Posts Tagged Meredith Monk

The Undercover Soundtrack – Roz Morris

‘Music, the language of souls’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….

Soundtrack by Grieg, Beethoven, Michael Nyman, Bill Nelson, Daryl Runswick, Joe Jackson, Meredith Monk, Seal, Handel, Massive Attack, Emeli Sande, George Michael

Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.

That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.

My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.

A life steeped in music

My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight SonataGrieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch).  But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:

Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.

I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.

Mysterious pain

Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.

One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has

a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.

The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind.   Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.

Crazy daydream

Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.

That song created, in sound, a scene I had been feeling for. A party in a darkened house, where everyone is ‘dancing to not be there’ and Carol realises she is hoping for miracles.

‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’

Searching

What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.

Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.

Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.

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COMPETITION Win a very limited print edition of My Memories of a Future Life

Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)

The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)

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UPDATE

WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com

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Reader, she read it. Meredith Monk was here

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Scoring the novel as it unfolds – the undercover soundtrack

If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.

In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.

Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.

I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.

Q2 Music streamed a live performance from the Guggenheim in April of the Wordless Music Orchestra performing UK composer Gavin Bryars' "The Sinking of the Titanic." Photo: Q2 Music

He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.

Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.

The unexpected

In the Guggenheim "Titanic" performance, musicians were positioned at remote points along the Guggenheim's famous spiraling ramp. Photo: Q2 Music

‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses  in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his  swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.

Sweet enjoyment in the abyss

By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.

‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’

Music is a debate

Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’

All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.

The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics –  is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.

A magnifying glass for the truth

For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.

As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’

Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle and in print

Update: the lady herself is reading this blog… 

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