Posts Tagged Scotland
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 returning for an encore. He featured his first novel in October 2015 and now he’s here with his follow-up. He is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, Arts Writer of the Year (twice), poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Nils Frahm, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kathryn Joseph, Kate Bush, Chrome Sparks, Thom Yorke
When I write, I listen to music. Music creates shapes and colours and contours in my mind. It suggests images and settings, even actions and characters.
When I sit down to write, at this glass-topped desk in my house in Leith, Edinburgh, the music has to start before I begin any typing.
All The Galaxies is my second novel, and its complex narrative is a tapestry made from three main threads: a voyage into deep space by a dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian future Scotland, and the memories of a pained familial past.
I knew the plot whole, and I wrote the book relatively quickly, but the music I listened to was as much a part of the process of writing as my notes, my poetry, and the list of names and actions in my various writing pads and diaries.
Of all the genres of music I never thought I would listen to intensely, ‘Prog Rock’ is probably in the top five. I remember when I was studying at university, a friend made a ‘prog tape’ and it was one of the worst 90 minutes of rock sound I had heard.
But for some reason, in 2015 (when I wrote the novel, between September and November), I found myself listening to King Crimson. I think I listened to them after reading more about guitarist Robert Fripp’s work with David Bowie, or perhaps after listening intently to his incredible solos on Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
I was quite entranced by In the Court of the Crimson King, their signature song from the first album, with its suspended sense of plangent, vaguely sinister, pagan splendour. Indeed, in a passing nodding reference, in a chapter set in Hong Kong, I refer to a statue of a crimson emperor.
But it was their mesmeric (and, I discovered, seminal) 1974 album Red that really got me. Ferocious, raw, intricate, punishing, myopic, expansive, it seemed to me a record out of time.
The opening title track sound-tracked much of the dystopian sections of my book: punishing, savage, cyclical, atonal, voiceless.
But it is the final song, a masterpiece called Starless, that I listened to repetitively. Its length, more than 10 minutes, helps for writing purposes – when you can forget the time, the day, the year, in a blessed fugue of typing – but its hard melancholy, and its beautiful opening section (with Fripp playing so delicately and lyrically) suited the ruminative tone of my book perfectly.
And then, its tense, tight, astringent central section, where tension builds to a shattering and violent climax, spurred on my writing with its insistence, its gathering brutality.
And the final section – and perhaps most wonderful of all, its final two minutes – offer a resolution, and, if one is in the right mind (or perhaps wrong…) a kind of transcendence. There is something about this song – in a sense, I feel I still haven’t worked it out yet. I come back to it, as if approaching a modernist painting I don’t understand but one that moves me nevertheless.
I listened to it often as All The Galaxies unfurled. It was, probably, its prime soundtrack. I am still shaken by this song, especially at a point, around 11m 38s, when something magical happens. And I still cannot quite believe I have fallen in love with an album by a ‘prog’ band.
(The Unthanks did a lovely cover of it, too).
If there is one track that recalls the chapters of interstellar flight in my book, it must by the majestic Says by Nils Frahm. Both an escalation in shimmering arpeggi and a deepening journey into an oscillating cloud of melody and weight, it sounds like a journey into another, far-off, lonely and beautiful place. The rest of his album, Spaces, is lovely, but this track stands out with its unfurling grandeur. And who knows how many words I typed – of lonely Tarka and his spirit guide Kim, crossing the gulf of the cosmos – with this rolling like an endless sea in the background. It gathers momentum, and many chapters were finished to its breaking, concluding, crescendo.
I don’t know much about Chrome Sparks, and I am not sure about the rest of his output, but this pulsatingly addictive slice of electronica hooked me. It is anthemic, magnificent, and delicate, and in some melodic way, never quite resolves itself. It leaves you hanging. It wants you to play it again. I heard it first whilst making notes for my book, drinking coffee in the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. It captivated me. I listened to it again, repeatedly, driving around the Isle of Jura. And then, while writing. It feels futuristic, and also of the past, with its hints of strings amid the electronic beauty. If the character Roland – a 19-year-old, with a broken past and an uncertain future – has a theme tune, it is this.
I knew this book would feature a family at its core – a father, a son, a mother: an equilateral triangle, one of the hardiest architectural templates.
For some reason The Hounds of Love was key to this triangle of love, regret, and loss.
In particular, I remember a moment of revelation – a knot in the plot untangled itself – as I listened to Mother Stands For Comfort on a bus journey home from the centre of Edinburgh. Such an exquisite song, and so cold, and warm, too. It is also sinister.
It came to me often when I wrote my ‘mother’ chapters. There is something in its tone which is both redolent of an electric future, and of a lost, healthier past. And Bush sings it so perfectly. The dry drumbeats stuttering like a tentative heart, and a tearing sense of longing is drenched through it.
Similarly Cloudbusting seemed to fit the ‘father’ chapters, and the beauty of the rest of the album (particularly And Dream of Sheep) for the chapters set in the north of England, sometime in a greener, lovelier memory.
The Bush-iness of the novel was so intense, it meant that, in my seclusion on the Isle of Eigg in June 2016, editing the book, I found I had to find the record again on my iPod to ‘get into’ the world again.
I have a mixed relationship with Vaughan Williams – I am completely susceptible to his big, swelling tunes, whilst feeling there are broad expanses in his work of a kind of emotional blandness. But this, his London Symphony’s Lento movement, caught me unawares one day, and blew me sideways. It is just an ocean of intense melodic emotion. The climax of All The Galaxies is both tragic, cosmic, and, in some sense, final and annihilating. This Largo suggests at least part of its feeling.
I must also mention Steve Reich here, for another section of string-led emotion, the startling, slow and wrenching second section of his Triple Quartet. It is one of the most painful and moving stretches in all his work, and was played often, especially as I wrote the scene in Glasgow’s George Square.
Much of the book is set in Glasgow, and I listened, as usual, to a lot of Mogwai, a lot of Boards of Canada, as I wrote.
But The Blood, by Ms Joseph, was a single song I came back to (as well as, perhaps oddly, Thom Yorke’s gorgeous solo song Analyse). It is a beautiful creation – her whole album is brilliant, and has been justifiably praised.
It trembles, it sounds like it was recorded in a cold Partick tenement, on an old piano laden with photographs. It speaks of fear, and love, and sorrow, and it is fractured, splintered, and beautiful. It sounds like Glasgow to me, the bruised and beautiful, tender side of Glasgow, that I was trying to conjure in some way.
The whole album, The Bones You Have Thrown Me, The Blood I have Spilled, was played incessantly as I wrote, especially in the early hours, when it seems to ring especially true.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is arts correspondent for the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His poetry has been published in print and online. His first novel, The Blue Horse, was published in 2015 and both his novels are published by Freight Books. He lives in Edinburgh. Find him on Facebook and tweet him as @PhilipJEMiller
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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-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.
Push 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.
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.
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.
Above 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
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 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
Like 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?
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.
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.
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.
Of 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
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 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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