Posts Tagged music
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.
Once a week 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 fiction editor and creative writing teacher Tawnysha Greene @TawnyshaGreene
Soundtrack by Harold Arlen, EY Harburg, Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Michael Nyman, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
My narrator is hard of hearing like myself, so many of the scenes including music in A House Made of Stars are ones in which the music is felt rather than heard. For example, the narrator’s cousin earns a part in The Wizard of Oz, and as she practises her songs in her room, the narrator and her deaf sister watch, hands placed on the stereo to feel the rise and fall of the music.
Similarly, as I wrote these scenes, I played Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg on my laptop and turned the music up loud, so that I could close my eyes and listen with my hands to feel the same notes the characters in my novel did. This way, I could be closer to my narrator, a girl who struggles through poverty and abuse and who wishes for a better life for her and her family.
While writing the majority of A House Made of Stars, the music I listened to was usually instrumental. One of my favorite musical collections was The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2), and guided by these songs, my novel began to take shape. The following individual songs from this compilation were especially helpful — Comptine d’un autre été by Yann Tiersen, I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi, and The Promise by Michael Nyman. The quickness of these pieces, especially The Promise and the way the notes would domino into one another helped me with the pacing of my novel, because I wanted each scene to tumble into the next so that the story’s momentum would be constantly moving forward as the narrator and her family’s situation become more and more dire.
However, in some cases, it was necessary for me to slow down the scene and concentrate on smaller details. My narrator is very observant and what she lacks in hearing, she compensates in what she sees and understands. The song Childhood by Alexandre Desplat played on repeat while I wrote these scenes, and the way the song is composed is appropriate for the realisations the narrator makes during these instances — Childhood is slow with distinct piano keys forcefully played one at a time in a way that causes each note to be almost jarring. Similarly, during the moments in which I chose to listen to this song, the narrator makes discoveries about her family — read in a diary hidden underneath the stairs and glimpsed through the wooden slats of a bedroom closet — moments that are jarring for her as well.
Regardless of the scene, music served as a catalyst for the general mood of A House Made of Stars, and towards the end when I wrote the last act in which the narrator and her family are homeless and starving, I listened to Hans Zimmer’s To Zucchabar. The duduk’s haunting melody is accompanied by isolated drum beats in the background, an interesting progression from the pronounced notes of Childhood, because these notes are more subdued and allow the duduk’s voice-like melody to take center stage. The music is appropriate for this final leg of my narrator’s journey, because she, too, is finally finding her voice and speaking for herself and her family against all odds.
When I wrote the last scene, I did not play just a single song. I played all of them. The compilation of The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2) sounded in the background as I wrapped up the story with my narrator looking up into the night sky. By then, she was all those songs. She was the drum beats, the piano notes, and the duduk’s melody as she reached for the stars and made them her own.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others. A House Made of Stars is her first novel. Find her on Twitter @TawnyshaGreene, on her website and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Tawnysha is excited to sponsor a giveaway of A House Full of Stars. To enter, simply share this post – and then comment here to let us know. The more platforms you share on, the more entries.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Nadine Matheson @nadinematheson
Soundtrack by Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Odell
Personally, I’m not committed to one genre of music. I will listen to anything and writing the story of The Sisters was also an opportunity to look back at my history with music. There is a scene where Lucinda is shopping in Portobello Market with her manager and she picks up a Jim Reeves album. Now, Jim Reeves was a 50s/60s country singer and my dad would play him on a Sunday morning and then move on to soul or reggae while my mum would be playing David Bowie or reminding me about the giant Marc Bolan poster that she had on her bedroom door when she was teenager. That’s how eclectic my own musical journey was and it was an important part of my own journey when writing this book.
In my head, I think that everyone walks around with their own theme tune. I like to think that Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic or All Along the Watchtower is being blasted out of speakers every time I enter a room or walk down the street. The same warped principle applies when I begin to write. The idea of writing in complete silence fills me with dread and when I’m planning my book’s I always play All Along the Watchtower. The start of the song is about formulating a plan and that there has to be an escape. That’s how I feel about the process of writing a book. There has to be a way out of this story I’ve created. There has to be an end.
The underlying theme of The Sisters is transitions and the effects of misunderstanding. Just like a good book, music is both transitional and emotive. The first character that I could see as a fully rounded person was Lucinda and the only singer that I could hear in my head was Nina Simone and one of my favourite songs Don’t let me be misunderstood. As I began to write Lucinda, I had an immense dislike for her and I initially thought that she was one dimensional but I kept playing Nina Simone’s Don’t let me be misunderstood.
I kept replaying that song because not only did it become the character’s mantra but it also reminded me that this was a character with many facets and not the resident one-dimensional baddie of the book. There is a scene in The Sisters when Lucinda says that she wants her music to be stripped back – that is Nina Simone’s reminder to me that for Lucinda to make her transition, I had to show her vulnerabilities. A favourite quote of mine from Nina Simone is ‘Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.’
Because I was writing about sisters who were in an R’n’B band in the 90s, I made a conscious effort not to listen to any music from that time period, that the sisters would have been playing/singing. I think that would have pigeonholed the characters and not allow them to grow.
There are lot of misunderstandings in The Sisters and the classic syndrome of people covering up how they really feel. When I was writing a scene that involved the sisters finally acknowledging what was going on both internally and with their own relationships I would play Tom Odell’s Can’t Pretend. It is haunting but when you listen to the lyrics it’s not the end of the world, as if all hope is gone. There needed to be a strong sense of authenticity in The Sisters and while writing the book, I chose music where there was a clear complexity in the lyrics. I wanted to show that life isn’t a glossy manufactured package and that there is always more to us than what you first see when we walk into a room.
Nadine Matheson’s The Sisters was published last month. She has also contributed to the sci-fi anthology No Way Home. When she’s not writing, Nadine works as a criminal lawyer. Her crime novel Key Positions was shortlisted for the City Uni/David Higham Associates Crime Writing Competition 2014. She is planning another sci-fi short story as well as working on completing her crime novel. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @NadineMatheson.