Posts Tagged Gavin Bryars
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 literary novelist Corwin Ericson
It’s cold and I realize once again my ancient refrigerator is noisier than a truck. The fire in my wood stove has dwindled to embers; I recall it had been tocking and sizzling like a banshee. The well pump comes on too often; I should fix that. I don’t think my laptop has a fan, but something’s whirring inside. I have a headache; it amplifies my tinnitus. My leg is asleep. My nose is drippy.
That’s what my successful day of writing sounds like. It’s easy to ignore the household sounds – I have plenty of practice, but the music I chose was supposed to complement the writing, or at least keep me company as I worked, yet it has been forgotten. These are the jewel cases: the Dracula soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by Kronos Quartet. Low Symphony, the Bowie album as composed by Glass. Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. Divination’s Dead Slow, composed by Bill Laswell.
Crescendo and reconsider
I remember hearing the first part of Dracula. I like how it matches my own compositional pace–moves forward, forward, reaches a small crescendo, reconsiders, starts over with some variations, and moves forward again. But I don’t recall even hearing the clacking of my CD changer announcing the next disc.
All of these recordings were chosen to induce me to stay in my chair and write. And to be ignored. I don’t want to listen to insipid music, but having ignored the music means I have been concentrating well, maybe even writing productively. Now I’ve fed the stove and I’m standing over it feeling sore and peevish. It’s too smokey. This is ‘la petite mort’ of the workday of writing. I am full of regret and lassitude. I have wasted my day, my life. Later after I warm up, I’ll try it all over again, but fail, since I have to seduce myself into concentration, and I’m not going to fall for that trick again. I want a cigarette, a drink, a nap, and then someone to bring me supper.
Estonindian black metal dub
Now I’m inventing a genre of music, something for Waldena, a whale hunter from Estonindia, to blast from her boat, the “Hammer Maiden”:
This was Estonindian black metal dub. Music for wounded bears as they shrugged off tranquilizer darts. A genre so conclusively suicide-inducing, blue-ribbon Congressional panels were afraid to listen to it. If Francis Scott Key had been a ninth-century raider whose head was still throbbing and clanging from an ax-blow to the helmet, standing with one hand braced on the dragon prow of his longship watching his enemies’ tarred warships burn in an uncanny blue bituminous haze, while unseen galley slaves chanting the stroke rumbled the ship from below, he may have closed his eyes, thought of Ragnarok, and composed an anthem like this.
To write this, I am listening to the Danish band Apocalyptica’s Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, Amon Amarth’s With Oden on Our Side, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Mieskuoro Huutajat – that’s the Finnish Screaming Men choir. Putting these together does not equal Estonindian black metal dub, but it gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales. I stand in my living room imagining I’m on the prow of a Viking ship that has a motor with enough horsepower to launch it into orbit.
This time I’m feeling larkier. Music from the Penguin Cafe by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a good choice. I am trying to write about yoiking. I had been trying to listen to someone yoik about a bear in the Arctic night via my dial-up modem. This is impossible, and over the half-hour I gave to this fruitless experiment, I heard what sounded like someone dying very slowly of the hiccups. Even when I finally hear yoiking properly, it still resists description. It’s an improvisational, non-musical vocalization that has no beginning or end. It is, perhaps, cousins with yodeling and throat singing. My cat used to find all of these forms very stimulating when I attempted them. He would join in, claw me, and then flee outside. I yoik and write best when I am alone. Thank you, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, for putting my caterwauling in perspective. The absurd ongoingness of novel-writing seems amusing this dark evening.
Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell. He lives in western Massachusetts and works as a writer, editor, and professor.
If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.
In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.
Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.
I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.
He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.
Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.
‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.
Sweet enjoyment in the abyss
By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.
‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’
Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’
All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.
The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics – is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.
A magnifying glass for the truth
For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.
As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’
Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com
Update: the lady herself is reading this blog…