June 28, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Josh Ritter is a singer-songwriter whose storytelling skills I have admired for years. In his debut novel Bright's Passage, that talent is displayed for the written word as well.
Bright's Passage masterfully weaves together the story of Henry Bright with flashbacks to his World War I experiences and youth, along with his current life. Ritter examines big issues like personal freedom and the trauma of war sensitively and with the lyrical language his music is known for. Imaginative, haunting, and at times refreshingly funny, this book forebodes a bright future for Josh Ritter, novelist.
Robert Pinsky wrote of the book:
"An adventure story with the penetrating emotional colors of a fable; a mythlike survival quest with the convincing texture of a movie; a good read that stays in the memory."
Music to Write to…
When I began to write my novel, Bright's Passage, I realized that in order to meet my daily quota of words, I would have to be comfortable with writing anywhere and everywhere. Luckily, anywhere is a good place to write if you have music. All I needed was my laptop and some headphones. I started with a big laptop that weighed about ninety pounds and required a pack mule, and headphones that canceled as much noise as I could afford to cancel at the time. As the writing continued however, and I wrote in airport departure gates, tour buses, Viennese goulash bars and just behind the backstage curtain at shows, my laptop got smaller and my headphones tinier. The selection of music I listened to as I wrote winnowed down as well. Only the story got bigger.
Initially I was listening to all kind of stuff, but as a fairly verbal kind of dude, I began to notice that for maximum prose ductility I was best off listening to music that put my mind in a very specific state of suspension. Floating is required to write. Our brains float in the cerebral fluid, held in that webbed sack as we jostle through the day, and music has as much power to ground us as it does to set us bobbing, so it was important to find the right kind of music to keep in that state of controlled submersion for the period of time each day that I was writing. I didn't want to listen to music that would draw my attention away from the words I was putting down, so mostly I stayed away from lyrically-based stuff, choosing instead a selection of things that felt as if they'd let my brain float in that special place just below the surface of the water and just above the rocks lining the bottom.
The music seemed to break down into two major categories that I used according to mood. First there was what I called "Mars Music," which was swooning and weird and lovely. Jeri Southern's collection, The Very Thought of You, Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt's dextrous, chartreuse-y Souvenirs, and the courtly Elizabethan wooing songs of the mid-century counter-tenor Alfred Deller, were all music that, when I was lucky, put me into a kind of free-floating trance in which the world I was imagining seemed permeable to magic and lunar dust. I know. I know how nerdy this music sounds. Trust me, I know. But here's the thing, this stuff really worked for me. There are songs like "Famous Blue Raincoat" that I could listen to over and over again, but a song like that already has its own story. This Mars Music was like a cloudy, gelatinous crystal ball that allowed ideas to form trippily as I listened.
The other category was "Lemon Music" that, unlike the Mars Music, seemed to draw the concentration very specifically out of me like a beam of light from a spot in my forehead. I'm not sure why I called it Lemon Music, but the name fit. This music wasn't the kind of music to consider fantastical beings by so much as it was music which helped bring to the front of my mind the surreal touches of detail that by their strangeness can ground a scene in reality. Radiohead's Kid A was the soundtrack to much of the images of the First World War. I was listening to "Everything In Its Right Place," when I realized that the Henry Bright spent a good deal of time staring at blank walls and empty skies. In a similar way, Aphex Twin's Drukqs, and Hilary Hahn's Bach Violin Concertos brought Henry Bright's horse to life and the wildfire to his heels in a metrical way. I realized that Henry's story, its pasts and present, were constructed a bit like a fugue. I don't know that this way of constructing the plot line would have come to me were it not for listening to Bach.
One of the unexpected pleasures of writing Bright's Passage was the chance to learn a few recordings REALLY, REALLY WELL. It was Pavlovian the way I began to feel when I would put one of those records on and slip on my headphones and open up a new blank page. Right now I'm working away on some new songs, but I have an idea for the next novel, and when the time is right, I'll be looking for a bunch of new music to write to. Until then, I keep a picture on my desk of a brain in a jar. For some reason it inspires me.
Josh Ritter and Bright's Passage links:
All Things Considered profile of the author
am New York interview with the author
HitFix interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Minnesota Public Radio interview with the author
Spinner profile of 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