Posts Tagged Saint-Saens

The Undercover Soundtrack – Tracy Farr

for logoThe 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

Introduction

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. The Undercover Soundtrack Tracy Farr 2Maybe 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.

Resonance

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.

The Undercover Soundtrack Tracy Farr 1Aetherwave

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 COVER-TLALOLG-AardvarkBureau2016-385x589px72dpiNew 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.

Summertime

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.

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Jane Rusbridge

‘He sees her playing wildly. She feels exposed. Ashamed.’

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’s post is by award-winning author Jane Rusbridge @JaneRusbridge

Soundtrack by YoYo Ma, Saint-Saens, Jacqueline Du Pre, E Elgar, Mstislav Rostropovitch, JS Bach, D Shostakovich, Michaela Fukacova, B Martinu, M Bruch, Shadowboxer

I’d love to be able to write in a crowded room like D.H. Lawrence, but I need silence and solitude. The early stage of Rook was a very noisy exception. Cello music, volume up high, accompanied me most of the day, as did the cellists I watched on Youtube, over and over again: YoYo Ma, playing Saint-Saens, The Swan; Jacqueline Du Pre playing Elgar’s  well known Cello Concerto in E minor, especially the Adagio.

My main character, Nora, had to be a cellist so, knowing nothing at all about the cello, I needed to observe technique, as well as listen. I bought CDs and played them in the car and in the kitchen, until my husband complained. He’s more of a BBC Radio 5 Live person. I read Mstislav Rostropovitch: Cellist, Teacher, Legend by Elizabeth Wilson, a book which lead me the Bach Prelude in G major and helped me fall a little in love with Rostrapovitch and his spark of genius.

Wrestling with ferocity

A friend teaches at the Royal Academy so I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit in on some lessons. These had a profound effect and were inspirational in terms of understanding my central character. One gifted young student, Cecilia Bignall, played cello music I’d never heard, such as Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 and the  Martinu cello concerto no. 1. To observe, at close range, a cellist play such vigorous, powerful music in a relatively small room was electrifying. My whole body reacted; the sound vibrated through my spine, ribs and jaw-bone. It raised my pulse. Cecilia is petite. Her body language while playing gave the impression she and the cello were wrestling with ferocity over the music.

Influenced by Jacqueline du Pre’s tragic life story, I’d been under the misconception the cello was largely a romantic, melancholic instrument. While music like Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei still plays a vital role in the novel, discovering the cello’s gutsy side was a revelation, and led to the development of Nora’s corresponding passion and strength of mind. Though she’s been knocked sideways by what happened to her, she’s feisty.

Wild and feral

Not long after my Royal Academy visit, I went to a university conference on the Uncanny. In one seminar session, we discussed the ‘wildness of being’ which exists beneath language. We talked of the fear of wildness, about feral children and the wildness of giving birth. In my notes at this point is a drawing of a light bulb – my private shorthand for eureka moments – followed by a few frenzied scribbles about Nora, my main character.

‘Harry sees her playing ‘wildly’.  Martinu. She feels exposed. Ashamed.’

Nora, a professional cellist, has abruptly abandoned her career, her reasons gradually revealed as the novel progresses. Our discussion about the fear of wildness that day helped things fall into place: Nora’s memory of certain events has been repressed. Trying to ‘tame’ her spirit, she no longer allows herself to play with the abandon she once did. If the wildness resurfaces, her memories could be too painful to bear. Ideas about wildness and taming also tied in with the story of the baby rook Nora finds and nurses back to health. I wanted both the rook and Nora to be able to ‘return to the wild’ at the end of the novel.

I got home from that ‘wildness’ seminar and wrote a scene in Rook where, at dawn, Nora takes her cello down to the cellar to play. She

‘holds the cello close, fingers flat on the wood, the flecks and ripples of varnish, the intimate flaws in the gleam of the cello’s surface, the strength of its body’s curve against her hip and breasts’.

This scene, where Nora plays the Martinu cello concerto no. 1 ‘with the urgency of long deprivation’, is a turning point her recovery.

Natalie Goldberg talks of the ‘wild mind’ of the writer, a phrase which I use in preference to the ‘unconscious’. Through the discovery of the wild side of cello music, I found parallels between my creative process and Nora’s relationship to her cello, essential to my understanding of her character and motivation. And the trailer for Rook has just gone live. The music was composed especially by Aiden O’Brien of Shadowboxer, and inspired by photographs Natalie Miller (my daughter) took of rooks when we were rooking together. If you like, it’s the other side of the coin – music growing from the writing process.

Jane Rusbridge is the author of The Devil’s Music, long-listed for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award, and Rook, one of the launch titles for exciting new imprint Bloomsbury Circus. She is the recipient of the Philip Lebrun Prize, and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester, where she was Associate Lecturer in English for more than 10 years. She lives and works in West Sussex. She has a blog Jane Rusbridge and can be found on Twitter @JaneRusbridge

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