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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 theatre composer and debut fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock
Soundtrack by Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Sondheim, Alban Berg
I greatly admire Roz Morris’s wonderful combining of writers and their musical minds. I am excited to contribute because I am a composer, pianist, and dance accompanist who crossed over to write a fantasy series called 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. Before writing every day, I devise a playlist that is an eclectic mix of styles, and I wanted to explore how this music affects my writing. But no song expresses a character; no instrumental sets a scene in my book. So why listen to music when I write?
From scene to song
Of course music plays a part in Book One of 1001: The Qaraq – a group of souls who travel together from lifetime to lifetime. In each chapter, one of the qaraq members recalls a past life story; the present day action acts as a mainframe to enter into the memory, like the Scheherazade framing tale device in The Thousand and One Nights. Having worked in musical theater, I channel the techniques used for moving from a spoken scene in and out of a song to accomplish this shift. And some of the tales involve music: one character remembers his incarnation as Vaalat, an East African mallet instrument called a xalafon, which transfixes its audience.
On reflection, I realize the main influence music has on my writing is through the idea of hidden forms. As a composer, I love complex structural devices that we don’t hear in the music, but which shape the score. This love inspired me to construct 11 hidden structures that unify the 1001 series. Here are four examples, along with musical samples of corresponding hidden forms.
Past in the present
1. Embedding a past life story into each chapter is not so hidden, but it’s not obvious reading the first book that there will be 1001 chapters and 1001 lifetimes in the series, God help me! Frank Zappa, master musical parodist, loved to embed famous pieces of music into otherwise pop sounding tunes. In Status Back Baby, a bubble-headed high school kid’s lament is interrupted (at 1:27) by an electric quotation of the opening of Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka, then, with a cheerleader’s whistle, the jaunty song returns, mocked by the juxtaposition of kitsch and class.
Zappa, an incredible guitar virtuoso, could also be lyrical and breathtaking, with hidden rhythmic complexity, such as the beautiful Watermelon in Easter Hay.
2. In a score, motifs or longer melodies can recur in obvious or subtle ways. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion, a motif is varied incessantly, to represent the character Fosca’s obsessive, neurotic nature. In Fosca scene, we first hear it at 2:13, and it then snakes its way throughout the scene. Similarly, for each of my central characters, I reiterate a set of traits, a gesture, and a literary voice in all their incarnations. Ooma, the sexy, troubled present day incarnation of the orgy-driven Queen of the Scheherazade tale, recalls her lifetimes in a haunted stream of consciousness. Sometimes I want these tropes to help identify the central character in the incarnation; sometimes they are hidden and just help me create the character. Sahara, the main character, likes to play with her hair: in 17th Century France, we recognize her as she curls a lock of hair around her finger; but in the Ediacaran Era, she is disguised as a two-inch organism with filaments that wave in the waters on the sea floor.
3. The great master of the hidden form was Alban Berg, the Viennese composer whose opera Wozzeck rejected conventional structures like arias and duets. Berg composed each scene of this story, about an oppressed soldier who descends into madness, around a particular structure supporting the dramatic action, some old forms like fugue or march, others more abstract, like the inventions of the last act. In Wozzeck, III, 2, when Wozzeck murders his wife Marie, the hidden form of Invention on a Single Tone reveals itself (at 4:45) with a chilling crescendo. In Wozzeck, III, 4, the Invention on a Hexachord accompanies Wozzeck’s drowning (circa 3:00) as the chord washes up and down in the orchestra. Creepy brilliance.
Influenced by Berg’s superimposition of forms onto a narrative, I placed in each past life story a hidden reference to one Arabian Night. The Thousand and One Nights contains parts of stories; remember that Scheherazade interrupts her storytelling every morning to save her head, so each night she tells only part of a tale. In my writing process, I use the Nights references to add local color or suggest a character’s inner thoughts. At times I lift a whole plot line to guide a past life tale: the magical roukh from Sinbad flies in and out of the qaraq’s mythic memories of their lives on the Red Isle.
4. Despite Stravinsky’s revolutionary status, he also followed Berg’s lead and used hidden techniques like retrograde, where you take a sequence and use it backwards, or the palindrome, where a sequence is the same forwards and backwards (Madam I’m Adam, or, qaraq!). In his opera The Flood, Stravinsky depicts the deluge structurally as a palindrome (at 2:33): the seas rise with orchestral tremolos for the storm, then the music retrogrades with the receding of the waters. In 1001, the chronological order of the past lives presented in the series is a karmic palindrome. The first 500 lifetimes create issues among the characters, and the last 500 are the karmic consequences, resolved in retrograde order. If the incarnation in lifetime #251 murders incarnation #252, then in lifetime #750, the victim forgives the murderer’s incarnation #751. That’s a hidden form!
If you haven’t stopped reading and called my local asylum to come fetch me immediately, I hope you might be excited to go hunting for hidden forms, or even use them in your work. They help generate ideas you’d never think of otherwise, and at the very least they have a subconscious effect on the reader. Maybe that’s how my daily playlist influences my writing; it’s a hidden form working on a subconscious level. An Undercover Soundtrack!
Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series, more articles on writing, music, and reincarnation, and links to online tales here . Find Stephen on Facebook and email: firstname.lastname@example.org. 1001 will be an 11 book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.
SHORT BREAK The Undercover Soundtrack will take a short break but will be back in a couple of weeks.
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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 former rock singer and multi-award-winning author Warren FitzGerald @Warren_FitzG
Music is evil. It’s the Juju man messing with your head. It’s the sound of Bacardi Breezers clinking in the park when your soul is really being blasted by icy winds. And worse, perhaps, a carefully chosen trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things when really the forecast is fine.
So says one of the characters in a novel I’m working on at the moment. I agree with her: her reasons. But the conclusion I draw is different. For me music is not evil, music is awesome, powerful, magical. That’s probably something most of us feel, but perhaps I have studied its effect a little more than some because of my previous incarnation as a singer which included the joy and stress of being in a struggling rock band to the buzz of performing all over the world as a session singer to audiences as big as 20,000 people, and trust me that is awesome, powerful, magical!
The inspiration for my latest novel Tying Down The Sun came from my recent travels through South America. A heady few months in a continent booming with music. Latin Americans love their music and they love it loud. But the greater part of this novel concerns itself with a harrowing kidnapping which takes place within the beautiful jungles of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia. A place, which when I trekked through there a couple of years back, was one of the few parts on the continent so remote I did not hear music. But music has been crucial in helping me recall and verbalizethat landscape and its own intense soundtrack sung only by cicadas and silence.
The work of Argentinean musician Gustavo Santaolalla particularly from the film soundtracks for Babel and The Motorcycle Diaries was the obvious choice for me if I ever needed to recapture the atmosphere of those majestic landscapes and precious ruins I came across as I backpacked around Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. Every haunting track Santaolalla produces echoes with the vastness of the great waterways of South America, of the endless rain forests, the mountain ranges, the windswept deserts and their icy emerald lakes. If I ever for a moment forgot what it felt like to be there I would just play Deportation/Iguazu and I would be transported there once again with my characters, perched on the edge of Ciudad Perdida, the lost city, couched among jungle clad mountains which joyfully weep with silent waterfalls. And if that’s all it takes to get me back to those heart-swelling places then music (like literature) is truly magical.
Looking for freedom
The two protagonists in Tying Down The Sun are both young women looking for freedom. We first meet 14-year-old Luz as she is deciding to break away from her isolated Amazonian village and its customs which she finds barbaric, only to escape to a life as a child soldier in the National Liberation Army (ELN), taking freedom from her hostages yet soon realising she is in fact as disenfranchised as them. And we first meet Sarah as she marvels at the natural wonders and ancient indigenous cultures of South America, as she lets her hair down after finishing her degree in London, before she becomes one of those hostages herself.
Some of Sarah’s five fellow captives begin their carefree tourist trek through the rain forests equipped with I-pods to supply them with entertainment on the long nights under the stars, but as the unplanned days and weeks at gunpoint pass, the batteries die and music becomes a rare commodity. Just before the last I-pod loses power, Sarah and Luz cement their unlikely friendship by appreciating a piece by Beethoven. The same piece doesn’t do much for me, but in order to understand how it might move some of my characters I indulged in a piano recording which affects me enormously. I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi was the piece I used to get myself ‘in the zone’ because the opening few notes alone break my heart every time I hear them. Beautiful because it’s so sad, or sad because it’s so beautiful, this recording makes my heart feel like bursting, I think, because the images it conjures (long lost lovers reunited and caressing each other like blind people feeling their way, crashing waves seen silently through the window of an idyllic cottage, to name a few) are never in reality without their spoiling imperfections.
I played Te Aviso, Te Anuncio and remembered the wonderful ache in my feet as I stomped through cigarette butts and plastic cups. I played Crazy In Love and felt the luxurious sickness in my stomach when I used to twirl until everyone else disappeared.
As the reader and Sarah find out just what horrors Luz has had to endure in her young life already, they surely can’t blame her for her cynicism, but I have hope for Luz because the one word from her indigenous language of Quechua which she clings on to, despite abandoning the rest of her Amazonian roots, is tinkuy. Tinkuy means to dance, but it also means to battle. As Luz’s uncle tells her:
There is no separate word for each. It is just a matter of interpretation, a matter of context. But you have to decide which way you are going to go. Are you going to battle through life or are you going to dance?
I’ll leave the reader to decide if my hope for Luz is justified; to decide whether the novel ends with a battle or a dance.
A graduate of Warwick University and former singer in rock bands, these days Warren FitzGerald often finds himself in remote and ostensibly dangerous corners of the globe. His travel usually involves voluntary work on projects including the building of a health centre in Kibungo, Rwanda (the setting for his first novel, The Go-Away Bird), living on a rubbish dump in Nicaragua (the subject of a documentary film he is currently working on) and trekking through the combat zones and cocaine regions of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia (the setting for his new book Tying Down the Sun).Warren’s first novel, The Go-Away Bird won the Amazon Rising Stars Award 2010, Authors’ Club Best First Book Award (longlisted) 2011 and was Waterstones’ Book of the Month: Oct 2011. He lives in London. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @Warren_FitzG
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My guest this week has studied music more closely than some. His previous artistic incarnation was a rock singer – both with a band of his own and performing as a session vocalist to vast venues. (If you’re very good, we’ll include a video of him so you can see for yourself.) Now he has settled into an artform of lower decibel, but he hasn’t left music behind. His latest novel, Tying Down The Sun, is the story of a kidnap in the Sierra Nevada and he used music to help him verbalise the landscape and to mark the plight of his captive characters as their ordeal wears on. He is Warren Fitzgerald and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, incarnation, kidnap, kidnap stories, Latin America, literary fiction, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, music of Latin America, music of South America, musician-turned-writer, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, rock singer, Roz Morris, session vocalist, Sierra Nevada, singers, South America, The Undercover Soundtrack, Tying Down The Sun, undercover soundtrack, vocalists, Warren FitzGerald, writers, writing, 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 2011-2020. 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'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- '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'