February 18, 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.
Tanis Rideout's Above All Things is an ambitious and impressive debut novel, vividly bringing to life both the adventure of explorer George Mallory's third attempt to climb Mount Everest and the lives of his loved ones left behind.
Quill and Quire wrote of the book:
"Seldom is a first novel as polished as Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things, about George Mallory’s final attempt, in 1924, to climb Mount Everest. Rideout blends fact and fiction in her narrative, creating insight into the challenge the mountain presented and the determination of the men dedicated to reaching the peak."
My first novel, Above All Things, is based on the 1924 British expedition to Mt. Everest. The novel is split into two story lines – one following George Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine on their attempt to be the first to summit the world's highest mountain - the second follows a single day in the life of Ruth, George's wife, as she waits for word of when (and if) he'll be returning home.
Music has always played a big role in my life, I'm lucky to know and have worked with a number of Canadian musicians. In fact, my friend Jill Barber curated a playlist for Above All Things for its initial release (one of the songs below is borrowed from her list) which you can see on my website. I listen to music quite a lot in the early part of the writing process – to get a sense of era in the case of historically based works like this, or tone. After that I tend to go for quiet.
If I'm immersed enough in a project, though, I find that almost everything I take in – books, movies, articles, and most consistently music, fits in to the world of the work – whether it's a single lyric, or a particular melody, or the way a song builds or breaks – I take it in through the lens of my writing.
The songs below are songs like that – songs that conjure moments, or feelings, or tone in the novel.
"Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault, in Paris 1961)" – The Weakerthans
While not about the Everest expedition – this song about a retired Antarctic explorer conjures the colonial era of British exploration that George Mallory was part of. The second verse in particular – with John K. Samson's stunning lyrics of shadow's colonising snow, and longitude leading to frost bitten feet perfectly articulate to me the poetic landscape of Everest, or any forbidding, frigid landscape.
"The Next Time You Say 'Forever'" – Neko Case
Neko's voice is so mournful and yearning, but also incredibly fierce and strong. Just like Ruth. The opening of the song, with its music box sounds, shifting into the close details described in the lyrics fit perfectly with Ruth's waiting and watching in her first section of the book. Every single thing registers as painful and close. Then, as it moves into the second breath, the song draws George to mind who can't stay and hold her hand, he's been away for too long. The tension between the desire to stay and to go is a perfect fit for the novel and for George.
"Sleeping Sickness" – City and Colour
A song that sounds as if it could be sung by George – starting with the image of waking with empty lungs, which is a beautiful image of the suffocation that happens at altitude. Following that up with the plea for someone to save his life, because he's breaking down – to steer him in a different direction. This is something I often think George would have wanted: someone to refuse to let him go to Everest. When Gord Downie's desperate vocals come in in the second verse, it amplifies all the pain and ambivalence that have gone before.
"If I Have to Go" – Tom Waits
Ah, Tom Waits. This song is so nostalgic and straight forward to me. It's just a man sitting at a piano and pleading with a lover he's about to leave. A song I wish that George might have sung to Ruth. Maybe it would ease the sting of departure, just a little. He would have thought it was honest and beautiful, but the song also reveals such staggering selfishness.
"Mountain" – Chris Brown and Kate Fenner
The opening lyrics of this song are obviously about George. Renowned for his skill at altitude, he made everything look so easy to everyone else. But the mountain as a metaphor for love is what makes this song a perfect companion to the novel. It's Ruth, of course, proclaiming that her hopes are birds, catching drifts off his shoulders. A perfect mix of love and fear.
"I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody" – King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band
When the men arrive at Everest Base Camp they discover a musical treat and gather around to celebrate, drink and dance. While the timeline might not quite fit, I imagine this is one of the songs that they danced to, and that George might have heard on his trip to New York. Featuring a young Louis Armstong, the song is energetic and jumping. It perfectly encapsulates the America of that era and emphasises its differences from England. The scratchiness of the recording conjures Victrolas and speakeasies.
"Pity and Fear "– Death Cab for Cutie
A number of Death Cab for Cutie songs could have made this list – Gibbard's turn of phrase often highlights something frigid and isolating that often reminded me of the men on Everest, and the way the band's songs build to avalanching crescendos often fit the mood of the novel. This one won out for a couple of reasons, the first being the percussive opening that conjures something of the subcontinent to me, giving it an exotic feel. The second are the lyrics right off the top – while Gibbard is likely singing about a lover disappearing in the night, to me it could easily be one of the men lying in a tent next to his climbing partner – filled with pity and fear – for them, for himself.
"Pleure Pas" – Edith Piaf
This song makes me think of George and Ruth together in Paris – the romance and delight at being reunited, as well as the sadness that had accompanied Ruth during their time apart, the sadness that we know she is going to feel again soon. While not recorded until much later, the scratchy tone of the recording, like the King Oliver's, also helps to conjure the dreamy, sepia colours of the era.
"In a Graveyard" – Rufus Wainwright
There's a lovely elegiac quality to this song that makes me think of someone practising piano when they think no one is there. I imagine a song similar to this playing while Ruth sits in the Round Church at Cambridge, thinking about George and their lives – what is to come. The promise at the end of the song is hopeful, but the image of the graveyard is foreboding and foretelling.
"Maps" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Maps are always a touchstone for me when I work, I love the language of them. I suspect Ruth would be able to relate to the lyrics that maps don't love you like I love you. What a sad thing to feel you are losing out to an inanimate thing. A map, or a mountain.
"2”" – Weeping Tile
This song, with its ominous heavy tone and haunting chorus – I'm buried in the room two inches below my eyes – is terrifying and reminds me of Sandy, waiting and hoping on the side of the mountain. He is trapped, growing colder and colder – the world freezing around him.
"Blindness" – Metric
Everything about this song conjures Everest, George, Ruth and Sandy, and the novel, for me. The coldness of the music and Emily Haines's voice at the opening; the talk of the survivors, the world at the feet is a perfect vocalization of George. When the song picks, I always imagined a long shot racing back to Ruth – who rails against being given a life she never chose, and hating the obligations that came with it.
"I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" – Jill Barber
Borrowed from Jill Barber's playlist for the novel – this is the song that Teddy sings at Base Camp. While in the book it is hopeful and happy this mournful version is a perfect companion to the end of the novel. I can just picture the men losing hope and giving up back at Base Camp as they wait for news of George and Sandy.
Tanis Rideout and Above All Things links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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