Posts Tagged Scotland

The Undercover Soundtrack – Deborah Andrews

redpianoupdate-3The 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 award-winning theatre practitioner Deborah Andrews

Soundtrack by Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Bjork, REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens

The further I write my way into my second novel, the more I realise the extent to which my debut novel, Walking the Lights, is drenched in music. Music is at the emotional heart of the novel. It initially speaks of Maddie’s relationship with her absent father – the songs she remembers him singing to her – and it goes on to illuminate her relationships with her friends, her lovers and, ultimately, with herself.

undercover-soundtrack-deborah-andrews-1Personal and political

Walking the Lights is set in 1996/97. I was looking for connections between the personal and political – and a time that would echo Maddie’s emergence – and the culture and climate around the general election of ’97, along with the lead-up to devolution in Scotland, fitted perfectly. To help re-create the period, I read archive copies of newspapers; watched movies and read books from the era; and listened to music: Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Björk…as well as to music that Maddie would’ve listened to as a teenager: REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg.

Music plays a large role in my life. As a child, I wanted to be a dancer and I trained in dance for ten years. To me, dance was a way of giving music physical form, of being a conduit for emotion. As an adult, I love listening to music as well as singing and playing the mandolin. I can’t write while listening to music though – my attention will be drawn away and my emotions pulled by what I’m listening to. I enjoy walking and mulling over what I’m working on, and will often put my earphones in and spend time getting inside my characters’ heads and hearts.

Inside out

There were two key tracks that really helped me to get to know Maddie from the inside out. The first of these was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The song relates to a carefree time in Maddie’s life when she used to go out clubbing with her friends, Jo and Roger, and it reappears – after a few dark years – with the prospect of a new romance with visual artist, Alex. I find the track hopeful yet full of longing, and I wanted to reflect something of the swelling strings in Maddie’s feelings of anticipation.

The second track was The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. This song helped define Maddie at the end of the novel: she’s been seeking love and validation, often looking in all the wrong places, and she’s been searching for her father, leading her to uncover family secrets and testing her hold on reality. She’s in recovery, and she’s reconnecting with her work in the theatre and her sense of purpose. Again, the hopefulness of the melody was important, the string motif, but also the lyrics: being held in one body while playing many parts aligns nicely with the life of an actor.

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I could wax lyrical about music in the book, but in terms of music behind the book three main tracks come to mind. In 2011 I was busy rewriting, changing the novel from first person present tense to third person past tense and experimenting with free indirect speech. This was particularly important to help me create some of some of the larger, political canvases, and to take the reader close in to Maddie’s breakdown without causing confusion as to what was going on. I went to see one of my favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens, touring The Age of Adz at the Manchester Apollo. In I Want To Be Well I heard the chaos and fighting spirit that I was looking to portray in the third part of my novel. The gig itself was significant too – the massive hallucinatory spectacle, that became increasingly wild, and ended with a shedding of costumes, fancy lighting design, video and performance theatrics for a beautiful and tender acoustic rendition of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. This was the kind of spectrum I wanted my writing to encompass, and the kind of emotional adventure I wanted to take my readers on.

The second track, Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, arrived as part of a compilation from a friend while I was editing my novel. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it had a big impact on me. Again, it really resonated with what I wanted my novel to achieve, both in terms of storyline – becoming an adult and coming to terms with the loss of a father – and in terms of emotion: the sense of struggle, strength, fight and defiance. I found the power of the cello, the rising voices, the drums, the layering in the track, like a call to action. I spent several train journeys with the song on repeat, and I think it helped me find the determination to make the novel as good as I could, as well as providing true north for Maddie’s trajectory.

walking-the-lights_coverfrontThe third track, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ There She Goes My Beautiful World, served a similar purpose. The lyrics are poetic and talk of literary figures and inspiration – the sentiment, tune and arrangement are really kick-ass. Daft as it might sound, this track also helped me get ready to let go of my manuscript and my characters.

Novels can take years from first fragments to publication. I started writing scenes for what became Walking the Lights back in 2007. Playing a musical instrument reminds me that the basics are important, to build strength and improve technique: a lifelong development of craft. I’m always looking for my writing to have musicality – rhythm, flow, timbre, texture, growth, counterpoint – and at least one stage of my editing process involves reading my work aloud. The doubt I often feel when I start work on a new tune reminds me to keep chipping away at my writing, it shows me time and again how commitment and steady work can slowly build something complex and complete and, hopefully, moving and meaningful.

Deborah is an award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist. Her knowledge of the theatre world inspired her debut novel Walking the Lights, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. She has an MLitt (Distinction) and an AHRC-funded PhD in creative writing from Glasgow University. She now lives in Lancaster where she teaches creative writing. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently writing her second novel. For more info. please visit her website and her Facebook page.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – GD Harper

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 GD Harper

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tangerine Dream, JS Bach, Wagner, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Billie Holiday

In 1974, I saved up my paper-round money and bought a turntable. David Bowie burst into my monochrome life like a rainbow, daring me to be different. Aladdin Sane was the first album I bought, and every track seemed to be a coded message telling me there was no such thing as normal, there was no need to conform, that we had to be true to who we really were. Jean Genie filled my mind with surrealistic, decadent imagery, although on Cracked Actor a 27-year-old Bowie singing to a 16-year-old schoolboy about how fundamentally sleazy is a 50 year-old man brings a smile to my face today.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper suspense thriller ScotlandBut it was Bob Dylan who set out the agenda by which I’ve lived my life. It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) told me if I wasn’t always busy being born, then I’d soon be busy dying. I’ve spent my life reinventing myself, in appearance, in career, in lifestyle, in geography. It’s what keeps me alive. Curiosity is a muscle that needs exercise to stop atrophy setting in.

Reinvention

And so to my novel, Love’s Long Road. I was 55 years old, had sold my business and finally in my life had a financial breathing space to take the risk of another reinvention, to become what I always wanted to be, a writer. My novel is set in the 1970s, of course. There’s never a time in your life like the one when the music in the charts is being written for your generation. It was an era I could write about with passion, and, with a little prompting from Wikipedia, from experience.

Lyrics had inspired me to start on this journey, but to write I needed to find music to fill my mind but not fight the words I was trying to get out. So thank you, Ian Rankin. He did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his writing process and revealed the secret of his productivity: Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, whose vast, formless swirling soundscapes formed the perfect sonic background to my brainstorming and planning as the story took shape. I invested in the 4 CD boxed set, and loaded it into a multi-disc CD cartridge. I’d play it over and over again, never tiring of its astonishing ability to sooth and refresh my addled brain.

Bach and Wagner helped me raise my game when I was trying to be a bit cerebral when writing more literary prose, although I did feel a bit of a heel in the way I used Wagner in the book. The suave, sophisticated baddie in the tale quotes Frederick Nietzsche, has two Doberman Pinschers called Lucifer and Satan, and generally does all the things that scream out at you ‘run away, run away’ (which of course my heroine doesn’t do). So I had him listening to Wagner, even being a real Wagner buff, playing on all these Nazi connotations. Nothing could be more different from the ugliness of fascism than the beauty of Wagner’s music and I’m a bit ashamed of myself that in my own small way I’ve perpetuated a negative stereotype.

Legacy of Bowie

My main character was a 22-year-old woman, and I wrote the story from her perspective in the first person, a legacy of Bowie daring me from all these years ago. And as I started to write the story, the 70s setting started to grow in importance, becoming almost a character in the novel in its own right. The characters pored over the lyric sleeves of albums trying to decipher their meaning; there were parties, with blue lights and joss sticks and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon providing the soundtrack to mass snogging sessions. Clare Torry’s vocals on The Great Gig in the Sky 15 minutes 42 seconds after the thudding heartbeat opening on side one always seemed perfectly timed.

My character had to keep escaping from jeopardy and reinventing herself, so It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) spoke to her as well. And my faith in the corporate music world was boosted when I approached Dylan’s publishing company to quote his lyrics in my book and after they’d read the excerpts that feature Dylan’s lyrics, they became fantastically helpful and supportive in me securing the rights to do that.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper noir music writingAs the story progressed, music continued to shape the writing. If I needed a burst of energy to complement Tangerine Dream’s calming influence, some early-period Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen would do the trick. And at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, some of my favourite lines in the novel came when listening to lyrics. A seedy bar in the book, where

cigarette smoke hung in the air like a blue fug, the colour of missed chances and broken dreams

was written as Springsteen was singing in the background of broken heroes and their last chances in life on Born to Run.

And my description of a character as

having sprouted into a tall, gangly explosion of energy, jumping about like an oversized grasshopper

suddenly materialised while listening to Jarvis Cocker singing Common People.

Narcotic life

Perhaps the most powerful and harrowing part of the book is in the later stages, which deals with taking heroin and the lifestyle that goes with it. Writing in the first person, I felt I had to show my character initially embracing this destructive lifestyle, but it is a very challenging topic to write about, being mindful of the responsibilities of in any way glamourising or condoning drug abuse. It is still a bit of a literary taboo to describe the narcotic effect of heroin and I found as I wrote about my character’s descent into an opiate hell my writing became more metaphorical in nature. I let songs like Lou Reed’s Heroin or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit send goose bumps down my spine as I wrote this part of the book. I hope I’ve captured in some small way both the temptation and the danger of drugs as powerfully as these songs have done.

Final cover designAs I finished the novel and it went off for proof reading, I was, of course, shocked and devastated by David Bowie’s death. This is a blog about music but I can’t help but finish without paying tribute to not just Bowie’s musical genius but also to how his spoken word can be an inspiration. As I sat down to start my next book, I thought about what I’ve learned writing this one, about what to write, who to write it for, what people want to hear. And I saw this clip someone posted on Facebook today, with Bowie’s thoughts on the creative process. He says ‘Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.’

Good advice, David. Thank you.

Glyn Harper spent his career working in marketing for multinational corporations around the globe before setting up his own media and marketing consultancy in 1999. After selling the business in 2012, Glyn trekked the ‘Great Himalayan Trail’ in six months, becoming the first British man to cross the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route. On his return Glyn started writing, being placed third in the Lightship Prize for new authors in 2014. Glyn’s hobbies include music, photography and writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Facebook and his website. Love’s Long Road is his first novel.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Toni Davidson

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-translated author Toni Davidson @silemrenk

Soundtrack by Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles, Goldmund, Speedy J

Long before my first book was published I believed that the setting for writing had to be just right, that there should be a room with a view. To be a writer, there needed to be a gnarled, wooden desk strewn with the debris of streams of consciousness – an emptied glass, an ashtray brimming with Gitanes and old editions of Beckett and Huysmans. I believed that environment completely influenced the writing process, that imagination would be nurtured by being surrounded by nice things. This ideal didn’t last. Lack of money, crap housing and the onset of reality eroded romantic  ideals. Besides, the external was a vain distraction. I needed, with youthful earnestness, to explore myself and what better companion than music.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson1Push forward and my first novel Scar Culture – a novel about the uses and abuses of psychotherapy with a dark, satirical heart – was written to what seems now a limited range of bleakness and ambience. I didn’t want words, sung or spoken, to fill or influence creative pauses, so I chose the airy drones of Eno’s Ambient 1 or Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopodie. On repeat, no surprises, just layers of sound and knolls of notes that were not so much background as everywhere in my head.

Music for reading

While I struggled to get the novel published, I messed around with its structure, excerpting one voice then another and made my own music to accompany a reading. It was simple stuff, a soundscape of pads and dripping sounds. Arty no doubt, especially when I sampled sentences from the text into the recording. It was of its time for sure but I enjoyed amplifying my voice so that it had to fight with the music I created. This wasn’t a bad thing. To fight one’s own words as a writer is to be a creative pugilist. It’s no use being in harmony all the time, such melodic reassurance can be counteractive. Sometimes dissonance can expose expectation – a prime example of this is Stravinsky’s first performance of Rite of Spring.

Writer, responder

Music became more embedded in my writing process when I moved to Vietnam with my girlfriend. Over the five years I stayed there, I became a different kind of writer and a different responder. I was not making music any more, I was not going out listening to music any more, most music I heard was in my headphones. My Gun Was As Tall As Me, my second novel, is set in a SE Asian country and it is crucial that the atmosphere of the novel is as dense and as humid as much of the sub-tropical environment I lived in. As I was teaching long hours in the daytime, later at night was my time to write and music helped me shift gears, to replace a working environment with a writing one.

One artist dominated the writing of the novel. Max Richter’s Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks became entwined with my writing head. The music was both juxtaposition to my sub-tropical environment with its cold synth washes, the echoing footsteps of European noir and a compliment. Within the music, the soaring then plaintive roller-coastering melody fitted perfectly with the distressing narrative of the novel; hope lifting the spirits and then horror torturing them. The music became a faithful companion as I wrote about the fate of Internally Displaced People in Burma. For sure, the music influenced the writing of the book; it released emotions that helped me get beyond the mechanics of writing and into the soul of the story.

Toying with expectation

By the time I started writing my third novel, The Alpine Casanovas, writing now had its own playlist. Gone were the days when a CD would need to be found just at the wrong moment. I could create a playlist and shuffle around, toying with expectation again. In the time since My Gun Was As Tall As Me, I had deepened my interest in contemporary classical music/electronica – Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Marsen Jules – most of who are on the Erased Tapes label. I have come to rely on the label to produce a body of work that suits my ears and the other label that does that is Type Records. In particular the mix tapes produced by label artists provide a narrative accompaniment giving the listener, as any good DJ does, a sense that the journey is more important than the destination.

The Undercover Soundtrack Toni Davidson2

And now, as I work on my next novel, Electro Birseck, the play list has expanded. Because of the length of time I take to write my novels, I like to seek new work by artists known to me – their previous work is often too associated with my own previous work. Gotta move on.  This novel has music at the heart of its narrative, dance music – from disco to techno – from one generation’s drugged-up hedonism in outlandish costume to an underground music community culture in a location partitioned by ethnic differences. Truly music is now embedded fundamentally in my writing process as the playlist shuffles from the solo piano of Peter Broderick to the sequenced patterns of Rival Consoles; from Goldmund to banging sessions by Speedy J at the Boiler Room.

The Undercover Soundtrack - The Alpine CasanovasAbove all, music means a portable environment. My original and somewhat pretentious aesthetic desires have evolved to the relative simplicity of headphones and laptop. Because of my work patterns and my relocations, I have learned to write anywhere, from hotel lobby to the beach; from station waiting rooms to a room being battered by wet season storms. Music allows me to be wherever I need to be to write. I press play and I am instantly back where I was when I left off.

Toni Davidson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His novel Scar Culture (Canongate, 1999), has been translated into nine languages. His short story collection, The Gradual Gathering of Lust, was published in 2008. In 2012 his second novel My Gun Was As Tall As Me, was published by Freight Books. His most recent novel, The Alpine Casanovas, also published by Freight and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015. For more visit his website: tonidavidson.com. And find him on Twitter @silemrenk

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Iain Maloney

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 Not The Booker shortlister Iain Maloney @iainmaloney 

Soundtrack by Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, The Corries, Mogwai, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 1Like a lot of authors, it was music that got me into writing. It’s quite surprising (or maybe not) how many of us once harboured dreams of rock stardom. My first pennings were song lyrics but over a clichéd adolescence sitting in my room with a guitar and too many candles, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be the next Kurt Cobain. My lyrics morphed into poems until the urge towards narrative took hold and I turned to novels. Music never left me, though, and has informed everything I’ve written since.

My debut novel, First Time Solo, is entirely dependent on music, both as an aspect of the story and in the writing process. The main character, Jack, is a jazz trumpeter and, while training to be a RAF pilot in 1943, starts a band with three of his comrades. Music as a social lubricant, music as a shorthand between friends, music as a means of exploring other cultures, music as language, music as the backdrop for romance and more, all these are woven through the staves of the novel but for me, writing it, music was the window to the past. Before the war starts, Jack is a teenage boy, lonely in his bedroom with only his records, the radio and his subscription to the Melody Maker to keep him company. That’s an emotional world I can inhabit, but what about the reality, the differences between the 1990s and the 1940s?

Time machine

Historical fiction set after the invention of the gramophone is easier to write than that set before. Listening to a modern performance of Greensleeves does not immediately transport one to the Tudor court despite Henry VIII being suspected of its composition. Listen to Nat King Cole perform Straighten Up and Fly Right or Cab Calloway scatting through Nagasaki, however and you’re dropped into the bedrooms of teenagers in the 1940s with a crackling wireless and heavy 78s or the dance halls that defied the Luftwaffe. Jack’s internal monologue is seasoned with the music he loves and, in order to find his voice, I had to hear what he hears, think how he thinks. I didn’t go so far as to learn the trumpet – though I wanted to – but without jazz record shops and Youtube it would’ve been much more difficult to climb inside the mind of a teenager during the Second World War.

Rural Scotland

For my second novel, Silma Hill, things weren’t so straightforward. Set in a rural Scottish village in the 18th century, there was little music I could draw on directly. I write with music playing but modern romantic re-imaginings of period ballads didn’t give me the tone I needed, as much as I enjoy songs like The Corries Come O’er The Stream Charlie. For a Gothic tale of witchcraft, torture and death, I needed something stronger. I found it in Mogwai’s soundtrack to the French zombie TV drama Les Revenants. Haunting, brooding, the threat of violence never far away, yet beautiful, moving and melancholy, the instrumental tracks rising and falling like waves of emotion gave me an atmosphere in which I could build my world. Songs like Wizard Motor get inside your head, unsettle you and never leave. When you’re writing horror, that is the ultimate goal.

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 2Piper Alpha

My third novel, The Waves Burn Bright (to be published May 2016), is the story of a family torn apart by the Piper Alpha disaster. It is set between 1980 and 2013 so finding suitable music was easy. During my research phase early R.E.M. tracks like Finest Worksong brought me back to the late ’80s with style, jangly guitars and a political sensibility underpinning everything. The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, I gorged myself on the cream of ’80s alternative until a thought stopped me like a scratched 12-inch. I was recreating my ’80s, not my character’s. I switched off the music, sat back and had a chat with Carrie, my main character. It turned out she wasn’t much into music. Background radio, that was fine, but she didn’t buy music. One of those people who goes ‘I like that song, the one from that advert that goes “dum dum dum dee dah”.’ Strangely this absence of music in her life – so very, very different from me – was the moment when she became whole, three dimensional, real. After that awakening the novel rolled out of me. Sometimes silence is profounder than any song.

FB_FTS_Cover_Visual_4Of course I couldn’t let it go at that. She may not like music but that wasn’t going to stop me getting some in there. Her father, Marcus, wallowing in the misery of his recent divorce, returns to the music of his youth – Pink Floyd, Yes, and The Who.

Music, for me, is inseparable from the act of writing. It sets the mood of the piece, shapes the characters, sometimes even dictates the action. David Mitchell once swore himself off writing about music, calling it ‘An excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing’. Music isn’t a metaphor for me, it’s as vital as air. I couldn’t live without it, and I certainly couldn’t write without it.

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is currently based in Japan. His novels First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now on Freight Books. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, will be published in May 2016. A poetry collection will follow later in the year. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He is also a freelance journalist and reviewer, sits on the editorial board of Eastlit Magazine and is Reviews Editor of Shoreline of Infinity. His website is here and he tweets as @iainmaloney

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Philip Miller

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 award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, twice-nominated Arts Writer of the Year, poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller

Soundtrack by Mogwai, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Boards of Canada, Neurosis, Converge, Laura Veirs, Bat for Lashes, Gallows, Isis, The James Orr Complex

Friend of the Night

When I write I listen to music. Often I spend a while finding the right music to write to. Sometimes if the music is wrong, I can’t write. For some reason, The Beatles, who I adore, are bad writing music, as are Pixies. But Mogwai are a constant: and The Blue Horse would be a very different book without the existence of Friend of the Night (from the Mr Beast album). It was as important to the conception of the book as Neurosis’s I Can See You or indeed the first disturbing day-dream that led to me writing the novel.

ucov1I love Mogwai and listen to them a lot, but Friend of the Night is for me their masterpiece. If you have not heard it: it has no lyrics. The deep and resounding melancholy of its melodies, there are at least three and they intertwine gorgeously, are lifted by its main theme, played on piano, which signals a chime of hope and light. When the piano rings by itself, it is singing a cracked but steely song of survival and beauty. The song has forward purpose, it is not depressed. It has succumbed.

This how I wanted the main character of The Blue Horse, George Newhouse to be: damaged and distraught, but deciding to live on, deciding to keep walking forwards, even if he was walking into darkness. The pianos chime amid the splendour of the sulphurous guitars – and from the start of The Blue Horse, Newhouse, widowed and lost, has a flame of hope and life.

Whenever I lost my way writing The Blue Horse, I played Friend of the Night – the story of The Blue Horse is contained for me its 5 minutes, 30 seconds. It is rare when a piece of music seems to, in mere notes, explain and also confirm a feeling, an emotion, a sensibility, in some way, while also transcending and providing illumination. Sometimes I feel I could write a book about this piece of music: in some ways I already have.

Loss and rapture

The Blue Horse circles around loss and memory, around survival amid the darkness of the world. It has a earnest Gnostic undertow (although perhaps no one’s noticed it yet…) and a belief in other worlds at its core. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was played over and over as I wrote. Its main melody is not only incredibly beautiful, it seems to be speaking of something valuable and divine that has been lost. There is a grieving in its notes. When the full theme is played, around two minutes in, I often find it overwhelming. The fingers are lifted from the keyboard. That sense of being overwhelmed by both beauty and grief was a vital one in The Blue Horse. In the chapters where Newhouse remembers his wife – swimming in the Atlantic, driving through rural Ireland – this is playing. When Ruth appears to him amid blood and magic in Venice, this is playing.

Dark Horse

The Blue Horse goes to some dark and broken places. I did not write the book from beginning to end – I often wrote at night or in scraps and moments while travelling. I dotted about in the narrative. Playing certain songs would help me leap back into those places.

I knew Newhouse, a curator at a major gallery in Edinburgh who is searching for a lost painting, The Blue Horse, would end up in darkness, in living nightmares, in some unpleasant mental and physical spaces. Converge’s Dark Horse, from their Axe to Fall album, has that sinister equine spirit in its title, of course, and ends with their lead singer shrieking. It is also tremendously powerful, punishing, its opening two-note call always a deranged spur to action. I would put on Dark Horse while I wrote two chapters in particular: when Newhouse, bereft and drunk, sees an apparition in Leith docks. And secondly in a club he is led to by Flintergill, a sinister agent. The club in Edinburgh is full of the powerful and the influential, and involves orgies and dark sex as well as drink and intrigue. The punishing but exhilarating riffage of the second half of this song fuelled the relentless tone of that place and those people.

Memories and remembrance

I saw Laura Veirs live at the ABC in Glasgow around the time of the release of her album The Year of Meteors. One song, Through the Glow, stuck with me. It played a lot while I wrote. The lyrics are elusive as well as detailed. The intangible power of memories and remembrance, of dreams and changeable mental images, is key to the story of The Blue Horse. In its gentler moments, when Newhouse feels a sense of life, when he sees beauty in nature and friendship, when he meets another woman, Tyler, Laura Veirs would often be playing, as would Bat for Lashes’s wonderful Moon and Moon, and a fine, tremulous, beautiful song by The James Orr Complex, Fade Grey to Fade Blue.

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Cursed places

Gallows’s Grey Britain is a fine, fine album, one of the best rock albums made by a British band in the last ten years. I played it a lot. The Vulture, a song in two parts, one acoustic and gentle, the other vicious and heavy, a razor-blade across the face, was perfect for writing The Blue Horse: darkness and light. Doom and violence. It fed into, most notably, the chapter Rudi. Rudi, Newhouse’s great friend, tumbles – aided by possibly malign spirits – into the abyss. This song tumbles into an abyss. It is also riveting and bewildering…a bit like that chapter. The Vulture sings of a country that is beset with devils, real and unreal: like Rudi’s life in that pivotal chapter.

Reach for the Dead

The Blue Horse exists in this world, or a mirror image of it: in real Edinburgh, there is no Public Gallery, and in the real world, there was no Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a Dutch painter of the 16th century. I knew the novel would also touch on the occult and the sublime. Boards of Canada’s album Tomorrow’s Harvest came out in 2013, just as I was editing the novel for the first time. Its beauty and bleakness – it appears to ‘about’ the inevitable end of human civilisation (if a wordless album can truly be about anything) – played as I wrote chapters, such as at a drunken party in Edinburgh’s New Town where Newhouse encounters an apparition in the bathroom. BOC’s music is limber and fluid but also unsettling. There are snatched, half hidden voices. Subliminal whispers amid the electronica and analogue arpeggios and crescendos. It is not as it seems. When I listen to BOC I can imagine walking into a mirror, or meeting myself on the street. At some times – late at night, when writing – it seemed to point my writing in new directions. When Newhouse’s mentor, Dr Martinu, is killed by his own doppelganger, it may have been because this haunted, insistent music was playing as I typed. He was originally going to have a heart attack and fall into his own open fire. A weirder fate was given to him by this music.

Blue HorseTranscendence

The final chapters of The Blue Horse are at the Venice Biennale. Newhouse, by this point deranged and befuddled, comes closer to finding The Blue Horse, and it comes closer to finding him. The novel ends in fire and blood, in visions and transcendence. Isis were a tremendous, visionary American guitar band. They released two albums, in particular, Oceanic and Panopticon, which remain among my favourite. I write to them all the time: they are muscular, dynamic, and possessing a kind of super-heavy sense of intense beauty. Like a wall of ice collapsing into a polar sea. The final track of Panopticon is called Grinning Mouths. Like many of their songs, it begins in serrated, fuzzy riffage, thunderous beats and bellowing. Then something remarkable happens – four minutes in, the music takes flight. Something clears. The music is simultaneously super powered and inundated with a new light. It becomes driving and extremely beautiful. Aaron Turner, their lead singer and songwriter, is still bellowing, but tunefully, with soul. The move from ugly to serene, the song’s incredible sense of momentum and flight, powered the final scenes of The Blue Horse in Venice. Whenever I lost what was happening in the city on the water, I played Grinning Mouths again. It solved things for me.

Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and author of The Blue Horse, which is published by Freight Books. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times in Scotland and The Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in The Herald, Gutter Magazine, The Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. He lives and works in Edinburgh. Tweet him on @PhilipJEMiller

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherine Czerkawska

for logo‘Friendship, betrayal and making sense of the past’

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 guest is novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska @czerkawska

Soundtrack by The Corries, Dougie Maclean, Robert Burns, Liam Brennan

There’s no denying that The Physic Garden is a sad story. In mid 1800s Glasgow, an elderly man called William Lang looks back on his youth, when he worked as a gardener at the Old College of Glasgow University and became friends with one of the professors. This is a novel about friendship and betrayal, about trying to make sense of events in your past.  It may not quite be about forgiveness but it is certainly a book about resolution and the getting of wisdom, no matter how painful that process might be. It is also a story about learning: about life and human nature as well as practical skills. It’s about loving and losing, about the paths we follow and the paths we regret not following, and whether we can ever reconcile the two.

Author Catherine CzerkawskaNot surprisingly, I listened to plenty of traditional Scottish music while I was working. There’s a song which actually figures in the book. I call it Waly Waly but some people will know it as The Water Is Wide or even the Glenlyon Lament. Like most traditional songs, it crops up all over the place and in many different versions. It’s a desperately sad, 350-year old song about loving and losing, a song that would have been old even when my characters were talking about it.

‘Tis not the frost that freezes fell,

Nor blawing snaw’s inclemencie,

Tis not sic cauld that makes me cry;

But my love’s heart grown cauld to me.’

The version I listened to as I was writing was an old track by The Corries, a duo I was very fond of when I was young. This version seemed to me to echo most precisely the voice in which I ‘heard’ it sung in the novel.

With that single exception, however, the musician who provided the Undercover Soundtrack to The Physic Garden, whether singing the songs of Robert Burns or his own compositions, was Dougie Maclean. Let me begin with a song just about everyone will know. A contemporary composition, this still manages to evoke many of the feelings in the novel, and I don’t just mean the essential Scottishness of it. This is a song about ‘telling old stories, singing songs’, about friendship and change, about finding your place in the world, about resolution and action. It is, of course, Caledonia: but you’ll also find versions of it on various CDs and to purchase online.

There are a million recordings of the songs of Robert Burns and I’ve listened to a lot of them over the years. But it was still MacLean’s simple, beautiful, unfussy performances I went back to time and time again when I was writing The Physic Garden. Here’s one I listened to all the time: it seemed to evoke the very essence – the ‘voice’ – of William Lang, a song about love, about green and growing things, about the cares which beset us on all sides, above all, perhaps, a loving song about women.

But if I had to choose the song tTPG_JPGhat could truly be said to have inspired The Physic Garden, it would have to be Scythe Song. You’ll find it on a fabulous CD called Riof. This quirky YouTube recording (there are tech problems in the middle) is a fine example of Maclean’s lovely laid-back performance. But listen to the words. I’ve used this song in creative writing classes as a perfect example of a poem and song rolled into one. It’s deceptively simple and it’s immense. Everything about it somehow fed into The Physic Garden: the relationship of a little girl with her father and of a son with his own father, the need to learn about life, the practical ways of holding and feeling, moving and judging and then, at last, you might ‘know what I know’. Even down to the Icarus imagery, which somehow found its way into the novel. This song always makes me feel exactly the way I felt when I was writing the novel.

There’s one more recording I want to mention – a reading, rather than a song – and it’s this one: Robert Burns’s Lassie wi’ the Lintwhite Locks. I’ve worked with this actor, Liam Brennan, on many productions. He’s from Ayrshire and his accent and interpretation of this Burns poem are exactly right. One of the characters in The Physic Garden is, indeed, a ‘lassie wi the lintwhite locks’. Did I have Burns’s lassie in mind when first I thought of Jenny Caddas, taking her swarm of bees? Well, maybe so!

Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction although many of her seven published novels (so far) are contemporary stories. The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, The Physic Garden, was recently published on Kindle. Her other novels, Bird of Passage, The Amber Heart and Ice Dancing, are also available on Amazon Kindle. Catherine’s website and blog are here, she also blogs at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books and she tweets as @Czerkawska

TCC paperbackGIVEAWAY Catherine is excited to give away a rare print copy of her prizewinning novel The Curiosity Cabinet to a commenter here. Extra entries if you tweet, Facebook, Google or write the link on the sky in jet vapour (but remember to mention it in a comment here so we know!) This is a rare edition, now unavailable, so it’s a real collector’s item.

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‘Not a thing to learn inside a day’ – Catherine Czerkawska

for logoYou may recognise the name of my guest this week. She was one of my earliest Soundtrackers and she returns this week with a novel of friendship and betrayal: a man looking back on his youth and making sense of a troubled history. It’s set in Glasgow, and traditional Scottish music gave her both geographical setting and emotional landscape: the depth in apparent simplicity, the universal condition of loving and losing. She is novelist and award-winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska; the novel is The Physic Garden and she’ll be here on Wednesday with its Undercover Soundtrack.

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