August 23, 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.
Patrick Flanery's novel Fallen Land is a tense literary thriller, one that offers a graphic and honest portrait of modern America,
Financial Times wrote of the book:
"Like Flanery’s debut, Absolution, Fallen Land is thematically ambitious – the financial crisis and the legacy of slavery are among its concerns – but also thrillingly tense and atmospheric. The author tugs at the edges of his narrative until it assumes exaggerated, Gothic shapes. Comparisons to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom there are allusions throughout, would not be extravagant."
I have to start with a confession: I need silence to write, but music is still an important part of the work. Music when I'm cooking, when I'm doing the dishes, when I'm eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Music during all the parts of the day when I'm thinking about the writing I'm going to do, and then silence when I'm sitting at the computer. During the writing of my first book, Absolution, I lived with a soundtrack of South African music: Gert Vlok Nel, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Hugh Masekela and the great and sadly now deceased Zim Ngqawana, one of the most original contemporary jazz musicians and composers, whose groundbreaking masterwork Vadzimu (2004) was a constant accompaniment to my thinking.
As the second novel, Fallen Land, moved from South Africa to America, so the soundtrack changed as well. Arcade Fire's The Suburbs came out before I started work on Fallen Land and as I listened ever more obsessively to that album, the more I thought 'I'd like to write a book that works in the same spirit'. So, in many ways, The Suburbs helped germinate Fallen Land, and once the disparate ideas that were preoccupying me began to coalesce into a story, I started to marshal other musical (and of course literary) influences. What follows is less a playlist than a library of albums and individual songs that played alongside the writing of Fallen Land, that belong in its larger psychological universe, and whose melodies and rhythms continue to populate my sense of the book.
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)
The lyrics on The Suburbs spoke to some of the concerns of Fallen Land—private prisons, urban sprawl, intra-suburban conflict—but the sound of the album was as important for fostering a sense of radical movement and pace relieved by almost pastoral interludes of reflection. It had never occurred to me that one might make something beautiful about, or out of, the ugliness of urban sprawl, or the ever-weirder contours of our late-capitalist western society, where those who fail to keep up technologically are not only increasingly left out of many aspects of contemporary life and commerce, but seemingly stranded in the last century in ways surely more marked and divided than at any other time in modern history. Fallen Land springs from these concerns about the chainsaw and bulldozer of unchecked development doing irreparable damage to the land and the environment, the erasure of history, the replacement of the real with the artificial, the willful abandonment of public interests to private corporations, and the 'suburban wars'—petty squabbles and familial fracturing—that get fought over property and ideology in neighborhoods across the continent. As I was writing and revising the novel, I kept coming back to The Suburbs, reminding myself why and how it had captivated me, trying to bring some similar power to the story I was trying to tell.
Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (2010), 'I Want to be Well', 'Bad Communication'
I was listening to this on at least a weekly basis throughout 2011, while I was working on the first draft of Fallen Land, although I had no idea it might shape the fiction I was creating. I had been a Stevens fan of a casual sort before this album, but Adz moved in a direction that lost some of the softness of his earlier albums by embracing the more interesting and challenging possibilities of electronica. For all of the album's difficulty, I found it remarkably soothing at the end of a long day's deskwork.
Returning to it after a couple years away from it, I can sense what we might call its 'technical' quality coming through in the book—in other words, a kind of technologization of life, a machining of an already machine-made built environment. Also, curiously, I sense the influence of the songs 'I Want to be Well' and 'Bad Communication' on aspects of my character Julia, a roboticist who is distinctly concerned both with psychological wellness—her own, her husband Nathaniel's, her young son Copley's—as well as the failures of communication that seem to be ruining her marriage.
Odetta, 'Gallows Tree (Gallows Pole)', 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', 'Lowlands'
When I came to write my character Louise Washington, an African-American farm widow and retired teacher, I thought of Odetta as a partial model for her restraint and seriousness of purpose. Odetta was a storyteller in the best folk tradition and for me no other folksinger has quite the same qualities of force, dignity, clarity, and depth. I remember seeing a short documentary film around the time of her death in 2008 in which she talked about herself as a kind of teacher. But I needed something else as well: I needed anger, and rage, and blinding sorrow. I needed Nina Simone.
Nina Simone, 'Mississippi Goddam' & 'Strange Fruit'
I've been listening to Nina Simone since high school when a friend played me her elegiac album A Single Woman, and then, when I met my partner in 2002, he introduced me to a much wider variety of Simone's work and I fell for the Nina who could kindle her anger into flame. I love the different versions of 'Mississippi Goddamn', the way she could repurpose a song to move with the times and with her sense of evolving injustices. The first version I heard was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1964 and, in the laughter of what I imagine to be a majority white audience, one can hear both their uncertainty and unease, wondering just what power is being unleashed before them when Simone deadpans, a couple verses in, 'I bet you thought I was kiddin', didn't you?' In the space of a few minutes, she moves from musical comedy to the brute force of protest and outrage. It is dizzying and glorious: 'You don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality!'
The song has its apotheosis in the 1968 recording made at the Westbury Music Fair, days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a medley that includes 'Sunday in Savannah' and 'Why? (The King of Love is Dead)'. During one of her spoken addresses to the audience Simone asks, 'Do you realize how many we have lost? Then it really gets down to reality doesn't it?' It is as heartbreaking as it is a call to arms to release those 'little schoolchildren sittin' in jail.' At one point near the end of the recording she laughs bitterly, 'I ain't 'bout to be non-violent, honey'. It is the rage born out of despair, of feeling there is no choice left but revolution, that helped me access the other side of my character Louise.
It is probably musical heresy to choose Simone's 'Strange Fruit' over Billie Holliday's, but it is Nina's ghostly version to which I continued to turn as I thought about the lynching that prefaces Fallen Land, and whose unresolved history haunts its pages.
Simone preferred to describe her work as 'black classical music' instead of 'jazz', which she dismissed as a 'white term', but it is difficult not to place her in that broad tradition. Jazz of all kinds—Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Hayden, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Sydney Bechet, Miles Davis, Jay McShann—is what I listen to most these days, but Nina was, for me, the gateway drug to all the others.
I lied at the beginning. There are, in fact, a very few composers whose work I can have playing while I write. Often this is out of necessity—to drown out the noise of neighbors or construction or whatever sound can't be blocked with earplugs. John Adams is one of these composers whose instrumental music complements the rhythms of my thinking and does not, for the most part, work against or distract from the writing. Throughout the writing of my first two books I listened repeatedly to the album Harmonielehre, which, at 62 minutes in the recording by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is as perfect a piece of writing music as I have found. The title composition, written in 1985, combines melodic passages with stretches of minimalist repetition and can be played on a loop such that I eventually lose track of its beginning and ending. 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine', the final track on the album, I have used to conjure a certain mental state of frenzy or, indeed, speed, but even in its moments of wildness it is held together by an elegant line of logic that keeps the little machine from going off the road even as it accelerates and reaches a state that approaches an almost transcendental clarity. It is also, simply, a beautiful short piece, dramatic and programmatic and therefore highly suggestive to the suggestible writer.
When I came to Fallen Land, I expanded my Adams library and found myself listening over and over again to the album Road Movies, in which 'American Berserk' again helped conjure particular psychological states—or, perhaps, landscapes—that allowed the performance of frenzy, conjuring something akin to a hunting, thrashing about in the mind, a questioning of the self and the story without expectation of answer.
Kronos Quartet, Black Angels (1990)
I have been listening to this album since I was fifteen, introduced to it by my mother, and convinced of its crazy brilliance after seeing Kronos Quartet perform in support of the album in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the early 1990s. It was the first time I had encountered music that did not try always to be beautiful or harmonious, but played with dissonance and reveled in all of its possibilities. The entire album is a masterpiece, but it is particularly George Crumb's 'Black Angels', the haunting instrumental arrangement of Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium (Sing and Glorify)', and the breakneck frenzy (again) of Shostakovich's String Quartet #8 to which I am drawn when I need to produce particular mental states. 'Black Angels', written in 1970 as a response to the Vietnam War, has one of the most startling and unsettling openings of any piece I know, the strings screaming, subsiding, returning, evoking the flight and demonic play of unearthly creatures. Gongs, shouting, popping—I can never write to it except in very short sequences—helped me texture the psychology of at least two of the male characters in Fallen Land, and in some of its passages I can recognize the droning and buzzing which Louise hears as the subdivision grows around her on the wreckage of her farm.
'Spem in Alium', at the centre of the album, is a moment of extended and ethereal harmony, a kind of respite between the bookending madness of Crumb and Shostakovich. Played as Kronos does, Tallis's motet seems as suited to the rhythms of rural life, even American pastoralism or romanticism (a kind of proto-Shakerism), as to the symmetries of Tallis's English Renaissance. God might or might not be present, but it is a divine work, whether heard as religious or secular.
Shostakovich's string quartets are, for me, some of the greatest chamber music ever written, and I have lately been listening to recordings by the Emerson and Pacifica String Quartets, which each draw different qualities from the works. Kronos's recording of #8 remains for me the strangest, beginning with the first movement's unmistakably Eastern European quietude that evoke the sorrow and atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century (the piece was written and premiered in 1960) before taking off into the second movement's reckless, careening drive, the sinister playfulness of the third movement's allegretto (I imagine Raskolnikov in his madness, Josef K lost in a world of illogic), the insistent knocking of the fourth movement (an entirely angrier largo than that of the first movement) that mellows to a solemn despair before the furious knocking returns, leading into the contemplative, keening mournfulness of the fifth movement. Call the Kronos interpretation grandiloquent, maudlin, over-the-top, it is still nothing short of extraordinary and seems, more than the other interpretations I know, to fulfill the composition's dedication 'to the victims of fascism and war.'
Nico Muhly, Mothertongue (2008)
Late in Fallen Land, Louise, the African-American farm widow, sings a song, or perhaps only thinks the song without actually making the sound. The lyrics are my own, but the melody accompanying them in my head came from Nico Muhly's 'The Only Tune', a marvelous reimagining of a folksong, written for and sung by Sam Amidon. Here are Louise's lyrics:
She was the daughter of a free farm man,
Oh the land and fire.
The only daughter of a free farm man,
Sold her lonesome heart's desire.
His land no longer kept her safe at dawn,
Oh the earth's on fire.
That land it couldn't save her heart no more,
Called for flood of purging fire.
Now go find Muhly's song to hear how it might go.
Bright Eyes, Cassadaga (2007)
Conor Oberst and I both grew up in Omaha. Conor is five years younger, and without us ever (to my knowledge) having met, the peripheries of our respective social circles have long overlapped—the brother of one of my best high school friends is a member of the group Desaparecidos (one of Conor's other projects). That is a way of saying that Conor's music has a kind of familiarity for me; I recognize the sensibility—and hear faint traces—of the local garage bands I was fleetingly aware of in high school, when my own listening circled primarily around U2, REM, The Police, Sinéad O'Connor, Peter Gabriel, and Midnight Oil (mostly predictable for the angst-ridden 90s adolescent). Cassadaga was the first of Conor's albums I have come to know, and its road-movie esthetic and Midwestern tonalities—a Rolling Stone review described it as 'Americanapolitan'—helped remind me of the topographical and mental landscapes of my childhood. Besides, who can't love an album that includes a line in the song 'Soul Singer in a Session Band', about 'a postmodern author who didn't exist'?
Patrick Flanery and Fallen Land links:
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