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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, writing mentor and novelist KM Weiland returns with the soundtrack for her new novel Dreamlander @kmweiland
Soundtrack by Nightwish
I see my stories like movies in my head. When I was a kid, before I even knew I wanted to do this crazy thing called writing, I would call the stories I told myself “my movies.” Great acting, gorgeous cinematography, haunting soundtrack, they’re all there. When I started writing Dreamlander, my first foray into the fantasy genre, I knew exactly what the story soundtrack should sound like.
Dreamlander spans two worlds—modern-day Chicago, where my protagonist Chris Redston starts out as a restless, unfulfilled journalist, and the fantasy world Lael, which is a gorgeous but raw 17th-century-esque world of fading feudalism and dawning technology. Dreamlander is really a story about these two worlds colliding, and I could hear that collision in the music in my head: aggressive heavy metal guitar riffs and driving percussions contrasted with the melancholy lyricism of early Celtic folk songs.
I could hear it, but I’d never heard it. My best description for what I was listening to in my head was Celtic Rock, but the likes of Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Then, one day, there it was . . . I sat up in my desk chair, electrified. From another room came the strains of what I’d been hearing in my head all those months while working on Dreamlander.
I rushed right over and demanded to know what I was I hearing. And that’s where it all started. Nightwish’s Ghost Love Score began my love affair with symphonic metal and brought the story in my head swirling to life on the lush bellicosity of soaring string sections, operatic vocals, hard-hitting rhythms, and, under it all that, slightly jarring, always compelling hint of folk music.
In a sense, all of Nightwish’s music left its mark on Dreamlander, but several songs in particular seem to have been written just for me. The lyrics from Ever Dream, on the Century Child album, express my female lead’s perspective with eerie precision. In the dream world, she is the Searcher, charged with finding and discovering the Gifted, who cross over the worlds, even though she’s terrified he will repeat the mistakes of the first Gifted, whom she aided when still just a child:
Her lungs quivered. She couldn’t mistake this strange rhythmic quiver deep within her brain, this almost magnetic pull, driving her to get up, to move, to search. She had been nine years old when last she felt it. The Garowai had told her then it meant a Gifted had arrived in Lael.
Eyes closed, she crimped her fist in the letter to her father. What she needed to do was relax and let the taste of the Gifted wash over her brain. She needed to get a sense of this man who had been summoned here to do . . . something. To save Lael? Or to plunge it even deeper into darkness than had his predecessor?
Last of the Wilds, on the Dark Passion Play album, would ultimately become what I think of as the book’s theme song. An instrumental, it expresses perfectly all the elements I originally heard in my head when imagining the book’s soundtrack. When I listen to it, I can see the story playing out: the desperate sword fights, the horses galloping through the snow, the love that grows between the two main characters, and the loss that tears them all in some way. I can only describe it as magic, and its perfection is almost unnerving.
When I hear these songs, I see the flawless story I wanted to write. No matter what I’m writing, my words never live up to the music that inspires and influences them, but when I listen to the music, it makes me better than I am. It makes me remember the color and the power I’m trying to share with my readers. It makes me ache inside with the beauty of it all and thank God that I get to try to capture a little piece of it.
KM Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. Find her on Twitter @kmweiland
The Undercover Soundtrack will take a short break for Christmas and will return in January.
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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 multi-award-winning children’s fantasy author Susan Price @priceclan
Soundtrack by Pavel Chesnokov, the Cantus Sacred Music Ensemble, The Orthodox Singers’ Male Choir, June Tabor, Steeleye Span, Orlando Gibbons, the King’s Singers, Pierrot Lunaire, Jan Garbarek, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Tim Wong, Benjamin Britten
Music doesn’t help me understand my characters, or set the mood for a particular scene. I don’t need, for instance, martial music to write a martial scene. Instead, for me, the music seems to set the atmosphere, or time-frame, of the whole book. I can’t write a scene set in the past to poppy dance-music, because the music insistently reminds me of my own time and drags me back to it. I find it equally hard to write contemporary scenes while listening to music from the past. If Mozart is playing, my characters shrug off their jeans and trainers and slip into knee-britches and powdered wigs.
My Ghost World sequence (Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) is set in a fantasy Czarist Russia. I wanted these books to be fantastical, frightening and beautiful, with the brilliant jewel colours of Russian folk-art set against intense darkness and cold. While writing them I surrounded myself with postcards of Russian art, and played chants like this one on repeat.
The beautiful swaying voices, with their deep, dark bass notes took me into the vast, dark pine forests of Russian folk-tale, to Northern darkness and cold. Listening again, as I write this blog, I feel the visceral thrill and shiver this music always gives me.
The music and art served the same purpose: bringing together and concentrating all my disparate imaginings. Looking at a Bilibin forest, listening to an Orthodox chant, I was there, in my imagination’s world. This piece, with the Basso Profundo, sounds like the Russian Bear singing.
Past, present and Borders
It is always time and place with me. My Sterkarm novels have scenes set both in the past and in the 21st Century, but the heart of the novels, for me, were the scenes in the 16th century Scottish borders. I read about the reivers and their way of life, I visited the Borders, but to bring it all together and put me there, I played Border Ballads, which I’ve loved since a teenager. Here’s the wonderful June Tabor with her thrilling Clerk Sanders. The final, long-drawn note always raises my hair. It rings like a glass. It’s all there – love, hatred, jealousy, horror, revenge.
I listened to Steeleye Span a lot too. Even though they used electric instruments, I always felt they captured the spirit of many of these old songs better than many who tried too hard to be strictly traditional. Here’s their Wife of Usher’s Well, a tale of life, death, ghosts and maternal love.
Hits of the 16th
I wrote Christopher Uptake, set in the 16th century, to the smash hits of Christopher’s day, such as The Silver Swan, sung here by the King’s Singers. (And its closing couplet, ‘More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise,’ seems appropriate for Christopher too.)
Poor old Keats reviewed plays in order to get a free pass to theatres so he could hear the playing of professional musicians. We’re spoiled today – we can hear excellent musicians any time we casually turn on the radio. Not only musicians of our own day either, but those long dead, and music played in the style of centuries past.
The far future
But what to play when writing something set in the far future, such as my Odin’s Voice trilogy? I found myself seeking out music that, to me, sounded strange and futuristic, and helped me expand my ideas to include all the weird and wonderful possibilities of nano-technology and space-elevators. More musically educated people might find my choices rather old-fashioned, but they worked for me.
First is Moonstruck Pieirrot, or Pierrot Lunaire. ‘What the hell did I just listen to?’ asks a YouTube commentator. I can’t say that I love it, but it’s extraordinary. I remember first hearing it. I was vacuuming during the early hours, while half-listening to the Open University’s educational programmes. This began, and I switched off the vacumn to hear it. I remained on one leg, spellbound, throughout. Didn’t like it, exactly, but couldn’t stop listening.
I am fonder of this by Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I find it chill, eerie, beautiful and strange – but instead of evoking deep, dark forests, it evokes, for me, the vast dark emptiness of space and the future, where who knows what might be possible? Oberon’s song from Britten’s Midsummer’s Night Dream has the same effect on me. It may have been written in the 20th century, as Britten’s response to Shakespeare’s 16th century play, but its eerie otherworldliness, for me, suggests space – perhaps the music of the spheres?
In 1973, Susan Price‘s father signed a contract with Faber for her first book, The Devil’s Piper. She was under-age, at 16, and couldn’t legally sign it herself. She has earned her living by writing and lecturing ever since. Her best known books are The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal, and is available as an e-book, and The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize. She has a blog and is also a founder member of the group Do Authors Dream of Electric Books (aka Authors Electric), and she tweets as @priceclan.
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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 it’s my turn, and I’m talking about the music behind My Memories of a Future Life . And below you have a chance to win a very special version of the print edition….
Begin, like my narrator Carol, lying on a floor trying to think of nothing. Her brain’s like a searching radio, snatching music out of the smallest sound, or the footsteps of the yoga teacher walking around her.
That’s me too. If you’re talking to me and I detect music, no matter how quiet, my brain will align to it and you’ll become the background.
My brain is also a noisy beast. It crackles with images, connections and ideas, but far too fast for its poor operator to catch. Music freezes the hurricane and allows me to play with an idea, stop time and rewind so I can examine and explore. So it’s pretty much essential to my writing.
A life steeped in music
My Memories of a Future Life is a novel steeped in music. Its narrator, Carol, is a classical pianist. In the story there are a number of standard pieces that have special meaning for her (Ludwig Van’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor – which I marinated in so long that I developed absolute pitch). But to write Carol I needed to understand what it meant to devote your life to an instrument. An obvious place to start was Michael Nyman’s theme for The Piano, a windswept reel where a piano speaks for a person. But under Carol’s classical poise is a more raucous urge. Enter Bill Nelson’s Scala, an operatic aria gone feral. I listen to that cliff of sound and it tells me the joy of connection that Carol feels at her instrument:
Their faces weren’t critical. They were soft and open. Music, the language of souls. That was why we played. To do that to each other.
I’ve never worked out if Scala is, in fact, a joyous song. The lyrics might even be Bill Nelson’s shopping list. It does not matter. When I’m writing, music guides my gut, not my head.
Carol’s career is halted by a mysterious injury. She’s desperate to play again but medicine can’t give her any answers. So she seeks them from an unusual source – herself in a future incarnation. The story splits into two threads: Carol now, and her next life.
One of my earliest decisions was how the two narratives would work together. I found a guide in Joe Jackson’s Lullaby. It’s a slow snow-fall of a song with a flavour of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and a floating female vocal. It made me think of blue hallucinations and deepest winter. For a long time I planned the modern-day action to take place at the bitterest time of year, frozen like Carol’s life. But once the characters were setting their own agenda, the quality of winter became a person: Carol’s hypnotist Gene Winter, a complex, mesmeric man who has
a soul of solid steel. A surgeon’s soul.
The dreamy blue from Lullaby became an underwater city in the future. There, Carol’s future self, Andreq, is a healer struggling to cover up a secret. He needed his own voice and soul, distinct from her. His eerie composure came from the extraordinary composer-vocalist Meredith Monk in this track, Lost Wind. Even her track titles made me want to write – especially Travel Dream Song.
Of course, what Carol is going through is pretty odd. She’s experiencing her future self, and increasingly questioning the influence of Gene, who’s teasing it out of her. I was out driving one day, my favourite mode for daydreaming, and Seal’s Crazy swam out of the radio. Crazy is so famous you probably don’t have to click the link. Certainly I knew it well from its days in the charts. But once a song crosses into my undercover soundtrack, it’s like hearing it for the first time.
‘As the music swept everything away I imagined that I could talk to Gene about what we were doing, that we could slip off our inhibitions like these people here, that we could talk about what was me and what was him and what was neither’
What is Carol searching for? At one point she thinks she’s got it. Handel’s brooding, thrilling aria Ombra Cara, from Radamisto examined the moment perfectly, in the music at least. What the words are, I haven’t a clue.
Much of the novel’s action is at night, a 3am desert where normal rules are suspended. When I needed to loosen my bones I’d go running. I liked to go out after dark, listening to songs that were too invasive to write to but kept me in Carol’s mind. One was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy for its restlessness. Last summer, on final edits it was joined by Emeli Sande and Heaven – which to me sounds like Unfinished Sympathy cloned in helium.
Long before I knew what the end should be, I knew how it should feel. It came from George Michael and this fragment from his album Older. It has only one lyric. I had it on repeat while I ran in the dark, mile after mile, searching for the way there. Like Carol.
Special album sleeves are de rigeur in music, so I thought I’d try it in books. I’ve made a special version of My Memories of a Future Life with an adventurous variation on the cover. (And yes, it goes around the back too.)
The text inside is the same as the red edition, except this has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. It’s not for sale, it’s a one-off piece of authorly whimsy. I’m giving away two copies, which I’ll sign and number.
To enter, leave a comment here by 8am UK time on Sunday 16th September – although you can enter no matter where in the world you’re based. If you mention this post on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or any other corner of the known etherverse, that counts as another entry – but make sure to tell me here. Each comment or mention counts as an entry, within reason – in other words, don’t spam… (of course you won’t…)
WINNERS! Thanks for all your entries and your energetic tweeting, googling and hooting. The entries have been shuffled, stuffed in a fancy cardboard churn and scrumpled again. The two winners, plucked from the mass with due solemnity, are Aine and Debbie Steg. Congratulations – and email me at rozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
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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 post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita
I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.
Wonder and curiosity
I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born. It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible. (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)
The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:
A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.
The Hope Store
I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope. The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.
But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:
Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.
As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell. But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )
As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.
Crossing With The Light
Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet. In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.
Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.
Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook
GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.
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Last month My Memories of a Future Life was up for an award at Underground Book Reviews. This month I’m thrilled to be told that it made their Summer Reading List 2012, as voted by readers. If you were one of the voters, thank you very much indeed.
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Originally, My Memories of a Future Life was released as four 25,000-word novellas – The Red Season, Rachmaninov and Ruin, Like Ruby and The Storm. Tonight and tomorrow – or depending on your time zone perhaps a bit of both – I’m giving away Kindle copies of The Red Season to mark World Book Night.
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Kathleen Jones reviewed My Memories of a Future Life on her reading blog this week. One of the comparisons she made was with Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which explores the murky world of charlatan psychic healers who prey on the weak and vulnerable.
When I was kicking around ideas for MMOAFL, I did a lot of research into that world. A stand-out was going to a show where a spiritualist claimed to be contacting the dead relatives of people in the audience – but was obviously grasping ideas out of thin air and finding vulnerable people who would play along. Beyond Black was on my reading list, but somehow I never got round to it – perhaps I’d seen so much charlatanry in reality that I didn’t need to read fiction about it too. So Beyond Black descended further and further down my Amazon wish list, until here it is mentioned in Kathleen’s review … It has to be a sign…
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by historical and speculative fiction author KM Weiland.
I’m a total non-musician. People ask me if I play, and my glib reply is always, ‘Sure, I play the radio’. My musical accomplishments span the gamut from plucking out My Dog Has Fleas on the guitar, a wheezy rendition of When the Saints Come Marching in on the harmonica (so long as I have the Harmonica Playing for the Spectacularly Untalented propped open in front of me), and pretty much any song you’d like to hear on the kazoo. (What’s that? You can’t think of a song you’d like to hear on the kazoo? Me neither.)
But for all of my very unmusicalness, I am a music drunkard. I am intoxicated by the magic of sound. Even more, I am endlessly fascinated by the power music possesses to tell perfect stories. Even the best of authors require hundreds of words to convey character, emotion, and theme. Musicians share their stories effortlessly and organically in just a few notes. As a writer, I’m determined to steal a little of that magic by imbibing copious amounts of music when writing.
For every story I write, there’s always a soundtrack of particular songs that influenced its evolution. For my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, those songs included everything from Loreena McKennitt’s simultaneously aggressive and dreamy Prologue / The Mummer’s Dance to Within Temptation’s tragic The Truth Beneath the Rose and Ronan Hardiman’s simple love song Take Me With You.
But probably the single greatest musical influence on this story was Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack.
At the time of Behold the Dawn’s conception, I hadn’t seen the movie yet, so I knew next to nothing about the plot and was free to speculate according to the music. The story that arose whenever I listened was one of revenge and redemption, tragedy and love. The music—that brutal, sawing, bloody, thundering waltz of The Battle and Barbarian Horde and the earthy primal call of tracks such as The Wheat and Elysium —told the story growing in my head better than I could ever tell it on paper. The callused, hurting warrior knight Marcus Annan and the battered but unbroken noblewoman Lady Mairead lived within the music Zimmer wrote for a very different story. Themes danced in colors of olive green, yellowed sand, and blue as brilliant as the Middle Eastern sky. In one note, I could hear the whole story, see it spinning out in front of me to infinitude, then disappearing in the next instant as the music thundered on.
I took those feelings—and that music—to the keyboard with me, and I wrote it into my story. In so many ways the writing of that book was a special experience (one that often makes me wonder if it was unrepeatable), and I credit it to the music as much as anything else. I finally did get around to watching (and loving) Gladiator and was awed by the entirely different tale that had given birth to the music that had helped me give birth to my own story.
Every story I write is a journey through music. This melding of the arts gives me a power in my stories beyond my own ability with words. The deep emotion of the music breathes life into the characters and the themes to the point that I’m almost not creating at all, so much as transcribing the feelings in my chest. That’s the gift of music. That’s why I listen.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. You can find her on Twitter as @kmweiland
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You might have seen this already if you follow the purple blog, but this week I was interviewed by Amy Riddle of Underground Book Reviews. She dug into the writing process behind My Memories of a Future Life, asking how I developed the underwater world of the Soothesayers, and what experience I drew on to create Carol herself. More here, at Underground Book Reviews…
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
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Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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