May 7, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
T.M. Wolf's, Sound is as ambitious as it is innovative in format, telling much of its story through the notation of a musical score, a storytelling style that serves this debut novel well.
Capital New York wrote of the book:
"Wolf’s talents at evoking a lived-in world—and the ways in which he puts Cincy on the fringes of that world—create a space to explore Shore life close to what it really is like (rather than, say, through the trashed-up window of reality television). And every once in a while Wolf will throw in a gorgeously-written naturalistic passage to balance his more experimental stylistic moves. For all that Wolf does to modify and play with the form in order to tell his story, he also has his storytelling basics down, making for a fine balance of innovation and tradition."
My novel, Sound, comes with its own built-in soundtrack, so I guess it'd only be natural to talk about those songs in this Book Notes. Doing so, though, would teeter dangerously close to giving an exegesis of the book, not to mention run the risk of spoiling the plot. So, I thought I'd use this space to delve into songs that aren't on display in Sound—songs that have been sublimated into the book's structure and rhythms and images, songs that the novel's main characters probably have listened to themselves, away from my and your prying eyes (and ears). I hope that all of this will give you a better sense of Sound's frequencies when you tune in. Enjoy!
1. Steve Reich, "Pulses" and "Section I," from Music for 18 Musicians
I fear I've developed an unhealthy (but productive) dependency on Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Since a friend first lent me a copy in 2006, it's been my go-to writing music, rescuing me countless times from the sweaty-palmed agita I experience basically every time I sit down to write. (Actually, "countless" is an exaggeration. The precise number is 128 times (Thanks, iTunes)). After three minutes or so of its shimmers and oscillations, I'm deep in a writing zone; after 45 minutes, I'm usually well over whatever difficulty had been troubling me before I began. Although it's proven good for all kinds of writing, Music for 18 Musicians has a certain affinity with the deeper flows of Sound: looping, spiraling, circling, starting in relatively softly and compactly, but spreading out as it runs. It seems to me that this album's structural template got hardwired into my mind as I wrote and probably accounts for a lot of the novel's macro-feel.
2. Madlib, "Episode XVIII" from Madlib Medicine Show #5: The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000
3. Ali Farka Toure, "Inchana Massina," from The Source
Too much Reich will probably send a sane person into a dissociative fugue, so, once I've gotten going, I'll typically switch over to one of Madlib's Beat Konducta or Medicine Show tapes, or to an Ali Farka Toure album. Madlib's mastered the dusty, warm, closed-in break: the beats sound like the digging process he goes through to construct them, thumbing through heaps of vinyl in stuffy windowless rooms. Toure's guitar work travels in the opposite direction, its languid lines and lopes suggesting something spreading out or opening up. From a writer's standpoint, the choice between the two is like the choice between typing in a dark cubbyhole in the basement of your university library and writing while reclined on a divan on a veranda somewhere. Mental space-wise, I'd like to be on the divan, but I'm usually more in the cubby.
Like those Reich and Toure songs suggest, the kind of looping and layering I associate with hip-hop (and that I've tried to replicate structurally and texturally in Sound) isn't something hip-hop invented or something over which it can claim sole ownership. Hip-hop producers just seem especially good at creating living, breathing pieces of music out of layers of disparate stuff. That's true even when they go so far as to put voices under and beneath other voices with no attention paid to harmony. I mean, who says you can't lay an Inspectah Deck flow over Syl Johnson's wails? Once you've heard a song like "Hollow Bones," it makes perfect sense to stack up vocals in your own writing; over time, you learn how to integrate them all into a whole.
6. Minus the Bear, "Double Vision Quest," from Planet of Ice
Alright, lest you start thinking that all this discussion of loops and layers is just a lot of bloodless formalism, I submit Minus the Bear's "Double Vision Quest," which captures the mentality of Sound's narrator, Cincy, better than any song I've heard before or since. It's an all-over-the-place four-and-a-half-minute distillation of the weird mix of defeat and defiance that comes from recognizing that you're trapped in an existential loop. (Admittedly, that description makes this song sound like something Nietzsche would write if he got his hands on a guitar, some delay pedals, and peyote, but, trust me, it's better that that.) Listening to it now is like having a conversation with my narrator… who somehow moved out of my head and started a band.
7. Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The title song from my favorite Neko Case album is like a dram of homesickness, the perfect thing to uncork when writing about home from 3500 miles away. Especially when your home is susceptible to the kinds of floods Case sings about here. Let's be clear: I'm not worried about finding the Jersey Shore under fifty feet of water fifty years from now, or about having to travel out in a rowboat and throw on some scuba gear to visit my childhood home. Beach erosion is enough of a worry. Every year, when the Nor'easters push the ocean another few feet up the block, I wonder how much longer the Shore as we know it and see it will last. I figure, best to enjoy it while I can and write down all the experiences and sights that are part of the place so I'll have something to carry with me if someday I have to move on.
8. Sam Cooke, "(Somebody) Ease My Troublin' Mind," from Keep Movin' On
I could see this song looping through Cincy's worry various worry explosions, deepening them, but also lending them an ironic counterpoint, a window outside of his increasingly claustrophobic consciousness. But maybe that's just a convenient reason for foisting my favorite Sam Cooke number on you. Even the simplest of Cooke's songs pack a visceral punch. Here, though, he's not just singing, he's testifying through his intonations: there's hope and despair and myth and reality all melded together. The lyrics are open-ended enough to allow listeners to read any number of different experiences into the song, but it's his voice that elevates it all to something lasting.
Cincy's co-worker Tone has (at least) two sides, a kind of redemptive, transcendent impulse and a hard-nosed street focus. Given that duality, my guess would be that the stereo in his Chevy has had these two songs in rotation since they dropped more than a decade and a half ago. "Wood Wheel" grinds…hard; "13th Floor/Growing Old" looks up and out… and out… and out… Both UGK and Outkast are duos, and their best work is propelled by the interplay and contrasts between their members: for UGK, it's Pimp C's swaggering, playa-fied flows and Bun B's hyper-precise multisyllabic spitting; for Outkast, it's Big Boi's pimp-inflected perspective and Andre 3000's introspective alien persona. Aside from the thematic interest of "Wood Wheel" and "E.T.," they're great to listen to as artifacts of hip-hop writ large: Between (and inside) the two, there's not only rich, genre-limning interrelation, but also an amazing amount of great writing, vintage flows, and distinctive viewpoints.
11. John Legend, "So High" (Chopped and Screwed by OG Ron C), from F-Action 43: The Feel Good Edition
Historically, the "screw" sound's been associated Robert "DJ Screw" Davis, a Houston-based DJ whose trademark remixes were slowed-down, chopped-up, and ambient-filtered. On top of being eerily effective aural sedatives, screw tapes—especially R&B-heavy screw tapes like OG Ron C's F-Action series—are strangely alluring: When you screw a record, even the most driving song meanders and hazes, every sound stretches out until it fades past hearing, silences appear where only sounds seemed to be. Melodies deepen. Voices tremble. You feel immersed in the music.
With their bliss-inducing effects, screw jams—not to mention "Double Vision Quest"—also introduce interesting questions about the narcotic effect of interiority, the way the outside world seems to slip away, dangerously, the deeper you get into your self-constructed circles. DJ Screw died of a codeine overdose in 2000. The same for Pimp C and, reportedly, Big Moe, a member of Screw's Screwed Up Click. All casualties of the codeine culture that traveled with the spread of screw. Hopefully, you get the gist: drinking codeine isn't a good idea. Screwing-up records, though? Amazing. Stick with the music, stay off the lean. And tread lightly around the rabbit's hole.
T.M. Wolf and Sound links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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