Posts Tagged writing and music

The Undercover Soundtrack – Wyl Menmuir

redpianoupdate-3The 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 2016 Man Booker Prize nominee Wyl Menmuir @WylMenmuir

Soundtrack by William Basinski, Claude Debussy, Kris Drever, Richard Hawley, Andy Othling, Puerto Muerto and Maurice Ravel

In Cornwall you’re never far from the sea, so it’s perhaps not surprising that its sounds would influence my debut novel, The Many. The writing of the novel – much like its setting and characters – was drenched in cold Atlantic waters, and I wrote much of the first draft while walking, out of season, along the coast. Its first soundtrack was waves against cliffs, wind and rain against the hood of my coat, and I knew I wanted the reader to have those sounds in their ears as they walked with my characters through down onto the novel’s oil-streaked beach.

the-undercover-soundtrack-wyl-menmuir-1When I was writing at my desk, though, I was quite specific about the sounds to which I exposed myself. I oscillated between listening to spacious, dreamlike, ambient soundscapes that conjured up the spirit of place, and folk music (mostly sea shanties) which at first I thought was pure procrastination – I can’t write while listening to anything that has lyrics – but the essence of which seeped into the novel.

I remember making a series of notes early on, during Falmouth’s famous sea shanty festival, while the town’s bars and squares overran with music and singers competed for their place in the street soundscape. I love shanties (the raucous and outrageous, the obscene and the melancholy), but the songs I was listening out for then were the ones that told stories of loss, of the lives and loves the sea had claimed.

For most of the time I was writing The Many, I felt my way through the novel, picking at the surface to find out what deeper truths might lie beneath, which was similar, somehow, to the experience of wandering through Falmouth, between singers and songs, where I had to listen hard between the competing sounds for the thread of the melody I wanted to hear. All the characters in The Many are trying to make sense of their own grief, or struggling with it in some way and for a while I listened, on loop, to Richard Hawley’s Shallow Brown, suffused as it is with suffering and sorrow. The version I listened to over and again wasn’t anything traditional, but Hawley’s take on it – stripped back and unadorned – seems to hint towards a depth of loss of which I wanted to speak in The Many. Similarly, there was something in Kris Drever’s rendition of Norman McLeod’s air, Farewell to Fuineray, that captures an almost ineffable sense of grief and the tune of which I would pick at on my guitar while thinking about the story (though it’s worth noting that both Fuineray and Shallow Brown speak of very different griefs to those I explore in The Many).

When they bring Perran back in, they have covered him with a tarpaulin. The men on shore run forward and drag the boat up onto the beach and, when it comes to rest, one of the men pulls the tarpaulin back and Ethan sees he is curled up in the bottom of the boat like a child sleeping.’

The novel is suffused with dreams – waking, fevered, terrifying – and writing these dreams was accompanied by long periods of listening to ambient artists such as Andy Othling. I found many of the dreams in the space Othling leaves within his reverb-soaked guitar loop soundscapes.

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And more than any other single artist, the shape of the novel was inspired by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. My editor, Nicholas Royle, put me onto Basinski, and when I first listened to Disintegration Loops, it felt to me as though they could have been created for the novel I was writing. The loops and repetitions, the crackling degradation, the combination of the tonal and the atonal, combined with the story behind the recordings, the physical disintegration of the tapes, accompanied and perhaps inspired – I’m not sure now – the disintegration of the landscape and the characters within The Many.

He can feel the village starting to break up. He knows for sure, too, that the cracks run through the decks and the holds of the container ships on the horizon and that thought gives him some comfort.’

themany11And sitting somewhere beneath this soundtrack, was the music that provided the bedrock for the novel as a whole: Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante defunte and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, with their wandering melodies and otherworldliness, their exquisite evocations of beauty and pain, were catalyst pieces and I wrote much of the final third of the novel with these two pieces playing in the back of my head, pulling me back to the novel’s origins, reminding me of the essential truths at which I was aiming.

A final note: I’m often asked about the woman in grey who appears in the novel and I’m not great at answering who she is, but anyone looking for an answer could do worse than look for her in Muerto Country.

Wyl Menmuir was born in 1979 in Stockport, Cheshire. His first novel, The Many, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and made the Observer top fiction of 2016 list. He lives on the north coast of Cornwall with his wife and two children and works as a freelance editor and literacy consultant. Read more at wylmenmuir.co.uk and follow Wyl on Twitter @wylmenmuir. Find The Many on Amazon.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Ryan W Bradley

for logoThe 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 multipublished novelist and former Arctic construction worker Ryan W Bradley @rwrkb

Soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, Morphine, Ennio Morricone, Sam Elliott 

My Little Town

Music unlocks ideas. I love writing beginnings and endings but middles test my patience. Once I know how a story is going to end I just want to be there already, which often results in me taking extended breaks from what I’m working on. I don’t put on certain music trying to coax out the missing puzzle piece, it just happens.

The original version of Nothing but the Dead and Dying was named after a different story in the collection, Glaciers. But sometime into the process of sending the manuscript to agents and editors another book called Glaciers came out and the more attention it got the clearer it became that I would have to change my title.

I was driving home from work listening to Simon and Garfunkel when My Little Town came on. It’s my favorite song of theirs, primarily because of the point where it stops being soft and the music builds aggressively and the lyrics get increasingly dark. Suddenly this little town isn’t idyllic and that’s where it gets good. That’s the meat. I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times, but on one occasion a particular line grabbed me as the title. I reflexively checked the name of the song because I couldn’t believe they hadn’t used it.

Undercover Soundtrack Ryan W Bradley 1If a single phrase could possibly encapsulate the stories I was trying to tell of blue collar people and towns in Alaska, this was it. I instantly knew I had the new title for my book, and subsequently one for a story I’d been working on set in my home town, Wasilla, certainly a town full of bleak desires and dreams.

Like Swimming

One of the bands I revisit most often is Morphine. Their songs are a little bit Beat and a little bit Noir, they are soothing and catchy. And there are more than enough turns of phrase and lyrical tidbits that serve to inspire the writing-minded. Though the story I named after this song shares very little with the song itself, it’s a testament to the power of earworms. Morphine is a band that sticks with you, and those are the bands whose influence becomes invisible over time.

When I worked in the Arctic our job was to be invisible. The goal was that when we finished our projects a stranger wouldn’t be able to tell we had done the work in the first place. This is not so different from how the world around us becomes part of what we create. The music, films, books, and art—not to mention the people and places—that stick with us become a part of what we in turn create. Whether we realize it or not.

The Morricone Factor

Usually my writing is tied to what I was listening to while writing it. But the stories of Nothing but the Dead and Dying are more about what I was not listening to. Because they were written over such a long period of time (roughly six years from the first story to the last), there’s no way to quantify the music that created the fabric of the process. In fact, this book, more than anything else I have written, may show the least musical influence. But like a glacier, what we see on the surface is only a small portrait.

Writing this book was about tone from the very beginning. It was about feel. As soon as I decided to put together a collection of stories about blue collar Alaskans (which was after writing just three or four stories), it was clear that they would be bound by an environment, one far beyond the landscape of the state, deep into the psyche of its inhabitants.

I rarely listen to classical music or music without vocals in general. I need the voices and the words. I need songs that move fast. If you want to know my favorite song on an album it’s usually going to be either the most up-tempo song, or the one that sounds most Beatles-esque. When it comes to classical music one of two exceptions is Ennio Morricone.

Morricone could set a mood with music in his sleep. His film scores create barren landscapes full of violence and loneliness. If I were charged with finding a musical equivalent of my stories, there’s no doubt it would be one of Morricone’s scores (here, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). I can hear the ominous notes resounding in every sentence, every glimmer of hope a character is given, and the emptiness of the hopes removed.

Undercover Soundtrack Ryan W Bradley 2When a voice is music

Allow me to be a cheater. They may not be songs or albums but voices are musical. They can stick in your head just like songs, they can inspire your imagination, or make you feel any of the emotions a strong note or lyric can.

In the end my writing boils down to a voice and it is that of actor Sam Elliott. I am obsessed with some people’s voices, but none more than his. I hear it in my head when I write. It helps me craft the tone of my sentences. When I revise, I read out loud and I do it in a Sam Elliott impersonation. The words are different in his voice, I experience them in a different way and it affords me a chance to feel them as foreign objects. I am not repeating myself, but removing myself. I am allowed to be some version of an audience.

NBTDADRitual and routine

Putting words down on the page, stringing them into semi-coherent sentences and paragraphs is not hard, but it couldn’t possibly be harder. This is why writers have rituals and routines. We find a way to make the writing a little easier and we cling to it. I don’t need to create a mood to write, but what I do need is a key. Music is a key. It can feed an idea or expand it. Music helps me focus, the way that doodling while in a meeting does. People joke about getting their best ideas on the toilet or while in the shower, for me that is, more often than not, listening to music while driving to and from work.
Writing is easy. Until it isn’t. But I’ve found that when I’m the most lost, when I put a story aside and wonder if it’s even solvable, it is a song at some random time and place that will make the pieces come together.

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and more. He now works in marketing for an audiobook publisher. He is the author of eight books, including Code for Failure and Winterswim. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons. You can find him on his website or stalk him on Twitter: @rwrkb

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