‘Music is a ritual of invocation’
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 my guest is medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan
Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Before iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.
Adding to the choir
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.
If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’
‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.
From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.
The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.
Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.
Star of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.
He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’
I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.