June 14, 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.
Robert McCammon's The Providence Rider, the fourth book in his Matthew Corbett series, is a historical thriller of the first order, but it is his depiction of the New York City of the early 1700s that truly makes the book stand out.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Once again, McCammon provides a colorful and well-researched depiction of colonial America, enlivened by a rogues’ gallery of well-drawn characters. Hair’s-breadth escapes and the teasing promise that characters who appear to have been disposed of might resurface in future adventures make this a rollicking good yarn."
I wanted to create a time machine. The nearest I can build it is my series of novels featuring Matthew Corbett, a young and idealistic "problem-solver"—or, as we moderns would consider it, a "detective"—in colonial New York.
The latest book, number four in a series of what will be ten, is titled The Providence Rider. Now...the last book I finished, The Five, was all about music in that it was the story of a rock band on their last tour, writing a shared song that will come to have both tragic and mystical influences. Easy enough to write about the massive amount of music I inhaled while writing that book, but for The Providence Rider...not so easy.
Certainly I did listen to music while writing the book. As a matter of fact, I composed some, the same as I did with The Five, only the eras and the feel of the music are somewhat different.
But are they really? It's amazing to me that some of the great composers of the past were vilified for their daring and sometimes mobbed for the audacity of their work. We're talking time period 1700s and 1800s here. You were supposed to do things a certain way. To play instruments at a dignified volume or with a measure of emotional detachment. Then people like Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven came along and blew the doors out of the concert halls. Liszt, for instance, was the epitome of the early "rock star"; he played always with his profile to the audience, and opened up his piano so the sound would thunder through the hall. Not a whole lot different from Elton at his piano, or Mick Jagger strutting across the stage. These guys believed in themselves.
Same as it ever was, as the song goes.
Before I sat down to write, when I was doing The Providence Rider, I would often go to my own keyboard and do a little drumming with one of the drumkit sounds. That got the blood flowing. I might also listen to a CD I have called "Electrifying Thunderstorms," which got the mood right. Then I was usually ready to go, in the time machine I was creating.
I was careful not to listen to modern music as I was writing, with the exception of two titles I'll mention later. In my time machine I needed the complete envelopment of the past, and as I have a huge music collection and a very large assortment of ancient music I had no problem finding music that fit the time period for the trials and tribulations of my "problem-solver's" life.
From Musique Of Violenze, about 1610, the cuts "Wolsey's Wild," "Tickle My Toe" and "Strawberry Leaves"
These pieces are all short mood-setters using two violins, two violas, a bass violin, a lute, and virginals, which are keyboards in the harpsichord family. They are lively but stately, enforcing at once the decorum and manners of the age. They speak to me of candlelit rooms where lines of dancers move in their precise processions, circling each other in rather demanding series of order. The appeal to me here is the idea that "violenze" is not only "violins" but the "violence" of movement, be it ever so restrained and formal to the modern viewer and listener.
My time machine has entered an era where civility and manners make the man, yet underneath those sterling attributes are the same qualities of brutality, greed, wickedness and downright evil that have plagued mankind through the centuries of existence and that no formality of order can erase.
From The Feast Of Fools, about 1440, "Mass Of The Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers"
This must be heard to be believed. It is part serious Christmas celebration and part journey through a medieval madhouse. One movement praises "Christ the King of Glory" and the next begins with the phrase "Let us bet." A particularly stirring section is "I will go in unto the altar of Bacchus, unto him who giveth joy to the heart of man. Let us drink. Take from us, we beseech thee, Bacchus, all our clothes, that we may be worthy, with naked bodies, to enter into the tavern. Unto us all, drink without end, cheers. Amen."
I have no idea why the composers of this mass were not burned at the stake. At one point during a rousing section, the background singers mimic the noise of donkeys. A classic two lines from this Mass: "Accursed be he who loses his clothes while drinking. Cry hosanna on high."
Evidently when one got drunk enough in some of these taverns, the clothes flew off. Why do I like this piece and what does it have to do with The Providence Rider? My time machine is not going to a dull place, where history has dried into raisins upon the vine. Hell, no! It's going to a fulsome place, full of the crazy and absurd things that human beings have done for eternity. Listening to this piece reminds me that anything goes. That laughter is essential. That high spirits kick ass. That the human being even in the grip of a Dark Age finds a way to thumb his nose at fortune, and dare even Heaven to upset his drinking glass. Also I like to have a glass of wine myself while listening to this. I think the fools at this feast would greatly approve. Whether or not I remove my clothes after a few glasses of liberation, I will keep to myself.
From Songs From The Wood, Jethro Tull, 1977, "Songs From The Wood," "Velvet Green," "The Whistler" and "Fire At Midnight."
Ahhhhh, yes! Jethro Tull! This band nails the feeling and mood exactly. I wanted to make my Matthew Corbett series "historical" yet with a "modern feel" as well. Again, the goal is to make the books move with energy and power...much like Tull's "Songs From The Wood." This music gets me going in terms of imagination and "feel" for the era. I see muted colors and smell woodsmoke when I listen to this. It gets all my senses going. Which I need as a writer, particularly because I need to write with an eye for details when I'm doing my Matthew books.
So all I can say about this music is...it feeds me, and leaves me wanting more. That's exactly what I'm hoping to do with my audience for Matthew.
From The Parting Glass, Master Balladeer Tayler Vrooman, Tavern Songs from the 17th and 18th centuries, "Marriage Vow," "Cavalier," and "The Unquiet Grave."
Listening to these songs, sung in English and colonial taverns three hundred years ago, tells me a universal truth: men always gathered in places to drink their troubles away, commiserate with each other, complain about the authorities, dream wistfully about the girl they left behind, and blast out their angers at their lot in life. Also they braced themselves for what was to be, and knew their time on this earth was relatively short. So, they said—and the advice is certainly valid for today—live while you can.
My realization while doing the Matthew series is that men haven't changed that much, if at all. The songs tell me that. Oh yeah, the instruments are different. The music is quieter, and calmer...but there's a lot going on underneath. So the journey of the time machine reveals that humans are about the same as they've ever been, with the same joys and fears and regrets, and these songs speak about the emotions—and pain—that have crossed the many centuries and will continue to go forward as long as the earth abides.
From Fantasia on Greensleeves, Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending"
This was written in its first version in 1914, a little late for Matthew's era, but it is one of my favorite pieces of music and I have listened to it many times while writing The Providence Rider. This music has everything...triumph, sadness, a beginning of things and an end, a reaching for the impossible height, a gorgeous progression of mood and emotion...just fantastic. Listening to this makes me want to write so much better than I do...it encourages me to reach higher. I first heard this many years ago, when I was in my twenties, and it has stayed with me. It's simple, really, but very intricate. A beautifully designed piece of wonder, ending with the notes of a violin heading skyward...and then disappearing into the clouds. If I could only write like this...if I could capture the sadness in the smile and the joy in the tear. If I only could...
From The Planets, Tomita, 1976, "Mars, The Bringer Of War"
I must end with this one. This stirring and majestic piece of aural warfare, and I use here the electronic keyboard version by the artist Tomita instead of the usual symphonic version. This is another piece of music I've had and listened to for years, but it seems very appropriate as inspiration for my Matthew Corbett series and for The Providence Rider.
I am writing about war. A world that is always at war, one country with another. The continual war of good versus evil, light versus dark. The war of one soul against itself. The idea of a personal war is a continual theme in the series. Not only is Matthew fighting against external foes, but also against the fears and weaknesses in himself. I want it to be a hard struggle. I want it to be bloody, and sometimes cruel, and very tough on my young hero.
I want it to be a war worth winning.
The Providence Rider has as its center the theme of war, the one against the many. It is a small and personal war, yet it has vast ramifications for the future. Indeed, as the series progresses, not only Matthew's fate but the fate of the entire world hangs on his ability to win the war waged against his soul. And Matthew's foes know so much more about waging that war than he does...but he has to learn as he goes, and he has no choice but to move forward.
And, really, that is the tale of the time machine. That it can give a backward look, a peering through the door at what was so we might better understand what may be. People are the same as they ever were, though they wear different clothes and listen to different music, though their communications are faster and their time more taken up with things that my characters of the colonial era would have considered to be born of "witchcraft."
But, beneath all that, the same. United over the centuries in the emotions of joy and sadness, of greed and valor, of despair and honor. United in the fighting of the personal war that is waged within every human being, united also in the humor and absurdities of the human condition, and certainly united in reaching for the impossible height.
Robert McCammon and The Providence Rider links:
Criminal Element review
Fantasy Matters review
Horror News review
Publishers Weekly review
Ritual of the Stones review
Staffer's Book Review review
Terrible Minds review
Thinking About Books review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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