Posts Tagged music for writers
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 SD Mayes @authormayes
Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt
Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter. Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.
We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.
Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.
Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.
One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead. But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.
Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’
In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.
Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.
Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.
Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.
‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…
The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?
Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.
Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.
Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.
It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.
SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.
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 classical oboist turned memoirist Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler
Soundtrack by Mendelssohn, Wagner, Elliott Carter, Keith Jarrett
I have always approached listening to music as an activity with dedicated purpose. When I YouTube the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, recorded in 1949 by the great Russian violinist David Oistrahk, I sit quietly. I listen intently. Whereas many use listening to music as an aural inspiration to enrich a meaningful calling such as writing, I can only view music as a powerful life force which has had profound implications for me. Because music was, for over 25 years, my profession. My memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, tells of my experiences as a professional oboist in New York City during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, in which I attempt to unpack what it takes to be a hardworking classical musician. Juxtaposed to this, my personal narrative as a damaged young woman sings in opposition, accompanied by all the dangerous life choices I made. Ultimately, discovering and then performing music actually saved my life.
I was eager to write about events that elicited exceptional results, both professional and personal, both beautiful and awful. What does being on stage at Carnegie Hall really feel like; what must a musician endure to maintain excellence; what happens when things go very wrong in a concert; and what transpires when music takes over and musicians surrender to the sway of something more powerful than themselves? But also, how might writing about the music I love tell my readers something important about me in a way that further illuminates the personal narrative of my life. All this.
When something is a forever thing, such as music, it is natural to want to be enveloped by these wonderfully organized sounds and use music as a companion to almost any activity. When writing my book, my challenge was not to decide which music might inspire me and then coax out my best work. Rather, my task was to mentally catalogue all the music I’d ever played; all the musicians with whom I’d performed; all the teachers who taught me everything and very little; all the conductors I’d dismissed because they knew nothing, or revered because they understood absolutely everything; all the concerts that changed my life, or humbled me and brought me to my knees. I had to think deeply to remember, and also dredge up what I longed to forget.
Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner will always represent a song of prescience and possibility. Performing this music in a church in New York City literally gave me the courage to wrench myself from a violent husband. This profound composition, written for the birth of Wagner’s son, touched within me a place of naïve clarity. During the concert, I became aware that my current life would need to change. This notion – an urgent imperative, actually – washed over me while I was playing the oboe. Somehow, I was able to glean the realization only through music.
When one cannot do something, there is always the option to give up if results are not reached in a reasonable time frame. But for a musician, nothing creates more urgency to succeed than a concert engagement. When I was invited to perform the Oboe Concerto by American Composer Elliott Carter, I took this difficult music into my hands, practised it, lived it, hated it, and cried a lot. All because I couldn’t play the thing. Not even close. Panic quickly set in because I was certain I’d finally be identified as the fraud any artist deeply believes themselves to be. Trying to play Carter’s music is how I became bedfellows with pure, endless failure. I’d turn over during fitful sleep and kiss this devil on the lips. Finally, after many months the music showed me the way. I ultimately mastered it and thereby found my love for it. More importantly, I learned to not allow any difficulty to dictate my future. That music lesson was a life changer.
Rock-star jazz musicians are not always odd, or unapproachable, or just too big for their britches. Sometimes they are just the nicest people on the planet. And sometimes they hire a random oboist (you) to premiere and record their oboe concerto, solely on the basis of hearing a tape of your playing. That piece is played often on classical radio stations for years and years to come. And sometimes that is a boost you badly need, because many times you are facing the next impossible piece of music. And it makes you very humble and grateful because you’ve learned that music is the great equalizer among musicians. There is no low or high; no strata of fame. No. When musicians collaborate, music is simply the smartest thing in the room. And yes, thank you, Keith Jarrett.
Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves. It is always a willing and available companion. Because when music resonates, those sounds remain in the universe forever. Sound never fully dissipates. We know this because scientists are now listening to noise that originated over a million years ago. No other art form – not visual, not drama, not dance, not even writing – can claim this distinction of eternity. Simply put, there is not a person on Earth who hasn’t connected deeply, in some way and at some time, with music. It is an aural glue to feelings, memories and hope.
Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for 25 years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in LitHub, PANK, Psychology Today Magazine, Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here and you can tweet her as @MarciaAButler
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 by award-winning novelist, poet and novella-ist Heidi James @heidipearljames
Soundtrack by Nirvana, Ane Brun, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Portishead
I’ll start with a confession – I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing or reading, or cooking or clearing up, or anything really when I’m alone. I prefer silence and birdsong. Partly I think that’s because I’ve lived all my adult life with people who love and make music, and so have been saturated by other people’s sounds and musical choices; and partly because I have a noisy, busy mind, music has been too much of a distraction, especially if I’m in company, the noise making them less easy to access or decipher.
Yet, that changed when I started writing So the Doves. One strand of the narrative is set in the late 80s and early 90s, so listening to music from that era was essential to finding my way back to the texture, smells, fashion and visuals of that time. Listening to random tunes that I’d never usually listen to, like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue’s duet, Especially for You (time hasn’t improved it to my mind) helped me visualise that world of my childhood in ways that are not part of the novel, but that would be crucial to the writing of it. Hearing Terence Trent Darby’s Wishing Well, I could see our neighbour, Martin, in his socks and sandals, his knee-length grey shorts and neatly ironed t-shirt as he polished his blue Datsun and there was my mum, her sunbed on the patio, soaking up the rays, cigarette smoke turning and rising above her.
The main characters in the novel, Marcus and Melanie, forge the first bonds of their teenage friendship from a love of music:
‘Marcus,’ she said, her voice low and soft, ‘do you honestly think that what you learn in class today will be of more value to you than what you’ll learn in Vinyl Exile? Come on.’ She stood up, raised her eyebrow and cocked her head in the direction of town. ‘Let’s go my rebellious friend.’
And so I started to listen to the music I imagined they loved and from there the characters became more complex, more rounded. I could see them and hear them when I listened to the razored bass that slices through Blew on Nirvana’s Bleach, I was there lying with them on Melanie’s bedroom floor, sympathising with their longing for the day when they would escape the misery of their/our small town. I remembered the dull rage of interminable Sundays, the relief of good friendships and the welts left from clumsy kisses and lazy punches. About a Girl could’ve been written for Melanie. She’s charismatic and bright and unlike Marcus, she can see straight to the heart of things:
It’s weird; it’s like all romance and glitter and rags; as if it isn’t enough to just be a person who doesn’t fit, because that isn’t worthy of respect.’
Vibrant and fearless, she’s the girl everyone wants to know, everyone wants to be and then she vanishes; and Marcus is alone, and left looking for a truth he won’t find, despite searching throughout his award-winning career as a journalist.
This listening started as a point of reference and research, and yet, the more I listened to music, the more I had a sense of who I had been, the music I’d loved and so I started listening to more and more, rediscovering a self and tastes that I had forgotten. The sweep and drama of Bowie’s Life on Mars, the muscled bass and guitar on Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, the slinky sorrow in Portishead’s Sour Times – the music began to reorder and disrupt the strange taxonomy of my memories, easing the writing but so much more than that too.
Music became a space, a sonic zone of suspense from the physical world. It has become a haven for me, where before it was an irritant, an oppressive force. I tuck myself inside Ane Brun’s Halo, and feel strangely held in the embrace she is singing about, her voice tender and fragile. It reminds me of fiddlehead ferns, the feathery leaves coiled tight; of nests woven from grass; of the tangled strings of cat’s cradle caught on my Nanna’s fingers.
Marcus buys Melanie a record, and it’s a precious gift, the music pressed flat into an object that exists even without the means to play it, and here I am, having sold most of my CDs and records, with a music collection that is ephemeral, spectral, comprised of airwaves and numerical codes, contained on my phone, stored in a cloud. Like the angels I believed in when I was a child.
So I’ve begun to listen to music again, for me.
Heidi James’s novel Wounding was published by Bluemoose Books in April, 2014. She was a finalist for the Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (published by Neon Press in April 2015) won the Saboteur Award. Her novella Carbon, was published in English by Blatt and in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre. So the Doves is her second novel. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @heidipearljames and on her blog/website HeidiJames.me
Pull on your boots. My guest this week had a radical change in music taste when she reached her 30s, and she hopes to convert you too – unless you’re already a fan of country. It started when she moved out of Chicago and found that the sensibilities of country singers were more in tune with her new environment. Not only that, she realised they were wry, witty storytellers, writing about characters complex enough to satisfy any novelist. Soon they were guiding the way her stories developed. So come and join a twangly, poignant chorus of Dolly Parton, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, all on the Undercover Soundtrack of Victoria Dougherty.
But I haven’t said when. I’m hoping to post as usual on Wednesday, but BT have mucked up my broadband and can’t promise they’ll have their wagons in order by then. So Victoria might be a day or two late. But she’s on her way. I guess life slows down when you’re in the country. See you soon.
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.
My guest this week has just published a collection of vignettes. They’re linked by a sense of time passing, anniversaries both happy and sad, and nostalgia. Music was the way to capture and preserve the essential moments and personal memories she wanted to examine, so the soundtrack was a soundtrack to her life too. She is Theresa Milstein and she’ll be here on Wednesday.
I had a hard time this week picking just one pull quote to represent my guest’s work. She’s a writer of two halves – historical romantic fiction and contemporary romance. And she’s now also venturing into biographical historical fiction as well. The common thread is always music. A song by Sting that evoked for her a sense of an untold angle for the Arthurian legend. Or a friend who recommended music by The Civil Wars that gave her the opening and closing lines of a modern romance. What could be more fitting with Valentine’s just around the corner? Drop by tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of Nicole Evelina.
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