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April 7, 2010

Book Notes - Elise Blackwell ("An Unfinished Score")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Elise Blackwell's fourth novel An Unfinished Score resonates strongly like the musical pieces that abound in the book, a literary symphony compelling and enriching. wrote of the book:

"An Unfinished Score is an emotional novel. It is a book that asks for sympathy and contemplation. Exploring the complexity of classical music, the lives that create and perform it, and nothing less complicated than the inner workings of the human heart, the book is ultimately an orchestra of its own, beautifully composed and richly textured."

In her own words, here is Elise Blackwell's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, An Unfinished Score:

Music has been part of my life since I was old enough to choose my own, and I was one of those fanatical college djs who pride themselves on segueing songs by the most obscure of connections. I was a full-on music geek, my day pathetically made by digging out Mott the Hoople or The Clash on vinyl. I've calmed down, but still I consider my highest writing honor to be The Decemberists' song based on my first novel. Yet music has rarely made it into my fiction as subject matter. Over the years, I've found myself listening more and more to classical music. I failed as a viola player at the tragic age of ten; in An Unfinished Score I got to take that lost path vicariously. The main character is a viola player whose lover has just died and who is blackmailed by her lover's widow into completing an unfinished viola concerto. The best part of the writing was the research. I went to concerts, I sat in on master classes, I read biographies of composers, and I listed to the peculiar viola repertoire over and over. Most of the music on my playlist appears in the novel and so is classical, though I still listen mostly to Warren Zevon, The Kills, Alejandro Escovedo, and the sometimes horrible and sometimes wonderful stuff other people load onto my iPod. Yesterday? Hendrix, Vic Chestnut, Nouvelle Vague.


"Leave the City," Magnolia Electric Co.

This song perfectly captures the layered heartbreak the main character, Suzanne, has experienced, as well as her capacity to secretly endure and emerge from despair.

Harold in Italy, Hector Berlioz (London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis)

Paganini commissioned a composition to show off his Stradivarius viola and was deeply disappointed by this beautiful, melancholic music in which the violist is not so much the soloist but a single plaintive voice against the orchestra. In the novel, Suzanne and her lover Alex meet when he conducts her playing Harold, and so she associates the music with him fully.

Kinderszenen, Robert Schumann (Denis Matsuev)

The musical marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann, including Clara's long friendship with Johannes Brahms, is one that Suzanne measures her own life against. In one scene, she remembers attending a performance of the Kinderszenen at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a venue most famous for the riot that broke out at the premiere of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. I based this on an actual concert I attended there, when Denis Matsuev began his performance with the Kinderszenen and later was loudly applauded and stomped into four encores.

The Art of Fugue, Bach (Emerson String Quartet)

This unfinished piece of music is an elegant expression of Bach's ideas about counterpoint. In the novel, it's a piece practiced by Suzanne's quartet, but it was more important to me as structural inspiration, for its cadences.

Six sonatas for solo violin, Eugène Ysaÿe (Joshua Bell)

The novel's most extensive sex scene is set during a live, private performance of this gorgeous music for solo violin. (The fictional performer is blindfolded, playing in the same room as the lovers.) I love Ysaÿe.

Black Angels Quartet, George Crumb (Kronos Quartet)

Subtitled "music written in a time of war," this quartet is interesting for what it suggests about the relationship of music and history. Crumb intrigues me as a composer who wrote genuinely innovative music while living a seemingly ordinary life. One of the novel's main questions for me is how anyone in our society can make a life of art—and the different ways that can look.

"Once Removed," John Fitz Rogers (Cameron Britt and Scott Herring)

I first heard music by this composer who lives in my city at a conductors' institute. Fitz Rogers is a terrific example of a contemporary composer writing music that is both interesting and accessible. The title track on Once Removed is a playfully contemplative piece for two marimbas, in which the two performers never play a note together.

"Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi," Jim White

This song does not appear in my novel, but it inspires me as an expression of sheer optimism. The song's narrator has lost his girl, lost is his car, and is framed for a crime and handcuffed to a fence with the Mississippi police descending. His response? "Things is always better than they seem." When I'm having a rough day and someone asks me how I am, I make myself quote the song and believe it: "Everything is peaches but the cream." Suzanne suffers, she goes on, she holds on to the people she can hold on to, she lives music—and so I interpret the ending of my novel as a happy one. Music binds her to the people she loves. Music is what she makes and what she is.

Elise Blackwell and An Unfinished Score links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's book tour events
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

The Book Nook review
A Curious Reader review
Fiction Writers Review review
Genre Go Round Reviews review
jennIRL review
Lit and Life review
NewPages review
Nikola's Book Blog review
Publishers Weekly review
Rundpinne review
Suite101 review

Authors 'Round the South interview with the author
Bermudaonion's interview with the author
Karen Spears Zacharias interview with the author
On the Bookcase guest post by the author
Winstonsdad's Blog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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