Posts Tagged Ravel
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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir
Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel
In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.
When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.
I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.
For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).
When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’
The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.
And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.
He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’
And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.
A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.
Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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.