Posts Tagged Samuel Barber
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 creative writing tutor, Patron of Reading, WoMentoring mentor, National Trust writer in residence and – phew – novelist Rhian Ivory @Rhian_Ivory
Soundtrack by Bach, Bastille, Imagine Dragons, Samuel Barber
The Boy Who Drew The Future is about Noah and Blaze, who live in the same village over 100 years apart. But the two teenage boys are linked by a river and a strange gift: they both compulsively draw images they don’t understand, that later come true. They can draw the future. In the 1860s, Blaze is alone after his mother’s death, dependent on the kindness of the villagers, who all distrust his gift as witchcraft but still want him to predict the future for them. When they don’t like what he draws, life gets very dangerous for him. In the present, Noah comes to the village for a new start. His parents are desperate for him to be ‘normal’ after all the trouble they’ve had in the past. He makes a friend, Beth, but as with Blaze the strangeness of his drawings start to turn people against him and things get very threatening.
I have used music throughout when writing The Boy who Drew the Future but I’ve also gone beyond that and used music as a gateway into my character’s minds and psyches rather than creating a playlist to write to as I’ve done in other novels. I guess you could call it method music writing much like method acting.
Although my character Beth plays the piano she also listens to cello music a lot and her favourite cellist are Yo Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré and Han na Chang. She will start cello lessons once she’s passed her final grade on the piano, this is something she’s put off, she’s nervous about trying to play the cello whereas the piano comes easily to her. The sounds the cello make express her emotions so perfectly and capture the essence of Beth better than any description could. When I wrote any scenes with Beth in I would begin by listening to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 – Prelude as it would lead me into her heart. I could feel the vibrations and that rising end note echoing a sense of hope for me which is intrinsic and essential in her character development. When writing I would picture Beth lying on a rug in her room listening to Bach whilst making notes for school, doing her homework or daydreaming about her own compositions. As Beth is a musician it is easier to imagine I am Beth through the music, it allows me a window into her soul, giving me the ability to visualize, understand and channel her character through the way in which she responds to music.
Private and fragile
I’ve always had such a strong connection with this piece of music and knew that when I pictured Beth upset she would turn to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings arranged for the piano. I have a scene in the book where she is playing this piece of music in tears safe in the knowledge that she is alone in the house and can allow the music to move her without feeling self-conscious or embarrassed. Because of the emotions this piece of music creates I’ve always viewed it as very private and fragile. Strings have the ability to build to such a crescendo pulling the listener deeply into the mood and tone of the piece in a delicate and passionate manner.
The term heartbreaking springs to mind and it is no wonder that this powerful and dramatic piece of music has been used as the soundtrack to many films such as Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Elephant Man and Amelie. It is tender and gentle but all-encompassing which is how Beth feels, emotions that are too big for her to hold inside and feelings that go beyond the scope of her normal life and world. When she meets Noah everything changes for her, she knows that she is about to go on an epic journey with this new person in her life and has to show him the right way forward before things fall apart.
The music builds in a huge arc that climbs until it reaches its peak much like her emotions and then falls off into a quiet sense of knowing making the sound of Beth’s acceptance of her feelings for Noah and the dangerous consequences as a result which she cannot fully comprehend yet. Adagio for Strings underlines this sense of knowing, a fatal sense of knowing that you have to follow this arc, this melody as it climbs ever higher and stronger, no matter where it may lead you.
A damaged soul
Interestingly when I wrote Noah and Blaze’s (Blaze’s chapters are set in 1865) scenes I turned to contemporary music such as Bastille. The track Flaws felt as if it had been written for Noah, the lyrics told his story so beautifully that I would listen to it over and over whilst writing his scenes. I particularly liked the acoustic version because it was stripped back and allowed me to focus intently on the lyrics. The song speaks of a damaged soul, an emptiness that can’t be filled which perfectly captures what it feels like to be alone in the world, or think that you are alone and that you won’t be able to find your way, you won’t be able to get on the right path. Noah is lost, deeply flawed and tries to hide these flaws but fails. The lyrics talk about one person wearing their flaws on their sleeve which is Beth and another person burying their flaws deep beneath the ground which is Noah and Blaze.
When I first heard Radioactive by Imagine Dragons I didn’t necessarily associate it with Noah but the more I delved into his character the more I came to realise that this song is his song. He feels he is radioactive and everything he touches turns to dust, ash and dust. He is a chemical explosion waiting to detonate and destroy everything around him. He is the apocalypse and doesn’t want to let Beth in because he is simply too dangerous to be around. The relentless beat and bass of this song felt like his heartbeat, when I was writing fast paced scenes like the one in the Workhouse I tuned in to the rhythm of this song in particular and the way in which it builds packing a real punch in the dark of the workhouse tunnels. I used The Workhouse at Southwell and Calke Abbey’s tunnels to set this scene, visiting these places so that when I played the music at home they were connected in my memory. The quality of sound in the tunnel made me want to listen to this song acoustically. The clarity of the guitar is sharper and clearer in this version, you can really hear the harmonies of the singers making it feel closer and more intimate. This is exactly how I wanted the characters’ voices to feel in the tunnel as the drama unfolds, up close and personal.
Rhian Ivory was born in Swansea, Wales, and studied English Literature at Aberystwyth. She trained as a drama and English teacher and wrote her first novel during her first few years in teaching. She got her first publishing deal at 26 and went on to write three more novels for Bloomsbury. She took a break to have three children and during this time taught creative writing and also a children’s literature course for the Open University. The Boy who drew the Future is her fifth novel and she’s recently finished writing her sixth. Rhian is a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and a National Trust writer in residence, working most recently with Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood in Derbyshire. She lives in Northamptonshire with her family and far too many dogs. Tweet her on @Rhian_Ivory and find her on Facebook.
My guest this week has written a novel with a dual timeline and an intriguing title that has more than a hint of fairytale – The Boy Who Drew The Future. She flitted past me on Twitter one day with her intriguing title and I set off in pursuit, waving an example of The Undercover Soundtrack and hoping she’d find it appealing. Thankfully she did, and her piece describes the music that drew her into the hearts of her characters. One particularly memorable line is the phrase she used to describe Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a private and fragile piece, a place for learning secrets. The Boy Who Drew The Future is her fifth novel and she’s held a string of distinguished writing posts including a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and National Trust Writer In Residence. She is Rhian Ivory and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
If I were to compile a soundtrack for My Memories of a Future Life, it would be two distinct halves. There are the signature piano pieces like the Grieg concerto, the rolling standards from classical repertoire that feature in the story. And my own reworking of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach.
In parallel to that soundtrack is an undercover, deep-level score that probably no reader is aware of – the music I used as I wrote.
Its contributors are many, varied – and some would say obscure. There’s the electronica artist Murcof, whose tiptoeing tension revealed to me the uneasy questions in Carol’s heart. There is the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk, whose glacial boldness became the eerie composure of Carol’s next incarnation, Andreq. (Find a video of Meredith Monk here.) And, less obtusely, Handel with Ombra Cara from Radamisto, which gave me the conflicted core of one scene – brooding, thrilling, relieved – and scared.
I could linger far longer on scenes that changed for ever once I found their music, but I need to avoid spoilers and so brevity must be the rule. So here’s a fellow music-fuelled writer, Porter Anderson, to explain how the process works for him.
He used Amidst Neptune by Caleb Burhans to tease out the surprising truths of a scene.
Porter says: ‘I’ve used this piece in a scene where a highly placed public figure is contemplating suicide. The setting is an isolated spot by the sea, very late at night—an end-of-the-road glimmer in all directions. The exotic tension of Burhans’s electric violins and those initial, absorbed cadences tell me a lot. There’s a picturesque loneliness that invades the mind when enough negative focus converges, as in the opening of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Burhans’s initial concentration on a few phrases is overtaken by a walking bass under a sighing, ironic theme.
‘It shows me that the devastating rock-bottom despair you’d expect in such a bad moment actually has a comforting side, as counter-intuitive as that seems. The disappointments, fears and weaknesses in that thudding hopelessness at the open can become friendly. Burhans gives it to us as a bluesy, street-wise swagger. There’s an attraction, let’s face it, to that nothing-to-lose extreme. Burhans builds his swinging gait, topped by the glissandi of the upper voices, into an almost commercially contemporary theme. An uncomfortably familiar jazz brush on the cymbal, a dutiful, head-down, keep-on-keeping-on gloss to what must be a terrifying moment—because we love our terrifying moments.
Sweet enjoyment in the abyss
By the time he breaks into some rippling piano breaks on the other side of his sax-savvy look into the abyss, my character’s suicide is still fully viable–but not without a confession that there’s a sweet enjoyment, a satisfying sit-down among the woes. And maybe that’s the attraction. Certainly not in all cases, but in my character’s. This could be a clue to the pain at hand. A need to be led through a gratifyingly harrowing litany of qualms to the very edge of this seaside desolation.
‘Currently, the most powerful composers’ voices in my work belong to Pēteris Vasks, Nico Muhly (whose “Two Boys” premiered at the ENO in June), Eleni Karaindrou, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (with Muhly, my three choral masters), Gavin Bryars, Missy Mazzoli, and Lisa Bielawa.’
Porter adds: ‘Music is sometimes a debate, other times an argument, almost a discussion, a chance to turn things over and see if I’ve got my own characters’ bearings clear enough. Or have I taken just the first rock-bottom, down-and-out cliché and stopped there?’
All this from a chance pairing of music and muse.
The source of that Burhans performance, the Meredith Monk video and these intriguing concert pics – is the radio station Q2 Music, which thanks to Porter I’ve recently discovered. Q2 is part of the biggest NPR station, WNYC/WXQR based in New York, the home of some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers. No matter where you are, you can listen to it on the internet, a constant, 24-hour stream of challenging music, available free.
A magnifying glass for the truth
For me, a novel’s undercover soundtrack has to be music I don’t know. The discovery, note by note, is part of the essential dialogue with my characters and my story. Q2 has it all, fresh and untasted, ready to be the magnifying glass for the truth.
As it was Porter who introduced me to this internet treasure, I’ll leave him with the last word: ‘Q2 is a salon. A glistening, hovering salon in cyberspace. You go in, convene the artists you need, leave the door open for the ones you didn’t know you needed—that’s the beauty of the continual stream—and you get your work done.’
Porter Anderson is a journalist and critic whose column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appears at JaneFriedman.com on Thursdays. He has issued a matching grant to Q2 Music listeners who would like to donate during the service’s October 18-26 pledge drive. You do NOT have to pledge a penny. This is not a pitch, and the services of Q2 Music are offered entirely free of charge. Porter’s much more interested in bringing together new music with new writings. If you do feel interested in contributing to the non-profit work of this unique NPR affiliate, each $1 you donate will be matched with $1 from Porter, up to a total of $5,000, at Q2Music.org And Porter would love to thank you. Drop him a line on Twitter or at Porter@PorterAndersonMedia.com
Update: the lady herself is reading this blog…