Posts Tagged George Gershwin
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 multi-award nominated novelist and theremin enthusiast Tracy Farr @hissingswan
Soundtrack by Portishead, Yo-Yo Ma, Pere Ubu, Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith Group, Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, Armen Ra, The Triffids, JS Bach, Saint-Saens, Ravel, George Gershwin
I usually write in silence. There are a few exceptions – albums I can play to put myself into a kind of writing trance. An album I’ve been using this way since it came out in 1994 is Portishead’s Dummy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the theremin, the musical instrument at the centre of my first novel, features (or a synth’d version of it does, at least) so strongly in Dummy’s opening track Mysterons (listen for the theremin sound kicking in at 0:12).
Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship imagined for a B-movie soundtrack, or like the low thrum and moan of a cello, warm with wood and resin and gut.
My first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, has been described as a fictional memoir. It’s the story of a musician, Lena Gaunt, and the instrument she becomes famous for playing: the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, invented in the 1920s, and played without touching.
Long before I started to write The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, I jotted notes about its main character: a musician, Lena Gaunt, born 1910. I didn’t know much more about this character I’d started to invent from thin air, but I figured she’d play the cello.
I’d become interested in writing a cellist character after a friend introduced me, in the 1990s, to Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Bach’s Six Cello Suites. It was a strange and beautiful revelation to me. I’d grown up on a diet of pop, fed by commercial radio, filtered through the great flat suburban sensibility of Perth in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I was living in Vancouver, in the 90s, my listening had shifted to PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Nirvana, Portishead, Pixies and Pulp. Ma’s rendering of the Bach suites, the sound of the unaccompanied cello, cut through the noise; it resonated, with an eerily human voice. My Lena Gaunt, I imagined, would be a perfect musician, flawless, precise, like Ma.
Electrical by nature
In the novel, Lena puts her cello aside, aged 17, and takes up the theremin. It’s another musical reference I chart back to my time in Vancouver, where I first saw the theremin played live when Pere Ubu toured their 1995 album Ray Gun Suitcase. I recall standing close to the front of the stage, mesmerised not just by the sound, but by the look (the action, the physicality, the dramatics) of the theremin; you can hear and see it when Pere Ubu play Red Sky.
It was Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin, who provided the strongest inspiration for my fictional Lena’s theremin playing. I watched film footage of Clara Rockmore playing pieces like Saint-Säens’ Le Cygne and Ravel’s Habanera, both of which I have Lena Gaunt play in the novel. Again, it was the look and physicality as much as the sound that attracted me, and that I aimed to recreate as I wrote. And while she inspired elements of Lena Gaunt, I think of Clara Rockmore as providing a reference, rather than a model, for Lena.
The lowest note in the universe
A low hum runs through this book, the hum of modernity and electronics, the low background hum of the universe; the hum of the theremin.
A low hum issues from it, the sum of the capacitance of my body, its effect on the electric currents…I raise my hands again – one to the loop, one to the wire – and hear the deep low that is almost the sound of a cello and yet is its own thing, its own sound…
I was looking beyond Clara Rockmore and her theremin for that low hum. I was inspired by women working in mid-twentieth-century electronic music – like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire – and by tracks like Derbyshire’s (as part of the band White Noise) Love Without Sound.
Lowness echoes through the novel. A very early note I made while writing it references Bowie’s 1977 album Low, the first album in his Berlin Trilogy. The drone and chant and length and lift of Warszawa – Track 1 on Side 2 of Low – rang through my mind often while I wrote.
Etherwave (which I rechristen Aetherwave in the novel) was an early name for the theremin (and is the most widely available model of modern theremin), and that prompted a clear link in my mind, a tumble of ideas from (a)ether to anaesthesia to self-medication. In the novel, Lena Gaunt smokes opiates; she uses for recreation, but also for relief.
Bowie’s substance-soaked Low was a reference point. I wanted drug use to sit lightly in the book, to be part of Lena’s character while not defining her, and I had in mind other ether/anaesthesia references, like PJ Harvey’s beautiful, sparse – and yes, (a)ethereal – When Under Ether.
Not drowning, waving
I have a complicated relationship with the sea, and it features a lot in my writing. The ‘wave’ in etherwave/aetherwave refers to sound waves, but I also wanted ocean waves present in the novel, and I wanted those waves to interact.
An early musical touchstone while I wrote was the Patti Smith Group album Wave, and the track I’d go back to again and again was Dancing Barefoot. Beyond the wave resonance of the album title, this track is full (like my novel) of benediction, addiction, strange music and heroin(e), connection and its lack.
While I was revising the novel, I saw on television a live performance by Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s of Hunt’s poem Wavesong. There was Hunt chanting the poem in his unmistakable (for New Zealanders) voice over Kilgour’s equally unmistakable guitar – and that performance, that driving, circular, resonant, wave-filled track, was lodged in my brain. I had only a memory of it as I wrote, though; I didn’t hear the track again until it was released, four years later, on their 2015 album The 9th.
The particular heat of a Perth summer, persevering into autumn, hangs over the section of the novel that’s set in the summer and autumn of 1991. Clara Rockmore played Gershwin’s Summertime on the theremin, and I recently found another wonderful theremin performance of it by Armen Ra. But it wasn’t only Summertime that played in my mind while I wrote; it was, more often, Too Hot To Move, the track that opens the 1989 album The Black Swan by Perth band The Triffids, and shimmers with the heat haze of a long Perth summer.
Tracy Farr is a recovering scientist and reluctant swimmer who writes novels and short stories. She owns an Etherwave theremin that she’s still learning to play. She’s Australian, but has lived in New Zealand for the past twenty years. Her debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press 2013, Aardvark Bureau 2016) was longlisted in 2014 for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and Barbara Jefferis Award. Her second novel, The Hope Fault, will be published in 2017. Find her on her website, or on Twitter @hissingswan.
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 wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes as Deborah Swift @swiftstory)
Soundtrack by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lena Horne, Kate Bush, George Gershwin, Larry Adler, Alison Moyet, Purcell, Led Zeppelin, Rachmaninoff, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler
Music has always been the mirror of my moods, how I am feeling is externalized by the music I play, so it is fortunate that I have eclectic tastes. When writing I prefer silence, but as I type I am aware of the echo of the music from moments before; it still hums inside me, the undertow to what I am writing.
The edge of longing
I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.
I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 , which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.
Conjuring the past
In the novel both protagonists, Rhoda and her fiancé Peter, mourn the loss of their familiar life to the outbreak of war. I found myself listening to old recordings to conjure the atmosphere of the past. My mother used to love Lena Horne’s The Man I Love (1941), and the crackling of the LP, the sudden silence when it ends, with just the needle bumping round on the record, seemed to say almost as much as the actual music. When I am working I use Youtube to plug myself into the mood of what I am writing, searching out tracks of the era I am working on. Kate Bush’s recording of the same song with Larry Adler on harmonica really spoke to me. The wailing quality of the harmonica seemed to embody Rhoda’s search for the man she loves, which is both Peter, who is missing, and the longing which is somehow not attached to any one man in particular. It is the same longing that makes me want to write, the stretching out towards a feeling I can’t name.
The story is set in WWII, but it is not about heroes. Rhoda’s fiancé Peter spends the whole war in a prisoner of war camp. But what drives the book is his intense friendships with the other men, and the fact that and he and Rhoda survive on memories of each other. Death stalks the captive prisoners and the music I listened to a lot during this phase of writing consisted of elegies to the dead. Alison Moyet’s great natural voice singing Dido’s Lament by Purcell strips away the artifice of opera to make us think nakedly about memory and how we will be remembered.
Writing historical fiction is an awkward relationship between honouring and dishonouring our relationship with the past. Gallows humour is an essential part of survival, both for Peter in the book, and for me as a writer, and I loved the recycling of an old English folk tune in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, especially the ultimate twist, when the hangman (death itself) is hanged on the gallows pole.
I like listening to the layers in music, and Gallows Pole is one piece that repays that sort of listening. That sudden mandolin! I like to pick out individual layers and will often listen over and over to the same piece, following different musical parts. I do this in the novel too; write following different narrative threads. In Past Encounters it is just two, Rhoda and Peter, in my other novels it has been more. When I edit, I do this too, follow different lines of the narrative.
Strangely, although Rhoda’s story is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, I found the Rachmaninoff score too strident and brash for the subtle feeling I needed. The Rachmaninoff score is heavy on the piano. As Nick Cave says, ‘The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of – when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.’
So the intimacy and loss I was after is there in the guitar of Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan. It is a track that was never completed from his album Infidels, and is therefore more poignant because it was almost lost. It is raw and unproduced – you can almost hear a coat button scratching on the top of the guitar as he sings of the loss of not just one blues singer, but of the loss of a whole era of blues singers. Of course really it is Mark Knopfler on guitar, not Dylan, but the impression of one man and a guitar remains. Music is like writing, a world of mirrors and illusion.
Davina Blake also writes seventeenth century novels as Deborah Swift. She lives in the North of England in a small village close to the mountains and the sea, a fact which encourages her to go out and get the fresh air that every writer needs. Past Encounters is her fifth novel, but the first published as an independent author. Tweet her as @swiftstory. Find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Davina is excited to be giving away three ebook copies of Past Encounters to commenters here. Extra entries if you share the post on Twitter, G+, Linked In, Tumblr, Facebook, Ello or anywhere else you frequent. Breathe on a bus window and write it inside a love-heart. Just remember to say in your comment here that you’ve done it!
My guest this week is one of those many writers who values silence – but is keenly aware that music is influencing what comes out on the page. She describes how music acts as a portal, letting her access moods and mental states in order to recreate them faithfully in her fiction. She describes trying to capture a state of longing and nostalgia, but without sentimentality and the soundtrack she shares here is such a treat: a Gershwin cover by Kate Bush; a Purcell lament sung by Alison Moyet. If you follow my show on Surrey Hills Radio you might hear me finding an excuse to give them airplay sometime soon. Anyway, this imaginative guest is wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes historical novels as Deborah Swift), and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.