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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’s post is by poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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’s post is by novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees
Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!
To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.
A poetic novella
I now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)
I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.
Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.
I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.
Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…
The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.
My equivalent liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’ and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.
The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.
Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.
GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.
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My guest this week has frequently noticed how many Undercover Soundtrack authors describe music as a benign, supportive influence; a creative partner, if you will. She says for her it has been more of a gauntlet; a challenge to reach further with her prose, to infuse every syllable with power and nuance. She has two works. The first is a novel, which she describes as a warm-up for the second – a poetic narrative of western culture and science. Well, we love the unusual and unclassifiable here, so she’ll be right at home. She has also been a frequent and incisive commenter on my blogs, so it is all the more pleasure to host her. She is Philippa Rees and she’ll be sharing her Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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My guest this week is best known for his poetry collections, but has had a weakness for crime fiction ever since he was a 10-year-old, smuggling a radio to bed to catch Mystery Theater. Music – and a few fingers of bourbon – were his close companions when writing his first novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. Soulful Hank Dogs made the main character a dark angel in a corrupt town. Billie Holiday stopped the romance getting too sweet. He is Dave Malone and he’ll be here with his Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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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, spoken-word poet and novelist Dan Holloway @agnieszkasshoes returns with the soundtrack to his latest collection
i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry is, according to the blurb I put together for it, ‘a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous picaresque across the neon-soaked night cities of the world in search and celebration of lost friends’. It is about a feeling – one that blends joy and nostalgia and sorrow and celebration and neon piercing the night sky and damp bridges and lives that spring fully and tragically formed from the concrete. The times I’ve seen that done best have both been through powerful connections between image and soundtrack – in the 70s, Bernard Herrmann’s oppressive industrial backdrop to Taxi Driver, and from the 90s the marrying of the dazzling colour of East Asian cities and the Mamas and Papas classic piece of nostalgia California Dreaming.
So music was right at the front of my mind from the start as I was putting it together. It’s also an accompaniment to my first solo spoken word show, which will premier at Cheltenham Poetry Festival on 24 April. So rhythm, cadence, pulling the audience through sound through a rollercoaster ride of the emotions were all right there at the fore. And with the multimedia background to the book, that initial draw towards the neon, nostalgia and grime of the cinematic city soundtrack was the perfect place to begin getting myself into the right place to construct and compile the book.
Rhythm is all
The thing about a collection – and a show for that matter – is that at every level rhythm is everything. Not just within the pieces but within the whole. Every dazzling, intense, searing effect you create is diminished by the wrong amount of repetition, enhanced by the right number of carefully placed repetitions, burnished or dulled by what comes before, after, a similar distance from the beginning, from the end. Every piece must hang together and flow effortlessly just like a perfectly-constructed album. This sense of flow, rhythm, shape is essential to all forms of the written as well as the spoken word, but it amazes me how little I see writers refer to beautifully-crafted albums as their exemplars.
Prog rock and poetry
Being the age I am, married to whom I am, of the musical persuasion I am, and someone who calls himself a prog rocker of the poetry world, there really is only one album to turn to for the perfectly constructed emotional and sensual journey. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is perfect in just about every way, and makes as great a live show as it does an album. From helicopters to gloriously crashing waves of sound via alarm clocks and lunatics on the grass, every step is in just the right position in relation to every other to make the journey an almost mystical path to enlightenment.
And yet, steeped in Bernard Herrman and Pink Floyd, I have the path mapped out before me but it’s still not enough. Still not the mix of anger, desolation, joy and nostalgia and, well, neon-soakedness all in one that I’m looking for. Which is why playlists are so fabulous.
I’ve always loved playlists, ever since as a seven-year-old I’d endlessly sort through my dad’s 45s making little stacks to play in order. And there is nothing better for keying you into the rhythms of whatever you are writing than a playlist the follows your work’s rhythms. So, get your headphones and have a listen to what is, in essence, my latest book.
We begin with the wistful recollective regret of Garbage’s You Look So Fine and the haunting Red Hot Chilli Peppers classic Scar Tissue we find the brutal, angry, relentless drumbeat of The Kills’s No Wow as the reality of loss loses its romanticised edge and gives way to a despair that becomes exhaustion at the nadir of Nine Inch Nails’s stunningly dissonant Hurt and Portishead’s Roads with its pitch perfect association with the film Requiem for a Dream. From that low point we emerge to appreciate the preciousness of the memories with Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Eagle Eye Cherry’s celebration of the intense, fleeting joyfulness of life, Save Tonight. But the celebration is only temporary and gives way to the bitterness and desperation of the pounding beat in Portishead’s Machine Gun before, exhausted and scarred but unbowed we emerge with Melanie Pain’s Bruises and finally lay down our heads, our lives and lost friendships streaming ever slower before our eyes as we fade into the night with Emily Barker’s Pause.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator. He runs 79 rat press through which he publishes his own conceptual books and will, in June 2013, be publishing debut collections from five of the most groundbreaking new voices in poetry and prose. In the picture he appears with Diophantus, one of the 79 rats. He blogs at Authors Electric and is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Find him on Twitter @agnieszkasshoes
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Another familiar face this week – one of the first Soundtrack contributors returns with a new poetry collection. i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry, which you’ll notice is be-eecummingly lower case. It’s a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous celebration of lost friends – with prog-rock tendencies. In a subversive nod to pink-hearts week, Dan Holloway will be here on Wednesday with his latest Undercover Soundtrack.
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- 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.
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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 2011-2022. 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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