April 16, 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.
Boaz Yakin's graphic novel Jerusalem is a heart-rending account of the Israel of the 1940s, told from the perspective of two families that span three generations. This is the rare book that makes an epic story vividly personal.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This is most powerful for investing a massive and complex issue with real human emotion."
Jerusalem is a graphic novel that I adapted with the great cartoonist Nick Bertozzi from a screenplay I wrote sometime in the mid-90's. My father, a Sephardic Jew who grew up in British mandate Palestine, is a mime, theater director, and teacher of physical acting. My brother and I grew up listening to his colorful stories about his childhood in the streets of Jerusalem. My father didn't just tell his stories— he acted them out, physicalizing the characters he knew, imitating their voices and accents and inflections. It was almost like a commedia dell'arte performance— and even then we suspected it to be over the top and exaggerated. But when, during summer vacations, we went to visit our large family in Jerusalem, the intensity and heightened quality of real life there made us realize that the tone of what my father had related to us was actually incredibly accurate.
The book, very loosely based on many of my family's experiences in Jerusalem during the 1940's, is melange of memories, none of them my own, combined with a heavy dollop of pure fiction, wrought both by my father and myself. I've tried to stop the habit of listening to music when writing, or reading for that matter, preferring instead to try to let the internal rhythms of the piece speak to me. But when overpowered by the loneliness of the task, which occurs more often than I would care to admit, I do listen to music, it's usually to music without words— movie sound-tracks and classical music. These are some of the artists and tapes (it was the 90's) I remember listening to when I wrote this screenplay:
The story deals very strongly with the experience of childhood – and no composer inspires and enables me to access that part of my emotional memory the way Debussy does. Even though his work is more romantic and impressionistic than the piece I was writing, his symphonies such as "Nocturnes" and "La Mer" and his pieces that directly address childhood, such as "La Boite a joujoux" and "Children's Corner" put me in a meditative state that allows me to travel way back within myself.
One of the great movie composers – less famous than his more celebrated contemporary John Williams, his scores sit more comfortably within the confines of the films he's scoring. They are also great to write to in that they less aggressively proclaim themselves thematically, and so allow you to better adapt them imaginatively into the context you're working in. "Boys From Brazil" and "Patton" and "Planet of the Apes" being particularly useful for me here.
The Sheltering Sky score Ryuichi Sakamoto
Vaguely Middle Eastern, moody and romantic, dark and dreamlike. Can't remember how it related to my screenplay, but I listened to the hell out of it at the time.
The Soldier's Story by Igor Stravinsky
One of my favorite pieces of music. I was knocked out by the movie Straw Dogs, which I discovered at 17 years of age, and loved the sometimes melancholy, sometimes ironically jaunty score by Jerry Fielding. But the score was never commercially available, so I was never able to listen to it outside the context of the film. Then one day I heard the first strains from Stravinsky's "Soldier's Story," because my father was directing a production of it somewhere, and realized that Fielding had practically lifted the entire thing for his score. I still love the Straw Dogs score, but Stravinsky's piece is a masterwork.
Schindler's List score by John Williams
Gotta love John Williams— the Beatles of movie composers, who so often overpowers the movies he's scoring with his music and orchestrations. He has his more subtle ones (like the great score for The Eiger Sanction) but Schindler's List is not one of them. Nevertheless, for inspiring powerful feelings of nostalgia and pathos that one then hopes to shave a few points off of when applying them to one's own work, this score of his hard to beat; speaking of which:
Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence of Arabia
Practically shouts at you from every corner of the screen that you're in the fucking desert in the Middle East, damn it, and don't you dare forget it. When you're sitting in your apartment in New York staring out of your window at the rooftops trying to write about someplace a million miles away, sometimes it's good to be shouted at.
Geino Yamashiro Gumi
A Japanese collective who use their voices in innovative and almost abstract ways. Their most famous moment is the utterly unique and unforgettable score for the movie Akira. They also interpret folk music from around the world on a number of their albums; "On Silk Road" is their evocation of middle-eastern music. It puts you there, without forcing itself on you. Very meditative and transporting at the same time.
Umm Kulthum was the most famous Egyptian singer of her day, which stretched from the 1930's all the way through to her death in the 1970's. My grandmother was an Egyptian Jew, and culturally there was much that was Arabic about her. She listened to Umm Kulthum, so I did too, in order to get into her heart and head.
On the Waterfront Suite by Leonard Bernstein
They didn't have the sound-track out at the time, but there was a recording of the suite available, conducted by Bernstein himself. Bombastic and emotional, it captures a sense of heroism and idealism that were deeply entrenched in the psyches of so many of the young men and women who participated in the chapter of history I was writing about. Whether they were who they thought they were is for others to decide, perhaps… but when writing these people, I didn't want to allow myself ironic distance from them— and ironic distance is something Leonard Bernstein clearly was never remotely interested in.
Boaz Yakin and Jerusalem: A Family Portrait links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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