Posts Tagged Portishead
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 process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Chrissie Parker @Chrissie_author
Soundtrack by Elena Paprizou, Glykeria, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Charlie Worsham, Massive Attack, Portishead, Jem, The Moxy
I love music, my ipod goes everywhere with me, and I always listen to music when I write. Everything I write ends up with its own playlist, and certain songs on that playlist define the work, and its characters. Among the Olive Groves was no different. Whilst writing it my brain filled with so many songs that I love. They saw me frantically pouring my heart out onto the page, breathing life into it, and for me they have become an integral part of the book that will always remain.
A magical island
Among the Olive Groves centre’s around two women, Elena and Kate, who live in two different periods of time. They are both affected by similar issues; strained relationships, uncertainty in their lives, and outside factors that control and dictate their lives. Even though parts of the book are set in Bristol and Cornwall, the majority is set on the Greek Island of Zakynthos. Αστέρια (Stars), by Elena Paprizou, is a modern Greek song that reminds me of everything I love about Zakynthos; the high cliffs, sweeping beaches, crystal turquoise seas, green mountains and the history of the island. The song binds them together perfectly.
I fell in love with the island when I first visited, it’s a magical place, and it’s the reason I chose to set the book there.
Greek friendship that turns to loneliness
Greek music played a huge part in this book, especially when writing about Elena my Greek war heroine. I listened to many traditional Greek albums writing this book, but one track stood out. Tik Tik Tik by Glykeria is a great up-tempo Greek song, it’s very like Elena’s character happy, feisty and a little mischievous. The Festival in Macherado is full of dancing and Greek tradition, and in that scene Elena longs to dance with Angelos, the man she has become good friends with, but knows that she can’t. Instead they sneak off to the outskirts of town and talk while the sounds of the festival waft around them.
Eventually Elena and Angelos fall in love, but they’re from different backgrounds and know that they will never truly be together. When Angelos’s father forces him into a relationship with another woman. It’s in this moment that Elena realises she is alone and always will be. Sand and Water by Beth Nielsen Chapman, is a hauntingly beautiful song that epitomises Elena’s unending feelings of loss and loneliness. Listening to the song, I see Elena wandering through the olive groves, sitting on the beach or standing on a cliff top staring out at the sea mourning the loss of her one and only true love.
Relationships to last for decades
Love Don’t Die Easy by Charlie Worsham is a song that belongs to Kate and Fletch and their relationship that spans over a decade. Despite spending much of that time apart their relationship remains the same. Hardship and struggles may have defined the people they have become but their love didn’t die and is stronger than ever.
There were times though when I just couldn’t get into Kate or Fletch’s head at all, and wanted to feel closer to them. I thought that maybe listening to music from the area where they lived would help and it did. Protection by Massive Attack, Glory Box by Portishead, and Missing You by Jem, really stood out and became favourites. They reminded me of all the things I love about Bristol, and the West Country. They define the young, life and surf-loving characters.
When the Germans finally capture Elena, Angelos is heartbroken. He feels guilty and wishes that he could have done more to protect her. As he hides in the grass at Keri watching the Germans taunt her, he is completely torn. He desperately wants to save her from their enemy, but knows that if he does he will get arrested or die trying. Save You by The Moxy, was a song that really struck home while writing this scene, so much so that it’s an emotional listen. The equal guilt and fear from the two characters are so present in the music and the lyrics, it’s as if the song is saying exactly what Angelos longs to say to Elena.
Chrissie Parker lives in London with her husband and is a production co-ordinator in the TV, documentary and film industry. Her thriller Integrate was released in October 2013 and her historical novel Among the Olive Groves was released in July 2014. Other written work includes factual articles for the Bristolian newspaper and guest articles for the charities Epilepsy Awareness Squad and Epilepsy Literary Heritage Foundation. Chrissie has also written a book of short stories and poems, one of which was performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival in 2013. Her website is here, her Facebook page is here, her Facebook group is here, her blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @Chrissie_author.
My guest this week has a historical novel with two timelines, each of them full of loss and turmoil. Music by Portishead, Jem and The Moxy defined the characters and their dilemmas, hurling her into their lives and channeling their emotions as she wrote. Modern Greek music by Elena Paprizou and Glykeria inspired the setting – the island of Zakynthos. She also writes short stories and poems and performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival 2013. She is Chrissie Parker and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.