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Once a week 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 cyberthriller author Ian Sutherland @iansuth
Soundtrack by John Barry, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone, Elgar, Moby, Leftfield, Underworld, The Smiths
I write to music; never to silence. For me, music is essential. It rapidly gets me in the zone and allows the creative juices to flow freely. Right now I’m listening to the movie soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer. I love it when the two tracks by The Smiths come on.
There’s a pragmatic purpose to my use of music. As most people appreciate, writing is one of the most solitary professions there is. And one of the reasons I procrastinated so long in my life before finally publishing my debut novel was my desire to balance time for my family and friends (oh, and work). And even more so when my daughters left home for university, leaving my wife and me with the proverbial empty nest. The only way I could write was to relocate myself to the living room (and be in the same vicinity as my otherwise lonely wife) and wear headphones to drown out the noise of the TV!
My debut novel is a thriller called Invasion of Privacy. When I first started it three years ago, I mostly played orchestral movie soundtracks while writing. There were two reasons. The first was practical: at the time I believed hearing songs with lyrics would be distracting (I’ve since overcome that). And the second was because soundtracks follow the tempo of the movies they represent, and pairing different soundtracks to the types of scenes I was writing helped.
For quieter more reflective scenes, my favourite choice is John Barry’s Dances With Wolves, the slow pace of the rather long movie suiting perfectly. For higher tempo, more action orientated scenes, I often selected 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Especially the title piece, which features a chamber choir singing rousting Latin hymns with massive crescendos.
These soundtracks directly influenced my characterisation in the novel and were referenced explicitly. The main protagonist is a computer hacker who, whenever he starts a hacking session, chooses a movie soundtrack to accompany him:
‘Brody selected his favourite movie soundtrack playlist, set it for random with the volume high and pressed play. The opening bars to John Barry’s Dances With Wolves boomed from floor-standing Bose speakers either side of the huge wall-mounted television. Then, like a concert pianist about to perform a solo, he rested his fingers on the keyboard in front of him.’
A hacking session later in the book is, of course, accompanied by 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Ennio Morricone’s The Mission also makes an appearance in the novel. It had to, given the number of times the novel’s author listened to it during the book’s writing.
Unbeknown to me, my editor Bryony Sutherland (no relation!) had studied music at the Royal Academy of Music. She picked up on the large number of musical references in the novel, starting with the opening scene where Anna Parker, the soon-to-be-first-victim, reflects on her journey towards becoming a cellist:
‘A childhood spent observing her school friends through the living room window playing forty-forty, kerbie and later, kiss-chase, while she practised her scales over and over, her bow movements across the strings becoming autonomic as muscle memory took over, the melodies becoming more complex and harmonious.’
Bryony appreciated the background and characterisation this short description provided, but also commented on how accurate the musical description was. In the scene, Anna auditions for a role in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She plays Elgar’s Concerto in E-Minor, a perfect choice for a solo cellist performance:
‘She took two more deep breaths, drew back the bow and launched into the concerto, her favourite piece. The music, as Elgar had planned, came slowly and hauntingly at first. Within a few bars she was lost to the stately rhythm of her part.’
As the novel headed towards its dramatic conclusion, the pace naturally picked up in the writing style. To help me maintain a faster pace during writing, I began to play the soundtrack to the movie The Beach on repeat. High tempo electro beats by the likes of Leftfield, Moby and Underworld were perfect to maintain concentration and a high pace. I also noticed that I set the volume in my earphones much higher as well, drowning out everything except me and the words on my laptop screen.
And I’m finishing writing this very post on a cheerful high. 500 Days of Summer has now looped a few times, but I write these last words to the quirky and breezy song, Mushaboom. Always guaranteed to leave anyone in a good mood! Give it a listen if you’ve not heard it before.
Ian Sutherland is a British crime thriller author. Leveraging his career in the IT industry, Ian’s Deep Web Thriller Series shines light on the threats we face from cybercrime as it becomes all too prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Invasion of Privacy is his debut. Ian lives near London with his wife and two daughters. Find him on his website, Twitter as @iansuth and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Ian is giving away 1 copy of Invasion of Privacy, either print or ebook. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!
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On The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters. He is Ian Sutherland and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.
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Once a week 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 it’s my turn on the decks – with the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three
Lifeform Three is a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, set in the near future, where global warming has shrunk the landmass and the countryside has been sacrificed for buildings and roads. One valley remains, of woods, trees and meadows, and is now kept as a theme park – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. My main character, Paftoo, is a groundsman there. He’s the odd one out; the only soul who’s uneasy in a world that everyone else accepts. You could say he lives in a utopia – but to him it’s a dystopia.
I knew the emotional beats of Lifeform Three before I knew the story. They came to me as pieces of music, a chain of albums and tracks that suggested the landmarks of the novel. I would load them into my MP3 player and take them running, puzzling over them as I pounded out the miles.
Paftoo is a bod – an artificial human who’s programmed to do menial tasks. To keep him efficient, his memory is regularly wiped, but he has inklings of other memories. We meet him after such an event (known as a ‘sharing’). My first beat was that state of newness, a world shining and fresh where you go out and do your tasks, content with simple instructions. In the beginning, Paftoo doesn’t even know his own name until he realises the sole of his boot has a number – 2 (his name is an alphanumeric, short for Park Asset Field Redo Bod 2).
Boards of Canada’s album Music Has The Right To Children told me the innocence of new, eager eyes, especially this track, An Eagle In Your Mind.
The novelty doesn’t last long. There’s a wildness in Paftoo and by the end of his first day, he’s made the others wary of him. He’s also frustrated. But worse is to come when night falls. While his companions go dormant and lifeless, Paftoo starts to dream.
Again, the idea came as a feeling from music – Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ suggested a tingling in the nerves, a meaning that must be grasped.
First he hears sounds; urgent and deep, like a heartbeat in the ground
The dream sequence was choreographed to that album. It starts with a sense of unease, then that beat gallops in like the thing you knew was coming.
Horses, flashing across the green hills in glorious gallop. Necks reaching, tails streaming. Riders on their backs, urging them faster.
Paftoo opens his eyes, shocked. He knows he’s not supposed to dream. He also knows that nobody rides horses now. They’re untamed animals in the fields (and known as Lifeform Three). But at the same time it makes perfect sense in his restless soul. From that moment, Paftoo has a mission. Every night, he goes looking for clues that might explain why he has these dreams and what happened to him before his mind was wiped. By day, he struggles to hide his true nature in case he’s wiped again.
In a small way the story is autobiographical. In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. Like the horse Paftoo later befriends, my horse was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. If I couldn’t handle my dream, what did that make me? That first winter, Enya’s Anywhere Is was in the charts. I wasn’t a fan of her music, but when I came to write Paftoo’s attempts to tame a horse I listened to Enya to capture that time. For some reason Caribbean Blue with its waltz rhythm brought back the sense of a wondrous adventure, the tentative courtship of a wild creature and the sense of being alone on a dumb-headed quest for something inexplicable and ideal.
A song called Caribbean Blue that takes me back to an English winter, riding horses? Like dreams, Undercover Soundtracks have a logic of their own. Or I take no notice of lyrics.
During the writing, my soundtracks had to become a time machine. Those first days with my oversized horse were, as you can probably see, long ago. Reader, I kept him, and he was now reaping the arthritic rewards of a vigorous life. I was having ghastly conversations with the vet because if her treatments didn’t work it was time for the gun. I clung to those music tracks to help me give his glory days to Paftoo while the real situation seemed so hopeless. Thankfully, he rallied and we gallop on (on a good day).
The horse awakens Paftoo’s sense of the natural world, which humanity seems to have lost. Again, music already contained what I needed to say. Vangelis’s Pulsar was the thrill of galloping feet
‘gathering up the miles and throwing them out behind’.
Electromantic La Baletta No 2 – by the Hungarian composer Gabor Presser had feisty, fertile joy, like a primitive spring ritual. It smells of untamed hair and corduroy. And whoever said electronic music lacked a soul? Both these tracks are entirely electronic, made from circuits and wave generators, yet they bound and leap like wild animals.
But there’s a lot more to Paftoo’s quest than riding and nature. They are merely the beginning; the gateway to a profound discovery of his own past and the people and creatures he loves. Now I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I can say that the more he recovers, the more he stands to lose and the more desperate his day life becomes. This impossibility was exquisitely insisted in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
The piece was written in 1914 and 1920, in an England changed forever by the first World War. That period would also be the heyday of Harkaway Hall, the mansion that used to stand at the heart of the Lost Lands, where Paftoo now struggles to keep his memories. The Lark Ascending seems to say that what will be lost is more than just the loves of a few souls in a little story; it speaks for the loss of time, grace, of fallen walls in overgrown woods, bumps under the turf in an empty field. That violin seems to be shrilling from the skies: it won’t last. We won’t last. And how can Paftoo save it?
Roz Morris is, of course, your host on The Undercover Soundtrack. Find out more here, connect on Twitter as @Roz_Morris and on the writing advice blog Nail Your Novel. Her first novel was My Memories of a Future Life (Soundtrack here) and Lifeform Three is now available in all formats, including print.
authors, Boards of Canada, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Downton Abbey, drama, electronic composers, electronic music, electronica, English mansions, entertainment, Enya, fantasy, Gabor Presser, horses, Life Form Three, Lifeform, Lifeform 3, Lifeform Three, literary fiction, literary novels, literature, Margaret Atwood, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Peter Gabriel, playlist for writers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ray Bradbury, reincarnation, robots, Roz Morris, Roz Morris fiction, science fiction, soundtrack, speculative fiction, synth music, synthesisers, The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Vangelis, vanished houses, vanished mansions, vanished mansions in England, wild horses, Women Writers, women writing women, Women's fiction, writers, writing, 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.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2023. 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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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
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- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'
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