Posts Tagged classical pianists

The Undercover Soundtrack – Katharine Grant

for logoThe 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 Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_

Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 1When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.

Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own

Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …

Physical writing

Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.

For narrative, I go to Chopin’s BalladesBallade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.

So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 2

Reassurance

But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.

The Undercover Soundtrack - Katharine GrantI often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.

The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_

 

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‘An earworm of the heart’ – Katharine Grant

for logoMy 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

for logo‘Music, grief and sibling rivalry’

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 award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

Soundtrack by Beethoven, Dolly Parton

Music is at the heart of my most recent novel – as you might expect from its title The Piano Player’s Son and the image of a piano on the front cover! Music is often a force for unity, as in the songs of the First World War or the Last Night of the Proms, but in The Piano Player’s Son, it soon emerges as also a divisive, destructive force. The piece which gave me inspiration for the complexities of the relationships in the novel is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

DSCF0038 copyMoonlight

I love this piece, especially the first movement, but the more I listened to it while I was writing, the more I was pulled in different emotional directions: romantic and compelling, on the one hand, haunting and dark on the other. The piece seems to have the capacity to inspire thoughts of love and beauty, leading the German critic, Ludwig Rellstab, to identify it with moonlight flickering across Lake Lucerne, hence its popular title. But its eerie, unsettling quality also means it is sometimes chosen as the soundtrack in horror movies. In the film Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven, it is used to powerful but painful effect in relationship to the composer’s deafness. And this emotional dichotomy is exactly what I wanted to capture in the novel.

The book explores family dynamics in the wake of a death. Each of the four grown-up children deals with their father, Henry’s, death in a different way. Isabel and George share their father’s love of music, particularly the piano and appear to have been closest to him. The day after Henry’s death, Isabel listens to George playing the Moonlight Sonata:

It was one of their father’s favourites and the music filled her head. She held a tea cloth to her face, forcing the thick towelling material against her lips. Why couldn’t her fingers tempt such sounds of exquisite melancholy as George’s?

Despite their shared love of the piece, and grief at their father’s death, sibling rivalry underlies Isabel’s response.

The other brother and sister, Rick and Grace, are excluded from this musical bond. Rick blames the emotional distance he’s always felt from his father on his inability to master the piano:

It was ridiculous that he’d spent so much time craving his father’s attention when all it would have taken was a few plinkety plonks on the piano.

After Henry’s death, Rick vows to learn. All his problems will disappear if only ‘he could learn to play the Moonlight fucking Sonata’. The choice of language is deliberate with Rick – even at the moment of vowing to learn, and therefore becoming closer to Henry – denigrating his father’s favourite piece.

Inheritance

The Piano Player’s Son is also about inheritance and I chose Henry’s piano as the focus for the enduring war between Rick and George. Both brothers claim it as theirs, Rick as the eldest son, George as the one who shared his father’s passion for music. I didn’t want the dispute to relate to money, but to be about something of personal and emotional significance – in this case, each brother seems to be claiming their worth in their father’s eyes. I chose a piano because, like books, it is a thing of beauty which furnishes a room, but which also has the power within it to feed the mind and soul.

While he is waiting for his father’s piano to arrive, Rick buys a second-hand one and starts having lessons, but his progress is painfully slow. When he tells his teacher that he wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, she informs him he’s nowhere near ready for that.

Rick thought of his father’s stubby fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have been a piano player,’ he used to say, ‘not with these fingers.’ And yet, here Rick was, a piano player’s son, and he’d never master the instrument.

The piano and the Moonlight sonata encapsulate all that was wrong with his relationship with his father.

References to classical music enhance the novel – Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, Bach, all play a part. But when Rick chooses a piece of music that sums up his relationship with his darling American wife, Deanna, he turns his back on his father’s beloved classical pieces and instead it’s Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream that sums up the closeness and joy of their relationship. I love Dolly Parton – there is something inspirational in her continuing love of singing and her passion for music.

the pian player's son v.8 flatBut I have to finish with the key piece for my novel, the Moonlight sonata. Although I’ve concentrated on the first movement, the three movements together convey something of the story structure, building towards the final, furious movement. The Moonlight Sonata helped me explore the emotional complexity of the novel to such an extent that I had to include it at my launch. I managed to persuade my husband to play the first movement, and you could feel the emotion in the room as he played.

If you’d like to listen to another version of the Moonlight sonata, here’s Daniel Barenboim.

Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Unravelling, published in 2010, has won three awards, and her second novel The Piano Player’s Son,. Her website is here and you can also connect with her on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Lindsay is giving away one paperback copy of The Piano Player’s Son. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!

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‘Music, grief and sibling rivalry’ – Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

for logoMy guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Laura K Cowan

for logo‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’

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 spiritual fantasy author Laura K. Cowan @laurakcowan

Soundtrack provided by Eduards Grieznis, Brahms

When I first played the Brahms Intermezzi Opus 117 on the piano, I felt a sadness I couldn’t explain. My music teachers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts where I studied each summer in high school told me the first Laura-k-Cowan-headshotintermezzo was a lullaby, sung by a woman to her child after being abandoned by the father. It spoke to me in a way I couldn’t explain, the sadness of the abandonment, the beauty of the piece. I never forgot it. When I quit classical piano performance to return to my secret first love of writing in college, I thought music was over for me. I moved into a phase of my life in which I didn’t know how to reach my dream of being a writer, nor could I go back to the music. I was desperately unhappy, chronically ill even.

Return

Fast forward 10 years, and I was doing it. I had faced the fear and rebuilt myself emotionally, even gone through treatment for childhood trauma that had tied me up in the first place. And then, the intermezzo returned. I was writing a novel called Lone Cypress about a former ballerina named Shana who was running from an abusive marriage and experiencing nightmares and blackouts while trying to figure out if she was possessed. Guess what I found in my research of relevant ballets for her to have performed? The Brahms. The second intermezzo, not the first, but that first lullaby began to weave itself through my story, through my character’s mind. She had been abandoned by her father. And her mother. And her husband. And herself. And the music became not just my soundtrack for this novel but Shana’s own, for a new ballet she wanted to choreograph but couldn’t until she faced her fear.

LoneCypress-BookCoverFrontFrom the past

It’s not uncommon for me to compose short themes on the piano to help me understand the right moods for different pieces of my novels, an undercover soundtrack in its own right, but Lone Cypress is unique in that the music that inspired the story not only helped me with its creation but wove itself through the entire book. With Lone Cypress I learned how to walk away from my own past and into the present. The book will be out in July, and I can already feel a piece of my younger self is putting itself to rest with its publication. That’s what the Brahms is to me: the meeting of the past and present in a resolution more beautiful than I could have written for myself. Through writing this novel with the lullaby woven through it, the Brahms (played here by Eduards Grieznis) finally taught me that the most important thing is to find our way back to ourselves.

Laura K. Cowan writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Her other novels are The Little Seer  and Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection is The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen.Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @LauraKCowan

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‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’ – Laura K Cowan

for logoJohannes Brahms reportedly referred to his third intermezzo for Opus 117 as ‘the lullaby of all my grief’. This week’s guest was studying music in summer school when she first encountered it, and was overwhelmed by its sadness. Life events interrupted her dreams of becoming a musician, but years later, when she was writing a novel about a ballet dancer, her research led her to the Brahms. She remembered the imaginative journey she had taken when she used to play the piece, and now it guided her creation of the main character and her story. She is Laura K Cowan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Tabitha Suzuma

for logo‘My debut novel was born out of my lifelong obsession with music’

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.

Tabitha Suzuma author photoThe 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.

FORBIDDEN by Tabitha SuzumaTough, controversial and haunting

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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‘A harsh, frightening and lonely book to write’ – Tabitha Suzuma

for logoThe most haunting pieces on The Undercover Soundtrack delve far deeper than inspiration. My guest this week shares a very personal story. Her debut novel, about a teenage piano prodigy, didn’t come from a captured track in headphones. It was her own brother learning Rachmaninoff piano concertos in the room above hers. The character struggles with bipolar disorder, as she has in her own life. A later novel tackles an incestuous and doomed love between brother and sister, a harsh and frightening story that she says took a severe toll on her own mental health. Her fiction has won multiple awards and her brother is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. She is Tabitha Suzuma and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Melissa McPhail

for logo‘The driving energy of violent battle scenes and tragic misadventures’

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 my guest is award-winning fantasy author (and classically trained pianist) Melissa McPhail@MelissaGMcPhail

Soundtrack by Riverdance

Music and writing have ever been mated in my soul. As a child, I began writing fiction in the same year I took my first piano lesson, and as an adolescent, I reached to express the inexpressible with my first musical composition only weeks before the computer started calling my name at odd hours of the night. One creative effort cannot be wakened without drawing upon the other. They are soulmates, and I am mated to them equally.

Melissa-profile1Music as muse

In me, they support each other as soulmates should. When the creative juices of one endeavor begin to run dry, turning to the other will rejuvenate that lacklustre flesh. Oddly enough, time spent trilling fingers across a keyboard that produces music is not so different from the cathartic rhythms of one that forms letters on a screen. They both seem to reach into the same place in my soul and draw forth that spark of inspiration that results in bountiful self-expression.

Frank Zappa said: ‘Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance is sculpted into something.’ I believe this is true not merely of performance but of music overall — when music plays, something is created. We cannot see it in the air, yet music forms images in our minds, emotions in our hearts. It invokes memories and stirs the creative spirit into action. That sculpture is pushed forth, formless until it is collected by the imagination of the listener and channeled into something new.

Because I spent an eternity writing my epic fantasy, Cephrael’s Hand (in my mind, over a million words spent in pursuit of a single novel qualifies as an eternity), a number of songs have sculpted the series, but one album did more to fuel this effort than any other – Bill Whelan’s Riverdance.

Battles, mystery, enchantment

This album seemed to contain all of the driving, pulsing energy of violent battle scenes and tragic misadventures mixed among the mystery of enchanted forests and the thrumming chill of icy, windswept passes. It speaks a story of uncertain heroes, of unrequited love, of tears shed for ages lost and of the wistful echo of loved ones vanished or vanquished. Cephrael’s Hand travels to all of these lands and spaces of the heart. It’s a tale of two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of a great battle, neither knowing the other is alive. It’s the story of a traitor who works in exile to save the race he’s sworn to protect, and of a blessed race facing extinction – along with the realm itself. It’s the story of nations battling for the ideals they believe in, and of individuals striving to find an ideal to shape themselves around.

From song to scene

More than once, a particular song inspired a scene. Marta’s Dance/The Russian Dervish played heavily into the twisting, spinning fighting style of my Whisper Lords, with their daggered gloves and slashed cloaks, and Cloudsong/Riverdance, especially the instrumental section with its melody both wistful and joyous, somehow encapsulates the feeling of the relationship between the Healer Alyneri and her childhood love, Prince Ean.

bk1KindlecoverThe Countess Cathleen still brings to mind a particular dance I envisioned between two characters. Sadly, their paths never crossed in the final version of the story, but the lovely motions they made still dazzle in the realm of my imagination any time I hear the song. Who knows? Someday, in some future book, they may actually join in this dance together.

That is the beauty of music. Its ephemeral sculptures make an indelible imprint on our consciousness. Even if this imprint is never fashioned into something corporeal, still, it remains in the vast repository of inspiration, just waiting for its time to shine.

Melissa McPhail is the author of the award-winning epic fantasy Cephrael’s Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth , the newly released second book in her series published by Outskirts Press, A Pattern of Shadow and Light. In addition to her writing, Melissa is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations, and she seeks with her novels to explore the facets of good and evil, nobility, honor, courage and self-sacrifice in all their many shades. Find her on her website and on Twitter as @melissagmcphail

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Niki Valentine

‘The psychological disorder of the piece appealed to me’

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 novelist and creative writing tutor Niki Valentine @nikimon

Soundtrack by Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Valentina Lisitsa

Music is incredibly important to me as a writer and has played a large part in my process, as well as populating my stories almost constantly. My latest novel, Possessed, is immersed in music in that it takes place in a conservatoire at an unnamed university. The students are obsessed and driven by music. This means that music comes out in the story itself. Both of the pieces I’m going to talk about appear in the narrative, in rather dramatic ways, but what’s more interesting, I think, is how these pieces fed into my writing process.

The vulnerability of a female soloist

The first piece is Schubert’s Ave Maria. This has a special place in my heart because it was performed at my wedding. For some reason this piece was running a constant background in my head as I sat down to write.  As the music played out in my head, I could see one of my main characters singing it, and it meant I could hear her voice, picture her vulnerability. This fed into her character in many ways. Firstly, she became a singer as well as a flautist, which I hadn’t originally planned, and it helped to distinguish her from her twin sister, both in my mind and in the narrative. There is something haunting about this piece of music and I think part of that comes from the vulnerability of a female soloist, hitting those high notes. And, of course, it’s often a funeral hymn, or sung in church.

The other piece came later in the process, meaning that I was brought to it by one of my characters rather than the other way around.  I realised that my protagonist, a young pianist called Emma, had never played a Rach and that she wanted to. This led me to listen to some Rachmaninoff concertos and sonatas, which became a constant background to my planning and writing. I wanted to bring in the intensity of certain pieces of piano music and how they could be consuming. In the end, I chose his Sonata number 1 and focused on the first movement. I was particularly struck by this recording by Valentina Lisitsa.

The characters in the music

There is something compelling about this sonata and, of course, it’s highly technical. I think it’s utterly lovely, and full of power, and the Lisitsa performance keys into that. Each time I listened, I found something different there. Since I’ve been writing I’ve had two absolute gifts that have presented themselves to me in the research stage. The title of my first novel was one and this piece of music, the other.  The more I listened, the more I felt that my characters were there in the music, trying to get through to me. It fed into my process in an ongoing way.

I then read about its genesis and Rachmaninoff’s composition process.  This was where something magical seemed to happen. I discovered that the composer had originally themed the Sonata on Goethe’s Faust.  The tragic play of lost innocence has so many resonances with my story. Like the play, Possessed has three main characters and, similarly, there’s the sense of naivety about one, malevolence in another and, perhaps, collusion and deception from the third. I love to play with grey areas in my fiction, so there is sense that these personality traits move between my characters but, essentially, the triangle is similar. Even more wonderfully, I’d focused on the first movement, said to represent the turmoil of Faust’s mind. In my stories, the psychological disorder of the characters is all important and perhaps this is why the particular piece appealed so much.

To begin with, my connection with this music thematically was entirely to do with what I heard and how it made me feel but, as I researched, the theories fed in to my process too. With a thriller, you don’t want themes or ideas playing on the surface, but they were certainly something I kept in mind as I continued to write and draft. I doubt there are many readers who would see this through my writing and understand it but, for me, the music added a depth to this book that made it far richer.

Niki Valentine is the award winning author of The Haunted, The Doll’s House, and Possessed, published by Sphere. She also writes gritty, realist fiction as Nicola Monaghan. When she isn’t working on her next psychological thriller, Niki teaches creative and professional writing at Nottingham university. Find her on Twitter @nikimon

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