Posts Tagged pianists

Music: where people come together to create living pieces of art – Kris Faatz

My guest this week had quite an epic journey to write her novel. It began with her experience of music as a graduate student, which made her want to write about the romantic and artistic relationship between a pianist and a conductor. She began to listen to more music to imagine the characters, imagining that within a few months she’d have it done, but the more she wrote, the more craft she realised she had to learn. This will be a familiar situation to all of us who’ve fallen for a story idea and then struggled to do it justice. Certain songs became talismans – Bob Dylan, Air Supply and the Rolling Stones – keeping her in contact with her original purpose and the characters who were so strong in her mind. Ten years on and her persistence has paid off: the novel is published by Blue Moon and has earned a prestigious award. She is Kris Faatz and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘An earworm of the heart’ – Katharine Grant

for logoMy guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

for logo‘Music, grief and sibling rivalry’

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 award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

Soundtrack by Beethoven, Dolly Parton

Music is at the heart of my most recent novel – as you might expect from its title The Piano Player’s Son and the image of a piano on the front cover! Music is often a force for unity, as in the songs of the First World War or the Last Night of the Proms, but in The Piano Player’s Son, it soon emerges as also a divisive, destructive force. The piece which gave me inspiration for the complexities of the relationships in the novel is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

DSCF0038 copyMoonlight

I love this piece, especially the first movement, but the more I listened to it while I was writing, the more I was pulled in different emotional directions: romantic and compelling, on the one hand, haunting and dark on the other. The piece seems to have the capacity to inspire thoughts of love and beauty, leading the German critic, Ludwig Rellstab, to identify it with moonlight flickering across Lake Lucerne, hence its popular title. But its eerie, unsettling quality also means it is sometimes chosen as the soundtrack in horror movies. In the film Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman as Beethoven, it is used to powerful but painful effect in relationship to the composer’s deafness. And this emotional dichotomy is exactly what I wanted to capture in the novel.

The book explores family dynamics in the wake of a death. Each of the four grown-up children deals with their father, Henry’s, death in a different way. Isabel and George share their father’s love of music, particularly the piano and appear to have been closest to him. The day after Henry’s death, Isabel listens to George playing the Moonlight Sonata:

It was one of their father’s favourites and the music filled her head. She held a tea cloth to her face, forcing the thick towelling material against her lips. Why couldn’t her fingers tempt such sounds of exquisite melancholy as George’s?

Despite their shared love of the piece, and grief at their father’s death, sibling rivalry underlies Isabel’s response.

The other brother and sister, Rick and Grace, are excluded from this musical bond. Rick blames the emotional distance he’s always felt from his father on his inability to master the piano:

It was ridiculous that he’d spent so much time craving his father’s attention when all it would have taken was a few plinkety plonks on the piano.

After Henry’s death, Rick vows to learn. All his problems will disappear if only ‘he could learn to play the Moonlight fucking Sonata’. The choice of language is deliberate with Rick – even at the moment of vowing to learn, and therefore becoming closer to Henry – denigrating his father’s favourite piece.

Inheritance

The Piano Player’s Son is also about inheritance and I chose Henry’s piano as the focus for the enduring war between Rick and George. Both brothers claim it as theirs, Rick as the eldest son, George as the one who shared his father’s passion for music. I didn’t want the dispute to relate to money, but to be about something of personal and emotional significance – in this case, each brother seems to be claiming their worth in their father’s eyes. I chose a piano because, like books, it is a thing of beauty which furnishes a room, but which also has the power within it to feed the mind and soul.

While he is waiting for his father’s piano to arrive, Rick buys a second-hand one and starts having lessons, but his progress is painfully slow. When he tells his teacher that he wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, she informs him he’s nowhere near ready for that.

Rick thought of his father’s stubby fingers. ‘I shouldn’t have been a piano player,’ he used to say, ‘not with these fingers.’ And yet, here Rick was, a piano player’s son, and he’d never master the instrument.

The piano and the Moonlight sonata encapsulate all that was wrong with his relationship with his father.

References to classical music enhance the novel – Beethoven, Debussy, Mozart, Bach, all play a part. But when Rick chooses a piece of music that sums up his relationship with his darling American wife, Deanna, he turns his back on his father’s beloved classical pieces and instead it’s Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream that sums up the closeness and joy of their relationship. I love Dolly Parton – there is something inspirational in her continuing love of singing and her passion for music.

the pian player's son v.8 flatBut I have to finish with the key piece for my novel, the Moonlight sonata. Although I’ve concentrated on the first movement, the three movements together convey something of the story structure, building towards the final, furious movement. The Moonlight Sonata helped me explore the emotional complexity of the novel to such an extent that I had to include it at my launch. I managed to persuade my husband to play the first movement, and you could feel the emotion in the room as he played.

If you’d like to listen to another version of the Moonlight sonata, here’s Daniel Barenboim.

Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn is a novelist and short story writer. Her novel Unravelling, published in 2010, has won three awards, and her second novel The Piano Player’s Son,. Her website is here and you can also connect with her on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Lindsay is giving away one paperback copy of The Piano Player’s Son. 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!

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‘Music, grief and sibling rivalry’ – Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

for logoMy guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Laura K Cowan

for logo‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’

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 spiritual fantasy author Laura K. Cowan @laurakcowan

Soundtrack provided by Eduards Grieznis, Brahms

When I first played the Brahms Intermezzi Opus 117 on the piano, I felt a sadness I couldn’t explain. My music teachers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts where I studied each summer in high school told me the first Laura-k-Cowan-headshotintermezzo was a lullaby, sung by a woman to her child after being abandoned by the father. It spoke to me in a way I couldn’t explain, the sadness of the abandonment, the beauty of the piece. I never forgot it. When I quit classical piano performance to return to my secret first love of writing in college, I thought music was over for me. I moved into a phase of my life in which I didn’t know how to reach my dream of being a writer, nor could I go back to the music. I was desperately unhappy, chronically ill even.

Return

Fast forward 10 years, and I was doing it. I had faced the fear and rebuilt myself emotionally, even gone through treatment for childhood trauma that had tied me up in the first place. And then, the intermezzo returned. I was writing a novel called Lone Cypress about a former ballerina named Shana who was running from an abusive marriage and experiencing nightmares and blackouts while trying to figure out if she was possessed. Guess what I found in my research of relevant ballets for her to have performed? The Brahms. The second intermezzo, not the first, but that first lullaby began to weave itself through my story, through my character’s mind. She had been abandoned by her father. And her mother. And her husband. And herself. And the music became not just my soundtrack for this novel but Shana’s own, for a new ballet she wanted to choreograph but couldn’t until she faced her fear.

LoneCypress-BookCoverFrontFrom the past

It’s not uncommon for me to compose short themes on the piano to help me understand the right moods for different pieces of my novels, an undercover soundtrack in its own right, but Lone Cypress is unique in that the music that inspired the story not only helped me with its creation but wove itself through the entire book. With Lone Cypress I learned how to walk away from my own past and into the present. The book will be out in July, and I can already feel a piece of my younger self is putting itself to rest with its publication. That’s what the Brahms is to me: the meeting of the past and present in a resolution more beautiful than I could have written for myself. Through writing this novel with the lullaby woven through it, the Brahms (played here by Eduards Grieznis) finally taught me that the most important thing is to find our way back to ourselves.

Laura K. Cowan writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Her other novels are The Little Seer  and Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection is The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen.Find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @LauraKCowan

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‘A sadness I couldn’t explain’ – Laura K Cowan

for logoJohannes Brahms reportedly referred to his third intermezzo for Opus 117 as ‘the lullaby of all my grief’. This week’s guest was studying music in summer school when she first encountered it, and was overwhelmed by its sadness. Life events interrupted her dreams of becoming a musician, but years later, when she was writing a novel about a ballet dancer, her research led her to the Brahms. She remembered the imaginative journey she had taken when she used to play the piece, and now it guided her creation of the main character and her story. She is Laura K Cowan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Polly Courtney

for logo‘Grime meets classical’

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 Polly Courtney @PollyCourtney

Soundtrack by Debussy, DJ Dice, Wagner

It might seem odd that a book called Feral Youth was inspired by classical music. But despite its title, Feral Youth is not just about a disenfranchised young person living on the fringes of society. More, it is about the relationship between that young person – Alesha, 15, alcoholic mother, unknown father – and Miss Merfield: a middle-class piano teacher with an alternative outlook on life and a love of tea and Chopin. It’s about two cultures colliding and the mark that each leaves on the other.

001_Hannah_Palmer bAs you might have guessed, my background is more akin to that of Miss Merfield’s than to Alesha’s. I grew up on classical music, playing piano and violin and performing in shows and concerts all through my teenage years. I’m still part of the semi-professional string quartet that plays at venues up and down the UK. But it was my piano lessons in the early years that lodged in my mind and planted the seed for Feral Youth.

Back to that rickety piano stool

Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum was one of the final pieces I learned to play. My piano teacher was an elderly lady, much older than the youthful Miss Merfield but with a strong, forceful manner and a kindly streak. When I hear Debussy, I think of Mrs Luton-Brain (yes, that was her name – ‘Luton where they make the hats, brains for putting under them!’) and I imagine myself back on that old, rickety double stool, filled with a mixture of fear and intrigue as my fingers tripped up and down the keys. Although Alesha’s piano lessons with Miss Merfield were short-lived and took place long before the summer in which Feral Youth is set, they were instrumental in developing the relationship between the characters and I used Debussy to send me back to that place and remind myself of what it felt like, sitting next to Mrs Luton-Brain in that stuffy room.

Key to angst

I also used music to unlock emotions as I wrote. Alesha is an angry character, full of angst at the way she is persecuted by those in power, ignored by those who should care and cheated by those she thought she could trust. I began by listening to grime. Grime is a relatively new genre that grew out of the east London garage/hip-hop scene. Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of it but as I got deeper and deeper into my research, I heard it oozing from car stereos on the estates, rattling youth club windows and whirring from tinny speakers on phones. Imagine a beat that is so low, slow and dirty you can feel your teeth vibrating in your skull. The wax in your ears starts to shift and it almost hurts to listen, but somehow you keep listening because the juddering, creaking beat draws you in. Here’s a DJ Dice sub-low mix that I used to get myself back to where some of the scenes are set.

In the early stages of writing, I was sketching the outline for Feral Youth on a bunch of Post-it notes and something didn’t feel right. There wasn’t enough of a bond between my two main characters. I realised that something had to have happened between Alesha and Miss Merfield in order for them to behave in the way I envisaged during the book. I was listening to the radio one morning when Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries came on. I turned it up loud. This is one piece that’s guaranteed to set off a swirling cocktail of emotions in anyone. I could feel it surging through me, washing away my frustrations and replacing them with something jubilant and powerful. It was this ‘rinsing’ effect that gave me what turned out to be an important insight into the relationship between Alesha and Miss Merfield. There had to have been a shared experience that bonded them… and I’d just worked out what it was.

We stayed on the floor for the rest of that lesson, like a couple of crazies, staring up at the ceiling as the music crashed and blasted around us. I never told Miss Merfield this, but while we was lying there it felt like some of my anger was leaking out. It wasn’t like proper crying. It was just hotness and tears and this weird lightness coming over me – in a good way. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, that’s why it don’t feel right to be thieving off Miss Merfield right now.

20 FERAL YOUTH Front cover AmazonWriting, memories and music

I may have committed a literary cardinal sin by making a movie-style trailer for Feral Youth in which I use some of this music – including the Wagner – to try and transport readers to the place I was in when I wrote it. Perhaps that’s an impossible ambition; I suspect that the links between writing, memories and music can never be transplanted from one person to another. All I know is that for me, music was the vehicle that took me back (and forward, and sideways) and that without it, I’m not sure Miss Merfield and Alesha might have ever met.

Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a regular commentator on TV and radio. She made her name with debut novel Golden Handcuffs, a semi-autobiographical account of life in the Square Mile. In late 2011, on the publication of her fifth novel, Courtney walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, frustrated by the ‘chick lit’ titles and covers assigned to her books. She went on to self-publish Feral Youth, which delves into the frustrations that led to the summer riots. Here website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter as @PollyCourtney

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‘Grime meets classical’ – Polly Courtney

for logoMy guest this week grew up on classical music. Childhood piano lessons inspired her latest novel, Feral Youth, about the relationship between a troubled teenager and a piano teacher. One pivotal scene came while she was listening to Wagner; the surging music seemed to insist she create a dramatic bonding moment between her two principals. She herself is no stranger to drama; she made her name with a semi-autobiographical novel about life in London’s Square Mile, then famously went indie because her publisher, HarperCollins, tried to brand her books as chick-lit. She is Polly Courtney and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Tabitha Suzuma

for logo‘My debut novel was born out of my lifelong obsession with music’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is multi-award-winning young adult novelist Tabitha Suzuma @tabithasuzuma 

Soundtrack by Rachmaninoff, Shin Suzuma, Bomfunk MC, Eminem, Charlotte Church, Lea Salonga, Mozart, Katherine Jenkins, Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Philip Glass, Gabriel Faure, Amy Winehouse, Garbage, Lana Del Rey, Paloma Faith, Marilyn Manson, Gabriel Yared, Christopher Duffley

The music came before the idea, before the very first book, before the whole career. I was working as a school teacher and spending most of my salary on tickets to concerts at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls. My debut novel, A Note of Madness (2006), was born out of my lifelong obsession with music, mainly classical, and in particular Rachmaninov. The novel is about Flynn, a teenage piano prodigy who falls prey to bipolar disorder as he struggles to master the notoriously difficult Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. So the piece, as well as my own struggles with the illness, inspired the whole book. I have always loved music and used to skip lessons at school to sneak into the music room where I started teaching myself the piano. My brother, concert pianist Shin Suzuma, was born when I was 14 and started picking out tunes on my keyboard before he could even walk. I was determined he should have every opportunity to become the concert pianist that I felt he was destined to be, so began teaching him. Today he is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and embarking on this very career.

Tabitha Suzuma author photoThe sequel to A Note of Madness came a couple of years later. A Voice in the Distance (2008) was dedicated to my brother, mainly because his music room was above my study, so he provided me with a live soundtrack to my book. He was learning the equally ambitious Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto at the time, a piece which features prominently in the book, and shortly after finishing it, I finally got to see my brother perform the piece with his university orchestra. The two books also feature Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler and Eminem, which I would listen to when writing Flynn’s manic episodes. His girlfriend, Jennah, is a singer and performs Summertime (performed here by Charlotte Church, On My Own (performed by Lea Salonga) , and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum (sung by Katherine Jenkins) – three of my favourite songs that I listened to on repeat.

So music and writing, for me, have always been irrevocably entwined. The first thing I do every night when I sit down to write is sort out my playlist. My last book, Forbidden (2010), is a tragic love story about an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Because of its subject matter, it was a harsh, frightening and lonely book to write. It wasn’t a plot I could discuss with family or friends, I had no idea if it would ever be accepted for publication, I was teaching by day and writing by night, so it was very intense. I was often in tears, and a combination of severe clinical depression, stress, insomnia and sleep deprivation led me to having breakdown soon after finishing it. The music I wrote it to reflects both the tone of the book and my state of mind at the time. Lemon Incest and Charlotte Forever by the late Serge Gainsbourg and his then teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg are both songs about father-daughter incest, and understandably created a great deal of controversy and anger when they were released in the mid-eighties. Philip Glass’s amazing soundtrack to my favourite movie The Hours was also permanently on my playlist, along with Faure’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem, which I listened to throughout writing the extremely painful final chapters of the book.

FORBIDDEN by Tabitha SuzumaTough, controversial and haunting

After Forbidden, I was forced to take a break from writing for health reasons, but have finally finished writing my sixth book, Hurt, out this September. It was an equally tough book to write, dealing with a similarly difficult, controversial and painful subject matter. I wrote it to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, Only Happy When it Rains by Garbage, Born to Die by Lana Del Rey, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Play On by Paloma Faith, and a very haunting cover of The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. These songs helped me get into the detached, heavy-hearted and depressed moods of Mathéo: a talented, privileged teenager who on the surface appears to have it all but deep down, harbours a terrible secret that threatens his life as he knows it, as well as the relationship he has with the only girl he has ever loved. It is one of the harsher, grittier and more difficult books I have written, and the soundtracks to the films Sylvia and Never Let Me Go also helped me reach the levels of distress experienced by Mathéo as he battles with his secret, his past, the consequence of his actions, and ultimately attempts to achieve forgiveness and absolution.

I am about to start writing my book for 2014. I can’t say what it is about yet, but I can say that it will be written to the soundtrack of the heart-wrenching voice of 11-year-old Christopher Duffley, and in particular his rendition of the song Open the Eyes of my Heart which I have already started listening to on repeat.

Tabitha Suzuma is an award-winning author of six books. Her most recent, Hurt, is due to be released in September 2013. Her last book, Forbidden, a controversial and hard-hitting book about sibling incest, was translated into six languages and won the Premio Speciale Cariparma for European Literature Award as well as being nominated for a number of others. She has won the Young Minds Book Award and the Stockport Book Award. Her books have been shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, the Catalyst Book Award, the Stockport Book Award, the Jugendliteraturpreis Book Award and nominated for the Waterstone’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal. For more, visit www.tabithasuzuma.com, add her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/tabitha.suzuma, or find her on Twitter: @TabithaSuzuma

GIVEAWAY: Tabitha has signed print editions on offer for the three most interesting comments. If you enjoy her post, let her know here!

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‘A harsh, frightening and lonely book to write’ – Tabitha Suzuma

for logoThe most haunting pieces on The Undercover Soundtrack delve far deeper than inspiration. My guest this week shares a very personal story. Her debut novel, about a teenage piano prodigy, didn’t come from a captured track in headphones. It was her own brother learning Rachmaninoff piano concertos in the room above hers. The character struggles with bipolar disorder, as she has in her own life. A later novel tackles an incestuous and doomed love between brother and sister, a harsh and frightening story that she says took a severe toll on her own mental health. Her fiction has won multiple awards and her brother is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. She is Tabitha Suzuma and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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