January 26, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
I can't tell you how important music is to the writing of every one of my books (Dead Low Tide is number thirteen). I listen to music the entire time I am writing each book, from first day to last, my headphones on every minute, whether I'm writing a novel or stories or nonfiction. Music, rather than serving as the traditional distraction most people think of it as being to the specific act of writing, actually focuses images in my head, complements them, serves them, brings them to bear in surprising ways I've found silence cannot.
But it has to be the right music. I sit and audition CDs when I am first embarking upon a book, seeking out the right tone, the right texture, the right resonance and narrative that tunes and CDs can have, trying to find the one that comes closest to what I see in my head, but that will also exhibit the ability to expand that narrative. And when I hit the right one, there's no turning back. That's the CD I'll listen to from then on out. Looking at my iTunes playlist for Dead Low Tide, I see I've listened to Pat Metheny's Secret Story 479 times – the total time for the CD is around 76 minutes, so that means I've listened to it, in the last two and a half years, over 25 days straight. And this doesn't count the number of times I've listened to it in my car during that time, too.
Dead Low Tide is a mystery about a young man, Huger (pronounced YOU-gee) Dillard, and his father, Unc (it's complicated, and covered in the novel The Hunt Club, DLT its sequel), who find a dead body anchored in the mud of a tidal creek down here in Charleston. The story starts at 2:30 in the morning – at dead low tide – when Huger and Unc are poling their jon boat in on that creek so they can sneak onto a tony and very private golf course Unc wants to play. He's blind (I said it was complicated) and too proud to golf in daylight, and once they find the body, all hell breaks loose. It's also a story about Huger and how, at 27, he finds himself still living at home with his mom and dad and wondering exactly how he's supposed to make his way in the world, given the scars he has from what happened in The Hunt Club. Secret Story, with its lush atmospherics, its layered and sometimes spooky texture (this CD is one of his orchestral pieces), spoke to me all the way through the book's writing, and still does as I listen to it right now, writing this. I am back again with Huger, on that jon boat in that darkness.
This is only a sampling of the tunes, too, as I could sit here and write all day on the 14 tunes that make up this album. Can't do that: I have to write the next book.
"Above the Treetops"
This sets the tone for the whole novel, though the recording is based on a sample of the Choir of the Royal Cambodian Palace with members of the Pinpeat Orchestra of the Royal Ballet. That is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But there is in its mystery, its layers, its pace and orchestration – low and moving strings, the crisp finger cymbals and multi-toned drums just allowing themselves to be heard that makes this the one tune to start the mystery that is the book: water at night, live oak, the briny smell of a tidal creek.
There's a pace that hits hard with the first strum at the outset of this, giving me the fact the story at hand has to move, that things have to happen. There's also a sense in the high-pitched almost flutelike synthesizer and its nearly-happy melody line that makes me think there's a worthy heart inside this confused kid Huger, and that the deeper horror of what he's had visited upon him might very well be surmountable.
"Cathedral in a Suitcase"
Here's that pace again, but this time with a sharp dose of tension – the single-note offbeat syncopation sustained throughout belies the seemingly harmless melody. There's also a meandering into a minor key that reminds me, along with the building choir of what sounds like human voices almost cackling, that there's a deeper thing at stake, that there is another story, and it's a dark one.
"Finding and Believing"
This is, next to "Above the Treetops," my favorite tune on the album, and is built note by note and rhythm by rhythm into what I can only and always see as a chase through woods, heavy and dark and malevolent. The cymbal drive to this, along with Steve Rodby's relentless bass line, finds itself invaded time and again by a sort of harpy-like shrill over-voice, coupled with another, lower and relentless (again) voice-rhythm – there aren't words for this! – that sound for all the world like ghosts shouting down from inside the trees at Huger and Unc as they make their way away from the evil after them. I see this. I feel it. There is no better music than this, in that it brings me into a world I have no words for but yet is as real as this desk before me, this window and the gray light out there seeping in. There is life and death at stake here, and when finally that bass line stops and the cymbal crashes into a forest glade of some sort, I'm terrified and relieved at once. Oh, and did I mention the harp-glides throughout, and that lost oboe calling out into the dark?
"The Longest Summer"
This is the breather after "Finding and Believing," that mayhem and sorrow and fear all seemingly defused by the calm piano at the outset. The piece reminds, in its break, its beauty, its moment to breathe, that a story needs moments when its reader can breathe. If a story is only and always a frantic pace, there is no chance for reflection, no chance for illumination. Huger is trying to figure out who he is. Here he has a chance to take a breath, put his hands on his knees and look at the ground, then up what lies ahead.
"The Truth Will Always Be"
This comes near the end of the album, and gives us with its vibraphone-synth a sort of melancholic slow march, a movement that begins to herd, as it were, the story as a whole – the novel – toward its end, when Huger, now lost himself and nearing his death at the hands of he knows not who, is forced to piece together the shards of his family, his love, his life in the face of losing them all. There's a quiet snare drum throughout this, following at its own independent tempo a complex cadence, and finally, halfway through, the bass drum bangs in at each bar, as though it were a heart beating. Metheny's scrambled up synth shouts out that this is Huger's last moment for meaning, and he better face it well, to save himself and those he loves.
Am I making this all up? No. It's right here, in my head. Words have nothing to do with writing a novel, I believe. It's the feeling, the being there that matters, and this music does that.
"Not to Be Forgotten (Our Final Hour Together)"
The final tune could very well be mistaken as a lugubrious orchestration of melancholy strings, but it actually saves itself from such a fate because of its willingness to be as thick and luxuriant – and melancholy – as it is. Huger now has broken through to the other side of his life – the real beginning of it (I am at work right now on the third in the series of Huger and Unc books, listening to "Above the Treetops" each morning to get the tone, but now Bill Frissell's The Willies for the rest), but doing so with the knowledge of who he was, and the hope of who he might one day be.
I could go on. Could I ever.
Bret Lott and Dead Low Tide links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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