Posts Tagged music that inspires writers

The Undercover Soundtrack – Katharine Grant

for logoThe 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 Royal Literary Fund Fellow, newspaper columnist, radio and TV writer and novelist Katharine Grant @KatharineGrant_

Soundtrack by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, Purcell, Alison Moyet, Aaron Neville, Lois del Rio, Scissor Sisters, Country and Western Original Artists, Shostakovich, Abba, Beethoven, Prokofiev

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 1When my writing’s going well, I’m deaf. It’s the same when I’m reading. If I’ve had music on, I don’t realise it’s finished and couldn’t tell you what it was. Yet music’s also why I write. Though I play the piano every day, I can’t play to concert standard so words are my substitute for notes. What’s in my head has to emerge somehow. If I can’t enchant you through Schubert’s lovely Impromptus, I’ll tell you a story.

Music was The Marriage Recital’s midwife. It’s the story of four nouveau rich fathers with five marriageable daughters. The young women will learn to play the piano, give a concert for young Englishmen who have titles but no fortunes, and will marry very well indeed. However, the complications are the lascivious (and French) piano teacher; the piano maker’s jealous (and musically gifted) daughter; and one of these marriageable daughters with a mating plan of her own

Repeated listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, mainly Glen Gould’s idiosyncratic 1981 rendition, meant that walking the dog, standing in the shower, staring at milk in the supermarket all had this accompanying soundtrack. In variation 30, we’re unexpectedly humming German folk songs, one of which features cabbage and turnips. Bach’s laughter was my hook. My Marriage Recital girls would learn to play these variations, and I would too: we would learn together. I didn’t have nearly so much fun or get as far as my fictional girls, and have never used the variations to quite such dramatic effect, but then I had no Monsieur Belladroit …

Physical writing

Like playing an instrument, writing is a physical as well as a mental discipline. The more you practise, the better you get. Reading your work aloud is a key editorial tool. Sorry to sound like a one-composer nut, but to learn how to listen, why not stick with the greatest master of them all? In his Art of Fugue, Bach shows how to interweave your theme through different voices. It’s not called the Art of Fugue for nothing. He practises his art through instrumental sounds; I practise mine through aspects of character.

For narrative, I go to Chopin’s BalladesBallade No. 2 is my current favourite, though that changes depending on, oh, I don’t know, the strength of my coffee, what the postie brings, the top CD on the pile. However Ballade No. 2 gets more airtime than the other three. Hear how the theme develops from sweetly innocent to wistful, through turmoil and tumult, to echo, to fury and anguish, and then that ending, the sweet innocence laden with sorrow and memory. A beautiful lesson for musicians and writers both.

So just as I couldn’t write if I didn’t read, so I couldn’t write if I didn’t listen to music, not just for emotional uplift, but for actual nuts and bolts. Luckily, neither for music nor even for research do I stick to the period in which my work-in-progress is set. Writing the de Granville trilogy and the Perfect Fire trilogy, the former set in the 12th century and the latter in the 13th, I still listened to Bach for precision. But sometimes I’d get an earworm of the heart. Moved beyond tears by opera productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, I discovered Alison Moyet’s Dido’s Lament striking just as deep, though at a different angle to, say, Marianne Beate Kielland. In writing, as in music, the same words can strike contrasting emotional chords, sometimes within the same page. Forget that. Sometimes, don’t you just want to cry ‘remember me’ along with all of human kind? Nobody does ‘remember me’ like Purcell, and isn’t remembrance partly what writing’s all about?

The Undercover Soundtrack Katharine Grant 2

Reassurance

But you can’t spend all day lamenting. After writing, I need reassurance and I get it walking through the Glasgow park, my lungs full of Aaron Neville. In Louisiana, I wait for the bit about President Coolidge and the lyric picture of the tubby clerk, notepad in hand. Makes me smile every time. Country and Western offers similar reassurance. Though I didn’t grow up with those strumming country legends, they greet me like old friends, and don’t laugh, but when I’ve had a really productive session, I abandon singing and boogie about to Los del Rio’s Macarena or Scissor Sisters’s I Don’t Feel Like Dancing. I know, I know. But nobody sees except the dog and afterwards I sit down with a spring in my fingers.

The Undercover Soundtrack - Katharine GrantI often wonder what my Marriage Recital girls would make of my music choices. I’m often surprised by them myself. It’s hard to say what Shostakovich’s Fantastic Dances or Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 in D flat major or his Barcarolle Op. 60 do for me, only that if I’d never heard them, I’d be a different writer, just as I’d be a different writer if I’d never heard Dickens read aloud or the cadences of the Book of Psalms. Music’s part of my internal internet – it’s all stored somewhere, to be sought out for reasons I don’t fully understand. I could investigate further, I suppose, but for what purpose? At the risk of sounding like Abba (thanks for the joy! thanks for the singalong!), music is a gift; the start, not the end, of my own human story and the novels I write. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet without ever hearing Beethoven’s late quartets. Chaucer without hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Now that’s real genius.

The third of seven children, Katharine Grant was brought up in Lancashire amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was hanged, drawn and quartered for supporting the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. A lock of his hair lives in a small leather case in the drawing room of her family home. As KM Grant, she writes novels for children and young adults. Her debut book, Blood Red Horse, was a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth and a USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Book for 2006. The Marriage Recital is published by Picador and is her first book for adults. A newspaper columnist, a regular contributor to Scottish television and radio, and a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow, she writes like ‘Jane Austen on crack cocaine’ (Scotsman, 2014). Katharine is not sure what Jane Austen would make of that. Find her on Twitter at @KatharineGrant_

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – AJ Waines

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a regular 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 guest is psychological thriller author AJ Waines @AJWaines

Soundtrack by Ane Brun, Angelo Badalamenti, Johan Söderqvist, Bach, Elgar, Pet Shop Boys

Music has always played a key role in my life; I started playing the piano at five (before I could reach the pedals) and the cello at nine. On a professional and recreational basis I’ve played in all of the main London concert halls; for the Queen and also for the Prime Minister at Whitehall. But it’s not just classical; my taste ranges from the early Baroque composer Allegri, through Shostakovich to the Pet Shop Boys.

AJ Waines 3As it happens, I turned to my music training to help me to learn how to write fiction and set about looking at a psychological thriller like a piece of music. It’s not hard to see instant parallels between music and writing; structure, voice, texture, layering, strands brought to the fore at any one point and strands kept simmering away in the background – they are all essential to both. Now as a writer, I tend to tune into elements such as the flow of phrases and placing of punctuation. Sentences, the building blocks of writing, have their own rhythm – you can have clunky sentences and well-paced ones. The words can suddenly stop. Start again. They can draw attention to themselves, be deliberately clunky and rough around the edges or be smooth and mellifluous. Just like music.

My father died while I was writing my third novel, Dark Place To Hide, and I found myself listening to certain soulful pieces of music that had a direct influence on the core moods in the story. Dark Place to Hide is all about secrets and betrayal entwined around two disappearances in one village. The perfect inspiration behind the first chapters, which focus on loss and confusion, came from an episode of the TV series Wallender, The Opening, by Ane Brun.

This sublime song helped to crystallise sections such as this:

I wake and in those first fuddled moments forget you’re not here. I must have been dreaming about you – a tense, erotic dream. I reach out in bed to the place where your body should be. It’s cold and there is no hollow. Even the bed is forgetting you.

The song is about trying to move forward when you find yourself utterly stuck; exactly the position Harper finds himself in when his wife not only has a miscarriage (after he’s just found out he’s infertile), but then goes missing. The police have no evidence and they can only conclude that she has taken off with her lover. ‘Sometimes it’s just a small step or a short conversation – or sometimes just a single word,’ Brun the composer explains, ‘that can set off the necessary process of change.’ This is particularly resonant for Harper. Having sunk into despair, it takes a missing child from the same village to shake him out of his torpor and spark his unique criminology skills into life.

Another song, Mysteries of Love by Angelo Badalamenti (featured in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet) gave me an emotional source for exploring Harper’s relationship with his wife, Diane. David Lynch, the director of the film, apparently asked for a soundtrack that was beautiful and dark ‘and a little bit scary’. Because Diane goes missing right at the start, it means we see their relationship largely through Harper’s eyes in the form of flashbacks and back story. His assumption is that their relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust and deep connection, but he feels betrayed, thrown into disarray and suspicion – the music here, like the film, provoked the bewildered feelings I wanted to convey of love that’s become tainted, unsettled and impure.

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Eli’s Theme from the Swedish film Let the Right One In, by Johan Söderqvist, was exactly the right feel for the point in the novel when Clara, the plucky but vulnerable little girl disappears. The grief in the music also reflects Eli’s sense (in the film) of being forever an outsider and while Eli is a little older than Clara, I wanted to convey the same experience of ‘being a bit different’. Hopefully, I’ve portrayed Clara as a quirky little girl, climbing into places she shouldn’t go, because she’s exploring her world without the usual parental boundaries. The music reminds me of Mahler and pulls at the heartstrings, just right for taking me into the emotional world of Clara’s mother, who is dying and unable to search for her daughter, herself.

DARKLargeEBookHope, striving and enlightenment

When the real chase kicks in, Harper tries to work out the meaning behind the fairy-tales into which Clara retreated before she went missing – then discovers there’s a connection between Clara and his wife. Between long stints at the writing desk, I listened to music that stoked up the emotions surrounding hope, striving and enlightenment. I was looking for a relentless tone and came up with Elgar’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537, which combines a driving pulse with melancholy. The fugue explodes with layers and threads that intertwine and overlap with a growing sense of urgency, which I hope is reflected in the book.

I don’t want to give away the ending of the novel, but Footsteps by the Pet Shop Boys hits the spot.

AJ Waines was a psychotherapist for 15 years, during which time she worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, giving her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is now a full-time novelist and has publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House). Both her debut novels, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train have been number one in Murder and Psychological Thrillers in the UK Kindle charts. In 2015, she was ranked in the Top 100 UK authors on Amazon KDP. Her new psychological thriller, Dark Place to Hide, was released in July 2015. Alison lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband. Visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter as @AJWaines and Facebook.

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