‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’
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 guest is Edinburgh Festival Award nominee Rebecca Mascull @RebeccaMascull
Soundtrack by Chopin, the Raconteurs, Mychael Danna
I’ve always had a soundtrack in my writing life. I’m a classically trained pianist and often think in notation, often find my fingers running up and down the table in old scales and moments from piano pieces, often find I’ve had Chopin running through my head all afternoon. It’s just the way my brain works. Having said that, the funny thing is, I cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I just can’t do it. I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a musician, that listening to music becomes an active rather than a passive pastime, and means that if trying to actively engaged in something creative, like writing a first draft, my brain can’t split itself in two and live the music and create the prose at the same time. I often think of music as architecture – the notation itself looking like rows of bricks on the page building into a structure in a particular style – classical, romantic, or whatever. And writing is like that too – the words the bricks, the sentences and paragraphs the walls building up into the mansion or the castle – the novel.
So, I don’t listen to music while I’m working. But curiously enough each of my two published novels has had a particular piece of music that has influenced them, become a catalyst for them and become a kind of ‘undercover soundtrack’ for each, as your series so cleverly names it.
Firstly, The Visitors, my debut novel. The song I will always associate with this book is Old Enough by the Raconteurs, the version featuring Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe.
The novel is about a deaf-blind girl living in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm in Kent, who is released from the prison of having no form of communication by meeting a hop-picker who teaches her the manual alphabet. So, I hear you cry, what on earth could this song possibly have to do with this novel??
Well, before I started the first draft, while it was still just an idea percolating in my head, I thought I might set this novel in the aftermath of the American Civil War. I thought the teacher who opens up the world to my deaf-blind girl might be an English woman come over to America. There was going to be a romance for the girl. Then I heard the song Old Enough, or more precisely, I saw it. My partner showed it to me on TV and I was transfixed. I loved the video set in the studio, with all these great musicians just strumming around then coming together to create this great song. I had also just started to learn the violin around that time, so loved watching the fiddle player do his stuff too. And there was something about the lyrics, this idea of a young woman thinking she’s old enough to do things, and this older, wiser voice slowing her down. It even says that she never speaks, which of course was so apt for my deaf-blind girl who is mute.
But the real hook for me and why it spoke to me about this book was that the song encapsulated for me the central romance of the book, between my deaf-blind heroine and her teacher’s brother. Without giving too much away, that song I imagined playing in my head during every scene they had together, and of course, I discovered, he too played the violin and taught her about sound by holding the instrument and feelings its vibrations.
Later I had a change of heart. I felt that the war must come later, as I wanted the teacher’s brother to go to war and so we were back to England, late Victorian/early Edwardian and the Boer War. We were in Kent now, but the song stayed with me.
In my second novel, a similar thing happened i.e. a soundtrack came to me that ostensibly had nothing to do with the setting or time of the novel. Song of the Sea Maid begins in 1730s London, and then travels to Portugal and Menorca in the 1750s. I bought a CD of C18th Portuguese ballads, which was lovely, and listened to a few Portuguese fado songs, but found out they were developed a bit too late for my setting. Around that time, I saw Life of Pi at the cinema. Wow. What an experience. Such a stunning film. Yet what stayed with me as much as the gorgeous visuals was the lush and beautiful music. I ordered the CD and listened to it in the car with my (at the time) seven-year-old daughter Poppy. Though I knew she was too young to watch the film (she’d find it too sad), she loved the music (by Mychael Danna) and so did I. I became quite obsessed with this particular track, Skinny Vegetarian Boy.
The story of Pi of course is dominated by the sea. At the cinema, the ocean fills the screen for much of the action and being in the dark surrounded by water as far as the eye could see filled my mind whenever I thought of Pi. The story of Sea Maid takes my heroine across the ocean with a certain young argumentative and reactionary sea captain to deal with. She studies islands and develops theories about ocean-going ancient cultures. The sea filled this story too. And every time I sat down to write, whenever I was with her paddling in the Mediterranean or gazing across the Atlantic at distant storms, I had the Life of Pi running through my head, and always first, that one track, its soaring Indian flute completely out of place for my eighteenth-century heroine yet somehow it went deeper than that and expressed something out of range, just beyond your reach.
It’s that atmosphere I need when I’m writing, trying to express the inexpressible. And that’s why Walter Pater said: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ It’s that abstract beauty I’m trying to reach. I’m doing my best in my own small way. And music helps me get there.
Rebecca Mascull is the author of two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton. Her first, The Visitors, was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award. Song of the Sea Maid is her latest release. Rebecca lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner Simon, their daughter Poppy and cat Tink. She has worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Find her on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter @RebeccaMascull.