Posts Tagged Handel
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 award-winning journalist, travel memoirist, writing coach and novelist Claire Scobie @ClaireScobie
Soundtrack by Bangarra Dance Theatre, AH.FM trance radio, James Blunt, Adele, Govinda, Joi, Handel, various Indian temples
Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel
A year into writing The Pagoda Tree I went to a performance by Bangarra, Australia’s leading Aboriginal contemporary dance company. Known for hard-hitting stories about dispossession and colonialism, spiritual resonance and mesmerising soundtracks, much of their music has been composed by David Page, one of Australia’s most brilliant and original Aboriginal composers.
And yet, my book is set in India. So why did Bangarra’s Earth & Sky soundtrack have such an impact?
When I first saw the performance in Sydney, where I live, I was just starting to navigate between the two different narratives of my novel: the Indian story largely told by Maya, a girl living in Tamil Nadu in the eighteenth-century and the story of the arrival of the British. Maya is a temple dancer and it is expected that she will become a royal courtesan for the prince himself. The year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change.
On the day of her initiation into the temple, she sees a stranger ‘dressed all in black [wearing] an unusual triangular hat. He was a foreigner. His long hair was dishevelled, his pallid complexion ghostly.’
Maya fears this is a bad omen.
The man is Walter Sutcliffe, an English reverend, who has come to Thanjavur to be a moral guide to the rabble of the English army. Over the coming years their lives will intersect – ultimately with disastrous consequences for her.
From Bangarra to Bharatanatyam and back again
Still, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I didn’t know all of this when I started.
What I did know, though, was that nine-year-old Maya was destined to be a great dancer. Dance is the pulsating rhythm of this book: it is dance that offers Maya an escape when family tragedy strikes, enabling her to flee to the steamy port city of Madras where she meets a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce. Maya dances for the gods as well as men and her dance – Bharatanatyam – is still performed around the world today.
But initially I couldn’t connect to the intricacies of her art form. I watched many dance performances in south India during my research and I bought a stack of Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – videos as a way to understand the moves. It didn’t chime, though, and I sat and stewed in front of the keyboard.
Then I saw Bangarra’s Earth & Sky. In particular I put Weaving Part 2 from the soundtrack on repeat because its simple, rhythmic beat that builds and falls seemed to tap into the young innocence of Maya – and the misguided kindness of my English missionary character, Walter.
Walter was actually the first character who ‘came to me’ when I was visiting Thanjavur. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, in a monsoonal downpour.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Walter even if he was a man of his time. India works her magic on him, though, stripping away his moral Christian prejudices so he can face the demons of his past.
In the Bangarra performance, there is a dance sequence about the harmful impact of Christian missions in Aboriginal communities, captured in Bible Man, Broken Wing and rising to a pinnacle in the piece Victim.
All helped when I was further into writing Maya’s character and she starts to understand what the arrival of the British is going to mean for her family, community and people. Thanks to Victim, I was able to write the final climactic sequence of the novel.
Victim is like a performance song that combines the eerie sound of footsteps, prison doors locking and unlocking, violent swearing and Aboriginal voices, intercut with the monotone recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Kingdom Come / Thy Will be Done…’
Just re-listening to it now makes my heart beat faster. When I was writing the novel, it helped bring my plot strands together. In fact the entire album of Earth & Sky encapsulates this element of brokenness which I explore.
Getting into the zone
In general when I write, I don’t like music with lyrics as they stop the words that I’m trying to find in my story. Instead I like AH.FM trance radio because there are no ads and the tunes are uplifting and often anthemic. Then, once I’m writing, I tend to switch the music off and work in silence. If I get stuck, the music comes back on again.
As my novel is set against a pretty dramatic backdrop of war, famine and natural disasters, I did enlist some big pop songs to help with writing some scenes. After I’d been working on the book for around two years, I realised I was avoiding writing a particular scene with Maya’s aunt, Sita. I know enough now that if I keep avoiding something, it’s the thing that MUST be written.
It would be a plot spoiler to say what happens to Sita but James Blunt’s No Bravery got me there. Blunt served in the army before turning to song writing and this tune is about how war degrades our humanity and makes monsters of men.
Similarly, Adele’s roaring Rolling in the Deep helped as I was limping towards the end of my novel. I’d seen the last scenes very clearly 18 months before I actually wrote them. Adele’s emotional, piano-thumping beats and feisty lyrics galvanised the words to reach that fever pitch I was looking for.
Daily life in India: my main soundtrack
And then of course, there’s all the Indian music I turned to when I was writing the book in Sydney or London: Govinda’s A Modern Mantra and Joi’s India became favourites. I didn’t need it when I wrote in India because real life there provides its own sound track: temple drums wake you at four o’clock in the morning, then there’s a call to prayer from the minaret, crows cawing, monkeys shrieking, a Bollywood soap opera from the woman’s television next door, political rallies blaring out slogans on loud speakers… and so it goes throughout the day.
Except my goal wasn’t to pit these worlds against each other, which is the well-worn narrative we read so often about Raj India. Instead it was seeing how the cultures interlink and where the crossovers are. The future of the British in India wasn’t written in the 1770s and there was still a possibility of exchange between people. And at its heart, that’s what the music helped me discover – that space in-between, in that liminal world of spirit and matter, between love and hate, fear and joy. In the space between the words.
Claire Scobie is an award-winning British journalist and author who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. She has just indie published a new memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, co-authored with her mother Patricia Scobie. Claire runs writing courses in Australia, Asia and the UK, and mentors writers one-on-one. In 2013, she completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel. Her website is here, this is her Facebook page, and you can tweet her as @clairescobie
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 guest is MFA graduate Mark Richard Beaulieu @MarkRBeaulieu
Soundtrack by Chris Isaak, Elmer Bernstein, David Darling, Alan Silvestri, CocoRosie, Hildegard von Bingen, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, Maurice Moncozet, Maurice Jarre, Natacha Atlas, Ibrahim Maalouf, Prokofiev, Steven Price, David Motion, Erik Satie, Gabriel Yared, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult, Trevor Morris, The Ting Tings, Beethoven, Handel
O, let me tell you – writing about the 12th century, you had better be listening to music. And if you are writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one must attend troubadours, trobars as my friends call them. When I understood their music, I arrived at the joy of Eleanor and what she heard.
The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor Code series. In the beginning there is passion. Modern trobar, singer-songwriter Chris Isaak’s Blue Spanish Sky underscores my writing of a 13-year-old girl’s experience of love and sorrow for a father’s sudden death far away. I replayed this theme to write of Eleanor at age 76 lying by his Spanish grave, six novels later. Establishing emotions of a medieval daughter and father who only had each other were reinforced by playing Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird, David Darling’s Children in Cello Blue, and Alan Silvestri’s Contact end credit.
The musical innovation of the 12th century was trobars composing emotions into personal songs. In The Young Life two female trobars sing to Princess Eleanor to comfort her grief after her father’s death. I wrote inspired while listening to the lament of CocoRosie singing Smokey Taboo. In performance they paint their faces in protest not sentiment, a thing that trobars used to do. I wrote this in, as Eleanor both laments the uncertain murder of her father, and protests the occupation of Aquitaine by France. CocoRosie’s haunting singing mixes a girl child’s voice with operatic glissandos like the chants of Hildegard von Bingen. As the story goes, Queen Eleanor meets Hildegard the visionary abbess crossing the Rhein. Hildegard’s soaring forest songs played in the background as I wrote of French and German pilgrim camps.
Songs with words are difficult to write by, even when voiced in another language. Sometimes I search for weeks to find the perfect music to write a section. To write my scenes for medieval children dancing in rain, a rafting solace on the Loire, and Irene’s watercourse way in Byzantium I found the unique ambient composer Laraaji. His Day of Radiance, or Cave in England played on a hand-built Harry Partch-like zither brought me the words of rain falling in color and reflecting water.
In another book of the series, The Journey East, I drafted the scene of Eleanor’s strange abduction while she slept, then rewrote it listening to Jon Hassell’s Clairvoyance. His restrained horn gave me words to describe the prelude to dreams and danger. To really get at the trobar experience a historical novelist must hear them perform on period instruments, with the force of the 12th century tongue – Occitan (OXSE-tah). Just as I imagine Queen Eleanor did. I have listened to dozens of troubadour performances, but contemporary performer Maurice Moncozet performing (translated) Rings coming in fountains, helped me imagine Queen Eleanor and her court on blankets before the song’s original medieval composer Jaufre Rudel the Prince of Blaye. Maurice’s vivid interpretation of the 12th century trobar Peire Vidal inspired writing a deeply emotional performance in the Louvre gardens. Translating and getting to know the strange Occitan singing begat a finer writing of emotion and improved dialogue.
Traveling is exciting in the mideast. Eleanor first seemed to fit with Maurice Jarre’s First Entrance to the Desert in his Lawrence of Arabia score, but ultimately an Arabic-inspired court, feast scenes, and trade in the Antioch bazaar benefited from Natacha Atlas with Shubra. Finally Peter Gabriel’s Passion evokes the rooftops and gardens of the Holy Land. Ibrahim Maalouf with his eastern-western cornet was behind a few out-of-control medieval wedding feasts.
Medieval battle in a Holy War. Please no swelling hero music. Crusaders out of supply and desperate required the sparse crudeness of Prokofiev’s The Battle On The Ice: April 5, 1242, and the entire film score of Alexander Nevsky. Supplying ominous violent scenes in empty winter also fit well with Steven Price’s Gravity.
All phases of love and sex are key. The alluring Eleanor inventing court rituals finds sublime kisses in David Motion’s Orlando film score. The art of fine love-making is evoked by Roland Pöntinen playing Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes No. 3. Lovers shift mood in Gabriel Yared’s sexy Betty Blue. Nino Rota’s 1968 Prologue to Romeo and Juliet keeps me in a frame of mind when I am editing teenage Henri Angevin falling head-over-heels for Eleanor Capet. Their families are at war when they exchange their first spark, just like the famous star-crossed lovers.
Romance is contrasted with two Lolita stories that must go further than Nabakov’s book. Eleanor’s 12-year-old sister’s imbroglio and Henri’s later seduction of a 13-year-old nymphette were set in motion by a sympathetic listening to Ennio Morricone’s Lolita Love Theme. To write of courtesans without a code where sex is all about power relied on My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult’s Dirty Little Secrets. The tense energy of sons rebelling against Henri after his elite guards murder Archbishop Thomas Becket, a reformer of a corrupt church, fit Trevor Morris’s The Borgias score.
Chaos writing. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but I actually play music when I am conceiving a character in stress. Shocked by a death and having to take action in a state of confusion, young Eleanor is written against the loud energetic Ting Tings’ Shut Up and Let Me Go.
The innovation of personal love songs intense with human emotion is a key to the 12th century. Only our generation has ever heard the infinite music of the world. A thousand troubadours came into existence, a jumping point into our era filled with the boundless music of our emotions.
Mark Richard Beaulieu grew up in Heidelberg, New York City, Texas and California, receiving an MFA from UC Davis and a BFA from Trinity University in San Antonio. He is an energetic writer, fluent on the 12th century life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a collected painter, photographer, and innovative software technologist. He lives in Escondido with his wife and pets. The Young Life is the first of six novels in the Eleanor code series. Mark can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, on his website, and on Twitter @MarkRBeaulieu