June 21, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John Milliken Thompson's novel The Reservoir is a riveting literary mystery. Set in post-Civil War Richmond, the book fictionalizes an actual murder case and Thompson's skill as both researcher and storyteller shines through in this fascinating debut.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"An engaging mystery novel rendered as Southern literature."
Not until I sat down to write this did I realize what a hugely important part music—vocal music in particular—had played, not just as an influence on my novel, but in sustaining me throughout the three years I took to write it. I always try to pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the words and phrases I write, because as a reader I have a running audio of the narrative in my head. Beyond this, though, music was quietly insinuating its way into my story. I ended up writing some of the music for the book trailer on my website.
The Reservoir is a literary mystery about a young man in 1880s Virginia who is suspected of murdering his lover. The main character, Tommie, sings when he's happy, he sings when he's nervous, and he sings, or listens to singing, when he seeks solace. He attends a light opera the afternoon of the fateful event at the reservoir, and he later hears in his mind strains from that performance and from such popular songs as "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers."
One of the first things I did when researching this story was listen to a lot of period music. Songs like "My Grandfather's Clock" and "The Lost Chord" and some of the Stephen Foster minstrel songs strike the modern ear as quaint or overly sentimental; I wanted to try to get inside the music of the time so that I could appreciate it from my characters' points of view. Other old songs—I'm thinking of "Annie Laurie," for example—are easier to love, and many of the old gospel tunes and hymns have such a simple beauty I couldn't help getting tears in my eyes. Then there was the music that I listened to for pleasure, without reflecting on how it subtly informed my writing. Here are a few songs that were with me during the writing of the novel.
"Down to the River to Pray"
I heard a treble youth choir sing a sweet arrangement of this old Appalachian gospel tune. Alison Krauss's more well-known rendition starts as a solo, then blossoms into a duet and a full chorus. The song's spare beauty and its motifs of river and baptism would make it an ideal soundtrack candidate for my novel, had it not already been recently popularized by the movie O, Brother Where Art Thou.
"The Crucifixion" by Samuel Barber
I became almost obsessed with this song when I was writing The Reservoir, and not just because of the obvious parallel between its subject matter and Tommie's near-Messiah complex. I was convinced that if you could fully understand the perfect convergence of music and text in this one song you could arrive at a truth deep at the heart of religion and human experience. The words are from the Speckled Book, a 12th-century collection of Irish and Latin homilies. The song's post-climatic epiphany is startling in its reflexive empathy: "But sorer still to Him was the grief which for His sake came upon His mother." He suffers for his mother's grief over him. It's the human soul at its most transcendent, and though Tommie, like most mortals, may ultimately be incapable of such purity, it's what we wish for him.
"Meditation" (from Thaïs) by Jules Massenet
I saw a simulcast of this opera with the graceful Renée Fleming in the title role. She plays a courtesan who becomes a saint, while the ascetic monk Athanaël loses his mind over her. Their opposite trajectories bear some similarity to the star-crossed story of Tommie and Lillie, as does the famous, achingly beautiful violin solo, which moves from simple to tumultuous to simple again. The opera builds to a magnificent ending as Thaïs sees the gates of heaven opening.
"O Magnum Mysterium" by Morten Lauridsen
This nativity song for four-part choir bears the haunting stamp of 16th-century English sacred music, but its lush harmonic vocabulary gives it a contemporary quality. I was lucky to be a member of the Oratorio Society of Virginia when it performed this modern masterpiece.
"Since from My Dear" by Henry Purcell
This and the next two songs are ones that Tommie might have known and loved. I kept playing them over and over. In Purcell's moving elegy, the singer mourns his lover: "Since from my dear Astrea's sight I was so rudely torn, my soul has never known delight."
"Where'er You Walk" (from Semele) by George Frideric Handel
Though it moves at a stately tempo, this aria in G has the ebullient mood of young lovers adoring each other in springtime. I hadn't realized that the opera was about the mother of Dionysus, who died when she was six months pregnant and was later rescued from the underworld.
"Du Bist Wie Eine Blume" by Robert Schumann
Something about this perennially popular little gem, translated "You Are Just Like a Flower," keeps it fresh no matter how many times you hear it. The composer wrote it in 1840, when he was 30 years old, with lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine.
"I Think It's Going to Rain Today" by Randy Newman
This is one of my favorite songs of Randy Newman, a master at creating a mood and story within the space of a few minutes. Thanks to his New Orleans background, he often conjures a jaunty, Old South sound, but with a modern sensibility. This song could be anywhere, and it's almost unbearably sad. It opens: "Broken windows and empty hallways, pale dead moon and the sky streaked with gray. Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it's going to rain today." When you hear Newman's husky voice and then the strange modulation from A major up to the alien C minor, with that urgent ninth, it just about breaks your heart. You don't have to be quite in Tommie's predicament to know that feeling of lonely desperation. I heard Randy Newman in concert recently; it was a spellbinding performance.
"Allerseelen" by Richard Strauss
In English "All Souls' Day," this dense, romantic art song is about the nostalgia for a dead lover whose soul is released once a year. It was written in the early 1880s, when the composer was about 20—a couple of years younger than Tommie. Many times during the writing of my novel, I played accompaniment on this song for my teenage son, who has a rich bass voice.
John Milliken Thompson and The Reservoir links:
Book Chase review
The Book Lady's Blog review
ForeWord Reviews review
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star review
Huffington Post review
Kirkus Reviews review
Picky Girl review
Publishers Weekly review
The Reader's Book Blog review
Reviewing the Evidence review
Views from the Countryside review
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