Posts Tagged music for writing
My guest this week has written a memoir of life as an international concert oboist, juxtaposed with a parallel narrative of a precarious and troubled personal life. I first came across her on The Literary Hub, where she wrote about how she left the very worst experience of all out of that book. It was so haunting that I contacted her and asked if there was any way she could write a piece for this series. She has, and the result is a trip through music that has helped her remember, or dredge up the times she preferred to forget, and moments when music helped her make life choices because of the clarity and discipline of playing. Stop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Marcia Butler.
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 debut novelist Leslie Welch @Leslie_Welch
Soundtrack by Dave Bielanko, Christine Smith, Chris Rattie, Gus Smith, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, The Temper Trap, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Imagine Dragons
‘We’re recording these old songs at a church in Millheim. You should stop by.’
Intrigued by the invitation, my husband and I made the 22-mile drive from our hotel in State College to the post-industrial town. Back then, Millheim was growing into the unlikely heart of a serious music scene in Central Pennsylvania. That visit would eventually work its way into a novel I didn’t know I was going to write.
Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith (of Marah fame) had enlisted our friend Chris Rattie to play drums on Mountain Minstrelsy—a collection of old mountain songs they had resurrected with new music. Given the people involved, I expected the session to be different, but we walked into an all-out revolt against modern recording. Recording based on intuition instead of algorithms. My internal monologue alternated between, ‘This is so freaking cool’ and ‘How can this possibly work?’
A tangle of cords, amps, and a giant mixing board crowded the back of the sanctuary where greeters used to welcome people to worship. Mics were set up wherever there was good, natural reverb. Not a computer in sight.
Two towheaded boys chased each other through the pews in loops around us as we checked out the set-up.
‘Who are the kids?’ I asked.
‘The taller one is our fiddle player,’ Chris said. ‘Hey, Gus! Come over and play something.’
Eight-year-old Gus scooped up his fiddle and ripped out a quick melody that sucked me into a serious religious moment. The kind of experience that makes you doubt you could ever be good at anything in your life. That’s what happens when you experience a prodigy in person. Here’s Gus Smith.
Gus, undoubtedly used to these impromptu performances, gave us a look that asked if that was enough of a demo. Before our claps faded into the narthex, he was back to the business of chasing his brother around the church.
While the idea for my novel The Goodbyes wouldn’t come for a few months, I collected plenty of inspiration at that session. Fast forward to November of 2014.
Searching for a Soundtrack
With an idea begging for a blank document and a NaNoWriMo deadline, I sat down to write. Since the story was about Webb Turner, a rock star who races through a blizzard to possibly say a final ‘goodbye’ to the girl who inspired his songs, I packed my writing playlist with songs I thought Webb might write. Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and The Temper Trap dominated the two-hour loop. But when I pressed ‘play’, I found myself skipping each track after a few seconds.
I switched over to my music library, hoping the universe would step in. Song after song, nothing kept me writing for more than a sentence until I skipped my way to the one thing I would have never chosen—Tibetan Monks chanting. Yes, really. I didn’t care what it was, it shifted me into the zone. I tapped out a chapter or two on the train ride home.
When I wasn’t writing, I listened to popular music from the 90s and early 2000s. Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Kanye West and Nickelback transported me back to the spirit of that time. These songs play in the background of a lot of scenes in the book. They’re important to the characters, too.
I finished the first draft in a month. Once I had let it rest for a few weeks, I started the slow and painful process of editing. It wasn’t long before I realised that I needed more than ‘Oms’ to paint the flesh onto the bones of the story. My filmmaker husband suggested listening to movie soundtracks for some momentum. I quickly discovered that these epic melodies, swelling and crashing without apology, are gold for writers who want to add drama to key scenes. The Great Expectations soundtrack hit an especially sweet spot for me.
When it comes to creating a writing playlist, what works for one book might not work for the next. My current manuscript likes The Lightning Strike by Snow Patrol and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. It’s a nice change, but in the end, the most important thing is finding anything that inspires me to keep moving until I can punch out the two best words in a writer’s journey: The End.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Leslie Welch spent most of her youth concocting elaborate stories. Her high school English teacher encouraged her to turn these creative lies into creative fiction. Today, Leslie writes at least 1000 words a day on DC Metro orange line trains. She co-wrote her first book in Harrisburg hotel rooms and diners with her best friend, and in 2016 she released her first solo novel, The Goodbyes, published by Blue Moon. When she’s not off exploring the world, Leslie lives in a house full of laughter outside of Washington, DC, with her soulmate, two cats, two dogs, two fish, and a teenager. Find her website here and tweet her as @Leslie_Welch
My guest this week began her novel as a NaNoWriMo project, appropriately enough for this time of year. But its true seeds were at a gig in the late 1990s where the show was stolen by an eight-year-old fiddle player. Years later, the author sat down to power through a manuscript idea for NaNoWriMo. She used songs of the 90s and early 2000s to take her mind back to the night with the fiddle player, but nothing would make the words flow until an album of Tibetan chants popped up on her music library. She found the zone. She is Leslie Welch and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her 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 writing teacher, award-winning novelist and piano tutor Kris Faatz @kfaatz925
Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Air Supply, John Mayer, Van Morrison
The first seeds of my novel To Love A Stranger came into my head in the fall of 2007. At the time, I had recently finished my grad studies in piano performance, gotten married, and started working professionally as a piano teacher. I’d written almost no fiction since high school, about 10 years earlier, and had never tried – or thought seriously about trying – to write a novel.
Stranger came out of the backstage world of the classical symphony. My two main characters, Sam and Jeannette, are a conductor and a pianist, respectively. They and their story woke up in my imagination because I had fallen in love with that particular piece of the music world, where people come together to create huge living pieces of art. Some of my favorite classical music, for solo piano and for symphony, ended up in Stranger, because I wanted to share the experience of hearing and being part of those works with readers. During the first months of writing the novel, though, I listened to very different music.
When I started the project, I had a starry-eyed idea that writing a book would take a few months and then we’d be off to publication. Pretty soon, I realized I had let myself in for worlds of trouble. I was in love with Sam, my primary character. He was clear and alive in my mind, and his story – about love and loss, and isolation and condemnation because of the person he was – felt urgent and real. I wanted to get it onto the page, but quickly realised I didn’t have the skills I needed. Frustration set in even as I tasted, for the first time, the exhilaration of a story that wanted to take root and climb for the sky.
Music pushed me along. First, I needed to anchor myself in Sam’s time and place. He was born in the early 1960s, and Stranger was ultimately set in the late 1980s, while I was born in 1979 and needed some way to touch a past I hadn’t experienced. One of the first tunes I listened to for inspiration was Bob Dylan’s Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard any Dylan before, but the tune quickly wrapped itself around my imagination. As I listened to Dylan sing, I felt myself reaching back and linking hands with people in the first crowds that thronged to hear him. I felt the energy of that time and understood why Dylan’s audiences fell in love with his candid, wistful lyrics. For a heartbeat or two, I was part of the generation that had claimed him as its voice.
From that early tune, I moved to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, and did my best to wear out my husband’s copy of it during the first year of working on Stranger. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go wasn’t just a time-anchor: it drew me a picture of a central relationship in Sam’s life, a love he had held and then felt compelled to let go. I listened to the tune over and over, caught the mood, cried over it, and did my best to put what I saw and felt on the page, as imperfect as it had to be.
“Gil,” Sam said, “listen.” He had to say something before it was too late, if only he could find the words… “I married her, but…” There it was, the simplest thing in the world. “I love you. Always. You know that, don’t you?” I never stopped loving you. I never should have left. I’m so sorry, Gil.’
I was disappointed not to be able to find a link to this tune as it’s performed on the Blood on the Tracks album. If you’ve never listened to the album, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Songs like Lonesome, about love and loss and missing the one who was gone, kept me focused as I stumbled along, trying to write the story that felt more urgent to me every day. I went to the Rolling Stones’s High Tide and Green Grass album and played Tell Me You’re Coming Back To Me over and over in my car as I drove to piano lessons. The song told me everything I needed to know about Gil, the man Sam had loved, and how Gil felt after the relationship ended. Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing At All filled the same function (as cheesy as the song sounds now to this 80s child’s ears). The thread about Sam and Gil helped pull me back into the story every time I got frustrated again with my limitations as a writer.
Stranger took far more than a few months to see through to completion. When the book was released in May, it had been almost a decade from start to finish. During those years, I realized that I wanted to be a writer even more than I wanted to be a musician, and I learned the writing craft pretty much from scratch. By the end of that journey, almost any music I heard anywhere was about Stranger in some way, or about the need for courage and persistence. As I wrap up these memories, I have to mention John Mayer’s Say (What You Need To Say) and Van Morrison’s Queen of the Slipstream, neither of which has to do with Stranger’s story, but both of which kept me writing when I didn’t want to.
Ultimately, To Love A Stranger exists because of music. The story could not have existed, or made it into the world, without the melodies that fill it and the tunes that carried me along when I needed them.
Kris Faatz’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Reed, Digging Through the Fat, and other journals. Her debut novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was released May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). She has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a fellowship recipient at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, and is a pianist and a teacher of creative writing. Visit her online at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter @kfaatz925
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
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’s post is by Leonora Meriel @leonora_meriel
Soundtrack by JS Bach, Debussy, Sofia Rotaru, Rodnya Ensemble, Ukrainian Folk Choir, Emil Krupnik
The Woman Behind the Waterfall is the story of three generations of women in a Ukrainian village. The mother, Lyuda, cannot escape the belief that she has got everything wrong in her life, and yet her seven-year-old daughter Angela challenges that belief every day. The novel covers choices and mistakes and consequences and childhood, set against the background of a Ukrainian springtime.
The writing of the novel happened in several different ways. Some I wrote as pure emotion. Some came from images I held of the Ukrainian countryside, and I wrote as a painter, working to describe the landscape with all the sensory elements, just as I had experienced it at the time. Other parts I wrote with mental purpose, seeking a way to portray an aspect of Ukrainian life in a scene that carried the story forward.
These internal and external methods of writing demanded their own music, and I developed a set of pieces that would take me to the places where I could create what was demanding to be written.
The piece of music which was listened to the most is the well known and loved Cantata 147 by Bach: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. I am not a musician, and yet this music seems to me utterly perfect. The notes and melody are so contained and precise. They hold their beauty and passion with such poise that for me, it amplifies the love and grief and heartbreak that I hear in them, and that guided me to write the character of Lyuda, who struggles to lift herself out of her sadness for the sake of her daughter, and is constantly drawn back into her guilt and self-blame.
In my second novel, The Unity Game, a speculative sci-fi tale set in Manhattan, a distant planet and the afterlife, I tried to express this idea, when one of the characters finds himself in a garden, shortly after his death:
It was as if he were listening to the most exquisite piece of music which had never been written, but was being played, somehow, because the notes, in their creation, had contained the possibility of that music within them.’
My other classical muse was Debussy. The Ukraine I set out to portray in The Woman Behind the Waterfall was the rich countryside of western Ukraine in the regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Bukovyna and the pre-Carpathians. These areas are breathtakingly beautiful and lush. They are wild and untameable and terrifyingly fertile. They are more green than you could imagine was possible and in spring, everything is growing around you from the famous ‘chorniy zemlya’ – black earth. I found that Debussy’s passionate, wild yet dream-like music reflected these scenes for me. They are sensual and surreal and beautiful, just like the spring countryside, where every sense is filled and filled – intense smells, animal and village sounds all around, colour everywhere, the heat on skin.
For my ‘mental purpose’ writing, I listened to Ukrainian folk music to write about the three generations of women, and about life in the Ukrainian village. The joy and fun of the music and focus on nature reminded me of how Ukrainians love to party – to drink, dance, laugh, sing – and this is significant in my novel as Lyuda, the mother, has trapped herself in a private world of depression away from all this happiness.
The song Chervona Ruta, sung here by Sofia Rotaru, refers to a legend which is featured in The Woman Behind the Waterfall – the night of Ivan Kupala. On this midsummer celebration, unmarried girls go through rituals to predict and attract their future husbands, including leaping over village fires and plaiting their hair in special ways. According to legend, the ‘ruta’ or rue flower, which is usually yellow, turns red for a short time on the night of Ivan Kupala, and any girl who finds the red flower will be happy in her love.
‘Shanson’ music helped me to tap into the male characters in the novel, especially when I had to write about their choices and how they would approach a situation. Shanson can be described as Soviet prison music, and usually involves one or two men growling into a microphone with a guitar, accordion and sometimes drums to accompany them. Every taxi driver in Ukraine listens to Shanson UA and it goes perfectly with driving in a country where life is hard and unpredictable. It is angry and heart-breaking and rough and cruel. Here is an example of a Ukrainian artist Emil Krupnik singing Murka.
Ukraine has an incredibly interesting culture. If any readers have been tempted by this piece, I would urge them to go and visit this wonderful and always surprising country. If time and money are limited, you could read about the western part in The Woman Behind the Waterfall.
Leonora Meriel grew up in London and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh and Queen’s University, Ontario. She worked at the United Nations in New York, and then for a law firm. In 2003 she moved to Kyiv, where she founded Ukraine’s largest internet company. She learned to speak Ukrainian and Russian, witnessed two revolutions and got to know an extraordinary country at a key period of its development. In 2008, she returned to her dream of being a writer, and completed The Woman Behind the Waterfall, set in a village in western Ukraine, published in 2016. Her second book, The Unity Game was released in May 2017. Find her on her website, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter as @leonora_meriel
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’s post is a return visit by author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Blanck Mass, Glass Animals, Johan Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Leodoris, Mark Pritchard, Mogwai, UNKLE, YouTube tropical island ambience
Kris Kristofferson came first. At the end. A slow pull-back, with Nobody Wins playing over the scrolling credits.
I’d had the Savages story pinballing around my brain for a while, but hearing Nobody Wins gave me that final scene. It underscored the logic of the story, seeped into the characters and themes. It unspooled the narrative backwards, giving me the focus to go forward.
If some kind director (Shane Meadows or Danny Boyle, please) makes a film of the book, I would insist they pack the soundtrack with the music I used to fuel the writing. Because, for me, music isn’t a lubricant or a catalyst. It’s central to the story of a novel’s creation; as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app, the epiphanies in the supermarket queue, the drafts and redrafts.
I know some writers like silence or white noise or Brahms or Schubert or Eno, but I can’t make it happen like that. I need the mood of the music to match the tone of the scene, and, while I’m at it, I like to transpose the tunes into a fantasy soundtrack of the movie of the book. (Actually, let’s go for Ben Wheatley.) With Savages, that meant the wall-of-sound headrush of Blanck Mass for the final five chapters, Mark Pritchard’s ominous minimalism for the bad blood of the mid-section, and the cataclysmic crunch of Johan Johansson’s The Beast for a pivotal scene that I wanted to read like the slow and pitiless turning of a torture-rack wheel.
Savages is the story of Joel Pearce, a suburban GP who’s looking to shake up his routine. He receives an extravagant gift for his fortieth birthday: a ‘desert island survival experience’ and, despite being a creature of home comforts, he rises to the challenge. Together with four friends, he travels to a remote tropical island in the Philippines for three weeks of indulgence and self-discovery.
It doesn’t go well.
Savages is, I hope, a thriller that plunges the reader into deeper genre waters. I wanted to write something instant and high-concept and broad, but smuggle in plenty of literary layers and contemporary obsessions. (Self-improvement, male identity, ageing, post-hedonism, the blurring of the fake and the real.)
I read plenty of genre thrillers; mostly crime and psychological. When they’re good, they can be very, very good, but when they’re bad, they can feel like dressed-up research or algorithm-friendly templates, hacked out from the walls of the deepest data mines.
Over the last year or so, the most interesting books I’ve read have dabbled with fusion. The author has taken a little from this genre, a dash from that, and moulded their story into a lateral but nourishing whole. I’m thinking of Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (sci-fi romance), Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (one man and his dog and the human condition), Adrian J Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (post-apocalyptic existentialism).
With Savages, I wanted the fusion to come from a tweak to the three-act convention. Act One is character study; family and relationship drama. Act Two is a psychological thriller; mounting tension, known unknowns. Act Three is all-out action thriller, bordering on horror. And it’s all served up with a twist inside a twist which came from that Kris Kristofferson eureka! moment.
I don’t only use music as a writing backdrop; it always seeps into the story when I’m out and about, under headphones. With any writing project, I usually have a signature song that follows me around; something that seems to connect with the story’s ambience and conflict. For Savages, it was Toes by Glass Animals, with its furtive, feline slink and talk of “divine ape-swine”. (The song is a perfect fit for the setting, as it’s clearly inspired by HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.) I also loved the brooding sensuality of Leodoris’s Run, those honking synth stabs hinting at whatever evil lurks deep in the febrile vegetation, and the way its title chimes with one of the book’s recurring ideas: progress, forward momentum, running, the urge to run when there’s nowhere to run to, the limbo between fight and flight. (UNKLE’s Panic Attack helped here, too, as did Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake, a glistening guitar meltdown that I used as pre-writing psyche-up.)
And when I had to glue myself to the writing chair in the middle of a dark and dismal winter, and cook up scenes of heat and light and powdery beaches, I turned to old YouTube, where some kind soul had stuck a static camera under a palm tree and captured an uninterrupted hour of the kind of desktop-background fantasy island described in the book. Outside my window, the North London streets glittered with frost, but in my writing cave, I was transported, tapping away to the sounds of chirping cicadas, rustling palm fronds, cresting waves. The soundtrack helped me to create an authentic bucket-list dreamworld, which I could take great pleasure reshaping into a nightmare.
Andrew Lowe is an author and editor who has written for The Guardian and Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by running, cycling and coaching youth football. Savages is out now in ebook and paperback. Audiobook coming soon. His website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him as @andylowe99
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 journalist, travel memoirist, writing coach and novelist Claire Scobie @ClaireScobie
Soundtrack by Bangarra Dance Theatre, AH.FM trance radio, James Blunt, Adele, Govinda, Joi, Handel, various Indian temples
Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel
A year into writing The Pagoda Tree I went to a performance by Bangarra, Australia’s leading Aboriginal contemporary dance company. Known for hard-hitting stories about dispossession and colonialism, spiritual resonance and mesmerising soundtracks, much of their music has been composed by David Page, one of Australia’s most brilliant and original Aboriginal composers.
And yet, my book is set in India. So why did Bangarra’s Earth & Sky soundtrack have such an impact?
When I first saw the performance in Sydney, where I live, I was just starting to navigate between the two different narratives of my novel: the Indian story largely told by Maya, a girl living in Tamil Nadu in the eighteenth-century and the story of the arrival of the British. Maya is a temple dancer and it is expected that she will become a royal courtesan for the prince himself. The year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change.
On the day of her initiation into the temple, she sees a stranger ‘dressed all in black [wearing] an unusual triangular hat. He was a foreigner. His long hair was dishevelled, his pallid complexion ghostly.’
Maya fears this is a bad omen.
The man is Walter Sutcliffe, an English reverend, who has come to Thanjavur to be a moral guide to the rabble of the English army. Over the coming years their lives will intersect – ultimately with disastrous consequences for her.
From Bangarra to Bharatanatyam and back again
Still, I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I didn’t know all of this when I started.
What I did know, though, was that nine-year-old Maya was destined to be a great dancer. Dance is the pulsating rhythm of this book: it is dance that offers Maya an escape when family tragedy strikes, enabling her to flee to the steamy port city of Madras where she meets a young Englishman, Thomas Pearce. Maya dances for the gods as well as men and her dance – Bharatanatyam – is still performed around the world today.
But initially I couldn’t connect to the intricacies of her art form. I watched many dance performances in south India during my research and I bought a stack of Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – videos as a way to understand the moves. It didn’t chime, though, and I sat and stewed in front of the keyboard.
Then I saw Bangarra’s Earth & Sky. In particular I put Weaving Part 2 from the soundtrack on repeat because its simple, rhythmic beat that builds and falls seemed to tap into the young innocence of Maya – and the misguided kindness of my English missionary character, Walter.
Walter was actually the first character who ‘came to me’ when I was visiting Thanjavur. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, in a monsoonal downpour.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Walter even if he was a man of his time. India works her magic on him, though, stripping away his moral Christian prejudices so he can face the demons of his past.
In the Bangarra performance, there is a dance sequence about the harmful impact of Christian missions in Aboriginal communities, captured in Bible Man, Broken Wing and rising to a pinnacle in the piece Victim.
All helped when I was further into writing Maya’s character and she starts to understand what the arrival of the British is going to mean for her family, community and people. Thanks to Victim, I was able to write the final climactic sequence of the novel.
Victim is like a performance song that combines the eerie sound of footsteps, prison doors locking and unlocking, violent swearing and Aboriginal voices, intercut with the monotone recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Kingdom Come / Thy Will be Done…’
Just re-listening to it now makes my heart beat faster. When I was writing the novel, it helped bring my plot strands together. In fact the entire album of Earth & Sky encapsulates this element of brokenness which I explore.
Getting into the zone
In general when I write, I don’t like music with lyrics as they stop the words that I’m trying to find in my story. Instead I like AH.FM trance radio because there are no ads and the tunes are uplifting and often anthemic. Then, once I’m writing, I tend to switch the music off and work in silence. If I get stuck, the music comes back on again.
As my novel is set against a pretty dramatic backdrop of war, famine and natural disasters, I did enlist some big pop songs to help with writing some scenes. After I’d been working on the book for around two years, I realised I was avoiding writing a particular scene with Maya’s aunt, Sita. I know enough now that if I keep avoiding something, it’s the thing that MUST be written.
It would be a plot spoiler to say what happens to Sita but James Blunt’s No Bravery got me there. Blunt served in the army before turning to song writing and this tune is about how war degrades our humanity and makes monsters of men.
Similarly, Adele’s roaring Rolling in the Deep helped as I was limping towards the end of my novel. I’d seen the last scenes very clearly 18 months before I actually wrote them. Adele’s emotional, piano-thumping beats and feisty lyrics galvanised the words to reach that fever pitch I was looking for.
Daily life in India: my main soundtrack
And then of course, there’s all the Indian music I turned to when I was writing the book in Sydney or London: Govinda’s A Modern Mantra and Joi’s India became favourites. I didn’t need it when I wrote in India because real life there provides its own sound track: temple drums wake you at four o’clock in the morning, then there’s a call to prayer from the minaret, crows cawing, monkeys shrieking, a Bollywood soap opera from the woman’s television next door, political rallies blaring out slogans on loud speakers… and so it goes throughout the day.
Except my goal wasn’t to pit these worlds against each other, which is the well-worn narrative we read so often about Raj India. Instead it was seeing how the cultures interlink and where the crossovers are. The future of the British in India wasn’t written in the 1770s and there was still a possibility of exchange between people. And at its heart, that’s what the music helped me discover – that space in-between, in that liminal world of spirit and matter, between love and hate, fear and joy. In the space between the words.
Claire Scobie is an award-winning British journalist and author who has lived and worked in the UK, India and Australia. Her travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award. She has just indie published a new memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, co-authored with her mother Patricia Scobie. Claire runs writing courses in Australia, Asia and the UK, and mentors writers one-on-one. In 2013, she completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts at Western Sydney University. The Pagoda Tree is her first novel. Her website is here, this is her Facebook page, and you can tweet her as @clairescobie
My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her 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 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