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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 my guest is biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber
Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster
I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.
In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.
Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.
Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.
Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.
This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.
I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins
The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.
I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.
Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.
Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.
Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).
My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.
When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.
Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.
Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks. The Centauress is her second novel. Find her on Twitter @kathyferber
GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you! The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August
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My guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Croatia, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Europe, exile, folk, hermaphrodite, historical fiction, intersex, Istria, Italy, jazz, Kathleen Jones, literary fiction, literary novels, Middlesex, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, opera, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Slovenia, The Centauress, The central character, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yugoslavia
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 post is by Denise Kahn @DKpolyglot
My very first memory of life was the sound of my mother’s glorious voice singing to me, most likely a Brahms lullaby. I’m convinced that is why music always has a delicious way of creeping into my writing, and becomes one of the most important elements. I find that music is almost synonymous with being in a state of trance, and that is how I become when I write. I get very focused, and live the scenes with my characters. As each mise en scène blooms music envelopes my mind with a melisma, or a melody that already exists.
I wrote my book Peace of Music for my son, so that he could have the story of his ancestral family. It became a novel (much more fun that way) as I could take a few liberties, such as the scenes in China’s 13th century Song (what else?) Dynasty. One of the scenes is of a blind potter who is commissioned by Quan Yin, his Goddess, to make a special vase, but he doesn’t know how. Chinese Gugin music was the key to the scene.
…From the back of See-Fu’s house a soft melody rang out. It came from Lotus Blossom’s room. Her long delicate fingers plucked her qin. Her performance was ethereal See-Fu thought, a combination of earth’s gentleness and mysteries of the night. Every once in a while Lotus Blossom accompanied the harmonics with a song, an ancient love poem. See-Fu felt his entire body mellow as his daughter’s voice reminded him of birds, and the melody painted the portrait of nature’s beauty where they had collected his ingredients. He smiled triumphantly and delicately touched the statue of his Goddess. He now knew. He remembered Quan Yin’s guidance: “When the music is played, your heart will be your eyes.”
While about 10 percent is fiction (like China), the rest is fact, and since the characters/family members were opera singers and concert pianists I thought their stories would make a good novel. My tag line is ‘Spreading the Power of Music through Words’, and in this book music proves how it can unite and keep people together and strong, especially in difficult circumstances. Throughout the book, music is the glue that keeps this family saga together. One of my favorite scenes takes place on Christmas Eve during WWI, the true ‘silent night’ of that horrific war. The only sounds were that of soldiers, from both sides, singing Christmas carols together, all started by two brilliant tenors, one German, the other French.
The second book that I published was Split-Second Lifetime. I was visiting some friends in New Mexico. We went to see some Native American dancers and I was mesmerized by their throat singing—a very unique form of song. I did some research, and found that the only other people that sing that way are the indigenous people of Tuva, in eastern Siberia. I also saw this attractive woman, in jeans and jacket, standing very regal. As I watched her she suddenly morphed into an elegant mountain lioness. And then I saw the entire story, frame by frame, as if playing on an old moviola, all of it surrounded by the music in the background. This is what came out of that moment in time:
The main protagonist (Jebby) is an ethnomusicologist, who roams the world recording indigenous music. On a plane to her next destination she meets her seat mate (Dodi), who seems to trigger past life memories from the old American Southwest. As they travel through Uzbekistan, Jebby realizes that in a past lifetime they were man and wife as members of the Hopi tribe. As she encounters some magnificent musicians each one seems to give her a new ‘clue’, or vision, into that past life.
The book is filled with scenes of music and musicians: Nana Mouskouri at the Royal Albert Hall in London; an Uzbek, with a horrible English accent, trying to imitate Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, while traveling in the middle of a desert; traditional and modern Uzbek music; and even elements of Rumi in a Dervish ceremony.
I journey with the protagonists on their voyage, as they discover the beauty of other cultures and their musical traditions. It is food for my passion and my senses, as it travels down to my fingers on the keyboard.
Denise Kahn spent 20 years in Europe because of her father, who was with the US Diplomatic Corps, and her mother who was an opera singer. She worked mainly as a simultaneous interpreter and translator as she is a linguist and speaks several languages, five of which are fluent. Because of her exposure to people of different nations her writing includes many foreign settings and cultures. She is a proud mother of a gallant Marine who served in Iraq, and among the members of her household is Louie the cat, so named because of his clawing love of Louis XV and XVI furniture, and surely thinks he must have been a fearless Marine in one of his former lives. Her books are here, her website is here and you can find her on Twitter as @DKpolyglot
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I first discovered this week’s guest when a Google fairy revealed she’d written a novel about reincarnation and music. I had to try to recruit her. She turned out to be even more suitable for the series than I could have guessed. Her mother was an opera singer. She wrote her first novel to help her son understand the stories of his ancestors in China through connections to music. Her second novel deals with ideas of past lives and ethnomusicology. Her name is Denise Kahn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, China, contemporary fiction, Denise Kahn, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, ethnomusicology, families, Google, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, opera, opera singer, past lives, playlist for writers, reincarnation, Roz Morris, singers, Song Dynasty, Split-Second Lifetime, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'