Undercover Soundtrack

‘Something elusively wistful’ – Gwendolyn Womack

If you’ve followed this series for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Drop by on Wednesday for her latest Undercover Soundtrack.

Undercover Soundtrack

‘A horse, a hat and a fight for freedom’ – Tanya Landman

for logoMy guest this week grew up in thrall to wild west movies, especially the ones with epic theme music. Many years later, she was reading some history books as research and stumbled across the freed slaves who were conscripted to fight the Indian Wars. Those early movie memories with their sweeping soundscapes came back to her, along with a more bitter kind of song – gospel music and spirituals by Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Sam Cooke. She emerged with a mission to, as she puts it, tell the story of the Civil War from the other side. She is Tanya Landman and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherine Czerkawska

‘This uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound’

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 contemporary novelist and playwright Catherine Czerkawska

Soundtrack by Luke Kelly, John McCormack, Christy Moore, Liam Ó’Maonlaí

Music is such an intimate part of the creative process for me that it’s not often I’m tempted to reveal it, unless it figures in the work itself.  My plays have accompanying music but the public and private soundtracks only occasionally coincide. With a novel, music helps me to tease out characters, situations and stories, but everything goes through many versions. The first draft of my new novel, Bird of Passage, was written so long ago that the story seems like a completely different entity now.

The change in the book or the change to the music?

It would be hard for me to say which came first: the change in the book or the change to the music of the book. That early story focused on Kirsty Galbreath and her relationship with a young Irish farm worker, Finn O’Malley. But at some point, I realised that my flawed hero was a cipher about whom I knew very little. The late Luke Kelly was my constant companion, musically, when I embarked on the re-drafts. Many years ago, I saw him in person, walking down a Dublin Street, and I still find his voice inspirational. In listening obsessively to his solo songs, particularly Will You Come to the Bower and Raglan Road, I began to recognise what I had known subconsciously: I had neglected the Irish dimension to the story.

In the 1960s, Finn and poor, vulnerable Francis had been sent from Ireland to work at the Scottish potato harvest. But why? What had happened to them?  My  grandmother was Irish and her favourite songs had been a part my childhood. They may seem a little sentimental to our ears now, but whenever John McCormack came on the wireless, singing Bantry Bay or the uncanny She Moved Through the Fair, the whole house was hushed. When I went back to these songs, they triggered long-buried memories, not just of my own childhood, which was safe and happy, but of overheard adult conversations about other people’s sad secrets.

                Francis stood up and sang, his voice wavery at first but growing in confidence:

The winter it is past, and the summer’s come at last,

and the little birds they sing in the trees.

Their little hearts are glad, but mine is very sad,

for my true love is far away from me…

Francis had a sweet voice and he sang well, but in a traditional style, his voice dipping under and over the notes, embellishing them in a dozen ways. The men and women fell silent. There could not be one of them who had not heard it before, many times. It was a song of youth and heartbreak and hurts that could never be repaired.

There were songs which leapt the barrier to become part of the story and The Curragh of Kildare was one of them. There are countless good versions although I still prefer Christy Moore’s.

Cover design Matt Zanetti

No need to know what the words mean

But even listening to this, I was aware that I was avoiding the heart of the matter. And so, I began to hunt for another form of traditional Irish singing. I knew it existed beyond the confines of the safe, gentle versions which make the normal playlists. My great-grandfather – so I’m told – sang like this. I’d heard others singing like this, fragmentary contributions to pub sessions. It was then I came upon Liam Ó’Maonlaí.

There are few singers who can give you so much insight into the weight of Irish history. You don’t need to know what the words mean. All you need to do is listen to this uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound, part of an unbroken tradition of attempting to circumscribe raw emotion within the confines of a human voice.  It was this voice, whether in the extraordinary Woodstock performance or the gentler Lord’s Prayer, which finally allowed me to engage with what had happened to Finn and Francis, and to consider what a terrible place their world might once have been, turning my earlier story into something much darker.

I’m not sure even now that I’m finished with this book. Francis’s sorrow is part of Finn’s sorrow too; it will colour the whole of his life – and Kirsty’s life as well. I’m still not sure that the darkness is dark enough.

Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright, both for the stage and for BBC Radio 4. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction and – as an unashamed ‘mid-list’ author – is joyfully embracing the digital revolution. The Curiosity Cabinet  (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, Bird of Passage, is available on Kindle and The Amber Heart, the first in a trilogy of novels based on her Polish family history, is scheduled for Spring 2012. She blogs at Wordarts and is on Twitter as @czerkawska

Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Teresa Frohock

‘Music is a trigger that lets me see a living person in my mind’

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 dark fantasy author Teresa Frohock  @TeresaFrohock

Soundtrack by Loreena McKennitt

My first step in writing has always been the compilation of a soundtrack. I look for music that conveys a mood and brings to mind a character’s essence, a trigger if you will, that makes me see a living person in my mind. I’ve loved Loreena McKennitt’s music from the first time I heard All Souls Night from her CD The Visit. Her music was a perfect fit for the ethereal mood I wanted to create for my novel Miserere, and its soundtrack was comprised entirely of her work.

Breaking free

There were three songs in particular that I used for my main characters. Lucian’s song was The Mystic’s Dream. At the beginning of the piece, men’s voices create the atmosphere and bring to mind Eastern Orthodox churches. The chant builds to become more intense as McKennitt’s voice rises to take control of the arrangement. She carries the song away from the men and pushes the notes forward without looking back.

Whenever I played The Mystic’s Dream I could see Lucian, determined to break free of his situation in spite of his fear. The lyrics, “Clutched by the still of the night / And now I feel you move / Every breath is full / So it’s there my homage’s due / Clutched by the still of the night / Even the distance feels so near / All for the love of you,” encapsulate everything about Lucian’s love for Rachael. By the end of the song, I can see Lucian standing on a precipice, looking over the Wasteland, triumphant that he has made a beginning, however slight, to take his fate into his own hands and find his way home.

Sorrow, longing and defiance

For Rachael and Catarina, I used two songs from the Elemental CD. Rachael’s song was Kellswater. The lyrics aren’t as meaningful to me as the way the song is arranged and how the music makes me feel. I’ve always been able to tune out the words and hear McKennitt’s voice as if it is another instrument. Kellswater is a lonely song, full of sorrow and longing for a love that was, and for a love lost. Yet McKennitt sings the song with a quiet determination and a hint of defiance that makes it perfect for Rachael.

Catarina has none of Rachael’s regrets. Catarina’s scenes and a few of Lucian’s were written to Lullaby in which Douglas Campbell recites Blake’s poem Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth. The piece opens with the sound of thunder in the background, then McKennitt’s voice floats in beneath the storm with a haunting lullaby that gains prominence only to recede and give way to Campbell’s throaty recitation of Blake’s poem. I could see Catarina, humming the tune with a voice bright as summer sky, her beauty transfixed before the frightful storm of her madness.

Campbell begins the monologue softly, but his voice gains fury with every word until, like the storm, the violent imagery grows to tumultuous proportions. All the while, McKennitt’s rhythmic lullaby is in the background, distant as a memory, simultaneously soothing and disconnected to the carnage evoked by Blake’s poem.

Contrasts and hopes

As the last syllables fade, there is once more the sound of the storm and McKennitt’s voice rises over the thunder before the music fades. You can’t listen to the piece without feeling Campbell’s voice roll through your bones. With the final note, I knew I had Lucian, Catarina, and Rachael—their contrasts and their hopes all enveloped in one song. I saw Woerld and the battles fought and won and lost in their never-ending war against the Fallen.

Music will distract me when I’m writing, so I create a soundtrack and listen to it as I work out or surf the net for images. The music becomes background noise that somehow frees my imagination and inspires me to creativity. McKennitt’s music was the perfect accompaniment to Miserere and never failed to take me to that perfect Zen state where I could see my characters and hear their stories.

Raised in a small town, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction in her local library. She now lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Miserere: An Autumn Tale is her debut novel. Every now and then, she heads over to Tumblr and sends out Dark Thoughts, links to movies and reviews that catch her eye. You can also follow Teresa on Twitter @TeresaFrohock and join her author page on Facebook.