Posts Tagged David Bowie
The 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 by award-winning novelist, poet and novella-ist Heidi James @heidipearljames
Soundtrack by Nirvana, Ane Brun, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Portishead
I’ll start with a confession – I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing or reading, or cooking or clearing up, or anything really when I’m alone. I prefer silence and birdsong. Partly I think that’s because I’ve lived all my adult life with people who love and make music, and so have been saturated by other people’s sounds and musical choices; and partly because I have a noisy, busy mind, music has been too much of a distraction, especially if I’m in company, the noise making them less easy to access or decipher.
Yet, that changed when I started writing So the Doves. One strand of the narrative is set in the late 80s and early 90s, so listening to music from that era was essential to finding my way back to the texture, smells, fashion and visuals of that time. Listening to random tunes that I’d never usually listen to, like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue’s duet, Especially for You (time hasn’t improved it to my mind) helped me visualise that world of my childhood in ways that are not part of the novel, but that would be crucial to the writing of it. Hearing Terence Trent Darby’s Wishing Well, I could see our neighbour, Martin, in his socks and sandals, his knee-length grey shorts and neatly ironed t-shirt as he polished his blue Datsun and there was my mum, her sunbed on the patio, soaking up the rays, cigarette smoke turning and rising above her.
The main characters in the novel, Marcus and Melanie, forge the first bonds of their teenage friendship from a love of music:
‘Marcus,’ she said, her voice low and soft, ‘do you honestly think that what you learn in class today will be of more value to you than what you’ll learn in Vinyl Exile? Come on.’ She stood up, raised her eyebrow and cocked her head in the direction of town. ‘Let’s go my rebellious friend.’
And so I started to listen to the music I imagined they loved and from there the characters became more complex, more rounded. I could see them and hear them when I listened to the razored bass that slices through Blew on Nirvana’s Bleach, I was there lying with them on Melanie’s bedroom floor, sympathising with their longing for the day when they would escape the misery of their/our small town. I remembered the dull rage of interminable Sundays, the relief of good friendships and the welts left from clumsy kisses and lazy punches. About a Girl could’ve been written for Melanie. She’s charismatic and bright and unlike Marcus, she can see straight to the heart of things:
It’s weird; it’s like all romance and glitter and rags; as if it isn’t enough to just be a person who doesn’t fit, because that isn’t worthy of respect.’
Vibrant and fearless, she’s the girl everyone wants to know, everyone wants to be and then she vanishes; and Marcus is alone, and left looking for a truth he won’t find, despite searching throughout his award-winning career as a journalist.
This listening started as a point of reference and research, and yet, the more I listened to music, the more I had a sense of who I had been, the music I’d loved and so I started listening to more and more, rediscovering a self and tastes that I had forgotten. The sweep and drama of Bowie’s Life on Mars, the muscled bass and guitar on Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, the slinky sorrow in Portishead’s Sour Times – the music began to reorder and disrupt the strange taxonomy of my memories, easing the writing but so much more than that too.
Music became a space, a sonic zone of suspense from the physical world. It has become a haven for me, where before it was an irritant, an oppressive force. I tuck myself inside Ane Brun’s Halo, and feel strangely held in the embrace she is singing about, her voice tender and fragile. It reminds me of fiddlehead ferns, the feathery leaves coiled tight; of nests woven from grass; of the tangled strings of cat’s cradle caught on my Nanna’s fingers.
Marcus buys Melanie a record, and it’s a precious gift, the music pressed flat into an object that exists even without the means to play it, and here I am, having sold most of my CDs and records, with a music collection that is ephemeral, spectral, comprised of airwaves and numerical codes, contained on my phone, stored in a cloud. Like the angels I believed in when I was a child.
So I’ve begun to listen to music again, for me.
Heidi James’s novel Wounding was published by Bluemoose Books in April, 2014. She was a finalist for the Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (published by Neon Press in April 2015) won the Saboteur Award. Her novella Carbon, was published in English by Blatt and in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre. So the Doves is her second novel. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @heidipearljames and on her blog/website HeidiJames.me
The 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 Zürich-based Australian novelist and short story writer Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol), who is one half of ‘Christoph Martin’, a collaborative writing team, with Swiss writer and entrepreneur Christoph Martin Zollinger (@expansionbook).
Soundtrack by Nicky Jam, Benjamin Clementine, David Bowie, Zoe Keating
Before embarking on The Expansion project with Christoph, I hadn’t written fiction collaboratively, apart from working with beta readers and editors. I found the process a fascinating one, in which two minds bring ideas and experiences and skills to the table, and somehow, over time, a new expression of a story is built and honed, and eventually handed over to the world.
The Expansion is a political thriller; a fictional account of a conspiracy around the expansion of the Panama Canal, with storyworlds spanning Panama, Washington, DC, London and Switzerland. It’s the first of a four-part series that interrogates the global political landscape, and asks questions about power and corruption, and the broadly impacting deals and investigations that go on behind closed doors.
Both Christoph and I need silence to write. But our story has a massive scope, and there’s no doubt music has acted as both a useful anchor during the writing process for me, and as a ‘language’ of sorts, as Christoph and I sought to explain to each other the ‘feeling’ or ‘atmosphere’ we wanted to evoke in a certain scene.
As part of our research, Christoph and I travelled to Panama in 2015, where we visited the site of the Panama Canal expansion (mind-bustingly enormous), as well as numerous other locations that formed the setting for our story, including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As part of that experience, I made sure I ate local foods and listened to local radio, and in fact it was the continuous wallpaper of Spanish-language pop music like Nicky Jam’s El Perdón (which I heard blasting out car windows in downtown Panama) that helped me get pumped and in the mood to write the good-times, party scenes. Or really any scene that contained one of our key characters, Godfredo Roco, who seems to bring the party with him wherever he goes.
One morning, Christoph turned up to one of our plotting meetings with ‘Condolence’, a song by British artist Benjamin Clementine, on his laptop. We’d been putting together the events around the darkest hours in our protagonist Max’s journey, and I immediately knew from listening to that track where Max’s head and heart were at that moment. The fact that Clementine’s accent is British (he’s from London) was an important anchor for me, because Max is a Brit who winds up in Panama City in a viper’s nest of political corruption and conspiracy between characters from the US, China and Panama. And at the very moment it’s all falling apart for him, he receives news from London that will break his heart and take him to a place he’s been and ‘seen before,’ as Clementine would put it. It’s a pivotal moment, as Max will need to decide whether he has it in him to stand up and fight for his life. (Again.)
What I love about Clementine’s track is that, as it heads for the second verse, it sounds like it’s about to resolve, break into a major key … and then it slips back into a minor key … So you don’t really know which way it’s going to go. And I had the distinct feeling from hearing that track that this was how we should be writing Max. (Metaphoric and literal spoiler: major key resolve after second verse.) Not only that, but the driving rhythm under the lone piano gave us the ‘visual’ of Max, stranded and utterly alone in the hustle and hubbub of downtown Panama City.
I think the Obsessive Creator Award needs to go to Christoph, who was far above the world (on a plane between Panama and Switzerland) when he first had the inspiration for The Expansion series. In a prolonged, one-finger typing frenzy on his iPhone (about six hours straight) he outlined the entire story and fleshed out most of the main characters and their backstories … all to the monotonous hum of the aircraft engine.
And (just to give myself the Obsessive Co-Creator Award) there were times when I was doing a lot of writing on my own, and at those times it was useful to have some musical inspiration. One such instance was when I was spending a lot of time in the headspace of one of our characters, a very tough and disciplined woman who is also terminally ill. That was a challenge for me, and in writing the events before her death, I appreciated David Bowie’s final gift to the world, Black Star, which I had on high rotation in between writing sessions. It’s a pretty discombobulating track—musically, lyrically, and visually (if you watch the video clip)—and I’ve observed that some people find it jarring, and off-putting. But I think, as a writer, you can benefit from staring uncomfortable things in the face. And it makes your writing stronger, too.
One of the most intriguing things about Black Star, for me, is that even though it is thematically quite intense, it has a surprisingly light touch—playful, almost. That was clarifying for me while writing our character; not that our character is necessarily playful or ‘light’—in fact, to the contrary, she’s ruthless and she has regrets—but, having listened to people talk about their own impending death, and having talked with friends whose loved ones have died, I notice there are many interesting preconceptions about what the ‘journey’ towards death will be like, but the actual experience seems to be very different for everyone, and in that sense Bowie’s track inspired me to stay firmly in our character’s head and in her heart as she started her journey towards her demise.
Of course, nobody knows what Bowie was going through in private, but I found the fact that he had written and recorded an entire album while sick and dying compelling. The performance of a lifetime, really. And so we gave our character the performance of her life as she headed into the eye of the storm.
Max […] surveyed the village below. Its narrow, stone streets had been laid hundreds of years before the first growl of a motor, and snow lay thickly on neat, fairy-tale rooftops. Twinkling Christmas lights delineated eaves and chimneys, and wisps of wood smoke hung low in the valley.’
This is the scene in which we first meet Max and his best friend, Godfredo: they’re teenagers, and they’re trudging up the mountainside at night from the tiny, village train station back to their exclusive Alpine boarding school. It’s a moment that forms the prelude to an event that sends their lives spinning off in different directions, and it’s also a moment that stays with them through the ‘dance’ that becomes their long-lasting, if at times mutually exasperating, friendship.
When it comes to writing the Swiss Alps, Zoe Keating is high on my list of inspiration. There’s something about lyrics-less cello that is very spacious, and yet Keating’s arrangements also have a powerful edge to them, and this element acted as a reminder to steer clear of stereotypes: to embed words that defy expectations, and to tell the story with a fresh eye. I put her music on whenever I feel like I might be veering towards ‘tidy’ or ‘cliché’.
On the one hand, The Expansion novel is a genre piece, so we needed to bow to the dramatic, and to the fast pace of a thriller, but we also wanted to take the time to do justice to our story and our characters—after all, it’s a star-crossed love story, too. So part of attaining that balance was to give the prose—the language—an edge, where possible, when the pace was slower. Like embedding the word ‘growl’ in an otherwise peaceful, fairy-tale, twinkly-lights night.
Libby O’Loghlin (@libby_ol) is an Australian novelist and prize-winning short story writer. Her young adult fiction, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She has lived in the UK, USA and Malaysia, and she now lives with her family in Zürich, Switzerland, where she is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly online publication, and WriteCon writing workshops. You can also connect with Libby on her Facebook Author Page and Goodreads. You can read more about The Expansion four-part series on The Expansion website, and find Christoph Martin on Goodreads and Twitter @expansionbook.
My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. Drop by on Wednesday for their Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week says he is much concerned with reinvention. He’s spent his life setting himself challenges to embrace new careers, lifestyles, places to live – and the latest of those reinventions is being a novelist. His debut title is a story of 1970s Glasgow and required some daring imaginative reinventions – not least, writing in the voice and psyche of a 22-year-old woman. A soundtrack was essential – Tangerine Dream to soothe and order the brain; Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and David Bowie to restart the period – and provide other wisdom besides. He is Glyn Harper – writing as GD Harper – and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
The 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 multi-award nominated novelist and theremin enthusiast Tracy Farr @hissingswan
Soundtrack by Portishead, Yo-Yo Ma, Pere Ubu, Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith Group, Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, Armen Ra, The Triffids, JS Bach, Saint-Saens, Ravel, George Gershwin
I usually write in silence. There are a few exceptions – albums I can play to put myself into a kind of writing trance. An album I’ve been using this way since it came out in 1994 is Portishead’s Dummy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the theremin, the musical instrument at the centre of my first novel, features (or a synth’d version of it does, at least) so strongly in Dummy’s opening track Mysterons (listen for the theremin sound kicking in at 0:12).
Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship imagined for a B-movie soundtrack, or like the low thrum and moan of a cello, warm with wood and resin and gut.
My first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, has been described as a fictional memoir. It’s the story of a musician, Lena Gaunt, and the instrument she becomes famous for playing: the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, invented in the 1920s, and played without touching.
Long before I started to write The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, I jotted notes about its main character: a musician, Lena Gaunt, born 1910. I didn’t know much more about this character I’d started to invent from thin air, but I figured she’d play the cello.
I’d become interested in writing a cellist character after a friend introduced me, in the 1990s, to Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Bach’s Six Cello Suites. It was a strange and beautiful revelation to me. I’d grown up on a diet of pop, fed by commercial radio, filtered through the great flat suburban sensibility of Perth in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I was living in Vancouver, in the 90s, my listening had shifted to PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Nirvana, Portishead, Pixies and Pulp. Ma’s rendering of the Bach suites, the sound of the unaccompanied cello, cut through the noise; it resonated, with an eerily human voice. My Lena Gaunt, I imagined, would be a perfect musician, flawless, precise, like Ma.
Electrical by nature
In the novel, Lena puts her cello aside, aged 17, and takes up the theremin. It’s another musical reference I chart back to my time in Vancouver, where I first saw the theremin played live when Pere Ubu toured their 1995 album Ray Gun Suitcase. I recall standing close to the front of the stage, mesmerised not just by the sound, but by the look (the action, the physicality, the dramatics) of the theremin; you can hear and see it when Pere Ubu play Red Sky.
It was Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin, who provided the strongest inspiration for my fictional Lena’s theremin playing. I watched film footage of Clara Rockmore playing pieces like Saint-Säens’ Le Cygne and Ravel’s Habanera, both of which I have Lena Gaunt play in the novel. Again, it was the look and physicality as much as the sound that attracted me, and that I aimed to recreate as I wrote. And while she inspired elements of Lena Gaunt, I think of Clara Rockmore as providing a reference, rather than a model, for Lena.
The lowest note in the universe
A low hum runs through this book, the hum of modernity and electronics, the low background hum of the universe; the hum of the theremin.
A low hum issues from it, the sum of the capacitance of my body, its effect on the electric currents…I raise my hands again – one to the loop, one to the wire – and hear the deep low that is almost the sound of a cello and yet is its own thing, its own sound…
I was looking beyond Clara Rockmore and her theremin for that low hum. I was inspired by women working in mid-twentieth-century electronic music – like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire – and by tracks like Derbyshire’s (as part of the band White Noise) Love Without Sound.
Lowness echoes through the novel. A very early note I made while writing it references Bowie’s 1977 album Low, the first album in his Berlin Trilogy. The drone and chant and length and lift of Warszawa – Track 1 on Side 2 of Low – rang through my mind often while I wrote.
Etherwave (which I rechristen Aetherwave in the novel) was an early name for the theremin (and is the most widely available model of modern theremin), and that prompted a clear link in my mind, a tumble of ideas from (a)ether to anaesthesia to self-medication. In the novel, Lena Gaunt smokes opiates; she uses for recreation, but also for relief.
Bowie’s substance-soaked Low was a reference point. I wanted drug use to sit lightly in the book, to be part of Lena’s character while not defining her, and I had in mind other ether/anaesthesia references, like PJ Harvey’s beautiful, sparse – and yes, (a)ethereal – When Under Ether.
Not drowning, waving
I have a complicated relationship with the sea, and it features a lot in my writing. The ‘wave’ in etherwave/aetherwave refers to sound waves, but I also wanted ocean waves present in the novel, and I wanted those waves to interact.
An early musical touchstone while I wrote was the Patti Smith Group album Wave, and the track I’d go back to again and again was Dancing Barefoot. Beyond the wave resonance of the album title, this track is full (like my novel) of benediction, addiction, strange music and heroin(e), connection and its lack.
While I was revising the novel, I saw on television a live performance by Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s of Hunt’s poem Wavesong. There was Hunt chanting the poem in his unmistakable (for New Zealanders) voice over Kilgour’s equally unmistakable guitar – and that performance, that driving, circular, resonant, wave-filled track, was lodged in my brain. I had only a memory of it as I wrote, though; I didn’t hear the track again until it was released, four years later, on their 2015 album The 9th.
The particular heat of a Perth summer, persevering into autumn, hangs over the section of the novel that’s set in the summer and autumn of 1991. Clara Rockmore played Gershwin’s Summertime on the theremin, and I recently found another wonderful theremin performance of it by Armen Ra. But it wasn’t only Summertime that played in my mind while I wrote; it was, more often, Too Hot To Move, the track that opens the 1989 album The Black Swan by Perth band The Triffids, and shimmers with the heat haze of a long Perth summer.
Tracy Farr is a recovering scientist and reluctant swimmer who writes novels and short stories. She owns an Etherwave theremin that she’s still learning to play. She’s Australian, but has lived in New Zealand for the past twenty years. Her debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press 2013, Aardvark Bureau 2016) was longlisted in 2014 for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and Barbara Jefferis Award. Her second novel, The Hope Fault, will be published in 2017. Find her on her website, or on Twitter @hissingswan.
Hands up if you know who Delia Derbyshire is. Don’t put them down yet. Keep them up, waft them gently and imagine you are conjuring a shimmering singing sound. That’s how you play a theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. Theremins are an abiding inspiration for my guest this week; her novel centres on the life and loves of a cellist who becomes famous in the 1920s and 30s for playing this eerie, theatrical device. Her soundtrack is an ethereal mix of Portishead, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and of course Ms Derbyshire, one of the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. And I also must mention that the novel (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt) has been nominated for several awards. She is Tracy Farr and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The 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 Women In Journalism advocate and debut novelist Meg Carter @MegCarter
Soundtrack by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins, Elvis Costello, REM, Madonna, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Patti Smith
I grew up in a house full of music – classical music. An only child, I was discouraged from playing pop music at home by my parents who were a little older and a bit more conservative than others.
Instead, I spent countless rainy weekend afternoons lying on the sofa in my father’s study imagining film visualisations of LP tracks from Walton’s Façade or Holst’s The Planets. With eyes tightly shut, music shaped my characters, plot and place.
Suddenly, music was social currency. Almost overnight, which band you liked or disliked and which non-chart acts you rated (the more obscure, the better) mattered. It defined who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ and also who we wanted to be: lover, survivor, rebel.
How earnestly we’d make each other audio tapes, too. I found one just a few years back in a drawer when we last moved house: a home recording of Freaky Styley (an early Red Hot Chili Peppers album: pre-mainstream success, of course) gifted to me by a classmate’s older brother.
And I kept thinking of this as I began work on my first novel.
The Lies We Tell is a psychological thriller about former school friends Kat and Jude. Set in the present and the late 1980s, past sequences build towards the last time the two girls saw each other: on a school trip when Jude was attacked by a stranger and Kat ran away.
This basic idea is one I’d had for some time. But for a while that was all – no who, where, when or why? Yet I knew the relationship between them would would define what happened next. Hungry for inspiration, for a creative spark, I began to replay old LPs that I’d not listened to in years.
Inside the sleeve of one I found a clutch of A4 sheets on which an old school friend had written out for me every lyric from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album… in long hand. She and I were once close then drifted apart. Yet I was intrigued by the fact I still felt deeply touched by her gesture, and grateful. I decided then that Kat and Jude had to be drawn together and – to begin with, at least – be defined by music. It just felt right.
Past and present
How best to interweave and differentiate the now and then stories in The Lies We Tell was an immediate challenge.
The musical references helped me establish time and place. But as important was its role in understanding context and mindset; music also provided me with a short cut to excavate the tangled web of teenage friendship. For example, Kat would rather listen to Elvis Costello or some early REM rather than chart hits like Phil Collins’s Groovy Kind of Love – as she proudly tells Jude on their first meeting. And when she visits Kat’s home, Jude greets her collection of early Pretenders, Bowie, and Lou Reed with a nod of approval. Musical taste is a badge of honour, a powerful means of self-differentiation and a declaration of independence, too.
As important as the role of music in the girls’ teenage years is its lack of importance in Kat’s present.
On inveigling her way way into her one-time friend’s home more than two decades later, Jude notes much of the music collection belongs not to Kat but her partner, Michael – with the exception being a collection of Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.
Without hesitation, she selects Madonna’s Like A Prayer – a track she closely associates with a buried secret that once unearthed would change both girls’ lives, forever.
The dulling of Kat’s musical interest is a reflection of the shadow cast by her past. But it is a pattern played out widely in real life too. Like many, I’ve found as careers and family move centre stage, the joy of discovering new music has been replaced by something else – a nostalgia and a craving to rediscover old favourites that transport us back to a younger, simpler life.
Kat, then, would rather not look back. Jude, however, cannot stop as for years she has navigated life’s challenges with a grim determination fuelled by an acid sense of injustice.
The intensity of Jude’s grievance is encapsulated by her misquoting of Patti Smith’s Babelogue – the spoken poem off the 1978 album Easter, which reverberates with biblical reference and death and resurrection imagery. Jude’s mis-appropriation of Smith’s meaning demonstrates the extent to which her life has become derailed.
I didn’t hear Babelogue until I was at university in the early 1980s at which point, having only encountered Smith through her UK chart hit Because the Night, I found it as shocking as it is haunting. It’s still an inspiration today.
Meg Carter worked as a journalist for 20 years before turning her hand to fiction. Her features have appeared in many newspapers, magazines and online with contributions to titles including You magazine, Independent, Guardian, Financial Times, and Radio Times. She is on the advisory committee of Women in Journalism. Meg recently relocated from west London to Bath, where she now lives with her husband and teenage son. The Lies We Tell is her first novel and is published by Canelo. You can find out more about her at http://www.megcarter.com and on Twitter @MegCarter.
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 award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell
Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles
Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)
As for the music:
…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’
Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.
A novel in stories
Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.
A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:
Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’
Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.
Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.
Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:
Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’
Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.
Chopin and chopsticks
In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:
How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’
The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?
Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:
Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’
I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.
Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by former actor and theatre director Paul Adkin @AdkinPaul
Soundtrack by Paco de Luia, Oasis, Mike Flowers Pops, Miles Davis, Schubert, JS Bach, Natalie Imbruglia, David Bowie, Stockhausen, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, Brahms, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead
When Sirens Call is replete with musical references, but the real musicality of the novel is in the writing itself. Through my work in theatre, as a writer and director, I very quickly saw the relationship between theatricality and music. In the composition of the novel When Sirens Call, I wanted to create a juxtaposition between its two protagonists and music helped me find it. In musical terms, the plot was a seductive struggle between the classical and the contemporary. Between the traditional and the actual.
Protagonist A is Belinda Babchek. A young Australian traveller, in Madrid, on her way to Greece. It’s summer. To locate the mood of the foreigner in Spain I listened to a lot of flamenco (Paco de Luia Entre Dos Aguas). I live in Madrid and frequent the flamenco bars, but I wasn’t listening to it to imbue Belinda with it. Quite the contrary. Flamenco is an alien concept to the young Australian. She is displaced and floundering before the backdrop of the Spanish guitar. Flamenco isn’t a music that one can lie back and relax with. It’s stirring and passionate, but also a disturbing symphony.
And this is Belinda’s mood in Madrid. She is walking a knife-edge between her own pop-culture of the here-and-now and a yearning for something deeper. Even though she has no idea what that deeper thing could be.
In Madrid she befriends Charo, who is more sensual than Belinda and full of jazz as well as flamenco. Charo has an American boyfriend, Troy. He is completely superficial. When drawing him I thought of Oasis’s Wonderwall, but in the cheesier, Americanised Mike Flowers Pops version.
Through Charo and her American lover I wanted to create a crossing. A little bridge inspired by Miles Davis, bleating his deeply sad Solea . Even at the beginning, the final tragedy can be sensed. Belinda, like the Solea is intense and suffering.
Protagonist B is Robert Aimard. A middle-aged British writer and hotel owner on a small Greek Island. As an antithesis to Belinda he is a classical man. A lover of Schubert and Bach. He reads Schopenhauer and like Belinda he has his demons. He is separate from a wife and daughter he still loves. Nevertheless, he is comfortable in his island exile. At home in the timelessness of it. The Greek music that flows around him is traditional, a sad drinking song , the perfect theme for his own melancholy.
The melancholy is what will eventually unite Belinda and Robert, and to bring them together I had to build another bridge over that which naturally separates them. A music connection. Although at the first glimpse, their tastes are completely different. Belinda’s own pop is Australian and 90s. She is Torn by Natalie Imbruglia and disturbed by her Australian boy friend’s Bowie. Is she running into life on her world trip or away from it?
Between Madrid and Greece she goes to Cologne in Germany. Suddenly the double mask of contemporary Europe confronts her. A mask of pop and a mask of heritage manifesting itself in the monstrous music of Stockhausen. Is this heaven or hell? In Germany she is reminded of her own musical training. Her piano classes. This was the vital detail I needed to construct that musical bridge between her and Robert Aimard. So, I made a classical bridge via the Schumanns. They had their own bridges: Schubert inspires Schumann who inspires Clara Wieck who inspires Johann Brahms. Art rolls into and through itself and the music flows and gushes through the entire process. There are other connections as well: Schumann was a manic-depressive and Belinda is a manic-depressive. She fears death by water like Schumann, like Shelley. A strong romantic theme now grows in this undercover sound track. Meanwhile Robert Aimard’s bridge to the romantic and unto Belinda is in his passion for Leonard Cohen.
All of this sounds so sad and it is, but the landscape is the Aegean. It sparkles full of life and love, and a profound simplicity. The backdrop is the life of the Greek taverna and the spectacle of the traditional Greek wedding. For the most part When Sirens Call is set on this Greek Island and its spirit is the bouzouki , grilled octopus and a glass of ouzo with ice.
Music as sublime tragedy
It is essentially a Greek book and it does end in its own Greek tragedy. For the final scene I turned to Radiohead for inspiration and their Pyramid Song. The piece is bleak but also ethereal and sublimely poetic. Both lyrics and music were perfect to set the mood for my own finish. When Sirens Call is that song.
Paul David Adkin was born in England and grew up in Melbourne where he obtained a degree in literature and drama from Rusden. Since then he has worked in the theatre, directing and writing plays. Paul moved to Madrid where he has formed three theatre companies. He his wife holiday in the Greek Islands. His short story Kalimera won the Eyelands competition in 2012 and was translated into Greek. He has three novels published: Purgatory (2012), Art Wars (2014) and now When Sirens Call. His website is here. Find him on Facebook and on Twitter as @SirensCallNovel @AdkinPaul