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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 novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees
Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!
To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.
A poetic novella
I now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)
I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.
Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.
I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.
Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…
The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.
My equivalent liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’ and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.
The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.
Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.
GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.
1960s, A Shadow in Yucatan, authors, Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Boer War, Bristol University, Desert Island Discs, Don McLean, drama, entertainment, history of thought, Involution - An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God, Joan Baez, Juliet Hughes-Rees, literary fiction, literary novels, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Philippa Rees, playlist for writers, poetic novella, poetic science, poetry, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
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For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
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