July 23, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
City of Strangers is an auspicious debut novel by Ian MacKenzie, a book that lives up to the term "literary thriller."
The Chicago Tribune wrote of the book:
"Most memorable about "City of Strangers," though, is its hectic urban rhythm, the shock and clatter of New York at ground level, as rendered by MacKenzie's prose. The stop-and-start syncopation of his chapters turns the entire novel into its own mini-city, complete with violence and beauty, sorrow and wisdom, chaos and clarity"
I’m one of those who write with headphones on. Partly this is practical and defensive; to write you need to keep the world out; when your eyes are on a page the world tries to get in through your ears. But music serves a second purpose. Music builds subconscious floes of emotion that, knocking around, generate a mental fugue state necessary to finding the right tone; music is not an aid to concentration, but it is an aid to feeling. While working on City of Strangers, about a man called Paul Metzger who finds, in his mid-thirties, that his life is falling apart, I alternated between an interior sound – chamber music of all sorts – and a more cinematic mode that, in a film, would suit the scene near the end of the book in which Paul is being tracked around Manhattan by a man who wishes to do him harm.
Pablo Casals, Bach's Cello Suite #2 in D Minor
Casals’s recordings, from the 1930s, remain the standard of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello (even if Bach actually had in mind a slightly different sort of cello). The second is the most elegiac. More and more these days I write to classical music, which wasn’t always the case, but Bach was always there while working on City of Strangers; and this piece is ideally suited to the melancholy trajectory of Paul’s increasingly unhappy visits to his half-brother, his dying father, and his ex-wife during the first chapter of the novel. I don’t know a more beautiful sound in all of music than the cello.
The National, "Slow Song"
The National is surely my favorite contemporary band; I vividly remember seeing them at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, right after Alligator was released but before it accelerated them into fame, and before Boxer really accelerated them into fame. Their music has a special emotional coloring that suits the writing of a pensively downbeat scene. “Slow Song”, from Boxer, adds a flashy drama to that formula; it works well as the soundtrack to a moment of emotional cruelty, or the physical kind.
Max Richter, "Shadow Journal"
The Blue Notebooks, on which “Shadow Journal” appears, is as writerly an album as I can think of. It frames Richter’s contemporary classical music with excerpts from Kafka’s blue octavo notebooks (read by the actress Tilda Swinton); the music of “Shadow Journal” begins over the clacking of typewriter keys, and then continues for eight minutes of creepy, tremulous warbling. I could probably have named any song from The Blue Notebooks or from Richter’s next record, Songs from Before; at times, while I wrote, I simply played those two albums on a loop.
Sufjan Stevens, "Abraham"
The story of Abraham and Isaac is a leitmotif in City of Strangers; it sits at the heart of Paul’s view of Christianity and religion. Sufjan Stevens is one of our best songwriters in part because of the central place he gives religion in his music; it is one of the most basic human experiences and yet most contemporary musicians (most non-country musicians, anyway) ignore it. The album as a whole, Seven Swans, is beautiful, my favorite of Sufjan’s.
Radiohead, “15 Steps”
The jittery skeletal rhythm of the first song on In Rainbows conceals a strain of menace which suited perfectly the mood I wanted to sustain while writing. Another record I listened to regularly while working on the revisions of the novel; “15 Steps” was frequently stuttering in my headphones while I sat in the main reading room at the New York Public Library.
Wolf Parade, "Modern World"
Music, for me, attaches itself to seasons. I have a hard time listening to The Vaselines or Richard Hell in winter, but as soon as June comes around they are the first things I put on. Wolf Parade is an autumn band for me; City of Strangers, which takes place in February, is a wintry book but in many ways it is also an autumnal one – it is about a period of decline in a man’s life. (Although a burst of rain in a late chapter offers a kind of false spring: a counterfeit possibility of redemption.)
Grizzly Bear, "Central and Remote"
Grizzly Bear recorded Yellow House in the eponymous house, on Cape Cod, and the album retains an air of artistic remove. It is cryptic and gorgeous. This song in particular builds with drama and eerie restraint. Like all of Grizzly Bear’s music, it is delicate and dense at once, and its complex harmonies do not so much convey lushness as fraught instability. Something wants to happen.
LCD Soundsystem, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"
James Murphy is probably the best and most witty commentator we have on modern New York and modern New York life. City of Strangers isn’t half as entertaining as an LCD Soundsystem record, I’m afraid, but it, too, is about New York. Sound of Silver, Murphy’s second album, is a rich almanac of what it is to be young, artsy, and uncertain in contemporary Manhattan and Brooklyn. This song, its last, is cracked and bittersweet and Beatlesesque, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter.
Mogwai, "It Would Have Happened Anyway"
This song was ideal for its original purpose: a piece of Mogwai’s soundtrack to Douglas Gordon’s astonishing video-art piece, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. But it would also make a nice accompaniment to the most cinematic episode in the novel: Paul being pursued through the subways and streets of Manhattan by a violent, enigmatic figure called Terence.
Antony & the Johnsons, "Fistful of Love"
The most heartwrenchingly beautiful song I know. Musically, the song that best captures the shattered feeling of wanting someone back; the crushing nostalgia for a relationship that has ended. It expresses what I wanted to express in Paul’s longing for Claire and the marriage they had. A great song is hard to compete with for raw feeling.
Blonde Redhead, “Spring and By Summer Fall”
As previously suggested, the seasons provide a motif in City of Strangers. Blonde Redhead, whose album 23 was yet another playing constantly as I wrote, has mastered a sophisticated, transcontinental species of moody, vaguely electronic pop. Every song is grippingly cinematic. “Spring and By Summer Fall” is a propulsive mid-album song, and thus ideal for the conclusion of a novel which ends, in some ways, right in the middle of things.
Ian MacKenzie and City of Strangers links:
also at Largehearted Boy: