Posts Tagged dystopia

The Undercover Soundtrack – Philip Miller

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 returning for an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller

Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke

When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.

When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.

All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.

I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.

Starless

Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.

But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.

But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.

The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.

But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.

And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.

And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.

I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.

(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).

Says

If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.

Star Step

I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.

The Hounds of Love

I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.

For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.

In particular, I remember a moment of revelation –  a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.

It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.

Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.

The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.

Lento

I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.

I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.

Kathryn Joseph

Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.

But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.

It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.

The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.

Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller

 

 

 

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – JW Hicks

for logo‘A lyric; a tune; a fragment; a thrilling chord-run’

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 quirky speculative fiction and award-winning short story writer JW Hicks @TriskeleBooks

Soundtrack by Bedrich Smetana, Aaron Copland, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Tallis Scholars, Alison Krauss, Soggy Bottom Boys, Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard

Most of my better ideas are sparked by music. I have a radio in every room – yes, every room, and a disc player close to where I write. I hear a lyric, a fragment of tune, a thrilling chord-run in a classical piece, and visualise a character, feeling him or her and knowing something of their lives. That exciting moment when ideas come is a buzz that never fails to thrill. My mind is filled with the promise of a story hovering within my grasp and just dying to be told, and I shoot to the moon on an adrenaline high. Who needs drugs if ideas can make you feel like that?

jane hicks2Captured

But those sparked ideas are will-o’-the wisps; here and gone in an instant. If they’re not captured on paper or tape they’ll fly away – into another writer’s mind perhaps. I know what it’s like to lose an idea and  try in vain to recapture it. Lesson learned, I keep a notepad at hand at all times. I’ve even run soaking wet from the bathroom to scribble a few damp sentences on the pad kept on my bedside table. Crazy, I know, but once they take flight, those ideas are lost forever.

When I’m deep in writing mode and the seam runs out, I, like Worzel Gummidge, swap my writing head for a go-do-something-else head. I might clean the cooker, scrub the bathtub, or brush the cat’s black-velvet fur: necessary but easily put-off-able chores. (Have you ever tried brushing an unwilling cat?) As I clean or brush I listen to music suited to the seam that ran dry, hoping it will oil my writing wheels. I look on it as an equation: a good match between music + writing = a satisfying flow of ideas/words. In my case, most often the ploy works, the seam opens and I see my way forward.

Worlds
My debut novel Rats is a book of speculative fiction – SF, Fantasy, Dystopian? All three, if truth be told, but hopefully suitable for both YA and general readers. Rats is a journey from one world to the next – beginning in the future, ending in the past. In one world my protagonist is Bitch Singer – fighting a dictator – guerilla style. In another she is Dorrie Hart, housewife and mother – carer to a speech-impaired child. Which world is real – which life is true? And why does she wake each morning crying for a lost lover – a lover she is determined to find.

Bedrich Smetana’s Vltavaa tone painting used to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers, is the music that most suits the Wilderness chapters in Rats. Bitch Singer of the Whip Tails dreams of escaping from the Ruins and the rat-hunting troopers. Sharing that dream of freedom, her clan heads for unoccupied territory, the Wilderness, where Dictator Templeton has no sway. For me, that yearning, that dream of freedom is encapsulated in Vltava. In the joy of the river’s run and the surges of gathering strength as it flows through the forest, I am Bit, heading for the Wilderness with her clan. Hearing Vltava places me there, climbing the hills, sleeping in the forests; searching for a refuge where Rats can live free.

Solitude
Music inspires, give impetus, gives insight, but it’s the hard graft of putting words on a page that is the truth of writing. For that I need to be alone and in a quiet place.

Place is all-important. At present I write in a room with a good view of the sky. Living at the top of a hill, my sky is high, wide and handsome. Today it’s cloudy but not flat-dull, just a patchwork of grey clouds ranging from dove to near charcoal. I watch as they thin to expose hazy blue streaks when just an hour ago they had thickened to an indigo frown. Day moods and stormy night moods are stored in my memory, ready to add texture to my prose.
Emotion runs strong in Rats, like the river Vltava.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is an inspiration for forging the clan’s new life in the Wilderness. I love its peace and its joy – the sounds of a new beginning.

For deep emotion I listen to Beth Nielsen Chapman. Sand and Water got me in the mood to write a particularly harrowing scene in Rats, just as Allegri’s soul-quivering Miserere saw Bit through her traumatic journey into the unknown.

Rats Cover LARGE EBOOKIt’s not all gloom and sorrow in Rats, Alison Krauss singing Down to the River to Pray helped write the homely scenes where my freed Rats attempt to throw off the pall cast by Templeton. And let’s not forget the Soggy Bottom Boys’ Man of Constant Sorrow that jogged me through Bit’s extraordinary new life.

Last but not least I depended on the music score of Gladiator composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, to give life to certain action sequences in the novel. In fact the whole CD fits Rats perfectly – death and hunting, a Rat’s life in just three words. I still watch Gladiator, and listen to my CD of the theme music, thinking of my rebellious freedom fighters and especially of Bit, sent unwillingly on a traumatic journey into the unknown.

JW Hicks, a long-time story teller and writer of quirky tales. Her first love is speculative fiction. Her mentors – John Wyndham, Robert A Heinlein and CJ Cherryh. A prize winning short story writer, with success at the Words With Jam ‘first page’ competition, with Rats, her debut novel, now found on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. She can be found on the Triskele Books Blog.

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‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord-run’ – JW Hicks

for logoMy guest this week says that most of her better ideas are sparked by music. She keeps noise-making apparatus at the ready in every room in her house. When she’s stuck she charges up her headphones with inspirational pieces and does a hand-occupying household activity until the ideas return, which usually isn’t long. Quirky and speculative fiction is her milieu, and her short stories have won prizes. Now she’s launching her debut dystopia novel, Rats, with the Triskele books collective. She is JW Hicks and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Trevor Richardson

 for logo‘When I listen to Tom Waits I feel my brain chemistry change’

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 author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian

Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles

All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.

My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.

headshotOn my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.

Connective tissue

My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.

Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.

The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.

Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.

As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.

It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.

Smokin’

Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.

Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.

A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’

Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’

I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’

That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.

Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.

After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.

Mentors

Music also helps me get ideas.

When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.

dystopia boy frontListening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.

Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.

The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.

Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.

Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.

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‘When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my brain chemistry changing’ – Trevor Richardson

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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