August 28, 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.
Benjamin Wood's debut novel The Bellwether Revivals is a fast-paced and well-written literary psychological thriller.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"The novel … has as its lodestone Brideshead Revisited … a timely examination of the conflict between religion and scepticism, a theme explored with more rigor than in this novel's template. There, we rarely doubt that Waugh is on the side of grace and the supernatural. Donna Tartt's The Secret History is also in the DNA here, and there are echoes of another literary analysis of the unhealthy emotional bond between a brother and sister, L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda. Does it matter that Wood wears his influences so clearly on his sleeve? Some may find the book reads like a contemporary filigree on its illustrious predecessors, but most readers will find themselves transfixed by this richly drawn cast of characters. The fact that Wood can hold his own in such heavyweight company is a measure of his achievement."
My novel The Bellwether Revivals centres around a gifted organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge, who believes he can adapt the theories of a forgotten Baroque composer to hypnotise and heal. Most of what is 'heard' in the book are fictional compositions, devised by Eden Bellwether himself, but they are founded on the principles of sacred music outlined by Johann Mattheson—a very real historical figure—in his book Der Vollkommene Capellmeister. If the novel had a soundtrack, it would be a cocktail of organ toccatas, choral motets and madrigals, cello études, and piano variatons.
Given all that, you might expect classical pieces to have dominated my iTunes playlist throughout the writing process, but—some necessary bouts of sacred music research aside—I listened mostly to contemporary songs I found inspiring or consoling.
If there were a method school of writing, I would be the last author to sign up for the programme. It is important when writing about a certain subject, in my experience, to immerse yourself in it just enough to still see the world beyond it. Wade in too far, too deep into one pool of ideas, and you will drown unseen opportunities for the story.
Here are the songs I relied upon to keep my head in reality while I was writing.
"Gemini (Birthday Song)" by Why?
I recently put together an article for the National Post in Canada about the importance of this particular song to my writing process. I listened to it every morning I sat down at my desk, over the course of about three years. I used it like a quadruple shot of espresso, to stir my blood and focus my attention. It worked.
"Dolphins" by Tim Buckley
I'm more of a Jeff fan than a Tim fan as a rule, but the Live at the Troubadour recording of this song (written by Fred Neil) never fails to make me cry. In many ways, what I set out to explore in The Bellwether Revivals was how this is possible—what is it about a sad piece of music that prompts such strong emotional responses in the listener? This song features at a key juncture of my novel. I used it partly to represent a specific sentiment and mood within the scene, and partly because it's a personal favourite.
"We Walk" by R.E.M.
A track from their early album, Murmur. This song is like jumping on a trampoline for three minutes and two seconds. It's got such an easy energy and rhythm. Yet, through its simplicity and lyrical repetitions ("up the stairs into the landing, up the stairs into the hall…") it creates an uneasy sense of isolation. I would listen to this after finishing a day's writing as a sort of pick-me-up.
"Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" by Joanna Newsom
The version of this song recorded with the YS Street Band is almost painfully beautiful. It is built like a paper lantern: the fragile, intricate melody is fitted around the frame of the lyrics and the harp accompaniment. The song reminds me of Sylvia Plath's poem, 'Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor.' Even Plath would have coveted some of Newsom's subtle rhyme schemes here: "your skin is something that I stir into my tea," "great bellies ache with many bumblebees and they sting so terribly… waltzing with the open sea."
"Videotape" by Radiohead
A song that affects me so much I have to ration how often I can listen to it. Their album In Rainbows was released while I was working on my first draft, and this is the pick of the tracks—maybe my favourite ever Radiohead song. I always expect their music to be brilliantly produced, but there is something particularly haunting about the slightly off-kilter, train-on-the-track sound that underscores Videotape. There can't be many songs that name-check Mephistopheles. And when Thom Yorke sings "This is my way of saying goodbye, because I can't do it face to face," I feel as if he's speaking every repressed emotion I've ever felt out loud.
Benjamin Wood and The Bellwether Revivals links:
Cleveland Plain Dealer review (of the audiobook)
Globe and Mail review
January Magazine review
Kirkus Reviews review
The National Review
New York Times review
Vancouver Sun review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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