Posts Tagged PJ Harvey
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.
Hands up if you know who Delia Derbyshire is. Don’t put them down yet. Keep them up, waft them gently and imagine you are conjuring a shimmering singing sound. That’s how you play a theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. Theremins are an abiding inspiration for my guest this week; her novel centres on the life and loves of a cellist who becomes famous in the 1920s and 30s for playing this eerie, theatrical device. Her soundtrack is an ethereal mix of Portishead, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and of course Ms Derbyshire, one of the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. And I also must mention that the novel (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt) has been nominated for several awards. She is Tracy Farr and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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 writer and translator Alison Layland @AlisonLayland
Soundtrack by Steven R Smith, Aiko Shimada, PJ Harvey, Colin Stetson, Laurie Anderson, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dark Patrick, Darko Rundek, Smoke Fairies, Beth Orton
Music is an essential part of my writing process. I pick up on atmospheres, and fragments of lyrics that suggest an idea, character or situation (not always in the way the artist intended!), and build up a playlist for almost everything I write. I rarely listen to music when actually writing, but my playlist influences my work, and a copy to play in the car or while working keeps me in the zone.
A great inspiration, and music I definitely can and do play while writing, comes from Steven R. Smith. His music, mainly instrumental, captures my imagination, and the range of atmospheres he creates match so many of my moods. He records under various names/personas, and when working on Someone Else’s Conflict I found his Hala Strana records particularly appropriate as the Eastern and Central European influences helped me to tap into the Croatian backstory to the novel. I was also delighted when he agreed to let me use an extract from one of the Hala Strana tunes, Wedding of the Blind, for my book trailer.
Stories from a dark place
In Someone Else’s Conflict, Jay is an itinerant storyteller and busker, leading a self-imposed nomadic lifestyle and using his stories as a way of escaping from his memories and past. Stories by Aiko Shimada is that world of escapism through stories. What Jay is concealing is involvement in the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and the guilt that still haunts him. Scenes from the war are shown in flashbacks and, as I’m fortunate not to have experienced any kind of war zone first-hand, I used music as the vehicle to take myself there. PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake told me it was possible and throughout the time I was writing the novel I had the first line of The Words That Maketh Murder going round in my head, as similar thoughts must have plagued Jay.
Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s amazing album New History Warfare Vol. 2 immersed me in all kinds of dark places and provided the perfect atmosphere both for the war scenes and the effects they had on the characters, in particular The Stars in his Head with its menacing driving pulse and swirling loops, and the chaos and displacement of A Dream of Water with guest vocals from Laurie Anderson. My fictional war zone was further intensified by the beauty and terror of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Mladic.
The haunting Ivases Lament by Dark Patrick not only suggested to me the feel of loss, tragedy and anger, but also had personal associations with my characters though a loose connection with its title – Ivan was Jay’s friend who was killed in the Croatian war and his son, Vinko, now a teenager and immigrant searching for identity, is central to the novel. The song brought out all the edginess of their relationship.
As I’m a linguist, it was more or less inevitable that, during my research into the Balkan conflicts, I would be moved to learn the language, especially as a personal way of gaining an insight into the feel and culture of the region. Music also features in my language-learning process, and I made some wonderful discoveries from that part of the world. My favourite so far has been Darko Rundek, in the context of writing the novel especially since a number of his songs deal with the conflict and its aftermath. When I first heard Ista Slika (The Same Picture) – before I saw the video, worked out the lyrics and fully appreciated the tragedy of what the song is about – I simply thought it was a lovely song. When I looked into it more deeply and discovered that it was about the war and that the refrain, roughly translated, means ‘whatever your way in the world in your crazy head you see the same picture’ it became a kind of theme tune for the novel. My own reaction epitomised the way Jay hides his own dark side from the world.
The novel is certainly not all darkness, and my playlist helped me keep me grounded in this, too. An essential thread is the developing friendship and love between Jay and Marilyn, the artist he meets who helps him come to terms with his past and has to decide whether to stand by him as things start to go wrong. Several songs from the Smoke Fairies’ Low Light and Trees album became part of their relationship in my mind, especially Summer Fades with its strong feel of the other person’s past. For a long time, Marilyn is understandably not sure of Jay; she is finding her feet after a difficult previous relationship and is unsure how much to trust him, despite his charismatic and outwardly friendly nature. In one of those serendipitous moments of musical discovery, I was initially drawn to Beth Orton’s Magpie because it reflects the imagery of one of Jay’s stories, and soon found it gave me a real feel for Marilyn’s inner strength.
The ending of the novel evolved as I approached it, but I always knew it would have a positive feel – though just how positive, I wasn’t sure. And so we return to the music of Steven R. Smith. The title and soaring atmosphere of To Rise and Move On says it all.
Alison Layland is a writer and translator, originally from Bradford and now living in the beautiful Welsh mountains with her family. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, originally inspired by her passion for storytelling, tells of trust, love and the need to belong, moving from the peaceful Yorkshire Dales to the horrors of the Croatian conflict of the 1990s and its aftermath. It is published by Honno and was a Lovereading.co.uk Debut of the Month in January 2015. Alison can be found at her website. She tweets as @AlisonLayland and is a member of The Prime Writers @ThePrimeWriters
My guest this week is tackling the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and she used music to suggest fragments, atmospheres and moments of memory. When she sent me her post, she remarked that she found the process of writing it had been even more challenging than the novel, as she had never before admitted anyone to her personal space of creativity. This is one of the reasons I’m continually refreshed by this series – no matter what genre the book is, or what type of music they choose, the heart of each post is this real contact with a writer delving for the truth. Anyway, here you’ll find some haunting and unusual pieces by PJ Harvey, Smoke Fairies, Steven R Smith and Laurie Anderson, all in the Undercover Soundtrack of Alison Layland – airing here on Wednesday.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by literary writer Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell, author of String Bridge
Today I’m not only going to talk about how music influenced the creation of my debut novel, String Bridge. I’m also going to talk about how String Bridge influenced the creation of its own soundtrack, Melody Hill: On the Other Side.
Melody, the main character in the novel, is a musician, who struggles to revive her passion to pursue a career in music after the role of mother and wife stunted its growth. The songs that appear in the book started off as poems. But then I thought, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be song lyrics? And so, I converted the poems into lyrics. Then it occurred to me that I could create and produce an album conceptually written by Melody. Being a singer/songwriter/guitarist myself, and having written and recorded countless songs over the years, meant it was a task that I could definitely undertake. But I became even more convinced of the idea after listening to one of my mother’s songs on YouTube, which conveniently portrayed my main character’s mindset.
Now, I was more than inspired.
Push and pull
The lyrics of this song are about the push and pull a mother feels from her family to her desires, from her need to be a ‘good’ person, to the pit of guilt and depression that haunts and feeds the creative mind. ‘Do you really want to be this famous?’ is the last line of the song—a question I’m sure every potentially famous person asks themselves at some point or another. Is there anything in this world worth the sacrifice of one’s true identity?
I eventually rerecorded this song with my own voice for my book trailer. It’s also in the album. (Thank you to my mother, Erika Bach, once again, for allowing me to do this.)
Once I finished the final revisions to String Bridge, I sat down with my guitar and wrote music to the four songs that appear in the book by channelling Melody’s musical influences (PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, Nightmares on Wax, Enigma) and combining their styles of rock, pop, folk, and ambience to create an atmospheric grunge CD that is also a visceral lyrical story. Once those were done, I wrote five more songs in the same vein to complete the album, and had the album professionally recorded and produced. You can hear samples on iTunes.
I’m often asked whether being a musician benefits my writing. And I have to say yes. For one, I think sound is a very difficult thing to describe. And even for me, it is not easy. I spent a long time trying to perfect the parts of the novel where music is illustrated. I didn’t only want the words to describe music; I wanted them to sound like music. Being a poet also, I adore playing around with different words and sounds and hearing how they roll off my tongue like a velvety tune. I thrive on constructing sentences with cadence. It’s like singing without a melody—writing to a tempo.
That being said, writing also benefits my songwriting. Over the past seven or so years, since actively writing novels, I’ve noticed a huge change in the way I approach writing lyrics. So I suppose both skills feed off each other. I can’t imagine my life without either of them.
And do you want to know something funny? I need silence when I write. If there is music playing, all I want to do is sing.
Jessica Bell is a literary women’s fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the ’80s and early ’90s. She spent much of her childhood travelling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally at home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece, and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide and is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Jessica has published a book of poetry Twisted Velvet Chains, and a novel String Bridge, with Lucky Press, LLC. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found under Published Works & Awards, on her website. From September 2012 Jessica will be hosting the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. Please visit the site to register. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @MsBessieBell