Archive for February, 2013

The close relationship between music and magic

First published December 2012 on The Speculative Salon.

At fifteen I was 5’8”, all knees and elbows, with a big mane of dyed red hair and army boots half way up my calf. I had started to learn the cello only a couple of years earlier. I was 12th (last) cello in the county youth orchestra, sandwiched awkwardly between the double basses and a gaggle of tiny eight year old cellists all far more accomplished players than me.

Consequently I felt ever so slightly conspicuous as I guessed at tuning my instrument, struggled to find my place in the score, and fudged my way through rehearsal after rehearsal. Despite a week’s intense practice I didn’t get much better, and my confidence plummeted. I was so worried about playing the wrong thing and ruining the piece, that when it came to the eventual performance at Buxton Opera House I mimed through most of it.

I gave up the cello shortly after that. I have grudgingly had to accept that I am just not a musical person. No one in my family is musical. Words are our thing. And food.

The Power To Mesmerise

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Those who are musically gifted seem very mysterious. I view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and a sort of distrust – they must be witches! How else could they control and harness that amazing power, and bend it to their will?

I feel it as a terrible loss in my life that I’m not musical. I love music – all kinds of music. But I don’t understand it in the least. What is a fugue? A partita? A canon? A gigue? What is the difference between a rhapsody and a fantasy? A concerto and a symphony? What makes something a prelude? Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun always confused me. I expected there to be a longer piece called ‘The Afternoon of a Faun.’ There isn’t.

When I used to sit at the back of the orchestra I couldn’t hear myself play. I had no idea how to pick my own sound out from the multitude of sounds around me. I had no idea if I was in tune, or if I was in time…

The ability to make music; to create one beautiful sound and then to weave it around other sounds, and to build a coherent, wonderful whole seems hardly less astonishing to me than the ability to move objects with the power of the mind.

Given this wonder and envy, it is perhaps not surprising that I have allied music with magic in much of my writing. In Darklands, Inkling is a powerful magician with a particular affinity for music. But he doesn’t play a violin, a flute or a piano. He plays the wind. He plays the dry grasses and the branches of trees. He sends the wind whistling around sculpted rocks, creating fluttering arpeggios. He conjures a soft, shushing rhythm from the treetops, and a mournful, clattering tune from living bamboo.

In my work in progress, a musician unwittingly exerts power over the ghostly protagonist, Kikimora. Her magical powers weaken whenever she hears him play, and she becomes visible to humans – which causes problems for them both.

His Inhuman Skill

Music has a long history of association with the uncanny, the fae, the devilish. One of the best known and most evocative examples must be the Pied Piper bewitching the children of Hamlin with his playing, and leading them astray. Celtic lore has fairies closely tied with musicians, particularly pipers. Musicians are far more likely than other mortals to be taken to fairy land.

Some, such as the blind 17th century harpist, Turlough O’Carolan, were said to acquire their musical prowess after spending a night on the fairy knoll.

This echoes the story of the violinist, Nicolo Paganini, widely believed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his inhuman skill and virtuosity. Early Blues musician Robert Johnson was similarly said to have sold his soul to the Devil – down at the Crossroads.

Both of these musicians knew a good story when they heard one, and they played up the unearthly aspect of their personas – Paganini by growing long wings of hair, and dressing all in black, Robert Johnson by singing such songs as Hellhound on my Trail, Me and the Devil, and Crossroads Blues.

And let’s not forget the role music has played in religion down the ages, from Gregorian chants, via plainsong, liturgy and mass, to American gospel music and beyond. Would religion grip the hearts and souls of so many without the uncanny power of music in its arsenal?

To Muddle And Misplace

Some music is so evocative of a certain time, mood or place that just hearing a short passage transports you instantly back there. Much of our unconscious musical associations come from film and TV. There is a certain type of English romantic music (typified by Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending) which never fails to make me yearn for an idyllic rural past that probably never existed. This is thanks to its use in countless period dramas on TV: Tess of the D’urbervilles; the Mill on the Floss, Precious Bane.

Another well used piece is the thrillingly dramatic Carmina Burana, which conjures everything from King Arthur’s knights riding into battle (Excaliber) to demonic murder (The Omen) to sexual ecstacy (The Doors).

Powerful music has the ability to imprint a mood into your soul; a mood which can be instantly recalled by hearing the music again. On a more humdrum level this is demonstrated when we hear music from our youth and become misty eyed over all the memories and associations it brings back – even music you didn’t like at the time.

When I was sixteen Brit-pop was all the rage; everyone loved Oasis – but I thought they were boring and whiny and not a patch on Sonic Youth or Pixies. I hear Oasis now and I don’t remember how I used to complain about them and groan and roll my eyes. I remember how it felt to be sixteen, and think that the world was my oyster; to not wake up every morning with back ache; to be full of hope and dreams and chutzpah that hadn’t yet been tempered by dusty reality…

But hang on – is that really what it was like? Or is the music fooling me? Didn’t I spend much of my teenage years paranoid and miserable? Didn’t I spend long hours obsessing about my intense ugliness, the dullness of my life, and dreaming that one day things would be better?

Music can deceive. It can muddle and misplace, and convince you of things that never were.

It can also inspire. Artists of every sort find inspiration in music. Marcus Sedgwick has described how Midwinter Blood is based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My above-mentioned work in progress, Kikimora, was directly inspired by a ‘fairytale for orchestra’ of the same name by Anatoly Lyadov.


Music can be mind-altering, reality-altering. It can affect the listener mentally, physically and spiritually. It can transport you through time and space. It can unlock memories long forgotten; it can sometimes trick us into believing things that never happened.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

This post was first published in December 2012 on The Speculative Salon. I have reproduced it here as I have something to add.

Thanks to Howard Goodall’s excellent Story of Music I now do know the difference between a symphony and a concerto,* and much more besides! If you haven’t seen the six part BBC TV series, I thoroughly recommend looking it up. Goodall is excellent at explaining musical concepts. Admittedly some of it goes over my head a bit. But then, so do books about string theory and the quantum universe. I read them anyway, because each time I try to understand I get a bit closer to actually doing so.

Howard Goodall, I salute you!

* A concerto showcases one particular instrument with the rest of the orchestra as backup.

Win a free copy of Darklands by Emma Woodcock

All this could be yours! [Note: coins may be chocolate rather than actual gold…]

It’s my first blogoversary!

To celebrate this auspicious occasion, I’m giving away a signed copy of Darklands plus a promotional Darklands bookmark to one lucky reader. All you need do is leave a comment below, and a winner will be chosen at the end of February.

So, why do you want a copy of Darklands? What, you mean, apart from it being FREE?

Darklands is “unputdownable, enthralling magic,” say Bookstack, “Brilliantly written and thought out fantasy.”

“I didn’t want to put it down,” says Arwen Fox. “The plot was gripping and fast-paced. The characters were fascinating, and I couldn’t wait to find out the truth about the sinister world Sophie finds herself in.”

“Atmospheric and sinister,” says Ship, “The sense of menace is perfectly executed.”

What are you waiting for? Add your name now for a chance to win 🙂

Due to postage costs, I’m afraid the offer of a paperback is available to UK residents only (well, I suppose an inhabitant of elsewhere could win, but they’d have to nominate a UK pal to receive the book!)

An inhabitant of elsewhere. I like that phrase. It sounds like someone from fairyland… *gets out notebook*

A book, a craft-knife; what could possibly go wrong?

A book, a craft-knife; what could possibly go wrong?

I think I’m gonna get some flak for this…

Let me start by telling you about my neck. I’ve had problems with my back my entire adult life. Four years of osteopathy eventually sorted out my lower back – and then my neck and shoulders began to seize up. Over the past decade my neck has almost ground to a halt (grind being very much the operative word!). I can move it maybe an inch to either side. I can’t tip my head back without using my hands to help. Tipping it forwards is minimal and uncomfortable.

I try not to let this impinge on daily life. Until a year or so ago I played netball every week. I hike as often as I can and carry my own rucksack. It’s the little daily things that seem the most problematic. My neck and shouldesr seize up from:

  • carrying a handbag ‘wrong’
  • wearing a heavy coat
  • or a heavy necklace
  • having my neck uncovered in any but the most tropical climate
  • sitting at an angle to anything I’m trying to do (watch TV, use a computer, talk to people)

I have learned to manage it pretty well. The one thing that still troubles me is reading heavy books. The gift of a kindle helped enormously with this problem, but I don’t read all my books on my kindle. I recently read Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book, The Final Empire. I enjoyed it immensely and set it aside to lend to my sister. When I came to buy the next in the series, The Well of Ascension, I ummed and ahhed over whether to buy the paperback or ebook. In the end I plumped for the paperback, so that I could also lend this to my sister.

I should have checked the page count first. It arrived yesterday, and I settled down to read it. All 800 pages of it. After two hours my neck was stiff from staring downwards. It’s too heavy to hold in the air, and it weighs down the cushions I try to prop it on. Maybe I could pile further cushions on my lap to support it? But it’s kind of annoying when the cat is meowing to come in and out of the room every few minutes and I have to keep getting up, and then rearranging myself back in the chair (yes alright, that’s the cat being annoying, not the book or the cushions).

I seriously considered buying it again for kindle. But I decided to try something else; something I’ve threatened before for other books, but never yet got around to.

Reader, I cut my book in half.

It is done.

It is done.

I make no apologies. I have stated before that I’m not precious about books. They are tools to facilitate the enjoyment of literature. They are vessels. They are not sacred objects in themselves. And if they are obstructing the enjoyment of literature – well, then they need modifying.

I know some people will be appalled by this book mutilation. It was a bold step, even for me. Maybe some of the morally indignant are asking, Where do I draw the line? Would I ever burn a book?

No, of course not! Well, you know, unless I happened to have 500 copies of Katie Price’s autobiography hanging around, and no light by which to read my latest Joe Abercrombie…

The great irony here is that the most book-worshiping person I know is the same sister I was intending to lend the books to. Far from appreciating the troubles I have gone to on her behalf, I fully expect horror and vilification to come my way. She will disdain to even touch my two part Well of Ascension :-S

Anathem by Neal Stephenson and Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler: more books that may face the chop

Anathem by Neal Stephenson and Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler: more books that may face the chop

But I am much happier with the two slimmer half books, and will have far greater enjoyment from reading them (and fortunately, the end pages do not appear to be coming loose).

I may do this for more of my heavy paperbacks (yes, Anathem, I’m looking at you. And you, Empires of the Word!)