Posts Tagged grief
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 journalist and debut novelist Andrea Darby @andreadarby27
Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Chopin, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Charles Ives
Music is both my ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch.
Listening to it can stimulate and clarify thoughts, ideas, moods and memories, but, as a pianist, with the right music, physically playing is like a cerebral, and emotional reset button. It can clear my head, force me into the moment in a way that nothing else does. When my brain gets too busy, words and ideas muddled or puzzling, or if I feel frazzled or frustrated, sitting at the keyboard can erase everything, give me a refreshed mind and fresh page.
The idea for The Husband Who Refused to Die came to me in musical packaging. It was while I was sitting in a hotel conservatory overlooking Lake Windermere, reading a magazine article about a young couple who’d signed up to be frozen – or cryonically preserved – after death, believing there was a chance that they could come back to life; one day when science has moved on.
I can’t recall whether it was playing in the background while I read the feature, or whether I heard it just before or after, but Chi Mai by Italian composer Ennio Morricone attached itself to my excited thoughts about having finally found a potential premise for my debut novel – and wouldn’t let go.
Written in 1971, Chi Mai became a popular ‘theme’ tune, featuring in the films Maddalena (1971) and Le Professionnel (1981) and reaching number 2 in the UK charts after being used for the TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.
I heard the minimalist melody often in my head whilst contemplating my book idea and the challenge of using it in a contemporary, realistic context, and subsequently played it when I imagined Dan, the deceased husband in my story, his body ‘suspended’ in a tank in a sterile, sanitized cryonics facility. The fragmented string theme, haunting yet hopeful, became his tune. In my inner ear, the main motif is infinite, repeating over and over, on a loop. I never hear the ending.
Chi Mai, meaning ‘whoever’, became the mood, and the metaphor, for Dan’s holding on, and later for his widow Carrie’s struggle to let go, not just of her husband, but also of past events and her insecurities.
Dan’s love of pop group The Beatles, which he shared with another character, his friend and Carrie’s colleague Mark, also steered me back to an old cassette I used to play in my early teenage years, and to Fool on the Hill. I’d never paid all that much attention to the lyrics, it’s always been about the bittersweet melody for me, but I thought of Dan and the words edged forwards. He could be the fool – many believe so, even Carrie, and their daughter Eleanor, on occasion – but perhaps he’s the wise one, seeing something that others can’t, or won’t.
Find their space
While writing the first draft, I was learning to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 9 no1 in B flat minor, which had been on my piano wish list for many years. In some respects, it became a mirror for the writing process. Much of it wasn’t overly difficult to grasp, due to many years of practice and experience. But there were a few phrases that challenged my technique and stretched my span, and several bars containing cross rhythms – 22 versus 12, for example – that I found particularly tricky and frustrated me greatly. After spending far too much time fighting with these difficult note groupings, both in terms of dexterity and mathematics, I finally took on board the advice of my teacher, a concert pianist, and, at times, I’m getting closer: ‘Just relax and let them find their own way into the space – don’t overthink them.’
Of course, the really accomplished pianists do just that. And without the sweat. For me, the great polish American pianist Artur Rubinstein’s version of this gave me the most pleasure. Everything seemingly effortless. Simply beautiful.
I also revisited Cactus Practice, a track inspired by this nocturne from American singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 2011 concept album Night of Hunters. Chopin’s melody is shared between Amos and her daughter in the form of an enchanting duet.
The theme of loss is central to The Husband Who Refused to Die. Carrie is left to cope with a grief that she can’t comprehend, and a lack of closure:
No body, no coffin, no earth, no ashes, no stone carved with the permanence of an epitaph. No drawing of curtains. No laying to rest.’
She’s lost her husband, yet he doesn’t see death as a full stop. He believes he can be revived. For him, it’s an ellipsis; a pause. I listened to many songs about loss, but Kate Bush’s A Coral Room seemed to capture Carrie’s struggle:
Sorrow had created huge holes in me, deep craters that I worked so hard to fill. Yet one comment, or bad experience, even a thought or memory, could open them right back up.’
I find Bush’s ballad breathtakingly beautiful, bravely personal and deeply moving. There’s a sense of reluctance to peel away the layers of grief, a fear of directly confronting the pain of losing a loved one.
I’m not sure I understand all the imagery, but I thought of Carrie in the ‘little brown jug’, an object that holds painful memories, but also prompts the jaunty old drinking song, and the lyrics of laughter: ‘ho ho ho, hee hee hee’.
Humour is Carrie’s mask, something she relies on to help her through her struggle, both with losing Dan and coping with the repercussions of his wish as she tries to move on.
When I was grappling with the rewrites of my manuscript, playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, no 3 of his Suite Bergamasque, on the piano was my escape; a refuge. I played it most days. Not just because I love Debussy’s music and consider this piece sublime. The joy of being immersed in the exquisite melodies and, harmonies, lost in the layers of sound, along with the technical demands of the music, consumes me mentally and physically. I can’t think about anything else except producing and listening to the notes; the numerous tone colours and nuances. It’s the closest I get to mindfulness, a space that allows feelings in, but rarely thoughts.
It appears there’s no such sanctuary for Carrie in the narrative. She’s a difficult character, full of contradictions, and I didn’t find her in music until the 2nd movement of American composer Charles Ives’s Symphony no 3 came on the radio during the final edits. It’s a piece I’d not heard before. The allegro, entitled Children’s Day, opens with a melody that appears to be lyrical, and a touch playful. But there are interruptions in the lines, unexpected, angular notes, bars and phrase endings, and complex harmonies and rhythms beneath. It’s as if the jaunty mood is constantly under threat, battling to dominate. There’s a sense of relief, towards the end, as things slow down and begin to settle. It becomes more melodic, maybe romantic, the texture simplified; finishing with a final, peaceful chord.
But then, in the silence, I hear Chi Mai. Again. And again.
Andrea has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, both as a writer and sub-editor on newspapers and magazines. Articles she’s written have been published in many regional and national UK titles, including Prima, Best, Take a Break, Prima Baby, Woman, Dogs Today and Cotswold Life. The Husband Who Refused to Die is her debut novel, with an original and topical cryonics premise that casts an unusual light on a story about love, loss, family and friendship. When not writing, Andrea teaches piano from her home in Gloucestershire. Find her on Twitter @andreadarby27
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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir
Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel
In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.
When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.
I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.
For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).
When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’
The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.
And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.
He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’
And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.
A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.
Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
This week’s Undercover Soundtrack is so raw and honest. Although all great books are personal journeys for the writer as well as the reader, this one has a truly traumatic back story. The writer lost a dear friend while he was drafting it, and his soundtrack is as much a journey of grief and recovery as it is the story of the novel’s making. He is award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland, and he’ll be here on Wednesday.