Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Susan Price

‘Beautiful swaying voices took me to vast forests’

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.

Czarist Russia

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.

My Memories of a Future Life · Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Nick Green

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 children’s author Nick Green

Soundtrack by Jon and Vangelis

I wonder if, with the rise of ebooks, we’ll soon be enjoying novels with their own soundtracks. In the case of my first children’s novel, The Cat Kin (Strident Publishing), the soundtrack actually preceded it. In terms of the story, I was going for something like the TV dramas I used to love as a child, where each episode would push you nearer the edge of your seat, and your heart further into your mouth, before hitting you with the end titles and theme music. So I looked around for the kind of theme tune that my imaginary show might have, and heard an obscure track online which seemed to fit. (For the ultra-curious, the track was Barracuda by the computer demoscene composer Dr Awesome, aka Bjorn Lynne. Told you it was obscure.)

A year later, I set to writing the follow-up to The Cat Kin, Cat’s Paw. My first problem was the challenge of all sequels: what do my characters do now? For those who don’t know (and I believe that’s most of the population) The Cat Kin is about children who develop the powers of cats, by practising an Ancient Egyptian martial art called pashki. And inevitably, because this is a story, they meet some terrible villains against whom these new skills come in handy.

But I didn’t want to send my heroes on one adventure after another. They were never supposed to be ‘superheroes’ – their everyday lives were always more important to me. Nor was I interested in dishing up baddie after baddie just to fill pages. For me, each story has to spring from an emotional seed, or I’ll lose the will to write it. In the case of the first book, it was cruelty to animals that kept me suitably enraged. But when it came to the second story, I had no ideas at all – or rather I had no feelings, no single burning emotion to spark things off.

Then I heard an old song: I’ll Find My Way Home by Jon and Vangelis. I’ve long been a fan of Jon Anderson’s (his band, Yes, dominate my CD towers) but was only vaguely familiar with his Vangelis albums, which always sounded to me like the music you might hear in Atlantis, in the lifts. But I had to admit, I loved I’ll Find My Way Home – a simple, heart-wrenching melody, and a lyric that can resonate with anyone. Something clicked.

In The Cat Kin, I’d explored the drama of humans becoming like cats. But there was one celebrated feline power that I’d had no cause to use in that story. Cats are said to have a mysterious instinct that can guide them safely home if they get lost. As an idea it had possibilities, and more importantly the kind of emotive force I was looking for. Could I use it in Cat’s Paw?

My savvy 13-year-old heroes were unlikely to get lost in London – no homing instinct needed here. But the stories of cats’ abilities get more mysterious than that. There are also tales, some of them well founded, of cats tracking down former owners who move away, often across many miles. I don’t know whether this is really true or not, but this didn’t matter. Suddenly, I had the core element of my story. The children’s pashki teacher, Felicity Powell, disappears at the end of book 1, and Tiffany (one of the two main characters) desperately misses her. What if she managed to learn the feline trick of following her? Of course – of course she would.

With this feeling at last taking root, I had my story. Soon more elements fell into place. Ben, the other protagonist, comes from a broken home, and must now divide his time between his mum’s home and his dad’s. We encounter a sinister band of juvenile, homeless outcasts. There is a villain whose madness stems from being snatched from his home as a small child. That single idea, home, became the pillar of the whole book – all thanks to Jon and Vangelis and I’ll Find My Way Home. As a sort of credit, the song even finds its way into the story, though it’s not mentioned by name. Listen out for it.

As a child, Nick Green landed a tiny part in a TV drama series, and wondered about an acting career. Sadly, that was his acting career. He did not become a musician either, despite the best efforts of his musician father, and his doctor mother successfully persuaded him not to become a doctor. He took up writing fiction at university, as a cheaper alternative to going out. His published novels are The Cat Kin and its sequel Cat’s Paw, but several more are lurking in the wings.