February 1, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
A couple of years ago I read Wesley Stace's novel by George, a compelling piece of literary historical fiction. I was so impressed that I immediately picked up his debut novel, Misfortune, devoured it in one day, and Stace immediately became one of my favorite authors.
Charles Jessold: Considered as a Murderer is Stace's third novel, an erudite literary mystery set in the British classical music world of the early 1900s. With a keen eye for detail and lyrical prose, Wesley Stace proves yet again his prowess for smart historical fiction.
Wesley Stace is also a singer-songwriter who performs under the name John Wesley Harding, and his dedication to musical scholarship adds greatly to this richly told tale.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"This clever, entertaining novel will appeal to music and opera buffs and literary-historical fiction fans. The narrative is like a set of Chinese boxes, or perhaps an Agatha Christie novel: open one box and another still waits to be opened and contains a very different story. A virtue of this highly enjoyable diversion is Stace’s sensitivity to tone: he captures the way aesthetes wrote and talked in the giddy early 1920s, when feyness and wit were all."
I wanted to write about music - in particular the relationship between critics and songwriters - but I wanted to keep it far away from my slightly sticky world of dressing rooms and broken strings. So, without being any great expert on it at all (and I am not being modest) I decided to write about classical music instead. There's nothing I like more than a bit of research.
The genesis of the book was a Werner Herzog film Death For Five Voices which tells, in Herzog's feverish semi-fictional documentary style, the almost unbelievable (but entirely true) story of Carlo Gesualdo, a renaissance composer, who murdered his wife and her lover, and then wrote some extremely weird music, music so weird in fact that it didn't even make sense until atonal music appeared in the twentieth century. (I'm generalizing.)
I decided to create a fictional classical composer (Charles Jessold, whose life seems to mirror that of Carlo Gesualdo, his near-namesake) and take it from there. Inventing a composer, and most importantly his works, meant reading other novels which featured composers to see where they succeeded and failed. (When they do fail, it turns out, it's often because they don't describe the music believably.)
At exactly the right time, Alex Ross - your and my favourite music critic - happened to write about his favourite (and unfavourite) fictional composers in The New Yorker, so I immediately had a reading list. These included Vinteuil in Proust's A La Recherche De Temps Perdu (a little known, very short and readable novel that you should be able to breeze through in a day or two), the extremely tedious Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, the brilliant, deranged Adrian Leverkuhn in Mann's Doktor Faustus (one of the various fictional folk who make an actual appearance in my novel, along with Heinrich Muoth from Hesse's Gertrude, one of my favourite books) and Gottfried Rosenbaum from Randel Jarrell's sensational Pictures From An Institution - which book was, along with Glenn Watkins' biography of Gesualdo, the great find during my research. Other fictional composers have popped up recently in Bernard Mac Laverty's Grace Notes, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled.
So for these book notes, I'd like to talk about a few pieces that make their way into the book, but also some of the music that I listened to while I was writing the book, which has nothing much to do with Charles Jessold at all, except it kept me going while I was writing it.
1. The Commodores: "Machine Gun"
Behind my back, she got my friends to send 45s to fill it up with: this makes it not only a wonderful machine but a jukeboxful of memories - some sent records they'd made themselves, others sent records we'd discovered together (and in some cases records that had once belonged to me), and others simply sent things they thought I'd like. Certain songs sound sensational on a jukebox. For some reason, my beloved Colin Blunstone singles don't sound so good, whereas some unexpected records sound the best they can ever sound. Among these are "Machine Gun" by The Commodores, and a slew of other great instrumentals ("Love is Blue" by Paul Mauriat and "House of the King" by Focus, for example.) Other rock songs bounce right out of the machine: Down On The Corner by Credence and the original US version of "She Loves You" by The Beatles on Swan. Scott McCaughey claimed that this was the greatest rock had ever sounded, as if the whole history of music had led up to the moment that the needle dropped on to this particular 7" release of this particular song. He's right. And it's easy to tell why when you hear it on a jukebox: it's mastered about ten times as loud as everything else. But it's not only the old songs that sound so good: Bowie's Ashes to Ashes is an amazing sounding 45. I guess that's old too; it's just not "rock'n'roll old".
When you get in the jukebox game - which surely is a very polite version of a mid-life crisis, far preferable to a sports car and attendant divorce - you need a strong bench, because rotation is important. And so I find myself on my knees among the 45s (I changed that from "on my knees among the seven inches") in various record stores. Recent purchases include: Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi," Norma Frazer's bonkers cover of "First Cut Is The Deepest," Graham Parker's "Local Girls" (because the b-side is his cover of The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back"), "Wacky Tobacky" by NRBQ, "He's Gonna Step On You Again" by John Kongos and "Speedo" by The Cadillacs (on red vinyl - amuses the children. I gave my 4 year old daughter "Octopus' Garden/Here Comes The Sun" on yellow vinyl: pleased both of us.)
Could a man have a more noble hobby?
I was also particularly happy with a Roy Harper single of "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease," that boldly announces its title with this spectacular misprint.
2. Gesualdo: Tenebrae
Before I started the novel, I went to Gesualdo's castle for inspiration, in Gesualdo, the town named for his family, in Southern Italy. This is where he lived out his life after the murders. It's in pretty poor shape, but someone had been living there not so very long before and there were various bits of clothing scattered around and wallpaper hanging from the walls. I had a little iPod dock and so, wandering in the ruins, between the ladders and paintpots, I played this version of the Tenebrae and it was exceedingly spooky. I describe the music from various points of view during the novel - the narrator hates it so much that it makes him physically ill - but I find it restful. This is by no means as weird as Gesualdo got. If you put a trippy hip-hop beat behind it, you could probably shift a few copies to fans of Enya, like they did with Hildegard of Bingenheimer or whatever her name was.
(link this pic: http://carlogesualdo.altervista.org/files/castello_gesualdo.jpg)
3. Nic Jones: "Little Musgrave"
It is a weird fact that in the 250-odd years between The Fairy Queen (1692) and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (1945), there wasn't really a single successful British opera. There was Gilbert & Sullivan, and The Beggar's Opera, sure, but nothing that played in the finest opera houses of Europe. My book, in a very modest way and as a side-project to its central business, tries to look at the reasons for this.
Though I was ill-equipped to deal with the classical aspect of things, I know a bit about the folk music end, and I have always been particularly interested in the moment when the two met - at the beginning of the twentieth century (prior to that in the rest of world) when composers and "songcatchers" went around the countryside looking for our national melody and finding it in our folk-songs, which they then brought back to the classical world and used for inspiration, particularly in an attempt to have the music sound more "British", or at least less German. The various aspects of, and arguments within, this movement - the English Musical Renaissance - are the milieu of the novel. My narrator sees the folk melodies as the way forward for British National Music (as many did), whereas his protege, my composer, sees it as a stepping stone towards the possibility of wider musical expression. In this way, it was possible for me to imagine Jessold as the young Bob Dylan casting Protest Music aside, much to the annoyance of the folkies.
Nevertheless, when it comes time to write his opera, Jessold picks as his subject-matter Little Musgrave (which also has bizarre correspondences with the story of Gesualdo). I picked this song partly because I know it intimately. I recorded it on Trad Arr Jones, of which the Jones in question was Nic Jones, whose version sends shivers down all spines. But I also picked it because there should be a real opera taking this as its subject matter. (Oddly, and coincidentally, Benjamin Britten did set it to music, just after Peter Grimes, as "The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard": a long song, but not an opera.)
4. Purcell: The Fairy Queen
The greatest night I have ever spent at a live performance (apart from Leonard Cohen at The Albert Hall when The Future was newly released) was at BAM in Brooklyn last year when Les Arts Florissants presented The Fairy Queen, interspersing the music - which doesn't, on its own, tell the story of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, but comments on it both adroitly and obliquely - with all the best bits of the actual play, performed by a superb cast of RSC-type actors (by which I merely mean: good ones, who could say the lines well.) It was an astonishingly long evening (that included, at one moment, a stageful of about hundred drunken bunnies, doing what bunnies proverbially enjoy) that seemed to go by in a moment. It has a special place in my wife and I's mutual heart as well, since we walked down the aisle to the overture, as set for a string quartet, at our wedding.
5. Butterworth: "A Shropshire Lad"
To get in to my groove, as I made up fictional Jessold music in my head, I listened to a lot of period British classical music. It doesn't seem to get much play in America, and you can see why Elgar, Warlock and Vaughan Williams aren't universally popular: it really does sound like parochial England rather than music of the wild frontier (by which I don't mean Adam & The Ants, though I bet you wish I was writing about them, and even I do.) But that national element is also its power and I found a lot of beauty, and now I find that I know some of the pieces well enough to hum them for their entirety.
Butterworth's setting of A.E.Housman's poem is particularly ravishing, which is (more or less, and in the end) what a lot of this music seems to be going for. You can sit back and bathe in it. In fact, have a bath, light some candles. Among my other favourite discoveries are Granville Bantock's "Sapphic Poem," Holst's "Somerset Rhapsody" and Delius' "The Walk To Paradise Garden," which - if you close your eyes - is a little like an orgasm (if not one of your own.)
6. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Parts One & Two)
I really like to wait to discover music after all the fuss has died down. I tried to articulate that on these very pages a few months ago: "I love being really late on things, because you can forget all the critical blather and just hear the music. So at the time I just say "yes, they're great", don't listen, and move the conversation along. (I may shortly discover Radiohead.)"
I'd heard The Flaming Lips in bars, of course, but, in this year of vinyl and classical music, it was the Flaming Lips in 5.1 that totally blew my mind. I didn't even want a 5.1 system but it kinda came with the amplifier. In my office, I have MP3s on a computer; a record player that is the only thing plugged into an amplifier with some speakers; and a 78 RPM player that I bought with a Tom Waits 78 to benefit Preservation Hall (though I mostly play Danny Kaye records on it, since he is the predominant artist in my 78 collection, which numbers eighteen records, of which seventeen are Danny Kaye and one is Tom Waits.)
So, it seemed OK to go Hi-Fi in the living room and we've got a 5.1 system which is basically annoying for someone like me, because there doesn't seem to be a default setting that says: "this is how the band meant this 5.1 mix to be heard." There's a choice for everything: exactly what's wrong with America today. That's why I love my record player and amp - no choice. Needle drops; plays record. Amp has no tone controls whatsoever and it all sounds fantastic.
But The Flaming Lips - that's what 5.1 is made for: particularly the album Yoshimi, and particularly the title song and the instrumental that follows. It's vastly superior to Night at The Opera, Court of the Crimson King and Remain in Light, which are (to varying degrees) nicely rehashed for 5.1, but no more than that. Play this for a friend, loud, when he's sitting in the sweet spot (and that's the annoying thing about 5.1: you have to be in the sweet spot) and you will see a broad grin appear on his face as though he is hearing that amazing music, or any amazing music, for the first time. He may be.
Also, have you heard The Flaming Lips & Dave Fridmann remix of that Chumbawumba song, "Tubthumping?" It's fantastic. Sadly, the seven inch doesn't have a jukebox friendly large hole. What I need, apparently, is a "record dinker": that would be the answer to all my problems.
My next book is actually going to be about contemporary music - or one small subsection of it.
The music of Charles Jessold can be heard at: www.wesleystace.com/charles-jessold/.
Wesley Stace and Charles Jessold: Considered as a Murderer links:
Bucketfull of Brains review
Daily Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
New Statesman review
No Depression review
Wall Street Journal review
CityArts profile of the author
Eugene Mirman's interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
Largehearted Boy interview with the author (by the author)
Standpoint 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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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)
weekly music & DVD release lists