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 novelist and screenwriter Michael Golding
Soundtrack by Bach, Sufi Music of the Dervishes, Joni Mitchell, Henryk Gorecki, Laura Nyro, Billy Child
I’ve always been a writer who needs silence to write. Even when I’m at home, alone, I close the door to my study and slip on my trusty Bose sound-cancelling headphones. The gentle whoosh provides a background against which the sounds of the world of my novel can come alive. In the case of my most recent work, A Poet of the Invisible World, those sounds were the sounds of 13th century Persia, Spain, and North Africa — all the more reason for me to block out all signs of the 21st century.
But I can also bring quiet to my mind by listening to music. And nothing works better than the brilliant, textured sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I hear The Goldberg Variations or The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, the chaos in my head begins to recede. When I listen to The Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for Violin — my recording of choice is Henryk Szeryng’s 1954 version—the fury in my heart takes on new meaning. Bach brings order. Clarity. Calm. A few pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier and I’m ready to plunge into my fictional world.
I often listen to music while I commute from my home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to the college where I teach, about an hour’s drive each way. And in order to will myself into the world of the Nouri—the four-eared protagonist of A Poet of the Invisible World, who at an early age is orphaned and taken into a Sufi order—I would listen to an album called Sufi: The Music of the Dervishes. Its undulating ney evoked the mystery of another time and place. Its sinuous rhythms allowed a host of exotic images to rise up.
Anthem for a wandering spirit
One of the main sources of inspiration for my novel was more contemporary. For while the spiritual path doesn’t require the traveler to actually leave home — think of Emily Dickinson, who covered vast inner distances without leaving her family home in Amherst — Nouri’s path takes him on a long, arduous journey, and no one writes better about the road than Joni Mitchell. All I Want, from her album Blue, is the anthem of the wandering spirit. And Hejira, one of my favorite albums, is filled with deep observations about what it means to head off in search of the truth. Both of these albums are part of the soundtrack of my life. And they both helped Nouri along his way.
There are moments in the novel when Nouri experiences great suffering. In the third section of the book, after a particularly harrowing experience, his heart has sealed tight. He feels raw. He feels numb. While writing this section, there were times when I could barely lift my pen to face Nouri’s pain. A pathway in was Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Like most people, I love the 1991 recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring the rich, plaintive singing of Dawn Upshaw. The deep, mournful urgency of Gorecki’s music evoked the state of sorrow I imagined Nouri to be in.
Immediacy and passion
Another inspiration was the music of Laura Nyro. A constant companion throughout my life, her work has an immediacy and passion I find thrilling. Songs like Timer and Gibsom Street and Sweet Lovin’ Baby always take me to a particular place inside myself, where feelings are naked and words have the power to surprise. In addition to Nyro’s trio of iconic albums — Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat—I also listened to Billy Childs’ recent tribute album called Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Jazz-tinged and eclectic, it showcases artists like Renee Fleming, Yo Yo Ma, and Ricki Lee Jones offering their takes on Nyro’s haunting songs. Childs feels like a kindred spirit when his piano urges its way into her riffs and sudden time-signature changes. When I want to tear open the doors of my heart — and Nouri’s journey required me to do that many times — Laura Nyro is always there to lend a hand.
Silence is essential. But music can prime the pump. When I wander off course, it always leads me back to myself.
Michael Golding’s first novel, Simple Prayers, was published in 1994 and has been translated into nine foreign languages. Benjamin’s Gift, his second novel, was published in 1999. He is also a screenwriter, whose works include the adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s Silk. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California. A Poet of the Invisible World is his latest novel, published by Picador, and you can contact him at his website.