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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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The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Arthurian fantasy novelist Katherine Roberts @ReclusiveMuse
I sometimes wonder if I write fantasy because I listen to folk music with its roots in legend and myth, or if it is the other way around. Whatever came first – the music or the fantasy – I do believe that one feeds the other, and music certainly plays an important part in my books. Well, with a debut novel called Song Quest, what did you expect me to say?
Songs for the dreaming stage
Moving on ten years, and that blend of folk and Celtic music is still very much playing in the background to my work. Even though I don’t actually write to music (I need silence for the words to come out), songs definitely inspire me at the dreaming stage. I love the haunting music of Clannad, which is often used as a soundtrack in the kind of films I enjoy, and I especially love traditional ballads about fairyland, which is not as sweet or innocent a place as most children’s books would have you believe. It was one such ballad – The Elf Knight performed by Steeleye Span from their album Time – that provided the undercover soundtrack to my new Pendragon quartet about King Arthur’s daughter.
Rather like Tam Lin, kidnapped by the fairy queen to pay a seven-yearly tithe to Hell, this ballad is a fairy kidnap story, but with a handsome elf-knight charming away a mortal princess. Unknown to the princess who answers the call of his horn, the elf-knight of the ballad has already slain seven kings’ daughters, and has chosen her as his eighth victim. But the resourceful girl tricks him, waiting until he falls asleep after their lovemaking and then tying him up and stealing his own dagger to take her bloody revenge:
Seven kings’ daughters have you slain here, but the eighth of them has slain you!
Some enchanted isle
In Sword of Light my heroine Rhianna Pendragon has grown up on the enchanted isle of Avalon and is more than capable of turning the tables on any knight, fairy or mortal. But since she is a bit younger than the princess in the ballad, her elf-knight – Lord Avallach’s son, Prince Elphin –is her childhood friend and plays his enchanted harp to help Rhianna defeat her evil cousin Mordred, who has just killed King Arthur in battle at Camlann.
Inspired by the music, I even went so far as to write my own humble ballad for the book, with the verses running through the chapter headings. This is the verse from chapter 1, introducing Rhianna:
A maiden lives in Avalon’s hall,
Her spirit the purest of them all.
Brave of heart and hair aflame,
Mortal damsel with secret name…
Since there are 14 chapters and verses in total, this turned into an editor’s nightmare as Emma Goldhawk at Templar rightly pointed out that younger readers of these books might not enjoy my lazy half-rhymes in the first draft, and made me rewrite them all so they rhymed properly… well, almost. (Sorry Emma – only three more books to go!)
Of course, with Prince Mordred’s greedy eyes on the throne of Camelot, the book also has plenty of battle scenes. For these, I turned to Maddy Prior’s album Lionhearts, which is set rather later than King Arthur in the time of Richard Lionheart and the Crusades, but has an atmospheric track War Games with a background of hoofbeats and the first line, which evoked for me a wonderful image of King Arthur’s knights riding out from Camelot into battle.
So we come to a perfect example of writing feeding back into the music. I discovered Maddy had also produced an album called Arthur the King about a Dark Ages King Arthur, which perfectly fits with the setting for my books. I immediately ordered it, and am looking forward to listening to this new undercover soundtrack as I write the remaining three books in my Pendragon series: Lance of Truth, Crown of Dreams and Grail of Stars.
Clannad have already helped inspire the plot of Book 2 with their album Magical Ring, and I have a feeling I’ll be listening to quite a lot of spiritual music for the final book, so if anyone can recommend a soundtrack to help Rhianna on the final stage of her quest for the Grail, I’d love to hear from you!
Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first children’s novel Song Quest (reissued in paperback by Catnip Books). She is the author of the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, translated into 11 languages worldwide and now available as ebooks for Kindle and the Alexander the Great novel I am the Great Horse. Her new children’s fantasy series about King Arthur’s daughter Rhianna Pendragon is published by Templar with the first book Sword of Light now available in hardcover. Katherine’s website is at www.katherineroberts.co.uk and you can follow Rhianna Pendragon on Twitter at @PendragonGirl. And Katherine herself as @ReclusiveMuse
Arthurian fantasy, authors, Celtic music, Clannad, fantasy, folk music, Katherine Roberts, Maddy Prior, music, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Song Quest, soundtracks, Steeleye Span, Sword of Light, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
- 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.
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
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2017. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
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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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