‘Music for writing the 12th century’
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 ordered mind. When I want to edit a chapter straight, my go-to long compositions are Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”: Mvt. II, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus.
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