February 19, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Melissa Harrison lyrically explores the natural in urban landscapes both physical and personal in Clay, an assuredly written debut novel.
Financial Times wrote of the book:
"At the heart of Clay is a hymn to attentiveness, both to the natural world and to those we share it with. Stepping out after finishing this book, you may find yourself looking at your own streets with a little more care."
Clay is set in and around a small city park: a couple of nondescript acres of grimy and litter-blown grass next to a housing estate. Over the course of a year the book follows five people who live near or pass through it: Sophia, a widow, who loves it and secretly plants daffodil bulbs and feeds the birds that nest there; TC, a nine-year-old boy from an unhappy home who skips school to look for animals in its forgotten corners; Linda, Sophia's daughter, who thinks the park is ugly and untidy, if she thinks of it at all; Linda's daughter Daisy, who is nearly the same age as TC but whose wealthy upbringing means she exists in a very different world, and Jozef, a Polish immigrant who misses the family farm he left behind and struggles to make sense of life in a foreign city. It's been called an 'urban pastoral' and a 'nature novel' – both ways of reconciling differing ideas – and that dichotomy is also why this playlist contains urban genres like dubstep and dancehall but also classical music: the gritty reality of urban life, sure, but also the beauty and tranquillity of nature for those with eyes to see. It will take you through a day and a night in the book's district: 'The rough territory of a dog fox; the distance an old lady with a stick could cover in an afternoon; the area a small boy could come to know and call his own.'
Vaughan Williams 'The Lark Ascending'
'As the sun climbed each day skylarks ascended from the fields and moors and hung above them, singing: thousands upon thousands of them, each alone, inviolate, but together a host, a choir.' Vaughan Williams' justly famous composition, based around birdsong, is full of the simple calmness and hope of morning, before the accidents and injustices and messy compromises that make up each human day get underway.
Booka Shade 'At The Window'
The distant voices behind these simple, plaintive chords have always made me think of a school playground during morning break, perhaps at eight-year-old Daisy's private school: a safe little world beyond and around which the city, with all its dangers and sadnesses, waits. 'A handbell sounded the end of lunch hour at the private school, its lazy notes drifting into back gardens two streets away. Slowly the sun burned off the last of the cloud and the day settled into full-blown and blowsy warmth.'
The Cinematic Orchestra 'Time & Space'
As their name suggests, The Cinematic Orchestra create scores for imaginary films, and their bittersweet album 'Ma Fleur', from which this track comes, has always been a source of inspiration for me. TC is the character in Clay who I feel the most love and pity for, and “Every child will find a way of living their own life story, day by day,” sums up both his heartbreaking, lonely predicament, and his only hope of escaping it.
Midlake 'Core of Nature'
I love US band Midlake for their mystical lyrics, folk harmonies and deep, almost prelapsarian nostalgia for the past. Their songs are often about the importance of creating and maintaining a connection to nature, something I believe passionately in – and there's a sense of change and loss, too, that anyone who worries about the impact we are having on the world around us will find familiar.
Vaughan Williams 'Linden Lea'
'Linden Lea' represents the pastoral element of Clay: a choral piece based on a poem written in Dorset dialect by William Barnes in 1844. I wanted to create a sense of rural history, of the old farming year hidden behind the lives the characters are leading in the city, and this song celebrates a time when our lives were still governed by the seasons: 'Once, right across the country, the meadows would have been scythed at around this time of year, the hay left to dry in long, fragrant windrows…'
Feist 'The Park'
Canadian singer-songwriter Feist wrote this song about running out of her flat after an argument to sit in a London park – not unlike TC does after arguing with his mother. It was covered by the brilliant Bon Iver, but I like the simplicity of her original, as well as the atonal field recordings she sets behind her lovely voice and which create a sense of verisimilitude. That mixture of the beautiful and the quotidien is a central tenet of Clay: 'The fragrance of buddleja riding into an empty room on a breath of monoxide and bins'.
Mr Williamz 'London (Jam 1 Riddim)'
I live in a proudly multicultural city, and in Brixton, the area I had in mind when writing Clay, you'll hear a lot of Jamaican dancehall: in shops, in chicken takeaways like the one Jozef works in and blaring tinnily out of kids' mobile phones at the end of the school day. This, a great example of the genre, was produced and released by cult UK producer Curtis Lynch and voiced by one of the best UK dancehall MCs, Mr Williamz.
Basement Jaxx 'Jump N Shout'
Brixtonians Basement Jaxx make music that couldn't be more London. Utterly eclectic, they're like magpies in the way they pick up styles and influences. 'Jump N Shout' is their take on dancehall, and it makes me think of a hot August afternoon and long line of slow-moving cars on the High Road next to the little park in Clay: windows down, music blaring, the smell of weed and exhaust fumes and sweat.
The Streets 'Has It Come To This'
Mike Skinner's debut album 'Original Pirate Material' came out in 2002 and bore all the hallmarks of an instant classic. With its lyrics about everyday urban life, its humour and its nods to pirate radio culture it was a world instantly recognisable to vast sections of Britain's urban youth. Part of it was recorded in a house in Brixton, close to where I live.
James Blake 'Air And Lack Thereof'
James Blake is a unique talent, an artist who came nominally from the UK's dubstep scene but who has taken its sounds (and silences) and stretched them out of shape to create something haunting. 'That evening the wind shifted direction and began to blow from the north-east. It battered the tower blocks, throwing rain like gravel against the glass only to quieten, take breath, and hurl itself again. TC lay on his bed and felt the windows tremble, and pretended he was out at sea.'
Burial 'Stolen Dog'
Nobody creates a sense of urban unease better than Burial, and his productions teem with whispers and echoes that suggest the litter-blown underpasses and echoing stairwells of city housing projects, the kind of places that Jozef, a Polish farmer, finds so hard to make sense of. This crepuscular track stands in sharp counterpoint to 'Linden Lea' with its sunlit choral harmonies.
Peter Rogers, one half of electronic duo Technimatic, created the sound bed for Clay's trailer, incorporating field recordings and birdsong samples. This sleek, gleaming soundscape represents his more usual output and feels, to me, like driving fast through London as darkness falls, sharing the dark streets with cabs and night buses: 'Cars heading out of the city on the bypass found a fine mist on their windscreens which made rubies of the tail-lights ahead, and one by one they switched on their wipers…'
Tor Lundvall 'Empty City'
London is never silent, never still, but there's a point in every night when it seems to pause, and this almost ambient track describes it: 'The dogs in their beds, the upstairs bedrooms thick with sleeping breath where couples spooned or slept turned away, the digital alarm clocks flicking forward unseen, the bedtime reads splayed or bookmarked neatly on the tables'.
Cinematic Orchestra 'Arrival of the Birds' & 'Transformation'
Slowly, quietly, a new day dawns. 'In the little city park a robin let loose a low undersong, as it had from time to time throughout the night; but this time it kept singing, half to itself, half to anyone else who cared to listen. High and sweet and plaintive, the notes trickled down from the lone ash to the darkened pavements and the hushed grass…'
Melissa Harrison and Clay links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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