Posts Tagged music for writing
I settled down to read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack contribution and what did I find? The writer seemed to have plundered some of my own favourite tracks. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (though if you’re as much of a Kate Bush nut as I am you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to make an orchestral hat trick with Symphony in Blue). Not only has my guest served up a stirring soundtrack, she’s also made big waves with the novel she’s showcasing – securing a position on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. She says music is the emotional heart of the novel, speaking of relationships, times, hope, love and validation. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Deborah Andrews and Walking The Lights.
My guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.
My guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’ll be here on Wednesday.
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 cross-genre author Stephanie Carroll @CarrollBooks
Soundtrack by Dan Gibson, Helen Jane Long, Grimes, Lana Del Rey, Keane, Taylor Swift, The Paper Kites, Peter Gundry, Classical Moods
Mostly music inspires my creative spirit, but sometimes, I realize a song I’ve set on repeat happens to go with a character or part of my plot. I write historical fiction set in the Victorian and Gilded Age with a slightly Gothic edge and usually a magical twist. I listen to an eclectic mix of music while I write, but the songs that inspire me the most tend to reflect the darker side of my work.
A lot of times I’ll put on a classical station on Pandora and then a rain station on YouTube to create the perfect atmosphere. I grew up near the Mojave Desert in a town called Palmdale where it never rained, so I write in a dreary bliss when I feel like a storm is raging outside. Even some of the classical music I listen to incorporates storm sounds. In Spirit Wind, composer Dan Gibson weaved howling wind through a soft cello and piano melody. Otherwise, I enjoy a lot of modern piano like Porcelain by Helen Jane Long.
Sometimes, I’ll listen to a specific song just before I get started, kind of like a pump up routine. Such songs have varied over the years, but Oblivion by Grimes or Video Games by Lana Del Rey are good examples of the kind of haunting yet up-tempo pieces that get me going.
Gothic gilded age
My first novel, A White Room, is a Gothic Gilded Age story about a woman who clings to her sanity by secretly pursuing her dreams of nursing despite her new husband who prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. When I first started working on it, my pump up music included Keane’s Nothing in My Way and A Bad Dream. I found that the lyrics to Nothing in My Way kind of went with my main character Emeline who is trying to conform to a life she does not want and is conflicted by the desire to run away and the desire to honor her obligations.
My second novel, which I am currently prepping for submission, is tentatively titled The Binding of Saint Barbara and is the story of the first death by electrocution told through the eyes of the warden, his wife, and daughter, all of whom live in Auburn Prison during the year the condemned inmate awaits his death in 1890, New York. A major theme in this novel is forgiveness, something that I personally wrestled with during the years leading up to and during the creation of the book. At the height of that struggle, I listened to Innocent by Taylor Swift over and over because I wanted to accept not only my own innocence, but also that of those who had hurt me, a lesson that was subconsciously carried into the book.
In the rain
During the editing stages of The Binding of Saint Barbara, I listened to a lot of my rain-classical combo, but also a couple power songs including Willow Tree March by The Paper Kites and Vanessa by Grimes, which touch on common symbols and themes I use in the book. The lyrics to Vanessa just so happens to correspond to the warden’s daughter, Charlotte, who is maturing into a young woman and is desperate for love even if it comes from the wrong people.
A year or so ago, I wrote a short story called Forget Me Not that was featured in Legacy: An Anthology, and at the time I was really struggling with getting older and where I was in my career. You always imagine where you’ll be when you turn a specific age, and then when you get there, it’s like, ah man. So being the creepy little writer I am, I took that feeling and turned it into a piece about a woman named Lauraline who lives in historical Colma, California, a town of nothing but cemeteries. Lauraline knows she will die in three days without having accomplished anything significant in her life, so she sets out to do something memorable before time runs out. I really wanted to create an eerie and heartwarmingly tragic atmosphere, so I listened to some gloomy pieces like The Shadow’s Bride composed by Peter Gundry and Classical Moods’ Melancholy.
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Nevada Press Association. Her debut novel A White Room was featured as a Notable Page Turner in Shelf Unbound Magazine and named 2013’s Best Cross-Genre title by USA Book News. Her short story Forget Me Not was recently featured in Legacy: An Anthology, and she also writes a blog for military wives and girlfriends called Unhinged & Empowered. Find her at www.stephaniecarroll.net or @CarrollBooks on Twitter, also at Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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 multi-translated author Toni Davidson @silemrenk
Soundtrack by Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles, Goldmund, Speedy J
Long before my first book was published I believed that the setting for writing had to be just right, that there should be a room with a view. To be a writer, there needed to be a gnarled, wooden desk strewn with the debris of streams of consciousness – an emptied glass, an ashtray brimming with Gitanes and old editions of Beckett and Huysmans. I believed that environment completely influenced the writing process, that imagination would be nurtured by being surrounded by nice things. This ideal didn’t last. Lack of money, crap housing and the onset of reality eroded romantic ideals. Besides, the external was a vain distraction. I needed, with youthful earnestness, to explore myself and what better companion than music.
Push forward and my first novel Scar Culture – a novel about the uses and abuses of psychotherapy with a dark, satirical heart – was written to what seems now a limited range of bleakness and ambience. I didn’t want words, sung or spoken, to fill or influence creative pauses, so I chose the airy drones of Eno’s Ambient 1 or Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopodie. On repeat, no surprises, just layers of sound and knolls of notes that were not so much background as everywhere in my head.
Music for reading
While I struggled to get the novel published, I messed around with its structure, excerpting one voice then another and made my own music to accompany a reading. It was simple stuff, a soundscape of pads and dripping sounds. Arty no doubt, especially when I sampled sentences from the text into the recording. It was of its time for sure but I enjoyed amplifying my voice so that it had to fight with the music I created. This wasn’t a bad thing. To fight one’s own words as a writer is to be a creative pugilist. It’s no use being in harmony all the time, such melodic reassurance can be counteractive. Sometimes dissonance can expose expectation – a prime example of this is Stravinsky’s first performance of Rite of Spring.
Music became more embedded in my writing process when I moved to Vietnam with my girlfriend. Over the five years I stayed there, I became a different kind of writer and a different responder. I was not making music any more, I was not going out listening to music any more, most music I heard was in my headphones. My Gun Was As Tall As Me, my second novel, is set in a SE Asian country and it is crucial that the atmosphere of the novel is as dense and as humid as much of the sub-tropical environment I lived in. As I was teaching long hours in the daytime, later at night was my time to write and music helped me shift gears, to replace a working environment with a writing one.
One artist dominated the writing of the novel. Max Richter’s Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks became entwined with my writing head. The music was both juxtaposition to my sub-tropical environment with its cold synth washes, the echoing footsteps of European noir and a compliment. Within the music, the soaring then plaintive roller-coastering melody fitted perfectly with the distressing narrative of the novel; hope lifting the spirits and then horror torturing them. The music became a faithful companion as I wrote about the fate of Internally Displaced People in Burma. For sure, the music influenced the writing of the book; it released emotions that helped me get beyond the mechanics of writing and into the soul of the story.
Toying with expectation
By the time I started writing my third novel, The Alpine Casanovas, writing now had its own playlist. Gone were the days when a CD would need to be found just at the wrong moment. I could create a playlist and shuffle around, toying with expectation again. In the time since My Gun Was As Tall As Me, I had deepened my interest in contemporary classical music/electronica – Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules – most of who are on the Erased Tapes label. I have come to rely on the label to produce a body of work that suits my ears and the other label that does that is Type Records. In particular the mix tapes produced by label artists provide a narrative accompaniment giving the listener, as any good DJ does, a sense that the journey is more important than the destination.
And now, as I work on my next novel, Electro Birseck, the play list has expanded. Because of the length of time I take to write my novels, I like to seek new work by artists known to me – their previous work is often too associated with my own previous work. Gotta move on. This novel has music at the heart of its narrative, dance music – from disco to techno – from one generation’s drugged-up hedonism in outlandish costume to an underground music community culture in a location partitioned by ethnic differences. Truly music is now embedded fundamentally in my writing process as the playlist shuffles from the solo piano of Peter Broderick to the sequenced patterns of Rival Consoles; from Goldmund to banging sessions by Speedy J at the Boiler Room.
Above all, music means a portable environment. My original and somewhat pretentious aesthetic desires have evolved to the relative simplicity of headphones and laptop. Because of my work patterns and my relocations, I have learned to write anywhere, from hotel lobby to the beach; from station waiting rooms to a room being battered by wet season storms. Music allows me to be wherever I need to be to write. I press play and I am instantly back where I was when I left off.
Toni Davidson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His novel Scar Culture (Canongate, 1999), has been translated into nine languages. His short story collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, was published in 2008. In 2012 his second novel My Gun Was As Tall As Me, was published by Freight Books. His most recent novel, The Alpine Casanovas, also published by Freight and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015. For more visit his website: tonidavidson.com. And find him on Twitter @silemrenk
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 multi-award nominated novelist and theremin enthusiast Tracy Farr @hissingswan
Soundtrack by Portishead, Yo-Yo Ma, Pere Ubu, Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith Group, Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, Armen Ra, The Triffids, JS Bach, Saint-Saens, Ravel, George Gershwin
I usually write in silence. There are a few exceptions – albums I can play to put myself into a kind of writing trance. An album I’ve been using this way since it came out in 1994 is Portishead’s Dummy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the theremin, the musical instrument at the centre of my first novel, features (or a synth’d version of it does, at least) so strongly in Dummy’s opening track Mysterons (listen for the theremin sound kicking in at 0:12).
Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship imagined for a B-movie soundtrack, or like the low thrum and moan of a cello, warm with wood and resin and gut.
My first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, has been described as a fictional memoir. It’s the story of a musician, Lena Gaunt, and the instrument she becomes famous for playing: the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, invented in the 1920s, and played without touching.
Long before I started to write The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, I jotted notes about its main character: a musician, Lena Gaunt, born 1910. I didn’t know much more about this character I’d started to invent from thin air, but I figured she’d play the cello.
I’d become interested in writing a cellist character after a friend introduced me, in the 1990s, to Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Bach’s Six Cello Suites. It was a strange and beautiful revelation to me. I’d grown up on a diet of pop, fed by commercial radio, filtered through the great flat suburban sensibility of Perth in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I was living in Vancouver, in the 90s, my listening had shifted to PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Nirvana, Portishead, Pixies and Pulp. Ma’s rendering of the Bach suites, the sound of the unaccompanied cello, cut through the noise; it resonated, with an eerily human voice. My Lena Gaunt, I imagined, would be a perfect musician, flawless, precise, like Ma.
Electrical by nature
In the novel, Lena puts her cello aside, aged 17, and takes up the theremin. It’s another musical reference I chart back to my time in Vancouver, where I first saw the theremin played live when Pere Ubu toured their 1995 album Ray Gun Suitcase. I recall standing close to the front of the stage, mesmerised not just by the sound, but by the look (the action, the physicality, the dramatics) of the theremin; you can hear and see it when Pere Ubu play Red Sky.
It was Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin, who provided the strongest inspiration for my fictional Lena’s theremin playing. I watched film footage of Clara Rockmore playing pieces like Saint-Säens’ Le Cygne and Ravel’s Habanera, both of which I have Lena Gaunt play in the novel. Again, it was the look and physicality as much as the sound that attracted me, and that I aimed to recreate as I wrote. And while she inspired elements of Lena Gaunt, I think of Clara Rockmore as providing a reference, rather than a model, for Lena.
The lowest note in the universe
A low hum runs through this book, the hum of modernity and electronics, the low background hum of the universe; the hum of the theremin.
A low hum issues from it, the sum of the capacitance of my body, its effect on the electric currents…I raise my hands again – one to the loop, one to the wire – and hear the deep low that is almost the sound of a cello and yet is its own thing, its own sound…
I was looking beyond Clara Rockmore and her theremin for that low hum. I was inspired by women working in mid-twentieth-century electronic music – like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire – and by tracks like Derbyshire’s (as part of the band White Noise) Love Without Sound.
Lowness echoes through the novel. A very early note I made while writing it references Bowie’s 1977 album Low, the first album in his Berlin Trilogy. The drone and chant and length and lift of Warszawa – Track 1 on Side 2 of Low – rang through my mind often while I wrote.
Etherwave (which I rechristen Aetherwave in the novel) was an early name for the theremin (and is the most widely available model of modern theremin), and that prompted a clear link in my mind, a tumble of ideas from (a)ether to anaesthesia to self-medication. In the novel, Lena Gaunt smokes opiates; she uses for recreation, but also for relief.
Bowie’s substance-soaked Low was a reference point. I wanted drug use to sit lightly in the book, to be part of Lena’s character while not defining her, and I had in mind other ether/anaesthesia references, like PJ Harvey’s beautiful, sparse – and yes, (a)ethereal – When Under Ether.
Not drowning, waving
I have a complicated relationship with the sea, and it features a lot in my writing. The ‘wave’ in etherwave/aetherwave refers to sound waves, but I also wanted ocean waves present in the novel, and I wanted those waves to interact.
An early musical touchstone while I wrote was the Patti Smith Group album Wave, and the track I’d go back to again and again was Dancing Barefoot. Beyond the wave resonance of the album title, this track is full (like my novel) of benediction, addiction, strange music and heroin(e), connection and its lack.
While I was revising the novel, I saw on television a live performance by Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s of Hunt’s poem Wavesong. There was Hunt chanting the poem in his unmistakable (for New Zealanders) voice over Kilgour’s equally unmistakable guitar – and that performance, that driving, circular, resonant, wave-filled track, was lodged in my brain. I had only a memory of it as I wrote, though; I didn’t hear the track again until it was released, four years later, on their 2015 album The 9th.
The particular heat of a Perth summer, persevering into autumn, hangs over the section of the novel that’s set in the summer and autumn of 1991. Clara Rockmore played Gershwin’s Summertime on the theremin, and I recently found another wonderful theremin performance of it by Armen Ra. But it wasn’t only Summertime that played in my mind while I wrote; it was, more often, Too Hot To Move, the track that opens the 1989 album The Black Swan by Perth band The Triffids, and shimmers with the heat haze of a long Perth summer.
Tracy Farr is a recovering scientist and reluctant swimmer who writes novels and short stories. She owns an Etherwave theremin that she’s still learning to play. She’s Australian, but has lived in New Zealand for the past twenty years. Her debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press 2013, Aardvark Bureau 2016) was longlisted in 2014 for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards and Barbara Jefferis Award. Her second novel, The Hope Fault, will be published in 2017. Find her on her website, or on Twitter @hissingswan.
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 short story writer, cultural magazine editor and speculative fiction author Camille Griep @camillethegriep
Soundtrack by Steely Dan, Amanda McBroom, Esthero, London Grammar, Paul Simon, Jonatha Brooke, Thomas Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Phox, Eliza Carthy, George Michael, Weekend Players, Florence + the Machine, Nick Cave
I have long been an aficionado of the journey (not to be confused with Journey), the treks taken between a home we love and a home we’ve yet to build. I’ve spent countless miles on mountain passes between my Montana birthplace and eventual homes in other parts of the state, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, even northwest Ohio. These places eventually became, and in some cases still are, home.
Journeys are an integral part of the fantasy genre, whether the travels are real or allegory. In my most recent novel, New Charity Blues, I set out to not only examine the pull one feels between an old home and a new one, but the coming of age that accompanies the realization that home is rarely static, and even if it is, the person going there is rarely unchanged from the journey itself.
When I sat down to write this book, a reimagining of the Trojan War, I listened to Steely Dan’s Home at Last on repeat. In New Charity Blues, Syd (aka Cressyda) travels from her home in the ruined City to her hometown, a walled-off bastion of perfection in a world trying to rebuild from a post-pandemic disaster. Once there, she finds herself at odds with her once best friend, the seer Cas (aka Cassandra). Home at Last holds lyrical meaning for both characters, a study of Odysseus, so changed by his journey that he can’t bring himself to disembark his ship. I played it as often as I needed in order to remember the aversion to melding worlds and experiences – a commonality for most of us who eventually leave home.
Home changes, and we ourselves are changed
I also basked in Amanda McBroom’s Dorothy, a song lamenting the Wizard of Oz heroine’s return to Kansas. In some ways, New Charity, the bastion Syd is pushed toward and enveloped in, is a sort of Oz. It’s a self-sustaining community full of safety and secrets. The magic that once imbued the town now protects the water Syd’s City so badly needs. But she’s torn, too. Memories of home, the assurance of love, the temptation of ease gives her pause – which home is home?
Like so many of us from small places, Syd is of two minds about New Charity itself. Listening to Esthero’s Country Living allowed me to remember what it was like to be in a small place, hoping to get out. Syd’s trajectory led her out and up, and, returning, she find New Charity is too narrow and too slow. She misses the sharp angles of the City and the people who had become her family. London Grammar’s Metal & Dust was a beautiful accompaniment to the character’s unrest.
These realisations – the pull between the people Syd loves, the town she once knew, and the City she promised to save were served Paul Simon’s beautifully sad Further to Fly. The song, as well as the pull of the characters, are a clear reminder that, though unrealistic, sometimes, it’s only human to want everything.
Outside the sanctuary
The relationship between best friends Syd and Cas is tested from the moment Syd arrives in New Charity. Cas all at once understands the threat Syd poses to the stasis New Charity has achieved and, at the same time, she begins to think outside the hermetic box of the Sanctuary, a religion devoted to the Spirit of the land headed up by a darkly mysterious Bishop. Though she wants to protect her friend and her home, it seems she cannot do both. She pleads with Syd to consider the consequences of her plans, and I imagine her doing so with Jonatha Brooke’s Because I Told You So playing in the background – a song that soothed me through many a tough conversation over the years.
Unlike Syd, whose circumstances of loss and need accelerated her adulthood, Cas is in some ways still a young girl. We meet her looking out over the green hills of New Charity, reflecting on the horizon. In her head, I imagine the Tallis Fantasia playing, the whole thing, from its beginning so quiet you have to sit next to the speakers to hear it to the heartswell at the eighth minute. I know this because I have felt this same swell for a piece of land, a vista, a connection and I think Cas feels it, too. As Cas falters with her identity – once so closely tied to being a twin, I listened carefully to more lush instrumental brilliance within Laura by Phox and Poor Little Me by Eliza Carthy.
Cas and Syd’s friendship is further displaced by the romance between Cas’s older brother, Troy. In her capacity as prophetess, she can see the beginning of the end, and, if she knew the song, she’d be singing George Michael’s Cowboys and Angels to both her friend and her brother.
As in life, circumstances and characters beyond their control complicate Syd and Cas’s eventual unearthing of the town’s secrets. Syd falls in love and finally allies with Cas. After a night under the stars with Troy, she wakes up knowing what to do. Crafting this scene, I studied the lyrics of Higher Ground by The Weekend Players and Rabbit Heart by Florence + the Machine.
The die is cast for the town of New Charity. In the dark moments, which I’ll not spoil here, Nick Cave’s O’Children guided the necessary tears of both characters and the writer.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to make arts by the grace of other artists like the ones above – and, of course, the countless others. Though we don’t always know whose lives – whose homes – we touch with our art, it is reassuring to know we are always building another space in which to feel free.
Camille Griep is the author of two novels: Letters to Zell (July 2015) and New Charity Blues (April 2016), both from 47North. Her recent short-form work has been featured in Synaesthesia, The Vignette Review, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She edits the literary magazines Easy Street and The Lascaux Review and lives north of Seattle with her partner Adam and a spoiled bulldog named Dutch. She is agented by Cameron McClure at Donald Maass Literary Agency. Find her on Twitter @camillethegriep or at www.camillegriep.com.
My guest this week has written a psychological thriller in which two former school friends confront a life-changing event from their past. To create their teenage years in the 1980s, the author delved into her own archives, discovering old mixtapes and an Elvis Costello LP whose sleeve contained a lyric sheet written out by a close friend. She was struck by the way music became less significant over the years. What had once been such a fierce marker of personal identity was now an emblem of a simpler time – though not necessarily for the characters in her novel. She is Women In Journalism advocate Meg Carter and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack for The Lies We Tell.