Posts Tagged JS Bach
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 process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by former actor and theatre director Paul Adkin @AdkinPaul
Soundtrack by Paco de Luia, Oasis, Mike Flowers Pops, Miles Davis, Schubert, JS Bach, Natalie Imbruglia, David Bowie, Stockhausen, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, Brahms, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead
When Sirens Call is replete with musical references, but the real musicality of the novel is in the writing itself. Through my work in theatre, as a writer and director, I very quickly saw the relationship between theatricality and music. In the composition of the novel When Sirens Call, I wanted to create a juxtaposition between its two protagonists and music helped me find it. In musical terms, the plot was a seductive struggle between the classical and the contemporary. Between the traditional and the actual.
Protagonist A is Belinda Babchek. A young Australian traveller, in Madrid, on her way to Greece. It’s summer. To locate the mood of the foreigner in Spain I listened to a lot of flamenco (Paco de Luia Entre Dos Aguas). I live in Madrid and frequent the flamenco bars, but I wasn’t listening to it to imbue Belinda with it. Quite the contrary. Flamenco is an alien concept to the young Australian. She is displaced and floundering before the backdrop of the Spanish guitar. Flamenco isn’t a music that one can lie back and relax with. It’s stirring and passionate, but also a disturbing symphony.
And this is Belinda’s mood in Madrid. She is walking a knife-edge between her own pop-culture of the here-and-now and a yearning for something deeper. Even though she has no idea what that deeper thing could be.
In Madrid she befriends Charo, who is more sensual than Belinda and full of jazz as well as flamenco. Charo has an American boyfriend, Troy. He is completely superficial. When drawing him I thought of Oasis’s Wonderwall, but in the cheesier, Americanised Mike Flowers Pops version.
Through Charo and her American lover I wanted to create a crossing. A little bridge inspired by Miles Davis, bleating his deeply sad Solea . Even at the beginning, the final tragedy can be sensed. Belinda, like the Solea is intense and suffering.
Protagonist B is Robert Aimard. A middle-aged British writer and hotel owner on a small Greek Island. As an antithesis to Belinda he is a classical man. A lover of Schubert and Bach. He reads Schopenhauer and like Belinda he has his demons. He is separate from a wife and daughter he still loves. Nevertheless, he is comfortable in his island exile. At home in the timelessness of it. The Greek music that flows around him is traditional, a sad drinking song , the perfect theme for his own melancholy.
The melancholy is what will eventually unite Belinda and Robert, and to bring them together I had to build another bridge over that which naturally separates them. A music connection. Although at the first glimpse, their tastes are completely different. Belinda’s own pop is Australian and 90s. She is Torn by Natalie Imbruglia and disturbed by her Australian boy friend’s Bowie. Is she running into life on her world trip or away from it?
Between Madrid and Greece she goes to Cologne in Germany. Suddenly the double mask of contemporary Europe confronts her. A mask of pop and a mask of heritage manifesting itself in the monstrous music of Stockhausen. Is this heaven or hell? In Germany she is reminded of her own musical training. Her piano classes. This was the vital detail I needed to construct that musical bridge between her and Robert Aimard. So, I made a classical bridge via the Schumanns. They had their own bridges: Schubert inspires Schumann who inspires Clara Wieck who inspires Johann Brahms. Art rolls into and through itself and the music flows and gushes through the entire process. There are other connections as well: Schumann was a manic-depressive and Belinda is a manic-depressive. She fears death by water like Schumann, like Shelley. A strong romantic theme now grows in this undercover sound track. Meanwhile Robert Aimard’s bridge to the romantic and unto Belinda is in his passion for Leonard Cohen.
All of this sounds so sad and it is, but the landscape is the Aegean. It sparkles full of life and love, and a profound simplicity. The backdrop is the life of the Greek taverna and the spectacle of the traditional Greek wedding. For the most part When Sirens Call is set on this Greek Island and its spirit is the bouzouki , grilled octopus and a glass of ouzo with ice.
Music as sublime tragedy
It is essentially a Greek book and it does end in its own Greek tragedy. For the final scene I turned to Radiohead for inspiration and their Pyramid Song. The piece is bleak but also ethereal and sublimely poetic. Both lyrics and music were perfect to set the mood for my own finish. When Sirens Call is that song.
Paul David Adkin was born in England and grew up in Melbourne where he obtained a degree in literature and drama from Rusden. Since then he has worked in the theatre, directing and writing plays. Paul moved to Madrid where he has formed three theatre companies. He his wife holiday in the Greek Islands. His short story Kalimera won the Eyelands competition in 2012 and was translated into Greek. He has three novels published: Purgatory (2012), Art Wars (2014) and now When Sirens Call. His website is here. Find him on Facebook and on Twitter as @SirensCallNovel @AdkinPaul
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 award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner @karenberner
Soundtrack by Icicle Works, Peter Gabriel, The Indigo Girls, The Doors, The 5th Dimension, Bach, Phil Collins
I was a singer way before I was a writer. Nothing on a grand scale, although I was asked to try out for the Lyric Opera children’s chorus, which I turned down because I hated opera and didn’t recognize the value of the musical education I would have received. What did I know? I was only ten. I settled for local variety shows, high school musicals, and choirs. Wise? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t have discovered writing.
Only natural then that music helped me create the Bibliophiles series, which revolves around members of a classics book club. Not your typical series, each book stars one or two of the book club members and tells their stories. Tragedy. Coming of Age. Romance. You never know what you’re going to get.
Small and helpless
The first is A Whisper to a Scream, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as the title of an Icicle Works song from the 80s. Most people think A Whisper to a Scream is a mystery novel, but if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it’s really about feeling small and ‘ever helpless’ in the face of a greater force, which is exactly what the book is about.
Overwhelmed stay-at-home mother of two Sarah Anderson feels adrift in a sea of diapers, Legos, and school projects. Her workaholic husband is never home, and she longs for just 10 minutes to herself to reclaim the person she was pre-kids. When she finally gets out of the house and joins a classics book club, she meets Annie Jacobs, a public relations executive. Annie’s infertility treatments send her spiraling out of control. What starts as a mere notion, a small whisper of the promise of motherhood, consumes her, whipping her into a frenzy.
The song’s happy dance beat underscores the need to surrender to circumstance, something both Sarah and Annie eventually do at the end.
Tell me Y
Having never written from a male perspective, I was worried Annie’s husband John could easily become a stereotype. After all, who do you think of when a couple is dealing with fertility issues? Not the guy.
When John sensed his marriage was coming undone, I’d listen to Peter Gabriel’s tender, yet melancholy Blood of Eden, which perfectly captured what John felt as his wife spun out of control in a vortex of hormones, emotion, and deep craving that he cannot understand. He missed the intimacy of their life before sex became mechanical.
Was this guy married to Annie too? He tipped his glass to Peter Gabriel, comrade in misery.’
A Whisper to a Scream
Several years ago, I bought the Indigo Girls album Rite of Passage. One track is Galileo, which talks about reincarnation and how many times must we go around until we finally get this life thing right. But instead of reincarnation, I envisioned a young woman who kept reinventing herself from location to location. That became Until My Soul Gets It Right, about another classics book club member, Catherine Elbert.
She was a fraud. Had been for years.’
Until My Soul Gets It Right
I’d wanted the final book in the series to be a love story. Opposites attracting is always fun, so why not bring together fastidious Anglophile computer programmer Thaddeus Mumblegarden IV and the free-spirited daughter of Hippies Spring Pearson in A Groovy Kind of Love?
The chance to delve into the 60s and the Pearsons’ background was too much fun to resist. Only a small child when the Hippies embarked on their psychedelic journey, I was drawn to their sense of freedom, something I had never felt growing up as an only child.
Every day while writing Spring’s childhood, the velvety smooth vocals of Jim Morrison in The Doors’ classic Light My Fire showed me a window to their world and explored quintessential sixties sounds. I mean, does anyone use an organ like that anymore? Aquarius belted out by the 5th Dimension and originally from the musical Hair signified pure freedom. Anything was possible if you opened your mind and let the sunshine in. That bass line underscores the funkiness of the dance. You can’t help but move.
That’s how I felt about the Pearsons. Sure, they might be potheads who left their eleven-year-old daughter in charge of their juice bar, but you can’t help but like them.
In contrast, Thaddeus’s family is traditional, and he, himself, is more formal. The Brandenburg Concertos played on repeat while writing his chapters. They helped me focus on structure and complexity. While driving, Thaddeus puts on the local classical music radio station hoping for Handel or a medieval madrigal.
Instead one of John Cage’s twentieth-century avant garde sonatas accosted him, which he immediately turned off with disgust. Better no music than that trash!’
A Groovy Kind of Love
Music helps my imagination find its sense of time and place. It’s almost hypnotic. As soon as one of my inspiration songs plays, I’m back in the 60s with the Pearsons, bouncing from coast to coast with Catherine, or drinking scotch with John. I really cannot write without it.
Karen Wojcik Berner writes contemporary women’s fiction, including the Bibliophiles series. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, and Fresh Fiction. She is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. When not writing, she can be found on the sidelines of her youngest’s football or lacrosse games, discussing the Celts with the oldest, or snuggling into a favorite reading chair with a good book and some tea. Find her on Goodreads, Facebook, her blog, Google +, and Twitter @karenberner