May 28, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Truly a literary thriller, The Same River Twice is a smart and quickly paced book filled with mystery and intrigue. Ted Mooney has combined the art world, film, and Russian organized crime into one of the year's most suspenseful reads.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A rich, multilayered, powerfully unsettling novel [that] succeeds on a number of different levels: as a page-turning mystery in which conceptual art meets the scientific vanguard of stem-cell research and as a meditation on the trusts and betrayals of marriage, on truth and illusion and the relation of each to artistic creativity….The whole comes together in a morally ambiguous manner that seems equally surprising, disturbing and inevitable. 'Paris is a small place,' says more than one character, as the reader discovers just how small the city—and the artistic community and the world of international crime—can be."
All four of my novels make extensive use of music and musical references, not only because I'm very fond of music (and promiscuous in my tastes), but also because for a writer it can serve as an excellent scene-setting index, if you're careful not to let the music upstage the prose. The power innate to an individual piece of music may have found an abiding place in your heart, but it's an illusion to think you can transfer that power onto the page just by invoking the title of the piece in question. Lyrics (though I occasionally use them, too, in my fiction) are even more problematic: however brilliant they may be in the context of the song, their rhythms (and, even if only obliquely, their meaning) must fit very closely with the rhythms of the writer's prose and the overall direction of the narrative or a small train wreck will result, throwing both writer and reader off pace, sometimes for pages. To avoid this and other distractions, whatever the exact musical reference I may have in mind in a given scene often ends up generalized just a bit on the page. I allow this small expansion of allusion so that the reader can substitute his or her equivalent musical extract, and also to avoid that involuntary mental digression oh which the reader inevitably embarks if the work is very well known and therefore carries specific personal associations for him or her. That said, The Same River Twice is a different from my other books in that it is, at some level─not ostentatiously, but by design nevertheless─built around a specific work by a specific composer. So there are basically two ways I use music in this book: ambiently (to give force to the time and place I'm trying to evoke, as well as to make note of any cultural crosscurrents that may attach to the setting) and thematically (to help suggest what's important to the book's meaning). I won't list all the musical references in The Same River Twice—there are too many—but here are enough, I hope, to show what I mean.
"Hotel California" by the Eagles (1977)
For reasons that continue to elude me, this admittedly indelible American pop song of the late '70s is beloved in countries all over the world, where it is often translated partly into the local musical idiom, while, curiously, the lyrics remain in the original English (unless they're dispensed with altogether, as in the case I'm citing here). This odd ubiquity is what made me think of "Hotel California" (The Same River Twice, p. 7), when Odile, on the train back to Paris from Moscow, hears "balalaika music issu[ing] from [the train compartment's] hidden speakers, and after awhile . . . recognized it as an American pop song that was popular when she was at lycée." (The book takes place in 1997.) Russians─along with Mexicans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Germans, and many others─love this song, and they love even more to give it (to an American ear) an incongruously Slavic cast (hence the balalaikas). At the same time, of course, Russian culture accords music a very high status, and, as a people, the Russians must be said to have a special gift for musicianship in all its aspects. So, not much later in the same scene, the train's musical program, which passengers are powerless to turn off, changes to Tchaikovsky. I don't specify which work, but in my mind it was:
"Violin Concerto in D Major," by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1878)
This work, which Tchaikovsky wrote while "recovering" from the deleterious effects of his three-week marriage, was at the time of its completion pronounced "unplayable" because of the difficulty of the solo violin parts in particular. When Tchaikovsky finally was able to mount a performance of the work, it drew decidedly mixed reviews, although now it is one of his best known works. The demanding but lively violin solo that occurs midway through the first movement came immediately to mind when, to convey the inexplicable eclecticism of the music programs that seem compulsory on Russian trains, I needed to segue from "Hotel California" into something radically different. The Tchaikovsky allusion is also meant to indicate subliminally that Russia may be following my characters Odile and Thierry home to Paris, in one form or another. Which, as we shortly learn, it is.
"Triumph" by Wu Tang Clan (1997)
This is the song I had in mind when Max (on p. 14 of the book) returns to his film studio to find his young assistant Jacques listening to "hip hop [that] issued from a boom box at low volume." A page further on, they listen more attentively, though I still leave the song unidentified in the text, because the band's name alone would have distracted the reader: "[Max and Jacques] listened for awhile to the music: gunfire and police sirens spattered across bass and drum, voices syncopated in rhyme. It was masterfully mixed and suggested a place not unlike the real world, but much clearer."
Despite (or because of) its often preposterous lyrics, I feel quite attached to "Triumph" for any number of reasons: its atmospherics, the newly prominent use of keyboard and string samples behind the nine successive voices of the Wu (without Old Dirty Bastard, that is, but with the addition of CappaDonna), the uncanny way in which it captures the American inner-city environment in the summer of 1997, and the unusually high production values of the recording ("a place not unlike the real world, but much clearer"). Since The Same River Twice dwells in countless ways on our need to believe that "another life is possible," the overall feel of this song, reinforced by its heightened production values, seemed perfectly suited to the moment at which it appears in the book. But there's something else, as well.
The French. How can a people so consummately appreciative of "cool" in its infinite gradations (as witness their great love for American jazz, among other things) be so fundamentally incapable of coolness themselves? It's a mystery. For simplicity's sake, I've come to define "cool" as "understated authenticity," which may go some distance toward explaining why white Frenchmen recognize cool without being able to summon it up themselves: understatement just doesn't figure prominently in the French temperament. Of course, there are some cool French whites (Jean-Paul Belmondo, for example), but in general they are much better at identifying and admiring cool than at naturally projecting it.
The summer I started writing The Same River Twice, "Triumph" could be heard everywhere in Paris, and it was widely recognized as a milestone in American hip hop and black music in general. That's the connoisseurship part. At the same time, though, the song gave rise to a number of all-white, all-French hip-hop (pronounced "eep-op") groups, and, alas, there are few things as thunderingly hilarious as a native Frenchman attempting in all earnestness to rap. The music is simply at odds with the most significant attributes of French culture: the multi-purpose formality of social relations, the deeply seated system of etiquette and behavioral rules, the bourgeois imperative that everything be done comme il faut, the natural physical comportment of the French in public, and so on. No doubt this clash is exacerbated by the extremely confused, not to say hostile, relationship between the native French population and the ever-growing influx of immigrants from the former French colonies. Exactly because France has always jealously guarded its "Frenchness," the inroads made by "foreign" cultural elements were (when I was writing the book), as they are today, strikingly evident. Tout court: American hip hop was, in 1997, the urban youth-culture pop idiom of choice in Paris. (As for the "gunfire and police sirens" in my version of "Triumph," I added this extra layer for the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with hip hop and its frequent emphasis on studio effects.)
"Samba de Bençao" by Bebel Gilberto (2000)
This song, written and performed by the American-born daughter of the Brazilian musical icon João Gilberto and the Brazilian singer Miúcha, is quite simply the sexiest, sweetest, most sophisticated song I know. At the time I put it on Max and Odile's kitchen radio (p. 26) while they prepare dinner after their apartment has been broken into and vandalized, I was in love with a Brazilian woman. She introduced me to Bebel, who, when not touring, lives in New York, as I do. For what it's worth, I inserted the song into the scene as counterpoint to the menacing atmosphere created by the break- in. But really I did it for love. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1678)
Ever since I first heard this suite of "sonatas" (only three of which adhere recognizably to that form) and their concluding passacaglia, I have loved them for their strange beauty and, yes, their undeniable mystery. For the first of these short works and for the closing passacaglia, the violin is tuned, as it normally is, in fifths, but each of the intervening fourteen pieces employs a different, highly impractical alternative tuning—a practice called scordatura—to achieve otherwise impossible (that is, unperformable) effects. In part Biber used these fourteen "customized" tunings to further his ostensible program of tracing the fifteen mysteries of the Christian rosary, but it is doubtful that these works were ever played in a religious context, as they were assembled not from church sonatas, usually Biber's favorite genre, but from dance-movements and their busy doubles as well as chaconnes—a decidedly secular mix. In any event, my interest in them is in no way religious. What most fascinates me about them is how each new tuning creates its own unique musical environment, while the standardly tuned pieces that bookend the suite start us out in the familiar musical realm, then return us to it at the end, transformed and a little bewildered. This, needless to say, is a natural organizing tool for a book exploring the human need "to believe another life is possible, even if not for us." I hit upon the device accidently, but once I saw that its possibilities, I returned to it now and then, with as light a hand as possible, throughout the writing of The Same River Twice, if only to hint at some of the book's larger concerns.
The first reference to the Mystery Sonatas, though the work's title is not explicitly mentioned, occurs when Turner makes a visit to his friend Céleste's studio, where she is painting his portrait. Waiting for her, he allows himself to fall into a daydream (p. 33):
Already the sunlight was making him drowsy. Turner closed his eyes and let his thoughts drop down a level. He saw himself in a boat, a white boat cruising fog-shrouded waters. There were other people on board, and, in the distance, sirens. Because this daydream—if that's what it was—belonged to him, he knew he could alter it at will, so he now added a little music, settling on a small Biber sonata. . . .
This daydream, though naturally neither he nor the reader can possibly know this at such an early point in the book, will turn out to be a clear premonition of his own death, hundreds of pages later. However, it also serves the more immediate purpose of linking Turner to his eventual lover Odile, who, after being threatened by some Russian thugs a few pages later (p. 39), takes a taxi home to recover:
In the taxi she allowed her thoughts to grow abstract. Bits of music passed through her mind, just phrases at first, but gradually filling out and cohering until she recognized the work, a small Biber sonata that she hadn't heard in years.
From that point on, the Mystery Sonatas make sporadic but ever more specific and pointed appearances in The Same River Twice. At an outdoor dinner party (p. 222), Max's business manager Eddie Bouvier can think of only one redeeming trait in his brother's spectacularly narcissistic bride-to-be, whom he describes as: "In short, a complete horror. In her favor I can add only that I once heard her play Biber's Mystery Sonatas with such clarity that—" Given the difficulty of the work, this woman's musical acuity is a significant, but not sufficient, counterbalance to her lamentably bad temper and self-infatuation.
The Mystery Sonatas figure twice more in The Same River Twice, each time with more force and meaning, so that by the end they actually do come to represent something like transcendence. In the first of these two instances (pp. 310-313), Kukushkin, a highly placed member of the Russian mafia and a key player in several strands of the book's plot, has brought his mistress, along with Max, whom the couple ran into not quite by chance a bit earlier, to a nightclub the Russian owns in Paris. There, over a couple of liters of vodka in his private aerie overlooking the club's dining room and dance floor, Kukushkin tells a long, insinuating anecdote about his father, a famous Russian violinist, and how the man dealt with the discovery that his wife, a Bolshoi dancer, was being unfaithful to him. Although it's a violent tale, it ends well for all but Kukushkin's mother's lover, and, in noting this happy outcome, Kukushkin mentions that a German company is soon to release a CD of his father's widely celebrated LP recording of the Mystery Sonatas. Coming from Kukushkin, this announcement reads as a grace note of vindication.
The book's final reference to the Mystery Sonatas occurs in the mind of Turner, Odile's lover, as he lies dying of a gunshot wound (pp. 336-38) near the end. In this short chapter, written (as is the whole book) in free-indirect style, we follow closely his dying thoughts and sensations without always knowing whether they are lucid or delusional. In either case, what he first hears as police sirens converging on his location he soon realizes to be music, which he strains to make out.
And just as the dazzling, pearlescent white prepared to engulf him, making it impossible for him to tell up from down or locate himself in space at all, he finally recognized the music he was hearing: it was the passacaglia from Biber's Mystery Sonatas. He hadn't heard it in years. But it was right─and always had been─about the essential nature of things. All things. How he loved it.
After another paragraph, in what amounts to his own grace note, he concludes:
Odile had cared for him. And there was music.
It was enough.
"S'hab El Baroud" by Cheb Khaled (1993)
Given France and Algeria's tortured history, it's hardly a surprise to find so many Algerians living in Paris, many of them in exile from either their own oppressive government or its still harsher Islamist opponents. In 1997 Algeria was in a state of siege, as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) descended nightly on villages, towns, and cities to murder indiscriminately those they considered "unclean." The Algerian pop music called raï, with its defiant insistence on treating secular, everyday themes─romantic love, drugs, poverty, the rights of the individual─was a natural target for Islamic extremists, and many raï singers were assassinated (most notoriously Cheb Hasni in 1994). The sliding melismatic tones of raï are indeed seductive, and it was, in the late 1990s, quite common to hear it played at parties given by younger, hipper elements among the native-born French. So when Odile and Max arrive at their friends Rachel and Groot's houseboat on the Seine for a birthday bash (p. 59), a soundtrack for the festivities presented itself to me immediately: Cheb Khaled ("The King of Raï") singing his most famous song, "S'hab El Baroud."
"How Insensitive" as interpreted by Sun Trust, (2000) (composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim, 1964)
But the late 1990s was also the time of Claude Challe's Buddha Bar (which then had its sole location in Paris), with its successive CD compilations of lounge, "chill out" and world music. These musical selections were omnipresent in certain circles for awhile, and Sun Trust's interpretation of the Jobim classic, itself loosely based on Chopin's Prelude No. 4, was a huge hit. So when the music changes at the above-mentioned party (p. 61), "How Insensitive" is exactly what you might get: house music with "a maddeningly wistful piano figure floating above the beat." Truly maddening.
"Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles (1966)
Another houseboat party, another song by an African-American musician highly esteemed by the French, who regard him as the embodiment of whatever is good in American culture. I really did see those three French girls dancing together to this song just as described in the book (p. 181). Each time the chorus came round, they would raise their arms and sing in unison, Lez, go, get, stoned. A beautiful and enigmatic sight. I won't forget it.
"You Do Something to Me" as interpreted by Sinéad O'Connor (1990)
It's a closely guarded secret that the most sultry version of this Cole Porter classic ever recorded is Sinéad O'Connor's, tucked away on a hard-to-find tribute recording whose name I've forgotten. She takes her time, stretching the song out into a long, sinuous tease, full of omni-directional insinuation. So when I needed music to cover up Turner's screams while he's being tortured by the two Russian thugs who've abducted him (p. 238), O'Connor's voice just popped into mind. It wasn't until I had read the resulting passage several times that I realized how neatly the song's title accommodates the context in which it's played in the book. Sometimes you just get lucky.
"Let It Out" by Roll Deep (2004)
Roll Deep is one of the first of the UK "grime" bands that began to emerge in East London around 2003. Grime is characterized by complex two-step breakbeats, usually about 140 beats per minute and constructed from a variety of sounds and samples, with a very low bass line, often around 40 Hz, almost like a ruthlessly pared-down Caribbean-influenced hip hop. But not. I find the effect strangely compelling─futuristic and funny/sad in a way that suits the later parts of my book. In The Same River Twice, during the outdoor dinner party mentioned above, there is brief interruption as the door to a neighboring apartment, occupied by an anarchist commune, opens to release a passage of "strange music, something dusky-voiced that seemed to promise eventualities both sweet and spiteful." Eddie Bouvier and his daughter (Eddie's divorced) seem to recognize this music and have a knowing conversation about grime without naming it.
The Roll Deep reference itself doesn't occur until many pages later when Odile is trying to locate Max's daughter at a party taking place in the catacombs that lie beneath Paris (p. 282). The revelers are young, and the music is grime. While I had long planned to write the scene this way, what I couldn't resist was quoting one of Roll Deep's sweet and spiteful lyrics: I gave you / the doubt / of the benefit!
Minimum means, maximum message.
"Cha Ching (Cheque 1, 2 Remix)" by Lady Sovereign (2003)
Same party, more grime, another irresistible lyric (p. 291). This time the singer is Lady Sovereign, who was sixteen when she wrote this song. (The whole grime scene is very young, and it served my purposes to invoke its urgency, youth's urgency, as I approached the end of the book.) Lady Sovereign, wise beyond her years, understands that there are certain things you just know. And this is one of them:
We'll never go,
We'll never go
We'll never go,
We'll never go . . .
[Repeat as needed]
Ted Mooney and The Same River Twice links:
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)
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 the week's CD releases)
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