surrounded myself with postcards of Russian art, and played chants like this one on repeat.
The beautiful swaying voices, with their deep, dark bass notes took me into the vast, dark pine forests of Russian folk-tale, to Northern darkness and cold. Listening again, as I write this blog, I feel the visceral thrill and shiver this music always gives me.
The music and art served the same purpose: bringing together and concentrating all my disparate imaginings. Looking at a Bilibin forest, listening to an Orthodox chant, I was there, in my imagination’s world. This piece, with the Basso Profundo, sounds like the Russian Bear singing.
Past, present and Borders
It is always time and place with me. My Sterkarm novels have scenes set both in the past and in the 21st Century, but the heart of the novels, for me, were the scenes in the 16th century Scottish borders. I read about the reivers and their way of life, I visited the Borders, but to bring it all together and put me there, I played Border Ballads, which I’ve loved since a teenager. Here’s the wonderful June Tabor with her thrilling Clerk Sanders. The final, long-drawn note always raises my hair. It rings like a glass. It’s all there – love, hatred, jealousy, horror, revenge.
I listened to Steeleye Span a lot too. Even though they used electric instruments, I always felt they captured the spirit of many of these old songs better than many who tried too hard to be strictly traditional. Here’s their Wife of Usher’s Well, a tale of life, death, ghosts and maternal love.
Hits of the 16th
I wrote Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, to the smash hits of Christopher’s day, such as The Silver Swan, sung here by the King’s Singers. (And its closing couplet, ‘More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise,’ seems appropriate for Christopher too.)
Poor old Keats reviewed plays in order to get a free pass to theatres so he could hear the playing of professional musicians. We’re spoiled today – we can hear excellent musicians any time we casually turn on the radio. Not only musicians of our own day either, but those long dead, and music played in the style of centuries past.
The far future
But what to play when writing something set in the far future, such as my Odin’s Voice trilogy? I found myself seeking out music that, to me, sounded strange and futuristic, and helped me expand my ideas to include all the weird and wonderful possibilities of nano-technology and space-elevators. More musically educated people might find my choices rather old-fashioned, but they worked for me.
First is Moonstruck Pieirrot, or Pierrot Lunaire. ‘What the hell did I just listen to?’ asks a YouTube commentator. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s extraordinary. I remember first hearing it. I was vacuuming during the early hours, while half-listening to the Open University’s educational programmes. This began, and I switched off the vacumn to hear it. I remained on one leg, spellbound, throughout. Didn’t like it, exactly, but couldn’t stop listening.
I am fonder of this by Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I find it chill, eerie, beautiful and strange – but instead of evoking deep, dark forests, it evokes, for me, the vast dark emptiness of space and the future, where who knows what might be possible? Oberon’s song from Britten’s Midsummer’s Night Dream has the same effect on me. It may have been written in the 20th century, as Britten’s response to Shakespeare’s 16th century play, but its eerie otherworldliness, for me, suggests space – perhaps the music of the spheres?
In 1973, Susan Price‘s father signed a contract with Faber for her first book, The Devil’s Piper. She was under-age, at 16, and couldn’t legally sign it herself. She has earned her living by writing and lecturing ever since. Her best known books are The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal, and is available as an e-book, and The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize. She has a blog and is also a founder member of the group Do Authors Dream of Electric Books (aka Authors Electric), and she tweets as @priceclan.
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My guest this week was so young when Faber bought her first fantasy novel that her father had to sign the contract. She’s more than built on that early promise by scooping the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian prize and is so prolific that in her credits she only lists her best-known works. Her imagination has ranged everywhere, from a fantasy czarist Russia to the far future – and thrilling, evocative music has been intrinsic to all of them. She is Susan Price, and she will be here on Wednesday talking about her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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'