Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

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.

Magic

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.

back on that horse

Get back on that horse! [photo credit: http://www.hollisranch.com ]

I am indeed back on that horse, the mardiness of 2012’s dying embers all but forgotten.

I have been making good progress with the second draft of Kikimora. I had wanted to crack on with the major rewrite of the crisis that kicks off the climax – but had to admit temporary defeat on that one. It’s been so long since I got properly stuck into it that I didn’t have a good enough handle on the characters and their (constantly edited into different shapes) relationships. So I went back to the beginning, reading through my last round of changes, and adding in some further refinements.

When I did my first draft read-through I thought the second half of the story was WAY better than the first half (which is worse than the other way around cuz once you’re suckered in you’re quite likely to continue reading. But if you aren’t sucked in fairly swiftly, then you will likely put it aside). I made a lot of changes, adding extra scenes and slowing down the story to give the characters more room to grow.

Reading it back this week I was really pleased with the improvements. I’ve also now smoothed over some of the bumps that inevitably arise when you’re chopping chapters into pieces and redistributing chunks of prose here and conversations there – and some of the continuity errors. It’s been really good to get back to it. I need to maintain this pace and enthusiasm into the new year in order to get a readable draft out by the spring.

I normally go to work monday – wednesday, leaving thursday and friday for writing (and weekends to see my family). It’s hard financially, but I have always valued my time more highly than money. The financial demands of Christmas and an ambitiously expensive holiday last year meant that I spent much of autumn working overtime instead of writing (which I’m sure had a bit to do with my New Year melt-down). This year I am determined to tighten my belt and just NOT SPEND ANY MONEY for as long as it takes to get back on an even financial footing.

I want to keep my writing days in tact, so that the story remains fresh in my head each week, and I don’t have to waste time reading back through several chapters to remember what I’m doing..!

So far it’s going well. And I have a new secret weapon in my arsenal: whenever I’m feeling insufficiently Russian,* I listen to Prokofiev’s marvellously evocative and rousing cantata, Alexander Nevsky 🙂 The only problem is that sometimes I get a little distracted – especially during The Battle on Ice.

Seriously, people,  give it a listen. I’d say it’s up there with Carmina Burana** in the bonkers, rousing, orchestral/choral stakes!

* Kikimora is very loosely based on Slavic folklore, and on Anatoly Lyadov’s Fairy tale for orchestra, Kikimora (yes, I listen to that for inspiration too. But it’s only eight minutes long, and I’ve been writing this book for two years…!)

** You should check out that link too. It’s the “misheard lyrics” version. Genius 😀

I have a guest post up today on the Speculative Salon about the often close relationship between music and magic.

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.

Music Pink and Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Music: Pink and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, picture courtesy of, http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/georgia-o%27-keeffe

Below is an additional thought on the wholeness, the completeness of music, which I didn’t manage to fit into the piece.

One of my favourite fantasy series growing up was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I love the strangeness, the grotesqueness of the characters and settings. I love that it was all very recognisable, but at the same time indefinably other.

Gormenghast is the name of a castle and its immediate environs; forest, mountain, river. As well as the noble family – the delightfully named Groans – it houses a school, a museum/art gallery, a library, a doctor, a poet, various funcionaries and an encampment of serfs. It is an utterly self-contained and fully realised little world – but there is one important omission.

In three books, spanning 17 years or so, I don’t recall a single mention of music. Ever*. Not even a trumpet fanfare during one of the interminable, pointless ceremonies Lord Groan is forced to enact daily.

I find that astonishing. And the world of Gormenghast is slightly reduced in my eyes due to its lack. I can believe in a castle where a hideous but charismatic kitchen boy scales his tower prison, and seduces the daughter of the house in her secret attic; that he sees a horse bathing in a rooftop pool on the way; that a silent waif floats through the forest, as light as air; that a strange Countess prefers to spend time with a white rook than her own newborn baby. But a world without music? I find that hard to conceive of.

World building is hard. There is so much to think of, so many details to consider, so many relationships and histories to get right. It’s hardly surprising that sometimes a piece of the world gets completely forgotten. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has read fantasy books and thought, “But what about the —- ?”

* Disclaimer: Although I have read the Gormenghast series three or four times, the last time was over 14 years ago. It is possible I have forgotten some musical interlude tucked away in there somewhere. I think the Doctor does sing a song about a frivolous cake one time while soaking in the bath, but that hardly makes up for an entire castle devoid of music and musical instruments!

Reading an interview with John Dyer Baizley (artist, and Baroness lead guitarist) made me recall just how often I studied his cover for Baroness’ Red Album while writing Darklands.

I can’t even pinpoint what it is about that painting that speaks to me so eloquantly. The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s fairy land – the sinster and cruel fairy land of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Stange and Mr Norrel. But also the mysterious and magical fairy land of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

The disc of bound birds are reminiscent of the Fates spinning their wheel, and the threads of human life, indiferent to desires or pleas.

The poppies suggest a drugged, dreamlike hyperreality. Some of them spew strings of white… stuff. Milk of the poppy, I guess. But coupled with all those phallic looking insects and the tadpole-shaped patterns in the background, suggest other stuff too.

The painting is beautiful, and horrific. The two women seem at once bored, indifferent, judgemental, powerful, dangerous, sexual… but likely to have the appetites of preying mantisses. Their cold, dead eyes look out at you with no mercy, their muscular arms at odds with their vulpine, vampiric faces.

Perhaps that is the crux of fairy land? That intoxicating mixture of allure and danger? Knowing that you should stay away, but helplessly drawn in by the beauty and wonder?

I like Dyer Baizley’s other artwork too, but the Red Album has a special place in my affections. I can look at it for hours, wondering about those two figures with their sceptre of bird skulls, crown of insects and necklace of finger bones; wondering what their story is…