Posts Tagged Kate Bush
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
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 returning for an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke
When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.
When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.
All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.
I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.
Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.
But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.
But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.
The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.
But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.
And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.
And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.
I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.
(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).
If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.
I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.
I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.
For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.
In particular, I remember a moment of revelation – a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.
It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.
Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.
The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.
I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.
I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.
Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.
But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.
It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.
The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller
‘A voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and a pained familial past’ – Philip Miller
My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 award-winning theatre practitioner Deborah Andrews
Soundtrack by Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Bjork, REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens
The further I write my way into my second novel, the more I realise the extent to which my debut novel, Walking the Lights, is drenched in music. Music is at the emotional heart of the novel. It initially speaks of Maddie’s relationship with her absent father – the songs she remembers him singing to her – and it goes on to illuminate her relationships with her friends, her lovers and, ultimately, with herself.
Walking the Lights is set in 1996/97. I was looking for connections between the personal and political – and a time that would echo Maddie’s emergence – and the culture and climate around the general election of ’97, along with the lead-up to devolution in Scotland, fitted perfectly. To help re-create the period, I read archive copies of newspapers; watched movies and read books from the era; and listened to music: Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Björk…as well as to music that Maddie would’ve listened to as a teenager: REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg.
Music plays a large role in my life. As a child, I wanted to be a dancer and I trained in dance for ten years. To me, dance was a way of giving music physical form, of being a conduit for emotion. As an adult, I love listening to music as well as singing and playing the mandolin. I can’t write while listening to music though – my attention will be drawn away and my emotions pulled by what I’m listening to. I enjoy walking and mulling over what I’m working on, and will often put my earphones in and spend time getting inside my characters’ heads and hearts.
There were two key tracks that really helped me to get to know Maddie from the inside out. The first of these was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The song relates to a carefree time in Maddie’s life when she used to go out clubbing with her friends, Jo and Roger, and it reappears – after a few dark years – with the prospect of a new romance with visual artist, Alex. I find the track hopeful yet full of longing, and I wanted to reflect something of the swelling strings in Maddie’s feelings of anticipation.
The second track was The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. This song helped define Maddie at the end of the novel: she’s been seeking love and validation, often looking in all the wrong places, and she’s been searching for her father, leading her to uncover family secrets and testing her hold on reality. She’s in recovery, and she’s reconnecting with her work in the theatre and her sense of purpose. Again, the hopefulness of the melody was important, the string motif, but also the lyrics: being held in one body while playing many parts aligns nicely with the life of an actor.
I could wax lyrical about music in the book, but in terms of music behind the book three main tracks come to mind. In 2011 I was busy rewriting, changing the novel from first person present tense to third person past tense and experimenting with free indirect speech. This was particularly important to help me create some of some of the larger, political canvases, and to take the reader close in to Maddie’s breakdown without causing confusion as to what was going on. I went to see one of my favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens, touring The Age of Adz at the Manchester Apollo. In I Want To Be Well I heard the chaos and fighting spirit that I was looking to portray in the third part of my novel. The gig itself was significant too – the massive hallucinatory spectacle, that became increasingly wild, and ended with a shedding of costumes, fancy lighting design, video and performance theatrics for a beautiful and tender acoustic rendition of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. This was the kind of spectrum I wanted my writing to encompass, and the kind of emotional adventure I wanted to take my readers on.
The second track, Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, arrived as part of a compilation from a friend while I was editing my novel. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it had a big impact on me. Again, it really resonated with what I wanted my novel to achieve, both in terms of storyline – becoming an adult and coming to terms with the loss of a father – and in terms of emotion: the sense of struggle, strength, fight and defiance. I found the power of the cello, the rising voices, the drums, the layering in the track, like a call to action. I spent several train journeys with the song on repeat, and I think it helped me find the determination to make the novel as good as I could, as well as providing true north for Maddie’s trajectory.
The third track, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ There She Goes My Beautiful World, served a similar purpose. The lyrics are poetic and talk of literary figures and inspiration – the sentiment, tune and arrangement are really kick-ass. Daft as it might sound, this track also helped me get ready to let go of my manuscript and my characters.
Novels can take years from first fragments to publication. I started writing scenes for what became Walking the Lights back in 2007. Playing a musical instrument reminds me that the basics are important, to build strength and improve technique: a lifelong development of craft. I’m always looking for my writing to have musicality – rhythm, flow, timbre, texture, growth, counterpoint – and at least one stage of my editing process involves reading my work aloud. The doubt I often feel when I start work on a new tune reminds me to keep chipping away at my writing, it shows me time and again how commitment and steady work can slowly build something complex and complete and, hopefully, moving and meaningful.
Deborah is an award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist. Her knowledge of the theatre world inspired her debut novel Walking the Lights, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. She has an MLitt (Distinction) and an AHRC-funded PhD in creative writing from Glasgow University. She now lives in Lancaster where she teaches creative writing. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently writing her second novel. For more info. please visit her website and her Facebook page.
I settled down to read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack contribution and what did I find? The writer seemed to have plundered some of my own favourite tracks. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (though if you’re as much of a Kate Bush nut as I am you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to make an orchestral hat trick with Symphony in Blue). Not only has my guest served up a stirring soundtrack, she’s also made big waves with the novel she’s showcasing – securing a position on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. She says music is the emotional heart of the novel, speaking of relationships, times, hope, love and validation. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Deborah Andrews and Walking The Lights.
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 stage and screenwriter Sandra Leigh Price @thevelvetnap
Soundtrack by Christy Moore, WB Yeats, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom
I’ve found that I’ve never been able to write in silence nor think much in quiet. Somehow in the hum of noise I hear my own thoughts flow, like a river in the distance. I always feel if I show up with pen in hand, that a river of words will wend its way to me.
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head…’
and in many ways the fire of an idea was in my head. The song was persistent and undeterred and would not leave me be. I’d first heard the song on the west coast of Ireland in my 20s and Moore’s voice had made the poem come alive to me – his voice carrying, for me, all the weight of diaspora. I thought of Heaney and his idea of fire in the head, the tradition of the druids and their poetry and I started. I wrote about a Jewish pogrom orphan who is lit up by reading the Song of the Wandering Aengus and sees ‘a glimmering girl’ sitting on the back step of an old terrace house in Sydney 1929.
As I got thicker into the writing, all sorts of images came up – birds, birds speaking, things that shine, magic, faith – when Kate Bush’s album Aerial started to resonate for me. Song after song, the double album almost feels like a novel in music. There are moments on the album where Bush sings in a call and response with a blackbird and for me, this really sparked the heart of what I was trying to write.
The first song that seemed to filter into my book was How to be Invisible. The lyrics seemed to be an almost magical refrain. The idea of being invisible, of transforming oneself, from hiding in plain sight to metamorphosis really seeped into the novel, each of the three main characters travels from the darkness to the light. Ari moves from being an orphan to knowing his past, from being under the will of his uncle to finding his own. Lily moves from hiding from her past and her grief to being comfortable in her own skin, taking herself from the side of the story to the centre. And Billy shifts from his obsession and lies to the glittering truth that comes with birdsong and the dawn.
The other album that seemed to infiltrate my imagination was Joanna Newsom’s Ys and in particular her song, Only Skin. It’s an exquisite and long song, full of wonderful images, of birds taking hair trimmings, a bird crashing into a window and thought dead, but comes back to life. Also I felt a sort of augury with the cover revealing a raven sitting with a berry in its mouth, almost ready for Aengus to attach his thread, to catch his silver trout.
This song has always been my portal back to the book, through the gaps and spaces between edits, I’d only have to listen to it to find myself back in that world of the novel, of my characters trying to find out what it was to be in their own skin. The novel starts with Billy trying to decipher Ari’s tattoo, which is forbidden in Jewish culture, the mark on Ari’s skin setting Ari apart. Lily has been defined by her skin her whole entire life, a girl with albinism in a small country town. And Billy, like a snake, always trying to shuck his own skin for another until he can shuck no more. Only Skin when I listen to it now, still gives me gooseflesh, it is truly beautiful.
And lastly the music I listened to bobbed out of the throats of birds themselves. I took to listening closely to the birds in my neighbourhood- the parrots, the currawongs, the magpies, the native doves. I even tried to find the elusive lyrebird, tramping around the bush in the Blue Mountains, but they eluded me. In my research I read of one that could sing Chopin after hearing the radio. A lyrebird is truly nature’s magician.
Sandra Leigh Price lives in Sydney, Australia. She graduated from the Australian National University, Canberra, with a double major in English literature and drama, and co-established a small theatre company before moving to Sydney to pursue a career as an actor, before turning to writing, for both stage and screen. The Bird’s Child, her debut novel, released in the UK in August 2016 and the US February 2017 and is part of a two-book deal. The second book will be released in Australia in 2017. Sandra tweets as @thevelvetnap
My guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.
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.
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