Posts Tagged death

The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrea Darby

redpianoupdate-3The 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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27

Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives

Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.

Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.

the-undercover-soundtrack-andrea-darby-1The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.

I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.

Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.

Haunting, hopeful

I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.

Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.

Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.

Find their space

While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’

Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.

Duet

I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.

The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:

No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’

She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:

Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’

I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.

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I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.

Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.

When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.

andrea-bookIt appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.

But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.

Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Steven A McKay

for logo‘Black metal for reimagining a well-known legend’

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 Steven A McKay @SA_McKay

Soundtrack by Enslaved, Behemoth, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Death

Music has been a big part of my life ever since I was a teenager and I discovered hard rock and heavy metal. Now, more than 20 years later I still have music playing constantly, from the moment I get into the car for work in the morning to when I go to bed at night with my earphones in and Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play turned up loud.

20140427_1142461Obviously then, music would be heavily involved in the creation of my two novels, Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven which are my take on the Robin Hood legend. All the familiar characters are there: Little John, Will Scarlet, Sir Richard-at-Lee etc but, in setting the books in early 14th century Yorkshire rather than 12th century Nottingham and telling it using a modern, adult style, I’d like to think I’ve taken a fresh new approach to what is a well-known legend. Music has played a massive part in that process.

For me, it’s not as simple as sticking on an Iron Maiden CD and sitting down to fire off a couple of thousand words. Sure, Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Def Leppard etc are all bands I love but the problem is I’m also a lead guitarist with a rudimentary skill in drumming and bass playing and for a while I was also singing when my band-mate and I got together with acoustic guitars to jam Led Zeppelin and the like. So, if I sit down to write with a hard rock or traditional metal song on, the writing goes out the window because I end up tapping my feet, singing along in my head and, eventually, I’ll just get up and plug in one of my guitars to pretend I’m Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Yes, in front of the mirror!

Waterfalls and white noise

Many people like to meditate to the sounds of waterfalls or waves or soft rain – white noise basically. It allows the mind to focus and blocks out any distractions from the outside world. When I write my books I like to try and capture a similar, almost ritualistic state of mind, where I can lose myself completely in the scenes I’m creating. A song like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me or Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills, as much as I like them, have such strong melodies, big choruses and are just so damn catchy that they’re completely useless for this purpose.

That’s where something a little more extreme comes in. Black metal. My novels are both set in the early 14th century, and a lot of black metal bands come from Scandinavia, where they try to recapture the essence of those Dark Medieval Times (a Satyricon album title). The music, to most listeners, is just noise. There’s little, if any melody, the drumming is often ludicrously fast and the vocals are akin to tortured screams. Lovely! That’s just what I need – you’re not likely to find yourself tapping your feet or trying to sing along to something like Havenless by Enslaved. But when you’re writing a scene about outlaws in the forests of Yorkshire sitting around a camp-fire at night, drinking ale and telling tales there’s nothing better than this song to help you invoke just the right atmosphere.

Similarly, my novels have a lot of (hopefully not gratuitous) violence in them, from one-on-one duels to the death to full-scale battles. Playing something like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name just isn’t going to do it, right? But Slaying the Prophets ov Isa (closer to death metal than black metal) by Behemoth will:

Performance

Crafting a novel isn’t all about the writing though. Certain songs, and the artist’s live performance of them, often strike a chord within us that eventually comes out in a scene. In Wolf’s Head a couple of my characters performed while pretending to be strolling minstrels. Anyone that knows me will understand exactly where that idea came from: Jethro Tull and, in particular the song Minstrel In The Gallery. Something about Tull’s music just reeks of “merry olde England” (despite the fact Ian Anderson is, like me, a Scotsman) and, while I can’t write while listening to them for the reasons described above, I DO get many of my best ideas for plot-lines while listening to them, since I have them playing in the background for most of my days.

While I’m on the subject of Tull I should mention another great folk-rock band with a flair for music inspired by the middle-ages: Fairport Convention. On their 1969 album Liege and Lief they recorded a version of the traditional song Matty Groves. I lifted the name and used it for one of the characters in my books. A reader asked if it was the same person. Maybe it is…

Wolfs-Head_ebook-FrontCoverThat’s the creating and actual writing out of the way then – what about editing and, indeed, this piece you’re reading now? Well, editing and blog writing requires much less of a shift in consciousness: there’s no need to completely lose yourself within what you’re doing. No need to allow your muse to wholly consume you. For that reason, I can listen to things with a little more groove, a little more melody and maybe even a few hooks. Like Death’s Pull the Plug, which is what I’m listening to right now (probably best not to sing along though).

Being a musician myself has come in handy when creating video trailers for my books. For Wolf’s Head I used a piece I wrote on the mandolin while The Wolf and the Raven features an Iron Maiden knock-off I wrote in my head pounding the streets of Glasgow as a meter reader. Thank you for reading (and listening)!

Steven A McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree he decided to follow a lifelong ambition and write a novel. He plays lead/acoustic guitars (and occasional bass/vocals) in a heavy metal band. He is the author of Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, which reached number 1 in Amazon’s War category. Find him on Twitter as @SA_McKay and connect with him on Facebook and his website.

GIVEAWAY Steven is offering a signed copy of Wolf’s Head to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)

 

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‘The moment of making the first sound or writing the first word is special’ – Pete Lockett

for logoMy guest this week is a percussionist who has worked with an astonishing list of world-class musicians – Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream,  Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong – and more. He found that his music fuelled a desire to write a novel, and after a good gig he would rush back to his hotel room, eager to pour out the next chapter. He says he wanted to take a simple starting point and construct an epic journey that ventured outside the normal – bringing together birth, death, the afterlife, reincarnation and immortality into new coherence, and echoing the journey he takes when working with musicians. The result is A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity; he is Pete Lockett and he’ll be here with his Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.

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