Posts Tagged composers

The Undercover Soundtrack from the underside – SJ Tucker

‘Passages from the novel have a song waiting between the lines’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music in their creative process. This weekend, to celebrate a year since the release of My Memories of a Future Life, I’m turning The Undercover Soundtrack inside out and talking to two musicians who have been inspired by novels featured on this series.

Today I’m talking to SJ Tucker, @s00j, who has composed entire albums to novels by Catherynne M Valente, and most recently for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

Sooj, how did you write September’s Rhyme, the song for Catherynne M Valente’s book trailer?
September’s Rhyme was inspired by chapter one, where September has to figure out how to get herself into Fairyland. The Green Wind gives her lots of advice, but most of it she finds confusing rather than helpful. To her credit, she finds a way to make it work for herself rather quickly. September’s Rhyme is a teaching song, to help September and other potential heroines remember the formula for the riddle that must be solved to pass the border into Fairyland. I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room when I wrote it, reading the manuscript on my laptop.

Catherynne says you’ve written several albums based on her stories. How do you condense a novel into a set of songs? How do you do justice to a novel’s world and characters in a different medium?
Cat’s work is so descriptive and inherently musical to me that the songs fall into my lap as I read. I get ideas left and right. She keeps me pretty busy. My creative process is straightforward where Cat is concerned: start reading and get my butterfly net ready, ’cause the ideas are coming!

So far, I’ve written songs inspired by The Orphan’s Tales duology: In the Night GardenIn the Cities of Coin & Spice, Palimpsest, The Habitation of the Blessed, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Cat’s novels strike me as being like a family – in the characters, stories and scenes there are aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and grandparents. Some of those family members, you don’t see but once a year at Thanksgiving. Some of them are part of you from the very beginning. Others can surprise you and become vital later on. That’s how I’ve approached writing the songs and albums to accompany Cat’s work.

I write songs about the characters and scenes that strike me on first view. Then I look for anyone I might have left out who needs time in the spotlight. Then I make time for the surprises – the things I never expected to write a song about. Sometimes Cat has written a song into a book for me to find and set to music, as in the case of Go To Sleep Little Skylark, a lullaby in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.

Do you compose to other writers’ novels or for other writers’ book trailers?

I have songs inspired by Lewis Carroll, Seanan McGuire, Terri Windling and one collaboration with CSE Cooney. Lots of other collaborations and inspirations are in the works. So far, Cat is the only contemporary author who has gotten my song engine to bear fruit more than once. It doesn’t hurt that we pretty much agreed to be good friends the moment we first met. That was back in 2006, when she was on the cusp of releasing The Orphan’s Tales.

How long does it take you to write an album? Do you redraft much? Do you write first, then take it to the studio, or does the song evolve in the recording?
I take a terrifying number of notes. Thank goodness for laptops – specifically for voice memo recording and document catching software.

Every novel I decide to write songs for gets its own master file on my laptop, where all of the ideas for songs go. I’ll often include passages from the novel, the sections that I know have a song waiting between the lines.

From the video for SJ Tucker’s song ‘Neptune’

Sometimes, getting all of the songs out, or even coaxing just one along, can take months.
Sometimes I’m intensely self-critical, as I’m sure most writers are. Fortunately, redrafting for me usually involves moving stanzas around, catching new verse ideas as they fall, and singing different versions into my laptop or iPhone. It’s a very satisfying process, especially when I feel ready to share. There’s nothing like playing a new creation for its first audience, watching expressions and getting first opinions.

Again, it all started with Cat’s duology The Orphan’s Tales. She mentioned that someone had done an instrumental album for her first novel, The Labyrinth. And ‘wouldn’t it be cool if somebody did an album for The Orphan’s Tales?’ I had devoured The Orphan’s Tales, but it didn’t occur to me until that day that Cat and I would eventually go on tour together and present many an odd multimedia book-and-song circus all over the country. But I went down into her basement for a couple of hours and came back with a song called The Girl in the Garden, and we all wept.

I play a song for an audience several times before I take it to the studio. Part of the reason is that I am constantly touring and performing. I have to slow down in order to get recording done. Also, songs evolve when I play them live. Verses shift, entire new sections present themselves, which I didn’t even know were missing. I’ve learned to let a song have time to bloom before I put it in front of the machines to be captured.

Some authors might be wondering about approaching a songwriter for a trailer. How much does it cost? Are there any rights issues? Do you release the music on your own album too?
I have a flat rate for song commissions, but each time I’ve had a song already written that the author and trailer director were specifically requesting. Paying mechanical rights to the songwriter is an option, but as anything that officially involves my music on Youtube is free advertising for me, I usually only require a link to my download page and proper songwriting credit in the video description, or in the video itself. And yes, I release just about every song I write that I feel is good.

I love that my songs are used in book trailers. The more we all cross-pollinate and cross-promote our work, the more people will find out about us. I urge other indie musicians to say yes to opportunities like providing music for book trailers, because you could find a whole new audience. Cat’s and my mutual fans are some of my favourite people on earth, and they are legion.

Let’s face it: there are millions of us, writers and songwriters alike. If we form alliances and create memorable shared works, the world is a lot more likely to pick us out of the crowd and join our little circus. The more we help each other out, the more we retweet and link for each other, the more beauty we can create, the more fuel we will have for our creative fires, all of us. That’s what I want for all of the creative folk I know – to be our own renaissance.

SJ Tucker is everywhere. On Twitter and Facebook. Her website is here.You can find out about her latest album here.

The Undercover Soundtrack will be back in conventional authorly form on Wednesday – and as it’s anniversary week there will be a chance for commenters to win a very special prize… To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe now!

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The Undercover Soundtrack from the other side – singer-songwriter Beth Rudetsky

I begin by writing a short story about the main character’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music in their creative process. This weekend, to celebrate a year (or thereabouts) since the release of My Memories of a Future Life, I’m turning The Undercover Soundtrack inside out.

Today and tomorrow I’m talking to two musicians who have been inspired by novels featured on this series. Stories with origins in music, coming full circle when singer-songwriters are stirred to interpret them.

Today my guest is Beth Rudetsky, who composed the song on the trailer for Fifth Victim, by Undercover Soundtrack author Zoe Sharp

Beth, novels are huge. Songs are a mere handful of words. How do you condense a story into one song?

I first ask myself a series of questions. What is the emotional make-up of the protagonist? What issues are they struggling with? What past or present event is haunting them? What is the current emotional state of the protagonist? What does the protagonist have to do to begin to climb out of that and the events that are causing it?

I begin by writing a short story about the main character’s emotional state and the dilemma they find themselves in. After that I write the lyrics as a poem, choosing words that are very visual. I then go to my piano and as I reflect about the character, I start to create an intro to my song, which sets the mood. Then I start to write the melody and chord structures that convey my lyrics and music. From there I start composing the chorus, whose essence must grab the listener by the throat.

What other music work do you do?

I compose songs, soundtracks and perform the vocal for films. I also record background vocals for various pop recording artists and their tracks, perform as a singer-songwriter in cabarets and clubs, and also sing in concerts on Broadway that feature actors from the Broadway stage.

Here’s a live performance I did on my brother Seth Rudetsky’s radio programme Seth Speaks on SiriusXM Stars 107 in NYC. The song is called Empty Projector

How did you start writing songs for book trailers?

Ever since I was a teenager I have had a tremendous passion for mystery and crime thrillers. I have always been intrigued about what makes people tick, the reasons behind their sadness and what haunts them in their lives. It drives the music and lyrics in all of my songwriting.

The idea of composing music for book trailers came to me during a Facebook conversation with Zoe Sharp. She has a great passion for music and when I told her I was a singer-songwriter she asked to hear my work and loved what I sent to her. I realized my character-driven songs would be a perfect marriage with the psychological portraits of her characters and she was thrilled when I asked if she’d like me to write a song for one of her novels.

Zoe chose Fifth Victim. I wrote The Victim Won’t Be Me. It received wide praise from authors and crime fiction bloggers and another author, J Carson Black, asked me to write a song and make a trailer.

Her novel, Icon, is exciting, eerie and stays with the reader long after the end. One of the reasons is the main character – a film star who has fallen out with Hollywood, struggles with addiction and is then kidnapped and held for ransom. On his escape he finds he is being pursued by a far more lethal killer. He starts out as a broken soul who has lost his way in life and then finds he has the strength to struggle for recovery and fight for his life.

I wrote the song Vengeance, produced the trailer with filmmaker/director Mark Ezovski who wrote a script to resonate with my song and the novel’s original story. I orchestrated the music for me on piano, along with violin and cello. I got two musicians (Karl Kawahara on violin and Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on the cello) to record the arrangement with me.

Going back to the writing, how long does it take you to finish the song? Do you redraft much? Do you write first and then take it to the studio, or does the song evolve during the recording?

I am a perfectionist and after I have the basic draft I go back to it many times, finessing the music score and lyrics. My signature is to compose dramatic, haunting music and compelling lyrics. I keep at it until I feel the song is at its most moving.

Then I record a version with just piano and my voice and send it to the author for approval. After that I write a full music arrangement for me and other musicians and we record it at Millrose Music studio run by Pete Millrose. He also does a wonderful mix.

Are there other authors you’re inspired by?

I’d love to write music for Gregg Hurwitz, Wallace Stroby , Joseph Finder, Christopher Smith, Douglas Corleone, CJ Lyons and Steve Jackson .

Some authors might be wondering about approaching a songwriter for a book trailer. How much does it cost?

The cost is USD $5,500-6,000 and covers the entire trailer. I compose the music and lyrics to the song, perform the vocal, orchestrate my song for me on piano along with wonderful musicians and then record my song. I work with a filmmaker and director to produce the visuals with script, cinematographer, professional actors, studio and props.

Finding all those people takes time and know-how – for instance, a great cinematographer elevates a basic trailer to film quality, as you can see with the Icon trailer (cinematographer Robert Michael). We did not use stock footage, sound effects or music from other sources. A photographer filmed live action footage in Arizona where the novel takes place. The author doesn’t have to do a thing but sit back and enjoy the result.

Are there any rights issues?

I copyright my song. The author, publisher and I are free to share the song and video with any sites.

I also help with publicity. A lot of authors are shy and don’t have the experience or know-how to publicise their work. I do – and I love to publicize the authors and their work through the trailers. I am told that people listen to my songs over and over – a thrilling feeling for me as a composer and singer.

Beth Rudetsky is a composer, arranger, performer and book trailer maven. Find her on Facebook

Tomorrow I’ll be talking to singer-songwriter SJ Tucker, who has a long-running creative partnership with novelist Catherynne M Valente

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Scoring the novel as it unfolds – the undercover soundtrack

If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.

In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.

Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.

I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.

Q2 Music streamed a live performance from the Guggenheim in April of the Wordless Music Orchestra performing UK composer Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic." Photo: Q2 Music

He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.

Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.

The unexpected

In the Guggenheim "Titanic" performance, musicians were positioned at remote points along the Guggenheim's famous spiraling ramp. Photo: Q2 Music

‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses  in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his  swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.

Sweet enjoyment in the abyss

By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.

‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’

Music is a debate

Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’

All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.

The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics –  is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.

A magnifying glass for the truth

For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.

As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’

Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle and in print

Update: the lady herself is reading this blog… 

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