Posts Tagged poet
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 award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, twice-nominated Arts Writer of the Year, poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Mogwai, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Boards of Canada, Neurosis, Converge, Laura Veirs, Bat for Lashes, Gallows, Isis, The James Orr Complex
Friend of the Night
When I write I listen to music. Often I spend a while finding the right music to write to. Sometimes if the music is wrong, I can’t write. For some reason, The Beatles, who I adore, are bad writing music, as are Pixies. But Mogwai are a constant: and The Blue Horse would be a very different book without the existence of Friend of the Night (from the Mr Beast album). It was as important to the conception of the book as Neurosis’s I Can See You or indeed the first disturbing day-dream that led to me writing the novel.
I love Mogwai and listen to them a lot, but Friend of the Night is for me their masterpiece. If you have not heard it: it has no lyrics. The deep and resounding melancholy of its melodies, there are at least three and they intertwine gorgeously, are lifted by its main theme, played on piano, which signals a chime of hope and light. When the piano rings by itself, it is singing a cracked but steely song of survival and beauty. The song has forward purpose, it is not depressed. It has succumbed.
This how I wanted the main character of The Blue Horse, George Newhouse to be: damaged and distraught, but deciding to live on, deciding to keep walking forwards, even if he was walking into darkness. The pianos chime amid the splendour of the sulphurous guitars – and from the start of The Blue Horse, Newhouse, widowed and lost, has a flame of hope and life.
Whenever I lost my way writing The Blue Horse, I played Friend of the Night – the story of The Blue Horse is contained for me its 5 minutes, 30 seconds. It is rare when a piece of music seems to, in mere notes, explain and also confirm a feeling, an emotion, a sensibility, in some way, while also transcending and providing illumination. Sometimes I feel I could write a book about this piece of music: in some ways I already have.
Loss and rapture
The Blue Horse circles around loss and memory, around survival amid the darkness of the world. It has a earnest Gnostic undertow (although perhaps no one’s noticed it yet…) and a belief in other worlds at its core. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was played over and over as I wrote. Its main melody is not only incredibly beautiful, it seems to be speaking of something valuable and divine that has been lost. There is a grieving in its notes. When the full theme is played, around two minutes in, I often find it overwhelming. The fingers are lifted from the keyboard. That sense of being overwhelmed by both beauty and grief was a vital one in The Blue Horse. In the chapters where Newhouse remembers his wife – swimming in the Atlantic, driving through rural Ireland – this is playing. When Ruth appears to him amid blood and magic in Venice, this is playing.
The Blue Horse goes to some dark and broken places. I did not write the book from beginning to end – I often wrote at night or in scraps and moments while travelling. I dotted about in the narrative. Playing certain songs would help me leap back into those places.
I knew Newhouse, a curator at a major gallery in Edinburgh who is searching for a lost painting, The Blue Horse, would end up in darkness, in living nightmares, in some unpleasant mental and physical spaces. Converge’s Dark Horse, from their Axe to Fall album, has that sinister equine spirit in its title, of course, and ends with their lead singer shrieking. It is also tremendously powerful, punishing, its opening two-note call always a deranged spur to action. I would put on Dark Horse while I wrote two chapters in particular: when Newhouse, bereft and drunk, sees an apparition in Leith docks. And secondly in a club he is led to by Flintergill, a sinister agent. The club in Edinburgh is full of the powerful and the influential, and involves orgies and dark sex as well as drink and intrigue. The punishing but exhilarating riffage of the second half of this song fuelled the relentless tone of that place and those people.
Memories and remembrance
I saw Laura Veirs live at the ABC in Glasgow around the time of the release of her album The Year of Meteors. One song, Through the Glow, stuck with me. It played a lot while I wrote. The lyrics are elusive as well as detailed. The intangible power of memories and remembrance, of dreams and changeable mental images, is key to the story of The Blue Horse. In its gentler moments, when Newhouse feels a sense of life, when he sees beauty in nature and friendship, when he meets another woman, Tyler, Laura Veirs would often be playing, as would Bat for Lashes’s wonderful Moon and Moon, and a fine, tremulous, beautiful song by The James Orr Complex, Fade Grey to Fade Blue.
Gallows’s Grey Britain is a fine, fine album, one of the best rock albums made by a British band in the last ten years. I played it a lot. The Vulture, a song in two parts, one acoustic and gentle, the other vicious and heavy, a razor-blade across the face, was perfect for writing The Blue Horse: darkness and light. Doom and violence. It fed into, most notably, the chapter Rudi. Rudi, Newhouse’s great friend, tumbles – aided by possibly malign spirits – into the abyss. This song tumbles into an abyss. It is also riveting and bewildering…a bit like that chapter. The Vulture sings of a country that is beset with devils, real and unreal: like Rudi’s life in that pivotal chapter.
Reach for the Dead
The Blue Horse exists in this world, or a mirror image of it: in real Edinburgh, there is no Public Gallery, and in the real world, there was no Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a Dutch painter of the 16th century. I knew the novel would also touch on the occult and the sublime. Boards of Canada’s album Tomorrow’s Harvest came out in 2013, just as I was editing the novel for the first time. Its beauty and bleakness – it appears to ‘about’ the inevitable end of human civilisation (if a wordless album can truly be about anything) – played as I wrote chapters, such as at a drunken party in Edinburgh’s New Town where Newhouse encounters an apparition in the bathroom. BOC’s music is limber and fluid but also unsettling. There are snatched, half hidden voices. Subliminal whispers amid the electronica and analogue arpeggios and crescendos. It is not as it seems. When I listen to BOC I can imagine walking into a mirror, or meeting myself on the street. At some times – late at night, when writing – it seemed to point my writing in new directions. When Newhouse’s mentor, Dr Martinu, is killed by his own doppelganger, it may have been because this haunted, insistent music was playing as I typed. He was originally going to have a heart attack and fall into his own open fire. A weirder fate was given to him by this music.
The final chapters of The Blue Horse are at the Venice Biennale. Newhouse, by this point deranged and befuddled, comes closer to finding The Blue Horse, and it comes closer to finding him. The novel ends in fire and blood, in visions and transcendence. Isis were a tremendous, visionary American guitar band. They released two albums, in particular, Oceanic and Panopticon, which remain among my favourite. I write to them all the time: they are muscular, dynamic, and possessing a kind of super-heavy sense of intense beauty. Like a wall of ice collapsing into a polar sea. The final track of Panopticon is called Grinning Mouths. Like many of their songs, it begins in serrated, fuzzy riffage, thunderous beats and bellowing. Then something remarkable happens – four minutes in, the music takes flight. Something clears. The music is simultaneously super powered and inundated with a new light. It becomes driving and extremely beautiful. Aaron Turner, their lead singer and songwriter, is still bellowing, but tunefully, with soul. The move from ugly to serene, the song’s incredible sense of momentum and flight, powered the final scenes of The Blue Horse in Venice. Whenever I lost what was happening in the city on the water, I played Grinning Mouths again. It solved things for me.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and author of The Blue Horse, which is published by Freight Books. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times in Scotland and The Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in The Herald, Gutter Magazine, The Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. He lives and works in Edinburgh. Tweet him on @PhilipJEMiller
My guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller will be here on Wednesday with his 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 guest is cellist and poet Christine Tsen
Soundtrack by Josh Groban, Evanescence, Ennio Morricone, Brahms, Vivaldi, Chopin, Joshua Bell, Snatam Kaur
I’m a feeler. While many people tend to live and run their lives through facts and figures, I am guided by my feelings. I intuit my way through rather than intellectualise. Today’s close of the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Not a clue. Boring. How I felt after my performance this afternoon? Happy, relieved, tired, looking forward to a lovely walk. The same goes for my art. I am a performing cellist and poet. Playing the cello and writing poetry are two spiritual activities in their own right, and yet they merge as music inspires poetry through words, cadence and feeling. And I am not afraid of experimenting and falling on my face.
Glissando is one of the poems in my book Cellography. It refers to the fall from trying to attain some disgusting perfection of one’s life, entrapments, and surroundings. It refers to complete humiliation and humility. A period of pruning back and eating it. I believe I was listening to Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up during this period of writing and howling. And O how I howled. During this time of admitting the truth and being indelicately thrust into an orbit of change, both of my dear parents died. I couldn’t have gone much lower. But there’s always some sort of renewal, growth. There’s the getting back up again.
Just around the corner.
Glissando rising up
Symphonymphony is about becoming utterly one with the music, and opening to the depths of something profoundly mystical. It’s the same whether I play in a symphonic or chamber music setting. Music turns me on. Poetry turns me on. Art, what have you turns me on. There is such freedom and life force behind it all.
Along with feeling, faith and spirituality inspire my poetry and music. I am not a musical snob. If it makes me feel something and has heart, I’m in. When I wrote Playing Love, I was listening to Playing Love, the Ennio Morricone tune. And I wrote the poem with the intrinsic declaration that art is in fact an offering of the heart, whether chalk on a sidewalk or a musician playing in a garden. I was inspired to write Playing Love after hearing about the experiment with solo violinist Joshua Bell when he posed as a street musician and passers-by continued on past him with nary a glance. A free concert by the virtuoso who would be charging over $200 per seat later that day (yes, it was sold out).
In the quiet periods of contemplation when I’m not writing poetry, I listen to Vivaldi and Bach, any and all Bach. YouTube Vivaldi. All of it. It lifts and clears out unnecessary residue. They are like a spritzing drink that cleanses the palate between two courses and a meal.
And after a Grand Pause, a dearth of poetic productivity, life handed me another rollercoaster. Truths shifted, internal realities trumped external formalities, and I stumbled and bumped through a Gothic-laced night of the soul. Let’s just say I have encountered my share of narcissists, their games and manipulations. And out of this ride, a veritable feast of creativity came gushing forth. Evanescence accompanied me through creating Renaissance Waltz, Harmony, Sodden Kisses, Depression, and September. She walked me through the dark humor, the cloudy sad weather. But through this in a place of pain, I experienced catharsis. I lifted this Goth from my teenage daughter and there is no finer stuff, however passé.
I’ve been mentioning the music I listened to and yet I should also include the music I was playing. For example, there is Chopin’s Polonaise Brilliante. I found this piece in an attic and fell in love with it. So did my dog, or at least he humored me by joining in. I recorded it on my album From the Land of Song and wrote the poem Divo at the same time. A lovely pup-and-cello duet that also made its way into Bark Magazine, a periodical on all things canine.
Sometimes ideas, images, feelings come to me and yet I find myself struggling to express them. Then after a while, all of a sudden, the words come forth. Quickly, furiously, unfettered. And after the typing I look up to see them arranging themselves into a poem. Ambition: Untamed is one of them. And my accompaniment? A soft cacophony of birds, the padded paw-steps of my dog, and Snatam Kaur’s album Grace, so soft that I don’t even notice. Beautiful.
The message always means more to me than the words in poetry. I don’t so much want to make people ponder. I want them to feel, as I do, and from different perspectives. Compassion. Empathy. Passion. Humour. Joy. Sorrow. These emotions make me feel alive and uniquely human. So often we try to soften them with distractions. Is it that we’re afraid if we start we won’t be able to stop? It’s all too risky? Well let it be, I say. There is a natural motion to the ways of love and joy, sorrow and pain, as well as the fervent still points such as Beethoven’s space between the notes. If nothing were ever moving us, where would the meaning be?
Christine Tsen is a cellist and chamber musician performing throughout New England. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music (BM) and the New England Conservatory of Music (MM). A lyrical musician and poet, she believes in grace and the power of a smile. Her CDs, From the Land of Song and Cello Ornithology are available at CD Baby or by request. Her poetry collection, Cellography, is published by Vine Leaves Press. Her poetic journey began in her toddlership but was encouraged by her inspiring and kind brother, Jeff Thomas. Her website is here.
My guest this week is a cellist and chamber musician who has just published her first poetry collection with Vine Leaves Press. She says music inspires her to write and to strive to express meaning in the cadence and feeling of words. Her soundtrack includes the classical standards you might expect, but also Evanescence and Josh Groban – and a moment when she saw the solo violinist Joshua Bell posing as a street musician. She is Christine Tsen and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.