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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 my guest is biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber
Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster
I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.
In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.
Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.
Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.
Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.
This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.
I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins
The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.
I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.
Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.
Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.
Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).
My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.
When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.
Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.
Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks. The Centauress is her second novel. Find her on Twitter @kathyferber
GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you! The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August
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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 my guest is attorney-turned aid worker and novelist Ted Oswald @Because_We_Are
Haitian culture is intoxicating, a blend of influences transmuted into something utterly unique and notable. Haitian music is no different.
Serving as the perfect fuel for the writing of my first book, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti – a murder mystery set against the backdrop of modern-day Port-au-Prince – I often drew upon an amazing library of past and contemporary music for inspiration. Here’s the book’s trailer since it fills in a lot of the back story. For those unable to watch, in 2010, I was a law student and interned in Haiti months after the earthquake. The story is set in the community in which I worked, a notorious slum called Cité Soleil, and follows two unlikely detectives—children: brash Libète and brilliant Jak—as they try to solve the mystery behind a murdered mother and her infant child. But more than that, it’s a story about bigger themes: friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community, faith and doubt in light of tragedy, and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty.
During the drafting and revision stages, completed primarily in the US, I relied upon particular albums and songs to snap me right back to Haiti; to again feel the unrelenting sun baking my skin, to get lost in a sea of spoken Kreyol, to recall hours spent walking vibrant city streets. But beyond a cheap return trip, the music often helped to define my characters and themes.
Special mention is reserved for the track used in my book trailer, a song entitled Nibo. This version is inspired by a piece written by Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe, the original recording of which was captured by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax during a trip to Haiti. Martha Jean-Claude recorded a version with lyrics in the 70s that immediately captured my imagination. More recently, Nibo has been given new life as a choral piece, Gede Nibo, by composer Sten Kellman. Every time I hear the song’s melody — whether brought to life by a plinking piano or a 40-person acapella ensemble — it powerfully captures the mood, tone, and mystery of Because We Are.
Vodou and rock
But I didn’t just listen to this song on repeat. Konpa is a modern-day mérengue played by prominent Haitian artists like Djakout #1, T-Vice, and sometimes Wyclef Jean (of The Fugees fame). Along with MizikRasin (roots music) which blends folk Vodou elements and rock (of which Boukman Eksperyans is one notable group), acts like these could be heard emanating from countless radios across Port-au-Prince. I was particularly moved by Atis Indepandan’s folk album from the mid-70s called Ki-Sa Pou-N Fe? or What is to be Done?. Listening to any of these strains of Haitian music helped to capture the manic intensity, humor, romance, suffering, piety, resilience, ribaldry, pain, joy, and sadness that so often comingle day-to-day.
Lastly, Because We Are is a story of protest. When volunteering in Cite Soleil, I taught a regular English class for young men using socially-conscious rap and hip-hop songs. Though they weren’t Haitian, artists like Talib Kweli (The Beautiful Struggle), Mos Def (New World Water), and The Roots (Dear God 2.0) capture a view of the world from the bottom up, reflecting the lived experience of my characters Libète and Jak and the young men I taught. I often found myself coming back to these artists and songs for inspiration along the way.
While scratching only the surface, I truly hope my Undercover Soundtrack might lead you to explore some new music and delve deeper into the amazing depths of Haitian music and culture.
Ted Oswald is a public interest attorney living in Philadelphia with his wife Katharine. Written while living in Haiti, after taking the bar exam, and before beginning his new job as a lawyer, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti is Ted’s first foray into fiction. The book is published by Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. It’s available on audiobook here. Follow updates about the book and its mission as a ‘nonprofit novel’ on Twitter and Facebook. Ted can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Arthurian fantasy novelist Katherine Roberts @ReclusiveMuse
I sometimes wonder if I write fantasy because I listen to folk music with its roots in legend and myth, or if it is the other way around. Whatever came first – the music or the fantasy – I do believe that one feeds the other, and music certainly plays an important part in my books. Well, with a debut novel called Song Quest, what did you expect me to say?
Songs for the dreaming stage
Moving on ten years, and that blend of folk and Celtic music is still very much playing in the background to my work. Even though I don’t actually write to music (I need silence for the words to come out), songs definitely inspire me at the dreaming stage. I love the haunting music of Clannad, which is often used as a soundtrack in the kind of films I enjoy, and I especially love traditional ballads about fairyland, which is not as sweet or innocent a place as most children’s books would have you believe. It was one such ballad – The Elf Knight performed by Steeleye Span from their album Time – that provided the undercover soundtrack to my new Pendragon quartet about King Arthur’s daughter.
Rather like Tam Lin, kidnapped by the fairy queen to pay a seven-yearly tithe to Hell, this ballad is a fairy kidnap story, but with a handsome elf-knight charming away a mortal princess. Unknown to the princess who answers the call of his horn, the elf-knight of the ballad has already slain seven kings’ daughters, and has chosen her as his eighth victim. But the resourceful girl tricks him, waiting until he falls asleep after their lovemaking and then tying him up and stealing his own dagger to take her bloody revenge:
Seven kings’ daughters have you slain here, but the eighth of them has slain you!
Some enchanted isle
In Sword of Light my heroine Rhianna Pendragon has grown up on the enchanted isle of Avalon and is more than capable of turning the tables on any knight, fairy or mortal. But since she is a bit younger than the princess in the ballad, her elf-knight – Lord Avallach’s son, Prince Elphin –is her childhood friend and plays his enchanted harp to help Rhianna defeat her evil cousin Mordred, who has just killed King Arthur in battle at Camlann.
Inspired by the music, I even went so far as to write my own humble ballad for the book, with the verses running through the chapter headings. This is the verse from chapter 1, introducing Rhianna:
A maiden lives in Avalon’s hall,
Her spirit the purest of them all.
Brave of heart and hair aflame,
Mortal damsel with secret name…
Since there are 14 chapters and verses in total, this turned into an editor’s nightmare as Emma Goldhawk at Templar rightly pointed out that younger readers of these books might not enjoy my lazy half-rhymes in the first draft, and made me rewrite them all so they rhymed properly… well, almost. (Sorry Emma – only three more books to go!)
Of course, with Prince Mordred’s greedy eyes on the throne of Camelot, the book also has plenty of battle scenes. For these, I turned to Maddy Prior’s album Lionhearts, which is set rather later than King Arthur in the time of Richard Lionheart and the Crusades, but has an atmospheric track War Games with a background of hoofbeats and the first line, which evoked for me a wonderful image of King Arthur’s knights riding out from Camelot into battle.
So we come to a perfect example of writing feeding back into the music. I discovered Maddy had also produced an album called Arthur the King about a Dark Ages King Arthur, which perfectly fits with the setting for my books. I immediately ordered it, and am looking forward to listening to this new undercover soundtrack as I write the remaining three books in my Pendragon series: Lance of Truth, Crown of Dreams and Grail of Stars.
Clannad have already helped inspire the plot of Book 2 with their album Magical Ring, and I have a feeling I’ll be listening to quite a lot of spiritual music for the final book, so if anyone can recommend a soundtrack to help Rhianna on the final stage of her quest for the Grail, I’d love to hear from you!
Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first children’s novel Song Quest (reissued in paperback by Catnip Books). She is the author of the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, translated into 11 languages worldwide and now available as ebooks for Kindle and the Alexander the Great novel I am the Great Horse. Her new children’s fantasy series about King Arthur’s daughter Rhianna Pendragon is published by Templar with the first book Sword of Light now available in hardcover. Katherine’s website is at www.katherineroberts.co.uk and you can follow Rhianna Pendragon on Twitter at @PendragonGirl. And Katherine herself as @ReclusiveMuse
Arthurian fantasy, authors, Celtic music, Clannad, fantasy, folk music, Katherine Roberts, Maddy Prior, music, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Song Quest, soundtracks, Steeleye Span, Sword of Light, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, 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.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
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
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
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- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'